The Everglades: Where the birds are

MOST people have the wrong idea about the Everglades. They think it's a dark, swampy jungle area, with alligators everywhere, grinning unpleasantly, slithering through the high grasses - signing autographs by the side of the road, perhaps. Instead, in the winter dry season, the Everglades look like Africa - a short, stubbly golden prairie. When you really peer at the terrain, you see that the stubble, called sawgrass, sits in a kind of brownish soup (called periphyton). In fact, it gleams in the sun like a paddy field.

The water does actually flow here, but not so you'd notice. Underneath somewhere is jagged limestone, but walking around is simply out of the question.

For contrast, there are little bushes here and there, and every so often a larger one. And there are quite a few alligators, but not along the beaten path from the main park entrance to Flamingo Bay.

Another potential misconception is that clouds of pink flamingos circle over Flamingo Bay, making a kind of continuous sunset. Instead, the post office was named for the rarest bird ever seen here.

Flamingos aside, it is a great place to get inspired about birding as a hobby. Of the 650 species you can see in the entire United States, 325 can be found here. It is a particularly good spot for watching wading birds. Wading birds have a lot of personality. There is the fabulous snowy egret, white feathers flowing wildly in the wind, giving it a harassed and delicate look like a debutante in a hurricane. It is also distinguished by enormous yellow feet.

Then there are the herons. A heron almost looks prehistoric as it flies in the ``s'' shape with its long arched wings, pointed beak, and knobby legs trailing neatly behind.

The Everglades is the only park established for biological rather than geological reasons, and it is the only environment of its kind in the world. There are a number of advantages to coming here in the winter. Primary is the relative absence of mosquitoes, which tend to take over in the summer.

Also, since it is the dry season, the birds, alligators, and other inhabitants congregate at the deeper water channels, or sloughs, where the National Park Service has conveniently placed wooden walkways for the visitor's benefit.

One such popular and easily accessible walkway is the Anhinga Trail. Anhingas are curious birds that dive in the water, and, lacking oil in their feathers, have to ``hang them out'' to dry afterward. I saw two, motionless, standing on tiny branches with their wings spread out, looking like two ebony bookends. Anhingas make a continuous querulous croaking noise like something rusty being wound. Lingering near the trail on the day I was there was a purple gallinule, an iridescent blue and green bird with purple around its small head. That, with its huge yellow legs and feet, made it look gaudy and not terribly intelligent.

The birds are not the only attraction of Anhinga Trail. There are tiny alligators (``Aren't they cute,'' said the woman next to me). They do a fair imitation of a wet log. There are also wet logs impersonating alligators. You almost feel as if the scene should be labeled ``find the alligator in this picture.''

Other inhabitants are the Florida gar. These fat, grayish speckled fish, hanging in the water under the waterlilies, are living ``fossils'' that can breathe air.

Oddly, lack of water is a problem in this soggy land. ``At a national park, usually the watershed is protected. Here we are at the end of the watershed,'' says Mary Robinson, Flamingo district naturalist. ``Most of our efforts have been directed at returning the water level to what it should be. That should have a great effect on some of these endangered species, like the manatee.'' As soon as you arrive in the Everglades, you'll want to make a reservation to go out on a morning canoe ride with a ranger. This is the best way to learn about the park. The first thrill for a non-Floridian is floating up close to a mangrove, one of the odder trees here. ``They threw away the rule book,'' as ranger Jerry Roe puts it. The mangroves, unlike other trees, can endure living in brackish, tidal water. Each type of mangrove has a different way of coping with this through its multiple root system. The black mangrove excretes the salt through its leaves, while the red mangrove excretes through peculiar exposed tubes that are in fact its roots.

Its way of reproducing is unusual, too: Seedpods that look like string beans drop into the water and float vertically until they find a resting place. In one hour, the roots sprout; in half a day there's a root system and four to six tiny leaves. When the tide changes a few hours later, the tiny mangrove is tightly clinging to its perch.

After the ranger has told you all this, you'll paddle through the shallow water to the mangrove island and adjacent mud flat, situated right off the shore, to see the water birds. This island is a terrific place for pelican watching. You see pelicans diving into the water head first with a loud splash. You see brown pelicans roosting ungracefully in the mangroves, ``like Christmas tree ornaments,'' as Mr. Roe said. And nearby, you see a convivial group of white pelicans on the mud flat.

But you can also see great egrets, little brown birds called marbled godwits, snappy black and white willetts, a few great white herons, and perhaps, floating mysteriously overhead, a roseate spoonbill in a pale creamy orange color.

According to Ranger Roe, a lot of people came here at the turn of the century to get egret plumes, and within 30 years knocked out the entire population. Egret plumes were $100 apiece; the hunters could spend three months here, get a suitcase full of feathers, and retire.

Fortunately, protective laws were enacted in Florida and in New York, and the wading birds rebounded to their original numbers. Since 1940, however, with the building boom in south Florida, their numbers have fallen again.

There are other parts of the Everglades that are interesting. To get to Shark Valley, a prime alligator viewing area, you drive past various Key lime stands and U-Pic tomato places - just you and 12 Winnebagoes going 15 miles under the speed limit. But Shark Valley is worth it. I stopped counting at 25 large alligators, all lounging around. One sat motionless by the path, completely out of water, looking as if it were made of high-quality black rubber.

You can also visit the Miccosukee Indian village and watch the major attraction - alligator wrestling. A young man casually flips a small alligator various ways as a woman explains in a nasally voice over a microphone, as if reading a script, the danger of these maneuvers. The alligator has the this-too-shall-pass air of one to whom such indignities are routine.

Everglades Park is an unusual place, but it grows on you. Practical information

The Visitors' Center is 45 miles from Miami. Flamingo Bay is another 38 miles beyond that, along easy roads.

For the Sybarite, there is a boat ride out to Cape Sabol, the only sandy beach in the Everglades.

For the adventurer, there is the wilderness waterway, which you can travel by canoe in 7 to 9 days or by power boat in 3 days.

It is highly recommended to bring a companion who can paddle a canoe, as it is the best way to see the park.

The Flamingo Bay Lodge is very pleasant, particularly the restaurant, which looks out over the milky green water of the bay; hawks sweep across the plate glass window as you eat hefty gourmet meals of shrimp, black beans, and Key lime pie.

Most important of all, bring binoculars.

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