Sunday and Monday Most Recent Posts:
December 27 & 28, 2015 Last Days With Carrie
Midway Campground Who Doesn’t LOVE Sea Turtles? A MUST Visit in the Keys
Big Cypress National Preserve
There is a pretty low hanging orange ceiling at dawn this morning. It feels darker than usual.
The sun really struggles to get its light through the clouds for our last sunrise here in the Keys.
After breakfast we move into packing mode. What an amazing number of things we’ve had out for this two week stay. Thank goodness we put away all the holiday decorations yesterday.
We’re leaving the Keys after being here a total of 2 months. Our next stop is a week at Midway Campground in the Big Cypress National Preserve. It’s a 116 mile trip so we don’t have to leave terribly early.
There is an amazing amount of literally bumper to bumper traffic coming into the Keys. At points between the mainland and Key Largo the traffic is stopped. If these folks are going to Key West, it will take them more than 6 hours to do it at this rate.
We take Rt 997 North through the myriad growing crops and fruit and vegetable stands. They are working on the road but luckily it is Sunday so there are no workers. It’s fine until the last 4 miles where they have metal poles on the left and concrete barriers on the right. Winnona will barely fit between them and I don’t know how 18 wheelers do it. I’m not even driving and I have white knuckles.
We pull in around 3. It’s a real change to be on a black topped pad with no sand anywhere around. The campground is 26 sites in a circle around a little pond with some resident alligators.. It’s about 17 miles to Shark Valley in the Everglades and about 3 miles to the Preserve Visitor Center.
We think we’ll get a jump on Shark Valley by arriving in the morning fairly early. How wrong we are. We have definitely underestimated the number of people who have the week between Christmas and New Year off from work. I’ve never ever seen this many cars parked on Rt 41. Nor have I ever seen the parking lot Full sign out this early. I try to vote for turning around and skipping this but David says we’re here and we’re going.
So we park at the current end of the line and walk at least a half mile up the road to the park drive and down to the Visitor Center.
As I walk the park drive to the ranger booth I wonder what part of the Parking Lot is Full sign these folks in line didn’t understand.
They should have pulled the chain across the entrance but then the folks inside couldn’t get out either so someone has to spend today telling all of these folks who may not read English that the lot is full and they will have to circle around and park on the road. Meanwhile they sit in line while we and other who can read walk on in.
We had decided that the predicted 89 degree high would not bode well for the 15 mile bike ride around the tram road which is what we have always done on our visits here in the past. Today we plan to take the Tram since we’ve never done that and think it will be interesting to see what the tour guide has to say about this place we know fairly well having been here numerous times before. Given the blazing sun, It will be great to see it all from the shade of the tram.
When we reach the visitor center we find that the next tour we can pay $19 each to take (senior rate) leaves at noon. So we have quite a bit of time on our hands to spend looking around.
Even though there are clearly lots of people waiting for each tram which today are going not just on the hour but on the half hour as well, my plan works perfectly and we have the entire back row of seats in the second car to ourself as everyone else wants to be “up front” even if just means the row in front of us. What a coup. We can hear perfectly and walk from one side to the other depending on what we are being told about. Not cramped or crowded. No one in the way of pictures. YES!!
Nothing like having a huge space in the middle of a big croud.
This guy has one of the two best seats on the tram!
The glades are seriously waterlogged and thus there isn’t the usual gathering of birds and reptiles that we have been used to seeing at Shark Valley.
Luckily our guide and especially our driver are great at spotting and see this gator in the grasses. Do you?
Shark Valley is part of Everglades National Park and is one of the best places to get a real sense of “the river of grass”.
There are hammocks (tree islands) which have managed to collect enough debris to be elevated above the water and thus trees and other bushes can grow there. The most common trees are Bald Cypress which unlike other evergreen cypress are decidulous and lose their leaves in winter.
I think these cypress are a bit confused with all the rain and heat over the winter. They don’t know what to do.
Along the road are 4 borrow pits where they dug the stone to make the road. These artificial ponds attract wildlife during the dry times. In times past, we have seen wood storks, roseate spoonbills and others at them. But not today we stop along side this pit and our guide takes the opportunity to show us the periphyton which soaks up water in wet times and during dry times provides water to the small organisms the food chain depends on.
The pits are unusually large today. We know all about the unusual rain of the past 2 months.
