Southeast Florida Expedition
Apryle and I traveled from Seattle to West Palm Beach on December 3rd 2021. Her parents picked us up at the airport and we traveled north to the town of Stuart, where we would be staying for the next week.
Day 1: December 4 2021
I went for a moderate run along a sand spit called Hutchinson Island and did a quick out and back over the causeway to Sewall’s Point. The birding was interesting with several unique-looking shorebirds and wading birds, but the route was mainly on the road and uneventful. Hutchinson Island is a 24-mile island that consists of two barrier islands that are separated by Fort Pierce Inlet.
Sand Spit Run: 12.08 miles 1:32:02
Later that afternoon we all went to Johnathon Dickinson State Park, which at 10,500 acres is the largest state park in southeast Florida. There are numerous natural communities such as coastal sand hills, upland lakes, and scrub forest. One of the main features of the park is the Loxahatchee River. While at the park we did a few interpretive walks including the Kitching Creek Loop.
Day 2: December 5 2021
Starting out the second day Apryle and I ran some miles across the causeways and I did some laps around Stuart.
Sand Spit Run: 14.04 miles 1:56:40
In the afternoon we explored Riverside Park, which was home to a host of interesting waterfowl and shorebirds. However, the most interesting part of the park was the 1200-meter mangrove boardwalk.
To close out the day of running I decided to do a quick 5-kilometer tempo around the retention pond in the Kingswood condominiums.
Kingswood Retention Pond Impromptu 5000m Tempo: 3.13 miles 17:47
Day 3: December 6 2021
On the third day I went for a long run along the beach of Hutchinson Island. I started at Dollman Beach and ran through several beaches on the east side of the island. Unfortunately along my northward journey I stumbled upon a nude beach at Blind Creek. After picking up the pace, I decided rather than risk another bare encounter; I would pop over to the west side of the island. I entered Vitolo Family Preserve and enjoyed the natural mangrove wetlands before finishing out the remaining miles on a hot exposed road.
Hutchinson Island Long Run: 17.23 miles 2:16:35
In the afternoon we explored the unique Seabranch State Park. This 920-acre park was shaped by ancient oceans and is home to rare habitats such as sand pine scrub, scrubby flatwoods, baygall and mangrove swamps. The terrain was quite flat and consisted of white sand with various species of cacti, succulents, palm and pines. The tall trees were mainly Slash Pine while the understory included saw palmetto, gallberry, and wax myrtle.
Day 4: December 7, 2022
The fourth day was relatively uneventful; I went for an out and back run to the Seawall and back. Then in the afternoon Apryle and I ran from Hutchinson Island back to Stuart via the causeway after a morning at the beach.
Stuart Seawall OAB: 6.02 miles 42:05
Hutchinson Island to Stuart: 6.06 miles 56:55
In the evening we searched amphibians and discovered an invasive Cuban Tree Frog. This was a very fun sighting, but unfortunately they are leading to the decline of native tree frog populations.
Day 5: December 8, 2022
By vacation standards I woke up early on the fifth day and decided to go for a tempo run along the causeway in an effort to get the strava course record. I managed to take the Stuart to Seawall Causeway record (.62 3:17) and the Stuart to Hutchinson Island record (1.94 10:34).
Causeway Eastbound Tempo with Westbound Cool Down: 5.02 miles 32:37.
The remainder of the day was highlighted by wildlife sightings. The first sighting was in the form of a West Indian Manatee at the Manatee Lagoon in West Palm Beach. The West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus) is primarily herbivorous and spends up to eight hours each day grazing on seagrass and other plants. They typically surface every 5 minutes to breath air but can hold their breath for upwards of 20 minutes if needed. They are quite adept at hearing high frequencies and are very buoyant due to their lung positioning. Manatees were listed as endangered in 1967 but maybe downgraded to a threatened status soon due to conservation efforts.
