February 11, 2013

Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Big Cypress National Preserve is a 720,000 acre unit of the National Park Service located just northwest of Everglades National Park in South Florida. It contains many of the ecological subunits that are present in Everglades National Park, but is more freshwater based, with more extensive pinelands and cypress strands than its southern neighbor. It is home to the critically endangered Florida panther, as well as, habitat to dozens of wading birds and numerous endemic plant species.

Cypress stands support lush growth of epiphytes like Spanish moss and bromeliads

When Everglades National Park was established in 1947, Big Cypress was intended to be includes as part of the park. But, the federal government was unable to acquire the land at the time to make that a reality. But, being aware of its significance in terms of wildlife habitat and flow of water, citizens continued to push for the area to be protected. Finally, the preserve was set aside in 1974. However, as a National Preserve, it does not have exactly the same level of protection as a national park. The area still allows hunting and other traditional uses for the land.

A huge flock of white ibis within the cypress near Loop Road

The Tamiami Trail (SR-41) cuts the Big Cypress into two pieces. The main visitor center is located right off the highway. There are two well-maintained dirt roads that allow visitors to see different ecotypes of the park. The 25-mile Loop Road leaves from Hwy 41 to the south, making a triangular path into beautiful cypress strands, and past a tropical hardwood hammock, before re-emerging onto Highway 41 a little further west.  The Loop Road passes by the southern terminus of the 1,100 mile Florida Trail. Here, the trail is a straight line water-filled ditch. So, be prepared for ankle-deep to waist deep water in this section. 

Alligators lounge near the culverts. They are docile, but just be aware before hanging over the edge.

All along the Loop Road are thick cypress stands absolutely full of wading birds. We saw lots of white ibis, endangered wood storks, little blue herons, snowy egrets, white egrets, and green-backed herons. Any place where a culvert allows the water to flow under the road, there will be an opening in the trees allowing better views of the birds. At one opening, we saw a block of some 30+ ibises. But, be aware as you walk up to the edge of the road, as there are often alligators hanging out in the culvert.

An endangered wood stork

As you head west, look for the Tree Snail Hammock located across the street from the Big Cypress Environmental Education Center. The 1/4 mile loop trail takes you through a beautiful tropical hardwood hammock containing mahogany, gumbo limbo, Jamaica dogwood, and Spanish stopper. We did not see any of the colorful namesake liguus tree snails (and I certainly was looking), but apparently they are present. During the dry season, they are high in the canopy in estivation mode to conserve water.

Do be aware that the most common place to see mosquitoes in South Florida during the cooler dry season is within these hammocks. We did see and hear a few of them, but it wasn't anything too annoying.

Palm trunk and large ferns within the Tree Snail Hammock

There is also a loop you can take north of Hwy 41 to see some different ecotypes in Big Cypress. Near the western border is the Birdon Road (841) - Turner River (839) Loop.  This 16.4 mile loop will take you past Florida slash pine rocklands, sawgrass prairies, cattail filled marshes, and dwarf cypress sloughs.

Sawgrass prairies and Florida slash pine stands

The Turner River Road heads north from Highway 41 along a canal dug to supply material to build the road. This is called a "borrow" pit, as they borrowed the dirt for road building. All along this route you will see countless alligators lounging on the opposite bank. There will be some side routes leaving from the main road to access some off-road areas and horse trails. Continue until reading Wagonwheel Road and turn left. If you continue north, the road will go to an old campground and actually will cross under (but give no access to) Alligator Alley (I-75). Continue on Wagonwheel Road until reaching Birdon Road.

Turn left onto Birdon Road where the route will pass numerous pine stands with Florida sabal palms rising up within and along their margins. It will also pass some nice examples of sawgrass prairies. Be on the lookout for a variety of forest bird species, as well as, numerous raptors like red-shoulder hawks and vultures soaring overhead. Big Cypress is wild Florida at its best. But, do make sure you go in the dry season of winter. Beyond the unimaginable drone of millions of mosquitoes in summer, its daily thunderstorms may makes these dirt roads impassable during torrential downpours.

Snowy egret and wood stork in the cypress strand along Loop Road

February 6, 2013

Tropical Hardwood Hammocks of Everglades National Park

The tropical hardwood hammocks of the Everglades represent the northernmost extend of the range a number of species. Common in the Caribbean and other tropical regions of the Americas, these forest tree species can not tolerate freezing. What also marks these forests with distinction, is how they exist in small isolated pockets within a sea of sawgrass or cypress. Requiring well-drained limestone bedrock, they only exist where the limestone rises a few inches to a couple of feet above the high water table of the region.

Epiphytes hang from the largest West Indian Mahogany in the United States

While there are hundreds of these tree islands, some are easier to visit than others by the very fact that most are surrounded by standing or flowing water. This post will focus on a few of the easiest to reach. Perhaps the most famous one is the Mahagony Hammock within Everglades National Park. This hammock contains the largest West Indian Mahagony in the United States. A short spur road off of the Main Park Road about halfway from the entrance station to Flamingo will take you to the hammock. There is a boardwalk that takes a short loop around the hammock.

The Mahogany Hammock in Everglades National Park

There are gumbo limbos, strangler figs, pigeon plum, wild mastic, paradise tree, thatch and royal palms, Jamaican dogwood, buttonwood, as well as, dozens of other small tree and shrub species. Within the understory, there are a variety of endemic ferns, cacti, and bromeliads. These are not fire adapted ecosystems, the way the pinelands and sawgrass are. Thus, they can be destroyed by catastrophic fire. These were the places where the native Colusa people would set up their homes to stay dry above the sawgrass. They were also rich in wildlife and plant species.

A barred owl in Mahogany Hammock

Also within these hammocks are a variety of bird species that nest or roost in the high canopies. White-crowned pigeons are a Caribbean species which in America is only found in South Florida. Within the Mahagony Hammock, there is a barred owl that nests there and is often visible to visitors who are aware. The one disadvantage of the hammocks are that because of the deep shade, they have the highest mosquito densities of the region (outside of the salt marshes and mangrove swamps). So, if you are visiting in the dry season of winter, the only place you may find a few buzzing you is within these stands.

The sun shines through the red peeling bark of the gumbo limbo tree

Some of the best tropical hardwood hammocks are in the Florida Keys. Windley Key Geologic State Park contains a beautiful intact hammock with a trail that loops throughout the forest. Long Key State Park also has a nice stretch of hammock, in addition to mangroves, on its trail. 

But, perhaps the most famous hammock outside of Mahogany Hammock is the Gumbo Limbo Trail located near the Everglades National Park entrance and the world famous Anhinga Trail. That was the focus of a post over at the Hikemaster's Trail Description Site HERE.