Seasons of the swamp
And where we're at now

Meteorologically the swamp has two seasons …

The wet season (May to mid October) and the dry season (November into May.)

Not your typical four seasons, but four nonetheless

But terrestrially the swamp sees four seasons on the ground.

1.Soaking in season. The early part of May is usually the crunchiest time of the year to walk through the swamp: water is absent except in the deepest pools. By month’s end the wet season will have started, followed by June – the rainiest month of the year; yet only rarely do waters peak this early. Late May through June is usually a “soaking in” season for the preserve.

2. Sheetflow season. The onset of summer, lasting into early fall, coincides with an extensive but ephemeral sheet of shallow flowing water in the swamp. Its flowing aspect is achieved when waters rise to the base of the hydric pinelands (i.e., a depth of 20 inches in the pond apple swamps) and higher. The depth, spatial extent and flow rate of sheetflow typically peak between late August and early October.

3. Hydrologic Interregnum. Starting with the demise of sheetflow in mid fall and lasting through winter is the hydrologic interregnum. This is an approximate five month period in which “wet season” water is still present on the ground, but atmospherically the “dry season” has set in, thus initiating the slow demise of the swamp’s expansive sheet of surface water. The duration of surface water in any one spot is largely habitat dependant, but may also be sustained by winter rains, particularly during El Niño years. Pinelands go dry first, followed by marl prairies which eventually leads to a retreat of waters into the tall cypress and pond apple swamp.

4. Spring drought. The swamp ebbs to its low water mark in April and May due to the cumulative effect of months with little rain and increasing rates of evapotranspiration (rising temperatures, expanding hours of daylight, and plant transpiration). During this period, surface water is practically absent from the swamp other than smallish (typically less than an acre) and isolated pools called dry season refugia.

The above chart shows the relation of south Florida’s two meteorologic seasons, i.e. wet and dry, with the landscape hydrology of the swamp.  The typical duration of flooding in major swamp habitats is also shown.

What season are we currently in?

Answer: Winter dry season (meteorologically) but still high up in “hydrologic interregnum” season (terrestrially).

The “spring drydown” season will be delayed and most likely short, if at all — but I wouldn’t rule out one yet.

Watersheds of south Florida

Lesser known sloughs
But just as important as Shark River

The Everglades top flow way?

Answer: Probably Shark River Slough.

The swamp has multiple flow paths

But if you hop the fence (actually it’s a levee) into the Big Cypress Swamp, the sawgrass plain gives way to a labyrinth of cypress strands, open marl prairies and pine island high ground. Major flow ways include Fakahatchee Strand, Mullet Slough, Okaloacoochee Slough, Turner River, Sweetwater Strand, and Gum Slough to name a few. Lostmans Slough is in Big Cypress National Preserve but it’s on the Everglades side of the Pinecrest picket fence. It’s actually not a fence, but discontinuous archipelago of remnant Miami limestone.

The map above isn’t exactly as the ecosystem still flows today, but more a peek back on how it might have worked prior to levees and canals. Did you know Lake Okeechobee use to flow into the modern-day Big Cypress National Preserve. My favorite flow system actually isn’t shown. It’s called Devils Garden, located on the eastern fringe of the Immokalee Rise. Depending on the season, it received flows from the Upper Caloosahatchee to the north, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades to the east and discharge from the Immokalee Rise to the west and discharged south into Cowbell Strand. Sounds more like an Eden to me.

Ghost farmers in the sky
And how rock plowing saved the swamp

Swamp buggies sort of resemble tractors …

But the days of farming The Big Cypress are long gone.

The furrows are easy to see from the air

As easy as the furrows are to see from the sky …

At ground level you’d swear they weren’t there.

But invisible from ground view

Sometimes you have to be far away to properly focus in. It also raises the question. What caused so much agricultural land to be abandoned? By the time the Preserve was established in 1974, the era of tomato farming had come and gone. The reason? Apparently the advent of rock plowing on the Miami coast made farming in the flood prone swamp economically unfeasible. Nothing against tomatoes and as sorry as I am for the farmers who were put out of business, I’m oodles more happy for the marl prairies that recolonized by and large with native plants.

editorial

Swamps get spooked, too
A very hydrologic Halloween

Are the swamps spooky?

To the uninitiated, “yes.”

All Ye Who Enter:
Beware!

And who could blame them, they are wooded, dark, and watery. Alligators lurk, and panthers too – but those worries are misguided: The animal you really have to watch out for are water moccasins. Not that they chase you – they won’t! Nor do they spook – they don’t! Rather, it’s because they don’t move away when they hear you approaching that causes the real fright.  If you unwittingly walk in their path, you could be surprised by a strike when you least expect it.

And yes, that could hurt.

Can you see the spider? Neither could I until it was too late.

There are giant spiders too! But even worse is a trunk-to-trunk spanning web on your face (and in your hands as you try to remove it after the fact). Is a spider there too, in my hair or crawling down my neck? It rarely the case, but the thought certainly spooks!

Then there are the Hollywood-inspired Swamp Thing and the local lore of a Skunk Ape that may have you quacking in your boots if for some reason you find yourself slogging through a knee-deep cypress dome alone at night, something I highly recommend against (i.e. see previous post).

