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Florida Outdoors

Article Index

Alligator Hunting: A One of a Kind Experience -
by Kris Thoemke

Why They Call it Hunting Instead of Killing -
by Kris Thoemke

Florida's Other Crab - by Kris Thoemke

The Waiting Game - by Kris Thoemke

Mounted Memories - by Kris Thoemke

Eco-Touring in Collier County - by Kris Thoemke

Beyond the Largemouth Bass - by Kris Thoemke

Tying One On -- Some thoughts on how to get started tying your own flies -- by Kris Thoemke

The Big Cypress: Adventures in a Vast Wilderness
-- Kris Thoemke spends the day exploring the Big Cypress National Preserve with Preserve biologist Debra Jansen

A Basic Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing in Southwest Florida -- by Don Phillips

Four Strokes on the Water -- The sound of the future for marine outboards is likely to be much quieter --
by Kris Thoemke

Birding Big Cypress Swamp and the 10,000 Islands --
by natural history writer and photographer Jeff Ripple

Recycling Your Fish -- by Kris Thoemke

Peace, Paddle and Hunt -- by Kris Thoemke

 fish, camp, golf Florida outdoors

Birding Big Cypress Swamp and the Ten Thousand Islands
By Jeff Ripple

(Previously published in Birder's World, February 1996)

The Common Moorhen chick never stood a chance. It was the last bird in a loosely assembled line of moorhens that emerged from cattails on the near shore of the Turner River Canal, intent on completing a short trek across fifty feet of open water toward another clump of cattails on the canal's far shore. An adult led the little group, while her four chicks paddled feverishly behind. The moorhens' proximity to open water did not escape the attention of a Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a low branch of a small cypress at the edge of the canal. From the cover of my truck, I watched as it tensed, launched, and then dropped on the rear chick, plucking it cleanly from the water. The hawk returned to its cypress perch with the black puffball clutched in its talons. The remaining moorhens quickened their pace after the attack and reached the other side of the canal, the adult clucking nervously all the while. I watched the Red-shouldered Hawk for a few minutes before continuing on my drive down Turner River Road, still shaking my head in wonder over the remarkable natural moment I had just witnessed.

Turner River Road is one of several graded limerock roads running through Big Cypress National Preserve, which covers more than 720,000 acres of the Big Cypress Swamp of southwest Florida. Named for the abundance of cypress rather than the size of the trees, Big Cypress Swamp is a mosaic of cypress swamp, wet prairies, freshwater marshes, and forests of slash pine and saw palmetto. Fresh water from the swamp flows slowly south to eventually merge with the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico, forming a vast estuarine wilderness of bays, channels, oyster bars and mangrove keys called the Ten Thousand Islands. The variety of landscapes has created diverse habitat for all kinds of wildlife, especially birds.

The best birding is in the western part of this region in an area bounded by Turner River Road to the east, I-75 to the north, Big Cypress Bend at Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve to the west, and the outer islands bordering the Gulf of Mexico between West Pass and Rabbit Key Pass to the south. This still leaves a lot of ground to cover, but you can do it in one long, bird-filled day.

Like most of the unpaved roads in Big Cypress National Preserve, Turner River Road and Wagonwheel Road receive little traffic, but these two drives provide access to some of the best birding opportunities. Turner River Road runs north/south from U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail) for more than twenty miles, passing underneath a stretch of I-75 previously known as Alligator Alley and continuing on to a dead end at East Henson Marsh. Wagonwheel Road connects with State Road 29 and runs predominantly east/west to eventually intersect with Turner River Road. A borrow canal runs parallel along one side of each road, and it is in and around these canals that birds are most easily observed.

Earthen plugs were placed across the canals some years ago by the National Park Service to prevent surrounding wet prairies from draining too quickly. As a result they created broad, marshy areas bordering each road. Even during the November through May "dry season" when the generally flooded prairies may be merely spongy at best, these canals are full of water, fish, and often hundreds of wading birds. Great Blue, Little Blue, Tricolored, and Green herons vie for fishing rights with Great and Snowy egrets. Other waders such as Wood Storks and large flocks of White Ibises, with an occasional Glossy Ibis, spill over from the canal banks into the surrounding prairies or on to the road. I usually see one white-phase Great Blue Heron ("Great White Heron") along Wagonwheel Road, although these birds are much more common in the estuarine areas south of Big Cypress Swamp.

