This Audubon preserve in southwest Florida gives visitors a chance to explore nature on its own terms.
By Sandra Reed
When you visit southern Florida and the Naples area, be sure to include a trip to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. It has been called the crown jewel of the Audubon sanctuary system, and one visit will confirm all the accolades. Corkscrew Swamp is a wonderful place to enjoy Florida’s natural environment.
This area was set aside to preserve the largest stand of old-growth bald cypresses on the North American continent. It’s a haven for birds, rare plants, and fascinating mammals. A 2.25-mile elevated boardwalk extends through the sanctuary’s various habitats, which also include pine woods and wet prairie.
The swamp is home to a variety of flowers, too, including the rare ghost orchid, which made an appearance this past July after not being seen there for 12 years. Animals such as raccoons, squirrels, small lizards, alligators, and turtles also populate the area.
There is no one best time to visit Corkscrew Swamp, as the flora and fauna change with the season. However, late fall, winter, and early spring may be the best times to see birds, because both permanent and migratory species are present.
Audubon sanctuaries are designed as places to observe birds in their natural habitat. There are no cages or invisible fences here. But you don’t need to know a robin from a warbler to enjoy a visit, and you might discover a new hobby along the way. The only thing needed to enjoy the walk is a pair of comfortable shoes, perhaps some binoculars, and a guidebook to the plants and animals you are likely to see. You can buy an inexpensive pamphlet describing the major dwellers here when you purchase your ticket. A pleasant surprise is that you can leave the insect repellent at home. Mosquito fish living in the swamp are natural predators of mosquitoes, and the sanctuary seems to be free of the biting pests.
Before starting the boardwalk tour, spend some time enjoying the exhibits in the Blair Audubon Center. Be sure to visit the multimedia program in the Swamp Theater. This entertaining presentation takes you through the seasonal and daily changes that occur in the swamp, as well as some of the birds and animals that you can expect to see there.
The Blair Center also has an interesting nature shop that you will enjoy browsing even if you don’t intend to purchase anything. An art gallery at the center features photographs taken at Corkscrew Swamp. And, sandwiches and drinks are available in a lunchroom there. You also can bring your own picnic and enjoy it on the grounds.
Food is off-limits on the boardwalk, as you might expect. Those who cannot walk the entire boardwalk may take a shortcut that reduces the walk to approximately 1 mile. Wheelchairs and strollers are permitted on the boardwalk.
As you begin your tour, remember to speak softly. This will allow you to see more and also is a kindness to others. In the dense forest of the swamp, birds are often heard before they are seen. As you walk along the boardwalk, listen for their calls or, in the case of woodpeckers, for the tapping sound they make as they drill into the trees looking for food. Woodpeckers may be your first sightings on the trail. Pileated woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers are often seen.
Volunteer guides are often posted on the boardwalk to answer your questions about the identities of birds or other creatures as you stroll along. If you have printed a copy of the wildlife checklist from the swamp’s Web site, you can keep a list of all you see (the swamp’s Web address appears below). If you encounter a group of people who all seem to be looking at the same thing, walk up and join them. They may have spotted an unusual species, and you can share in their excitement. That’s how we saw an American bittern “” rare at Corkscrew Swamp “” and a black-crowned night heron, which was rare to us but quite common there. Two hundred species of birds live at the swamp, including ibis, egrets, herons, and the endangered wood stork, which nests within the sanctuary. Longtime birders and newcomers alike are sure to see some of their old favorites as well as birds that are new or uncommon to them.
What else might you expect to find at Corkscrew Swamp? Well, this is Florida, so be alert for alligators enjoying an afternoon in the sun. They are most common in an area of the bald cypress forest known as the Lettuce Lakes (named for the water lettuce that grows there). Look, too, for turtles and large wading birds. Beneath the surface, small fish or frogs provide food for the birds. You may see red-shouldered hawks in this area, also, as they also feed on the abundant life the lakes provide.
We have never seen large animals such as deer or the Florida black bear at Corkscrew. They may be, as the theater presentation suggests, nocturnal “” or we simply were not at the right place at the right time.
You also will enjoy some of the colorful plants that brighten up the swamp. If you bought the pamphlet with your ticket, that will help; also, some plants are designated by markers along the boardwalk. Everyone will be impressed by the huge bald cypress trees, some more than 400 years old. Some are up to 130 feet high and 25 feet wide.
The swamp is the headwaters of what locals called Corkscrew Creek, thus named because of its many twists and turns on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. This creek is fed by rainfall, and the amount of water in the swamp during the winter season is determined by the amount of rainfall in areas to the north. When the water is high, fewer large wading birds are seen, especially in the Lettuce Lakes, but they can be found fishing elsewhere in the park. This gives you an opportunity to focus on the small birds, including warblers, vireos, gnatcatchers, and others. High water also makes the swamps themselves a thing of beauty. They are wonderful reflective pools for the vegetation growing within.
Your last or first stop at Corkscrew may take you to the Living Machine exhibit. Since the Audubon Society believes in preserving and protecting nature, you may be interested in its unusual wastewater treatment system. Using natural processes, wastewater is purified and 90 percent of it is recycled back into the toilets. Rest assured, however: water for drinking does not come from this system!
Be sure to stop at Corkscrew Swamp. It is an idyllic place that you may want to visit again and again. It’s not just a sanctuary for birds, but for humans as well. The hectic pace of life is soon forgotten as you begin your stroll along the boardwalk.
The Great Florida Birding Trail
The Great Florida Birding Trail is a 2,000-mile self-guided highway trail designed to promote bird-watching and conservation education, and to enhance Florida’s bird habitat. There are 445 designated bird-watching sites along the trail. The trail opened its final segment at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in 2006.
A stop at Corkscrew Swamp is a great way to introduce yourself to the Great Florida Birding Trail and explore some of its length. You can obtain copies of the “Guide To The South Florida Birding Trail,” which includes this area, and learn more about bird-watching at the sanctuary by visiting www.myfwc.com/recreation/requests.asp; or by calling (850) 488-8755. For general information about the birding trail, visit www.floridabirdingtrail.com.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s boardwalk is open from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. October 1 through April 10, and until 7:30 p.m. the remainder of the year. Entry to the boardwalk stops one hour prior to closing. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for full-time college students, and $4 for children ages 6 to 18; free to children under 6. Auto parking is free and ample; free motorhome parking is available on a large, grassy section of the parking area.
The swamp is easily accessible from Naples, Fort Myers, or Bonita Springs. From Interstate 75, take exit 111 (Naples Park, County Road 846) and travel east onto Immokalee Road. Go approximately 15 miles and turn left onto Sanctuary Road; this road makes a 90-degree left turn. At the end of the paved road, look for the entrance sign and turn right into the parking lot. For more information, contact:
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
375 Sanctuary Road W.
Naples, FL 34120
This area has many campgrounds. For more listings, please check your campground directory or the Business Directory, published online at FMCA.com and in the January and June issues of FMC.
Bonita Lake RV Resort
26325 Old U.S. 41
Bonita Springs, FL 34135
Crystal Lake RV Resort, C10946
14960 Collier Blvd.
Naples, FL 34119
Marco-Naples Hitching Post Travel Resort, C1904
100 Barefoot WIlliams Road
Naples, FL 34113
Neapolitan Cove RV Park, C10937
3790 E. Tamiami Trail
Naples, FL 34112
Silver Lakes RV Resort and Golf Club
1001 Silver Lakes Blvd.
Naples, FL 34114