Amer­i­can Dream

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents -

De­spite a cen­tury of eco­log­i­cal dam­age, the Ever­glades are still bloom­ing with beau­ti­ful land­scapes and ex­tra­or­di­nary wildlife

De­spite a cen­tury of eco­log­i­cal dam­age, the Ever­glades har­bours and pho­tog­ra­pher Mac Stone ex­plains, re­searchers are work­ing to en­sure that it stays that way for the next 100 years, too

Be sure to check for al­li­ga­tors be­fore you jump,” the pi­lot yelled over the thun­der­ous drone of the he­li­copter. I stared into the murky wa­ter, looked back at his bearded grin, took a deep breath – and leaped.

The tepid wa­ter lapped at my chin as the chop­per lifted off, and the low, fad­ing hum of the ro­tor was quickly re­placed by the gnaw­ing trill of mos­qui­toes. I was left with one small boat, one oar, one cam­era and the blind faith that this wasn’t just an elab­o­rate prank. It was my first day on the job in the Ever­glades with the Na­tional Audubon So­ci­ety’s Tav­ernier Sci­ence Cen­ter.

Though my in­tro­duc­tion to this vast wet­land of cy­press sloughs, saw­grass prairies and man­grove swamps was un­usual, it sowed the seeds of a love af­fair. I’ve been work­ing here ever since as a wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher and field bi­ol­o­gist. It’s been three years, and I still haven’t had enough.

The Ever­glades earns its fame from the River of Grass, a slow-mov­ing, 160km-long and 100km-wide sheet of fresh wa­ter that flows south­ward from Lake Okee­chobee be­fore emp­ty­ing into Florida Bay. At the con­flu­ence of fresh and salt­wa­ter, a vast es­tu­ary is formed, giv­ing refuge to Amer­ica’s largest pop­u­la­tion of wad­ing birds and the world’s largest con­tin­u­ous stand of man­groves.

Though a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the Ever­glades is pro­tected by the US Na­tional Park Sys­tem, the lifeblood of the ecosys­tem has been un­der as­sault for 100 years. At the turn of the 20th cen­tury pi­o­neers set out to drain the wet­lands to cre­ate land suit­able for agri­cul­ture and de­vel­op­ment. By di­vert­ing fresh­wa­ter flows with lev­ees and canals, nearly two-thirds of the wa­ter was rerouted from its his­tor­i­cal path. As a re­sult the sys­tem ex­pe­ri­enced cat­a­strophic shifts in its ecol­ogy, par­tic­u­larly at the south­ern end of the wa­ter­shed.

The Tav­ernier Sci­ence Cen­ter is one of many re­search or­gan­i­sa­tions op­er­at­ing in the Ever­glades, where I work as part of a team of eight re­searchers

It is the rare com­bi­na­tion of true wild­ness yet to­tal ac­ces­si­bil­ity that makes the Ever­glades so spe­cial

that helps to pro­vide the sci­ence that un­der­pins con­ser­va­tion plans. Be­cause of its sheer size, re­mote lo­ca­tions and di­verse biomes, the ecosys­tem is tough to mon­i­tor. So, in­stead of en­com­pass­ing the en­tire re­gion, sci­en­tists study ‘in­di­ca­tor species’ that rely upon a com­bi­na­tion of eco­log­i­cal fac­tors to sur­vive.

Our re­search fo­cuses on one of the icons of south Florida: the roseate spoon­bill, a bright-pink bird with a spat­ula-shaped bill. Visi­tors to the park in the dry sea­son (Novem­ber to April) have the best chance of see­ing this species in great num­bers, be­cause the birds time nest­ing to co­in­cide with low wa­ter lev­els – some­times there are more than 1,000 birds in one pond, and the sound is deaf­en­ing.

Wit­ness­ing this and other spec­ta­cles does not re­quire a spe­cial per­mit or knowl­edge of the area. In­deed, visi­tors to the park can go from fresh wa­ter to es­tu­ary sim­ply by driv­ing the main park road, the Old In­gra­ham High­way. One of the first places you’ll come to af­ter en­ter­ing the park is the An­hinga Trail. Here, walk­ing out over the black­wa­ter pond, you are greeted by rows of bel­low­ing al­li­ga­tors clam­our­ing for prime bask­ing real es­tate, and an­hin­gas – which re­sem­ble long-necked cor­morants – dodg­ing sub­merged scaly masses as they hunt for prized sun­fish.

Back on the road, one of the first things you’ll no­tice is the sky. A pan­cake-flat land­scape, the Ever­glades lacks the dra­matic to­pog­ra­phy of other Amer­i­can nat­u­ral won­ders such as the Grand Canyon, but in com­pen­sa­tion you see a com­plete hemi­sphere of sky filled with candy-floss tufts of cu­mu­lus clouds. As you head south, stop at Nine Mile Pond, the quin­tes­sen­tial fresh­wa­ter dwarf-man­grove habi­tat of the Ever­glades. You can rent a kayak or ca­noe here, though in the dry sea­son you may find your­self push­ing al­li­ga­tors out of the way with the end of your pad­dle.

