I first heard of slogging when I went with Garl’s coastal kayaking and since then have taken lots of friends myself. Upon hearing the word slogging people’s first question is usually ”what is slogging?” Once I tell them or they see the photos, the following question is “why on earth would you do that?!”
So what exactly is slogging you may ask? Slogging is basically walking off-trail through the swampy water of the Everglades and into the cypress domes. A cypress dome is an isolated forested area, where cypress trees grow in shallow standing water. The trees in the center typically grow taller than those at the edge and water level inside the dome varies with the wet/dry season. These domes are home to many rare plants, including orchids as well as alligators, tree frogs, water snakes, owls, storks, and herons.
And so why would anyone want to go slogging? Well, many people have experienced the Everglades by walking along the Annhinga trail inside the national park and viewing gators safely from an elevated boardwalk above the water. And there is nothing wrong with that; you are nearly guaranteed to see wildlife. However, if you are daring enough to “enter the dome” get ready for a unique experience coupled with that slight adrenaline rush. Not another soul in sight and only the sound of wind and the occasional prehistoric call of a great blue heron. Lurking on any tree branch could be a cottonmouth, a venomous and semiaquatic pit viper, capable of delivering a fatal bite. My brother and I were slogging and brought our dad along for the first time. I warned him at one point that we were approaching a “snakey” area and to be particularly careful where he stepped or grabbed onto trees. His response… ” Gee thanks – this is crazy” (captured on video thanks to my GoPro)
If you come across an open area without any vegetation, keep an eye out as it is most likely a resident alligator’s “gator hole.” Adult gators use their mouths and claws to uproot vegetation to create space. Then, by slashing their tails they create a depression that remains full of water, even through the dry season. During the dry season or drought, these holes provide invaluable habitat to other animals such as fish, turtles, insects, snakes, and birds. Clearly, alligators are essential for a balanced and thriving ecosystem. So if you are slogging be mindful and make sure not to go aimlessly stomping through the hole. While gators are generally wary of humans, you never know if it is home to protective mother with her babies or a particularly territorial large male. Cypress domes are also home to a variety of web-building spiders, so to those afflicted with arachnophobia – be prepared.
Would you go slogging?
“Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land. Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water, but as the last receiver of it. To its natural abundance we owe the spectacular plant and animal life that distinguishes this place from all others in our country.”
- President Harry S Truman, address at the Dedication of Everglades National Park, December 6, 1947
From el lagarto, the Spanish word for “lizard” we get alligator. The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is one of two species of alligators in the world, the other being the Chinese alligator.
I have always been fascinated with alligators, maybe because of their armored skin and powerful jaws, but maybe because it is for these characteristics that people tend to dislike them. I’ve never understood why people have such a strong hatred for predatory animals like wolves, hyenas, crocodiles, etc… when we ourselves are predators. At one point alligators were hunted for fashionable leather products to the point of near extinction. A species over 150 million years old, that survived beyond the dinosaurs, almost extinct because of humans. They were put on the endangered species list around the 1970s and subsequently made a huge recovery. They were removed from the list and now number in the millions.
Living in Florida, I have had my fair share of alligator encounters. From my experiences, they are relatively shy and wary of humans. I’ve come across sunning gators on banks while kayaking, get too close and they will slide away into the water. I’ve been walking near ponds and come across basking gators. Again- get too close and they just slide away. In fact, years of kayaking in their presence and I have never had a remotely threatening encounter with an alligator. I’ve even bumped them with my kayak and they remain completely unphased. The one exception however is when I have come across a mother with babies. In that case, get too close and she will start to puff up and hiss- a warning (and rather effective one) not to get anywhere near her babies.
Alligators eat generally anything from fish, turtles, birds, and muskrat to deer. However, a couple of weeks ago I was in the Everglades National Park talking to a ranger and she informed me that a large portion of their diet comes from consuming the endemic Apple snail. There is nothing that can take the ferocity away from a gator than learning that they eat a small and basically motionless snail. Having said that, I would never like to be tested against an adult gator- 1000 lbs of muscle with roughly 80 teeth. While they may eat snails and fish, they are also completely capable of grabbing an adult deer. They are a predator deserving of our respect.
You would never know it at first glance, but Blue Heron Bridge situated just a mile or so off I-95 in Riviera Beach, Florida is one of the best dives in south Florida (in my opinion). Marine critters like seahorses, octopus, eels, sea stars, crabs, lobsters, sea slugs, and many more all call this bridge home. Diving the bridge requires a little bit of planning, mostly regarding the tide. You want to dive the bridge at slack high tide for the best chances of good visibility and minimal current. Just park, head under the bridge, gear up and walk into the water. Aside from being free, another bonus of diving the bridge is that is super easy to navigate and shallow- which means a long bottom time, perfect for photography!
On my most recent dive I encountered several very active seahorses who were reluctant to pose for a photograph. Scrawled cowfish and sheepshead were also swimming about. A filefish came out of nowhere and attacked my mask and camera, though I am not quite sure what I did to upset the little guy! Unfortunately, I did not spot any octopus, but I have been lucky enough to encounter them on other dives. In fact, the bridge is so well-known for its octopus population that cephalopod researcher and behaviorist Dr. Roger Hanlon has filmed them at the bridge. His research and video collection can be viewed at http://hermes.mbl.edu/mrc/hanlon/. I finally saw a flying gurnard but the elusive stargazer still evades me!
