As we drove along the Sawgrass Parkway, I could see mile after mile of grasses waving in the breeze.
“That is part of the everglades,” my friend Barb explained.
“Oh, I get it,” I exclaimed. “Ever and glades – grass forever.” In my mind, I had pictured the everglades as a swamp-like habitat. And, I had no idea it was so expansive – much larger than just the Everglades National Park.
“The grass you see is sawgrass and grows in fresh water,” Barb further elucidated. ‘It is sometimes referred to a ‘river of grass.’”
Over the course of my week in south Florida, I would have an opportunity to experience all of the habitats that exist in the everglades in addition to sawgrass marshes – hardwood hammocks, mangrove and cypress swamps, sloughs and pinelands.
With its diversity of flora and fauna, including a number of threatened and endangered species, the national park has also been designated, an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, a Wetland of International Importance and an Important Bird Area.
While the national park covers 1.4 million acres, we had an opportunity to experience each of the habitat types as we explored the 38 miles from the eastern park boundary to the Flamingo Visitor Center.
Our first stop was the Royal Palm Hammock. There were signs throughout the parking area warning that Black Vultures can cause damage to cars.
“That’s strange,” I commented. There were no vultures in sight – until head headed towards the boardwalk.
Mist was rising from the moisture-laden ground and a myriad of Black Vultures greeted us at the beginning of the Anhinga Trail shortly after dawn. It was too early in the morning for them to be able to soar, so they set like sentinels along the path and boardwalk. The boardwalk trail led through a sawgrass prairie and part of a slough (a slow-moving river with vegetation). This slough, the Taylor Slough, flows across the park and empties into Florida Bay.
Several Anhingas perched on branches near the boardwalk drying their wings and displaying their striking black and white feather pattern.
I was struck by the startling turquoise eyes of a Double-crested Cormorant.
Further along, an American Bittern stretched its neck from its post in the tops of some shrubs.
In the areas of the slough bordering the paved trail, we watched turtles, alligators, and small waders. A Northern Waterthrush hopped from lily pad to lily pad in search of insects.
After traversing back and forth on the boardwalk trail for two hours, we headed into a hardwood hammock on the half-mile Gumbo Limbo Trail.
“Look at the bark on the Gumbo Limbo tree,” Barb motioned. “It is often called the tourist tree because its peeling, reddish bark resembles the skin of tourists who have spent too much time in the sun.”
When we emerged from the hammock, we noticed several Black Vultures perched on vehicles in the parking lot, one actively pecking at a window gasket and another one ingesting pieces of a windshield wiper blade. They seemed to have a certain affinity for trucks. We were glad they had not taken a liking to our rental car.
“I guess that is what the signs were referring to,” I commented.
A park ranger came by and tried to shoe them off; however, as soon as he returned to the visitor center, they were back again. After taking a picture, I clapped my hands and yelled at the vultures to scoot – much to the glaring looks from someone who had just arrived and didn’t understand my aggressive behavior.
Our next stop, the Old Ingraham Highway, was off of Research Road. It was the original highway leading across the park to reach Flamingo and was constructed from limestone dredged out from under the marsh. We were afraid that we would not be able to get beyond Gate 15, since a work crew was preparing to lay new culverts to allow water to pass under the road. The gate was open, so we walked through. We waved at the workmen as we walked past and were relieved when they did not tell us to leave. The dirt road led across a sawgrass marsh to a large mound a half-mile away, a remnant of the time when the military used this part of the park for its cold war efforts. It also seems to be a dumping area for construction materials – both recent and from prior projects.
From the mound we could see large waders in the marshy waters. We also spotted two birders with their spotting scopes being turned around – and a few minutes later, a large flatbed truck carrying segments of culvert pipe slowly inched along the road. When it had safely passed, we retraced our steps back to gate 15. It provided us with a good opportunity to see a stand of deciduous bald cypress. Without its leaves it looked as though it was dying.
We pulled into Long Pine Key for our lunch break. As its name suggests, it is located in a pineland habitat. Since this habitat sits on dry land, rather than a marsh, it is a greatly diminished habitat across south Florida outside of the park, where the Slash Pines have been removed to make way for subdivisions and farmlands.
A pair of Northern Cardinals entertained us popping in and out of the underbrush next to our picnic table. Several hundred Northern Rough-winged Swallows glided over the horizon and circled overhead before moving on.
“They must be migrating through,” I stated.
We saw numerous Red-shouldered Hawks along the main road to Flamingo. We stopped to gaze at a White-tailed Kite, and laughed as we passed a sign announcing Rocket Reef Pass – elevation 3 feet!
From time to time, a cluster of mahogany trees rose above the sawgrass in little hammocks.
An osprey was nesting at the top of a communications tower across from the visitor center at Flamingo. The visitor center, historically painted pink to match its name, looked like a remnant from the 1950’s. Despite its name, no flamingos can be seen out on Florida Bay from this location.
However, it is one place to see the endangered American Crocodile. We wandered over to the marina, where a couple of crocs snoozed in a canal backing up to the boat tie-up area. A Double-crested Cormorant seemed unperturbed as it sunned itself on a crocodile’s back. The crocodile is visually distinguished from the more prevalent alligator by its long narrow snout, brownish color and visible teeth when its mouth is closed. According to the national park’s website, this area is the only place in the world where both alligators and crocodiles are present together.
We stopped at Eco Pond, an area that was heavily damaged by the hurricane in 2005. Evidence of the damage was still apparent. We walked along the trail circling the pond. At the far side, where it backs up to a coastal prairie habitat, two Great-crested Flycatchers flew out from the shrubs, giving us good looks.
The tide was just beginning to go out. At the nearby Flamingo Campground, about a thousand Willets huddled together on the strip of beach that had just emerged. A few similar-sized Marbled Godwits were dotted among the Willets.
“If we had come when the tide was lower,” Barb observed, “they would be more spread out and less noticeable.”
White Ibis foraged on the lawn near the shore. Ring-billed Gulls and a Common Tern patrolled the shoreline.
By time we left the park, I had gained a new understanding of the varied habitats that make up the portion of the everglades preserved in the national park and experienced a sample of the park’s diverse fauna.