San Rafael Valley, AZ ~~ Photo by Bill Haas

Thursday, July 2, 2009


One is the Everglades of Florida, known as the "River of Grass." The other is the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia, the name given it by Native Americans that means "Land of the Trembling Earth."

One has the appearance of the African Serengeti. The other is primarily a water-soaked bog. One was originally fed by Lake Okechobee in Central Florida; the other is fed by rainfall, springs and surrounding watershed. One drains into estuaries of Florida Bay and Thousand (mangrove) Islands in the Gulf of Mexico; the other is the headwaters for two rivers: The Suwanee that flows southwesterly and drains into the Gulf of Mexico, and the St. Mary that empties into the Atlantic Ocean. One is eight feet above sea level at its highest; the high point of the other is 128 feet above sea level. In one, sawgrass prairies, hammocks (see previous blog post) and Slash Pine forests are common sights; in the other, Bald and Pond Cypress and Pine and Bay forests with Saw Palmetto Palm understory are ubiquitous.

They are both primeval and magical and contain ecosystems that have been drastically threatened by mankind. One, the Okefenokee, is healthier than the other. Everglades National Park, is on life support. It is a World Heritage Site and is the world's largest ecological restoration project; the park was created in 1947 solely to restore this fragile, complex habitat.

One, a National Park, has roads, campgrounds and marinas and caters to people; the other, a National Wildlife Refuge, has canoe trails and a canal, and protecting animals is its primary function. They both have lakes, islands, hammocks, prairies, wading birds and alligators and biodiversity like no other places on earth.

The Northern Everglades is defined by the Shark River Slough, a slow moving (originally, 100 feet a day) 50-mile-wide body of water only inches deep that is barely visible in the dry season -- the "River of Grass." This sawgrass is not truly a grass but actually a river of sedges. (Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses are jointed and grow from the ground -- funny the things you can recall from a decades-old classroom!)

From the Observation Tower in the Shark Valley Visitor Center (northern section of the park)...
...the Hammock, Prairie and Slash Pine habitats are clearly distinguishable.
Along a side road in the southern part of the park, I encountered another Strangler Fig tree; this one was enormous!
And a host (unknown variety)...
...for several air plants...
... and some Spanish Moss. Most of you probably already know that it's neither Spanish, nor a moss! And it's not a parasite. It's an "epiphyte" that belongs to the pineapple family and is a type of air fern. It uses its host only to support itself; it has cup-like scales on its stems that catch moisture and nourishment from the air. In Florida, it's also called "Gray Beard."
This is what the inside of a Hardwood Hammock looks like. (I knew you were just dying to know!)
A Gumbo Limbo tree
"WARNING: VULTURES MAY DAMAGE VEHICLES," said the sign! According to the Ranger, some sort of "vulture aphrodisiac" has apparently been incorporated into the rubber around sun roofs, windshields and wipers in newer cars. These Black Vultures hang out in the parking lot hoping for some gourmet rubber tidbits! Unfortunately, they are a "federally protected migratory species." All one can do is shoo them away with a broom, or stone them or something!
Showing off -- not to be confused with the glorious Anhinga's wingspan!
This Turkey Vulture brother just performs maintenance on road kill and the like; rubber has no appeal for it.
When I visited the northern part of the Park, the dry season was just coming to an end. This prairie surface was still covered with a layer of whitish dried-out algae that would soon come to life when rain saturated it as the wet season progressed.
Although adaptable to droughts and dry seasons, Alligators were seriously threatened with construction of canals, ditches, dikes and other drainage operations during the past 100 years. Part of the Park's restoration goal is to undo the man-made harm by excavating man-made "gator holes" throughout the Park. These depressions not only restore habitat for Alligators to flourish, they have become a successful refuge for wading birds, turtles, snakes and other reptiles.
And female Alligators have discovered that culverts are excellent safe places for nests and nurseries.
By the time I reached the southern end of the Park many weeks later, it was apparent the dry season had ended and a transformative new cycle had begun, and the prairies began to truly look like a "river of grass."
Also evidenced by empty campgrounds where gargantuan flying bugs had taken over...
...and scaled-back picnic areas! Two of the three campground loops were closed for the "high and dry season."
A view of Florida Bay and Thousand Islands from the picnic area.
OKEFENOKEE ("O-ke-fin-o-cau")