Craggily pond apple
forests look foreboding

The truth is that humans evolved to fear the swamps. Their soggy soils are virtually uninhabitable by modern-day standards with the caveat that the natural bounty they contain is just as easily drained away by bulldozers, canals and elevated fill pads. Right by their side are the Frankensteins of the swamp, or maybe barbarians is a better term: the Maleleuca trees, Brazilian Pepper, Old World Climbing Fern, and pythons push native flora and fauna out. The truth is that swampland has been greatly misunderstood, with a twist: It’s not use that should fear the swamp …

It’s the the swamp that should fear us.

Warning: The cypress are lovely, dark and deep: Don’t get lost!

So tread lightly in a swamp near you, and trust in me whenever you do – by sun or night or nearing twilight – its liquid realm is a beautiful sight, from top to bottom and start to end, its silence is the comfort of your oldest friend.

Happy Halloween!

In the right light: Cypress aren’t so spooky after all!

Watch out, Rattlesnake!
Or should it be the other way around?

Society would have you believe …

We should fear rattlesnakes.

Watch Out, Rattlesnake!

And yes, there’s been a time or two I’ve thought twice about where I put my foot in the swamp. The last thing you want is a snake bite, and especially a venomous one. Unlike a gator that will usually move out of your way when you approach, moccasins have a reputation for standing their ground. Thus if you’re not paying attention it’s easy to walk in harm’s way. So the saying goes: It’s usually the second in line that gets bit – the first in line raising the snakes ire, and the second person getting the strike. And if you do get bit, there’s no question about it: you’ll need to get medical care, and fast.

Watch Out, Vehicle Tire!

But if prevention is the best medicine, the best policy for both you and the snakes are to slow down, especially when driving on the road. Much more common than skin-piercing bits are snakes getting run over by a tire on the road.

Take-home lesson: Please hike and drive slow in the swamp, both for your own safety and the safety of the snakes.

Watersheds of south Florida

Neither slough nor strand
Mullet Slough is it's own special case

Oftentimes our available terms

Don’t quite fit the natural systems we try to describe.

Flying at 500 feet towards Mullet Slough

Case in point is the false dichotomy of the swamp’s strands and sloughs. Natural flow ways are one or the other, but not both, right? A little background about the video above: We’re flying from West to East. Although we didn’t make it all the way over the Everglades, you can see the mosaic start to gradually morph from a labyrinth of cypress, pinelands, prairie and hammocks to sea of almost all cypress towards the end.

Had we continued flying East it would have slowly and then suddenly turned into the Everglades River of Grass. It’s an area of the Big Cypress National Preserve known as Mullet Slough. Sloughs usually connote a treeless flow way (i.e. as in Shark River Slough) whereas strands (i.e. Roberts Lakes, Deep Lake, Gator Hook to name a few) are canopied waterways. But Mullet Slough is a special case. Not a wall of tall trees, it’s better characterized as stand of dwarf cypress trees regularly interspersed with cypress domes that point in the direction of flow.

Neither slough or strand, Mullet Slough is a watershed all its own.

Ochopee Bound
Same old swamp, always worth sharing

My philosophy when I fly:

Take as many photos (and video) as I can.

Narrated video flying over Western Big Cypress National Preserve

The reason? I think I learn as much from what I see up the air as I do processing the photos (and videos) back on the ground. Yet there’s also the reality that most of the photos (and videos) we take never see the light of day. With so many people taking so many photos, one’s left to wonder if their worthwhile sharing at all?

For me it’s an emphatic yes, but only with this caveat. They say a picture is worth a thousand words (and video possibly another thousand more). But what good is a photo or a video without explanation of what it’s about, why it’s important and the subtleties it hides?

That’s where the narrative comes in handy. Maybe essential is a better word. This film may not win an Oscar, but I guarantee somebody gives it a thumbs up.

editorial

No Name Strand
All the major ones are named, or are they?

Among the many mysteries of the swamp:

Cypress domes are usually not named.

No Name Strand

That’s unusual because cypress domes are the swamp’s most iconic (or shall we say, trademark) feature by many accounts. They number in the hundreds of thousands, maybe more. But unlike lakes and bays, they remain nameless to this day. Think about it, even stars — however faint — get labeled with a number or a common name of some sort. In particularly, I’m thinking of Betelgeuse, Orion’s upper right shoulder, an orange-glowing red giant located 642 light years from earth.

Then there’s the case of the cypress strands. These are linear groves of cypress that carry the bulk of the swamp’s sheet flow. All of them are named, or all the major ones at least. In a landscape otherwise lacking geologic or topographic landmarks, strands stand out as major physiographic features that jump off the map. Major ones include Roberts Lakes, Gator Hook, Deep Lake, Cowbell, Barnes, Dayhoff and Garnett to name a few.

As good fortune would have it, the cartographers didn’t see them all, or see all of them fit to name. Or maybe in the years since the cartographers first drew up the maps the cypress grew back.

Not a major strand, but a swamp flow way none the less. That’s Birdon Road in the background, looking northeast

Whatever the case, it’s good to know there’s still some unnamed real estate out there in the swamp, that nobody’s ever named, and possibly never explored. A frontier then and a frontier now, the swamp is a boundless expanse that has interior regions still waiting to be defined.

Here’s to hoping they never are.