If you go…
Bird Rookery Swamp
Where: 1295 Shady Hollow Blvd. West, 12 miles east of I-75 off Immokalee Rd.
When: Open sunrise to sunset.
For more information: www.crewtrust.org.
Collier County — As if on cue, a juvenile bald eagle soared overhead as George Luther began his talk at the entrance to Bird Rookery Swamp. On a cloudless blue-sky morning several more winged rookery residents soared overhead to greet two-footed visitors who had signed up for a three-hour morning walk.
Bird Rookery Swamp is a 7,000-acre parcel at the southern tip of land owned and managed by Southwest Florida Water Management District which has oversight of water management in the bottom third of Southwest Florida. The Swamp is part of the 60,000-acre Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW).
This was the first season CREW scheduled walks given by volunteers at Bird Rookery Swamp. So now the secret is out. Walkers can amble through bald cypress and red maple forest taking a boardwalk then grassy berm above wet terrain. Bicyclists favor a 14-mile loop, but the best way to see the swamp is on foot at a slow pace, slightly above alligator eye level. And while the gators occasionally cross, there is so much more to see and hear.
Squawking red-shouldered hawks pierce silence to warn visitors they are in hawk territory. White flowered elderberry and pickerelweed’s purple flowers add color to the forest floor. Arrowroot, whose flour is famous for infants’ teething biscuits, grows alongside the boardwalk. Air plants including Spanish moss, southern needle quill and wild pine, reminiscent of pineapple, cling to trunks and branches, as do arboreal orchids like rigid epidendrum.
Red and white lichen-covered tree trunks act as biomonitors of the atmosphere since they require clean air to survive.
There was a time when this swamp was not so quiet and undisturbed. In the early 1900s the Lee Tidewater Lumber Company harvested old growth, trees that were several hundred years old, explained Luther. Cypress stretching 130 to 150 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter were girdled, left to die and dry.
Lumberjacks, standing waist deep in swamp water, would pull massive two man saws, fell dried trees then drag them with winches to tracks, hauling them out on trains in 40-foot sections on narrow gauge rail. “The Old Deuce”, the steam engine that towed large timbers out of the swamp has been restored and is on view today at the Collier County Museum. Today’s walking path is the berm that was built to lay those tracks.
“You have to look for what’s different in the forest,” repeated Luther. A sabal palm trunk, used as a scratch pole, had been rubbed clean by a black bear leaving behind scratch marks and lanolin from his fur. From the scratch marks’ location, his height was estimated at 5 feet.
Luther pointed out a single tree growing two types of needles. A swallowtail butterfly with its signature blue spots flew at eyelevel and a swallowtail kite, one of the first of the season, flew high overhead.
In late morning snakes seek out sun for a sunbath and gators, covered in water lettuce, emerge to catch rays. Each season has something new to discover. In January naked cypress and red maple allow bird watchers a better view. Alongside the trail, a dead tree trunk has been felled by a bear hungry for grubs inside. What looks like a massive nest from down below turns out to be a virus, called witch’s broom, that morphs the cypress growing pattern so it grows only twigs and not branches.
Among submerged cypress surrounded by floating duckweed, two water snakes found a dry spot to mate. Luther advised caution as they will bite readily.
Underfoot yellow striped southeastern lubber grasshoppers scurry, as they begin their voracious lives. They’ll grow to 3 to 4 inches becoming green and orange. According to Luther, the loggerhead shrike has figured a way to safely eat this toxic bug. It impales them on a thorn or barbed wire fence and returns later for his feast.
Francine Stevens, a Bonita Springs resident, recognized the catbird. Well named for his song, the black catbird sounds like a meow. Carolina wren, South Carolina’s state bird, has also been seen and heard here.
Another member of the walking group, Sheryl Bottner, a Florida native living in the DC area, is only now visiting areas she never saw as a child. “I’m finding out more now than when I lived here.”
Fragrant wax myrtle, or southern bay, grows within reach of the boardwalk. It’s known for its insect repellant qualities. Early pioneers boiled it to make candles.
A white egret alights softly on a floating hyacinth. A dragonfly settles on a stick emerging from water. It’s a new beginning, another day dawning in the swamp.