Yellowstone National Park: The Earth’s Giant Pressure Cooker

After a month of travel in South America it was a much needed restful stay and wonderful time with our old friends Jagdeep and Vipin at their home in Saratoga, California. Mihika found her much needed company of children and became good friends with Riya & Saachi.

IMG_5005
A warm, lovely welcome for us, handcrafted by little Saachi
IMG_5009
Old is gold when it comes to friends – Jagdeep & Vipin, our college and first-job buddies

IMG_5068

We were now ready for our next big destination – the Yellowstone National Park. We flew into Salt Lake City (SLC) on 2nd June 2016. SLC is not the closest airport to Yellowstone but the most reasonable one to fly into coming from California. At the car rental desk in the SLC airport we had to spend some time to get Montana included in the set of states we could drive in; the default rental agreement allowed us to drive in the states immediately neighbouring Utah and so Montana was not included. Yellowstone is spread across 3 different states – Wyoming (primarily), Montana and Idaho. While most of the park area is in the state of Wyoming, three of it’s five entrances (west, north & north-east) are in the state of Montana. We had chosen to divide our stay at Yellowstone in two, first half near the west entrance and second half near the north-east entrance, to enable us to explore the different parts of this vast park. With the car rental sorted, we were off on a long drive to West Yellowstone, our base for the first 3 of our 6 days at the Yellowstone National Park. Starting with the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies as we pulled out of the Salt Lake City airport, it was a scenic drive on the I-15 N through parts of Utah and Idaho. We passed by the town of Idaho Falls, made iconic (for us!) by our dear friends Mamatha & Sripathi for whom it was home for many years. We arrived in the quaint little town of West Yellowstone in the evening and checked into the cosy Alpine Motel located a stone’s throw from the Yellowstone park entrance.

The next morning we entered the park in anticipation of the wonders lying within the first ever National Park that was established over a century ago in 1872. In particular we wanted to see for ourselves what we had seen on videos of Yellowstone – the eruption of the Old Faithful geyser, the brilliant colours of the Grand Prismatic Spring and the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs.

IMG_5111

It was a bright sunny day and we were completely swept away by the beautiful vistas as we entered the park – endless stretches of pines, shimmering streams, snow-capped peaks in the backdrop, bald eagles flying near the streams.

IMG_5148

IMG_20160603_104232
Madison River flowing through the western part of Yellowstone

Here’re some things we learnt through various resources about Yellowstone that make it a very special place. The entire region of the park as we have it today has been shaped by the “supervolcano” or geological hotspot that lies beneath it. The Yellowstone volcano is not the typical cone-shaped mountain that comes to mind when one thinks of a volcano; it is a huge chamber of hot magma spread over a large area of about 3200 km² and at about 5 to 8 kms underground it is closer to the earth’s surface here than anywhere else in the world. For us it was especially interesting having recently visited the Galapagos Islands which owe their existence to a geological hotspot too. Differences in other environmental factors between the two mean they are very different from each other. The key difference is water (precipitation & ground water), abundant in Yellowstone but scarce in Galapagos. Like Galapagos, this region maybe old for us on a human timescale but on a geological timescale it is young and continuing to evolve. There have been three supervolcanic eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot resulting in the formation of the Yellowstone Caldera and it is estimated that these have occurred every 650,000 to 700,000 years with the last one pegged at around 640,000 years ago. Which means the next one is just around the corner .. but at ~10,000 years it is definitely not going to be in history / geography textbooks any time soon! The magnitude of the supervolcanic eruptions are so huge that the entire landscape and life is altered …. it seems like a continuous cycle of birth and death or renewal by Nature. The combination of heat, earthquakes and water are responsible for the geothermal features (geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots) numbering over 10,000 in the park, the largest concentration in the world. It is like a giant pressure cooker that keeps venting steam and hot water while a lot is cooking inside. You can actually hear the activity beneath the surface! This region that remained undiscovered by the world until the latter half of the 19th century is home to four of the “big 5” of the North American continent – Grizzly bears, Grey Wolf, Bison and Moose.

