02 January 2013

2013 SOUTH & EAST COAST Everglades FL 7 - Panthers and Gators and Birds, Oh My

Happy New Year, Y'all!

THE STATS:  145 miles driven today with 3'17'' moving time. Right now sitting on zero elevation, in other words, sea level. Geez, couldn't help it. At wake-up, it was 68 degrees but felt like 88 as it was so humid. Sunny all day with a high of 79.

This was a FABULOUS way to spend New Year's Day and this will be a long blog entry. So glad we don't have hang-overs!!


In hindsight, this was one of the most fascinating days of this trip. We recently watched an interesting special (actually six 1-hour shows) hosted by British personality Stephen Fry, titled Stephen Fry in America. He traveled in a London taxi to all 50 US states to look at interesting places in each state. One state after another and one sight after another, we  discovered we had visited nearly 100% of those places. It made us realize how lucky we have been in our travels over the years. FYI ... he also took a Bourbon tour like we had experienced just a few days earlier.

But two places we had not been were a "body farm" (a research facility where human decomposition can be studied under varied conditions for forensic anthropology and crime analysis) also in Tennessee, and the Florida Everglades. It is not my intention to ever go near a body farm (although Mike said he could do it), but the Everglades has been on our go-to list for a long time.

There are two Everglades routes marked on the map. The newer, Alligator Alley, is along I-75 and we were not sure how much wildlife we would see from the freeway. So we opted for Hwy-41 -- the older, more southerly, 2-lane blacktop Tami-Ami Trail route. Good decision. It is designated as a Scenic Route on the map with speed limits ranging from 60 MPH by day to 45 by night and less in special wildlife areas. Our Bonita Springs hotel was a block off Hwy 41, so that made it an added no-brainer.

We wandered a bit through city traffic until the town of Royal Palm Hammock (hammock means tree island). Up to that point lots of golf courses, tropical flora (particularly azalea and bougainvillea), large outdoor art (full size elephant family, herd of running horses), lots of shopping. From there to almost Miami were various parks and preserves including Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. We stopped at the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center (west end) and, with the help of a knowledgeable and chatty Ranger, learned of all the hot spots and places to explore. There was also a taxidermied Florida panther there. I thought all panthers were black, but this species has more cougar colors. 

Well, unbeknownst to us, THIS was a VERY hot spot itself. Out back was a manatee viewing area. We learned so much about manatees, which I will try to review succinctly. After conception they take two years to be born and two more years before they can have babies. So with this long maturity, we can see why there are dwindling numbers of this cool animal. They are one of the few mammals that are comfortable in salt and fresh water. This particular group meanders through six miles of waterway from the ocean to this pond for fresh drinking water. It is also warmer in these waters for the youngsters. Water is saltier as it goes deeper and fresher near the top. Manatees do not breech like whales, but mostly stay under water with just their noses peeking up for air. That is also why so many are killed in boat accidents. In my photo you can see the lighter body shapes in the water and just the noses. Still a thrill.

Next stop was designated (by somebody) as the smallest post office in the US, at Ochopee FL within the park. Not sure who decides, but seems we have seen smaller ones (one being attached to the General Store in San Gregorio in CA).   Zip is 34141-9998 and it is fully functional. Not open on New Year's Day, so we could not get a post mark. Anyway, very cute.

Our third stop was a boardwalk path into the Glades. At the end was supposed to be a natural alligator hang out hole. It was at least a 2-mile round trip walk and as we trudged along (and my knee starting to ache) we asked those returning if they saw many alligators. Everyone said "none," so we did an about face and decided to check out the next area.

This recommended spot was nearer the parking lot. It was a boardwalk overlooking a swampy pond. Many birds, low in the trees, and not nervous about the half-dozen or so gaters leisurely slithering along out in the pond. Also, saw a few turtles and butterflies nearby. This was cool, but the best was yet to come.

Moving onward down the highway Trail we saw "Watch for ..." signs. These included panther, alligators, snakes, turtles, raccoons, and more. We did see huge buzzards eating away at a carcass in the middle of the road. They did not fly away until we were almost upon them, daring traffic to disturb their meal. We also saw what looked like a broken tree limb at first, but turned out to be a dead python.

There were also signs designating an animal warning system. Turns out there are laser-like "notifiers" that are about mid-calf high on the sides of the road. At night, if a gator or panther or other animal crosses the laser path, warning lights will turn on for automobiles to be cautious of crossing wildlife. Very cool.

Burmese pythons are a real problem in this area. They are feeding off much of the wildlife, including alligators!! Would not have guessed that. People who had purchased them for pets over the years, have released them here when they grew too big to handle in their homes. This is a super-invasive threat to the natural ecosystem of this park. The problem is so bad that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission set-up the first Python Challenge. It goes from Jan 12-Feb 10, 2013. Even though 1,000 hunters had permits, by Feb 1 only 41 pythons had been "harvested." They are very hard to find because they have the perfect camouflage for this environment.

As we continued down the Tami-Ami Trail, we were awestruck by the HUGE  numbers of birds. Every color, every size, every shape. We were particularly intrigued by the long legged white birds -- egrets or herons, I guess. We enjoy birds, but have never become "watchers." But we decided if we lived in this area, we would definitely become birders. I could not stop saying, "How can there be this many birds in one place?" Along the way and down into the Keys, we saw signs designating this as the "Great Florida Birding Trail."

Our last stop was the the Oasis Visitor Center near the east end of the park. Here was the most spellbinding sight -- at least 50 alligators lay sunning themselves along a natural canal that was situated between a boardwalk and the highway. Hordes of people on the wooden planks were maybe 5' max above these free-roaming gators. The gators were oblivious to the excitement of screaming kids, and the oohs and aahs of those older. They were every size from three or four feet to probably 18 feet, climbing or resting in piles of leathery hide. It is a mystery why these strange animals could be anywhere in the 729,000 acres of this park, or beyond, and yet this is where they hang out. And it was not because folks were feeding them, as that is illegal. The whole scene was mesmerizing and surreal.

At some point we had to leave. Not sure how long we oogled, but Mike had to practically drag me away. Back in the car we had been directed to an alternate dirt road for a more wild and scenic view for the last 20 miles of our visit here. As it turned out the road was a dusty washboard and the only wildlife we saw was a raccoon scurrying into the brush. We could only go about 15 MPH and figured it would take 1-1/2 hours to get to the end of this side road. We were starved, so back-tracked to the main highway.

Later we read that at the Oasis Welcome Center there had been problems with vultures eating windshield wipers, sun-roof sealers, and other rubbery parts off of cars in the parking lot. They even offered Anti-Vulture Kits, canvas and straps, to place on your car to prevent damage. We didn't know about this and had not protected our car, but luckily had no damage.

We saw several Seminole Indian villages on our journey back to civilization. Some of their buildings had traditional thatched roofs. We saw many air boat ride concessions. We had planned to do this, but time just got away from us. We saw construction of a new roadway being built with white crushed coral as a foundation. There were farms (corn and cotton), lots of nurseries (palm, mango, and other ornate trees and plants), statuary / pottery stores (none to beat our San Fran favorite, Silvestri's, and no Lady Liberty-s), and produce stands galore.

When we finally got to the Keys area, it was getting late and we were tired. We arrived at the Key Largo Courtyard Marriott and were pleasantly surprised. We had a double room with two balconies overlooking the pool and canal filled with cabin cruisers. It was across the canal from where we had stayed with Joe and Cheryl DesN ten years earlier on a previous birthday. It hadn't changed much and we were happy campers here for two nights.

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If you have visited any of these places, we would love to hear your comments. Or send us recommendations of places we should not miss.