Travel

The Florida Everglades

by Fabiola Forns | October 10, 2010

© Fabiola FornsRiver of Grass

Once named the River of Grass by conservationist Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, the Florida Everglades is a place like no other in our world. The Everglades is a mosaic of sawgrass marshes, pine rockland forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, mangrove swamps and coastal estuaries. It is the largest wetlands in the Western Hemisphere, and offers an extensive variety of beautiful habitat that is both wet and dry, wild and developed.

The Everglades includes four million acres, extending from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay and spanning the east and west coasts of the state. It contains several National Parks, Everglades National Park being the most popular. For many, it is the natural diversity of this beautiful land that is so appealing.

Florida bird at sunset © Fabiola Forns

The history and development of the Everglades is well documented and can be easily found online by visiting the park’s website, but spectacular beauty of the land must be seen to be truly appreciated. Here you will find immense grass prairies that paint a sea of yellow in the wind, red sunsets and dwarf forests, foggy chilly winter mornings, and the moon peeking from behind a thin cloud in a midnight-blue sky pierced with stars. Wildlife is abundant. Alligators move smoothly in the sloughs, undulating their bodies slowly, only their eyes visible above the surface of the water, as turtles sun themselves on partially submerged logs covered in algae. Long-winged Zebra butterflies flutter incessantly, Ospreys call, and Anhinga chicks chirp.

Collage © Fabiola Forns

The Everglades is a magical land for me – a place where tall Cypress trees hide in the pink sunset, where wet mangroves reflect off our mountains, puffy white clouds float in a vast sky, and the buzzing of insects rules the hot and humid summer. Once you have been there, the Everglades will stay in your heart forever. The place grows on you. There is something special about the silence so full of life, the vast spaces flat under a sky that has seen so many seasons and so much change, yet still stays the same.

Bird in shrubs © Fabiola Forns

There are two distinct seasons in the Everglades: dry and rainy. Dry coincides with the winter of the northern hemisphere, with very little rain, chilly mornings and nights, a bigger confluence of migratory birds, and a concentration of wildlife close to the available ponds in search of food. During the dry season, alligators engineer “Gator Holes” which become refuges for fish and other aquatic species. These holes are often surrounded by trees that provide habitat for wading birds that concentrate in their vicinity.

Water everywhere marks the rainy season. Almost every afternoon brings a thunderstorm and torrential rain that lasts for only a short time and then is mostly gone until the next day, when another afternoon storm douses the land in rain. Puddles of water are everywhere, giving life to a diversity of organisms, and it is very common to see a white bird close to them, like a piece of snow melting in the heat. The days are long and the humidity is high. Spectacular sunsets often follow stormy afternoon skies.

Many endangered species are found in the Everglades, including the Florida Panther, Everglades Snail Kite, Wood Stork, American Crocodile, Key Deer and West Indies Manatee.

A particularly significant endangered species is the beautiful Swallow-tailed Kite. This bird migrates from South America to nest in the Florida swamp and is a common sight in the sky from March to September. The Calusa people called them Ta-ti-na, meaning spirit that soars. Swallow-tailed Kites are easy to recognize because of their forked tail. These graceful raptors congregate in large numbers around Lake Okeechobee prior to migrating back to South America.

Bird in flight © Fabiola Forns

Navigating The Park

Visitors to Everglades National Park, from children to seniors, will find plenty of wildlife, scenery and activities. There are boats, airplanes, air boats, bicycles, and walking trails. Campgrounds exist at various locations in the park.

The Florida City entrance is accessible from the Florida Turnpike. From there, clearly marked signs will guide you the rest of the way. This entrance is open 24 hours per day. So is the well known Anhinga Trail, visited by photographers from all over the world in the dry season, and the Flamingo section, which is the southern-most section of the park.

The Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail are in Royal Palm a few miles left of the entrance booth. There you will find a paved pedestrian road that converts into a circular boardwalk going over a manmade pond. On the water side of the path, you can find many native plant species and well as a variety of insects and birds. Some of the larger bird species you will see are Double Crested Cormorant, Anhinga, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Tri-colored Heron, Little Blue Heron, Great Blue Heron, Purple Gallinule, Green Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Wood Stork, Osprey, Yellow and Black-crowned Night Herons, occasional immature Bald Eagle and Great Horned and Barred Owls. The smaller species include Red-winged Blackbird, Cat Bird, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinal and others.

Bird photography collage © Fabiola Forns

A visit to Anhinga Trail before dawn is an unparalleled experience. Here the silence is so deep that all you hear are your own footsteps, and the scent of flowers lingers in the air. Nothing moves except the bushes with the soft breeze. Birds are still roosting. The moon is still presiding, waiting for the sun to triumphantly replace it. You wait and listen for the first signs of life. A Great Blue Heron slowly moves one step forward as he forages, Ibis leave their roosts in bunches, and Vultures cross to the East of the pond as their morning ritual.

You know morning has almost arrived when the pink in the sky is a backdrop to the dry tree in the back. That tree is the ultimate perch and is rarely empty. Many territorial wars have been fought for space there. The birds become silhouettes as the sun finally breaks.

If the morning is foggy, the sun becomes an orange disc behind the trees in the distance that will allow you to take a longer look. As soon as there is light, the birds begin waking – yawning and lazily waiting for more light to enable them to see their prey in the water or bushes. By mid-morning, Great Blue Herons are fishing, standing like statues. With intense concentration, they suddenly make a lightning-fast strike that more often than not ends with a speared fish.

