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Posts Tagged ‘Birdwatching’

Anhinga and Friend

The Everglades National Park was the first place where we felt like honest-to-goodness birders. We walked around book in hand, binoculars on point, ears wide open. Our heightened senses weren’t necessary; birds are everywhere! The Park’s famed Anhinga Trail follows a boardwalk through a densely inhabited landscape. The birds (and the alligators) seem too content with their lives to even move. Wood storks, anhingas, herons, egrets and purple gallinules sit relaxed to your right and left welcoming you to their paradise.

Eco Pond, located near the Park’s southern tip, offers a look at even more species. We were lucky enough to hop onto an 8:00 a.m. Ranger-led bird walk and were greeted with an advanced lesson from both Ranger and fellow bird-watchers. “There’s a eastern phoebe” someone whispered. “Where,” we whispered back. “Look into that tree, third branch from the bottom on the left.” Dozens of high-powered binoculars moved in unison. This pattern of spotting, confirmation, and full group turn continued for two hours and over 50 species of birds. It was the perfect way to learn.

It was also wonderful to be accepted into this roving band of bird lovers. We were the youngest (by far), the most inexperienced (by far), and the most excited (OK, that’s a lie. Everyone was equally excited). We asked our Ranger if every bird walk was full of knowledgeable enthusiasts. “Of course,” she responded, “how do you think I’ve learned so much? Visitors have taught me sounds to listen for and places to look. Everyday I learn and see something new. This is a wonderful place to live, work and be.” Click Here to Read More.

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south Florida
Visited: January 21, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 133 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Sunning SiblingsWHAT IS IT?
At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. This review covers the Shark Valley area, which consists of a loop road leading to an observation tower through a freshwater slough ecosystem.

BEAUTY (8/10)
A freshwater slough ecosystem is, at its essence, a wide slow moving river. It looks like a flat, wet prairie with its tall grass, tree outcroppings and big blue sky. However, it is a River, its widest girth measuring 60 miles. This freshwater wetland environment attracts the usual suspects: American alligator, egrets, anhinga, herons, storks and moorhens. They are all here in healthy numbers just a few feet from the loop road.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
South Florida is a very young land mass, appearing anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, a veritable newborn. Native Americans are thought to have crossed the Alaskan land bridge over 10,000 years ago, predating the Everglades. Since their creation, the shallow Everglades slowly meandered on its way to the Florida Bay. Human interaction was limited to a few Indian tribes until the turn of the century when full-scale settlement began in South Florida.

Since then, humans have drained the Everglades, disrupted and redistributed the water flow with canals, dumped sugar cane runoff and untold other waste products into the “River of Grass” and demolished and filled portions for development. The Everglades are in critical condition and there are no plausible solutions, only stopgap measures. Everglades NP is our most endangered National Park.

Green HeronCROWDS (4/10)
Because of its easy accessibility, large crowds flock to Shark Valley. The Park’s website recommends reserving your place on the hourly tram tours. We secured last minute spots during trips in both April and January but overflowing crowds prevented us from entering the Park during the week between Christmas and New Years; at noon a Ranger told us that no parking spaces would be opening in the next hour and that the day’s tram tours were all full.

The large crowds prevent any in-depth discussions with the Tour Guides. If you end up on the wrong side of the tram, the five-wide seating prevents opposite side viewing. The most important thing to know about the tram tour is to SIT ON THE LEFT SIDE. If you don’t you will curse the people to your left.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Shark Valley Visitor Center is located a few hundred yards south of Route 41, the Tamiami Trail. It is 24 miles west of Miami and Route 821, the Florida Turnpike. The 15-mile loop route to the observation tower and back is fully paved and accessible via tram tour, bicycles or foot.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5)
Not much here, save the laminated pictures of birds and wildlife of the Everglades. The small gift store next to the bike rental booth is chintzy but fun. Check out the alligator head hats.

Big Sky Florida StyleCOSTS (1/5)
Park entry is $10 per car or free with the National Parks Pass. Tram tour rides are expensive, running $13.25 per person. Bike rentals run $5.75 an hour. The loop road is 15 miles round trip. Bringing your own bicycle(s) might make the day more affordable.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5)
We saw no Rangers in the Shark Valley Visitor Center area. Two volunteers staffed the Visitor Center and could not help us with camping information regarding other parts of Everglades NP. Private tour guides, not Rangers, lead the popular tram tours. With at least one hundred tourists per one guide, it is difficult for your questions to receive individual attention, especially if you are seated in the second tram.

