Tuesday, 19 March:

Day Five - Off to the swamp...

Everyone was awake early this morning, getting ready for another big day. Tim and Charles had been on an early walk and found a Florida box turtle which they brought back to camp for everyone to see. It was a male turtle, having the typical depression on the plastron to allow it to mount the female during mating. As a box turtle, he was able to close his shell completely for protection. Since it was an older turtle, the shell was rather smooth.

We broke camp and loaded the vehicles, but before leaving Collier-Seminole State Park, we stopped at the office to check out and pick up literature on the area. Our first goal of the day was to purchase plastic mugs so we could do without buying styrofoam cups every day or two. We finally found them at K-Mart, but that and a couple of other minor stops took up over an hour. We did see a few birds along the way.

Finally, at 1030, we were able to set out for Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, back north a bit. We saw cormorants, herons and alligators, even along a short stretch of I-75. On the back roads leading to Corkscrew, we saw a racer, more egrets and a swallow-tailed kite. Much of the area near the sanctuary has been developed for housing or agriculture; migrant workers were picking produce in fields as we drove by.

Corkscrew was a phenomenal resource. We saw dozens and dozens of species of flora and fauna, at very close range. Most of us spent almost four hours on the boardwalk trails, emerging at nearly 1500 to eat lunch ravenously, in the shade of the bus. The trek began and ended for many at the "Living Machine," an artificial wetland created to handle the wastewater from the preserve's toilets. The trail begins in a mildly altered pineland, but most of the way is boardwalk through wet prairie, wet woodland and cypress swamp. This was south Florida wetland in the raw. The walk passes along the edge of the woods and prairie at first. Here we stopped to watch a mother white-tail deer and her fawn. Palmettos, cypress, red bay, willows, sawgrass, arrowleaf, poison ivy, pickerelweed and resurrection fern were everywhere. At one wet grassy area, we saw up to a dozen banded water snakes, most swimming actively around as though searching. One large snake was a female and most of the others appeared to be males as some were attempting to mate with her, and others were interacting aggressively with each other. Most of the snakes we saw on the trip were seen here at Corkscrew. The boardwalk primarily took us through the wet woods and cypress swamps. There were numerous turtles (mostly red bellied) and gators; there were small fish and anoles everywhere. And birds! There were wading birds at every patch of water, and wood storks were in flight overhead almost constantly. The wood storks were late in their nesting cycle, and the chicks were nearly ready to leave the nest. Most of the cypress had lichens all over their trunks and many had epiphytic air plants on their trunks and branches. The air plants were nearly ready to bloom; tiny purple flowers on green and orange spikes. Cypress knees, which both counterweight the tree and allow the roots to breathe, were clustered in the wet areas. Snowy and great egrets, little blue, great blue and green-backed herons, anhingas and white ibis were frequently seen feeding in water lettuce-choked pools; red-shouldered hawks were screaming about the woods and a barred owl was hanging out on a cypress snag. Dave saw a cottonmouth sunning at the base of a tree, and several of us saw a green treefrog huddled in a water conservation posture on a blade of sawgrass.

After lunch, we drove south on route 29 to Tamiami Trail. A combination of agricultural land and native habitat; the latter was a panther preserve and the roadsides were lined with eight foot high chainlink fence, to keep the panthers off the road. The speed limit was still only 45 mph at night, for their protection. Along the Trail, through the Big Cypress, there were many alligators on the banks of the roadside canal. We passed an area where the cypress prairie had burned, and an area where melaleuca (a tenacious exotic that destroys native habitats) was being removed in a restoration effort. Kingfishers, storks, egrets, herons, cormorants, anhingas and turtles abounded along the canal; vultures were in the air everywhere. Many of the anhingas and cormorants were seen with their wings extended to dry. They must do this after fishing in order that they maintain their buoyancy.

Arriving at the western outskirts of Miami, at Krome Avenue, we fueled up and then had a nice barbecue dinner at The Pit. Heading down Krome towards the Everglades, we stopped in Homestead to resupply. Once at Everglades National Park, we headed for Long Pine Key Campground and set up camp.

Camp set, we drove down to Pa-Hay-Okee for a night walk. Although still within sight of the light night sky over Miami, it was a dark and starry night in the Everglades. The wind really was whispering through the cypress, a bird would cry out in the dark every once in a while, frogs were calling irregularly from the sawgrass - southern leopard frogs and pig frogs (three of these were seen sitting up by puddles in hunting positions), and a banded water snake was hunting fish or frogs under the boardwalk. Too early in the year to hear gators bellow, though. When your eyes adjust after the flashlights are turned off, you can make out quite a bit in the starlight.
Back to camp and late to bed, after midnight!

- CH and EJ