In my quest to explore the wonders that are, as I like to call it, “in our own back yard”, a friend and I set off early one morning for the Bird Rookery Swamp Trail off Immokalee Road. Many of you know of, if not visited Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The Bird Rookery is located adjacent and to the south of this preserve on Shady Hollow Boulevard, about 50 minutes from Marco Island.
Open since 2011, Bird Rookery Swamp Trail is part of the South Florida Water Management District’s CREW, Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed. The trail is a 12 mile loop along a tramway road built for the narrow gauge railway formally used to log this area in the last century, a business that ended in 1957. The roadway is above the water line as it traverses through this cypress and maple swamp. The area is critical habitat for panthers and bears; other animals observed here include bob cats, deer and otters. Alas, we saw none of them, but did see more than enough to make our trip worthwhile.
As we approached the parking lot, we spotted a marsh hare. When we got out of our car, we were greeted by a bevy of ibis, egrets, and herons in the adjacent pond. A short walk led to a quarter mile boardwalk and then the tramway road. What struck me first was just how beautiful the area was; this had to have been the prettiest walk I have taken in our own back yard.
Lushly forested, with water along both sides of the road, the many shades of green were striking; duck weed and water lettuce floating on the water surface, alligator plants, ferns. Many trees were densely spotted with lichen so that they looked like, as my friend noted, dalmatians. Some trees sported red and green air plants (bromeliads) while others a bright red lichen mixed with green, aptly nicknamed Christmas wreath lichen. We passed by (and tried to avoid) some of the most perfect spider webs I have ever seen. Add to this, a foggy morning, and we truly felt as though we were entering the forest primeval although in reality the tree growth was fairly new, replacing the trees that had been logged.
The other thing that struck me was how quiet it all was, yet busy with the songs of the dozens of species of birds found here and the occasional fish slapping the water. I wish I knew more about identifyingthe different bird calls; my knowledge is pretty much limited to cardinals, catbirds, hawks and owls; all of which I think we heard.
Other than birds, our first animal sighting was a snapping turtle laying eggs on the side of the trail. She was probably 20-30 years old and will lay 20-40 eggs and then leave the nest alone. The babies will hatch and make their way all on their own; unfortunately most of them will end up as prey for the many predators in the swamp.
Initially, we saw no alligators. But, it was early. The many slides we observed (where they cross from one pool to another) told us that they were lurking below the water surface waiting for the sun.
A little over a mile in, we came to a large body of water known as Saddleback Lake and the trail made a sharp left turn where we encountered a tree full of roosting vultures, including one with wings spread, drying them in the rising sun. I never thought I would use the word ‘beautiful’ in the same sentence as ‘vulture’, but it truly was.
We saw many different birds, the most striking, a cardinal sitting alone in a bare tree, a pileated woodpecker, and some baby red shouldered hawks.
Along the way were flowers of many different hues…white, blue, purple, yellow, and bright red. With so much color, we noted a number of butterflies; more than a dozen different types have been observed here.
Our first alligator sighting was in a hole to the right of us. At the same time, noting a water moccasin sunning itself on a tree stump in the water to the left was a reminder that while gawking at all the beauty, we needed to remain vigilant of our surroundings.
The next sighting was a mother alligator in the water watching over her clutch of yellow striped young swimming around her. At a little more than three and a half miles in, we met our first gator across the trail. It blocked more than three quarters of the trail and we would have had to pass directly in front of it to continue. Sage advice is to stay at least 15 feet away. At that point, it was nearly noon, we had enjoyed our walk and decided to turn back. Our round trip adventure would make a more than seven mile walk, enough for us that day.
On the way back, another alligator was blocking two thirds of the trail, butwe were able to pass carefully behind this one and he seemed to pay us no heed.
At one point, we came upon a gator hole that held a very angry one. It had just chased another one out of its territory. It was thrashing about and started to come out of the water in our direction. We quickly (very quickly) retreated until it calmed down.
As we neared the boardwalk again, we saw two young raccoons pass on the trail ahead of us. We thought they would be gone by the time we got there, but instead they were frolicking in the water alongside the trail. We watched their antics for a while and then, near the end of our walk passed turtles basking in the sun on a manmade float in the water while a young morehen with downy feathers swam around them. Our final stop was to observe the turtle nest now abandoned by the mother but distinguishable by its telltale hole in the ground.
On the return leg of our trip, we encountered a few other walkers and some cyclists who seemed to be biking with ease. I think, though, when muddy, it would be difficult for bikes. In any case, I would not want to bike the trail unless I had good tires.
For me, the best part of this trip was that we were able to observe the swamp without wading through water! Those swamp hikes where I can’t see what I might step on just aren’t for me. A return to Bird Swam Rookery is definitely in my travel plans.
The trail is open from dawn to dusk every day and there is a portable toilet in the parking lot. There is quite a bit of shade, but a hat, sunscreen and water are necessary in some open areas. There are a few picnic tables along the first part of the trail. At decision points in the loop there are helpful signs that indicate location and distances between various points along the loop. Guided walks are offered; consult the website: www.crewtrust.org/2013/06/26/bird-rookery-swamp-trail. On other websites, it has been noted that vultures can be destructive to the rubber on cars in the parking lot and it is advised to hang plastic bags from door frames and windshield wipers or cover the car with a bungee secured tarp. We and another visitor had used the plastic bags, but the other half dozen cars were unprotected and undisturbed.