Before we got into more of the wonderful sights of the Yellowstone National Park, we headed to the nearest visitor center to get Mihika enrolled for the Junior Ranger program, something she had enjoyed and had been a useful learning experience at the Everglades National Park. On our way to the Madison Visitor Center we saw our first herd of bisons grazing with many little calves prancing around!

DSC_8972
A grazing bison herd, the first we saw in Yellowstone!

At the visitor center it was a case of perfect timing with a ranger led intro & short walk starting just when we arrived.

IMG_5199

The ranger started with an introduction to Lodgepole pines, the most widespread conifers in the region, named so for their use by the native American Indians as poles in the shelters they built. These are easily identifiable by their needles that grow in groups of two. The tree has two types of cones, one of which remains tightly sealed by a resin until exposed to high temperatures that can open it and disperse the seeds within. The talk made us see forest fires in an entirely new light – the natural fires caused by lightning strikes or high summer temperatures help to open up the fir cones and pave the the way for new trees to grow after the old forest is cleared by the fires and the burnt organic matter enriches the soil to promote new growth. This in turn attracts grazing animals and the entire food chain that follows creating a self-sustaining and balanced ecosystem. Based on this understanding of the adaptation of the trees to fire, the National Park Service has in the past few years changed its approach to natural forest fires and lets the fires burn except where there is a threat to buildings within the park.

IMG_5172
Lodgepole Pines constitute about 80% of the trees in Yellowstone

We saw pretty white flowers on the ground that the ranger explained are wild strawberry which turn out quite small in size and that the larger strawberries we see in the grocery stores are the result of years of cultivation and improvements by humans. He added that we are free to pick and eat any berries in the park as long as they are all consumed within the park. As a rule no material found on park property is permitted to be taken out and any attractive finds like deer antlers are to be reported to the park rangers.

IMG_5187
Wild strawberry plant

The ranger then pointed out to us a tree whose bark was shaved off in places as a result of bisons rubbing themselves against it, something they do to help get rid of itching as well as to shed off their winter coats. The tree actually had some bison fur (hair ?) on it as evidence!

IMG_5189
A tree bearing the marks of bison rubbing against it

As we walked past a mountain called the National Park mountain, formed by the last lava flow that occurred here about 70,000 years ago, we learnt of the historic expedition in 1870 by Henry Washburn, Nathaniel Langford & Gustavus Doane that led to a geological survey of the region by the geologist Ferdinand Hayden in 1871 whose comprehensive report paved the way for setting up of the national park in 1872.

IMG_5196
Mihika concludes a session with a Yellowstone National Park Ranger

We then started off on our trip to cover the Grand Loop, the ~230 km roadway that runs around the park and is divided into the upper and lower loops. We had planned to devote a day each to the loops leaving the 3rd day to drive across the Lamar Valley, sometimes called the Serengeti of North America, that is a not part of the Grand Loop to the north-east end of the park.

We started with the lower loop with the Grand Prismatic Spring as the first major attraction. On the way we stopped by Firehole Falls and Fountain Paint Pot.

IMG_20160603_123315
Firehole Falls

Fountain Paint Pot was an excellent introduction to the four different kinds of geothermal features in Yellowstone – geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots. The former two occur in places of abundant groundwater while the latter two occur in places of limited groundwater accumulation. Geysers are formed when there is a constriction in the rocks above the accumulated water that results in a build-up of pressure as the water gets heated and eventually steam & hot water shoot up. Hot springs occur when there is no constriction in the rocks. Fumaroles are steam & gas vents. Mud pots occur when the surface is rich in volcanic ash and clay.

IMG_20160603_130339
Hotspring in the Fountain Paint Pot trail
IMG_20160603_130518
How many shades of blue!!

The many brilliant colours seen around the hot springs come from “mats” of different thermophilic microorganisms each thriving at different temperatures and extreme pH levels in the inhospitable waters. So fascinating!

