If you’re planning a trip to Naples, Florida, you won’t want to miss the 5th Avenue South shops and restaurants, golf courses, fishing charters, water sport adventures and swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. However, when you want to take a break from the hustle and bustle of jet skis, airboat rides, and parasailing, head to the 14,000 acre Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Slip into your favorite walking shoes, grab binoculars and a camera, and wander along the 2.25 mile raised boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Here you’ll discover a diversity of inhabitants as you roam through a pine upland, a wet prairie, a cypress forest and a marsh. Every day is a new adventure at Corkscrew Swamp. From the boardwalk you may encounter blue herons feeding on crayfish, anhingas spreading their wings to warm up, tiny turtles, great egrets and giant alligators as well as a variety of native plants including wild orchids and the blue flag iris. As you walk into the largest old growth bald cypress forest in North America, listen for the loud hoots of the barred owls. Located northeast of downtown Naples, you’ll experience spectacular swamp adventures complete with over 200 species of birds, wildlife and their natural habitats in the heart of the Western Everglades.
You’ll start your boardwalk stroll in pine flatwood where wildlife varies with the seasons. In the fall, ripened palmetto berries draw raccoons, deer and black bears as they search for food supplies. Throughout the year you might see and hear mockingbirds, woodpeckers, red-shouldered hawks and cardinals among the oak and hardwood hammocks that dot the area. I was lucky to view a brightly colored male painted bunting feeding on insects and grasses close to one of the feeders.
Continue along the boardwalk and you’ll discover the wet prairie, slightly lower in elevation than the pine flatwood. Grasses, sedges and reeds dominate the area. Here in the spring, you’ll get your best view of herons, egrets and ibis as they hunt for food in the grasses. Be on the lookout for wood storks overhead. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is home to the largest remaining breeding ground for the endangered wood stork.
Before you arrive at the bald cypress forest you’ll come across the pond cypress where wet prairie and bald cypress wildlife meet. The smaller pond cypress trees grow in the more open wetland area and are more than 100 years old. They grow much closer to each other than the bald cypress trees.
As you walk deeper into the swamp, majestic 600 year old bald cypress trees reaching heights of 130 feet surround you. Along the boardwalk, I spotted two barred owls in different locations sitting high up in the bald cypress trees. Take a close look at some of the cypress trees and you’ll see what appear to be vines growing up the tree. They are not vines but are roots of the strangler fig tree. According to the Audubon Society, the strangler fig tree begins growth on the cypress tree when birds eat the fruit growing on the strangler fig tree branches and expel the seed from the fruit in a crevice in the cypress tree. The fig tree will begin to grow up while its roots grow down and around the cypress tree. The strangler fig tree grows on a number of other trees throughout the sanctuary.
In the bald cypress forest you’ll come to an observation platform overlooking the central marsh. If you visit in the spring and bring binoculars, this is where you’ll get your best opportunity to see wood stork nesting colonies in the tops of the cypress trees. You also might see an assortment of vultures, anhingas, swallow-tailed kites, cardinals and blackbirds hunting for food.
My favorite part of the sanctuary is Lettuce Lakes. A mat of floating water lettuce plants blankets the water’s surface. Here you’ll find alligators and wading birds stalking crustaceans, fish, small reptiles, amphibians and insects for their next meal. From the boardwalk, I spotted a number of great egrets, alligators, a great blue heron, a little blue heron, a black-crowned night heron, and a lineup of tiny turtles. Unfortunately, the sanctuary was not always a safe haven for wildlife and habitats. The first crisis occurred in the late 1800’s when the rage in women’s fashions was for ladies to wear large hats decorated with feathers. Egret and heron plumes were in high demand and plume hunters headed to Corkscrew to make money on defenseless birds. Groups of conservationists called Audubon Societies (later to become the National Audubon Society) demanded a stop to killing wildlife for the sake of fashion. Audubon wardens took on the dangerous assignment of protecting the birds. Eventually the wetlands of South Florida were declared sanctuaries and plume hunting was outlawed.
In the 1950’s, a second crisis developed when Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s cypress forest was targeted for logging. Locals worked with the National Audubon Society to protect natural resources by purchasing 3,000 acres of virgin cypress forest at Corkscrew Swamp. Fortunately, conservation won out when plume hunting and logging threatened the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.