Saturday, May 16, 2009

Our Journey into Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida

We are staying down in south Florida for several days and are currently in the town of Port Charlotte, which is on the Gulf of Mexico. While here, we decided to take a day trip over to the Big Cypress National Preserve, which is part of the Big Cypress Swamp.

Since we planned to be gone the whole day, we had to take our dog, Annie, along with us. She enjoys a good day trip and we bring along all of her supplies to keep her comfortable.

The Big Cypress is reached by taking US Hwy. 41, the Tamiami Trail, which runs coast to coast in Florida. It is a nice drive and you can see some deer from time to time and a whole bunch of different birds. We came to the Oasis Visitor Center and found a map of the preserve and also learned about a 26-mile Loop Road you can take to get a better view of the wildlife. It is a dirt road all the way. It is only a one lane road but traffic can go either direction and passing oncoming cars is easy.

We drove back about 3 miles on the Tamiami Trail to pick up the Loop Road. This is what the road looks like. You can see there is heavy, jungle vegetation along both sides. We had to drive at about 5 mph in order to look through small, open areas in this vegetation for the alligators that are common (and many) in this preserve. This preserve is at the top of the Everglades National Park and consists of 2,400 square miles of protected land. It is the home to alligators, herons, egrets, woodpeckers, black bear, deer, bald eagles, and the endangered Florida panther. We did not see any panthers. They look a lot like the Mountain Lion of the western states. The preserve is referred to as a swamp but the land consists of sandy islands, prairies, marshes and Cypress trees.
As we drove very slowly along this dirt road, I kept the camera at the ready in case we spotted something interesting. It began to rain lightly from time to time and the water gathered in milky puddles on the roadway. Some potholes were big, but we have the 4-wheel drive Explorer and it was no problem. We had gone along for a few miles and hadn't seen anything except a lizard. Then as I was getting a bit discouraged I looked more closely into the canal that runs on my side of the car...and there he was !! Stop the car I practically shouted. Back it up....

There it was....our first gator spotting. He was the first alligator we'd ever seen in the wild and not in a cage or glassed in area of a zoo. He was a big one. He was lying very quietly down in the peat layers of the canal. We stayed there looking him over and all he did was blink his eyes a few times but never moved a muscle.

Here is an example of the Cypress trees in the preserve. The place is about 1/3 covered with these trees, which are the dwarf pond cypress variety. They are a common swamp tree in the southeast.

Again...Stop the car !! Here is the second alligator we found. He was getting a little of that Florida sunshine. As we continued on down the road, driving at a snail's pace, we began to see more and more alligators. In all, we saw over 30 on this drive.

At one point, we came upon a large pool and there were about 6 large gators there. Right at the time we got the car stopped, we saw and heard a lot of splashing and thrashing down in the canal pool. Some alligator must have ticked off another alligator and there was a bit of a scuffle down there. It was over before I could get the camera in position and then they moved off out of camera range, but it was very exciting to see that activity. In many spots in the canal where the water was very low, you could see their claw marks in the peat where they walked along and you could also see in the middle area a large drag mark where their long, heavy tails must follow behind.

Check out parts 2 and 3 of the Big Cypress journey for more alligator photos.....

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