A Crown Jewel

Stroll through Corkscrew Swamp Sanc­tu­ary’s tow­er­ing cy­press forests and ex­plore the sum­mer­time pur­suits of its res­i­dent in­hab­i­tants—with­out get­ting your feet wet

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When you’ve tired of the beaches and heat, head to the cool­ing shade of Corkscrew Swamp Sanc­tu­ary’s cathe­dral-like bald cy­press for­est. Thanks to sum­mer rains, the wa­ter lev­els of the cy­press swamp and prairies are brim­ming and full of life, so vis­i­tors to the Na­tional Audubon pre­serve in eastern Col­lier County can ex­pect a lit­tle ac­tion along with a deeper con­nec­tion with na­ture. Al­li­ga­tors have nested and the fe­males are on watch­ful pa­trol. July and Au­gust are a good time to see swal­low­tail kites and year-round avian species, such as the wren, green heron, great blue heron, war­bler, moorhen and barred owl. (Wood storks and spoon­bills are away on their own sum­mer va­ca­tions.) “Ev­ery day through­out the swamp, amaz­ing scenes un­fold,” says Ja­son Lau­rit­sen, the sanc­tu­ary’s di­rec­tor. Corkscrew’s di­ver­sity and vi­tal­ity rely on its hy­drope­ri­ods— sus­tained pe­ri­ods dur­ing which storm wa­ter is be­ing stored and the soil is oth­er­wise wa­ter­logged. Wet­lands store and fil­ter pol­lu­tants from wa­ter as it makes its way into un­der­ground aquifers or to­ward lo­cal trib­u­taries and es­tu­ar­ies. They help pre­vent flood­ing and pro­vide habi­tat for an ar­ray of wildlife. In the sum­mer, the wet prairies are full of re­pro­duc­ing fish that

Corkscrew’s di­ver­sity and vi­tal­ity rely on its hy­drope­ri­ods—sus­tained pe­ri­ods dur­ing which storm wa­ter is be­ing stored and the soil is oth­er­wise wa­ter­logged.


Stun­ning na­ture pho­to­graphs by Rod “R.J.” Wiley are on dis­play July and Au­gust in the sanc­tu­ary’s Gallery Cafe and Blair Audubon Cen­ter. A pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher, Wiley has cap­tured the splen­dor of Florida’s wad­ing birds, the in­tri­cate de­tails of the state’s al­li­ga­tors and the sur­pris­ing beauty of other wildlife in his works. His pho­tos have ap­peared in na­tional pub­li­ca­tions as far away as Rus­sia. Wiley has earned Audubon Florida’s Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year Award.

live in the dense grasses and veg­e­ta­tion, for­ag­ing for al­gae and in­sects. Th­ese fish are part of the ecosys­tem’s in­tri­cate food web. Keep an eye out for bloom­ing beau­ties, such as the scar­let hibis­cus. “Corkscrew is a gallery for­est with 500- and 600-yearold bald cy­presses loaded with epi­phytes and or­chids, in­clud­ing our fa­mous super ghost orchid. Peo­ple travel from all over the world to see that,” says Lau­rit­sen. It is perched high in a tree, with a spot­ting scoop trained on it for vis­i­tors to see. They are rare and en­dan­gered and have been the tar­get of poach­ers but “given this lo­ca­tion, it is some­thing we can show off,” he says. Most ghost or­chids have one bloom; the super ghost orchid has had up to 19 at once. The or­chids may bloom two or three times a year; their sched­ules de­pend on the va­garies of cli­mate con­di­tions. Vol­un­teer board­walk nat­u­ral­ist Sandy Hol­len­horst of Bonita Springs en­joys see­ing vis­i­tors’ faces light up when she points out a cam­ou­flaged barred owl or young birds fledg­ling from their nests. They re­act with “a sense of awe and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the beauty of na­ture. Ev­ery time you go out, you see some­thing dif­fer­ent,” she says.


This Col­lier County gem was saved from the clutches of Lee-Tide­wa­ter Cy­press Com­pany, a log­ging op­er­a­tion in­tent on con­vert­ing the world’s last ex­panse of vir­gin bald cy­press into post-war lum­ber. Threats to the swamp were not new. A war­den pa­trolled in the early 1900s to pro­tect the world’s largest wood stork rook­ery and showy wad­ing birds slaugh­tered for fancy hats. The log­ging of cen­turies-old go­liath trees caused the Na­tional Audubon

Most ghost or­chids have one bloom; the super ghost orchid has had up to 19 at once.

So­ci­ety and a stream of oth­ers to raise the sup­port nec­es­sary to pur­chase the in­valu­able stand. By 1954, some 2,880 acres were se­cured. The “Corkscrew rook­ery” be­came Corkscrew Swamp Sanc­tu­ary, with Audubon war­den Henry (Hank) P. Bennett guid­ing vis­i­tors on ca­noe ex­cur­sions through its let­tuce lakes. A board­walk was com­pleted and a chic­kee hut wel­comed in­trepid vis­i­tors by 1957. To­day, the sanc­tu­ary en­com­passes more than 13,000 acres, with the 2.25-mile board­walk and the Blair Audubon Cen­ter— dubbed “the crown jewel” of Audubon en­vi­ron­men­tal cen­ters. The Corkscrew Water­shed is part of the West­ern Ever­glades and still home to the na­tion’s largest nest­ing colony of fed­er­ally en­dan­gered wood storks. The water­shed also is con­nected to the Es­tero Bay Aquatic Pre­serve and Del­nor-Wig­gins State Park, and the Es­tero, Im­pe­rial and Co­co­hatchee rivers along the way.

Cathy Chest­nut is a free­lance writer and fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to TOTI Me­dia who ex­plores the peo­ple and places that make South­west Florida, her home­town stomp­ing grounds, unique.

Palm War­bler The mag­nif­i­cent Corkscrew Swamp Sanc­tu­ary is com­posed of pine­flat­woods, wet prairie, marsh­land and a bald cy­press for­est.

Carolina Wren

Great Blue Herons

Corkscrew’s Board­walk

Amer­i­can Al­li­ga­tor

Barred Owl

An­hinga with Fish

abil­i­ty­toswim with just its neck and head above wa­ter. Af­ter stab­bing the fish in the side, it then flips it up to swal­low head­first.

Ghost Orchid

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