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Living in Paradise: Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

By Staff | Nov 12, 2014

Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary boardwalk. PHOTO PROVIDED

Established in 1954 to protect some of the last remaining virgin stands of bald and pond cypress trees in the state of Florida, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary encompasses a total of 13,000 acres. The vast majority of the swamp is not open to the public due to the fact that various sections of it are home to the largest nesting colonies of wood storks in North America. An endangered species, nesting wood storks are very sensitive to any intrusions into their rookeries and have been known to abandon eggs and even chicks if they become disturbed. They nest amongst the crowns of the 500-year-old bald cypress trees that tower over much of the swamp.

Access into the swamp is via a 2.25-mile boardwalk that takes the visitor through several distinctive habitats. The Blair Nature Center, located at the beginning of the trail, is situated in a typical upland pine flatwood forest. The old plume hunter’s camp, which is located down a spur off the main trail, is likewise located in this ecosystem. It is characterized by Florida slash pine, saw palmetto, cabbage palms and a myriad of wildflowers. Wildfires play an important role in keeping this understory open and burn marks can be observed on the trunks of cabbage palms and slash pines as you walk along.

Be sure to take the last spur on your left before entering the wet prairie section of the walk. There is a suspended bird feeder located at the end of a short extension where wintering passerines such as painted buntings, pine warblers, cedar waxwings and an assortment of warblers can be viewed. Once into the wide open wet prairie, look for swamp sparrows, white-tailed deer and banded water snakes. This habitat is dominated by grasses, sedges and rushes, with sand cordgrass being the dominant plant.

Shortly thereafter, you find yourself in a mature pond-cypress forest. These trees are thinner and considerably smaller than the massive bald cypress found deeper in the swamp. The pond-cypress forest is home to otters, Florida black bear, common yellowthroat, American bittern and white eyed vireo. Blue flag iris and night-fragrant orchids, along with an assortment of bromeliads, thrive in the pond-cypress forest.

Roughly a mile into the walk you began to enter the heart and soul of the Corkscrew Swamp; the virgin stand of monumental bald cypress trees. These old growth trees are centuries old and some of them obtain heights in excess of 130 feet. The swamp beneath them is laced with strange, organic sculptures called cypress knees. These curious looking protrusions are extensions of the bald cypress root systems and are believed to have evolved to help stabilize the massive trees in the rich, organic peat they grow in. In the numerous nooks and cavities of these trees, look for barred and screech owls, wood ducks, raccoons, as well as pileated, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers. This forest is home to mythical ghost orchid, which blooms between May and August during the rainy season.

Bull alligator in Lettuce lake. PHOTO PROVIDED

Be sure to take the spur that takes you to the western edge of the boardwalk, overlooking the central marsh. Dominated by sawgrass and coastal plain willow, an elevated platform allows you to scope the broad horizon in search of wood-stork nests along the western edge, as well as frequent sightings of swallow-tailed kites, vireos, cardinals and blackbirds. Be careful to watch for native green anoles hiding amidst the similarly colored coastal plain willow leaves.

Your next stop is at lettuce lakes, and no one should visit Corkscrew Swamp without seeing this unique feature of the swamp. Here the water is too deep for trees to survive but the surface of the lake is covered in floating vegetation such as water lettuce and frog’s bit. Other plants you are likely to see are alligator flag and pickerel weed. Of course alligators and turtles thrive in these ponds while the edges are patrolled by limpkins, purple gallinules and little blue herons.

All totaled, there are 39 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and butterflies that have been identified in the swamp and more than 108 different species of birds.

The boardwalk soon returns to the Blair Audubon Center, where you can relax and take in their attractive and well-stocked Nature Store or sit back and have a refreshment and snack in their tearoom. Art shows, often made up of nature photography that was taken in the swamp, adorn the walls of the center and a birdfeeder just outside the baywindow attracts hummingbirds, buntings and grey squirrels while you enjoy the air-conditioning.

While the 2.25-mile hike generally takes less than two hours when you allow for viewing, it has to be considered one of the finest nature trails in all of Florida. The boardwalk, which got its start back in 1955, is today constructed out of Brazilian pau lope wood (aka Ip), and is wheelchair accessible. For those who do not want to make the entire walk, there is a cut off that shortens the trail to one mile in length.

Another interesting feature of the Blair Center is The Living Machine. Designed by John Todd of Ocean Arks Intl., this recycling wastewater system uses sunlight, bacteria, green plants and animals to restore wastewater from the center back into the toilets for reuse again and again. It is the only wastewater treatment plant in Florida that includes its own butterfly garden!

Even in the heat of summer, because of the towering canopy provided by the ancient bald cypress found there, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a joy to visit. The solitude and beauty of a walk through this cathedral of majestic cypress trees is always a welcome and refreshing change of pace from day-to-day living. While all of nature is awe-inspiring, some places are simply magical in their presence and feel. Corkscrew Swamp is one of those places. Everyone reading “The Living Gulf Coast” should take a day out of their hurried lives to visit this national treasure.

-This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites