January 16, 2013

Flamingo and Florida Bay, Everglades National Park

At the southernmost tip of the Florida peninsula is the Flamingo area of Everglades National Park, located along the shores of Florida Bay. This area is dominated by densely vegetated mangrove forests. But, there are a number of other unique areas worth checking out. It contains a marina which allows concessionaire tour boats to take visitors out to visit the hundreds of mangrove islands located offshore. You can also rent a canoe or kayak to explore them yourself. In addition, the area contains a unique ecosystem found nowhere else in the Everglades region; the coastal prairie.

Flamingo is a popular place to to visit, probably because every visitor is always interested to see what is at the end of the road. From the national park visitor center, there is a nice view out across the shallow Florida Bay. The bay is extremely shallow, but made of thick mud. When visiting during low tide, muddy shoals make an appearance above the sea and thousands of pelicans and wading birds explore the mud for crustaceans and worms.

A manatee coming up for a breathe

Look in the marina for manatees looking for freshwater entering from the nearby canal. This is a no-wake zone, so hopefully the boaters are on the lookout for them. Located just a half-mile away is the Flamingo campground. While popular, I warn you that the mosquitoes can be relentless here. While I didn't really see any at Flamingo Visitor Center (in December), they were all over the campground. And this was during the dry season. This area is said to have among the highest mosquito densities on Earth during the wet summer months, with up to 2 billion per square mile. So, I'd highly recommend you avoid the May-October time period.

A good reason not to leave your campsite unattended; black vultures

If you are lucky, you may also catch a glimpse of the endangered American crocodile. This saltwater specialist almost went extinct in the United States during the heydey of alligator harvesting for skins for purses and boots. Their population had declined into just a few dozen, but today has rebounded into the high hundreds. The American crocodile can be distinguished from alligators by their light-green olive skin and narrow snouts. Flamingo is the northernmost spot for this species, because unlike alligators they can not tolerate cool temperatures. Their primary range heads across most of the Caribbean and Central America

Crocodile sitting neat to a much larger alligator
One of the most magnificent birds you are likely to see here are Ospreys. They soar out over the shallow waters and dive in to catch fish. They almost went extinct when DDT ravaged their populations in the 50's and 60's. But, today it is common to see their nests on almost any tall object across the flat landscape; whether the be trees, powerpoles, or street lamps.

Osprey checking me out

The coastal prairie is a unique ecosystem of this area. It can be accessed by simply getting on the coastal prairie trail that leaves from the far end of the campground. The first 1/4 mile is through a dense thicket of trees that grew up along the corridor of an old road. But, once you emerge onto the coastal prairie itself, the views will be expansive. The word prairie is a bit of a misnomer. It is actually an area dominated by salt-loving pickelweed and glassworts. The ground you are walking on can be be described as a clay-like muck. If it is wet, you will soon develop a thick layer of it on your shoes.

This ecosystem has developed over centuries of hurricanes bringing storm surges inland. As the storm surge arrives, it pulls salty mud from the bay and deposits it onto the prairie. Since very few plant species can survive these salty environments, only a few hardy species remain. It is however, prime habitat for the salt marsh mosquito. While this mosquito has never been shown to carry any of the known dangerous diseases, it  also appears to be the least impressed with our mosquito repellents  So, even during the dry season, expect to be swatting away at them. In summer, have a rope-line connected to your partner so you do not get carried off by them.

It is 5.2 miles out across the prairie to a hidden little white sand beach. But, I am not sure what human could survive the heat, humidity, and bugs to be able to make it that far. Instead, if you just want a little flavor of what this area is like without getting "immersed" in it, try the Bayshore Loop.

Mangroves along the muddy shore of Florida Bay

The Bayshore Loop is a 2-mile loop that includes a portion of the Coastal Prairie Trail, turns left (south) toward the edge of the bay, follows a line of mangroves right along the muddy shoreline, and then heads back inland to the coastal prairie trail. While it was interesting to see this unique ecosystem and I am glad I did the loop, 2-mile was plenty far enough for me, especially given the number of bites I received. 
A morning glory in bloom near Bear Lake

But, I should note that when we got back to the car, we saw a father and his daughter sitting out at the trailhead in shorts and tanktops. I questioned them as to how they were surviving the onslaught. The father answered "100% DEET". So, that was my problem. I decided to experience the real Florida without the chemical layer.

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