Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Florida

So now that we have Alaska out of the way, I can get on with writing about the bazillion other places I've been in the past few years. Thanks to a bunch of out-of-state art shows I did in 2014, I visited a number of new places. While I've been to south Florida before, I'd never been to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Blair Audubon Center near Bonita Springs, Florida.

I had booked a campsite at a place called Gulf Coast Camping RV Resort in Bonita Springs. My show was on Sanibel Island, home to "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which I thought would be a good place for a wildlife artist (it wasn't, at least not for my style of work). Bonita Springs was the closest place I could find with an available site. When we arrived we discovered that this is a 55 and over community--oops! While there were some spaces available for the mobile retiree, most of the lots were filled with more permanent travel trailers--ones that had been skirted and sided and made to look like little houses. No one, as far as I know, objected to us camping there, and our neighbors were quite friendly.

It was in the office of the campground that I saw a brochure for Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. I had never heard of it, but since I was looking for something to do during our few days off after the show, I decided we should check it out. I was not disappointed!

At 13,000 acres, Corkscrew encompasses the largest intact stand of old-growth bald cypress trees in the world. The sanctuary includes a number of other types of habitat, making it a great place to see a wide variety of birds and mammals. No food is allowed on the 2.25 mile long boardwalk, so be sure to eat at the visitor's center, where there is a really good lunch counter as well as well-appointed gift shop.

Map of Corkscrew Swamp showing different types of habitat in the sanctuary.

The trail lead us through the pine flatwoods and along the wet prairie, where grasses and ferns mixed with scraggly trees.

Once in the cypress grove, we were surrounded by towering trees that shade a bonanza of ponds and swamps teeming with birds. Many of the largest trees are named, but I found photographing them to be useless as I just can't convey the enormity of these giants, some of which are over 500 years old.

Boardwalk through Corkscrew.

Florida strangler figs, Ficus aurea, are prevalent. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about them:

"Ficus aurea is a strangler fig. In figs of this group, seed germination usually takes place in the canopy of a host tree with the seedling living as an epiphyte until its roots establish contact with the ground. After that, it enlarges and strangles its host, eventually becoming a free-standing tree in its own right. Individuals may reach 30 m (100 ft) in height. Like all figs, it has an obligate mutualism with fig wasps: figs are only pollinated by fig wasps, and fig wasps can only reproduce in fig flowers. The tree provides habitat, food and shelter for a host of tropical lifeforms including epiphytes in cloud forests and birdsmammalsreptiles and invertebratesF. aurea is used intraditional medicine, for live fencing, as an ornamental and as a bonsai."

Florida strangler fig on bald cypress.

The low sun angle of mid-February cast long shadows through the afternoon swamp.

We didn't see any mammals, but there are several dozen in the sanctuary, including the critically endangered Florida panther. We did see several alligators, but not until later in the day when it had warmed up a bit.

Young gator warming up on a downed cypress, covered with water lettuce.

Several plants were in bloom, including this swamp lily, crinum americanum.

Swamp lily in the shade.

But perhaps the most spectacular find, plant-wise, was this cardinal air plant, Tillandsia fasciculata, a bromeliad, that was blooming right next to the trail. An epiphyte, these are plants that do not grow in soil, but rather attach themselves to trees and collect nutrients through their leaves. It's one of those plants that is so alien to someone who grew up in the north, and I spent quite a while studying and photographing it.

Cardinal air plant, or Tillandsia fasciculata

These amazing plants do not harm the tree, and actually serve to help other critters as the plants become small reservoirs up in the trees. Insects are drawn to them, which in turn benefits frogs and birds. I was smitten with the placement of the pistol and stamen on these plants--that tiny splash of purple that you could easily miss if you only gave this plant a passing look.

Next: the birds of Corkscrew Swamp

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