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The Florida Series: Chapter 6

In addition to Florida's other superlatives such as golfing, boating and fishing, the state's resident and migratory bird populations are pretty much unequalled, with amazing diversity, in other parts of the country. This is not to say that other states do not have species that cannot be seen elsewhere, but Florida seems to have larger concentrations of birds in smaller areas than most.

As I mentioned in an earlier article, the status of the Bald Eagle was down to a mere 417 nesting pairs in the entire lower 48 states, with close to half that number living in Florida.

Only Alaska had more- lots more- Bald Eagles, due to the much lower presence of DDT use there. In the late 1970's, I had heard of a huge annual concentration of eagles at the Chilkat River delta in southeastern Alaska in early November. Two of my friends, one being an ornithologist for the Massachusetts Aububon Society, and I decided to make the trip to see them. Sure enough, standing at one point on the shore of the Chilkat River, we could see more than 2,000 Bald Eagles! Prior to that, the only place I had ever seen one was in the Florida Everglades.

There are few, if any, places equal to the Everglades for birding and bird watching, even when the numbers of birds were much lower due to hunting and environmental abuse by humans. In fact, the whole area was once considered a useless, pestilent swamp, that wasted a gigantic tract of Florida real estate.

View of the beach in Key West Florida

By 1848, settlers started thinking about draining the Everglades. Everglade’s water was diverted to the cities. A vast network of canals was built, which lowered the water levels, thus making more land available for both farming and residential development, leading to a loss of fifty percent of the original Everglades habitat. Eventually, some people began to wake up to the fact that this priceless ecosystem was being ravaged and began to do something about it. Early in this century, the Comprehensive Everglades Restitution Plan was instituted by congress to restore some of the damage caused by engineering nightmares. The birds came back in droves. It will be interesting to see the long-term effects of this very expensive plan, which was not approved any too soon.

Through informal observation from the late 1960's to the present, I have seen the positive effects upon the bird populations of the Everglades. Not only Bald Eagles, but also Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, and other wading birds are making a comeback. In the 1930's, the relatively undrained and unmolested Everglades had a breeding population of 5,000 - 15,000 pairs of Wood Storks. By 1995, that number had dwindled to 500 pairs. The goals of current conservation efforts are to bring that number back to at least 2,500 pairs. While not professing to be an ornithologist, my amateur observations have shown an impressive increase in all wading birds of the Everglades, recovering from a NINETY PERCENT decline in their numbers, at its lowest point! Yes, they have a very long way to go, but at least they are headed in the right direction.

Great white egret with dramatic natural sunlight in florida wetland pond

Despite its vastness and general inaccessibility, there are many ways for the visitor to access the Everglades and get up close to its inhabitants. The Everglades National Park, accessible from Florida City, which is south of Miami, offers the most comprehensive view of the Everglades. Once in the park, there is a road that stretches about forty miles to Flamingo, passing several different habitats, with side roads and turnoffs to reach them. One of the first stops is the Anhinga Trail. If you could only visit one place in the Everglades, this should definitely be it! The trail is about 1/2 mile long and includes many boardwalks over portions of the marshes and ponds. Here you will see turtles, alligators, many species of herons and egrets, and all sorts of other birds, including the Anhingas, who are usually seen drying their outstretched wings in the sun, after an underwater fishing expedition.

Some visitors are more than a little nervous at seeing very large alligators lounging near, or on, the trail, but they haven't eaten too many people. (Just kidding, I assure you!) The Great Blue Herons are fascinating to watch, especially when they are hunting. They will stand perfectly motionless for long periods of time, then suddenly strike out with their long neck and bill to catch a fish, frog, or crustacean. I have seen them catch fish so big that it makes you wonder how they can possibly eat them- yet they do- swallowing it whole. The Everglades is big and diverse, and the road to Flamingo is a great introduction to it. More on its many vantage points in my next installment!

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