A quick trip to Everglades National Park, Florida in February 2022 to view the wildlife.
After staying the night in the Homestead Area, we arrived early at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Centre to see if there were any spots on the ‘wet walk’ scheduled later that day. Unfortunately there were none available but we were advised on some options for birding (where to see a roseate spoonbill) and where to go if we wanted to get our feet wet on a self-guided slough slog.
On the upside, our early start meant that we were at the Royal Palm area of the park before it got too busy. Here we headed out on the popular Anhinga Trail. This trail is mostly comprised of boardwalks through freshwater saw grass marsh and even though it was only 1.2 km long, it took a while to traverse as we observed birds, fish, turtles and of course alligators!
While we scanned the lily pads for Purple Gallinule (a colourful swamphen) and watched the Anhinga (darters) diving, there was one instance were a gator glided right underneath the platform. It was silent, fast and actually quite scary… I’d read that for very egret you might stop to look at across the water, there would be at least one alligator between you and the bird! From our experience this seemed to be a good rule of thumb. We also saw heaps of noisy vultures, lovely air plants in the stunted trees and by the end of our walk, quite a lot of other tourists.
Also at Royal Palm is the Gumbo-Limbo trail. In contrast to the saw grass marsh, this trail is through a dense tropical hardwood forest, although lots of the larger trees had been knocked over by hurricanes. We enjoyed the shady trail and heard lots of catbirds. We laughed that the gumbo-limbo is often referred to as the “tourist tree” because the tree’s bark is red and peeling, like the skin of a sun burnt tourist!
We continued along the scenic drive until Pinelands. Here we walked through the third ecosystem of the day, Everglades hardwood pine forest, complete with colourful liguus tree snails. There were lots of solution holes in the limestone rock-bed, which collect water and could have been good for wildlife viewing, but we didn’t see anything much.
The next stop was one of our favourites where we gazed out on the Shark River Slough at Pa-hay-okee Overlook (which translates as River of Grass in Mikasuki language). The views are over a seemingly endless, slow moving river which at points is 80 km wide but only centimeters deep. The water was surprisingly clear and peering into it was quite mesmerising. We saw some small snakes and fish (but sadly couldn’t find the resident owls in the nearby trees).
It is fascinating that in the very low lying Everglades region, even a small change in elevation leads to a very different ecosystem. Further down Main Park Rd, we pulled into Mahogany Hummock, where the slightly elevated land means that it rarely floods and hence is home to larger trees such as tropical mahogany and gumbo-limbo. It is also the location of the largest living mahogany is the US and lots of air plants. For lunch we stopped at Paurotis pond, and we excited to see some roseate spoonbills fly overhead. We also saw some large alligators at Nine Mile Pond.
The end of the road is Flamingo where there is a national park interpretation centre, shop, marina and camping facilities. The ‘town’ has never had a large population, but did have more facilities prior to a large storm surge in 2005 from Hurricane Wilma. Although there are no longer flamingos which visit the area, we had a great display of an osprey family feeding their nestlings.
Our accommodation for the night was an eco-tent with views to the bay, a comfortable bed and mosquito protection! It was a good place for some late afternoon relaxing. In the evening we went to a Ranger talk and cooked dinner at the designated eco-tent BBQ area.
As per usual, we started our morning with a run. We headed out on the track to Bear Lake – firstly on a 4WD trail and then a narrow walking trail. It was hot and humid, like Houston summer, even though it was still winter in Florida. We had fun on the single track, trying not to fall on the tree roots! Bear Lake was a pretty large expanse of water (some may say endless) and there were a few people fishing at the turnaround point who probably thought we were mad to run there. On the way back I saw a large animal, which may have been a rare Florida Panther. We were behind it chasing it for a few seconds before it ducked into the dense jungle like vegetation.
The next activity on our active morning was kayaking up the Buttonwood canal towards Coot Bay. At the beginning we were very close to a rare American crocodile and were glad they are smaller and less vicious than the Aussie saltwater version! It was nice paddling past the mangroves and herons, surfing the big wakes from when the motor boats went past (lots of serious fishing in this area). There were lots of longer and more involved kayaking trails in the area, but we were happy to potter along for a few hours.
Back at Flamingo, we treated ourselves to a breakfast burrito (second breakfast) and walked around the marina. A highlight was seeing lots of manatee and some large garfish. We looked for shorebirds out in the bay but they were quite far away.
We retraced our trip along Main Park Road, stopping in again at a couple of the walk trails to look for more birds. We had lunch at Anhinga Trail and saw gators basking in the afternoon sun, but mainly smaller specimens.
One of the most popular things to do on the drive to/from Everglades is to call in at the Robert Is Here Fruit stand, which has become something of a south Florida landmark. It was ridiculously crowded, with a long wait for the famous fruit smoothies. However, it was worth it for the unusual tropical fruits (like canistel) which made them very tasty.
We got up early and headed to Shark Valley, in the central section of the national park. The birding on the drive out along the Tamiami Trail was pretty good. A new elevated road and bridge system is being installed so that the water can continue its slow flush through the grasses out to the ocean.
We were near the front of the queue when the visitor centre opened and so we had no issues hiring a bike to cycle around Shark Island. The main feature of this part of the National Park is a canal, part of a 1945 oil drilling operation, which has a road next to it making a 15 km long cycle path. The canal is full of birds and alligators sometimes at extremely close quarters! It was some of the best wildlife viewing of the trip. At one point there was also a big snake almost the width of the cycling trail! I got past it and then Mark who was behind had significantly less space to cycle through.
For those who didn’t want to walk or cycle there was a train, but this wasn’t going to allow you to get as close to the wildlife (and sold out quickly). At the midpoint was a large observation tower, with views across the slough. We chatted to the Ranger there for a while and looked down at a crocodile and turtles resting below in the sun.
The backside of the loop had less creatures, less trees and just the grasslands but still spotted lots of gators including some juveniles that were probably a couple of years old. Quite a queue for bicycles when we got back so lucky we had planned on an early start. Fairly warm, good to do in the morning even in winter before it got too hot.
Our final Everglades adventure was an airboat tour. As this is a bit damaging for the saw grass marshes, it was outside the national park and the outfit we went with just had a pull up on the side of the road. The jet boats looked very agricultural, like someone has connected a few things from the shed together, and were also very noisy. It was good fun though to whizz through the channels in the marsh and a different point of view than just walking or cycling around the edges. To attract alligators, the guide dropped Cheetos into the water. This was to bring the fish up to surface, with the noise they made attracting the gators. We also headed out to a gator nursery, where we saw lots of ~4 month old gators and their mother. They were very cute, but like many things in nature they would have an uphill battle to survive to grow into a big gator.
Even though we had only a couple of days, we managed to see lots of different areas of Everglades by various modes of transport (walking, running, kayaking, cycling, air-boating) and understand some of its beauties and challenges. If we had more time it would have been great to go to the Gulf Coast and do some more kayaking, as would have snorkelling Biscayne National Park. However, we did spot some great wildlife and enjoyed our trip.