The second sighting was of a Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) that I spotted from the road as we were driving down the highway. The tortoise was walking the fence near the sidewalk in Karen Marcus Ocean Park Preserve. Later on we spotted yet another Gopher Tortoise in Seabranch State Park. The Gopher Tortoise is native to the southeastern United States and is considered a keystone species. It has received this designation because the burrows they dig provide shelter for over 360 other animal species. Unfortunately, despite their 40-year life expectancy, the tortoise is threatened by both predation and habitat destruction.
It belongs to the genus Gopherus, which is the only genus of tortoise native to North America. They are herbivorous and opportunistic grazers meaning they eat hundreds of different plant species. As their name suggests, they are skilled diggers and spend up to 80% lf their lives in long burrows. These burrows averages 15 feet in length and 6.5 feet in depth but some are as long as 48 feet! They are generally solitary animals that wander a four-acre area, but they are also noted to be the most social of tortoises. They live in well-defined colonies, and often dig burrows near “friends”. In fact some males travel up to 500m to visit females in their burrows.
We finished out the day with a run to pick up our rental car for the Everglades trip (4.02 36:40).
Day 6: December 9, 2022
The sixth day Apryle and I drove south to Everglades National Park. We picked up our tandem kayak at the Florida Bay Marina and started our paddle at 5:45AM. Even at 5:45AM, the sun was already burning through the sky and temperatures were in the mid 70s. It was exciting to visit a National Park in which the primary focus was not on mountainous terrain but instead a vast swamp. The expansiveness and eerie calm set the tone for an unforgettable adventure. We followed close to the shoreline as we passed by mangroves. The trees were so densely packed with colorful birds that they appeared to be decorated for Christmas with beautiful live ornaments.
As we floated by we spotted White Ibis, Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Brown Pelican, and our favorite – Roseate Spoonbill. Around every corner we spotted more charismatic birds posing for the camera. What the Everglades may have lacked in topographical drama, it more than made up for in species richness.
As we rounded Christian Point en route to Gibby Point, we encountered the greatest number of shorebirds I had ever seen. We spotted flocks of American Avocet, Dunlin, Long-billed Dowitcher, Short-billed Dowitcher, Stilt Sandpipers, Brown Pelican, White Pelican, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, and many others. However, we noticed that the tall egrets and heron were standing tall in the water, way off in the distance. Then we looked at the birds closer up and noticed they too were standing in water with the majority of their legs showing. At this point we tried to paddle and realize that in our excitement over the birds we had neglected the receding tide.
We were minutes from being stuck in the mud flats in Florida Bay, but some quick action and kayak rocking allowed us to get free and into deep enough water to start the journey back to the marina. Although our goal was to make it to Snake Bight to find Flamingos, we were still elated to have encountered so many amazing bird species. This was undoubtedly the most incredible birding of my life. As an interesting side note, a “bight” is actually a bay (Snake Bight) within a larger bay (Florida Bay) and has nothing to do with venomous snakes.
The bay itself contains seagrass which provides habitat for federally listed species such as manatees, smalltooth swordfish, and sea turtles. The seagrasses thrive completely submerged but also need high levels of light. In addition to providing shelter for wildlife, seagrasses help maintain water quality. Florida Bay seafloor is legally designated as submerged wilderness as a part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness.
Florida Bay Kayak and Snake Bight Birding: 6.17 miles 3:03:21
After a quick break for lunch and to search for manatees in the marina, Apryle and I put the kayak back into the water, this time on the Buttonwood Canal side. Our main wildlife encounter in the canal was the American Crocodile. We paddled past ten of them varying in size from 3 feet to 12 feet. At one point we accidently paddled a little too close (within 10 feet) to a sizable crocodile, which was intimidating but not quite as dangerous as highway 95. In addition to the crocodiles, Apryle and I were excited to see all of the bromeliads and epiphytes hanging in the trees overhanging the canal. We took the canal to Coot Lake and then returned back to the marina.
Florida Bay is the largest body of water within Everglades National Park and contains over 800 square miles of marine seafloor covered in vegetation. Coastal lowlands known as coastal prairie surround the bay. This area is between the tidal mud flats and dry land and consists of shrubby salt tolerant vegetation.