In nesting season, branch-carrying Anhingas fly between the trees to their nests where they receive a warm welcome from their waiting partners. Those still unpaired, with handsome bright blue breeding colors around their eyes, are busy displaying, tail up and wings dancing, hoping to attract the attention of a potential mate.

Birds © Fabiola Forns

Cormorants fish when the sun is higher. They go in the water, sometimes a few at the time, and emerge with a fish, only to be chased by others in a comical frenzy. The birds probably find it harder to eat the fish in peace that to catch it. An Egret perches on a stick in the middle of the pond and makes a kill without warning, sometimes chased by a Great Blue Heron that wants to steal the hard-won catch. This is a routine that repeats itself every morning, almost to the minute. In the front pond, a Red-shouldered Hawk comes in from the North as soon as the sun warms up.

Just when you think the sun is too bright for photography, in comes an Osprey, hovering and making a couple of dives in front of you. A Tri-colored Heron decides that it is time for him to do his dancing practice, and moves from one side of the canal to the other, swift and elegant, feet trailing in the water, keenly watched by a Wood Stork seated (yes, seated) in the grass. Meanwhile, an Anhinga is beating a fish against a log in order to break its spine so that it can be swallowed.

Bird portraits © Fabiola Forns

Activity peaks as the sun gets even stronger. We locals are always complaining that there are not enough birds in a given season, but the truth is that we are extremely spoiled. The wildlife in ENP is so used to human presence that you can photograph a perching bird with a fish eye lens if you wish. Everglades wildlife is extremely tolerant and not easily disturbed, a big tribute to the ability of these animals to adapt to their environment.

From the Anhinga Trail, going South to Flamingo is a pleasant drive, surprising the visitor with a variety of habitats and various locations worth exploring, like Mahogany Hammocks for Owls, Paurotis Pond for nesting Roseate Spoonbills (although here the birds are too far away for photography), and Mrazek Pond for a variety of waders and waterfowl when the water is low. It is not uncommon to see Red-Shouldered Hawks perched close to the road.

The lodge in Flamingo was devastated by the last hurricane and has not been rebuilt, but you can find campgrounds here. There is a marina with a store and boat rides. Osprey rule this part of the park, with six active nests this past season. White Pelicans and American Crocodiles are also seen in this estuarine environment. Both Pileated and Red-bellied Woodpecker nest in the vicinity of the marina. Hawks and Northern Harriers patrol the air.

A number of shorebirds can be found walking on the sandy beach. In the afternoon, be sure to have a wide angle lens to capture the sunset.

Tropical sunset © Fabiola Forns

On the west side, by Tamiami Trail, Shark Valley provides another entrance to the park. This entrance is closed at night, and opens at 8:30 AM. This is a morning trip for photographers because of the sun orientation. If you don’t mind walking, you can leave your car on the road, away from the No Parking signs. Walk in and you will surely find some wildlife along the canal. Here, Alligator are common and you will find them in large numbers. Always exercise caution when getting close to them. They are used to humans but care must be taken not to provoke an incident that could end in harm to humans or the animals.

Last year, there was a juvenile Purple Gallinule here that, to the dismay of Rangers, became accustomed to begging for food. If a visitor walked by carrying a bag of chips, the bird would fly the width of the canal towards that person, clearly displaying the desire to share the visitor’s snack. It is illegal to feed wildlife, but this sneaky bird managed to eat out of people’s hands, as people are often so enchanted by wild animals that they feed them anyway, despite the rules. Fortunately, I have not seen this behavior this year.

Purple gallinule © Fabiola Forns

Over the gift shop, a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks have nested every year for the last several years, bringing new branches every season, then food for the chicks. Because they are so close, a very short telephoto would suffice for those looking to photograph them here.

If you want to see the heart of the swamp, take the Tram-narrated ride to the Observation Tower. You will learn about the ecosystem and have the possibility of seeing wildlife. This is a popular place for cyclists.

Everglades City is the Western gate to the park. You can take boat tours in the Estuary, where Dolphins often follow the wake of the boat, or you can opt for a smaller and more adventurous ride through the mangroves. An air boat ride is a unique experience, even though wildlife is dispersed by the noise.

The best time to visit the park is the dry season, which runs roughly from December to April. The heat is more tolerable and there are fewer, if any, insects. Clear days make it very appealing as a vacation, and it is a great educational place in which to bring children of all ages in contact with nature.

For photographers, the early hours before dawn, the golden light before mid-morning, and the late afternoon hours till sunset provide the best opportunities for image making. In most areas, a medium telephoto lens is all you need to capture good images, although you will also find uses for your long lenses. Comfortable shoes, a hat, bug repellant and water should be with you at all times, as well as enough memory cards to capture your Everglades experience.

Golden light sunset © Fabiola Forns

The Florida Everglades is unique in so many ways. Enjoy it, treat it with respect and share it with others. With care, it can last for many generations.

About the Author

Love for nature has always inspired this artistically inclined woman, who, after dabbling in other fields as creative writing, music and oil painting, has found her true call in photography. Fabiola holds a degree in Human Resources from St. Thomas University in Miami and teaches photography at Miami-Dade College. As a 2007 winner of the Birds category in the prestigious Windland Smith Rice International Awards, she constantly strives for creativity in her work. She and her husband, Alfred Forns, are a team that complement each other - you can see their work at www.avianscapes.com.

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