April 6, 2017
In the movie National Lampoon's Vacation, there is a humorous scene at the rim of the Grand Canyon where Chevy Chase impatiently pauses for a few seconds while his family tries to get a good view of the magnificent scenery. In a way, that describes my brief visit to south Florida, which began exactly one month ago today. "OK, great, now let's go!" Florida was the final leg of my big journey to South America, but unlike my visits to Peru and Colombia, I was not constrained by lack of transportation. I rented a car in order to take care of multiple tourist objectives, and I tried to see as much as possible.
As with my previous photo-travelogs to Peru (Feb. 20 - 28) and Colombia (Mar. 1 - 4), this one parallels the birding blog post I did on Florida, so I will try to avoid duplication. The first destination after arriving at Miami International Airport (early afternoon on Sunday, March 5) was Marlins Park, the almost-new (five years old) home of the Miami Marlins baseball team. I just wanted to get some well-lit photos, in case it wasn't as sunny the next day, when I planned to return for a tour. With its massive, hurricane-proof roof fully retracted, it was a pretty impressive sight:
Because of heavy traffic and road construction, driving from the stadium through the southern part of Miami took longer than expected, so I didn't arrive at my motel in Florida City until an hour and a half later. After checking in and resting a bit, I drove west about 15 miles, and made it to the Everglades National Park about 5:15, just after the main visitor center had closed. No matter, I got the information I needed and headed into the park for some late-afternoon sightseeing and birding. I was delighted to see so many birds -- and an alligator! -- at Royal Palm, about five miles away. It was the second time in my life that I had been to the Everglades, the first being in December 1985.
I got up early on Monday morning, and made a point to visit nearly all of the points of interest along the main Everglades highway. My first stop was at a "skeleton forest" of Bald Cypress trees, which shed their needles during the dry months, and grow new needles when the rains resume. Then I stopped at Pahayokee Overlook, a large observation deck accessed via a boardwalk, located at the edge of the vast open area known as the "freshwater marl prairie." (The excellent map of the Everglades given to park visitors describes in great detail the nine different ecosystems, and where they extend.) Then came Mahogany Hammock, where I did a lengthier circuit walk along a boardwalk, marveling at the variety of plant life, especially bromeliads. (There were lots of those in Colombia as well.) At Paurotis Pond, a few miles further south, I saw densely-packed mangrove trees, which only thrive near the coast where the water is salty. Some of the Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills I saw there were building nests in those trees. Finally, I reached the small community of Flamingo, at the end of the road and the tip of the Florida peninsula. There I had a tasty lunch at a casual screened-patio restaurant at which Jimmy Buffet would have fit right in.
On the way back from Flamingo, I stopped at both Paurotis Pond and Royal Palm for a second time. But that put me way behind schedule, so I decided to give up on the idea of taking a tour of Marlins Park, set for 2:00. It was probably for the best, as I was able to appreciate the natural wonders of the Everglades just a little more. Indeed, the group of 12 or so alligators I saw at Royal Palm was one of the biggest thrills of the trip. The Everglades are an amazing, unique ecological treasure, and we are fortunate that those in generations past had the wisdom and foresight to preserve it. But in spite of recent big initiatives to mitigate the environmental damage caused by overdevelopment in Florida, there remain serious threats to wildlife there. "More people, more scars upon the land..."
After leaving the Everglades, I drove through Miami again, taking some late-afternoon photos of Marlins Park, from the east side this time. The stadium occupies land where the famed Orange Bowl once stood, in the predominantly-Cuban "Little Havana" part of the city. So, I photographed some urban scenes in Miami. As night fell, I then drove north toward Pompano Beach, where I had a motel reservation; it's about half way to Palm Beach.
The plan for Tuesday was to visit the renowned bird sanctuary at Wakodahatchee, which is basically the regional water supply / waste disposal system, but it was closed. So I went to nearby Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge instead. This federally-protected natural sanctuary covers 221 square miles, most of which is closed to the public. The elevated gravel trails which are accessible to the public (mostly bird-watchers like me) are arranged in rectangular grids composed of marshy ponds inhabited by many birds, some turtles, and a few alligators. There weren't many interesting trees or plants to see, but I did see and photograph two new (to me) butterfly species that I will describe in a future blog post.
