USA – Florida – Everglades

From Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida, a sheet of water only 6 inches (15 cm) deep fans out 50 miles (80 km) wide over limestone, flowing slowly southward for 100 miles (160 km) until it spills into Florida Bay, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Atlantic. This is the Everglades, a wetland wilderness where the tropics blend richly with the temperate zone. Most of the finest portion remaining lies in Evarglades National Park, which covers more than 2,350 squares miles (6,000 km2).

Much of the park is covered by great sweeps of sawgrass, a sharply barbed sedge that stands up to 15 feet (4.5 m) above the water. The sawgrass “prairie” is dotted with low islands (hamocks) supporting hardwoods, such as mahogany, gumbo-limbo, and strangler fig. Ferns and epiphytes drape the tree limbs.

Groves of slash pines grow in sandy, dry areas and these pinelands support 30 species of plant that exist only in the Everglades. Mangroves from a belt along the coast, extending prop roots into the brackish water. These thickets abound with wildlife, especially nesting birds such as roseate spoonbills – large, paddle-beaked, shell-pink wading birds.

Habitat diversity fosters wildlife diversity. To most people, the Glades means alligators and the rarer American crocodile. The mammals range from mangrove ox squirrels to black bears. These are numerous fish species and invertebrates of every kind fly, crawl, and swim all over the place.

The park’s greatest glory is its 347 bird species. Tha range is engough to make a birder swoon: bald eagles and brwon pelicans; kites swooping through the skies; seven heron species; these kinds of egret; gallinules stepping over lily pads; black vultures and frigatebirds soaring.

There are many way to sample the Glades. Trails, trams, and tour boats explore the mangrove swamps and Florida Bay, where you may see crocodiles and sea turtles. Boats also cruise among the Ten Thousand Islands.

Big Cypress National Preserve is a vast swamp that lies along the park’s northwestern border. Cypress trees cover a third of the area and there are a few giants up to 700 years old, their massive, flaring trunks bedecked with orchids and bromeliads. Near Naples is the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, created by the National Audubon Society. It is home to the country’s largest surviving nesting colony of wood storks.

Extensive development in the region has resulted in water levels in the Glades dropping severly and a high level of agricultural pollution. Steps are being taken to curb pollution and restore water flow but the entire ecosystem is at risk.