Our guide brings the periphyton around so we can see it up close and touch it. I even smell it. No fishy smell, can’t really describe it other than to say it was nice. It smelled clean and wholesome if there is such a thing.
While she is walking around the other side of the tram showing the periphyton, I am looking out and see a circling osprey looking a lot like he is going to dive and sure enough. Just as I point and say that Osprey is going to dive, he does.
And up he comes with a fish. SO COOL!!
Along side the tram we do finally see an alligator up close. Not many gators out today in comparison with what we usually see during a dry winter when they are all congregated around the water holes and canals here. With all the rain this winter, they can disperse as they usually do in summer.
I think he’s keeping his eye on us.
Half way around the road is an observation tower where we stop and climb to a 360 degree view of the glades.
We take the winding path up and up to the tower.
Views in every direction and they are wonderful. What a magnificent landscape.
We start our trip at the Visitor Center at the bottom of this map and go clockwise around the road so that we are now at the top of the map and are starting down the straight section of road built in 1946 by the Humble Oil Company. Interesting name for the company that become Esso/Exon. They used it for oil exploration which luckily didn’t turn out. Rock from the canal was used to build the road. During the dry season the canal supports an unnatural concentration of wildlife which is usuallly the case in the winter months but not this year. It’s unusually wet for winter in South Florida. Drainage pipes under the road improve water flow beneath this man made water barrier.
Luckily our driver has pretty amazing wildlife eyes and spots both this baby gator and the usually illusive Limpkin below.
We’re lucky to spot him today. He really blends into his environment.
Not so easily disguised or attempting to be is this male anhinga with his velvet feathers and beautiful patterns. Notice his solid black neck.
The female anhinga was nearby. She has the same gorgeous patterns on her wings but has brown velvety neck which often looks golden in the sunlight
Alligator #3 for the day. In previous trips we’ve seen 20 or 30 in and around the canal alone.
At this point, unfortunately, our tram has to speed up for we are out of our alloted time and people are waiting at the station to board. This is particularly unfortunate as this section of the road next to the canal usually has the most wildlife. The guide does not point them out but being familiar with the Everglades and the birds of south Florida in general we see them and once we are off the tram, we walk back down the road in spite of the heat at this point.
Though there are not nearly as many birds as on previous visits we are rewarded with several beauties like this little blue heron and possibly because there were not so many larger species, we noticed the smaller things on our way..
AT first glance, you may think this is the same bird, but it isn’t. this is the tri-colored heron. I can tell him most easily by the white stripe running all the way down his neck. When we first see him, he’s along the side of the road opposite the canal. We take a few pictures and then he decides he wants to be on the other side. He draws quite a crowd as he walks across the road. Quite the celebrity!
I wish I’d gotten a picture of this yellow rat snake from a distance to see if you could see him on the tree limb above the canal.
These lovely String Lillies are along the banks of the canal in various stages of bloom from bud to spent.
Keen eyes spot this baby gator hidden at the edge of the canal on stump.
He looks like he’s smiling doesn’t he?
Another anhinga has apparently just gotten out of the canal to dry his wings.
Nearby, the female does the same. I always find it amazing that these swimming birds with duck feet can fly up and land on branches and hold on.
This White Peacock butterfly is common in the Everglades and we see several here by the canal.
We find our final alligator of the day skulking along the edge of the canal.
He’s got his eyes pealed.
He swims along with such ease mostly using his tail to propel him with his arms and legs at his sides.
We see only one of the Julia Butterfly. I actually like her other name The Flame better.
Leaving the park, as we pass the entrance gate, we see both a Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret along the road entertaining eveyrone as they drive through. By this point in the day there are actually a few spaces in the parking lot.
I feel like paparrazzi stalking them.
The park gates close in 90 minutes but there are still people coming in and cars parked on Rt 41 as far as the eye can see. Although we didn’t see as many things as we have on previous trips, like piles of gators on the road, we saw more than I thought we might when I saw how high the water was.
My take home message is:
Do visit Shark Valley!
I’d add these caveats:
Do bike the 15 mile trail when the sun is not boiling since there is ZERO shade,
Do take the tram ride when the sun is boiling,
If it is your first time to Shark Valley, at least reconsider if
A) it has been raining for days or
B) cars are lined up both ways on Rt 41.