Anhingas and Double-Crested Cormorants spread their wings to dry while perched on the exposed portions of stumps or limestone boulders in the water. Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons hunker on low-hanging willow branches on the west side of the Turner River Canal, most often along the stretch of Turner River Road between U.S. 41 and Wagonwheel Road. Common Moorhens are ubiquitous residents of reeds and cattails along the entire lengths of both canals, in company with American and Least Bitterns, Soras, and King Rails. If you're lucky, you might spot the shy Purple Gallinules that are occasionally seen among the cattails in the Turner River Canal just a few hundred feet south of the intersection of Turner River and Wagonwheel Roads.

To observe Belted Kingfishers, Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Phoebes in their fall plumage, and Northern Mockingbirds during the winter months, scan the telephone wires along the west side of Turner River Road. The grassy margins along Wagonwheel Road are especially good for spotting Eastern Meadowlarks, Boat-tailed and Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Killdeer. During summer evenings, you can see Common Nighthawks and Chuck-will's-widows along these roads. In late August and September, thousands of Barn and Tree Swallows feed on the abundance of mosquitos and other flying insects, making driving difficult since the birds are careening and swooping in front of you.

Most of the wildlife and birds are shy, meaning that you will need to stay in your vehicle to observe or photograph them. However, some species won't be seen unless you get out and hike around. Common Snipe explode from cover if you walk the marshy edge along the canals. Put on a pair of high boots and venture out into the wet prairies to improve your chances of seeing King Rails, Clapper Rails, and bitterns, especially early in the morning or towards evening. Walking through the prairies also gives you the opportunity to observe some of the frogs and insects upon which many of the birds feed, as well as to visit pine islands and palmetto heads to find Rufous-sided Towhees, several wren species, and warblers (most notably Palm, Pine, and Prairie warblers). Getting out to hike through pines on the west side of the Turner River Road will allow you to see more bluebirds than from your vehicle.

Raptors are well-represented in Big Cypress National Preserve. Red-Shouldered Hawks, Turkey Vultures, and Black Vultures are permanent residents and will make up the bulk of the raptors you'll see. American Swallow-tailed Kites arrive from South America to breed in late February and early March and will stay through the summer. I generally find plenty of these beautiful birds of prey soaring over the cypress on Turner River Road between Wagonwheel Road and the I-75 overpass. A few American Kestrels are permanent residents in Big Cypress, but most are winter migrants that stay from November through February. Look for them on telephone wires, especially on the western segment of Wagonwheel Road between S.R. 29 and Birdon Road. Other winter raptors include a few Red-tailed, Broad-winged, Short-tailed, Sharp-shinned, and Cooper's Hawks, as well as Northern Harriers over the marshes. Ospreys are permanent residents, and at least one of them regularly patrols the Turner River Canal, although the vast majority are seen in the Ten Thousand Islands.

The southern Bald Eagle is one raptor that breeds during the winter months in Big Cypress Swamp and the Ten Thousand Islands, and your best chance for seeing a pair on the nest is to walk the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk at Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve off U.S. 41 about seven miles west of S.R. 29. The nest is in a tall cypress just off the boardwalk and the eagles have bred by mid-December, when eggs are laid. By the second week of April, the young eagles are flying, although the adults will feed them at the nest through the middle of May.

The 2,000-foot boardwalk wanders through a cypress strand that holds some of the only remaining old-growth cypress in Big Cypress Swamp. This is a great spot to find Pileated Woodpeckers, Gray Catbirds, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, migrating warblers, wrens, and other songbirds. The boardwalk terminates at a broad platform overlooking a small, cypress-rimmed pond frequented by White Ibises, Barred Owls, and several species of herons. Occasionally, baby alligators sun themselves on logs, often stacked on each other like cordwood.

Less than a mile east of Big Cypress Bend on the south side of U.S. 41 is a narrow, muddy drive marked by a Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve sign nearly hidden in the mangroves. Pull in here and follow the drive to get a view of the pond and tiny mangrove islands in its center that serve as a night roost for dozens of Great egrets, Little Blue Herons, and White Ibis. Because this is a night roost, you need to get here just before sunset to see the ibis and egrets arrive in snowy waves against a painted sky, or before sunrise to see the birds leave. The islands literally turn white because of the sheer number of birds when the roost is full. During the late spring, the roost is transformed into a breeding rookery used primarily by Great Egrets and Little Blue Herons.