I then made haste north-northeast toward West Palm Beach, where the Washington Nationals were hosting the Boston Red Sox in a spring training game at the Nats' brand-new "Ballpark of the Palm Beaches." (Actually, they share the facility with the Houston Astros.) The intervening distance was about 15 miles, passing through some upscale luxurious neighborhoods, and the unexpectedly-heavy traffic caused me to arrive a few minutes late to the game. It was a windy day, alternating between sun and clouds.
After the game, I decided to drive to Palm Beach, about five miles away, and see President Trump's vacation resort known as Mar-a-Lago. Once again, I was astonished by the opulent lifestyle of the local residents. I noticed that most of the homes of wealthy people in Palm Beach are surrounded by tall hedges that often exceed 15 feet in height. Since President Trump has often boasted about how the wall he seeks to build along the border with Mexico will be "beautiful," that gave me an idea for an alternative kind of "wall" -- consisting of greenery! There was no place to stop near the mansion, but I was fortunate to find a small public beach on the causeway between Palm Beach (which occupies a thin strip of land) and the mainland. There I took a quick photo, just as a television news crew finished taping a report, presumably about the President.
From Palm Beach, I headed straight west as the sun sank toward the horizon. By the time I passed Lake Okeechobee it was already dark, and I never saw anything of the lake other than some levees along the road. That night I stayed in the town of Immokalee, located about 25 miles southeast of Fort Myers and the Gulf Coast. The town itself was an interesting mixture of cultures, with an economy apparently based on growing oranges and perhaps other citrus fruits. I saw a number of Spanish-speaking people, presumably farm workers. The rural mostly-white populace in the restaurant where I dined (barbecue!) seemed rather familiar to me, as a resident of a mostly-rural southern state.
I woke up before dawn on March 8, wanting to maximize my enjoyment of Florida in the brief time before my airline flight left from Orlando in the afternoon. It took about 15 minutes to drive to next destination: Corkscrew Swamp, and I passed many orange groves along the way. The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is owned and operated by the Audubon Society. The land was purchased by the Society in 1954, as part of an emergency effort to thwart logging operations that would have destroyed the last remaining Bald Cypress forest in the United States. I was generally aware of the different habitat zones in the sanctuary, rather like the Everglades in terms of its ecological diversity, but I only gained a full appreciation for the role played by (for example) Bald Cypress trees after returning to Virginia and reading the background information booklet which I purchased at Corkscrew Swamp. It is a truly special place.
I gave myself a firm deadline for leaving Corkscrew, to make sure I would get to the airport on time, but it was hard to leave such a beautiful place behind. I hope it's not too long before I can visit there again.
I was originally hoping to swing through St. Petersburg on my way to Orlando so as to see Tropicana Field, the home of the Tampa Bay Rays. But I realized that the distance from Corkscrew to Orlando was greater than I had estimated, and I just didn't have enough time to do that. So instead, I drove almost straight north, mostly along U.S. Route 27. I recall crossing the Caloosahatchee River at the town of LaBelle, but I didn't realize until later that the river (which goes from Lake Okeechobee to Fort Myers) constitutes a virtual barrier between distinct ecological regions in south Florida. For example, Florida Panthers hardly ever stray north of that river, but some were spotted recently. Later I passed by a highway sign for the oddly-named town of Frostproof. I remember in grade school learning about that town, so named because it was thought that temperatures never went below freezing there, making it safe for orange trees. (There was in fact a deep freeze there in January 2010; see time.com.) As I was driving through downtown Orlando on the way to the airport, I noticed the Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic NBA team. Had I realized that it was soon to be the venue for the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, I might have stopped to take a photo.
It's hard to believe I accomplished all that in just three days (including two half days). The complete set of Florida photos can be seen (along with photos from Peru and Colombia) on the Chronological photo gallery (2017) page. They are mostly 600 x 400 pixels in size; ventually I will post double-sized versions (1200 x 800 pixels) of the best ones... I hope you enjoyed this photo tour!