We turned onto Royal Palm Road, which leads to the parking area for the Anhinga Trail, and stopped when we saw this sign. Although we drove the two miles as indicated, we did not see any panthers crossing the road.
When we got to the parking lot the first thing I heard was the song of a White-eyed Vireo. I had only seen this species once before, at Point Pelee, and was happy to see it again. Two of them were singing in the trees in the parking lot, and I managed to spot one within the branches, its yellow cap and white eye visible briefly before it flew across the parking lot.
Between the parking lot and the trail entrance was the Royal Palm Visitor Center, which had a couple of vending machines outside – ice cold water! – and beyond that was a large pond area where the trail started. A Great Blue Heron was sunbathing across the pond, and I spotted a Green Heron slowly walking among the tangle of branches just above the water.
There were also two Anhingas sitting in the trees above the water and one standing on a rock, hunting for fish. Like a heron, it sat still on the rock while turning its head on its long, flexible neck to scan for fish in the water.
While watching the Anhingas, something slowly moving in the water caught my attention – an alligator! It would be the first of many seen on our trip, but seeing that first one was just as thrilling as I had expected.
A couple of Double-crested Cormorants were drying off on a rock at the edge of the water. The ‘gator was swimming around not too far off, making me wonder how these water-loving birds managed to coexist with such fierce predators. Alligators do not actively hunt their prey, but lurk in the water, waiting for something edible – fish, turtles, frogs, birds, or small to medium-sized mammals – to pass within its range. Alligators have sensors within their skin that are incredibly sensitive to vibration, allowing them to detect any disturbance on the surface of the water nearby. Once the unsuspecting animal comes within reach, the alligator lunges at it with surprising speed, drags it underwater in order to drown it, then rises to the surface to feed. Alligators can digest anything it swallows, including bone and cartilage. Fortunately for the birds and animals sharing the same water, alligators do not have to eat very often. Most wild alligators typically feed once a week. They store excess calories in fat deposits at the base of its tail; by burning fat reserves, it is possible for an alligator to go without food for much longer than that.
We left the paved trail and headed out onto the boardwalk, which passes through a large saw grass marsh prairie, one of the park’s nine distinct ecosystems. I saw a Northern Cardinal in the vegetation and heard the toneless knocking sounds of what might have been a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. In places the vegetation grew so thick you couldn’t see the water.
Then it opened again, and in this spot we found a couple of Anhingas sitting in the trees while four alligators swam in the water below. I checked the edges for any small herons lurking in the shadows but didn’t see any.
Doran pointed out a pair of white birds in one of the trees next to the boardwalk: baby Anhingas!
Close by, this alligator was resting in the sun.
Eventually the boardwalk ended and we returned to the cement path with a low wall next to the water on one side and dense vegetation on the other. I saw more dragonflies skimming over the shallower water, including what looked like an Eastern Amberwing and this Blue Dasher. I was hoping it might be a Little Blue Dragonlet but the green eyes rule that out.
Several yellowish-orange skimmers were flying gracefully about. They look like either Golden-winged Skimmers or Needham’s Skimmers, both of which are quite similar in appearance; I am guessing these are Needham’s Skimmers, as this species is more likely to be found near the coast, and because the vein that forms the leading edge is black on the inner half and yellow along the outer half. The Golden-winged Skimmer does not have bi-coloured costal veins. Other distinguishing marks include the markings on the thorax (wolf-shaped on the Needham’s Skimmer) and the colour of the hind legs, neither of which are visible from this angle and neither of which I saw in the field.
Another Anhinga drying itself off close to the trail provided the perfect photo opportunity. When diving, water enters the spaces between the Anhinga’s feathers, decreasing its buoyancy and allowing it to dive deep into the water to catch fish and aquatic invertebrates. Once back on land, the Anhinga adopts this spread-winged posture to dry out and to regulate its body temperature.
While walking along the boardwalk I saw my first Black Vultures of the trip soaring high in the sky. I had thought that this would be an easy species to photograph closer to the ground, as I had read about warnings about vultures causing damage to the rubber window sealants and windshield wipers in parked vehicles in the Everglades. I mentioned something to Doran about wishing they would fly a little lower, then forgot about it until I spotted this large fellow fly in and land right next to the path!
The vulture flew down to the ditch below, investigating the mud there and occasionally opening its wings. It was wing-tagged, too; this was the only one I saw on the trip with a large red tag on its wing. We watched it dart under the path and then come back out, though what it was looking for we weren’t sure.
After completing a thorough inspection the vulture flew back up on top of the railing, watching us in a way that might have been friendly, or might have been creepy depending on your point of view….
A little further along the path I noticed a turtle sunning itself on a rock in the water. The bold brown and yellow stripes on its throat were very striking; we don’t have anything like this in Ottawa! I later managed to narrow down its identity to one of the cooter species, and my blogger friend Janson says it is likely the Coastal Plain/Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana) – though there’s debate about the taxonomy of this species – or possibly a Florida Red-bellied Cooter (P. nelsoni). He has difficulty identifying the cooters and sliders unless he is able to examine them in the hand. Regardless of its identity, it was a handsome fellow, and the only turtle I was able to photograph – or even get a good look – on this trip.
We returned to the pond by the main entrance without seeing any new. However, we did spot a young alligator (as evidenced by the yellow spots on its back) lurking in the sun-dappled water beneath some overhanging reeds.
After finishing the trail we sat in the shade of the Visitor Center and purchased some much-needed ice-cold water from the vending machines. Several large dragonflies were foraging over the lawn, and when a bright red one landed I wandered over to take its picture. This looks to me like a Needham’s Skimmer; unfortunately I was not able to get photos from any other angle.
After finishing our snacks we decided to try the Gumbo Limbo Trail which also starts at the Royal Palm Visitor Center and passes through a hardwood hammock – an island of dry land in the middle of the saw grass marsh prairie which is elevated enough for the tropical and sub-tropical plants to take root. We didn’t enjoy this trail as much as the trees closed in over the trail, blocking out the sun and providing a shady haven for mosquitoes. We frequently heard the rustling of lizards running off into the leaf litter; back in Ottawa this sound would have meant a snake or a chipmunk rushing away for cover instead. Here, the lizards seemed to drop from the trees and scurry away into the undergrowth.
I saw a neat-looking lizard with a yellow stripe down its back and thought it was a new species; however, it was one of the variable Cuban Brown Anoles.
We came to an opening where the trail intersected with a wide, grassy path. I saw a few Needham’s Skimmers zipping through the sunlight, while an Eastern Pondhawk perched on the ground. I was hoping that it was a Great Pondhawk, a southern Florida species that looks similar to female Eastern Pondhawks, but the terminal appendages were white, not green.
By the time we were done both trails it was going on 3:00 and I was beginning to feel the effects of the sweltering heat and the long, sleepless night. Though I really wanted to see more of the park, we decided to head back to the motel to rest. Altogether I tallied only 11 birds species at the two trails, but the close views of the Anhingas and Black Vulture, and all of the other wonderful wildlife made it a fantastic walk.