Fin­ish your jour­ney at Flamingo Ma­rina, where peo­ple gather to watch the al­most daily show of West In­dian man­a­tees wrestling in the murky wa­ter and Amer­i­can croc­o­diles bask­ing on the muddy banks.

You can also see res­i­dent ospreys, which build their enor­mous nests just a few me­tres away. Dur­ing the win­ter, visi­tors watch as the male brings fresh fish to his scream­ing chicks.

Ca­noe or kayak out into Florida Bay to ex­plore the man­grove forests and tidal grass flats. At high tide, brown pel­i­cans di­ve­bomb schools of mul­let, and on the out­go­ing tide, lemon sharks trawl the wa­ter with their dor­sal fins slic­ing through float­ing grass mats. Bot­tlenose dol­phins also fre­quent this es­tu­ar­ine ecosys­tem and will some­times swim over to check out your boat.

It is this rare com­bi­na­tion of true wild­ness yet to­tal ac­ces­si­bil­ity that makes the Ever­glades so spe­cial. And while the re­search sta­tions con­tinue to do their work, it should re­main so. I feel priv­i­leged to be in­volved.

Dwarf man­groves – here be­side Old In­gra­ham High­way and pho­tographed by the light of a full moon – rarely grow more than 1m high. They are com­mon in Ever­glades Na­tional Park, but scarce else­where

TOP

These roseate spoon­bills and snowy egrets were feed­ing on con­cen­tra­tions of fish in Eco Pond. Just be­fore Mac took this photo, a pass­ing bald ea­gle spooked the birds, and they all took off in uni­son BE­LOW LEFT This un­named, me­an­der­ing creek is one of many in the Ever­glades that fun­nel wa­ter from the River of Grass into Florida Bay BE­LOW RIGHT At­lantic tar­pon grow up to 2.5m long – big­ger than a har­bour por­poise – and weigh as much as 160kg. This one is jump­ing for a fish ‘bait’ at Rob­bie’s Ma­rina, Is­lam­orada, where they gather to scav­enge scraps from fish­er­men; though they can be seen leap­ing in Florida Bay, they mostly feed be­low the sur­face on other fish and crabs

LEFT

Dur­ing the win­ter Amer­i­can croc­o­diles seek out mud banks where they can bask – at low tem­per­a­tures they be­come slug­gish, and this al­lowed Mac to get very close and cap­ture this can­did shot. They are a dif­fer­ent species to the ar­guably bet­ter­known Amer­i­can al­li­ga­tors

grew up ex­plor­ing the wild rivers and swamps of north­ern Florida. For the past years he has spe­cialised in pho­tograph­ing the Ever­glades

ABOVE

It’s easy to see how the River of Grass earned its name. The rain­storm is a re­minder, too, that wa­ter is the key­stone of the whole ecosys­tem

RIGHT

At­lantic bot­tlenose dol­phins are com­monly seen in Florida Bay where they of­ten ride the wakes of pass­ing mo­tor­boats. This pod stayed with Mac for about 15 min­utes

ABOVE

Ospreys rarely nest on the ground, but they can do this on the is­lands of Florida Bay be­cause there are no land preda­tors here. This male is re­turn­ing with a fine prize from his hunt – an emer­ald par­rot­fish RIGHT

Brown pel­i­cans can dive at speeds of 70km/h. Drain­ing the wa­ter from their beak pouch, they throw any fish they catch into the air and swal­low them head­first

NOW YOU DO IT

GET­TING THERE

Air­lines that fly from Sin­ga­pore to Mi­ami, Florida

(with one stopover), in­clude Sin­ga­pore Air­lines and United Air­lines.

GET­TING AROUND

To get to Ever­glades Na­tional Park, rent a car at Mi­ami In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

Garl’s Coastal Kayak­ing runs kayak­ing and hik­ing trips within the Ever­glades. www.garlscoast­ingkayak­ing. com

Rent a kayak or ca­noe at Flamingo Ma­rina (be­low). PLACES TO VISIT

High­lights in­clude Pau­ro­tis Pond, Nine Mile Pond, Snake Bight, the An­hinga Trail, Eco Pond and Flamingo Ma­rina. See www.nps.gov/ever/ plany­ourvisit/things2do.htm

VISAS

Sin­ga­pore cit­i­zens trav­el­ling as tourists for less than 90 days need not ap­ply for a visa.

WHEN TO GO

Dry sea­son is Novem­ber to April. For birds and other wildlife, visit dur­ing Fe­bru­ary and March. For rare or­chids visit in June and July, but don’t forget in­sect re­pel­lent.

FUR­THER READ­ING

Ever­glades Na­tional Park and the Sur­round­ing Area by Roger L Ham­mer (Fal­con, 9780762734320, $15.85).

LEFT

A wa­ter moc­casin or cot­ton­mouth earns its name from the strik­ing be­hav­iour of open­ing its brightwhite mouth and show­ing its fangs when threat­ened.

It’s one of the few ven­omous snakes in the Ever­glades

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