Florida is a birder’s paradise—if you don’t count the mosquitoes, alligators, fire ants, and other hazards—and one of my favorite Florida birding spots is Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Located more or less in the middle of nowhere, just north of the Everglades, the closest place to stay is Bonita Springs, south of Ft. Meyers on Florida’s west coast.
The 13,000 acre sanctuary preserves the largest remaining stand of old growth bald cypress in North America, along with plenty of plants and animals. I arrived shortly after 7 am, when the 2¼ mile boardwalk opens, and spent the next six hours watching wildlife, taking photos, and ticking off bird after bird.
Both of my visits have been in January, first in 2008 and then again this year. My first time there, I had just spent the previous day sweltering in the Everglades, fending off voracious mosquitoes in spite of three layers of DEET.
Expecting more of the same, we were shocked by a sudden cold snap—the high for the day was a frigid 32 degrees! While I shivered in my inadequate sweatshirt, the cold weather paid off. Birds desperate for food mobbed the feeders and I got great views of several lifers. I’m sure that the ongoing drought at the time (it was strange seeing cypress trees surrounded by cracked mud) also helped concentrate the birds near a water source.
This visit, in January of this year, was much more pleasant, but it happened to coincide with the infamous “polar vortex.” Cold air from the north collided with Florida’s humid warmth, producing unending clouds and drizzle. Too bad we can’t reserve good weather for every vacation.
Corkscrew really is a swamp. Much of the area is submerged, the vegetation is tropical, and creatures lurk in the underbrush. I was bemused by the “strangler fig” (left)—a vining plant that uses a host tree for support. Eventually the tree disappears under the vigorous vine and then dies from lack of light.
Even with the gloomy light, I saw a satisfying assortment of species. There was the usual assortment of herons, cormorants, ibis, and other water-loving birds. Gray Catbirds meowed from the bushes, a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks discussed matrimony, and warblers flitted from branch to branch.
I was excited to see my second-ever Painted Buntings. (I had seen my “lifer” Painted Bunting on my previous visit.) As we neared the end of the trail, the resident Barred Owl stared down from a perch overhead. (This is why birders wear hats.)
This visit produced a variety of other animals as well. Reptiles included an anole (right) showing off his watermelon-red throat pouch, the obligatory alligator, and a small Water Moccasin (aka Cottonmouth, below) wound around some ferns right next to the boardwalk. There was a paper sign with an arrow pointing him out, or I would have missed him completely—a bit unnerving when you consider that Water Moccasins are venomous. I suddenly had a new appreciation for the elevated boardwalk.
Spiders hung in webs waiting for dinner to arrive, while butterflies visited bright purple flowers. At one spot I was startled by a small raccoon hoping for a handout. Maybe it hadn’t read the sign: “Do not feed the animals.”
Finally, I was so hungry and thirsty that I reluctantly headed back to the visitor center. Understandably, food isn’t allowed out on the boardwalk, and I’d forgotten my water bottle. A small café sells fairly expensive pre-made salads and sandwiches, and a gift shop has all sorts of tempting bird-related items. I decided to grab a snack from my car and return to Bonita Springs for a late lunch.
I don’t get to Florida very often—it’s a long drive from Colorado—but when I return, you can be sure that Corkscrew Swamp will be on my itinerary.