If you google “Corkscrew Audubon Swamp” plus “Florida Panther”, you’ll find videos of startled people and startled cats like this one on You Tube by Andrea Wipperfurth (March 2016).
So when I saw that Audubon Corkscrew Swamp was near where we’d be staying in Florida, I had to go. My chances of seeing such an elusive cat would be slim, but if I didn’t go, my chances were zero. To me, this seems like the safest place in the U.S. to encounter a mountain lion. They’re somewhat habituated to people on the boardwalks, and their paths are concentrated with human paths. Out west, where mountain lions are far more common, I suspect mountain lions have seen me. I’m of the opinion that if they make themselves known to me there, good things probably aren’t happening.
Timed-entry tickets are required (I suspect COVID-related); however, same-day tickets at any time were readily available. The boardwalk is open from 8 am-3 pm daily, with the last entry at 1 pm. Sunrise was at 7:15. The first entry was at 8 am, so at 8 am, I stepped out onto the boardwalk.I stopped at the wet prairie to watch a pair of pileated woodpeckers on a tall snag. A yellow-bellied sapsucker clung to a trunk while a red-bellied woodpecker gulped down dahoon holly berries. A barred owl hoots loudly, “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” from across the prairie. It’s mating season for these owls, who can be pretty chatty. There was no response. Several minutes later, the call repeats.
The wet prairie is an open expanse of uniform, arching, thin-bladed, bunching cordgrass as tall as my shoulders. There is beauty in its simplicity, in stark contrast to the busyness of the cypress swamp.
The cypress knees support islands of ferns on their unique burls creating land in the water.Unfortunately, the matted, damp vegetation springs back from footsteps and doesn’t preserve any animal tracks. The wetland here is losing an inch a day of water as the winter dry season progresses.
Eventually, fish will be trapped in small ponds concentrating the animals that seek to feed upon them. Today, a lone ibis searches for crabs, fish, frogs, and insects.The ancient treetops are an ecosystem all their own. Lush ferns grow along their horizontal limbs, creating soil. Warblers flit about chasing after insects.
Tree frogs take shelter, and anoles bask in the sun. Strangler figs reach up and down in knotting, crisscrossing patterns reaching for water and sky.A crash through the palms gets my attention. Far off, a wild turkey perches on a limb. In a swamp. I look twice through my binoculars. What else could it be? When I get home, I check my pictures to be sure. It’s a rare swamp sighting for sure, just not the one I’d hoped for. Once through the Pond Cypress and into the Bald Cypress, pine warblers abound, ferns grow almost as tall as me. Scat from a marsh rabbit on a log hints at last night’s escapades. A couple of fallen trees are clearly favorite bridges through this flooded forest. One such path crosses the boardwalk. Sit here long enough, maybe after the sun goes down, and I’m sure I’d glimpse some of the life that is so secretive here during the day. Approaching the open water of Lettuce Lakes, pterodactyl-like screeches carry eerily through the swamp. Perched, preening, calling anhingas are the culprits. They are aquatic birds, swimmers whose eely necks surface like serpents. They spear fish with their beak, surface, and then flip the fish into their mouths in one smooth motion. Swallowing a fish that doesn’t look like it fits takes a little more time and effort. Then silently, the bird sinks into the dark water. No wonder they have to dry out their water-logged wings in order to fly. Open water in a swamp is relative. It’s not navigable by any watercraft, but it’s open enough in spots for otters and alligators to make a living. I must be at the basking holes. An American Alligator rests in the water just off the boardwalk. A few paces further, a juvenile alligator considerately rests just past the “alligator” information sign. Twenty feet further on the opposite side, the biggest soft-shelled turtle I’ve ever seen (by a magnitude of at least five) is hauled out on a ferny island warming in the sun. A Little Blue Heron is preening at the edge of a clearing. The breeze causes a soft clatter of the palms reminiscent of a wooden wind chime. Back through the wet prairie and into the pine Flatwoods, I’m almost back at the visitor’s center. Most visitors spend two hours here. I’ve spent four and a half. But I’m not entirely done. An evergreen bagworm wearing his own camouflage, a cocoon adorned with bits of pine needles, creeps along the fence rail above one last anole basking without care. I didn’t see any mammals today, but I learned a lot. And it’s not a bad way to spend a winter day.
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