Monday, October 29, 2012

River of Grass

By Claire

I must say again that Florida has turned out to be a wonderful surprise.  If you love nature, and especially birds, this is the place for you.  The weather continues to be perfect, and it is fresh and clean.  We have the vultures to thank for the fresh air--nothing dead lasts long around here.  Plus, the local vultures don't just go for road kill, they do some killing themselves.

We kept hearing about the sawgrass prairie and how important the water is; and the more we explored, the more we came to understand.  A slow-moving, shallow (the wet prairies average only 4 inches in depth) river (50 mile wide by 100 mile long) runs through this entire area and the water is in constant movement, about 1/4 mile per day; so it is not a stagnant swamp.  And this is only one-seventh the original Everglades area--Man intervened and developed, dammed and "improved" the rest.  There are currently plans to effect a partial restoration. 

We had a plan for today--head to Shark Valley Visitor Center at the northern part of the Everglades. We decided to go for the 11 am tram tour.  However, not all plans always work out.  And sometimes it's for the best.  You know, that spontaneous, serendipitous style of travel.  We had driven almost an hour when we were stopped by a FHP (Florida Highway Patrolperson) at the beginning of the road leading to Shark Valley.  Apparently there had been a fatal accident up ahead, and he was not letting anyone in unless you were a tribe member.  He advised us to go somewhere until 10 am when the road would be opened again.  Well,  I guess we were not going to be doing the 11 am tram tour after all.  We had no idea where to go, but decided to just turn around and follow the road for a ways and see what we could find.  Chuck had just suggested a McDonalds (horrors!), when I spotted a Starbucks.  Hooray!  So, I pulled out my iPad and he had his Kindle and we spent a pleasant hour with our devices and our lattes.

I guess we were too relaxed, because we didn't get back onto the road until about 10:10 and then found out that about every 5 miles it became a one lane construction zone and we had to sit and wait until it was our turn.  Just after the second lane closure, I noticed a Gator Park advertising Air Boat rides and a gator show.  How could we resist?  There was no chance of making the 11 am tram ride; so, against his better judgment, Chuck pulled in at my urging.  He kept asking me, "are you sure you want to do this?"  I have to admit, it looked kind of cheesy, and I was beginning to think it was going to be really lame. 

But, we had nothing else to do, since the next tram ride was at 1 pm (so we thought).  We went for it.  While waiting for our boat, we watched one come in with a batch of Japanese tourists.  I'm not sure if they just didn't understand English or they weren't listening but it was rather hilarious to hear the boat guide yelling instructions at them repeatedly:  SIT DOWN!  PUT THAT FISH BACK IN THE WATER!  SIT DOWN!  He was completely ignored.  Several of us watched in horror as a few of the tourists jumped out of the boat with fish in their hands.  They thought it was just so funny, and took it as a photo op.  They did finally throw the fish back into the water but by then, they were pretty much goners.

We were handed ear plugs and given instructions, like do not pet the alligators, do not put your child on an alligator.  

Our boat guide, Randy

 Right off the bat, Randy spotted an Alligator.  Cameras began clicking madly.

Our most amazing sight was of a mother alligator and her young.  They were so cute!  Much excitement ensued.

Baby on board

Baby alligators are natural born predators and can swim and hunt fresh out of the egg. They are born with the same amount of teeth as their mother:  40 on top and 40 on the bottom.  However, when they are this young, they are also a natural prey.

A nest of babies--moms can have 40 or more eggs, but only 1 in 5 reach maturity--their eventual prey are their initial predators.

We were advised to insert our ear plugs and then off we went, full throttle!  What a ride!  I was laughing so hard--but with the ear plugs and the noise from the air boat V-8 engine I couldn't even hear myself.  Chuck was grinning from ear to ear and laughing wildly as well.   Randy roared through the glades, fish-tailing through the grass and causing immense glee. 

