Welcome! After a long hiatus, NJUrbanForest.com is proud to be back with a new hike to virtually explore! Today’s hike will take us deep into southwest Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand Preserve via the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. I hope you got your binoculars with you because this boardwalk is chock full of flora and fauna goodness!
Before we begin you may be wondering what in the world is a strand? A strand is generally shallow and has formed where the underlying limestone dissolved. The most common trees found are Bald Cypress, Royal Palm and Red Maple. Within the strand are numerous sloughs which are deeper channels of water. The Fakahatchee Strand is one of the most ecologically rich areas found in the greater Everglades ecosystem.
The Fakahatchee Strand is the world’s largest subtropical strand stretching around 20 miles long and about five miles wide and is the only one with a mixed Royal Palm and Cypress canopy. The park is the largest state park in Florida and contains more native orchids than any other area found in North America. This is why the nickname of the Fakahatchee Strand is the Orchid Swamp.
There are four sections in the park:
Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk
The East River
The Jones Grade Lakes
Janes Memorial Drive
The Fakatchee Strand was harvested for its cypress for ten years stretching from 1944-1954 with the exception of the portion we will explore today. The former logging site was then turned into a state park.
Birds, mammals and reptiles common to the Fakahatchee Stand include:
Ready? Let’s go! As we walk along there are interpretive signs indicating the flora and fauna found in the Fakahatchee Strand. The trail from the parking lot to the boardwalk is about 856 feet long. The actual boardwalk is 2,300 feet or about .6 of a mile. The boardwalk ends at an observation deck at an alligator pond.
Here we have come across a Laurel Oak. The Laurel Oak’s native habitat includes swamps and wet hammocks. The tree can reach heights of 100 feet. In Florida, many homeowners use this tree for their yards.
Next we have a Live Oak. The Live Oak grows to about a maximum of fifty feet in height. The Live Oak’s acorns are popular with wildlife.
A blur of white appears to the side as we walk the boardwalk. Check out the beak on this bird! It’s a Great Egret. In the early 1900’s the Great Egret was pushed to the edge of extinction due to the high demand for its feathers for women’s hats. This of course was before the Migratory Bird Act of 1918.
As we walk along a huge old-growth Bald Cypress is being attacked by something. That something is a Strangler Fig. The Strangler Fig reminds me of sculptures found in the movie Beetlejuice. The tree starts life as an air plant (aka epiphyte). Once the roots of the Strangler Fig touch the ground the plant is no longer an epiphyte but is now considered a terrestrial plant. Strangler Figs can reach heights of 50-60 feet.
Royal Palm is found here. The tree is native to southern Florida and is commonly planted. But here it is wild and not planted.
A Limpkin is around the corner but appears a tad blurry. I thought I just got my eyes checked? You won’t find Limpkins up north. In fact, Florida is the only state in the United States with a Limpkin population.
As we walk along there are beautiful Iris in full bloom.
As we walk looking at the Iris flowers and other vegetation we spot something that at first looks like rope. This snake means us no harm and we keep walking.
We see many dead trees as we walk. Dead trees (aka snags) serve a valuable purpose. Insects consume the tree which provide food for a variety of birds. Woodpeckers make holes which serve their young and later provide shelter for animals such as the raccoon.
Splash! A River Otter makes a surprise appearance. What an honor to meet its acquaintance before it slips beneath the water.
Next we come across a hungry River Cooter who is eating non-stop. River Cooters eat anything it finds. It’s not picky! Let’s keep going!
Check out this guy. It is a Cormorant aka fish hawk. There must be a lot of fish in these waters to keep seeing birds like the Great Egret and this guy.
Nice! We have come across Wild Coffee. Wild Coffee is evergreen and grows to a maximum of eight feet in height. The seeds resemble coffee (hence its name) but is not actually used for coffee.
And here is the star of today’s walk: an American Alligator. I think we will keep on moving and leave this guy to his day.
There are many types of ferns as we walk on the boardwalk. Among them include:
From Naples, drive 17.1 miles east from the intersection of CR 951 (Collier Blvd) along US 41 (Tamiami Trail), passing Collier-Seminole State Park and Port of the Isles. There is a very large sign on the right, but parking is in a small space to the left. Do not block the gate to the Miccosukee Village. From the east, the boardwalk is 6.9 miles west of the blinker at the intersection of US 41 and SR 27 near Everglades City, which is 17 miles south of the I-75 Everglades City / Immokalee exit.
