My mother helped me hang the large colorful map of the United States right next to my bed. Just due to their proximity I learned the geography of the southern states first, and the Florida peninsula best–it was right next to my nose. What was this lower tip of Florida like, and why were there no cities and only a few roads there? What is this Everglades written in bold italics across the whole region? All questions for an eight year-old, finally answered 60 years later.
Mel was the instigator, always pushing Andy and me to join him in exploring new Florida birding sites. The 200 miles to Flamingo Point, the most southern tip of Florida in the Everglades did not phase him one iota, and we were game, as long as he did the driving. We traversed Florida, west to east through the Great Cypress Swamp, bypassing thousands of waders at 65 miles per hour, turned south near Homestead, and finally entered the Everglades National Park at its eastern border.
People say there is no other place on earth like the Everglades. The park is part of a 1.3 million acre Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness of south Florida, the largest wilderness tract east of the Mississippi. Ironically this wild gem is hemmed in by 7 million residents and the growing urban sprawl along each coast. The vitality of the low wetlands is dependent on surface water, slowly flowing from further north in wide, shallow, and barely perceptible sloughs.
The mantra of the Florida settlers in the 19th and much of the 20th century was to drain the swamp, divert the water into existing rivers, build canals, dikes, and a grid of roads, all to create dry land for building sites. Swamps were bad; the home of monsters and the source of pestilence. See my blog post, “A Real Estate Deal for the Birds”, dated 3/28/2016 for a more detailed account of this land-grab frenzy.
There is some justification for this movement. Severe hurricanes in the early 20th century resulted in extensive flooding and loss of life when massive Lake Okeechobee overflowed its banks. The Army Corp of Engineer’s solution was to surround the lake with the Hoover Dike and divert the overflow to each coast via canals and the St. Lucie River on the east and the Caloosahatchee River to the west. This was a diversion away from the natural flow of water, south to the Everglades.
But we went overboard. By the 1960’s and 70’s it became apparent these policies were killing the Everglades wetlands; they were dying of thirst. The story of the dismantling of the dikes and canals, the creation of large holding ponds for the wet season and controlled releases from them during dry periods, the government’s repurchase of land from the swindled public, and the gradual return of the Everglade’s health is a fascinating story, still being written.
The stakeholder list for this restoration is long: homeowners and anyone who requires a viable aquifer, tax payers, developers and realtors, farmers including the huge sugar growers, sportsmen, politicians, environmentalists, birders, and everyone who values preserving some of our disappearing wilderness. The political maneuvering and posturing has been predictable. Michael Grunwald’s great book, “The Swamp” chronicles this story up to 2006.
There’s a sudden serenity one feels when entering the Everglades. The 40 mile road from the entrance to Flamingo Point winds through a progressive series of habitats as one losses altitude, mere fractions of an inche per mile, driving toward the coast. Initially you see the vast freshwater marsh, the famous “river of grass”, occasionally interrupted by small hardwood hammocks on slightly elevated land. There are also scattered slash pine forests along the ancient limestone ridges, remnants of the retreated sea. Brackish mangrove swamps, numerous ponds, and the islands of Florida Bay are the final features at the point.
There are numerous pull-offs from the main road with short hikes to observation towers and the ponds. We birded most of these, seeing the usual Florida waders. For me this trip was more about the historic land and scenic vistas than about the birds. We did get some close shots of the Black-necked Stilts and an unexpected flock of American Avocets. One can never see too many Roseate Spoonbills and snazzy warblers. A snoozing American Crocodile and some lallygagging Manatees greeted us at Flamingo Point.
Mel has an admirable interest in the unusual fauna of Florida. Andy and I were somewhat skeptical as he led us in a search for Liguus fasciatus, the Florida Tree Snail. These colored tropical snails favor the smooth-barked trees and feed on the numerous epiphytes. Near the end of the day Mel finally found one, than another, and another. What do you call a flock of snails? They are interesting creatures, another gift from the Everglades.
I used the long trip home to convince my colleagues to join me in our next birding adventure, a south Florida Big Day. For non-birders this is a sunup to sundown scamper to find as many different bird species as possible. It’s fast, hectic birding, ticking off the species quickly and moving on–so different than the usual slow walk in the woods, taking hundreds of pictures of each bird in all the various poses.
The fun part of a Big Day is the strategy–what route should we take through the various habitats to maximize the species list? Can we afford the long drive to see the Eastern Meadowlark or Red Cockaded Woodpecker when a more common bird close by counts just as much in the day’s tally? In the end we all agreed to give it a go. Wish us luck and look for our success or failure in a future post.