DSC_8974
An unexpected sight – a small snake seen in the warm acidic water at Fountain Paint Pot

Next up was the Grand Prismatic Spring, the much photographed colourful “eye” of Yellowstone. To get to it we crossed the dormant Excelsior geyser which no longer erupts but continues to pump huge volumes of hot water into the Firehole river.

IMG_20160603_140441
Hot water flows into the Firehole river from the dormant Excelsior geyser
IMG_5276
The Grand Prismatic Spring

On our way back we were surprised to see a flock of birds apparently enjoying a spa in the warm waters of another spring!

IMG_5279And then it was on to the ..

IMG_5306The most visited geyser in Yellowstone is so called for the regularity of its eruptions at about 90 minute intervals which guarantees visitors will see it in action. It was like show-time with people sitting all around from 10-15 minutes before the forecast time of the next eruption. And after a few bursts of steam and water, it finally went up about 13 minutes after the forecast.

IMG_20160603_163414
Old Faithful, the most visited geyser of Yellowstone, erupts at 16:37 on 3rd Jun 2016

We continued on the lower loop and passed by some spectacular views of lakes and snow-capped peaks before reaching Yellowstone Lake.

DSC_9000

Yellowstone Lake is a massive lake and a serene sight with it vast expanse of blue water meeting the horizon in the distance. Amazingly there are hot water springs next to the lake whose water is pretty cold. We read about the spot which was once called “Hook & cook” where fishermen would simply put fish caught from the lake into the hot water pool next to it and the fish was cooked! Now fishing here is banned. In yet another example of invasive species destroying endemic species, Yellowstone Lake has seen a sharp decline in its population of Cutthroat Trout following the (accidental) introduction of Lake Trout. This has affected the food-chain and ecosystem in the area.

IMG_20160603_185730
Yellowstone Lake with a small hot spring in the foreground

We had stopped to take the above photo when a fellow visitor tapped Manish on the shoulder and told us to turn around to see a grizzly bear in the distance. Not believing our ears, we thanked him and peered to catch a glimpse of this mighty animal. Sure enough we saw a bear a little distance from the lake’s shoreline, ran to wake up Mihika who was asleep in the car and excitedly went forward to get a better view.

DSC_9027
Our first sighting of a Grizzly Bear in the wild!

Imagine our excitement when the bear climbed up towards the road nd went on to cross it as we watched! And we continued to watch him forage on the other side for quite a while before he headed deeper into the woods and out of sight.

DSC_9033
Grizzly crosses the road near Yellowstone Lake

DSC_9046

Extremely thrilled and feeling super-lucky to have seen a grizzly bear at such close quarters on our maiden drive, at a time & place we didn’t expect to, we continued on our drive towards Hayden Valley where we were planning to be at sunset to see some wildlife. Beautiful scenery continued to emerge as we drove along the Yellowstone Lake.

IMG_5335
Yellowstone Lake shore at Pumice Point

IMG_5803

The sun was in our eyes as we drove up an incline on the road and so nearly did not see the bull Elk that was crossing the road. We stopped in the nick of time and he backed up to return. He went back to graze and it was a visual treat to admire him at close quarters for as long as we wanted.

IMG_20160603_201616
A bull Elk grazes in Hayden Valley

DSC_9093

IMG_5361

We saw bison grazing on either side of the road as we drove further. Just around sunset it was a beautiful golden light on the valley and meadows next to Yellowstone river. We could see deer crossing the river in the distance and thought they might be Pronghorns.

IMG_5372
Sunset in Hayden Valley
DSC_9118
Deer crossing Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley

A little further up we were mesmerized by a huge herd of bison grazing right next to the road, quite unmindful of the cars around. It was soon an “animal jam”! These majestic, powerful animals are quite a sight from close quarters. Docile as they look, we heeded all warnings of staying at a safe distance from them to avoid any surprises.

IMG_5393
A herd of bisons at sunset in the Hayden Valley

DSC_9133

DSC_9136

DSC_9163
A bison calf

It was nearly nine in the night by now and past our planned return time. What an action-packed day it had been!

The next morning we headed on to the upper loop with the first stop at the beautiful Gibbon falls where there were dozens of swallows constantly flying around the rocks.

