The Florida Everglades: It’s All About the Birds

As my wife and I approached the entrance to Everglades National Park, our hearts were beating with childish excitement. It was the third year in a row that we had escaped the harsh Buffalo winter to visit the tropical paradise of south Florida. But it’s not just the weather that leads us back to Everglades. For my wife Maris, an ethnobotanist and plant enthusiast, it’s the subtropical flora. For me, it’s all about the birds.

The 1,900-square-kilometer (734-square-mile) wetland known as Everglades National Park boasts more than 350 species of birds. Thick mangrove forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, shady cypress domes, slash pinelands, and sandy beaches all contribute to the Everglades’ ecosystem. This diversity allows for wading birds, shorebirds, water birds, birds of prey, woodpeckers, and passerines to coexist in south Florida’s tropical birding utopia: the Everglades.

Before entering the park, we stopped in Homestead, Florida, the closest town to the Everglades, to stock up on necessities for our trip. A week of tent camping can be quite rustic in the Everglades, and because our days were going to be packed with birding adventures, we stocked up on groceries, snacks, sunscreen, and as many gallon jugs of water as would fit into our trunk. After all, the Everglades can easily reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of February. Conversely, temperatures can drop down into the low 40s at night.

On our way to the park, we spotted multiple American kestrels and northern mockingbirds perched on power lines, overlooking the vast farmland. In the early 20th century, about fifty percent of the Everglades was cleared for agriculture and urban development. What remained of the Everglades was dedicated a national park by President Truman in 1947. The creation of the National Park System in 1872 has provided our country with numerous national treasures, and the Florida Everglades is at the top of the list of parks to visit.

Upon entering the park, the scenery changed from farmland to infinite rivers of grass. Our childish excitement morphed into a sense of awe as a wood stork gracefully glided overhead, welcoming us to this magnificent park. We wanted to get birding right away, so we headed to our first stop: Anhinga Trail.

Anhinga Trail is located just four miles from the park entrance and serves as a great introduction to the birds of the Everglades. Situated on the Taylor Slough, the Anhinga Trail is a paved walkway and boardwalk that allows visitors to experience the wildlife in a freshwater sawgrass marsh. We saw great blue herons hunt for catfish, anhingas dry their wings, and tricolored herons elegantly run around, while alligators lazily bathed in the sun. This was a great place to see great egrets, little blue herons, and green herons. Every so often, a purple gallinule would emerge from the tall sawgrass, clomping around the marsh with its oversized feet. We were lucky enough to see an American bittern sticking its neck straight up and gently swaying back and forth, mimicking the tall grass. The Anhinga Trail offers magnificent opportunities for both experienced and amateur photographers, because the boardwalk allows for close access to the birds without disrupting their behavior in their natural habitat.

After we spent hours of birding at Anhinga Trail, the sun began to set. We still needed to set up our tent at our campsite, so we headed to Long Pine Key Campground, our favorite campsite, just a few miles down from Anhinga Trail.

Located in the unique habitat of the slash pine forests, Long Pine Key Campground is a great spot for birding. In the early morning, we were awakened by the energetic mews of gray catbirds. Brown thrashers and eastern towhees were flying from one thicket to the next. Two northern cardinals foraged for food in the brushy undergrowth just beside our tent. And, in the distance, we heard the drumming of pileated woodpeckers. Pine warblers also love this area, as they flit around in the slash pines in search of insects. Eastern meadowlarks grace the open grassy areas just outside the pine forests. Bird activity was amazing at Long Pine Key, but tended to calm down after the early morning.

After the early buzz of excitement at Long Pine Key, we grabbed our binoculars and field guides and took off for our next destination. One of my favorite things about the Everglades is driving along the main road (Route 9336) and seeing the landscape change from grassy sloughs to pine forests to cypress domes to mangrove forests. All of these ecosystems offer new opportunities for birding, even from the side of the forty-mile road. There are many stop-off points to view wildlife, including Pa-hay-okee Overlook, named after the Seminole people’s word for grassy river.

The Pa-hay-okee Overlook is a 0.2-mile trail that leads to a beautiful vista: an unspoiled view of the vastness of the Everglades. Although the view is extraordinary, it’s the road leading to the overlook that really makes it worth it.