TOURS/CLASSES (5/10)
The Shark Valley Tram Tour, while not affiliated with the National Parks Service, is a terrific, but expensive introduction to the Everglades. It is like an Everglades 101 class with its large crowds and basic information. We loved the tour a few years ago when we knew nothing about South Florida and bird watching but felt a little bored this time around.

There are a few Park-related exhibits in the tiny Shark Valley Visitor Center but do not expect quiet learning in the walk-in closet sized space. There is no space for an introductory film. This heavily visited Site deserves a larger and better Museum. As it stands, the National Park Service has outsourced the learning experience in the most easily accessible portion of one of its flagship Parks.

FUN (8/10)
Why oh why didn’t we remember to sit on the left side of the tram? We had obstructed views but still enjoyed the ride. The tour guide will point out all the birds flying, feeding and nesting along the way. Gators are too numerous to count – they get saved for last. We heard some of the same stories as we did the first time we took the tour, like the Italian mom who jumped in the canal and saved her son from a gator’s grasp. The punch line is still funny.

Need Shoes?WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
Walk along the boardwalk trail or just behind the VC to get your first (and best) glimpses of gators, herons of all sizes and colors and maybe even a purple gallinule. A bike ride or tram tour is not prerequisite for excellent photo opportunities. Much of the wildlife congregates right there along the “Gallery.” We overheard one British tourist exclaim that he had come hoping to see anything; he had no idea these beautiful species would all be at arm’s length just a few yards from the parking lot.

On that note, you might want to keep an eye on any small children. We think Shark Valley is an ideal place to take kids. Just make sure they don’t stray too far – there are no protective barriers between you and nature’s most efficient predator, the American alligator.

The tram tour is something the entire family can enjoy; nothing strenuous about hopping on and taking a ride through this river of grass. Shark Valley is an easy day trip from Miami, or even Naples. Don’t’ forget your camera or your binoculars; both will get used frequently.

TOTAL 46/80

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near Florida City, Fla.
Visited: January 21, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 133 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Struggling AnglerWHAT IS IT?
At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. This review covers the areas of the park accessible through its main entrance located just outside Florida City, Fla. This stretch of road passes through numerous ecosystems, traveling 38 miles from the Ernest Coe Visitor Center to the Flamingo Visitor Center, located on the Florida Bay.

BEAUTY (9/10)
The section of the Everglades from the Main Entrance to Flamingo is the most beautiful area of the Park because it is the most diverse. A few inches’ change in altitude dramatically alters the landscape. Along the 38-mile drive, you travel through a pineland forest, hardwood hammocks, cypress trees, a freshwater prairie, a mangrove wilderness, a hurricane-created coastal marsh and finally a coastal prairie. Every change is clear and breathtaking. The sunsets are spectacular whether they overlook the pastel horizon of the sandy Florida Bay keys or are through the vertical wonder of Florida pines.

The wildlife is abundant and includes many endangered species. We were lucky enough to see the rare American crocodile but did not see either the manatee or the limpkin. The Everglades are the only place in the world where saltwater crocodiles live side by side with alligators.

The Everglades are an American original. Many of the trails feel more like a zoo than a National Park. The birds, fish and massive reptiles are so close that they seem to mingle with the tourists in such a great number that you are guaranteed to see all but the rarest species.

American CrocodileHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
South Florida is a very young land mass, appearing anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, a veritable newborn. Native Americans are thought to have crossed the Alaskan land bridge over 10,000 years ago, predating the Everglades. Since their creation, the shallow Everglades slowly meandered on its way to the Florida Bay. Human interaction was limited to a few Indian tribes until the turn of the century when full-scale settlement began in South Florida.

Since then, humans have drained the Everglades, disrupted and redistributed the water flow with canals, dumped sugar cane runoff and untold other waste products into the “River of Grass” and demolished and filled portions for development. The Everglades are in critical condition and there are no plausible solutions, only stopgap measures. Everglades NP is our most endangered National Park.

