We had a good start to 2018 after getting a chance to explore the Everglades and Cypress swamps of south Florida. Home to alligators, anacondas and hundreds of species of birds and insects, these wet-prairie ecosystems of Florida feature a great variety of wildlife.
We flew into Ft. Lauderdale and then drove to Homestead, which is a farmland couple hours from the airport and called “gateway to the keys”. Situated in the middle of nowhere, it features an alligator farm where controlled breeding and feeding of alligators is carried out. The farm has informational demos on alligator feeding, snake shows and also airboat rides. Airboats are something peculiar to swamp ecosystems. These are loud. The massive V8 engine gives the boat enough power to glide over the swamps. We went into the marsh land where we could see blue herons, Iguanas and lots of wild crocodiles. This is usually the easiest way to go deeper into the marshes unless you are up for a walking adventure.
We sure were. The next day we signed up for a swamp hike at the Big Cypress national preserve. This hike went deep into the marshes were the water levels rose to our waists. The ranger, Rick, was super informative and gave us a rundown of the ecosystem as we explored it. The building blocks of this marshy ecosystem are the paraphytes which, being moist all year, hold all the nutrients and the eggs of the insects during the dry months. As it starts raining, these eggs hatch into insects, which then brings birds to the area, which in turn is food for alligators. Walking into the marshes is challenging. You are blind to what is beneath you. The ecosystem features limestone rocks which can get dissolved as you apply pressure by stepping on them – resulting in a big hole that you sink into. Walking sticks do help when this happens.
The water levels in the marshes can vary, but usually is pretty high that camping is not an option. For spending the night hikers look for uplands. Its not easy to locate uplands, areas of higher elevation, just by looking around for higher grounds. The area is flat and here the definition of elevation differs from the traditional one. A few feet above is called an upland and here the water levels are low. This upland can be easily located by looking for palm trees. The vegetation in the localized uplands changes drastically – from Cypress, mangroves to coconut palms. As the water levels are low, this is considered a good place to camp at nights.. but one should be aware that these uplands are also home for alligators basking in the sun.
During this walk, we saw lot of birds, orchids, paraphytes, epiphytes, located uplands and alligator caves, where gators come for breeding. Overall it was pretty adventurous but mesmerizing experience.
Following the hike we took the “loop road” back to our hotel. This is a 20 mile unpaved road off Rt 41 which goes deep into the everglades and Cyprus preserves. There is a lot of wildlife to see along this path and the most unforgettable experience was witnessing a snake hunt by red headed hawk. The hawk dived right in front of us, picked up a snake and went on a tree branch to have his lunch. All this happened in couple seconds.
This was nature at its best!