Our research trip to South Florida became an opportunity for me to see many “firsts” in Florida. I am a native Floridian, but there are still many things and places I haven’t seen around my home state.
Early in our trip I saw my first ghost orchid, at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. It was so high up in a tree, all I could see with my naked eye was a small white dot. Only with the help of Sandy’s camera and its big lens could I be sure that I had seen a ‘ghost’.
When you see professional photos of the ghost orchid, they fill the frame and look huge. In reality the are small, only a couple inches tall. They are also leafless orchids, which adds to the difficulty of finding them.
In another part of the Big Cypress Swamp, over thirty miles away, we visited a different location know for ghost orchids, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. After a long ATV ride and a hike deep in the swamp, we found an almost-blooming ghost orchid. It was at eye level! But it probably would not bloom for another day or two. With more wandering and searching, we found another. It was much higher up in a tree, but still close enough to be seen by the unaided eye. Two days and two different ghost orchid blooms, what a privilege! I saw something that very few people ever get to see.
After applying copious amounts of insect repellent, we stopped at Collier-Seminole State Park one morning and into the woods we went in search of liguus tree snails, another rare Florida creature I had never seen. Harassed by mosquitoes, we walked all the way out and around the loop of the Royal Palm Hammock Trail and never saw the first snail. On the way back, Sandy spotted one. Not long after, I spotted two more. As we continued on to Everglades National Park later in our trip, I would see many more.
Visiting Loop Road in Big Cypress National Preserve, we took a GPS track of the route that ECT hikers take to get from Key West to the Florida Trail. Along the way, we saw a pair of unusual looking birds. Neither of us could identify them as they flew off. Looking up the bird’s color, shape, and behavior later, we realized that we had seen the rare mangrove cuckoo.
I was on a roll! Three rare natural Florida sightings in less than a week.
While in Key West, I could add a fourth, the white-crowned pigeon. Not only are they rare, but one of their favorite foods is the fruit of the poisonwood tree, found only in Southeast Florida and the Keys. As we visited many of the natural areas in the Keys, we would notice more white-crowned pigeons and a lot more poisonwood.
Poisonwood is dangerous, and people need to learn how to recognize it. You’ll find it throughout the Keys, not just in the natural spaces. Its sap causes a rash and blistering much worse than poison ivy. The fruits are toxic.
There is another dangerous tree in the Keys, far more poisonous than poisonwood. It’s the manchineel tree. When I met Sandy, she owned one, a family heirloom growing in a large pot. We carefully transferred it to rangers at Florida State Parks to put back into the wild.
They are very rare. Our only sighting of one was while visiting National Key Deer Refuge. While hiking the trail, I spotted my first one in the wild, and Sandy noticed a second one farther down the path. This is another tree you should become recognize before doing any bushwhacking in the Keys. We saw several signs and warnings about the poisonwood tree at the state parks, but we never saw anything about the manchineel tree.
Most people we met walking the trails on Big Pine Key were chatting away and never saw a Key deer. I had only seen one before, looking out my car window while driving along US 1. Twice on this trip, I heard them rustling in the brush. By keeping quiet and standing still, both times I was rewarded by a visit and photo opportunity from only a few feet away.
My final rare sighting for the trip was a unique piece of Florida geography: sea caves and blow holes at Blowing Rocks Preserve. I never knew they existed along the Florida coast.
After nearly three weeks of travel through South Florida, I had seen nine very rare natural things of Florida, eight of which I had never seen before. Maybe next time I can see a crocodile and add it to my list.