CROWDS (3/10)
Our crowd interaction at Everglades NP ranged wildly from good to our worst National Park experience yet. First, for chronologies sake, the bad times.

Keep away from the Flamingo campground if you spend the night in the Everglades. We found the campground overrun with rowdy boaters eager to set off the next morning from the nearby marina. Quiet hours were ignored, the vodka poured freely and the overheard conversations were so loud, aggressive and offensive that we feared for our safety.

Lowlights included one group showering expletives upon Park Rangers. The reason: they dared to penalize the man for drunk boating and illegal fishing. Another nearby group collected and chopped down wood (illegal) twice, once at seven and once at midnight while using their idling pickup truck as a spotter. Their massive bonfire party began at 8 p.m. and lasted well past 2 a.m.

We have run into obnoxious and dangerous boaters at every National Park that allows motorboats. Our experience tells us that our Flamingo incident was all too common especially since we encountered no roaming campground hosts and no patrolling Park security, a first in well over 50 National Park campgrounds. Our sleepless, fear-ridden night nearly ruined our trip to the Everglades.

Roseate Spoonbill OverheadLuckily, our spirits were lifted at 8:00 a.m. around Eco Pond. We happened upon a Ranger-led bird walk and were greeted with an advanced lesson from both Ranger and fellow bird-watchers. Everybody had high-powered individual binoculars and one couple brought a portable spotting telescope that they happily shared. We spotted over 50 species of birds in our meandering two-hour walk. The perfect way to learn about birds is to go with people who know what they are doing. Other than the Ranger, we were the youngest in the group by at least twenty-five years.

Our walks around the Anhinga Trail, near the main entrance, were wonderful and representative of the classic National Parks visit. The boardwalks were crowded with tourists amazed and enchanted at the exotic floral and fauna they were seeing. So much excitement and so many happy kids.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
The Everglades NP Main Entrance is located 45 miles from Miami and 11 miles from Homestead. The Florida Turnpike, Route 821, ends at Homestead. From there, Florida Route 9336 weaves its way through Florida City and into the Everglades. The road continues 38 miles to the southern tip of mainland Florida, the site of the Flamingo Visitor Center.

There are six fully accessible self-guided interpretive trails along the road through the Park. They take the visitor through six dramatically different ecosystems. The trails allow anyone to amble through the forbidding mangroves, an incredible feat in itself. All the trails are completely flat and make for easy walking. Just don’t forget to bring insect repellent, the mosquitoes are always out in full force.

Glistening Red Mangroves

CONCESSIONS/ BOOKSTORE (3/5)
The brightly-lit gift store in the Ernest Coe VC at the Main Entrance followed the same design as bookstores in many of the destination parks – lots of coffee table photography books, key chains, magnets, generic National Park guides and gear. The only exception to the rule was the extensive stock of books for birders.

Flamingo had both an upscale gift store operated by an independent concessionaire and a grocer/convenience store at the marina, but we couldn’t find an actual NPS bookstore in the area. Be sure to get your reading material before you start down the 38-mile road.

COSTS (3/5)
Entrance to the Park is $10 per car. A tent spot at the Flamingo or the Long Pine Key campground is $14.

Like the Gulf Coast portion of the park, much of the Everglades NP serviced by the Flamingo VC is in the water. Canoes, kayaks and fishing skiffs can be rented hourly or by the day. Prices range from $8 an hour for a 2-person canoe to $155 for a 19-foot fishing skiff. Fishing poles and ice chests can also be rented as needed.

The canoe rental fees at Gulf Coast were much more affordable. There were many more motorized boats leaving the Flamingo marina than from their Gulf Coast counterpart. A canoe excursion from the northwest might be more peaceful and definitely cheaper.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5)
The Flamingo Campground, the setting for our horrendous first night, would have been much better with a Ranger patrolling the grounds once or twice. In fact, this is the first NPS campground we have used where we haven’t had an evening visit from an NPS employee, if only to tell us about the evening slide program at the amphitheatre.

The Rangers leading the birders walk and the talk which turned into a walk at the Anhinga Trail were both excellent. Young and enthusiastic, they knew their stuff and both stayed with us long past the anticipated end of the lesson.

