Are any of you denizens of the internet residents of Florida? Has anyone visited Florida or, if you’re a wanderer of the blogosphere from somewhere other than the U.S., have you even heard of Florida or have any idea of what it’s like? To many, Florida is a sun-drenched version of the American dream, where summer is perpetual, the beach a block away and fresh orange juice as close as the tree in your back yard. The Florida lifestyle, in fact, can be so pleasant that it’s easy to forget, or overlook, the complexities of America’s third most populous state (that’s right! Only California and Texas have more people and New York — New York! — has less. In American presidential politics, this makes Florida one big electoral prize).
Florida is literally the land of tomorrow and of yesterday; a place where you can watch a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral one day and on the next visit St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States (founded by the Spanish in 1565, long before those English pilgrims showed up at Plymouth Rock). Florida is a land of paradox and contradictions, with disparate elements often existing in close juxtaposition to each other: a manicured golf course lies next to a mangrove swamp; Disney Land and tourist theme parks co-exist with Miami’s International Art Fair (the place to go for serious collectors of contemporary art); an alligator suns itself on a suburban driveway; egrets and herons fish alongside their human counterparts. Florida wraps this package of self-contradictions in endless miles of beautiful beaches. With the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, Florida has more seacoast than any other continental state; its gorgeous white sand beaches and tropical waters have tempted generations of American college students south for spring break (note to anyone planning a mid-March Florida trip: take care in booking your hotel, unless you think setting off fire alarms at 3 am is the height of humor. Mr. Janakay does not and was very grumpy indeed after one of his spring Florida jaunts).
Because Florida has so many pleasurable ways to pass the time (not least, dear reader, it offers numerous opportunities to lounge on one’s porch or patio with something white and chilly in hand), it’s very, very easy to overlook its fantastic natural attractions. If you’ve wandered by my blog before, you know that I adore swamps, marshes, wildlife reserves, boardwalks, and parks; I’m basically a huge fan of any place where humanity has left even a sliver of room for non-human creatures. (Nature along the Delaware Coast; Nature on the Move). Although so many of Florida’s natural wonders have been lost to commercial development and population growth, there’s room for hope because so much still remains. Of these surviving remnants of “natural” Florida my very favorite is Corkscrew Swamp, a 13,000 acre sanctuary (about 5300 hectares) located in the western Everglades and operated by the National Audubon Society.
You may find Corkscrew and its wonders about thirty miles inland and slightly north of Naples; find Naples in the map’s lower green quadrant, put your finger on the “a” and go up a bit and you’ll have a rough idea of Corkscrew’s location.
Condominiums and beach playgrounds dominate much of the coast in this area; logging and agriculture have taken their toll. Despite visiting this part of Florida many times, I still find it hard to believe that this:
is only about 30 miles (approximately 48 kilometers) from this:
Visiting Corkscrew and viewing its wonders is easy. The sanctuary is open every day of the year; admission fees are minimal (fourteen American dollars; admission good for two consecutive days if you save your receipt) and the two miles of boardwalk provide easy access to Corkscrew’s different habitats (if you’re not up for two miles, there’s a shorter loop you can do). Because Florida is hot, and birds and wildlife can be scarce when people are present, I always try to arrive as early in the morning as possible (the boardwalk opens at 7 am).
One wonderful thing about wetlands are the sounds, which are frequently as interesting and unusual as the sights. Even though its sound recording isn’t great, this short video of Corkscrew’s prairie does give some idea of the cacophony of frogs, none of which were visible (the snuffling sound is the frogs; there’s also a bird in the background):
Once in the deep swamp I had one of those wonderful, unpredictable experiences that sometimes occur — a wildlife sighting! This was my first view of a group of Corkscrew’s river otters:
This is a brief video of the otters’ appearance. Because it was made towards the end of the wrestling match, several of the troupe had already moved along the boardwalk. You can hear some swamp sounds and (alas) the click of someone else’s very high tech camera:
Although the otters were hard (well, impossible) to top, Corkscrew has more wonders:
You may have noticed, dear reader, that I have a tendency to preach, which I do attempt (not always very successfully) to keep under control. Chalk it up to all that earnest, didactic Victorian literature I sometimes read (BTW I’m currently engrossed in Middlemarch, George Eliot’s wonderful doorstopper of a novel!). So — skip this paragraph if you like, you’ve received your warning — but it’s impossible for me when discussing Corkscrew not to stress how incredibly difficult it’s been (and continues to be, actually) to preserve its wonders. Have you ever heard of plume hunters or noticed the feathers in all those gorgeous women’s hats, so fashionable in the early part of the 20th century? Well, those feathers had to come from somewhere and the rookeries of south Florida were easy pickings. Plume hunters could make a fortune in one successful hunt and their activities almost wiped out Florida’s heron and egret population. The trade was finally outlawed in the 1920s but even then official enforcement was lax. Audubon hired its own wardens to protect Corkscrew’s nesting sites and launched a public relations campaign against wearing the plumes. It was difficult and violent struggle — two of Audubon’s wardens were murdered in the line of duty — but their efforts were successful and the egret/heron population was saved.
Because you’re observing a living biome, every trip to Corkscrew is different. For example, if you’re lucky enough to visit during October to February, you have a very good chance of seeing:
And then, if you’re incredibly lucky (not ordinary luck, but the kind where you’d win the powerball lottery), you might see — a Florida panther!
I can’t resist using this great video, lifted directly from YouTube. There’s a naughty expression at the end, so if you’re sensitive to such things you may want to turn off the sound. I’ve left it in, as it so exactly expresses how I would have felt!
Audubon calls Florida panthers an “umbrella species,” i.e., if they survive, so do lots of other things that use the same habitat. Once they were found over the entire southeastern U.S.; now there are about 100–150 left in a few spots in southern Florida. Cause for despair or reason to hope? Because the numbers have grown since 1995, when the population was down to only 20-30, you decide.