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Bird Rookery Swamp and the Otters at Play

Curious Otter

Off the beaten path is the Bird Rookery Swamp just northeast of Naples Florida. The cypress-maple swamp sits adjacent to a more, well known neighbor to the northeast, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary ( We stumbled upon the Rookery after someone told us about Corkscrew Swamp when we inquired about where to go to see the giant Cypress trees.

Sunset Over Western Florida

We arrived late in the afternoon and sanctuary was closing in an hour. We decided to take a detour to the lesser-known Bird Rookery. We didn’t know anything about it other than it was next to Corkscrew and we thought maybe we could wild camp at the trailhead and then go back to the sanctuary in the morning when they opened.

At the end of a dirt road we find a parking lot adjacent to an open water pond and alligator signs warning us of their presence. Along the outer edge of the pond are tall cypress trees with their bulbous bases. A white egret fishes along one edge of the pond. Fish jump like bubbling water. I wonder if an alligator is chasing them.

A trail leaves on the west side of the parking log. One side is a disturbed grass filled area. One other side is the conservation area of cypress forest. We decide to risk taking our dogs for a walk, on leash in the swamp. They are ready to stretch their legs and so are we. We walk down the open road from the trailhead and turn right at a sign welcoming us to the sanctuary. We step on to a boardwalk, with chain link sides, that is about two feet above the water of the Cypress wetland. We breathe a sigh of relief. The safety of the elevated boardwalk and the fence means les chance of running into a gator with our dogs. Our biggest concern in Florida is the safety of our dogs. Alligators have been known to attack dogs.

The boardwalk weaves through the forest of cypress and maple, surrounded by tannin colored water, and an understory of long green ferns and other wetland plants. The Cypress trees are a greyish white. Their bases spread out like bulbs with roots that can get purchase on the shallow base of soil above the limestone. The trunks and branches of trees are decorated in different types of bromeliads. A few have red blooms beginning to unfold. Others look like tufts of wild hair.

Beyond the boardwalk we find ourselves walking on an old tram road (used for logging the cypress years ago). The path is just a foot or two above the water level. It is cleared of encroaching forest and has a base of green grass that is trampled down by foot and bicycle tire. A few places of bare dirt between the water and the trail are resting places for alligators as they bask in the heat of the sun during the day. We also discover a greyish blobs of poop, that we discover later, are alligator poop.

We come to an open water pond with a small dock in the middle. There on the dock is a Florida Red-Bellied Cooter turtle and a small three-foot alligator sharing the same territory. Is the turtle is too big for the young gator to eat?

I gaze past the pond and down the raised trail. I see a rolling mass of black moving back and forth across the green trail. The mass is far enough away that at first I can’t make out what type of animal it is. David thinks it is a group of vultures. I realize, with excitement, that it is river otters, a lot of them. I quietly walk toward them, attempting to sneak up on otters to photograph them. The dogs haven’t caught on so David waits behind me holding them on their leashes. The otters, sensing our arrival, scamper back into the water adjacent to the trail.

Disheartened we make our way down the trail to where we last saw them, hoping for a glimpse. There are piles of otter poop in the middle of the trail. We hear vigorous splashes of water and rustling in the plants next to the shore as they sneak up for a closer look at us. They are still here. The dogs are alertly looking at the moving plants. An otter head pops up to check us out. The dogs are beside themselves with curiosity, so are the otters.

The otter head disappears but the splashes of water continue. I walk down the trail a short distance and find them scampering off and on a log along the surface of the water. I count five otters in a rolling fluid play as they gnaw on each other’s heads and roll into the water only to scamper back up on the log for another round. Two slide into the water. They are in a tangle, rolling back and forth over each other, feigning the fierceness of a predator going after prey. Then they all scamper through the water to a hiding place underneath a large hanging fern. They remind me of kids who cover their own eyes to hide from someone. Soon they can’t maintain the calm and they roll out again in a frenzy of play.

Every once in awhile one will break off from the group. We’ll hear rustling in the plants next to us followed by an otter head popping up to look us over again.

I’m struggling between all the branches and foliage to get photographs as they move with quick speed and only rarely stop long enough for me to get them in focus through my lens before they are off again.

Taz and Mica bodies are taut. There expressions heightened with curiosity. They would like nothing better than to learn more about this new creature that has entered their sight. They can feel the playful energy. It is like puppy energy. We hold them back and, like us they watch intently.

Finally, we're all tired. The otters from playing and the humans and dogs from watching. The splashing fades as the otters quietly disappear deeper into the swamp. Our attention was captured for quite a while. We realize that we have to return to make it back to the trailhead before dark.

We excited about the events of this little detour. We saw five otters playing. We couldn’t believe it. We caught a glimpse of the natural rhythm of the Everglades that happens everyday out of sight of human eyes. The swamp is a habitat that is teeming with life. Everything has its place in the water, in a tree, in the brush, or on the islands of land.

Early morning and evenings are the the best times to see most wildlife.

We return the next morning with our bikes and ride the twelve-mile loop trail through the entire preserve. We arrive as morning mists lift off the water and shroud the bases of the cypress trees. Fish jump up in a frenzy out of the water to catch insects or escape the jaws of alligators. We see different species of birds; herons, anhinga’s, egrets, ibises, hawks, and vultures, perch on branches in the trees. Their chatter fills the air. Along the shorelines herons and egrets stand like stone statues waiting for their prey. Turtles perch on branches at the waters edge and swam below the surface of the water. Alligators lurk at the surface of the water or bask along the sun-drenched shorelines. At one point I have to swerve to avoid riding over a gator tail. Although we don’t see them there are snakes swimming, slithering, and climbing in the swamp. We saw a dead water moccasin along the trail. Insects fill the air with buzzing, chirping, and rhythmic humming.

Sunrise Over the Cypress Swamp

This Rookery is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail

1. White Ibis

2. Great Egret

3. American Black Vulture

4. Great Egret

5. Red Shouldered Hawk

6. Great Egret

Open area with large pond and a large alligator

We weren't lucky enough to see the otters again but the rest of the preserve is so interesting that we find ourselves stopping frequently to take photos and explore the edges looking at the different plants and looking for more wildlife. As we finish our ride the sun and humidity are rising and we feel the weight of the heavy sun and the sweat dripping down our backs. We both feel like this small oasis was one of the best discoveries on our travels through Florida.

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