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Florida - part I
December 2016

Crystal River manatees
Big Cypress National Preserve
Everglades National Park
Collier-Seminole State Park
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Oscar Scherer State Park
Fort De Soto County Park


Synopsis
With a major cold snap and snow storm heading toward Seattle, our timing couldn’t be better to escape to warmer temperatures. Florida - specifically the Everglades - has been on our list of place to go before it’s too late. With an average elevations of 6 ft, the park is doomed to rising sea levels (as is Miami with the same average elevation).

Crystal River manatees
Our first stop was north of Tampa - Crystal River, known for the large groups of manatees that congregate at the warm seeps during the cold winter months. We signed up for a private snorkeling tour - one of many in the area. Our guide was very courteous telling us a little about the natural history of manatees. He motored the boat up a short distance into the canals searching for manatee. It wasn’t a very long boat ride before we spotted our first manatee - or rather another group of snorkelers watching a manatee. We eventually snorkeled with our “own” manatee and had plenty more solo encounters with the manatees that were grazing along the bottom and even a couple of cows with their calfs. I was thrilled to see these creatures up close. They are both ugly yet lovable in their gentle and slow ways. The dynamics of seeing the manatee in their wintering grounds was odd and disturbing. I sometimes felt like I was snorkeling in someone’s backyard - and perhaps we literally were. The mouth of Crystal River was heavily developed (as was most of Florida); residential houses dominated every branch of the once river estuary. Sea walls lined the waterways and even the natural seeps were not immune to concrete - our guide showed us a couple of concrete wall-lined seeps that were no bigger than a garage; and indeed one seep was adjacent to someone’s garage. Yet those seeps were all “protected” by a piece of PVC that barred access - both swimmer and boater alike. These measures seemed like desperate retroactive attempts to keep the manatees around this town, which depended on manatees for income. We were not the only snorkelers seeking out the manatees that day. Even though we had a private tour with our guide, there was always another tour group close by. We had one last opportunity to snorkel with a manatee - but a group of ~10 snorkelers literally floated in a ring around the sleeping manatee. We had better encounters with the manatees earlier so we passed on trying to worm into the other tour group. However, it is great that there’s a lot of tourism based on these manatees. It might be the strongest influence in maintaining an already degraded environment for them.

Big Cypress National Preserve
I have to say first and foremost - there are no giant cypress trees in Big Cypress! Don’t make the mistake I did by having that expectation, you’ll be sorely disappointed if you do. That being said, there are many other wonderful features of Big Cypress National Preserve. The “big" in Big Cypress referred to the area of the preserve. It was the “highlands" of the Everglades being a couple of feet higher in elevation. Although we saw a very small portion of the preserve, the area was comprised mostly of pinelands, prairie, cypress swamp, and hammock. A lot of the preserve accessible to off-road vehicles and hunters. So wearing blaze orange on the trails during hunting season was a must.

We stayed at the Burns Lake Campground with pit toilets, which I came to realize later on might turn a lot of Floridian campers off (the rest of the campgrounds we stayed at had running water and showers - a luxury I’m not used to in all my camping trips). The bonus was the campground was never full despite staying over the weekend. The campground surrounds a small lake ringed by small cypress and slash pine. An off-road vehicle trail headed north from the campground. Despite being a short drive off the Tamiami Trail, there’s still a lot of traffic noise that can be heard. The other main campgrounds (Midway and Monument Lake) are practically on the main road.

The Tamiami Trail transected Big Cypress connecting Miami to Naples and was a dead end for a lot of wildlife. The highway was built by dredging a canal adjacent to the road. These constructed canals are great habitat for fish and subsequently all types of wildlife especially alligators, egrets, heron, cormorants, kingfishers, and anhingas. As a consequence a lot of these birds hang out right next to the road. Add a few hundred Floridians driving at high speeds (even at night when the limit was supposed to drop down to 45 mph) equaled a lot of road kill. During the few days we were there, it wasn’t uncommon to see a fresh piles of feathers that was once a Great Egret or Double-crested Cormorant splattered into the pavement.

We hiked and birded several points along the Tamiami Trail in Big Cypress. The short Kirby Shorter Trail offered great looks into a sizable cypress swamp, which was full of the typical wading birds of the area. We also hiked the south terminus of the Florida Trail, which ends/starts at the main visitor center. The trail goes through a variety of habitats, mainly pinewoods and prairie, but also palmettos and hammock. The latter was always buzzing with mosquitoes. The Loop Road had great views into cypress forest. Each culvert was a window into the swamps - teaming with alligators, fish, cocoa plums, epiphytes and wading birds. We stopped at the Tree Snail Trail, which was a short loop through the hammock and mosquitoes. During our quick jaunt through, we did spot a few tree snails - stuck tightly to the limbs. It was the dry season, so I imagine during the wetter months there would be more and they might actually be moving.