We were very surprised to have only seen Crocodiles on this trip and no Alligators. Crocodiles and alligators belong the same group called crocodilians, which contains the largest living reptiles. Only 2 of the 23 total species are native to the United States, and south Florida is the only place where both of these species coexist. The American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) ranges throughout the southeastern United States, but are at the southern extreme of their range in the Everglades, whereas the American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) are at northern extreme of their range.
The Buttonwood Canal is home to mangrove forest, which is a blanket term for salt-tolerant trees that thrive in harsh growing conditions along the coast. The bottonwood canal consisted of Buttonwood, red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) which are recognized by their long stilt-like roots, black mangroves, and white mangroves. Everglades National Park has the largest continuous stand of protected mangrove forest in the western hemisphere.
Buttonwood Canal to Coot Lake Kayak: 6.26 miles 2:22:04
Following a long day of paddling, my shoulders and upper back were quite sore and we decided take foot and do a few short hikes in the park on our way out.
Our first side trip was to a half-mile boardwalk loop hike called Mahogany Hammock. This destination is a small dense forested island, which was growing on a slightly elevated area of land in a sea of grass. It consisted of hardwood broad-leafed trees. These trees thrive because they grow on a natural rise of a few inches in elevation. Although we only visited this one, hammocks are found in many different Everglades ecosystems. There were many species of trees including mahogany, gumbo-limbo, cocoplum, live oak, red maple, and hackberry. Acids from decomposing plants dissolve limestone that surrounds each tree island and creates a natural moat, which protects them from fire, allowing the vegetation to grow tall and thick. The understory hosts many species of ferns and epiphytes.
Our second and final side trip was to Pa-Hay-Okee Lookout. Pa-Hay-Okee is the Seminole word for “River of Grass” and the name that Marjorie Stoneman Douglas gave to the Everglades when advocating for its establishment as a National Park. The Pa-Hay-Okee Lookout trail is a boardwalk path that leads to a lookout tower. From this tower there are excellent views of the wetlands, marshes, and water-filled solution holes of the Everglades. The boardwalk path is closely surrounded by Cypress trees (Taxodium species). These trees are deciduous conifers that survive in standing water. They typically grow in a dome shape with the largest trees in the center. These Cedars can live over 600 years!
Although we could have spent weeks in the park to fully explore its diverse habitats, I was extremely happy with how much we saw in just one day! Everglades National Park is such a special place and we are all fortunate that this area was set aside as a National Park.
Day 7: December 10
On our seventh and final day in Florida, Apryle and I ran to the rental car place to drop off the car and then I continued on to Stuart beach to spend a little more time in the Atlantic Ocean with Apryle and her parents. While on the run we spotted a Roseate Spoonbill in the ditch near the airport, which was quite a surprise to see it in such an urban area.
Rental Car Place to Stuart Beach: 10.02 miles 1:29:00
I closed out my time in Florida with one last walk around Witham Creek Area. Here I observed many wading birds and native vegetation before making the journey back to the temperate Pacific Northwest rain forest.
Overall it was an incredible trip, Apryle and I had an excellent time with her parents. Although I highlighted mainly running and wilderness adventures in this post, we shared many wonderful dinners and days at the beach as a family. Although, the topography is thoroughly uninteresting, the flora and fauna of the state more than make up for the lack of geographic interest.
Green Heron, Cattle Egret, Northern Flicker, Wood Stork, White Ibis, Egyptian Goose, Mottled Duck, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Laughing Gull, Brown Pelican, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Ring-billed Gull, White Pelican, Willet, Roseate Spoonbill, Tri-colored Heron, Little Blue Heron, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Fish Crow, Wood Stork, Anhinga, Muskovy Duck, Boat-tailed Grackle, Magnificent Frigatebird, Black Skimmer, Osprey, American Avocet, Least Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Dunlin, Fosters Tern, Long-billed Dowitcher, Short-billed Dowitcher, Stilt Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Gray Kingbird, and Palm Warbler.
Gopher Tortoise, Cuban Tree Frog, Cuban Anole, Cane Toad, Red-headed Rock Agama, Green Sea Turtle, and American Crocodile.
West Indian Manate.