IMG_20160604_111555
Gibbon Falls

Next up was the Norris Geyser Basin, the most active geothermal area of the park that includes the Steamboat geyser, the world’s tallest. We first took the trail for the Porcelain Basin, whose name is inspired by the milky colour of the mineral siliceous sinter deposited here. The colours around the springs here are a little less dramatic here as microbes too find it difficult to thrive in its very acidic environment.

IMG_5428
Porcelain Basin in the Norris Geyser Basin

We then went up to the Steamboat geyser and a number of others on the trail. Of course no luck with watching any of them erupt. The Steamboat does not erupt on a schedule and there can be long periods ranging from months to years between two eruptions. The last major one was on 3rd Sep 2014.

We then headed to the Mammoth Hot Springs stopping by the Swan Lake where we spotted a pair of Sandhill Cranes.

IMG_5460

DSC_9215
Sandhill Cranes near Swan Lake

At Mammoth we admired the terrace like formations created by the calcium carbonate deposited over years by the springs. Some springs have gone dormant leaving behind hardened cones to mark their existence.

IMG_5496
Lower Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs

IMG_5487

We then stopped at the Albright Visitor Center and learnt about the park management history which had a chequered start in which little was / could be done to preserve the flora and fauna and there was a steady decline in the population of predators due to hunting, poaching and conflicts with humans. The Grey Wolf completely disappeared from here and it took many years and debates to put in place and implement a restoration program that reintroduced this species into the park in 1995. There is evidence that wolf restoration in Yellowstone has had multiple beneficial effects on the ecosystem and has demonstrated that perhaps ecosystems work in intricately complex ways that are not fully understood by us. Thanks to our friend Shastri for sharing this informative TED talk by George Monbiot that discusses effects on landscape as well.

Amidst all the action, Mihika had completed all the activities she needed to earn the honour of being a Junior Ranger and too her oath to preserve and protect. As our visit coincided with the centennial celebrations of the US National Park Service, she got an additional token to mark the event.

IMG_5500
Mihika joins the Yellowstone Junior Ranger club

We went on to join a Ranger talk on the wildlife in Yellowstone, bears being of most interest. Mihika used the opportunity to enquire about grey wolf spotting opportunities and we learnt of a place near the Lamar Valley where a den and the presence of wolves was confirmed. So we duly noted that for the next leg of our stay. All ranger talks included a set of exhibits such as furs and antlers. The furs all had tags citing their origin, typically these were animals killed in road accidents or had to be put down due to preying on farm animals outside the park boundaries.

IMG_5503We then headed onward to see the Tower Falls encountering Robins, a little Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel, pine trees that looked like ready decorated Christmas trees and a warning sign about Bears.

DSC_9281
Chipmunk or Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel?
DSC_9268
A robin watches as we pass by
DSC_9272
A pre-decorated Christmas tree!!
IMG_5519
Warning signs are placed at various places, needed more to keep the bears safe

As we drove towards Mount Washburn, we came across a traffic jam with people peering down the side of the road. We pulled up and found ourselves looking at a family of Black Bears, a mother with two cubs, moving away into the treeline. It was just a glimpse of the mother but we were entertained to the play of the two cubs on a tree branch for a long time! Wow!!

DSC_9270
Black Bear cub plays on a branch!

We had been told that Black bears and Grizzlies can be distinguished visually not by their colour (Black Bears can be brown, tan or black in colour) but by the hump on the Grizzly’s shoulder which is absent in the black bear.

We were in real luck again that afternoon – we soon came up on a second congregation of people and it was a second Black Bear family high up on a distant tree. It was a mother and two cubs with the mother curled up and done for the day we thought while the cubs were engaged in play higher above, nearly at the tip of the tree! It was quite remarkable to see how high they had climbed and how such a large animal was sleeping comfortably on what appeared to be rather thin branches of a pine!

