Sunday, January 25, 2009

Shark Valley Slough Exploration

As I look back at last week's adventures, I'm filled with such a satisfied feeling. Our ECO classes had such wonderful, exciting day trips to the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve, many of our explorers had never been there and had no idea that it was even there. I'm so happy to be the facilitator of such an experience.

As we began our journey and headed south on US 27 and then Krome Ave. - HWY 997, we were met with the very dramatic scene of thousands of dead Melaleuca trees. These snags are the result of a very expensive and time-consuming effort to rid the Everglades of this pesty tree. Each tree has been cut in the middle, injected with herbicide and left to die out. I know it sounds horrible, but it is necessary. The trees are also known as Punk Trees; we called them Paper Trees when I was a child. They hail from Australia and are adapted to drought conditions - they were brought here on purpose for that reason. Their job was to help drain the marsh so it could be used for farming, etc. Once we realized we needed to save some of the Everglades, we were left with Melaleuca and Australian Pine. Now they are a scourge and the cut and squirt process is the most successful as of yet - they spread seed under pressure and under fire. Anyway, it makes for dreary surreal landscape.
The birds love the snags. There are a large number of Red-shouldered Hawks and Ospreys, scanning the horizon from up high. Often, the Iguanas are sunning themselves along the canal and in the branches. You will also see vultures spreading their wings, egrets, and Anhingas. At sunset, along 997, the birds all line up, faces to the sun - there were about 500 Boat-tailed Grackels up there one day.

Our first stop was along Tamiami Trail, just west of the Miccosukee casino.

The Miccosukee - - have their reservations along Tamiami Trail as you drive west with their signature Chickees lined up. The Miccosukee and the Seminoles came here over 300 years ago-branching out from the Creek and Muskogee tribes. They are considered sovereign nations as they did not surrender to the American government when trying to be forced to moved to reservations west of the Mississippi river.

We stopped at the water gate just west of the casino. I wanted to show everyone an overview of the slough and give them an idea of how the water management system works,19853430&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL , and how the tamiami trail ( ) was built. Here at the eastern edge of the Shark River slough you can see the expanse of the sawgrass ( ) , see that the water is deeper in some areas, and see the tree islands dotting the landscape. A slough is a deeper area that allows for more water flow. It is a kind of valley - with only a difference in elevation of a few inches. The gradation in south Florida is so minimal that it would take a drop of water one year to flow from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay - but it IS flowing, it IS a river.

On Wednesday and Thursday, while at the water gate, we saw an eerie site - upside down frog legs moving in the current - no frog heads attached. I realized later that they must be from a frogging mission -someone caught frogs to be eaten, skinned them and threw the skins in the water. They filled with water and floated upside down to make a very strange garden.

After getting a good view and introduction to the water system we drove further west on Tamiami Trail - keeping a lookout for alligators and birds. We turned left to enter the Shark Valley Visitor Center of Everglades National Park - As we drove in we got to see many alligators, herons, and other birds immediately as we entered the park.

We took wonderful walks along the canal, spotting loads of wildlife - the most exciting being the alligators, especially the one that slithered out of the water and walked around.

The scene along the canal reminded me of a possible scene at a mall- large amounts of teenagers -in this case teenage alligators - hanging out with each other. Most of the alligators were pretty young, some probably from last year's clutches. Despite their age, they were a site to be seen. We had to really watch the little children because I don't think they thought the alligators were always real.

My favorite animal was the juvenile Little Blue Heron. The Little Blue is white for the first year of its life. Some feel that is the case so that the young bird can hang out with the Snowy Egrets and follow them around for food. So, why doesn't the Little Blue follow grown-up Little Blue Herons? I don't know - I guess there is more success with Snowy Egrets because there are more of them. Well, I loved this baby bird because he kept trying to land on the lily pads to catch a fish and would fall in the water a little bit and was just so darn cute.

We saw so many birds: one Limpkin, several Little Blue Gnatcatchers, two juvenile Little Blue Herons, several adult Little Blue Herons, many Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Anhingas, and Cormorants, many, many Snowy Egrets, and hundreds of Ibis -on Tuesday hundreds of Ibis burst out of the trees and covered the sky for a few minutes - it was an awesome site, we also saw Red Shouldered Hawks and Ospreys.

The next part of our nature walk was the Bobcat Boardwalk Trail. This lovely trail meanders through a Bay head - a tree island in the middle of the sawgrass marsh. The Bay Head is named after the Red Bay, which is the dominant tree of this particular island. If Willow was more dominant it would be called a Willow Head. Now, I thought it was pretty close, there was an awful lot of Willow growing. We learned that: Willow provides relief for pain (aka aspirin), you can eat Coco Plum, Pond Apple, Sawgrass Tubers (if you have gloves), Cattail, Pickerel Weed, Duck Potato - all plants that were growing on the island. We learned that Periphyton is the beginning of the food web here in the marsh - it's an algae that provides food and cover to: baby fish, turtles, crabs, crawfish, and mosquito larvae. An amazing thing about these islands is the cover they provide for wildlife, even the wet islands like the Bay Head. Alligators build their warm compost heap nests and lay their eggs, birds of all kinds roost in the trees, and mammals have dry ground (well, sometimes) to find food. The Seminole and Miccosukkee tribes successfully avoided surrender by hiding out on these islands and then ambushing the soldiers as they came by.

The children were incredibly awed and excited. They couldn't move fast enough to see what bird or fish or animal we'd see next. They are already avid and achieved bird watchers and botanists and are itching to learn more.

This ends part one of our Everglades Exploration, the Big Cypress Swamp is next.

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