This part of Georgia is also known as "Blackwater Country" because the runoff from decaying plants gives its two rivers their black color. It's easy to assume the water is dirty. The opposite is true. It's not just the source of drinking water for "swampers" who have lived here for generations -- old sailing ships came up the St. Mary to fill their barrels with water before crossing the great Atlantic pond! And for me, its dark color was a boon for reflection photographs!
When I visited the Okefenokee, it had been raining every afternoon for days. The swamp was swollen, and the birds had escaped to higher ground. Although I did see a Red-Shouldered Hawk, another Wood Stork, and a little Black Bear galloping through the marsh, the cornerstone of this excursion was the swamp's incredible, unique plant life. It was mid-week, and the Elderhostel bus wasn't due in for several hours; I had the seventh-generation swamper guide all to myself -- an unexpected a treat!
This is a Never-Wet plant that had recently finished blooming-- you can push it down below the water's surface, and it will bounce right back up as though on springs!
Hard-Head Pipewort of the Pipewort family!
Okefenokee plants have a special way of coping with the extreme, nutrient-poor conditions in the swamp. The combination of acidic water and low phosphate and nitrogen in the "soil," slow down decay; thus very little nitrogen is available to nourish roots. It's amazing how plants have adapted to survive in these conditions. Carnivorous plants, such as the Sundew, Bladderwort and Pitcher Plants have developed strategies to do so by ingesting insects to get the protein and nitrogen necessary for their survival. This floating peat bog was teeming with this unfamiliar (to me) plant community, so easy to overlook if one didn't know what to look for. Thank you Bob!
The Sundews have reddish leaves with stringy hairs and droplets of a dew-like sticky substance in their spoon-shaped ends; the plant then becomes a little like a very pretty flypaper -- it loves gnats!
Swollen Bladderworts, among the most treacherous of the carnivores, form a delicate underwater system of leaflets that inflate, allowing the plant to float like a little pontoon. At the end of the submerged feathery leaves are tiny, barely-seen-by-the-naked eye, oval-shaped, seed-sized, air-filled bladders that capture and digest tiny microscopic aquatic creatures. Bob pulled this specimen out of the water so I could get a closer look, but unfortunately the bladders just look like little droplets of water here. This plant eats mosquito larvae. Good Swollen Bladderwort! Good plant! (Who the Hell names these things anyway?!!!)
The flowers, the barely-seen pinkish-greenish dots in the center of this picture, grow on a stalk from the center of the "pontoon."
When Native Americans walked on these floating bogs, they were anything but steady as they rose and fell with footsteps, a little like walking on a waterbed! The "swamper" story goes that during the Civil War, it was impossible for soldiers to move artillery through the swamp, so they loaded it onto these buoyant peat islands, then shoved them downstream to waiting comrades. Ergo: floating batteries!
Pitcher Plant, or Fly Catcher -- really beautiful and exotic. They grow in clumps.
Fragrant Water Lilly
Slash Pine Bark
Slash Pine and Saw Palmetto understory. The Palm grows so thick it will eventually require a controlled burn to thin it.
Yellow Vigna
Pale Meadow Beauty
It must be getting close to four o'clock -- the Water Lillies have started to close up for the day. Better than bankers' hours!
I looked and looked but didn't find Pogo -- or Churchy or Albert either. Sniff! I really miss Pogo.

(With the exception of the Pitcher Plant, Vigna, Pale Meadow Beauty, and Slash Pine/Palmetto, all of the Okefenokee photos were taken from a slow-moving or rocking boat. I can't say enough positive things for the Panasonic Camera I'm using.)