The fun can only last so long, and now it was time to quietly glide through the water and look for more alligators and birds.  Randy was great at spotting.

Great Blue Heron

Great White Heron

After our wild ride, we found out there was an alligator wrestler waiting for us.  We hurried over to a small stadium seating area.

Tom, the gator wrestler, shoving a scorpion into someone's face as she walked in

The scorpion

Tom trying to get her to kiss the frog and turn him into a prince

Tom demonstrated putting his hand into the alligator's mouth letting us know there was no danger as long as you don't touch him.  He then used a pen to barely touch the bottom inside jaw; it snapped shut instantly.

Tom wrestling a gator

Just a toddler, 3 years old

I have to say: it may have been cheesy, but Tom was a great performer and we were all very entertained.  It really was fun, and we were so glad we took that little detour.

Back on the road again,  we arrived at our destination at 12:30 with plenty of time for the 1 pm tour.  But, the next one wasn't until 2!  We had 90 minutes to kill, but decided to go for it.  We weren't really in any hurry, and we could walk on the trail and see some more wild life.  We also went to the Visitor Center.

 Shark Valley Visitor Center

Poaching was a big problem in the Everglades.  In fact, the Egrets and Great White Herons were endangered because their plumes were used in ladies hats.  In 1903, an ounce of feathers was worth twice as much as an ounce of gold. With feathers so highly valued, you can bet that there was a "gold rush" for plumes. Laws against poaching went into effect, but the game wardens could not stop it and birds continued to be killed.  The power of fashion was too strong, and the destruction of birds ended only when women's tastes changed.  When a new, short hairstyle became the trend, the birds were ultimately saved from extinction.  This new hairstyle could not support the big extravagant hats and the demand for plumes disappeared, forcing plume hunters to abandon their trade.

How about this purse?

We decided to go for a stroll near the Visitor Center and look what we saw!

Alligator length can be estimated converting the distance in inches between their nose and their eyes to feet--if the distance is 12 inches, the length is 12 feet.

Is he smiling?

Female Anhinga drying her wings--males are all black

Little Red-necked Blue Heron

And another

In flight

One of his two lids--an ordinary one for land and a transparent one for under water

Just hanging out

Finally our tram tour began.  Again, I was worried that it would be kind of ho-hum, touristy.  Wrong.  It was a relaxed, fantastic 2-hour ride through Shark Valley.  Oh, and about that name?  There are sharks down in Flamingo and the area (between the coasts) that we were in dips down 4-5 feet, forming a valley.  We rode along with Cynthia as docent and George as driver.  He was uncanny in his ability to spot wildlife and she was full of information and very entertaining.  Half way through the trip, we came to the viewing tower.

Trail through Shark Valley

65 foot viewing tower

Ramp up to the viewing tower

Did we tell you?  Chuck's running for office.

Great Blue Heron--tallest bird in the Park

This one just ate

A Twofer

On our way down the road from Shark Valley, we came upon this post office.  It's the tiniest post office in America.  What better spot than this to mail our ballots?  No, just kidding; we took those to the main post office.  

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Nanette Watson, Postmaster of the “Smallest Post Office in the United States” – the Ochopee Post Office – decided she wanted to paint the 8’4’’ by 7’3’’ building bright pink. “I’ve been wanting to do this for many years,” she explains. “You see, people come here from all over the world to take pictures of the smallest Post Office. So it’s a great way to bring attention to breast cancer research.”

We've noticed a few things about Florida.  Except for Rock Reef Pass--at 3 ft.--it is almost completely flat.  At one point, there was water from a canal lapping at the road we were driving on.  It is the cleanest state we've been in--everything is fresh and sparkling.  I don't know how they do it.  No litter, no graffiti.  I think we'll come back; they say February is the best month.  We only saw hundreds of birds; but in February you will see thousands.

By the time we leave, we will have spent 10 days in Florida--twice the time spent in any other State. 

Glades that go on forever-- Everglades