Everglades National Park
Shark Valley
We spent a couple of mornings at Shark Valley. The tram tour followed a 15-mile loop road through the sawgrass prairie that was dotted with hammocks islands. The straight portion of the loop was originally built for oil exploration. Like the Tamiami Trail, a canal was dredged adjacent to the road during it’s construction. The resulting amount of wildlife in the manmade canals was extraordinary and very tame. Herons, gallinules, anhingas, gators, fish and turtles thrived in the canal. The canal was a great place to photograph birds and reptiles. (I imagine the Tamiami Trail would be too, if it weren’t for the cars speeding past at 75 mph.) The gators would haul themselves out during the day to warm up to digest their meals. Yet they seemed unperturbed by all the bicycles that frequented the trail.

We ended up taking the tram tour out to the view tower and walked the 7 miles back to the visitors center. It was a nice way to both get a guided introduction to the Everglades and be able to take a closer and slower-paced look at the saw grass prairie and the hammocks.

Long Pine Key
We spent a couple of nights at the Long Pine Key Campground. It was surprisingly not busy, with half of the campground closed down for the slower season. Compared to the primitive pit toilets at Burns Lake, we were living in the lap of luxury with flushing toilets, sinks with soap, and hot showers! With the heat and humidity, the showers (no need for a hot one) was very welcome at the end of the day.

The campground, as named appropriately, was situated in slash pine forest mixed with grass prairie and saw palmettos. Nearby were the Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo Trails, a place we frequented several times during the morning and evenings when lighting was good and the animals were more active. The Anhinga Trail is a boardwalk trail over a large lagoon, which provides great habitat and close up views of wildlife. The Gumbo Limbo Trail loops through an adjacent hammock of gumbo limbo trees, oaks, palms, and figs and was where all the mosquitoes hung out to wait for hikers.

Flamingo
Our original intent was to camp two nights at Flamingo - located on the southern tip of Florida on the shores of Florida Bay. When we arrived during the heat and humidity of the day, we were somewhat surprised to see a mostly empty campground. With one step outside, it wasn’t hard to figure out why. Swarms of mosquitoes greeted us trying to test our lines of defense: permethrin-treated clothes, picaridin, and DEET. At the visitor center, we learned that the levels of mosquitoes, which they marked as “horrible” on a scale of: enjoyable, bearable, unpleasant, horrible, and hysterical, was not typical for this time of year (the dry season). However, a couple of days prior to our arrival, a substantial rain was enough to push the mosquitoes into blood sucking/breeding mode.

Hopes of walking the trails around the area were quickly dashed when we walked on the trail that was deemed to have the least amount of mosquitoes. The blood suckers gave us no rest as we walked, bitting through the weak spots in our defenses and buzzing madly around our heads. Thankfully we did manage to find some escape from the mosquitoes.

We rented a canoe and traveled up the Buttonwood Canal through the black, red and white mangroves. On the saltwater, the mosquitoes weren’t as bad and we were actually able to take in the scenery. We saw one young crocodile swimming in the canal and a couple of adults right next to the boat rental place. Apparently it was quite common for them to haul out there to rest and warm up. They are not attractive creatures, especially when they get bigger.

During an outgoing tide in the morning, we took a canoe out on Florida Bay. The low tide exposed the mud flats, where gulls, pelicans, terns, egrets, and herons congregated to feed or preen. We paddled out to Snake Bight a shallow bay close by. Even larger numbers of egrets and shorebirds gathered to poke and pick on the exposed mud for morsels. White Ibis, Cattle Egret, and Roseate Spoonbills fed along the shoreline next to the mangroves, while large masses of Willets, dowitchers, Marbled Godwits and Great Egrets prodded the open mudflats. We had to be somewhat careful not to get stranded in the shallow bay, which we were poling over more often than paddling.

Under the water, large schools of fish darted around our boat. A small shark disappeared quickly into the murky waters before we could look at it closely. The calm of the open water was occasionally punctuated by a large splash of a snook jumping or an Osprey diving for fish. And thankfully the open saltwater offered respite from the mosquitoes. It was only when we drifted too close to the mangroves did the insects find us.

Main Road
There were several (very) short boardwalk trails along the main road through the Everglades National Park that showcase the different habitats - slash pine forest, sawgrass prairie, cypress, and hammock. At the Mahogany Hammock Trail, we were lucky to see several White-crowned Pigeons hidden in the canopy.

continue to Florida part II

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