Close to the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk are a couple of picnic areas for travelers on U.S. 41. An Everglades National Park ranger told me these are good places to find Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows, Prairie Warblers, and Indigo Buntings during the winter. If you would like to see more of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, take S.R. 29 approximately four miles south of U.S. 41 to Janes Scenic Drive at Copeland. The state preserve biologist says the headquarters area is great for seeing bluebirds, and Janes Scenic Drive itself allows you to cruise slowly through freshwater marsh and cypress swamp habitat where you will probably see Limpkins, various herons and egrets, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Barred Owls. There are several hiking trails, the most passable being #7 and #12 (also known as East Main). These are easy (though frequently wet and buggy) hikes that allow you to experience Fakahatchee Strand in virtual solitude. I have spent several wonderful days wandering these trails without seeing hardly a soul. Furthermore, these trails are the only places in Big Cypress where I've found Wood Ducks, and there are Great-Crested Flycatchers, Common Yellowthroats, migrating warblers (including Northern Parulas and Yellow-throated Warblers), and other passerines here as well.

If you follow U.S. 29 south of U.S. 41 through Everglades City, you'll find the Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Ranger Station. This is your gateway to the mangrove wilderness of the Ten Thousand Islands. A concessionaire downstairs from the station offers boat tours into the mangroves (tide permitting) as well as around the islands to the Gulf. On a typical boat tour down Indian Key Pass to the "outside" islands from November through March, you'll probably see Black Skimmers (they'll greet you at the dock); Double-crested Cormorants; Laughing, Ringbilled, and Herring Gulls; Caspian, Royal, Least, Forsters, and Sandwich Terns; Brown and sometimes White Pelicans; and plenty of Ospreys. The Ospreys nest during this time, many of them on channel markers that are right at deck level so you can get a good look at the chicks in the nest. Other Ospreys have more private nests built in the upper reaches of red and black mangroves, often at prominent points on islands so they have an unobstructed view of their domain. Bald Eagles are a common sight, and an Everglades ranger told me that over the past few years, she has seen a couple of Peregrine Falcons patrolling Indian Key Pass on a regular basis. During the summer, boat tours are still available, but on a more limited schedule. Although there are fewer birds, the tour offers an excellent opportunity to see the Indian Key rookery with nesting Great Egrets, Brown Pelicans, Little Blue Herons, and Tricolored Herons. Magnificent Frigatebirds soar above the rookery, perhaps waiting for the chance to pirate fish from the pelicans. White-crowned Pigeons occasionally rocket across the open water between mangrove islands, and on more than one occasion I've seen American Swallow-tailed Kites patrolling the tops of the mangroves in search of a quick meal.

For birders willing to explore the Ten Thousand Islands on more intimate terms, canoes are available from the concessionaire, and of course you can launch your own canoe or sea kayak from the park ramp or from the boat ramp at Outdoor Resorts on Chokoloskee Island. Backcountry camping is allowed only on designated islands, such as Pavilion, Mormon, Rabbit, Picnic, and what's left of the northern tip of Tiger, and a backcountry permit is required (available free from the ranger station) to camp within the boundaries of Everglades National Park. If you head for the "outside" islands, you'll have excellent luck birding the flats around Picnic Key and Tiger Key at low tide when oyster bars and extensive mudflats are revealed. Willets, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, Western and Least Sandpipers, and Dunlins are common during the winter months. Keep your eyes peeled on oyster bars for an American Oystercatcher. On a quiet paddle at sunset, you'll probably encounter at least one Common Loon in winter plumage, as well as Red-breasted Mergansers. Launch from Chokoloskee Island for a nice day trip exploring the mangrove fringe along the Turner River in search of a Mangrove Cuckoo, Ospreys, night herons and other wading birds, warblers, and sandpipers. Be careful when poking around in the mangroves because more often than not they are full of mosquitos. Another spot with potential for seeing a Mangrove Cuckoo and several species of warblers is the mangroves surrounding the ranger station and the Everglades City air strip. Again, be prepared for mosquitos.

Big Cypress Swamp and the Ten Thousand Islands has a remarkable variety of birds to see throughout the year, but undoubtably the best time to visit is from December through April. These months encompass both the fall and spring migrations, as well as the influx of winter "snowbirds" to the resident population. There is less rain, temperatures are somewhat cooler, and there are generally fewer mosquitos. Wading birds and other species dependent on a reliable source of fresh water for feeding also concentrate around the canals and deeper ponds as water throughout the rest of the swamp begins to dry up, making the birds easier to observe.

Big Cypress Swamp and the Ten Thousand Islands offer solitude and the rare chance to bird at your own pace--without the crush of crowds and the pressure of civilization. Once you have been here, you will never forget the subtle, primevil beauty of this unique subtropical wilderness.

For park brochures and tour information:

Big Cypress National Preserve
(941) 695-4111

Everglades National Park (Gulf Coast Ranger Station)
(941) 695-3311

Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve
(941) 695-4593

Everglades National Park Boat Tours
(941) 695-2591 or toll-free (800) 445-7724

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