If you haven’t already read Part I of my Florida trip, please scroll down and have a look if you like. This entry will pick up at The Everglades, our next destination after Fort Myers. Yes, Virginia, there are alligators there!
The Everglades is known as the “River of Grass,” which describes it perfectly; it is actually a shallow, slow-moving, freshwater river nearly 50 miles wide! A lot of people are surprised when they go there to see that it is not a tropical jungle or a deep, dark swamp, but rather a flat, very flat wet grassland. The grasses are an efficient, natural filter for all the water that drains from Florida into the ocean. The highest elevation in the park, which encompasses 1,506,539 acres, is 6 feet! But a few inches of elevation in the Everglades makes a world of difference in the vegetation; hardwood hammocks grow in thick clusters wherever the elevation rises ever so slightly, and there exotic species of plants, trees and wildlife thrive.
Much of The Everglades is not accessible to people, or is accessible only by boat. This is a blessing, as human presence could only do more damage to the fragile ecosystem and its wildlife. It’s probably a blessing to the humans too, as the insects, reptiles and other residents of the park can become absolutely unbearable to people, especially as the weather warms up. But those who want to can experience a good sampling of the Everglades by walking the trails, boardwalks and side roads that the park has built. The easiest and most “people-friendly” of the trails is probably the Anhinga Trail.
The Anhinga, for which the trail is named, is actually a water bird that is very common in the Everglades. It’s reminiscent of a cormorant, but is much thinner and sleeker, with a long, thin dagger-like bill that it uses to pierce its prey. The picture above is of two fledglings near the nest that aren’t quite ready to fly. A few Anhingas do occur in Virginia, but nowhere near the numbers you’ll find farther south.
The bird below is a colorful member of the rail family of birds, known as a Purple Gallinule. I won’t even try to describe it as I couldn’t begin to do it justice; just look at the picture! This is a subtropical species that does not survive in more northern climates. It spends most of its time under heavy cover in thick, extensive wet areas where it is impossible to spot, but if you’re lucky, one will walk out into the open for a while to look for food and water.
Below is a Green Heron, a species I mentioned in a previous blog about herons and egrets. Green Herons occur in Virginia and are fairly common in the summer, but I never got a photo opportunity like this one before! The animals along the Anhinga Trail are wild, but are somewhat used to the presence of humans nearby and startle less often than you might experience at other places.
There are alligators everywhere along the Anhinga Trail, but I didn’t feel in the least threatened by them. As long as you stay on the designated paths and boardwalks, you are separated from them enough for comfort. Here are a couple of favorite photos:
I did walk another Everglades trail named the Snake Bight Trail, which took me straight into an extensive hardwood hammock. My mother and brother bowed out of this walk because the insects were pretty ferocious. I get ridiculously single-minded, though, about what I want to see, and before I knew it, I had left them for almost two hours. I wanted to go to the end of the trail, and I kept walking to the next bend in the trail, then the next and the next. I totally lost track of the time and got lots of bug bites, and I never did come to the end of the trail. But I saw some wonderful birds and especially butterflies:
This gorgeous creature is Florida’s “state butterfly,” the Zebra Heliconian. I must have snapped 50 pictures while I chased it around, trying to capture its image in flight. It is a member of the “longwing” family of butterflies, none of which occur in Virginia.
The Queen (above) looks a lot like a Monarch, and they are members of the same family, but once you study butterflies a little bit, you’ll see subtle differences. The Queen is a darker color of orange, with more brownish tones, and if you look at the underside of the forewing you’ll see there are no black veins like there are on the Monarch. Like Monarchs, they lay their eggs on plants that are in the milkweed family, which the caterpillars eat until they go into their chrysalis stage.
One of the butterfly species that I really wanted to see badly was the Mangrove Skipper, a subtropical species that only reaches North America in Florida. Its host plant is the Red Mangrove tree. My efforts in walking Snake Bight Trail were rewarded when I finally saw one of these beauties and was able to photograph it. Here are a couple of photos: I especially like the one where it’s looking straight into the camera!
At another part of the park, Paurotis Pond, we found another specialty of Southern Florida, the Wood Stork; in fact, we found a whole rookery of storks nesting and flying all around us, a real treat. Storks are bald like vultures and might be considered, well, unattractive to us, but when they are soaring in the air they are a truly beautiful spectacle.
I’ll conclude my Florida trip next time: part III will include our visit to the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas.