Monday, April 4, 2016

Florida Everglades and Keys

The Everglades

The Florida Panther is an endangered species. There are a few in the Everglades.

Earlier this year, we passed through the Miami area on our way to and from Peru. Neither Carl nor I had ever been to the Everglades nor the Florida Keys and as we are both interested in both history and nature, we agreed that these would be good places to visit as breaks from the very long airplane trips between Seattle and Peru. I was particularly thrilled by the Everglades.Carl had found an interpretive boat trip that started in the Flamingo area of the Everglades and went through the canals and lakes of the that area of the National Park. We did not go on the air boats as the trips were shorter on them. It was a great decision as the slow trolling through the waters gave us a good chance to see and take pictures.

We stayed in Panama City, the original hotel we were going to stay in had a power outage but we were able to find a vacancy in a near by hotel.The hotel clerk had told Carl about a place that had wonderful milkshakes and smoothees made with a variety of tropical fruits. It was called Robert is Here! It turned out to sell all those tropical fruits you may have heard of and a lot you haven't heard about as well as the drinks. The fruits are listed on the link above. It also had a nice outside seating area with barnyard animals and exotic birds. It is definitely not a fancy place but really fun to explore.
Coconut Palms
We then took the short drive into the Everglades. We passed Coconut palms that I had to get pictures of, areas growing market crops and then into the Everglades through the Sea of Grass. I was surprised to see very tall pine trees after we first entered the park. These were pines that grow in certain conditions in the area. Following that, amid all the sawgrass were trees that looked dead. It turned out that they were a variety of cypress that goes dormant when precipitation is lower than normal. The grass grows to the edges of the road and you can see the water below the grass tops. There are turnoffs and walking areas so that you can explore various features. We expected many mosquitoes which was true in some areas but we did not have any on the boat ride.

Hwy 9356 (light line) on the map shows the Route from Florida City to Flamingo
The birds were wonderful. I really wanted to see a rosy spoonbill but only saw one at a distance in the Key West area. It is a beautiful birds. All over Southern Florida we enjoyed the beautiful sight of vultures soaring on the currents. It is such a surprise that birds that are that ugly up close are so beautiful in the air. We wondered why we would see so many of them swoop down near shopping centers and when we were in the Everglades we found out why. At the Royal Palms area of the park, they had a stack of blue tarps for people to tie down over cars as the vultures enjoy eating the rubber around windows and doors!

Putting blue tarp over car to protect from Vultures
The wading birds were huge. Herons, egrets, storks and related birds were an exciting sight for us. We do have the Great Blue Heron in the Pacific Northwest and we always like to see them flying overhead or fishing. We have particularly noted them as we drive around North America. In Southern Florida, they have a white variation of this bird. It can be differentiated from the Great Egret with grey rather than black legs as well as herons keep their necks pulled back as they fly and egrets do not. We did not see any of the invasive pythons that have been living in the Everglades, but we can sure see why they are so hard to find and capture in all the undergrowth, twisted roots and combination of water and vegetation. We went straight through the lower Everglades to catch our scheduled boat trip.

The two and a half hour boat trip was wonderful. There was a naturalist on board to answer questions. It was obvious that people had come from all over the world for this opportunity. The first thing we saw was an osprey nest with the nesting bird at the edge of the boarding dock. After the boat started, we immediately saw two manatees underwater. They did not emerge while we were there but they are huge. Then we saw a baby crocodile.

I have pictures of most of these things in my slideshow. I was fascinated by the reflection of the trees and mangrove roots in the dark reddish brown water. It is turned that color is from the decaying vegetation that it flows through. The canal we were following was an old artificial canal. Many of the old canals have been closed off in an attempt to restore the natural balance of the Everglades. Early settlers to the area drained the wetlands to create farmland and areas for housing. The Everglades National Park was established in 1947 and protects an area 20% the size of the original swamp area.

Learn more about the Everglades animals.

Osprey on nest

Learn more about Everglades plants.

Palm leaf
After we finished the boat tour, We stopped at a couple of places in the park on the way back to the hotel. We decided to return the next day to the Royal Palms area. It was almost dark when we had gotten there and we wanted to explore the board walks over the swamp area. That is where we saw the majority of birds and animals I have pictured. The board walks were a terrific idea. They put you right in the middle of the swamp. (Along with quite a few very excited school kids.)

We had lunch by drinking smoothees at the "Here's Robert Fruit Stand" and then returned to the Park to take wonderful bird pictures. Mostly beside the road. We left late that evening for Peru. (See previous blog for this account.)

A while after we got home I was watching a video on the Andrew Hurricane in South Florida 23 years ago and I was shocked that the whole area we had been in was devastated by the hurricane. In the Everglades in some areas all the taller mangrove trees had been felled and of course, we know that Homestead and Florida City were leveled by the hurricane, partly due to shoddy construction.


The Florida Keys

On our return from Peru, we rented a car and traveled to the Florida Keys - destination Key West. My brother had lived for a while on Marathon Key and my father had raced yachts around the Keys as a young man so I was anxious to experience the area. I also wanted to go on the long highway through the Keys.

The overseas highway to Key West that connects a number of Keys was built mostly on an old railway line that had been completed in 1912 and heavily damaged by the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935. Since the Florida Coast Railway could not afford to rebuilt the railroad, the State of Florida bought the right of ways and remaining bridges for $640,000. The highway is about 111 miles long. Plans are underway to fit it with a trail for bikes. Full description here.

Now I know why people live there. It is a wonderful relaxing place with a lot of interesting stops, beautiful views, great birds and a laid back atmosphere.

It took about 3 hours to drive the highway to Key West. We stopped at a place called Sombrero Beach so that I could walk through the sands and wade in the surf. The water was not as warm as I expected. It was the Atlantic Ocean at that point, I wonder if the other side of the key would be warmer?

Sombrero Beach

The houses in this area were mostly on stilt like columns to raise their height off the ground and keep them above the water.

Home near Sombrero Beach

The plantings around the houses were beautiful. I neglected to take pictures of the plants that resembled Pampas Grass but had light pink plumes. They were very attractive.

When we got to our hotel, Ibis Bay Beach Resort. It was built in the 1956 out of blocks of coral! That part made me cringe, but it was a nice place to stay. The rooms were very Retro 1950s with Cuban posters on the wall. The resort area was surrounded by water.

Poster in our room

Our hotel made out of coral blocks

We had a really great dinner the first night at the Conch Republic which was a fun place and our food was terrific.

Lobster ravioli. Worth a trip back!

The hotel had a shuttle into the town. The houses were so interesting but very, very expensive. The atmosphere was very festive and relaxed. Even though it was the middle of winter, it was not terribly crowded. The next day I wanted to go to the Butterfly Conservatory. It was a good decision. Lots of butterflies,tropical flowers and plants, and birds that do not eat butterflies!

One of the beautiful butterflies at the conservatory
 We spent several hours at the conservatory, and bought some nice little gifts and things for ourselves. My favorite was a butterfly T-shirt for me.
My butterfly T-shirt

I was tired from our trip, so I hung around the hotel and watched the birds landing on the Bird Island across the water and took pictures.
Bird Island with long distance lens. Like "Where's Waldo"?
 Carl continued exploring the area on his own. As we were leaving the hotel an iguana was perched in the foliage. Very cool.

We traveled back up the highway stopping a few times to take pictures and then on to the airport to catch our flight back to Seattle.

Handicap Hint

I want to add here that if you have trouble walking and depend on wheelchairs for long walks at the airport, be sure that if you take red-eye flights that you will be able to get some kind of assistance if you need to go in between terminals. When we got into Phoenix in the middle of the night, there was no handicap assistance in between terminals. The transportation that they had in the form of an elevated rail, did not go to all the terminals and I wound up with a very long walk and being exhausted. The car rental at Miami was an extremely long way from where our plane landed and took off as well so be aware.

Other than that, this was a wonderful trip that I would recommend to anyone.

What's Coming Next

Next blog on the Washington Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.
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