Thursday, December 1, 2022

A Walk to Remember

Stepping Stones

A red shouldered hawk rests on a low-level branch along the Big Cypress Swamp Boardwalk. |
Photos by Bob McConville

Two issues ago it was a pleasure to inform you about an area just south of San Marco Road on U.S. 41 called the Marsh Trail. It’s a magical place this time of year, with a great variety of birds feeding in the prairies and along the shorelines of the brackish water, dotted with red mangroves and gumbo limbo trees. The migrating white pelicans enjoy these shallow waters for feeding and local birds like egrets, herons, spoonbills and wood storks are a regular sight as well.

I learned of the Marsh Trail after many trips to another nearby spot, just six miles further down the highway. This, too, is a place of wonder and amazement.

The types of birds found here may differ somewhat because of the change in habitat. Welcome to the Big Cypress Swamp Boardwalk.

The diverse ecosystems of the Marsh Trail consist of open prairies that become dry during the winter and estuarine waters that allow a variety of wading birds to feed. It sometimes serves as a rookery for the local birds as well. The Big Cypress Swamp Boardwalk area is completely different. While you do have canals along U.S. 41 where egrets and herons can be seen, Big Cypress scenery changes quickly when you are a few hundred feet away from the road.

Welcome to a land that is heavily populated with virgin bald cypress trees and royal palms that grow naturally in the wild here. It is nicknamed the “Amazon of the North” because of the thick vegetation but, thanks to an existing, well maintained boardwalk, traversing the swamp is safe and dry. The plant life found here is breathtaking. Because of the devastation of the tree canopy by Hurricane Irma in September of 2017, the lower two-thirds of the vegetation allows for a better view of wildlife at ground level and slightly above.

Enjoying a solo walk on January 23 of this year I was greeted by several dozen snowy egrets as I opened my car door. Also, there was a great blue heron, green heron, several ibis and two great egrets. On the power line over the canal the distinctive song of a belted kingfisher could be heard. In the canal along the road was one of my favorite female alligators, usually found in the same location on most trips that I have made.

Around the corner and a short trip up the path the sound of a red shouldered hawk could be heard. The call was answered by another hawk, not too far away. A flock of ibis flew overhead near the base of the boardwalk.

There’s a scene in a movie called “Field of Dreams” when a baseball player steps off of a magical field to save a young girl’s life. He immediately becomes the doctor that he was always meant to be. That same feeling will grasp you when you first set foot onto the Boardwalk. You will feel transformed, as if you just entered an imaginary land, one made just for your journey and for your enjoyment.

A short distance up the path on the left, you will see a sign marking an eagle’s nest. On my magical day, both the male and female bald eagles were present.

At this time of year there is a strong possibility that a chick could be in the nest.

The original nest was located several hundred feet further up the walk but was blown down by Hurricane Irma. This pair of eagles quickly rebuilt at the current location and are doing well.

As you enjoy the bald cypress trees, royal palms, strangler figs, pop ash and more you will eventually come to the end your journey where you will find a pond that was sculpted by the local gators. As we enjoy our dry season, many animals gather at this location to feed because of the receded waters. My special day continued with the sighting of two black-crested night herons, a great blue heron, a juvenile night heron, a red shouldered hawk and a great egret. Pileated woodpeckers could be heard in the distance. After enjoying this spectacular view for a few moments, and just as I was ready to make my way back, two barred owls swooped into a nearby tree and I listened to their song as I gazed in wonder.

This is truly a special place and no two visits here will ever be the same. It’s like changing the TV channel and seeing an award-winning movie on each station. The variety of birds may not seem to be many, but what you see, and where you see it along your journey, that is the prize.

If you have the time, make that trip to the Big Cypress Boardwalk. Read about its history before you go and be prepared to experience the same views as seen by early Americans and Seminole Indians in this virgin swampland. You won’t be disappointed!

Bob is a Florida Master Naturalist and a proud member of the 10,000 Island Dolphin Study on board the Dolphin Explorer. The author of two books he is also a member of the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism. Bob loves his wife very much!

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