Big Cypress N.Pr., FL

     At the end of March, 2012; Becky (my wife) and I went on vacation to Florida.  While there, we rented a car and drove across the State, from Orlando to the Big Cypress National Preserve.

Southern Florida area map

     Florida’s Big Cypress national Preserve is a wetland paradise encompassing an impressive 6,216 square kilometers of rich sub-tropical habitat.  It’s commonly called a swamp, but this is far from true because the reserve includes a variety of habitats such as sandy islands of pine and mixed hardwood trees, prairies, mangroves, palm trees, and of course, cypresses.

Becky is standing next to an interpretive sign on the trail within the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida 2012.

     To truly experience Big Cypress National Preserve, we immersed ourselves in it’s lush greenery and enjoyed the details of its rich and unusual plant and animal life. 

Giant Bald Cypress in the Big Cypress National Preserve

     About a third of Big Cypress is covered by cypress trees, mostly the dwarf pond cypress.  However, a few of the giant bald cypresses that once dominated this area still remain.  Some are as old as 700 tears, with trunks so wide it would take four people to encircle one with outstretched arms.  Also, on the trunk is the Strangler Fig. The roots of the strangler fig are often thought to be vines growing on the host tree. As the roots grow, they wrap around the host tree, sometimes killing it.

The lush greenery of the Big Cyprus national Preserve

     Pictured above, we are looking through a forest of Red Maple. Red maples are the second largest trees in the swamp, exceeded only by bald cypress. On the ground, the common swamp fern is seen throughout the cyprus forest. It is characterized by frond that grow up to four feet in length and by it’s purple-black stem. Additionally, you can see in the center of the above picture, a sword-like frond called the strap fern. These unusual fern grow in a clump on top of cypress knees or at the base of trees. It is listed as a state threatened plant.

We were in southern Florida during the dry season.  However, the rainy season begins in May and lasts until the following  autumn.  The rains flood Big Cypress to depths of one meter and then slowly drain south to the Gulf of Mexico.  The land is so flat that the water moves at a stately rate of only 1.6 km/day.  Even after the rains end in October, it takes another three months before water levels fully subside.

The White-faced Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) on the left and the Black Heron (Egretta) on the right, wading in the swamp at the Big Cypress National Preserve. Both are wading in water covered with Water Fern.

          Pictured above, water fern floats on the water’s surface and is often mistaken for another aquatic plant, namely duckweed. If you look closely, you can see an oval shape and small hairs on the top side of the plant. This fern prefers shade and can cover large expanses of the water’s surface.

Water plays a central role in the lives of everything in the Big Cypress National Preserve, and supports a rich diversity of wildlife.  Birds include herons, egrets, wood stork, red cockaded woodpecker, and the hawk, (pictured below).  Pictured above, the White-faced Ibis is a wading bird in the ibis family Threskiornithidae. The scientific name derives from Ancient Greek plegados and Latin, falcis, both meaning “sickle” and referring to the distinctive shape of the bill. 

A Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) found on the railing of a viewing area in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

     Pictured above, Red-Shouldered Hawks are forest raptors. In the east, they live in bottomland hardwood stands, flooded deciduous swamps, and upland mixed deciduous–conifer forests. They tend to live in stands with an open sub-canopy, which makes hunting easier. 

     Alligators patrol the waters, and during the dry season live in waterholes that attract numerous other animals.  Pictured below, the Snowy Egret is a beautiful, graceful small egret, very active in its feeding behavior in shallow waters. Known by its contrasting yellow feet, could be said to dance in the shallows on golden slippers. The species was slaughtered for its plumes in the 19th century, but protection brought a rapid recovery of numbers, and the Snowy Egret is now more widespread and common than ever. Its delicate appearance is belied by its harsh and raucous calls around its nesting colonies.   

The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) with black legs and yellow feet, wading in the swamp or waterhole of the Big Cypress National Preserve.

     One of the most endangered animals is the black Florida panther.  Just east of the Big Cypress is another small preserve, called the “Florida Panther Preserve”.  Becky and I visited there in hopes to see a Florida Panther. We didn’t……. Only 50 of them remain in the wild there.  However, this was the best place to see one. Pictured below, it was a dense forest of trees on small islands of hardwoods.  These mini-forests give the panther dry land, cover, and prey.

I’m standing on a trail within the “Florida Panther National Preserve” on an small island. Notice the Swamp Fern (Blechnum serrulatum) next to the path.
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