Thursday, 21 March:

Day Seven - Anhinga Trail, Mahogany Hammock,
Mrazek Pond, Flamingo and Eco Pond

We left the Long Pine Key camp site at 0930 (as the trip progresses, the nights seem shorter and it becomes harder to leave early -Ed.), arriving at Royal Palm and Anhinga Trail at 0940. We were immediately treated to a photo-op with a large gator sunning within arm's reach. As the trail follows Taylor Slough, we saw walking catfish, alligator gar, oscars and tilapia, as well as a variety of alligators of all sizes. The gar are tan with black blotches and have long narrow jaws with large, heavy scales. As we progressed along the trail, we saw even more wildlife: turtles and lots of birds, like boat-tailed grackles, anhingas, cormorants, moorhen and, soaring high above us, a swallow-tailed kite. The anhinga were especially fascinating as we observed their nesting sites (though the young were mostly fledged). The female anhinga spent most of the time diving for fish. The male did some hunting, but mostly seemed to watch over the nest. After a hunting/diving expedition, these birds would spread their wings to dry their feathers. Some of the boat-tailed grackles performed a courtship display to attract females. This involved spreading the tail feathers and waving the tail up and down. One infrequently seen bird that we were treated to was a close-up look at a hunting American bittern. It is brown with white streaks, light green legs, and eyes that can be extended outward to see better. When approached by an intruder on its space, it fluffed out its feathers. The plant life was abundant, too, including sawgrass, buttonbush, willows and pond apple. The sawgrass blades felt smooth when running your fingers over them in one direction, but such movement is impossible in the other direction due to the sharp, tiny saw-like teeth on the edge of the blade. We did not complete our trail trek until after noon, so we ate lunch at the picnic tables there at Royal Palm.

After lunch, we drove down the main park road to Mahogany Hammock, where we took the boardwalk trail. We saw tree snails, orb-weaver spiders, as well as solitary vireos and a couple species of warblers: black and white and black-throated green. Plants were the feature, here. Strap ferns and leather fern were common, as were such woody hammock species as strangler fig, satinleaf, gumbo limbo and mahogany - including the largest one of these in the U.S. The satinleaf trees might have red, green or black leaves, viewed from above, but the undersides were a cinnamon brown. The fig looked like a thick vine hugging the tree it was strangling. Time to move on.

On the way to Flamingo, we stopped briefly at Mrazek Pond, where we saw herons, egrets, blue-winged teal and both species of pelicans. At Flamingo, we waited in line to shower, and got to watch laughing gulls and black skimmers lounging around the docks. Later, at the edge of the bay, several dozen horseshoe crabs were mating at water's edge; some had barnacles on their shells.
Then it was on to Eco Pond for sunset. Here we got to watch a couple of black skimmers feeding on the pond. They would open their beaks slightly and skim across the water for food. There were quite a few birds here: glossy and white ibis, grebes, coot, egrets and a roseate spoonbill. The coot were often heard before they were seen, and the spoonbill made an instant visual impact with its bright red and pink feathers. In a patch of coastal prairie we saw saltwort, glasswort and sea oxeye daisy.

At this point we left for dinner in Homestead; Dave was hungry. (Joy finally tried soft tacos at El Toro Taco, and found them okay, but not as good as a hamburger! -Ed.)

- JU