The last stop on our route was planned to be the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” but we were out of time and energy. So we headed back and on the way saw a bunch of cars pulled up near a small turn-in. With no steam to keep us going, we decided to give it a pass but luckily spotted the object of interest – a Moose! So pull over we did and walked back to see this majestic herbivore, the only land mammal that can feed under-water while holding its breath.

DSC_9294
A Moose grazes at sunset, no care whatsoever for the gawkers!

On the last morning at West Yellowstone, we decided to pay a visit to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center before heading into the park, just so we could see a couple of grey wolves in case we were not fortunate to see them in the wild. The Center located near the Yellowstone park entrance houses orphaned and “nuisance” grizzlies and wolves. Nuisance bears are those that have got habituated to foraging in garbage and hence humans and keep straying into towns repeatedly. Here we got to watch two grey wolves, who were not grey at all, as we learnt about how they are encouraged to fish and behave as they would in the wild with a non-contact policy for the animal keepers. Grey wolves we learnt need not be grey in colour, they can be black or white too.

IMG_5549
Grey Wolf fishing at the Discovery Center in West Yellowstone

At the bear enclosure we witnessed how bears look at alternative food sources when available. Below is a demonstration with a bird-feeder being targeted by a Grizzly. The message to the public was “no bird feeders in bear country”.

DSC_9400
No bird feeders in bear country – they become bear feeders!

There was a “Keeper Kids” program for the children that Mihika participated in to learn about the food habits of bears and help with hiding food in the bear enclosure also called “habitat modification” to encourage the natural instinct of the bears here to forage and look for food rather than have it dished out to them.

Post-lunch we headed into the park to cross-over to Cooke City, a small town near the north-east entrance. But first a stopover to see Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon carved by the Yellowstone river and the beautiful falls as the river enters the canyon.

DSC_9435
The Yellowstone Falls as the river enters a deep canyon
IMG_20160605_165119
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone carved by the Yellowstone river

We drove through the Lamar Valley, referred to as the Serengeti of Nrth America for the large numbers of animal congregation seen here especially towards the end of summer during the rut season. We stopped by the place from where a wolf den could be sighted across a river. There were lots of people but apparently no wolf activity, so we went on to see plenty of Bison and some Pronghorn antelope, the second fastest land mammal after the Cheetah.

DSC_9548
Pronghorn in Lamar Valley – the second fastest land mammal
IMG_5804
Bison herds graze in the Lamar Valley
DSC_9557
Bison crossing the Lamar River at dusk
IMG_5795
Drive through Lamar Valley

We passed by a little village called Silver Gate at the north-east entrance before arriving at our destination Cooke City where we were greeted by the sight of dozens of Tree Swallows flying around the trees and buildings near our motel.

IMG_5807
Eye-catching name at Silver Gate near the North-East entrance to Yellowstone
DSC_9454
Tree Swallow

The next morning we made an early start to try our luck with spotting wolves and other animals around the Lamar Valley. A Mule Deer and some birds (not to mention the Bisons who were always there) later we arrived at Slough Creek, the location of the wolf den.

DSC_9507
Mule Deer
DSC_9585
Black-billed Magpie
DSC_9568
Brewer’s Blackbird

We were in luck as the adult wolves and nine cubs were active around the den. People pointed out the exact location of the den which was but a dot in the distance and after a peek through the scopes setup by some guides, we could spot the wolves through our binocs. It took a lot of focus as they were quite distant and very tiny even when seen with binocs / scopes. So no photos really, but we managed to get one shot in which a black coloured adult can be seen on zooming in – the tiny black dot just in front of the little bowl-like depression between two dry tree stumps.

DSC_9587
A wolf in the distance appears as little black dot between the two dry tree stumps

Satisfied, we drove on to Hayden Valley and then back through Lamar Valley before calling it a day.

