Adventure in the Everglades

“Let’s go birding,” I suggested to my seven-year-old. Her reply, “No way!” I countered with, “How about we go on an adventure?” “Okay, fine.” So we packed up our supplies and headed off for the Everglades. I was excited about sharing more of my passion for nature with my daughter. She was a little bit intrigued, but adamant that it wouldn’t be too long or too far away. I prevaricated, “Its not far at all.” After an hour drive of my constant reassurance that it was just a little farther, we arrived at the Ernest Coe Visitor Center at the southern end of Everglades National Park.  Our first stop inside the Main Gate, was the Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, a short boardwalk leading to a lookout tower offering a breathtaking view of the expansive River of Grass. Aided by our binoculars, we watched a lone Great Egret that was foraging in the distance.


Great Egret (Ardea alba)
Beautiful curves!
My daughter used the binoculars from her Jr. Birdwatcher’s Kit to study everything, from the distant birds to flowers to insects on the boardwalk.  She got a chance to use one of her bird call whistles to try to attract a little warbler that we saw under some bushes, but then stopped when she realized that she might draw it out to where it could be spotted by a hovering hawk. On the way back to the car we were watched by a trio of Turkey Vultures lurking in a nearby tree.
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Once back in the car I asked my daughter if she wanted to make the long drive down to Flamingo or if she wanted to head back home. Although she was still worried about it taking too long, I could see the spirit of adventure welling up inside of her. A part of her wanted to check it out. I told her it was her call, and she left it up to Eenie-Meenie-Miney-Moe. Flamingo won, so we turned right and began the forty-mile trek through pinelands and sawgrass. Along the way I reminisced about the last time I had gone that far down fifteen or twenty years ago with one of my brothers and a friend. I told my daughter about canoing and being chased by mosquitoes, and about my brother almost capsizing our canoe trying to get away from a large insect. β€œThe gators in the water will bite harder than any of these insects,” I had said.
We made it to Flamingo and top on my list was the Eco Pond, where I had seen Flamingos and Roseate Spoonbills on my last visit all those years ago. There was a light drizzle so we donned our raincoats and set off on the path around the pond. Two minutes into our walk we were attacked. Our insect repellent was no match for the swarm. According to my daughter there were 4,000 mosquitoes on each of my legs. The Flamingo area was teeming with these flying bloodsuckers so we left.

On the way out of the park we made a quick stop at the Anhinga Trail, which thankfully was mosquito free. Again we put on our raincoats and headed out on the boardwalk. We saw four large alligators. We saw Anhingas, Black Vultures, American Crows, Green Herons, a little Palm Warbler another Great Egret and a beautiful Tricolored Heron.

Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor)
The excursion ended up taking most of the day, and it was a blast.  We drove for hours, dodged raindrops, ran from mosquitoes, told each other jokes, sang silly songs and swapped stories. It certainly was an Everglades adventure.
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Birding the Everglades: Grim Reapers

A great place to see a wide variety of interesting birds up close is the Anhinga Trail in the Royal Palm section of Everglades National Park.  It is located just a few miles past the main gate on the South side of the park.  I visited the Anhinga Trail the other day and was surprised to see a large number of Black Vultures congregating on the ground at the beginning of the trail.  I have seen them in twos and threes, but normally if you want to see a lot of vultures you need simply to look up and they will be circling high in the sky.  Vultures are scavengers so I naturally suspected that I would find a dead animal up ahead.

It turned out to be a Double-crested Cormorant that was not dead, but lying on the ground and appeared to be injured.  A couple of the vulture took some test pecks, but back away quickly at the cormorant’s angry retort.  The rest of the vultures just waited around like nature’s grim reapers predicting the inevitable.

Black Vulture – Don’t Fear the Reaper

An ominous gathering of birds in black.

“I’m not dead yet!”

“I can dance and I can sing, ‘cos I’m not yet dead!”

This Black Vulture is striking a pose often seen on Anhingas and Cormorants.  He is displaying his distinct white fingers, which help us distinguish him from a Turkey Vulture when he hovers high overhead.

First Bird of 2011

What was your first bird this year?  For me it was a Turkey Vulture hovering overhead as part of a group of Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures.  That is not very surprising as Turkey Vultures are a very common sight in Florida.  I am writing this post on the second morning of the new year, and so far this year I have identified five different bird species.  In addition to the two vultures I saw a Great Egret, Western Cattle Egrets and a Red-bellied Woodpecker.  I am still waiting to see what my first new species will be.

I set a goal for myself to see and identify 200 different bird species in 2011.  I started birding in late 2010 and was able to identify 45 different birds.  So if I am going to reach my goal I’ll need to see 155 new types of birds.  Even in a place like South Florida, I think this will be quite a challenge.  I’ll be tracking my progress here on this blog on the Year List page.

So how about you?  What was your first bird?  Perhaps you haven’t identified one yet.  Do you have any birding goals for 2011?  Perhaps you are also tracking your 2011 birds on your blog?  Or maybe you have some tips for us novice birders.  Let us know in the comments below.

Shark Valley, Everglades National Park

Last weekend I loaded up the family and set off for Shark Valley, at the north end of Everglades National Park.  It was an overcast day and we drove through a couple of rain showers to get there, but once we had parked and bought our tram tour tickets the sun peeked out and the remainder of the day was beautiful.

Shark Valley is a great place to observe exotic birds and other wildlife in their natural habitat, because it is really nothing more than two paths running out to an observation tower eight miles deep into the swamp.  Once you’re out there it is wilderness as far as the eye can see.  I’ve been out there several times in the past with my bicycle, but this time we opted for the tram tour, because an eight mile bike trek would probably be too much for my five-year-old to handle.   The tour was narrated by Ranger Mel.  He did an excellent job pointing out animals and educating us about the Everglades’ history, natural features and the challenges it faces.  As a novice birder, I was especially grateful for Mel, because he identified the bird species we saw.

Female Anhinga

Female Anhinga

Anhingas perched on the trees hanging over the deep water areas drying their wings in the sun.  It is easy to distinguish the females from the males, because they have a sandy-white head and crown.  The male Anhingas are almost completely black.

Red-shouldered Hawk

A Red-shouldered Hawk watched us from the high branches of a distant tree, making me wish I had a better camera.

Great Egret

Great Egrets perched atop the little Cypress trees that dot the “River of Grass.”

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron

A Great Blue Heron stalking new hatched alligators, begrudgingly yielded the road as we approached.

In addition to the birds I was able to photograph we also saw Black Vultures hovering overhead ready to perform Nature’s clean up duties.  American Crows as big as ducks observed us closely on our ride in and on our ride out.  Northern Mockingbird flew in hopping and skipping patterns from bush to bush and a lonely Western Osprey hovered high above everything.

My wife and daughter, who were initially somewhat skeptical at the idea of spending an afternoon in the wilderness, ended having a wonderful time.  My daughter said her favorite bird of the day was “the fat one.”  Later, I discovered that she wasn’t referring to me, but the Red-shouldered Hawk, which coincidentally was my favorite bird of the day as well.

Until Next Time,

The Fat One