Saturday, August 30, 2014

Spot alligators, subtropical birds on Anhinga

A male anhinga dries its wings at Everglades National Park.
Photo courtesy of Everglades NPS.
Topo map for Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park.

Short trail heads
through slough
in Everglades N.P.

Day hikers can walk over a slow moving river populated by alligators and Burmese pythons on a perfectly safe trail in Everglades National Park.

The 0.75-mile Anhinga Trail, part of which is a boardwalk, heads through a freshwater sawgrass marsh. It’s located at the Royal Palm Visitor Center.

Winter marks the best time to hike the trail, as the subtropical climate means summers will be unbearably hot and buggy.

To reach the trail, from the Miami metro area take the Florida Turnpike (Route 821) south, staying on it as it merges with U.S. Hwy. 1 in Florida City. Turn right onto Palm Drive (State Road 9336/SW 344th St.), and follow the signs into the national park. After passing the park entrance station, drive two miles to the Royal Palm turnoff; two miles after that, you’ll arrive to the Royal Palm Visitor Center. Park in the visitor center’s lot. The trail leaves from the visitor center’s backside; enter the center to pick up the trail.

An easy hike with a mere five feet of elevation gain, the walkway heads south then east past a pond. An observation platform edges over the waterbody.

Taylor Slough
Continuing east, the trail enters a marl prairie, a transition zone between ecosystems in which prairie meets wetlands. Saw grass – which technically isn’t a grass but a sedge – is the most common plant, but you’ll also spot beak rush, muhly grass, spike rush, and white-top sedge.

Once the tail reaches the boardwalk, it forms a loop. Go straight or east onto the boardwalk.

The loop meanders over Taylor Slough, a wide, slow moving, marshy river that drains fresh water into the Gulf of Mexico. When the boardwalk curves north, a spur trail leads to an observation platform over the slough.

Heading north on the boardwalk takes hikers over open, deeper water. Watch for alligators peeking out of the river, as well as turtles, herons and egrets. Wildlife viewing is best at dawn and dusk as animals tend to hide during the day’s heat.

Snow birds
Winter marks the best season to see the most wildlife. A number of birds spend their time in the Everglades after migrating from a northern clime. Among those you can spot are the double breasted cormorant, great egret, great blue heron, snowy egret, tricolored heron, white ibis and woodstork. Turkey vultures will congregate in the marsh during the early morning hours.

A couple of platforms lead off the boardwalk for hikers to get a better view of the waterbody. The wildlife are used to people, so you’ll be able to get fairly close to them.

As the trail curves west, a spur heads straight north into the slough. If you haven’t yet spotted the bird you’re looking for, take the spur to improve your odds.

Next, the trail circles south through sawgrass. This is a great place to look for nesting anhingas, the trail’s namesake. The dark-plumaged bird – also known as snakebirds because of their long, curved neck – actually stalks slow-moving fish underwater then spears them. It always eats the fish’s head first. Younger anhingas are fluffy and white.

Burmese pythons
Another animal you may see (but hopefully won’t) is the invasive Burmese python. Though native to southeast Asia, people over the years have released their pet pythons into the Everglades. Though some 2000 pythons have been removed from the Everglades, wildlife officials estimate that’s a small fraction of the actual population.

Upon completing the loop, turn right/west and head back to the visitor center.

Regardless of the time of year, bring insect repellent; though bug numbers are down during winter, they will reappear following rain or during heat waves.

One other note: Dogs are allowed on the trail.

Learn about other great America national park sights in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Park guidebook.