DSC_9612
A Bison rests in Lamar Valley
DSC_9615
Flock of Canada Geese near the Lamar River

The next day was reserved for a drive through the scenic Beartooth Highway leading away from the park towards the town of Red Lodge. It started with some views from a higher elevation and spotting a pair of Pikas scurrying around the sagebrush on a rocky hillside and then the vistas expanded with snow in huge patches and frozen lakes! It was a high point for Mika and it was play time 🙂

DSC_9477
American Pika

IMG_5671

IMG_20160606_112136
Play time with snow!
IMG_5729
Rock shaped like a dinosaur head! Seen on Beartooth Highway
IMG_5640
Biker’s Stop to refuel on the BearTooth Highway
IMG_5755
Snow all around in June! View from the Beartooth Highway
IMG_20160606_114333
Wild strawberry flowers by the Little Bear lake on Beartooth Highway

IMG_5763

DSC_9505
The Bear Tooth – the pyramid shaped spire created by glaciation that gives the mountain its name

The next morning we set off for the Grand Teton National Park located at the south of Yellowstone. On our last day at Yellowstone we were fortunate to spot Trumpeter Swans and a Grizzly bear across the Yellowstone river and help a few others to see it too!

DSC_9622
Trumpeter Swan
DSC_9631
Spot the Grizzly amongst the sage brush?

The Grand Teton is like a little sibling to Yellowstone. We stayed in the town of Jackson just outside the Grand Teton national park to look through the sights here. It offers dramatic views of the Teton range of the Rocky mountains, reflections of the mountains in the quiet waters of its many lakes and flora that is more varied than the pine dominated Yellowstone.

IMG_5982

IMG_5827
A reflection of serenity, the Grand Teton National Park

IMG_5863

IMG_5883
Mt. Moran at sunset

The Grand Teton is considered a better habitat for moose but we weren’t able to see any. We saw plenty of Elk, some Pronghorn and Bison, but most valuable of all was the sighting of a Grizzly quite close to the park entrance as it sauntered away in the evening.

DSC_9639
A Grizzly at the Grand Teton
DSC_9645
Elk crossing river at Grand Teton
IMG_5983
A Mountain Bluebird, the state bird of Idaho and Nevada. Finally managed to get a pic of this beautiful bird in the Mormon Row at Grand Teton

We learnt of the “dude” ranches that had started up here before the National Park was established – dudes beings the well-heeled folks from the Eastern parts who wanted to experience the countryside and rural life. The visit would not be complete without a drive through the gravel track of Mormon Row featuring barns and homesteads established in the 1890s.

IMG_5984
A private ranch in Grand Teton, a few of these co-exist with the National PArk
IMG_5985
The Mormon Row with homesteads setup by Mormons primarily from Idaho

After a week completely immersed in the wonders of nature, it was time to return to SLC and head back to San Jose for a short pit stop before the next big undertaking – a 21-day road trip starting with Yosemite National Park and covering a whole lot of sights, all subjects of the upcoming posts!

Pa-hay-okee: The River of Grass a.k.a Everglades

The natives who inhabited South Florida for many centuries, the Calusa Indians, certainly understood and grasped the beauty of the blessing we now call Everglades. They called it “Pa-hay-okee” which means “grassy waters” / “river of grass”, a most apt description for this complex wetland and forest ecosystem dominated by expanses of sawgrass through the slow moving Shark River. So slow is the movement of water that it appears still and could be mistaken as stagnant water to the uninitiated.

Sawgrass stretches dotted by Cypress trees
Sawgrass stretches dotted by Cypress trees

The original inhabitants had a lifestyle based on estuarine fisheries rather than agriculture, which was in tune with the natural ecosystem, thus conserving it for centuries before the 20th century pressures of agriculture and urbanization hit. Only ~20% remains of the original expanse remains conserved in the Everglades National Park, now declared as an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance, one of only three locations in the world to be covered under all three conservation lists. We learnt from the rangers of the park how the damming & channeling of water of the Okeechobee lake following hurricanes and flooding in the late 1920s, resulted in cutting-off of the life blood of the Everglades (the slow moving fresh water from Central Florida), and the $8+ billion dollar plan now in place to reverse engineer and restore the natural flow of water to the extent possible.

We explored this beautiful area that hosts a myriad of habitats – mangrove forests, prairies, hardwood forests and pine forests – starting from its western fringes on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

IMG_1416A boat tour of the mangroves was a visual treat with both large expanses of water and narrow canals with the rich mangrove forests all around.