Check out the books below for more information on Florida’s swamps!
The Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center (GSOEC) consists of a 44 acre portion of the Great Swamp managed since 1963 by the Morris County Parks Department. The GSOEC hosts guided nature walks, school, scout and public educational programs.
Herp Study in Progress
The GSOEC hosts periodic studies of the flora and fauna to determine the overall health of the Great Swamp.
The origin of the Great Swamp begins with the melting and subsequent retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier around 25,000 years ago. Debris from the glacier blocked the passage of an ancient river creating an enormous lake known as Lake Passaic. Lake Passaic is thought to have been 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. Over time, an outlet was formed near Little Falls NJ draining the lake via the Passaic River. This drainage is still occurring today. Today the Great Swamp forms a remnant component of the once great Lake Passaic.
In the late 1950’s the area now known as the Great Swamp was identified by the NYNJ Port Authority as an ideal location for a new jetport. The Great Swamp Conservation Foundation mobilized volunteers to protect the Great Swamp. The result was the establishment of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Great Swamp Conservation Foundation later became the North Jersey Conservation Foundation and then finally known as New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
GSOEC features five short loop trails. Two of the four trails (Orange & Red) are interpretive and follow 16 markers listed in a self guided trail booklet available at the education center.
Ready to take a virtual tour of the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center? Let’s Go!
Stop by the kiosk near the parking lot to pick up a trail map. From the kiosk, head to the education center to view the exhibits on the flora and fauna of the Great Swamp.
Outdoor Education Nature Center with Kiosk
Mammals of The Great Swamp
Endangered in New Jersey
After checking out the exhibits inside, it’s time to start our hike.
Orange Trail Trailhead
Let’s begin our virtual hike by taking the Orange Blazed trail located to the south of the education center. The Orange Trail at .61 Miles is the longest trail present in the GSOEC. It contains Markers 1-10 from the self guided trail.
The first marker, regarding the Red Maple tree, appears shortly after the beginning of the orange trail. Red Maple is the most common tree in the Great Swamp as well as the eastern deciduous forest.
Red Maple Leaves
Red Maple’s flowers are red in the spring and the leaves turn a brilliant red in the fall. Though the Sugar Maple may come to mind when it comes to maple syrup, Red Maple can be tapped for syrup as well. Red Maple should be tapped before budding occurs as the buds change the chemical makeup of the syrup.
Continuing on the orange trail, marker #2 comes into view on the right where a large depression may be found.
The large depression is known as a vernal pond. Vernal ponds do not support fish and may be dry or filled with water. Due to the lack of predators (i.e. fish) the vernal pond provides a safe haven for amphibians such as Wood Frogs, Spring Peepers and Blue-Spotted Salamanders among other species to breed and lay eggs. Continuing past the vernal pond, two fenced areas appear shortly after on the left.
Marker 3 with Deer Enclosure in background
Marker # 3 explains that these sections of the GSOEC were fenced in 2009 to study how plant communities recover from the damage caused by an overpopulation of white tail deer.
Marker 4 EcoTone
Marker #4 describes an Ecotone. An Ecotone is anywhere two habitats meet and create an edge. The Ecotone present here was created by the Power line right of way. The positive aspects of this man-made Ecotone is the creation of suitable nesting habitat for the local turtle population in addition to providing a valuable hunting ground for birds of prey. On the flipside, the disturbed ground caused by the creation of the power lines have provided ideal habitat for invasive plants as Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose, Garlic Mustard, Wineberry & Japanese Barberry.
Marker 5 The Pond
Continuing in a southwest direction, the dirt path changes to a boardwalk as the trail traverses the wetland area.
Orange Trail Boardwalk
A short boardwalk appears to the right of the main boardwalk which leads to the Pond which is marker #5.
Ponds are usually less than 18 feet deep. Eventually as plant matter and other organic material decays, the pond will begin to become a marsh, progress to a forested wetland and finally upland habitat after many years.
Continuing on the trail leads to Marker #6 which describes Poison Ivy which is seen here growing as a hairy vine. Poison ivy contains a clear liquid known as urushiol which causing a burning itching rash in many people. In addition to a hairy vine Poison Ivy can be found as a shrub reaching over three feet tall or as a trailing vine on the ground.
Several rhymes exist warning of the dangers of Poison Ivy:
At this point of the hike you may notice abundant Mountain Laurel. Marker # 7 appears here.