This particular dive was my first time using a strobe (external flash) on my underwater camera. I had always been slightly intimidated to use one. However, I decided to just try it out and can say that I only regret not using one sooner, it makes such a difference in bringing out the colors!
The most interesting thing I saw on this dive was a feeding behavior called “shadow feeding.” This is when one predatory fish will use another to hide itself, allowing it to closer approach prey without being deteced. I observed this behavior between a yellow stingray and a bar jack.
Recently, I took a camping trip with a group of friends to the largest spring flowing directly into the Suwannee River- Manatee Springs. A 5 hour drive towards northwest Florida. Where South Florida is covered with palm trees and clear blue skies, the landscape of the springs has a different and almost gothic feel. Mist and fog coat the air, while knobby cypress trees are draped in spanish moss (not actually a moss- but a flowering air plant). Not to mention the constant presence of several hundred black vultures circling overhead. Amazingly enough, bald cypress trees that inhabit the springs can live up to 600 years. Makes you wonder what a 600 year old tree in Florida has seen and lived through….
At night, by scanning the woods with a flashlight you may catch the eyeshine of the more nocturnal animals- white-tailed deer, nine-banded armadillos, oppossums, raccoons, and if you are looking carefully – even tiny spiders. Eyeshine is a visible effect of the tapetum lucidum, a reflective tissue in the eye which improves vision in low-light conditions. We also heard barred owls hooting in the distance, distinguishable from other owls as it sounds like they are saying “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” (thank you Virginia Tech ornithology lab )
While the surface may feel eerie, underwater the crystal clear springs and penetrating light rays give an immedate feeling of tranquility. Florida springs have better visibility than a swimming pool with a constant temperature around 72 degrees. The warm water acts as a haven for manatees in the winter, escaping the cooler surrounding water. Warm for the manatees maybe, because jumping in feels….refreshing. The springs are also home to alligators, schooling mullet, catfish and other fish, as well as a variety of turtle species.
With clear water and abundant wildlife, the springs make for a great photography location, and in general, a nice place to get away from traffic and crowds!
” In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings…”
Growing up, I never had much interest in birds. Polar bears, wolves, alligators, and snakes were far more intriguing. My earliest memories of birds involve my grandfather, a poet and naturalist, who was a birder. He would point out (all summer long and much to my annoyance) that there is no such thing as a “seagull” when our family would spend our summer days at Jones Beach, Long Island.
Over time, as my interest in photography grew birds became the subject of my photos with increasing frequency. They were easy to find and by attempting to get different ’shots’ (flight, feeding, mating, portraits etc…) my technical and compositional skills became more developed. Aside from becoming a better photographer, the beauty in birds is their incredible diversity. The different bill shapes and sizes, eye and feather colors, wing shape, flight patterns, feeding behavior, calls and songs etc…By simply looking at their bill, you can likely figure how and where they feed.
Because birds are so commonplace, they are often under appreciated. We can see them everywhere – in the parking lots, at the beach, lakes, the park or outside an office window. Part of appreciating birds is about staying connected with the environment and my surroundings. It’s the same reason I like knowing the weather, trees, stars, and the planets in the sky. By stepping out and noting the egret flying overhead, or the osprey calling in the distance I’m reminded of the natural world still around me, despite the bleak concrete, train noises, and iphone constantly in my pocket. Whenever I hear the melodic call of the song sparrow I think of Spring, they were always the first birds to start singing.
A juvenile roseate spoonbill swings its bill through the water to catch small fish and insects
A great egret leaves the nest to find a suitable twig for his mate during breeding season
A baby green heron begs for food
A yawning burrowing owl
Sometimes it doesn’t take much to step out of our everyday lives and into an entirely different world- all it takes is a little exploration and sense of adventure. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to cost anything. For example, 100 yards offshore in Deerfield Beach and you can swim with ancient marine reptiles, sea turtles. No lines, no entrance fees, and no crowds.
Deerfield Beach is a popular snorkel and dive spot because the reef is so close to shore. However, just before you reach the reef there is a seemingly uninteresting bottom type made up mostly algae. This is exactly why the turtles are here.
Around the world there are 7 different sea turtle species. These are green sea turtles, so named because the fat under their shells is actually green. Green sea turtles are herbivorous and they come here eat the algae. While adult female sea turtles use the beach for nesting, the ones in the algae beds are juveniles. Just little guys.
Yet, it’s not like there are signs posted or instructions on how to get here. In fact, I discovered this population of sea turtles accidently. My friends and I would come to snorkel the reef, generally looking for fish and corals. While swimming back into shore we would always see the turtles in the shallow water. A few more trips and we realized they are pretty much always here in the algae beds eating- go figure. Usually, when you find one you find at least 5 or 6 more.
Unfortunately, most sea turtles are listed as endangered or threatened, due to threats from human activity, such as beach development, bycatch from fishing, and illegal black-market trade in eggs and meat.
After being in the water for hours, eventually I just stopped to watch and observe them rather than focus on taking photos. I jealously watched as they glided through the water effortlessly, obviously built for the aquatic environment . Meanwhile, there I was getting tossed around awkwardly in the waves, surfacing every minute for a breath. It is humbling to swim with a species that has existed for over 65 million years.
To celebrate Earth Day 2012, I decided to post a few animal portraits.