Old Florida-Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

February 10, 2024

See the Western Everglades- at Preserved Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

If you want to see what’s left of Old Florida, don’t miss this sanctuary for wild Florida in the Western Everglades. We are losing more of this unique piece of American history day by day. Here is what to see!

Wood Storks are large brilliant, black and white birds. Truman Capote would be jealous. They need about 13 weeks and 440 lbs of fish to fledge their chicks. Then the fledglings need a safe place to grow up before long flights. Their population is declining.

Are you seeing the problem? The Everglades are 4 months wet and 8 months drying out. The Wood Stork needs concentrated water during its fledging period. (It lays eggs starting in October and chicks arrive in January-February.)

The birds are fine as long as there is a big enough, and wet enough place for life to go on. Their very best chance for success is in Corkscrew’s old growth Bald Cypress forest. These Cypress trees, relatives of the Sequoia, are up to 130 feet tall and 25′ around. This is the biggest stand of them in North America and this is the biggest home of the Wood Stork.

The Everglades -What’s the Problem

The Everglades are Florida’s vast freshwater system. Eight million of us depend on it for drinking water. Fresh, clean water should flow from the middle of the state through the wetlands and out into the gulf. But there is not enough!

Over the years, humans, meaning well, did damage. We straightened crooked rivers, built drainage canals, communities and farms. It did not work out entirely as we expected and now we are working on undoing the damage.

The Heart of the Western Everglades

Corkscrew Sanctuary is the very heart of the Western Everglades. If you come to SW Florida, enjoy this beautiful place. See the beaches, go on the water, eat our farm-fresh food and shop on our pretty streets.

But do not overlook the chance to see “Old Florida.” It’s going fast and Corkscrew is one of your best opportunities to see both our beauty and our troubles.

Corkscrew’s 13,000 acres are home to lots of treasures. It is a 600-year-old pristine wilderness. It encompasses North America’s biggest stand of giant old-growth Cypress trees. It is a significant rookery of the Wood Stork, the only stork native to North America. In fact you can see 200 species of birds.

If you come in the summer, you can see the Ghost Orchid. The park encompasses the only “Super Ghost Orchid” found in the world. It has as many as 40 flowers in the year. If something is interesting to see but it is at a distance the Audubon Society will fasten handy scopes to the fence of the boardwalk. This gives a good view of the rare Orchid.

What to Experience In Corkscrew Sanctuary

Walk the 2.25 mile boardwalk. There is a daily, guided tour, it is well worth taking. On our recent visit our group was led by a retired college professor.

An Ornithologist, he pointed out all sorts of plants and animals we might have missed on our own.

This Tiny Aster is a Vine Twisting Through the Understory and Attracting Pollinators

On a recent vacation, we saw parts of the UK national collection of Asters. Upton House and Garden. We viewed a large collection of these Daisy-like flowers. In the Everglades, our guide showed us a tiny lavender and yellow Aster which was a twining vine. On our own, we would have missed it.

Four Very Different Ecosystems on Your Walk

Leaving the pleasant, small visitor center, walk from an open deck to the wooden walkway. (You will be pleased with the raised walkway-lots of creatures live below!)

The Pine Flatwood

You see first, the flat pine area. This is the most extensive terrestrial ecosystem in Florida. It covers half of the natural landmass of the state. You will observe open canopies of slash pine and below a dense understory of shrubbery. Among the Wax Myrtle and Saw Palmetto, there are bears, the Florida Panther, White Tail Deer, and loads of rabbits.

Wet Prairie

The walkway takes you from the Pine area to this area which ranges from wet to dry throughout the year. It is home to a wide variety of wildlife. We watched an alligator on her nest of eggs. A small blue heron fished successfully nearby. We watched Egrets feed and Wood Storks digging with their big pink feet.

This Little Blue Heron Has Learned to Walk across this Aquatic Plant which Tops the Pond

The Marsh

This area is wet, whenever you come. The Everglades are the single largest wetland area in the US. You see grasses, water, and low growing plants. We watched, well sort of, an otter snag himself a snake for lunch. He was pretty quick, we watched his shadow splash and move.

He was watched with interest by a red-shouldered hawk. Our guide told us that the hawk, elegant but opportunistic, was hoping to frighten the otter and steal his lunch. It did not work out for him.

The World’s Largest Old-Growth Bald Cypress Forest

As our guide led us into the Cypress forest the big group of tourists around us got quiet. We have noticed that on prior trips. You know you are entering a special place. You realize that these giants were here when Ponce de Leon waded ashore.

This Red-Shouldered Hawk in The Cypress Wood is Watching An Otter Whose Lunch He Covets

It Almost Wasn’t Here

There were at least two opportunities for this amazing place not to be here at all. The first one was at the turn of the 20th century and the second near-disaster took place in the 1940’s and 50’s.