Dwarf cypress domes line the road to Pa-hay-okee Overlook. These mini ecosystems, often overlooked, offer a great opportunity to watch wading birds hunt for fish. In one dwarf cypress dome, I saw multiple snowy egrets, a tricolored heron, and an inconspicuous American bittern hunting for fish among the tall sawgrass. Meanwhile, a flock of white ibis was watching from the treetops. I was also surprised to see a baby alligator hanging out! Alligators often nest in “alligator holes” within these cypress domes, because the domes retain water, even during the dry season. A baby alligator means a mama alligator is close by, so keep sharp!

After Pa-hay-okee, our next birding destination was Paurotis Pond, a fifteen-minute drive away. Paurotis Pond, named after the paurotis palm, is located at the edge of sawgrass prairie and mangrove swamp and is one of the largest nesting and roosting sites in the Everglades. Hundreds, if not thousands, of birds gather there in colonies during the dry season. This location was our best chance to see wading birds nesting, but the nesting sites were so far away that our binoculars and camera lenses didn’t give us a close view of any of the nests. Long camera lenses (up to 800mm), accompanied by a tripod, or long-range digiscopes are essential for quality viewing of the roosts at Paurotis Pond.

The real beauty of Paurotis Pond was watching the roseate spoonbills, wood storks, and great egrets fly overhead. This can be a great place to see swallow-tailed kites soaring over the pond in summer; they return from the tropics in early- to mid-March.

While my eyes were fixed on roseate spoonbills flying overhead, I completely ignored the tree right in front of me, until I heard the sharp tcheck of a yellow-rumped warbler. With my attention turned to the yellow-rumped warbler, I discovered a black-and-white warbler and blue-gray gnatcatcher, as well, leaping from branch to branch. Even though the large wading birds get most of the attention in the Everglades, don’t forget to look for the smaller birds. Wintering warblers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and white-eyed vireos can be rather common, but easily overlooked. That’s the beauty of the Everglades: Birds are everywhere!

The next day, we drove to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and signed up for a ranger-led Slough Slog hike into the cypress domes. With walking sticks in hand, we headed into the hidden world of a cypress dome with ten other brave individuals and the ranger. The group tour offered a great chance to experience this unique Everglades ecosystem first-hand, in knee-deep water. Cypress domes form in depressions within a slough where precipitation is trapped and drainage is poor. Within the resulting stagnant pools, bald cypress grow, with older trees inhabiting the deeper, more central areas and younger individuals growing around the dome’s margin. Because of their unique characteristics, they’re home to many interesting species, and I was ready for some special sightings. But after an hour of thumping around in knee-deep water with no bird sightings, I was ready to call it quits. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bulky shape up in the trees. My heart skipped a beat as I looked up… a barred owl was quietly watching us from the treetop! Our group stood in amazement as the owl gazed back at us. After about ten minutes, we forged on. The barred owl sighting definitely made the Slough Slog a worthwhile hike!

After changing into dry clothes, we headed to Mrazek Pond. Named after an early park naturalist, Mrazek Pond is a freshwater pond surrounded by mangrove forests. When the water level is just right and the fish are plentiful, Mrazek Pond can be the most exciting birding site in North America. More than 500 American white pelicans, snowy egrets, great egrets, roseate spoonbills, wood storks, and waterfowl flock to this pond to enjoy a buffet of fish and other pond dwellers. This spectacle usually lasts just a few weeks in late winter, but is really determined by rainfall.

Unfortunately, we missed the amazing feeding spectacle at Mrazek Pond. It was not devoid of bird life, though. We saw green-winged teal, pied-billed grebes, American coots, and a belted kingfisher.

We began the next morning by heading straight to Eco Pond. Eco Pond is located at the southern end of Route 9336, and it’s the last drop-off point before reaching the Flamingo campground. Surrounding the pond is an unpaved 0.5-mile trail with a viewing dock built over the pond. It also offers some of the most diverse species of birds in the Everglades.

Eco-Pond was bustling with bird activity! Rafts of American white pelicans were cruising around the pond, dipping their large pouches into the water. Pileated woodpeckers clutched onto the top of the towering snags in the middle of the pond. A white juvenile little blue heron was standing motionless with an outstretched neck, searching for fish in front of him. Families of black-necked stilts were gliding across the water as though they were skating, and a great crested flycatcher was perched high up in a tree. We spotted green herons, black-crowned night-herons, snowy egrets, and white ibis.