Marker 7 The Browse Line
Its purpose is to briefly touch upon “the browse line”. The over abundant white- tail deer have stripped all leaves of vegetation from six feet down. If the current trend continues, there may not be a forest here in the future.
From this area, the trail head of the .23 of a mile Blue trail loop appears.
Blue Trail Trailhead
Let’s take a brief break from the interpretive trail to explore this short trail.
Blue Blaze Swamp Chestnut Oak
The Blue Trail Loop goes through an upland area consisting of mostly Mountain Laurel and Swamp Chestnut Oak.
Dried Vernal Pond Blue Trail
The trail encircles a small vernal pond (the vernal pond, seen here is dry during our virtual tour).
Blue Trail end
Completing the Blue Trail Loop, head back to the Orange Trail and to Marker # 8 which describes the function of a rotting log in the forest.
Standing dead trees or snags play an important role in the eastern deciduous forest. Woodpeckers including Pileated, Downy and Red-Bellied among others excavate holes in the dead trees searching for tasty insects. These excavated holes in turn create habitat for birds including Black-Capped Chickadee. Fungus will usually invade the dead wood further softening it. Eventually, the tree will fall to the forest floor where it will continue to decay creating a rich organic soil which will support future species of trees.
Marker 9 Phragmites Marsh
Proceed east to Marker # 9 The Phragmites Marsh. Phragmites (aka Giant Reed) is a giant species of grass which can grow from 10-20 feet. Phragmites thrives in disturbed areas. Phragmites found in the Great Swamp are native to the eastern deciduous forest. Phragmites are considered invasive because of its aggressive growth and tendency to overwhelm all other vegetation.
Outdoor Study Area
From here the trail leaves the boardwalk and heads south to marker # 10 which passes an outdoor study area and leads to a Wigwam replica.
The Lenape Native Americans (the original people) created Wigwams as shelter from saplings, tree bark and Cattail Mats among others. This replica would have been big enough for two people. Marker #10 is the last marker for the orange trail.
Orange Trail end
After heading back from the Wigwam, turn right on the Orange Trail and follow the trail a brief distance to its terminus.
Prayer of the Woods
The “Prayer of the Woods” sign is found right before the start of the Red Trail. After reading the Prayer and taking in its message, turn right to start hiking the .39 mile Red Trail to continue the interpretive trail.
Red Trail Trailhead
The first marker on the Red Trail is #11 which identifies trees found in the Eastern Deciduous Forest.
Marker 11 Deciduous Forest
Trees found in the Eastern Deciduous Forest include the below among others:
From here turn left at the sign leading to the education center to go to Marker # 13.
Marker 13 Stream
The Red Trail approaches Marker #13 as it crosses a stream.
Red Trail Stream Crossing
Sediments and rocks on the stream bottom provides habitat for a variety of Crayfish and Macro-invertebrates. Marco-invertebrates lack backbones and can be seen without the aid of a microscope. Certain macro-invertebrates such as Caddisflies are pollutant intolerant. Presence of pollutant intolerant macro-invertebrates are one way to indicate the health of a stream. Macro- invertebrates eat many different things depending on the species-there are predators, scavengers, and herbivores among them. In turn, macro-invertebrates are a source of food for various turtles, fish and frogs.
Marker #14 The Wet Meadow
Continuing on the red trail leads to Marker #14 which discusses“The Wet Meadow”. The Wet Meadow is a man-made habitat created by a power-line cut and is home to field mice, star-nosed moles and various hawks & owls among others.
Marker #15 American Beech
Marker #15 leads to an American Beech Tree. The smooth gray bark of the American Beech Tree usually invites individuals to carve their names and other messages into the trunks. Carving in a tree trunk is similar to a cut on your finger. However, unlike your injured finger, a tree cannot put a band-aid on its wound. The carved bark is an open door for disease.
Beechdrops, seen here in this picture, lack both leaves and chlorophyll and is a parasitic plant of the American Beech Tree.
#16 The Swamp
Marker #16 The Swamp
The final marker on the red trail briefly discusses the importance of the Great Swamp. The land comprising the Great Swamp is a mix of meadows, upland woods, marsh and brush covered swamps. Only 40% of the Great Swamp is wet either part of the year or all year long whereas 60% of the Great Swamp consists of upland forest & meadows.
Red Trail End
We are now at the end of the Red Trail.
Green Trail Blaze
At the end of the red trail head north to catch the beginning of the short .20 of a mile Green Trail near the parking area. The Green trail traverses in a short loop in an upland portion of the GSOEC.