The Plume Hunters

They say that Marie Antoinette started the fad. It got to the USA in the late 1880s and lasted almost to WWI. This was the fashion trend for large feathered hats. In some cases, you could have an entire bird on your head, eyes, beak, and all!

Even Audubon Was Wrong!

John James Audubon traveled the country painting birds. He believed that the North American bird population was so plentiful that no depredation could extinguish a species.

He died in 1851. He was only gone 50 years when the last passenger pigeon died in captivity. The species once numbered in the billions.

French, then English, and later American milliners hired poor farmers and hunters to produce feathers for them. This was not just a Florida problem, birds of all species were hunted from foot, horseback, and boats all over the country.

Florida Destruction

Florida’s settlers were tough, rural, and poor. There was rarely an opportunity to earn cash. They hunted everything; eagles, egrets, herons, flamingoes, cranes, roseate spoonbills.

The demand from the milliners was for the especially beautiful plumage of the mating birds. This proved doubly damaging. A rookery of several hundred nesting birds could be killed off in 2-3 days. The young were either killed by predators or starved.

A Little Like Tulip Mania

By the mid-1890s gold was $17.00 an ounce. Egret feathers were worth $65.00 per ounce! (They eventually hit $100.00). The Corkscrew rookery was hard hit. There was no road then to the rookery. The plumers waded through waist-deep water with the gators and snakes to get to the birds. Local folks said you could hear the gunfire for hours.

How did it end! Harriet Hemenway

People talked and complained but nothing got done. Harriet, an iconoclastic Boston Brahmin from the Back Bay, and her cousin Minna Hall started a boycott of the trade.

They eventually got 900 women to join the boycott and the fashion ended. Harriet was interesting. Booker T Washington visited Boston but no hotel would give him a bed. Harriet just invited him to be her houseguest!

Several of the largest Cypress trees are named for environmentalists, There is a John Muir and a Teddy Roosevelt. I liked the fact that they named one for Harriet.

The Next Big Problem-Logging

In the first half of the 20th century logging in Florida became a big business. Cypress was very desirable. Durable and workable it was used for lots of things. You could make Shingles, pilings, siding, and even water tanks and cisterns from it.

The virgin, old-growth cypress was decimated all over Florida.

Barbarians at the Gate

This was the case. The Lee Tidewater Timber Company had workers at the edge of the forest. A group of people got together to find a way to own the land.

This included John H. Baker, president of the National Audubon Society. Joe Brown wrote letters to the Miami Herald, Jeanne Taylor, a Coral Gables Writer got national attention with an article in the Saturday Evening Post.

Ernest Taylor, a then elderly amateur naturalist from Tampa gathered people to work on the project. Earl Fry was a man who was able to enlist national civic associations to help. Mrs. Eugene Smith donated the first $5000.00 from the Florida Association of Garden Clubs.

Florida Power and Light, and Arthur Vining Davis gave money. Several hundred local people produced gifts, At a meeting in Tampa in 1954 the Corkscrew Cypress Rookery Association was formed and the job was started.

J. Arthur Curry, President of the Logging Company

He became a surprising sponsor. With shareholders to satisfy he donated land and sold the rest at a price the Association could pay.

This part almost failed and for a common reason. People got excited about saving the last big stand of Cypress and wrote cranky and factually incorrect letters to newspapers which angered Mr. Curry.

Finally, by December of 1954, the property was acquired and the Sanctuary secured.

The First Visits to the Sanctuary

Hint-there was no road! Major supporters and donors wanted to see the place. They walked through the cattle fields and waist-high water in Lettuce Lake. I read that none of these people were young and one Marcia Taylor, of Miami, generous donor and avid birder was in her 70’s.

There is a good story about the excited people, changing to dry clothes and heading home. Mrs Taylor came in her Daimler with a liveried footman and chauffeur. On the way home with her car in the lead it suddenly stopped and the liveried footman entered an unsavory barroom.

Mrs Taylor liked an afternoon Martini and the footman served her two. The townspeople saw two things that day they did not know existed. That was the car and the Martini!

So that is how these people, got together and preserved the land and its assets. They were birders, hunters, farmers, gardeners, philanthropists. They are the reason that 13,000 pristine acres of Florida Everglades came to be here for us today! If you get to South West Florida do not miss what they left us!

How to Visit Corkscrew Sanctuary:

This information is per our visit, check the website for the most current information.

Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

375 Sanctuary Road, Naples FL. 34120 239-348-9151

Open Every day 7am-5:30

Admission Adults $14.00

Audubon members $10.00

College students with photo id $6.00, children, 6-18 $4,00, under 6 free.

The guided tours are complimentary, currently, they are daily at 10:30AM Be sure to check the website

Accessibility: the raised boardwalk is wheelchair accessible. Fly season is March to November. Bring bug spray and sun protection and very comfortable walking shoes.