Wednesday, 20 March:

Day Six - Long Pine Key to Long Key

0700 up and out into the crisp but warming pinelands morning in the Everglades National Park. A little windy this morning in Long Pine Key Campground, but a beautiful sunny morning and the resident birds are hollering their heads off. A house wren is scolding constantly by my tent, cardinals are singing their territorial songs, red shouldered hawks, crows and great crested flycatchers call repeatedly; all of this from the moment of first light. By the time we humans are stirring, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers and catbirds have begun adding their opinions to the general clamor; in a way it is fortunate that the summer's insects aren't active yet - or the warbler invasions! After breakfast and numerous phoning individuals (vocal proclamations to join the birds?), we first see an edge of the "River of Grass" on a check of the visitor center as we prepare to go first to the Keys.

Traffic on US 1, as well as stops for mail, bathrooms and snorkeling information, delay us somewhat, but we do reach our objective by lunch time. Long Key State Recreation Area is a great one-stop introduction to the Keys. We picnicked under Australian pines (another south Florida exotic) right on the beach. After lunch, some relaxed, sunned, photographed or explored, while half of the group rented snorkeling equipment and checked out the reef. The reef here is very close to shore in shallow water - you can walk right out to it at low tide, which we timed correctly. Various fish, sea stars, sponges and even a sea turtle were found by Samurai John and the snorkelers.

Even better was the Golden Orb Spider Nature Trail, which winds its way through a couple of miles of keys habitats. We spent a couple of hours here, late in the afternoon. A boardwalk leads through a mangrove zone, where red and black mangroves and buttonwood dominate the shallow water and adjacent shell-sand zones. Here the water channels are populated with Cassiopea, a cnidarian with symbiotic algae, upside down and photosynthesizing. At one site, we saw a small group of barnacles, legs out, feeding. Wading birds are frequently heard, and almost as often seen scrambling around among the mangrove roots stabbing into the water for lunch. Several of us were lucky enough to see, in addition to the herons, egrets and white ibis, roseate spoonbills and a scarlet ibis. Along the edge of the bay, exposed by the low tide, was some of the debris of the bay, both biological and refuse; crabs scuttled around between debris and their tunnels.

And the best of the Nature Trail was the more terrestrial (somewhat hard to say convincingly, when you can still hear and smell the water!) sand-shell ridge. This is a habitat that is totally distinct from those common on the mainland. Many of the species we could recognize were the same: poison ivy and grape vines, sea grape, poisonwood, gumbo limbo and tamarind trees were in the hammock; bay cedar, now full of tiny yellow blossoms, dominated the open areas (where I was disappointed at failing to find any racerunners). Several bracket fungi were abundant at some sites, though dried out now, and sea purslane and sea oxeye daisy were found blooming in open areas. We even saw several of the golden orb spiders for which the trail is named.

We headed back toward the mainland about 1800, stopping while still in the Keys for a seafood dinner. A bit expensive, but good seafood.

2200-2300 a night hike at Anhinga Trail. Neat, but possibly a result of the noticeable night chill, not a great deal of wildlife was visible. It was, however, very impressive to shine a light across the water of Taylor Slough and see the red-eyed shine of reflected light from the eyes of gators; up to two dozen of them at one spot. Some of them appeared to ignore us, but several gators, upon sensing us, moved toward us as we spied on them. The sporadic croak of a bird out in the darkness, or the more frequent splash from the slough, appeared a bit disconcerting to some of the novices among us. Ah, wilderness! Everywhere in the water we could see fish, lots of fish. Some gar were humongous!

Back to camp, and many of us were more than ready to turn in.

- EJ