MIAMI — Just because the moonlight bike tours and guided swamp walks have ended for the season and most of the migratory birds have moved on doesn't mean there's no reason to visit the Everglades this spring and summer.
The hottest, stickiest, rainiest season is when orchids and other wildflowers thrive and bloom. It's when the great blue herons and anhingas get the place to themselves. It's when morning bike rides can be the best part of the day. At night it's pitch-black — perfect for stargazers to hold viewing parties away from the city lights.
There's no doubt that prime viewing time is ending in the Everglades. But the sawgrass prairie and cypress stands still offer opportunities for recreation. Be mindful of the heat and the mosquitoes — which rangers swear don't live up to their nasty-as-they-wanna-be reputation — and be observant. Not only does the wet season make being outdoors more uncomfortable for people, it changes conditions for wildlife, so there is less to see, and what is there is harder to spot.
During dry season, pooled water evaporates, concentrating fish in a smaller area where they make easier prey for big wading birds. Migratory birds usually start arriving in Big Cypress National Preserve in November and in Everglades National Park in late November and early December to feast on the fish. When the rain comes, the pools grow, the fish disperse and most of the birds leave. But a small population of great blue herons, cormorants, anhingas, purple gallinules, limpkins and swallowtail kites live in the Everglades year-round. South Florida is the only place in the United States that some of those birds are likely to be spotted.
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With more and larger pools of water, alligators will disperse too and be harder to spot. But rangers say there is no time when visitors can't find at least a few gators. In Everglades National Park, tram tours continue year-round, and the naturalists on those tours change their talks to fit the season. Ranger-led walks and talks also continue through the summer.
The park itself is open 24 hours a day, although not all entrances remain open. Rangers recommend early-morning walks and bike rides, late-night stargazing and walking to the top of the Observation Tower in Shark Valley for its panoramic view of the Everglades.
Late spring and early summer are when wildflowers grow in profusion: rusty brown spikes of sawgrass flowers, tiny white pond-apple blossoms, dusty purple marsh fleabane, purple pickerel wee d of deeper purple, white-top sedge, goldenrod that can grow up to six feet.
In Big Cypress, at least a few species of orchids are in bloom year-round — the grass pink orchid and the endangered cowhorn are blooming now within a short walk from the visitors center — but June and July are peak time.
A visitor's best bet is the Kirby Storter Roadside Park, which has a half-mile elevated boardwalk that leads through prairie, dwarf cypress and cypress strand, where a variety of blooming f lowers are visible, said Bob DeGross, spokesman for Big Cypress. The boardwalk, off Tamiami Trail about seven miles west of the Oasis Visitors Center, is wheelchair-accessible and has rain shelters . Like the preserve, it's open 24 hours, so is also a favorite place for star-gazers.
"If you're really adventurous, one of the best things you can do is a swamp walk," DeGross said, but that option is just for the most adventurous, people who are experienced navigators using maps and compasses. "You have to be quite an outdoors person," he said. "We encourage people to walk the boardwalk."
For people who want to do some windshield sightseeing, DeGross recommends driving on Turner River Road and Birdon Road, a 27-mile loop on the preserve's western side near Everglades City. Turner River Road runs north from Tamiami Trail at the H. P. Williams Roadside Park, next to a canal that supports a great variety of wildlife.
"It's pretty wild, DeGross said. "It's a good opportunity to see the variety of habitats, to look for birds and wildlife that are around during the summer. It's a gravel road, it's in good shape, it doesn't flood."
Wherever you go, take plenty of water, sunscreen and insect repellant.
Mosquitoes are at their worst after the rains have started and the water is still rising and filling holes. Once there's enough water to flow across the land, typically in July, the biting insects lighten up. Rangers say the mosquitoes aren't a problem as long as visitors are out in the open and stay out of the shade.
IF YOU GO:
Everglades National Park: www.nps.gov/ever. The park is open 24 hours, although the visitors centers are not and only the main entrance (40001 State Rd. 9336, Homestead) and the Gulf Coast entrance (south of the intersection of Tamiami Trail / US 41 and Route 29) stay open around the clock. Admission: $10 per automobile, good for seven days; see website for other admission fees.
Big Cypress National Preserve: www.nps.gov/bicy. The park is open 24 hours, although visitors centers are not. There is no fee to enter the park, although fees may be charged for some facilities.
Museum of the Everglades, 105 W. Broadway, Everglades City; 239-695-0008; www.colliermuseums.com. Open Tuesday-Saturday.
Boat tours: 239-695-3101; http://evergladesnationalparkboattoursflamingo.com/. Everglades National Park Boat Tours depart from Flamingo and explore the Whitewater Bay backcountry north of Florida Bay.