Florida's Everglades

Tuesday, 26 December 2006, St George Island State Park, FL
Last week, after spending Sunday evening in Miami Beach, we decided on Monday morning that we had seen enough and wanted to get away into nature again. We headed off down the US 1, hopefully for the last time, in the direction of the Everglades National Park. We arrived just after 3.00 and stopped in at the visitor's centre to be told by the helpful chap there that a ranger-guided walk was due to start in about 20 minutes at the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm. It was close by and we could make it easily. We were really glad we did. The ranger, Jackie, was very knowledgeable and also very friendly. The planned 50 minute walk lasted almost 2 hours! Visitors who don't have much time to visit the Everglades should make a point of visiting Royal Palm, which is just inside the entrance to the park, as it offers the very best opportunity to experience a lot of the wildlife the park has to offer.
We had been looking for alligators since the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, and we saw our first as soon as the walk started. Royal Palm has many alligators and it is possible to see them close enough to touch - although I wouldn't advise it! The birds are also numerous and seem to be standing still just waiting for you to photograph them - in reality they are probably waiting for a tasty morsel to go swimming by. We saw anhinga, after which the trail is named, the endangered wood stork, the very stately great blue heron, the little green-backed heron, who will sit for hours on a branch just above the water and wait for dinner to swim by, and trees full of cormorants. There were others, but these were the most numerous. We liked this place so much that after visiting most of the other trails along the main road, we returned to this one a second time.
We camped for 2 nights at Long Pine Key campground and spent the third night at Flamingo, right down on Florida Bay. On our second day in the park we drove the 32 miles down to Flamingo and checked out the campground. We also went to the visitor's centre where one of the rangers spent a considerable amount of time explaining the problems faced by the Everglades and the long term plan to solve as many as possible. The Everglades are not, as I had always thought, a big swamp. They are actually formed by a very shallow (3 feet at its deepest, but mostly about 6 inches) and very wide (50 miles) river which originally flowed from Lake Okeechobee to the gulf. Increased settlement in southern Florida has changed the flow and man controls it more all the time. This is not always advantageous to the delicate balance that exists between the myriad plants and animals that make the Everglades home. But there is a plan and hopefully some of the disasters of the past can be avoided in the future, although it will never be possible to return it to its original state. I really appreciated the time he took to explain all of this to us. It seems there are many people working towards saving this important place.
The visitor's centre also has a veranda with viewing telescopes to watch the birds out on the trees and sandbars of Florida Bay. It is possible, I'm told, to see bald eagles from there. We could see a lot of white pelicans, which are difficult to see up close because, unlike their brown cousins, they are quite shy and tend to stay away from humans.
There are a variety of short interpretive trails along the road between the park entrance and Flamingo and we stopped at several of these on the way back to Long Pine Key. The Park has a number of different ecosystems including sawgrass prairie, hardwood hammocks, mangroves and cypress forests and each are the focus of one of the trails.
On Wednesday we went back and spent another hour on the boardwalk of the anhinga trail, rewarded once again with a large variety of birds, alligators and a water snake! There is a quite beautiful tree in south Florida called the Gumbo Limbo - some locals jokingly refer to it as the 'tourist tree' because its trunk is bright red and has a scaly appearance... Air plants are also in abundance here. We have been seeing a lot of Spanish Moss since the Carolinas, but here bromeliads grow in profusion on almost any vacant branch. It must be quite a sight when they are flowering.

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