IMG_1390

DSC_5403

We looked at shell mounds built by the Calusas and learnt about their unique fishing technique using the tidal highs & lows to trap fish in the shallows created by the mounds! A brown pelican flew by as we watched.

Shell Mound

Brown Pelican

We got to see some more birds though it was midday – an egret, a double-crested cormorant and a beautiful pair of Osprey in their nest.

DSC_5391

Double Crested Cormorant

Osprey

The real treats were sightings of two endangered species – a sawfish (critically endangered) and a manatee (vulnerable). In the below pics we were able to capture the fins of the sawfish (you should be able to see 3) and the nostrils of the manatee as it surfaced for air.

Saw Fish

Manatee

Satisfied, we headed onto explore of the Big Cypress National Preserve on the scenic Loop Road with fingers crossed to find some American alligators in the wild. Pretty soon Manish spotted the first one, right beside the gravel track! See the beautiful eye through the leaves?

IMG_1422

Mika was thrilled, her wish was to see 10 alligators and her counter had started! Hovering around this fascinating creature, we soon realised there was a another alligator in the water with only its eyes visible. Over the next hour we found a dozen alligators (Manish has mastered the art of identifying spots to find them!), most of them snoozing in the shallow fresh water streams and some basking in the sun on rocks.

DSC_5437

IMG_20160423_153928They appeared blissful in their beautiful environs. The water was so clear, we could see many different shades of red, yellow, brown and green. With cypress trees on both sides of the streams and their reflection in the water, it was a mesmerising scene!

IMG_1463

IMG_1455

IMG_1473

We also spotted this majestic heron, later identified as a Little Blue Heron.

Little Blue Heron

As we drove on, the scenery changed with different colours on the two sides of the road – almost like fall & spring at the same time!

IMG_1478

On our way out from the Loop Road to join the Tamiami Trail, we came across many houses of the Miccosukkee, a surviving tribe of natives, who came to inhabit the area when they were driven south by the European invaders.

IMG_1483

As we headed towards Homestead, our base to explore the area, we were amidst the large farms and nurseries on land which may have once been part of the Everglades. Coming from Orlando, we found the place had a very different look and feel to it, almost as if we had left the US and entered Mexico or Cuba!

The next part of the Everglades we explored was the eastern side that begins with the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, named after the gentleman who worked had to have a national park setup to preserve the Everglades. There were four trails that we covered here, starting with the Anhinga Trail which derives its name from the American darter birds that are commonly found here.

IMG_1488There was more water than usual for this time of year we were told due to the higher than normal rainfall in Nov-Dec 2015 due to the El Nino effect. So the expected congregation of wildlife around waterholes wasn’t really there. We did not see any Anhingas unfortunately but got to see beautiful views, a lot of fish, IMG_1496quite a few turtles, an alligator, a cormorant, dragonflies, butterflies, a very bright coloured insect, a swamp-hen and a bird with bright red on its wings. This we learnt is the Red-winged Blackbird, also called locally as the “warrior of the Everglades” due its fearless nature in chasing away larger birds.

Redwinged Blackbird - Warrior of Everglades
Warrior of the Everglades – the Red-winged Blackbird

DSC_5501

DSC_5499

DSC_5550

IMG_1500

Dragonfly

Butterfly

Purple Gallinule
Swamp Hen – the American Purple Gallinule

Next was the Gumbo Limbo trail, a hardwood hammock (a shady, closed canopy forest), that derives its name from the Gumbo Limbo tree, a native of the region. The tree which is extremely useful for its medicinal properties is comically referred to as the “tourist tree” because it’s bark is red and peeling, like the skin of sunburnt tourists!

