Tag Archive | pelican

Ten Thousand Islands

IMG_1728An often-overlooked aspect of Everglades National Park is that about 50% of it is covered with water… but only a few feet.  The Ten Thousand Islands is so-called because of the many mangrove islets that dot the tidal flats for over a hundred square miles before giving way to the open Gulf of Mexico.  This is an estuary: a place where fresh water from the rivers meets salt water from the ocean.  This brackish water that results in estuaries forms the basis for the most productive and diverse ecosystems on earth – and the 10,000 Islands are no exception!

This particular estuary is a result of both a submerged coastal plain (basically a continuation of the very gradual slope of land in south Florida) and the development of shoals from oyster bars.  Oysters are one of the unique organisms that not only survive but thrive in brackish water and tidal flats, and it’s only a little exaggeration to say that this area is one huge oyster bed!  The pelicans in the photo above are standing on one

Sunset boat trip (7)

These pelicans are standing on an oyster bar, a few hours before low tide.

such oyster reef.  Oysters, and other estuarine species, make up the plentiful bottom of a food chain that feeds local and migratory animals of all sorts – but especially birds and fish!  These reefs/bars/shoals also protect the mainland from storm surges and hurricanes, breaking up the force of waves before they hit shore.  When these shoals get filled in with a little sediment coming down the rivers, the mangroves are able to get a toehold, and eventually they grow to form the islets, with some higher, drier ground at the center.  For the most part, only mangroves grow there, though as debris gets caught in

Sunset boat trip (12)

Rabbit Key, a barrier island at the edge of the Gulf

the mangrove roots, some other plants are able to gain a footing themselves.  The outermost islands in the Ten Thousand Islands are true barrier islands, made of sand and shells and supporting a variety of hardy plants that grow above the high-tide line.

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A Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, and Royal Tern stake out posts on a shoal as they wait for a meal to swim by.

Some visitors spend their entire vacation in the Ten Thousand Islands – paddling or boating, fishing, birding, camping.  We had other stops to make, and only spent an afternoon here.  We took a private boat tour out among the islands and saw an abundance of wildlife, both mangrove and barrier islands, and capped it off with a sunset over the ocean.

Sunset boat trip (39)

Our tour was operated by the Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island, which has an interesting history itself.  These tours came well-recommended, and I had hoped to get a smattering of local island lore from someone who had spent their lives in the islands, but unfortunately out guide had only been there for a few months and was about to leave for his next job elsewhere.  He enjoyed talking about the wildlife and the Islands, but not all

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All of the boat operators know how to find dolphins for the tourists! It was admittedly fun to watch them play in the wake of the boat.

of his ecological facts turned out to be true (I don’t blame him – I think he thought he was giving us accurate information!).  This was a pattern I noticed while we were down there, that most tour guides (both park staff and private companies) had memorized a little bit of information but couldn’t really extrapolate from that, and sometimes mixed up what they had learned.  This is a very heavily-visited area, and most people don’t wonder about the things I’m interested in… but if you do, I suggest reading up before you go, rather than relying on guides or interpreters to inform you!

Final note: last fall I read a novel called Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which takes place in a fictionalized version of the Ten Thousand Islands and southwest Florida.  If you’re looking for something less science-y to read, I highly recommend it!

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Swimming in the Gulf!

October 26-27

Goliad, TX to Padre Island, TX

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After passing through the revolutionary towns of central eastern Texas, I made my way through Corpus Christi and out to Padre Island.  I could feel the humidity and salt in the air by the time I got to Corpus – but all I saw there was traffic and bright signs!  Padre Island seemed like more of the same, with a few fancy tourist resorts, until I got into the National Park.  There, the subdivisions and flashy billboards gave way to seemingly endless sand plains covered with dune grasses.  Padre Island National Park preserves 60 miles of undeveloped white sand frontage in a barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico for wildlife habitat.  This is Texas, thought, don’t forget, and in Texas beaches are considered public highways below the ordinary high water line.    Yep, you can drive the whole beach (and back – there’s no crossing at the south end), if you don’t get stuck… and remember to watch out for endangered sea turtles!  There is a section of beach at the park that is reserved for swimmers and wildlife watchers, though, and I went there to take a dip.

An offshore oil rig looms in the fog east of Padre Island

Pelicans at Padre Island NP

It was too windy to lie out on the sand, so I swam for a bit amid the jellyfish and crabs.  It was really more body-surfing than swimming, due to the waves and wind, but pretty nice to be swimming in the ocean at the end of October!  I walked on the beach, watching the ghost crabs on the short, and the pelicans swooping low to catch their dinner.  I decided to camp out on the beach rather than paying for a spot in the crowded (and paved) campground, so I headed down to the public roadway section.

Only the northern 4 miles or so are passable with a 2-WD vehicle… and with the low clearance on my over-packed Camry, I didn’t venture more than a few hundred yards.   It was so windy that I knew my tent would be a hassle all night, and the balmy temperature (and romantic notions of sleeping next to the ocean) convinced me that it would be a good idea to sleep on the beach.   This turned out to be a horrible idea!  The sand was stuck to me all over, and more kept blowing on me, and the tarp I had spread out also kept blowing around under me.  I was plenty warm in the light sleeping sheet-bag I was in, but my toes were very itchy.  At first I thought it was the sand and salt, then thought of sand fleas or some other such creature, but after an hour or so of torment I realized that it was mosquitoes.  I sprayed my feet thoroughly with DEET, but it only seemed to keep them off for about five minutes.  After another hour or so of this, I gave up and got into the car to try sleeping for the rest of the night!  The wind increased in force as the night went on, until the gusts were shaking my sturdy car.  As soon as it was light, I drove off the beach, afraid that the sand would blow across the tracks made by vehicles the day before and that I would be stranded.

From my "campsite"

Pelicans at sunset

Sunset over the dunes