Window On Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Having traveled through 49 of the 50 states, we rank the Florida Everglades among the top places for plant and animal diversity. Oddly enough, Everglades National Park has only two seasons: wet and dry. In southern Florida, that translates to deluge and drought. The rainy season starts in late May and continues through September. Hurricane season can begin as early as May and last until mid-November, soaking an already drenched and dripping area. We both love rain, but an average of 60 inches a year, with most falling in the middle of the summer, is really a bit much.
But thanks to all that precipitation, the intense green lasts all through the winter. What’s more, without the rain and even the occasional hurricane, the Everglades we know and love wouldn’t exist, and it certainly couldn’t support the current variety of flora and fauna.
Botanists have identified more than 2,000 species of plants in the Everglades, of which more than 120 are trees. And, of course, plenty of plant life out there has yet to be identified. Varied habitats enable the park to house 25 species of mammals, more than 400 species of birds, 60 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 125 species of fish. Wow! Where else can you find such extraordinary beauty and such a diversity of living things? Okay, we admit that we didn’t find out the number of insect species, probably because we didn’t really want to know. But if you visit, do take plenty of bug repellant. Mosquitoes must outnumber every other living thing in parts of the Everglades. Our rule has always been to explore the areas a few states north and wait for a cold snap. Then we head south and can chase birds in the buggiest parts of the park in relative comfort. (We once saw a sign at the entrance to the Flamingo area of the park stating that it contained 43 species of mosquitoes, but only 13 of them bit humans.)
One of the first things you’ll notice when you arrive in the Everglades is the wide expanse of sawgrass prairie. Writing before we were old enough to read, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, in 1947, called this part of the Everglades a “River of Grass.” Well said. Before Florida was so developed, this “river” ran 120 miles from Lake Okeechobee south to the Gulf of Mexico, spanning 50 miles across but less than 1 foot deep.
Sawgrass is an appropriate name for one of the Everglades’ most prevalent types of foliage. Rubbing against one of its serrated stalks does feel like you’ve dragged a handsaw across your flesh. The park maintains several places where visitors can take a long view of the sawgrass. In these spots, little hammocks rise like small islands in the prairie. All it takes is a small amount of dry land for the miniature forests to sprout. Trees like the gumbo-limbo and the strangler fig grow tall, providing cover for deer, raccoons, hawks, owls, and cute little marsh rabbits.
When you visit a tree-covered area, look up. The epiphyte plants that live up high aren’t feeding on the trees they cling to; they draw their water and nutrients from the air. If you’re lucky, you might even see native orchids growing and flowering there.
Given that the highest point in the park is a mere 10 feet above sea level, it’s remarkable that such a range of habitats has developed: sawgrass prairie, hardwood hammock, pineland, mangrove swamp, some jungle, and nearly all of Florida Bay.
One of the Everglades’ signature species, the American alligator, is the largest reptile in North America. Males of this species can grow to 16 feet or longer “” twice the size of the females. However, when we were riding our bicycles along the road at Shark Valley and a gator dashed across just in front of us, the critter’s length wasn’t foremost in our minds. We were far more interested in whether it was hungry. Fortunately, the gator didn’t pause. Later we found that for short distances a gator can move at nearly 30 miles per hour. We can’t ride our bikes that fast!
One of the main reasons bird-watchers and bird lovers migrate to the Everglades during the dry season is that a tremendous number of wading birds (herons, egrets, ibis, storks, spoonbills, etc.) congregate there from roughly November through May. It’s tough to even imagine 50,000 to 100,000 wading birds eating and preening in the park’s freshwater and estuarine wetlands. Beginning with the shallowest areas “” those that dry out first once the summer rains end “” the flocks of waders follow the retreating water, looking for trapped and concentrated numbers of fish, crayfish, prawns, and other aquatic creatures.
As the marshes dry, wading birds gather into nesting colonies. The larger, long-range species, such as common egrets and wood storks, form colonies as early as December or January. Smaller waders with smaller foraging ranges wait until March to gather. Either way, all must finish mating, nesting, and rearing young before the onset of the summer rains. Once the marshes are flooded again, the “bird food” spreads out and most of the wading birds disperse northward, out of the Everglades. By late summer, the number of wading birds in the park may be as low as 5,000 to 10,000, a mere 10 percent of their previous numbers.
Humans usually don’t wait that long to migrate. They know when the temperature and humidity will rise, and plan to be gone by then.