Gumbo Limbo Tree
Gumbo Limbo Tree

This is a different habitat – no water here, it is at a slightly higher elevation than the adjacent Anhinga trail area though this is imperceptible. We learnt how very small changes in ground elevation result in different habitats each with its own types of flora and fauna in the Everglades. After the trails, we attended a ranger-led session on alligators and crocodiles and learnt how to differentiate between these two often confused reptiles. We learnt that the alligator is the only reptile in the animal kingdom that cares for its young starting with aiding the hatch and going on for 2-3 years! We also learnt that the Everglades is the only region in the world where the ranges of the American alligator (which lives in fresh water) and the American crocodile (which prefers brackish / salty water) overlap.

On our third trail we explored another hardwood hammock, the Mahogany Hammock and then headed to the Pa-hay-okee Outlook which provided us with a vantage viewing point for the defining expanse of sawgrass that gives the region its name.

All of the activities for the day got Mika interested in becoming a Junior Ranger of the Everglades and started her preparation to receive a badge and certificate by the time we completed our Everglades exploration!

The last part we covered on another day was the Shark Valley, in some senses the heart of the park, named so as it is a valley (again imperceptible) situated in the Shark river between the slightly elevated areas of the Big Cypress on the west and the hammocks on the east.

IMG_1687

IMG_1685

We took the tram tour on which we learnt interesting facts such as the origin of the river Shark’s name, the lone incident of a human injury by an alligator in an “accident” in the park’s entire history, as well as some disturbing facts of how humans are endangering the Everglades in more than one way. A very real danger for the flora and fauna of the region comes from “exotic” and invasive species that have been released / introduced into the national park by people. The biggest of these threats is the Burmese Python, which some people kept as an exotic pet and when any became unwanted, the easiest way to dispose them was to release them into the wild. While the Burmese Python is itself classified as a vulnerable species in its native habitat of South & South-eastern Asia, in the Everglades they have overrun the endemic species of the region. It is reported that over 90% of the mammals in the park – white-tailed deer, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, Florida panther – have disappeared over the past decade or two. A number of captured pythons have had these in their stomachs. Attempts to capture the pythons have met with very little success and it is estimated that over a 1000 remain in the park, continue to multiply and pose a threat to the native species.

Back to the interesting sightings we had on this two-and-a-half hour tour. Baby alligators to begin with – they have yellow stripes for camouflage to help with their survival to adulthood.

Congregation of baby alligators
Congregation of baby alligators – how many can you spot?

We came upon a Green Heron, a Great Egret, a Great Blue Heron, a Red-shouldered Hawk, Black Vultures and finally an Anhinga!!

DSC_5603

DSC_5591

DSC_5625

DSC_5675

DSC_5658
Anhinga – American Darter

A soft-shelled turtle bearing the marks of a recent alligator encounter was spotted right next to the track.

DSC_5650

But the best was saved for the last – an alligator (a mother as we figured later) with a kill of a smaller alligator and getting defensive of her food. We learnt that adult alligators are cannibals. While watching this rare sight, we observed 4 to 5 baby alligators that kept swimming and surfacing near the adult and that was how we figured the adult was a mother.

IMG_1684

IMG_1683

IMG_1672

Thus ended our rendezvous with American alligators, creatures that we learnt are fairly shy and unlike the often believed notion of being human attackers, only ever consider humans as food when humans start feeding them! The park has warning signs all over that feeding animals in the park is illegal and carries a fine!

With all this learning and park activities done, Mika qualified as a Junior Park Ranger!

IMG_20160426_122524In between our Everglades exploration, we took a day to drive down to the Florida Keys to see the picturesque view of the Atlantic ocean all around on the Seven-Mile Bridge and stopped at Key Largo to visit the John Pennakemp Coral Reef State Park. Manish and Mika went snorkelling but I chickened out as the water was choppy & called for strong swimmers. I caught up with some of the local inhabitants meanwhile 🙂

IMG_20160425_123949IMG_20160425_133252

IMG_20160425_124808Next destination was Miami and its famed South Beach.

Thanks for reading. We look forward to your feedback.

We are privileged to be posting this article on a rich ecosystem from the mega-diverse Ecuador, the most biologically-diverse country on the planet – the subject of another post!

Please do read Mika’s blogpost on Everglades – http://www.iammihika.com/index.php/2016/04/28/everglades/.