Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Becoming Junior Rangers: Everglades National Park

The Everglades National Park is a wildlife preserve, protected and maintained by the National Park Service (NPS).  It is a recreational area for nature lovers, and a home for several endangered species, especially many wading birds and the American alligator.

South Florida’s waterways once flowed from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee, and then south over the lowlands to Biscayne Bay’s estuaries on the east coast, the Ten Thousand Islands along the Gulf of Mexico, and the Florida Bay at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. The shallow, slow-moving sheet of water covered almost 11,000 square miles. This intricate water system created a balanced ecosystem,  forming a unique habitat for the state’s southern half. 

However, as the population began to outrow the available dry land, the Everglades were seen as fair game for farmland and communities. By the early 1900s', an irrigation process made to transform the Florida swamps into land ready to be developed was underway. The results would ultimately be severely damaging to the ecosystem and the species it supported. With the support of many early conservationists, scientists, and other advocates, the Everglades National Park was established in 1947 to preserve the natural landscape and prevent further destruction of its ecosystem.  President Harry Truman dedicated the Everglades National Park on December 6, 1947, to be a protected area for the wetlands and their natural animal habitats.
The Everglades National Park can be accessed from both eastern and western Florida.  Although there are five total park entrances, only four are open year round.  (The fifth is only accessible during the “dry” season of January through mid-summer.)  The four main Welcome Centers are open every day of the year (including holidays like Thanksgiving).  On the eastern side is the “Shark Valley Visitor Center” in the northeast end of the park, and the “Ernest Coe Welcome Center” is at the southeast corner near Miami.  On the west coast of the state, you can access the park at the “Gulf Coast Welcome Center” in Everglades City and at the “Flamingo Welcome Center” along the Florida Bay.  As we were vacationing in Sanibel Florida, we entered at the Everglades City gate. 

We began our adventure at the NPS Visitor Center to get our Everglade National Park Junior Park Rangers activity packet.  (You can also download one from the Everglades NP website before you go.)  This packet is used for three recreational areas: Everglades National Park,  Big Cypress National Preserve, and Biscayne National Park. We were given instructions on how to earn our Everglades Junior Park Ranger badge.  We needed to complete the main page about the National Parks system for all visitors, and then any three pages marked with an alligator.  (The alligator was the symbol for the Everglades National Park portion of the packet.)  We had time before our scheduled boat ride, so we went over to the picnic pavilion to start working on our activities.  Celia and Matthew worked on packets individually while Jude and I worked as a team.  Some of the tasks, like the puzzles, were easy to do while waiting.  One that involved counting birds was better to do on our boat tour.  
When it was time for the tour to start, the tour’s naturalist guide asked if we had jackets with us, as it had been chilly on the water all morning.  It seemed strange to be wearing sweatshirts (or even winter coats like Jude and Celia did) in southern Florida.  We were only 90 nautical miles from Key West,  but the air was cool (in the 60s) and very windy.  Promptly at 12:30 pm, we casted off.  The view was spectacular.  As we left the dock, we could see the Everglades City Airpark nestled in the trees and practically hidden from view; the area was clear enough planes to land safely but carefully planned to cause as minimal an invasion to the park as possible.  Along the channel and out into the  were hundreds of landless islands made entirely of Mangrove trees and their roots. 

  Nesting in the trees and along the water's’ edge were a number of bird colonies, including some white pelicans that had just returned to the park for winter.  

Finally, we got see dolphins swimming.  There was a pod of three dolphins, including a dolphin calf that the naturalist estimated to be only about six or eight weeks old.  He also tried to inject some humor into his discussion:  “Male dolphins tend to swim alone. Female dolphins will swim in ‘pods’ with the young. At least two dolphins makes a pod…three dolphins is a ‘tri-pod’…one dolphin is an ‘iPod’… Most places will charge five or six hundred dollars to swim with dolphins. We have a special today!  One hundred dollars for us to push you in, and another hundred to get back on the boat.”  Everyone groaned and then chuckled at the jokes, but nobody decided to swim.

One of the Junior Ranger activities Jude and I completed was entitled “Plume Hunt.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was fashionable for women to wear hats with feathers, or “plumes” or even entire hats made of birds on their heads.  However, for the hats to be made, the birds had to be killed, and many species were hunted to near extinction.   However, some people were worried that these birds would all die off, and thus formed the Audubon Society; they worked to get laws to protect and preserve the population of birds, and the population returned to what had been.  Unfortunately, in the late 1940s so much land was drained that many species’ numbers declined so far that they again approached extinction.  According to the activity book, ninety percent of the wading bird population has been killed off  since the early 1800s.  In 1994, the Everglades Forest Act was passed to protect these birds and their natural habitat.  Between our time on shore and boating around the Ten Thousand Islands area, we saw 27 birds.  This means that at the height of the bird population, we would have seen up to 270 birds in the same 90 minutes. What a shame that so many birds were abused for their feathers or put out of their homes by greedy developers!  Hopefully their numbers will rebound so that future generations will get to see the beauty of all these majestic creatures as they dot the shore and sky lines.
After we completed our tasks, we returned to the Visitors’ Center.  Ranger Judy checked our answers and certified us as Everglades National Park Junior Rangers.  She let us wear official Park Ranger hats for our swearing-in.  (She only had two, so Celia and Jude got to wear them.) We promised to “protect and preserve the plants, animals, and history of the South Florida National Parks, and to keep the air, water, and land clean,” and then we were given our official Junior Ranger Badges (in exchange for the hats back).

    Though the reserve entrance is only a few miles from the Gulf Coast gate, we didn’t have time to complete the Big Cypress Ranger program as well. However, we did drive through it in the hopes of seeing some alligators.  It is just inland enough that the water is no longer salty and alligators can live in the marshy swamps.  We stopped at a known alligator hangout, but there weren’t any to be seen.  As we drove back towards Sanibel along the Tamiami Trail, we found one lazing in the sun and pulled over to take some photos.

Did you know that Florida is one of the few places in the world with both alligators and crocodiles as natural inhabitants?  Gators live a bit inland in the freshwater marshes and coves, while crocs live near the salty Florida Bay at the tip of the peninsula.

We had a great day at the Everglades National Park Gulf Coast recreation area.  We saw birds, dolphins, and alligators, and became Everglades NP Junior Rangers.  I recommend this excursion because the boat tour and Junior Ranger program combined to make for a educational experience that was really fun, too.

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1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a wonderful experience. I really wish we lived closer as this sounds like a great educational opportunity. I wonder if they will still have this program several years from now. The hubby wants to make his way down to Florida someday. I love all your pictures. Thanks for stopping by and sharing with Throwback Thursday Blog-Style. I can't wait to see what you share this week.


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