Sunday, February 15, 2009

Big Cypress National Preserve Exploration

Big Cypress National Preserve Exploration

After having a wonderful and wildlife-rich experience at Shark Valley Slough, our group got back on Tamiami Trail and headed further west through the Miccosukee Reservation, on into Big Cypress Forest. The delineation between slough and forest was clear, the marsh abruptly ended and the swamp began as the Cypress trees began to show themselves. Upon first look one might think that the Cypress trees are dead and/or dying, such is not the case. Cypress Trees are one of our few deciduous trees – meaning they lose their leaves in the fall and stay barren until spring returns. It must be an old habit the trees can’t shake – reminiscent of ancient times or just left over from the evolution of Cypress trees further north; or, maybe our trees have evolved for the habitat in Florida – losing their leaves to benefit the forest floor and their boarders – the epiphytes.
Epiphytes are bundled up high along the tall, skinny trunks of the Cypress trees - finding any nook or cranny they can in order to receive enough sunlight and nutrients to survive.
Wild Pine Bromeliads are flowering this time of year, taking advantage of the increase in sunlight. Their red flowers are beautiful against the grey background of the bare Cypress trees. Spanish moss hangs decoratively all over the branches, dipping elegantly into the water. People who visit here often remark that the Spanish moss in Big Cypress competes with the famous Spanish moss adorning the Oak trees of the South (aka north of Orlando and south of D.C.). Epiphytes are “air-plants” and live connected to the branches of tall trees. They are not parasitic – meaning they don’t “take” anything from the tree, they just share space. Orchids are our most famous air-plants. Big Cypress is famous itself for being the native home to many different types of Orchids. The orchids have almost been wiped out due to illegal foraging and marketing of these beautiful flowers. The book, The Orchid Thief is based on the black market for orchids, as is the movie, “Adaptation”.
As we drove westward the children began noticing the abundance of wildlife hanging out along the canal that runs parallel to the road. Some of the birds are obvious – like the snowy egrets. The trees seem to be a favorite to the snowy egrets; they are prolific and line the branches in large numbers. Less obvious are the Great Blue Herons who stand further back - hidden amongst the trees, the Tri-colored Herons who flit inconspicuously along the canal, and the many other birds who take advantage of the canal. We were lucky enough (especially on Tuesday and Wednesday) to see many Wood Storks – some flying majestically above or standing unsteadily on the high branches of the trees. The more the children looked, the more they began to see, they observed alligator after alligator, big and small, either swimming or lying in the sun on the bank. Then they noticed the turtles – lined up on branches, right next to the gators, or swimming and popping their heads out. We weren’t fortunate enough this trip to see an Otter, but they are known to frequently frolic in the area.
Our next stop was the photo gallery of Clyde Butcher.
His gallery is located on a Cypress Strand.
Cypress Strands are absolutely gorgeous and one of my favorite ecosystems of the area. The strands are created when there is an increase in water flow in that particular area. In this instance it is because the road forms a bridge- allowing for more water to flow down from the north. Tamiami Trail only allows water flow at certain spots along the highway. When there is an increase, the water levels are higher, the trees are more numerous and much larger. The group of larger trees creates a type of island in the swamp – an island of water (especially in the winter when most areas are drying up). From a distance you can see the difference in size more clearly.
The photos in the gallery are phenomenal. Mr. Butcher uses an old-fashioned box camera that he lugs through the swamp, standing (sometimes in waist-deep water) and waiting for the perfect light or the perfect bird. His shots are black and white and are processed in Venice, Florida. See his website: , for more information, he is incredible.

The previous owners of the land were orchid farmers and built paths through a small area of the swamp behind where the gallery now stands. These paths are a great way to explore the cypress swamp without getting wet. The trail winds through a hydric swamp that is almost dried up, passing by many small Cypress trees that are filled with epiphytes.

The mosquitoes love this area to breed their eggs and baby frogs, alligators and water snakes are common residents. On Thursday we were thrilled to meet one of the resident photographers, he was taking photos and offered to show the kids a Brown Water Snake that had been hit by a car and then rescued by a local guide.
The snake is resting on the gallery lands.

After enjoying the beautiful photography and exploring the forest area, we left to our final destination. On Tuesday and Wednesday we went to the Oasis Visitor Center, part of Big Cypress National Preserve. On Thursday I mixed it up a little and took the group to the Kirby Storter boardwalk. The Oasis Visitor Center is a great place to go while touring the Everglades. It is part of the National Park system and provides visitors with a film, a book and gift store, kid’s activities, and a mini museum.

Outside there is a picnic area and a walkway over the canal where you can get a really good look at the alligators, fish – like Alligator Gar, and birds.

We played games and let the kids run their bodies around after a long day in the car, and then we sat down to a challenging version of Everglades Bingo. The kids answered all questions brilliantly and were then awarded with their “Young Everglades Naturalist” awards from our group - ECO, Every Child Outside.

The Kirby Storter hike is beautiful and a new discovery on my part. Wednesday evening after our second trip I decided to check out the boardwalk as I hadn’t been there before. My son and I went on a lovely evening walk and I decided to include the walk in our trip the next day. So, on Thursday, instead of heading to the Oasis Visitor Center, we headed a bit further west and stopped at this beautiful Cypress Prairie.

As we began walking we heard the cry of a Red-shouldered Hawk nearby. After a quick search we realized that there were two beautiful hawks soaring above us, playing in the wind. They may have been dancing for each other as part of a mating ritual, or screaming to scare us away, or just playing in the sky on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. Whatever they were doing, it was a joy to watch them.
The wet prairie is a unique ecosystem in the Everglades. It is mostly dry this time of year, but in the summer it can fill with water. Dotted throughout the grasses are Cypress Domes. Cypress Domes are small islands of Cypress trees that grow in a circle, with the tallest trees or the highest ground in the middle, creating a dome-like appearance. Grasses, such as Muhly Grass, Saw grass – which is actually a sedge, and many other types of grass-like plants surround the Cypress trees, creating the look of a savannah. This habitat is home to wild pigs, Florida Panthers, Florida Black Bear, White-tailed Deer, Rattle-snakes, and many more.
As we walked further in on the boardwalk, we came to the center of a Cypress Dome.
Within there were huge, old Cypress Trees, with knees about 4 or 5 feet tall, telling the story of times when the water-level must have been very high.
The bulging buttresses of the trees themselves also told this tale – a Cypress tree will buttress where the water stops over many years in order to protect the tree from falling over.
As we walked I noticed a group of trees that I couldn’t name.
After consulting my naturalist teacher I think they may be Pop Ash.
They don’t regularly grow here from what I’ve learned…nature works in mysterious ways.
At the end of the boardwalk trail there is a pond. It is extremely shallow now, at this time of year, but must fill up with life in the summer rains. We were entertained while there by a juvenile Great Blue Heron standing and waiting for a fish and by a gluttonous Anhinga – who was determined to eat as many fish as possible. In the span of 5 minutes I think the Anhinga ate between 7 and 10 fish! It was an hysterical sight. Some of the fish were almost as big as the bird.

After looping back, we stopped and sat under the Chickee - a traditional shelter built by the Miccosukke and Seminole Natives. They use Cypress trunks as the structure and fronds of the Cabbage, or Sabal Palm for the thatch. They are a wonderful place to sit and get out of the heat or the rain. The temperature is usually 5-10 degrees cooler. We played bingo and watched as a Young Everglades Naturalist certificate was rescued from the claws of the Saw grass.

Our trip was fantastic and the kids were amazing! I can’t wait to go back!

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