The Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, named for the tortuous Corkscrew River, is a gem of preserved flora and fauna in Southwest Florida. A small portion of the 13,000 acre preserve is available to the public on a 2.25 mile boardwalk loop that samples the 4 distinct habitats of the region which are defined by their elevation and relative wetness as the Pine Flatwood, Wet Prairie, Pond Cypress Swamp, and Bald Cypress Swamp. Only a couple feet elevation causes this remarkable and observable change in habitat as one progresses around the boardwalk. Immediately upon leaving the Blair Center and its exhibits you encounter the Pine Flatwood region. This relative uplands contains Slash Pine and Sabal Palm is usually a great sight for seeing and hearing woodpeckers including the ubiquitious Red-bellied and impressive Pileated.
The boardwalk then passes over the expansive Wet Prairie covered with Sand Cordgrass. The open sky here gives you a good chance to see soaring hawks, vultures, and Swallowtail Kites before entering the denser forest. There is usually a Common Yellowthroat lurking in the brush.
One then enters the pond cypress stand. These are the smaller cypress with lighter gray bark with many over 100 years in age. They apparently like drier feet than their larger cousin further down the boardwalk. In winter and early spring before they leaf out you can peer into the stand, often seeing a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drumming away. If you’re lucky a feeding mixed flock will pass through, composed of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Northern Parula, Black-and-white, Pine, and Palm Warbler, and White-eyed Vireo.
The majestic bald cypresses are one of the main attractions of the preserve, with many of the larger having specific names; examples include Muir, Roosevelt, and Asteenahoofa, which is Seminole for big cypress. This is the largest remaining tract of these trees in the world, with the largest being 500-600 years old. When the boardwalk enters this region you immediately sense the change with the damp smell, darker forest with the tall cypress, often girdled by Strangler Figs, and understudy of countless ferns, air plants, lichen, and Spanish Moss taking center stage. You may even get a glimpse of a Ghost Orchid. Photographers, crank up your ISO and open your f-stop–its a low-light habitat. The trail winds by the Lettuce Lakes where the wading birds congregate, especially in the dry winter season, just as the big game seek the watering holes in the Serengeti. In addition to the regular Florida waders look for the less common Purple Gallinule, Limpkin, and American Bittern. There’s usually also a large gator lurking nearby.
The Wood Stork is one of the success stories of Florida habitat restoration and the only stork that nest in the US. This gauky, awkward, large wader was recently taken off the endangered species list, and is now listed as merely threatened. Corkscrew usually supports a large breeding rookery, depending on water levels, but none were known to breed there in 2015. It also breeds in Georgia and the Carolinas.
The parade of people around the boardwalk is an interesting mix of walkers. It ranges from young families pushing an infant stroller (with no binoculars or camera in sight) to the hardcore birder, also pushing a carriage but loaded with the latest, heavy and expensive birding gear. There are the elderly, just out for a stroll through the beautiful forest, people in wheelchairs, and the birders of all stripes, from novice to expert. Many are Floridians making a return trip and others clearly are first time visitors from the north, drawn by Corkscrew’s reputation as a birder’s mecca. I’ve found people there anxious to share a siting or request a second opinion for a difficult ID. And if we’re all stumped there is a generous number of volunteer guides scattered along the boardwalk, many with scopes already trained upon nesting hawks, owls, and kites.
One day I was at the sanctuary with a non-birder friend and we became separated along the boardwalk. When I looked up she came running back to the group, excited to relate that she had found a beautiful rarity while birding next to an knowledgeable Englishman. He told her, with cockney accent, that the colorful bird was a “Pine Tit Bunting”. For 30 seconds I started furiously checking out the bunting section of our guidebooks, looking for that bird I’d never previously heard of, before it dawned on me that the American translation of this bird was “Painted Bunting”. So much for the rarity, but we still had a long good-natured laugh, and it is a great bird, especially for someone seeing it for the first time.
I add to my Corkscrew life list almost every time I visit and it now stands at 73, growing at almost every visit. The site has become one of my favorite birding destinations in Southwest Florida.