Anhinga is the Everglades I was expecting. Four miles inside the park, there’s a turn south to Royal Palm, an area named after the tallest of the palm species (which unlike the widely prevalent coconut palm, is actually native to the area). There’s a small, aging visitor center with a shaded patio, a small bookstore, and an array of vending machines, where I picked up a bottle of water. I’d cut my time short at the Coe VC to make sure that I was in time for the 10:30 ranger guided walk here, and immediately hustled down after seeing the ranger leave Coe for the trip to Royal Palm. All the attractions here sit on or aside Paradise Key, a hardrock hammock toured by the short Gumbo Limbo trail, a great introduction to the thick stands of trees that cover these bumps above the water level. The extra meter of elevation makes all the difference: the environment here is vastly different from the wet, marshy surroundings along the Anhinga Trail just yards away. In this dry, dense forest, strangler figs and the reddish gumbo trees cover both sides of the short, paved path that leaves from the end of the parking lot. The tall Royal Palms are here, too, and sunlight at floor level is scarce, even though Hurricane Andrew ripped off much of the canopy 15 years ago, creating a less hospitable environment with the removal of all that shade.
I’d come for the 10:30 version of the Anhinga Amble, the twice-a-day ranger-led walk along the Anhinga Trail. About 25 people were also waiting, and I was surprised that no mosquitoes were annoying us as we stood outside before departing. Wildlife was plentiful, though: dark cormorants, light-color herons, and the black and white Anhinga that give the trail its name were everywhere, some perched on the fence posts, others in the grasses on the banks, and others sitting to the side of the trail. They seemed completely unconcerned by the people in the area. The dark, slightly hook-billed cormorants are deep divers, capable of staying underwater for 5 to 8 minutes at a time. They swallow their prey, while the prettier Anhinga spear their fish with sharp bills. Unlike most water birds, the Anhinga has no oil glands to waterproof its feathers. Without these oils on its wings, it carries little air with it as it dives, giving it an advantage as it hunts under the water. But it must then spread its feathers to air-dry when back on land, resulting in the beautiful displays that take place all over this area.
The trail heads east on the bed of the old Ingraham highway, along the border of a man-made lake. Even in the dry season, this area remains filled with water, and thus attracts an awful lot of wildlife. We weren’t more than 20 yards down the roadbed before we spotted our first alligator, with only his eyes above the water, carefully watching a heron. The heron returned the gaze, eventually moving down the bank while ensuring that the gator wasn’t following.
Though the ranger looked young enough to be one of my students, he was already a five-year veteran. As the two-creature drama enfolded, he described how alligators find small depressions in the limestone called ‘solution holes’, and dig out these holes and devour the vegetation to create areas that stay filled with water during the dry season. These spots then become an oasis for species that can’t follow the receding water, earning alligators the title ‘heroes of the Everglades’. Of course, a few of these animals eventually fall victim to those intimidating teeth, but that seems a small price to pay for the rest to survive. And as reptiles, alligators conserve their energy, needing a meal only once every five days or so. They’re nearly uninterested in people, unless trained by inappropriate feeding to associate people with food.
If you are looking for threats, both fire ants and venomous snakes can be found here. Our group saw neither, but the ranger stated that it wasn’t unusual for snakes to be found along or even on the path. We were warned to steer clear of the Great Blue Herons, who always go for the eyes when threatened, and are unerring marksmen with their long, sharp beaks. I saw several less ominous creatures along the way, including a submerged, swimming Red-Bellied Slider Turtle, and the African Tilapia that kept popping up behind the ranger’s back while he talked at the first stop. The Tilapia are one of several intruder species altering the environment in the Everglades: they entered the ecosystem after escaping from a flooded fish farm decades ago, and have few predators. They’re vegetation eaters, and their large number results in a significant decrease in the oxygen levels in the water.
After a few hundred yards, a boardwalk looped out into the water. All along the way, alligators were hunkered down at water level, or sitting calmly on the few pieces of solid land. The entire path is barely a half-mile long, but the wildlife lining every bit of it will keep you here for quite a while. I wouldn’t miss this spot on a visit here, and the ranger-led walk will definitely enhance a stop here.
Believe it or not, the Everglades are home to an abandoned missile base. Leaving Royal Palm, there’s a turn to the left out past the Daniel Beard Research Center. In another mile, the road turns left, and then left again, leaving you at a locked perimeter gate. It’s hard to make anything of the structures, but there’s talk that NPS is considering restoring the Nike ABM site, which was one of many built following the Cuban Missile Crisis.