Stay at Home DadTOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
The NPS runs an interesting array of activities from both the Flamingo (the south) and Royal Palm (near the main entrance in the northeast) areas. The Rangers are the centerpiece of the Park’s highly enjoyable educational experience.

Both areas offer $15, three-hour long, walks through the swamp. Four Ranger-led slogs through the wet leave the south every week while Royal Palm offers the difficult hike every day. Space fills up well in advance.

The Bird Walk around Eco Pond happens from Thursday through Sunday only in the South. The wonderful Ranger who led on the birding excursion also handles many of the swamp walks. She knew every bird, butterfly, tree, spider and flower. Flamingo also offers a daily Ranger-led $20 four and a half hour morning canoe trip. These tours also fill up well in advance.

Royal Palm offers a daily $15 Ranger-led bike hike through the landscape of the north. Simple auditorium-based Ranger talks also take place daily in both areas.

The Park’s Visitor Center Museum is large, confusing and not nearly as helpful as the Rangers. The recent remodeling includes a new and outsourced film. A Discovery Channel logo proves very distracting while it constantly rotates in the lower right corner. The film relies on sped-up camera tricks and nice pictures and fails to scratch the surface of the Everglades’ complex ecosystems and the man-made problems that threaten them.

If the Ranger programs are not enough, two hour long private boat tours leave 8 times a day into both the mangroves and Florida Bay from the Flamingo Marina. Adult costs range from $12 to $18. They are narrated by a professional guide. There is a lot to do in the Everglades.

Drying AnhingaFUN (8/10)

The Anhinga Trail near the Park Entrance deservedly enjoys its world-class reputation for wildlife spotting. It is as much fun as you can have on a National Parks boardwalk. And believe what the Rangers say, come back and walk the trail at night. The sounds are amplified, the walk is safe and the atmosphere is enjoyably spooky. The twin beady eyes of the alligator will appear fluorescent red if you shine a flashlight from your eye level into the water. Their silent motion is interrupted only when they creep up on other gators and thrash their tails through the water in territorial battles.

The moon and the stars were so bright that we did not need a flashlight; although a squawking Great Blue Heron did shock us when we unknowingly crept only a few inches in front of his perch. Our terrific time at Everglades NP was dampened only by our night spent in the Flamingo campground with very little sleep.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
Our two-day visit took us from one extreme to the other – in emotions as well as natural settings. We happened upon two stellar Ranger-led events at either end of the Park without even trying.

If Shark Valley VC offers the visitor an Everglades 101 course, traveling from the Main Entrance to Flamingo is the next level. If you go to Shark Valley, you pay your money, get on the tram, and are sure to see just about everything that ecosystem, a freshwater slough, has to offer.

The road on the east side of the park is long and winds through more landscapes than one should expect to see in a day, let alone along a single 38-mile stretch. Your visit here will be more self-directed; there are no guarantees and the Main Entrance is not as accessible as its name might imply. Your trip here will be more difficult than Shark Valley but could prove to be more rewarding.

TOTAL 52/80

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near International Falls, Minn.
Visited: June 4, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 51 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Our IslandWHAT IS IT?
A boreal forest ecosystem carved by Ice Age glacial action consisting of dozens of lakes and hundreds if not thousands of islands. Voyageurs NP is a water-based park. 84,000 acres of water, in fact. Hiking trails exist, but their entry points must be reached by boat.

BEAUTY (8/10)
The waters glisten, the islands charm and the skies shine a stunning blue. Numerous bald eagles soar above while one of the continent’s largest varieties of warblers sing in the background. You comment to yourself, “this place is so beautiful”. Then another motor boat loudly speeds by and rocks your canoe.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10)
More so in the Park’s name. These lakes were just a traveling route for the Voyageurs, like a present-day interstate. Park videos will explain the Voyageurs to some extent, but if you are interested in the history of the French-Canadian über-trappers, go to the site of their annual rendezvous: Grand Portage NM, Minnesota.

CROWDS (1/10)
The National Park Service sites are for everyone, snowmobilers, motorists and boatsmen alike. Still, the ubiquitous presence of outboard-motored fishing boats brought our humble canoeing selves to a breaking point many a time. We wanted to experience the pathways of the voyageur, voyageur-style: in a canoe. Wrong choice on a weekend. We fought constant wakes from inconsiderate anglers. Finding a campsite was impossible given our distinct speed disadvantage, the crowded nature of the Park and the relative lack of park designated tent sites.

After entering the Park’s waterways, we slowly paddled from filled campsite to the next while our high-speed, first-come, first-served competition easily claimed the empty sites; preparing their ornate tents while we cursed our canoe, each other and motor boats in general. We eventually found a darling island, about 60 feet in diameter (not an actual campsite) where we were able to pitch the tent. Little did we know that we were in earshot of two official sites where the swearing, cribbage games (presumably), and outboard motors blocked out all natural sounds until long after 11:00 p.m.

Lest we sound too grumpy, we did have a great time. Just don’t expect peace and tranquility.

On the LakesEASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
Ranger-led boat tours start in mid-June for a fee. Until then you need to a rent or purchase a water going craft to experience anything.

CONCESSIONS/ BOOKSTORE (4/5)
We visited three of the Park’s four Visitor Centers. All three had terrific book selections ranging from Ojibwa legend and fiction, Voyageur books, and a large selection of birding information. We were tempted to buy an adorable stuffed moose but somehow relented. There are plenty of other kid-related items, nice T-shirts and a waterproof map of Voyageurs NP for $8.95; cheaper than the $10 version our canoe outfitter was offering.

COSTS (3/5)
The park itself is free, as is the backcountry camping pass. The boat you need to travel within Voyageurs is not. Plan accordingly. There are only a few outfitters nearby the Park. Most of the lodges offer boat rental but only if your staying with them.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
All Visitor Centers were staffed with numerous friendly and helpful Rangers. We suppose there are Rangers out on the water, patrolling the lakes but it’s hard to differentiate between all the boats speeding around you.

Our Private IslandTOURS/CLASSES (6/10)
There are three Visitor Centers at strategic shoreline points – each had unique exhibits and displays, as well as their own bookstores. At the Ash River Visitor Center, we had our choice of movies – one on the voyageurs, one on the formation of the waterways and one showcasing the park and its flora and fauna. We watched one on the park itself while we waited for our outfitter to come pick up the rented canoe.

The Rainy Lake Visitor Center was host to a Birders’ Rendezvous the weekend we were there. Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center was where we found out about the closest canoe outfitter and gaped in amazement at the photos of two bald eagles fighting in the Lake. The photos were taken by a Ranger getting ready to lead a boat tour.

Ranger-led boat tours do not begin until the middle of June so we had no opportunity to partake. There are additional fees for most tours.

FUN (6/10)
The first three to four hours of the first day were no fun at all. Once we got the hang of paddling the canoe together, overcame our fear of being tipped by the wake of a speeding motorboat and finally found a flat, semi-private place to camp, we had a blast.

We should have known better than to set off on one of the first hot weekends in June. The stress of finding a place to sleep was overwhelming – once we spotted our island, the worry dissipated and we were able to sit back, relax and really look at our surroundings for the first time. This place is beautiful. We sunbathed on our rocky shore. We watched the sun set for what seemed like hours. The next day, we slept in until the rain stopped, then paddled around the neighboring islands exploring and looking for wood for the evening fire.

That evening fire never happened – black skies came rushing toward us almost as quickly as the motorboats scurrying to get back to their campsites before the downpour. We had just enough time to collect our things and jump in the tent, which was being whipped by sudden bursts of wind. We held down the tent as water poured down and whitecaps formed on the lakes. Twenty minutes later, the skies cleared, the waters calmed and we had yet another phenomenal sunset. When we recounted our experience to the canoe outfitter he thought for a minute then said, “that actually sounds like a lot of fun.” It was.

Quiet TimeWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (5/10)
The Lakes are beautiful, just not peaceful. The Park seems to be unique in that it caters primarily to sportsmen. Perhaps it would be better designated as a National Recreation Area. We cannot attest to the fishing quality but there were anglers everywhere. They all seemed to be having a great time in a stunning natural setting. Who knows how many walleye, northern pike and smallmouth bass they were catching.

We would not recommend Voyageurs for a canoeing vacation. Go to the nearby motor-less Boundary Canoe Waters which are part of the National Forest System (under the Department of Agriculture jurisdiction and sadly, not a destination on our two-year sojourn).

TOTAL 41/80

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