The Florida Everglades is one of the largest and most diverse ecological systems in the United States. Spanning over 1.5 million acres, the Florida Everglades covers most of the southern peninsula of the State of Florida and is home to over 1,000 species of plants and animals, including the highly endangered Florida Panther, the Western Manatee, and the Ghost Orchid. Within the boundaries of The Everglades you will find many state parks and preserves unique to one another in their landscapes and the wildlife you will encounter there.
Cypress trees covered with hanging Spanish moss.
Fakahatchee prairie lands.
I have trekked through many areas of The "Glades", but my favorite still today is Fakahatchee Strand Preserve. Fakahatchee Strand is located just west of Copeland, Florida off of state route 29 about 10 miles south of Interstate 75 ("Alligator Alley"). Fakahatchee is a diverse variety of wilderness, from the typical freshwater wetlands, to cypress groves, lakes and ponds, and to the drier pine prairies. The preserve itself can be sectioned into four distinct areas: the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, the East River, the Jones Scenic Loop, and the Jones Grade Lakes. The Boardwalk, located off U.S. 41 ("Tamiami Trail") about 7 miles west of the junction of SR-29 and US-41, is a nice stroll through a wooded area over a well-maintained boardwalk. I highly recommend a visit for those looking for an introduction to The Everglades and Big Cypress. The East River and the Jones areas require a bit more hiking and or over-the-water transportation to get the full benefit of the beauty of The Glades. Local boat tours and guides (including myself) can assist you best in getting around these areas.
It's winter here in Florida, and The Everglades are typically a bit drier during this time of the year. However, thanks to heavy rains over the past month or so The Glades is full of water and streaming nicely from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay (to the South). The Everglades has been in a drought situation for the better part of the last decade, so it's nice to see water flowing again. This promotes a good breeding season for many of the wading birds of Florida and migratory birds from the North.
A Great Egret lands in one of The Everglades' tree tops.
My focus of this blog will be on the Jones Scenic Loop, located directly off SR-29 south of I-75. Every time I visit this magical portion of Fakahatchee and The Glades I come out with a new story to tell. I was traveling back to South Florida from the Tampa area, and decided to swing by Fakahatchee in hopes of capturing some good photos of a pair of Barred Owls that I have been following and studying for over a year now. This pair of owls like to hang out between Gate #2 and just beyond Gate #3 within the park... these gates are located around mile marker 2. I parked the car to walk the road in search for my owls. Walking the road is easier because it's easy to miss something when one drives.
My first encounter of the day was with a Little Blue Heron. This is a case in point of walking versus driving. I wouldn't have seen this little guy if I was driving because his plumage blends in so well with the wooded area of the Jones Loop and the watering hole where he was perched looking for lunch. At a glance the Little Blue Heron looks more dark grey than blue, but when the sun shines perfectly on this wetlands bird one can see the beautiful hues of blue and violet. The Little Blue is closely related to the Snowy Egret (and part of the genus Egretta), and you'll find this bird throughout Florida near shallow waters. Their diet consists of small fish, crabs, insects, and even small lizards or frogs.
Little Blue Heron.
"Ruffles"... Snowy Egret (taken during a previous trip to Fakahatchee).
The next photo opportunity came in the shape of one of our "shelled" friends, the Alligator Snapping Turtle. These guys have quite a temperament if you mess with them. So my best advise is "DON'T try to pick one up"! With a bite force of around 1,000 PSI, this snapper has jaws of steel and can do some serious damage. Full grown adults typically weigh about 18 pounds with a carapace of around 13 inches... but some snappers that have defied age and time have grown much larger. Their diet consists mostly of fish and fish carcasses, but some have been known to capture and eat small rodents and other unfortunate animals that get to close.
"Snap What?!" Alligator Snapping Turtle.
I continued my stroll down to Gate 3 where a large watering hole can be found. The excess water from the recent storms made this once-small pond into one much larger, and the entrance to the hiking trail was flooded over. Deeper water brings in larger animals... and today that meant alligators. What would a trip to The Everglades be if you don't see any alligators? This particular area is home to two gators that I have seen and followed for some time. And my have they grown! The first one I saw found a dry spot between a couple of large cypress trees, and was quite happy being out of the cold water. Several tourists stopped to see what I was gazing at, and I pointed out this large predator to them. He measures (best guess) about 10 feet. And as I looked down the road to see if I could spot the Red-Shouldered Hawk screeching in the distance, his mate was strolling across the road to a pond on the other side. I rushed to get in some pics when she decided to plant herself on the roadside by the pond.
American Alligator of Fakahatchee Strand.
One of the most satisfying things that I do when it comes to visiting The Everglades is educating people about the ecosystem and the importance of its preservation to the wildlife that calls The Everglades home. As I continued to tell some of my stories about The Glades and educate this small group on conservation, more people stopped to get a look at "my friend" in the trees. Before I knew it, I had about a dozen onlookers taking photos of this most prominent resident of The Everglades, asking questions about the wildlife and the area, and taking in the education that I was giving them. It was exhilarating to give my speech on conservation and the wildlife of this great ecosystem.
Although this short visit to Fakahatchee didn't yield photos of the Barred Owls as I had hoped for, I left feeling more satisfied sharing my knowledge of The Everglades and knowing that I helped to educate some folks on this beautiful world that I've come to love.
A couple pics of the Barred Owls from previous visits to Fakahatchee Strand.
A fitting end to a day in The Everglades.