Gators and Birds in Florida’s River of Grass: Touring the Everglades

March 16, 2014 Updated: October 14, 2018

“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them.”

These opening words from environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her book “The Everglades: River of Grass” summarize the uniqueness of the wetlands.

Millions of domestic and international visitors come every year to learn more about this rare natural habitat. The Everglades are the largest tropical wetlands in the United States, comprising interdependent ecosystems that include cypress swamps, mangrove forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, pine rockland, and the marine environment of Florida Bay. Unfortunately, this environment, home to one of the nation’s largest national parks, is also an ecosystem under stress.

“There are a number of factors that upset the balance in the Everglades,” explained my airboat tour guide. “For too many years, civilization has corrected the natural flow of the water thus sending valuable freshwater to sea. Urban developments have reduced the size of the habitat for flora and fauna, and endemic wildlife leads to the extinction of native plants and animals.”

On a recent trip to Florida’s southeast, I had set aside a day trip to learn more about these tropical wetlands, via airboat ride and tram tour through Shark Valley inclusive.

Eye to eye with an alligator

It was recommended to me that the best way to see the Everglades was on an airboat. Indeed, there seemed to be nothing more fun than having the wind gushing through my hair on a hot Florida day while the driver accelerated the boat once more and navigated through this thick labyrinth of saw grass. The water was often only a few inches deep, not more than 35 inches at its deepest point. It seemed as if the water would stand still, but I was told that it flows slowly several hundred feet a day toward the open sea.

After only a few minutes, the boat stopped, and so did my breath—a medium-sized alligator was basking in the sun right next to our vessel.

“This is a female” explained the guide. “She lives in the mangrove trees over there.” Interestingly, the temperature in the nest determines the sex of alligator offspring. Incubation temperatures of 86 degrees F or lower produce a clutch of females; those of 93 degrees F or higher produce entirely males. From a nest, only 2 or 3 gator babies survive as birds, raccoons, and other animals feed on them.

One of the most dangerous predators in the Everglades is the Burmese python, a native of Southeast Asia. Dumped in the ecosystem by irresponsible pet owners who no longer want them, the snakes are taking over the wetlands. Wildlife biologists say the growing population of an estimated 150,000 pythons have become a pest and pose a significant threat to endangered species like the wood stork and mangrove fox squirrel. “Wildlife rangers regularly go moonlighting as python hunters to contain the threat,” my guide admitted.

After the air boat ride, back at the Everglades Safari Park, a ranger demonstrated feeding the alligators, which were much bigger than what I had seen during the boat ride. Incredibly, the keeper put his hand with the meat directly between the sharp teeth before pulling it out a tenth of a second before the beast snapped. I knew for sure that I would keep a safe distance from any future alligators, small or large, from now on.

I spent another half an hour or so walking through the park, home also to several non-native alligators and crocodiles, before driving to my second stop of the day—Shark Valley.

Bird lovers’ paradise

This is a small section of the Everglades National Park containing a 15-mile loop road that is accessible to hikers and bikers or, for around $20, to a group via outdoor tram with an experienced park ranger. I chose the latter option and it did not take long until we had the first couple of alligators scuttling off the path to make way for the tram. They were somewhat smaller than the creatures I had witnessed at the Everglades Safari Park, and so I focused on the diverse bird life that surrounded us.

The most distinct one to me had the unusual name of Anhinga, the ranger explained to us. Also called Snakebird or Water Turkey, the bird had a long beautiful neck and a body that was colored glossy black-green or blue. They were not shy of humans and remained in place when the tram passed by.

To my left, further away from the road, taking off and disturbed by the noise, I unmistakably spotted a Great Blue Heron. The bird had a long, yellow bill and stood over 4 feet in height; it is the largest wading bird in the wetlands. On the other side of the tram, a white bird with a red bill (a White Ibis I looked up later), was stalking through the water.

Around half way through the tour, the tram stopped and we had the opportunity to climb a 65-foot tower, which displayed expansive views over the saw grass prairie and mangrove tree islands. I was stunned by the solitude and how flat the horizon was. Everything looked so perfect and in sync, it was hard to fathom that the ecosystem was dying.

Upon my return to New York, I did in-depth reading on the Everglades and learned that in 2000 a plan was approved to restore the River of Grass. The program has been described as the world’s largest ecosystem restoration effort, and includes restoring the natural water flow, water quality, and more natural hydro-periods within the remaining natural areas. I sincerely wish for these efforts to be successful because in the end, “there are no other Everglades in the world.”

Wibke Carter hails from Germany, has traveled the world, and presently enjoys life in New York City.