Halfway along the trail at Eco Pond, a short path leads out to a coastal prairie. Covered with saltwort and glasswort, this open prairie is a great location to see northern harriers, red-shouldered hawks, and owls.

On our way out of Eco Pond, a few folks told us of painted bunting sightings at the entrance of Eco Pond. Our curiosity was sparked. We waited and watched for ten minutes. We sighted a prairie warbler, a female American redstart, and sure enough, we saw a male and a female painted bunting foraging for food in dense cover. Painted buntings are winter residents of the Everglades.

Down the road from Eco Pond is the Flamingo Visitor Center, which includes a campground, a marina, canoe rentals, and a restaurant. Brackish water allows for crocodiles and manatees to be the main source of attraction here, but the shorebirds and water birds attract the birding fanatics. Multiple osprey nests are built atop nest platforms, telephone poles, channel markers, and trees. In late winter and early spring, ospreys return to their nests with fish. From the marina, Maris and I watched a mother osprey feed her chick the fresh catch of the day. It was a truly extraordinary sight, especially given that the nest was located only a few feet away from the canoe rental stand!

Flamingo is an awesome birding location. “Scoops” of black skimmers, brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, white ibis, and ring-billed gulls flock here during low tide. We saw magnificent frigatebirds sailing high in the skies, and we even saw a bald eagle following a pod of soaring American white pelicans. Greater flamingos have also been seen here, which probably explains how the visitor center got its name.

After a week of birding in the welcomed Florida heat, it was time for Maris and me to return to the snowy Buffalo winter. As we left, a wood stork flew over our car, as if to send us off with good tidings. Perhaps it was the same one who had greeted us? With new birds to add to our life list and a few bug bites and sunburns, we reluctantly said good-bye to the Everglades. Until next year.

If You Go

Sleeping  accommodations:

The lodge and cabins at Flamingo have been torn down. Overnight visitors to the Everglades must camp. The nearest lodging is near Homestead, Florida.

There are three camping areas within Everglades National Park:
Flamingo Campground, Long Pine Key Campground, and backcountry campsites.

Flamingo Campground is located on Cape Sable at the southwestern part of the park, and is the only campground that has shower facilities.  It is open year round, and can accommodate tents or trailers with hookups. Shorebird viewing is amazing here.

Long Pine Key Campground is located near the Homestead entrance to the park.  There are bathroom facilities with running water, however there are no showers on site at the campground (rumor has it they’re building some). Open November 15 through May 31. Campsites are beautiful and more private than at Flamingo.

Backcountry campsites are accessible only by foot, canoe, kayak, or motorboat (no car access) for tent camping only, but these rustic sites allow for an immersion into the Everglades like no other.  Be prepared to camp on the beach, on the ground, or on chickees, (elevated camping platforms). No bathroom facilities or water in these!

Restaurants:

  • Near the Homestead entrance to the park is a dining institution: Robert Is Here. What started as a modest fruit stand in the 1950s has become a destination for interesting tropical fruits and divine key lime milkshakes.
  • For inexpensive, authentic Mexican food try Taqueria Moreila in Homestead. The exterior is unassuming as it is attached to a gas station, but the food and salsa bar are well worth the trip.
  • If you’re looking for a Southern experience, try Shiver’s Bar-B-Q. Shiver’s offers amazing and interesting southern classics prepared well and in a great atmosphere. Their portions are large so show up hungry.
  • Within the park, the Buttonwood Cafe, at Flamingo, opens seasonally from November 15 to April 15. You can also find a limited variety of snack foods and beverages at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center bookstore, the Royal Palm Visitor Center bookstore, the Flamingo marina store, and at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center store. The park service recommends that all visitors bring with them their own food and beverages for the duration of their stay.

Groceries:

For groceries: Walmart in Homestead for general items, then Robert is Here, a fruit stand just outside of the Homestead park entrance, for fresh fruits and vegetables.  Don’t forget to BUY WATER to bring with you for the trip for drinking and cooking.

For more information, go to nps.gov/ever/index.htm

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