[Editor's Note: Have you had a close encounter with nature? In this ongoing blog series, Nature Conservancy staff and friends are sharing their thrilling and unexpected encounters with nature. Read our stories – and then share your own!]
By Roberto Torres, Field Representative for The Nature Conservancy in Florida
Christmas Bird Counts are annual events, usually hosted by the Audubon Society, and I try to participate in them every year. In 2005 I was on a team that was counting birds along Snake Bite Trail in the Lower Everglades National Park. This 1.6 miles trail goes from the main road till you hit Florida Bay. Snake Bight is like a big indent in the coast — like a small bay. It’s a shallow area of the bay, and known to attract birds, including Flamingos, which are very rare for North America.
I was with two others, and was determined to try to see a rare Flamingo.
We walked the trail before dawn and reached the boardwalk at the end of the trail, looking out towards Snake Bite in the east. Mangroves had started growing in the mud flats, and so we couldn’t see the bight, the indent in the bay where so many birds — and flamingos — were known to congregate. The only way to see the inlet was to walk into the flats.
I saw a set of footprints, but none walking back — this should have been a telltale sign. But I was careful, and stepped where it seemed fairly stable, as there was no solid ground at all. I inched my way around, and just as I reached the corner and set up my spotting scope, I saw thousands of birds — but no flamingos.
I scanned the area well and noted the birds that were there, and began to head back. I tried to stay on the same path, but I hit a soft spot and sank to my knees. I moved my legs and tried to step out, but each time I moved I sank even deeper.
I was in trouble.
And even after a life of close encounters with the ocean as a long-line fisherman (sharks were involved), this was the one time I thought, “I am not getting out of this alive.”
I somehow managed to reach over to the nearest mangrove (this while holding onto the spotting scope), and pull myself out of the “quickmud” with one hand. I got myself out but the boots stayed.
With mud up to my waist, I leaned my scope against the mangrove, and reached into the big hole where I had been sinking, the boots surely a new part of the mud flat environment. I managed to reach down into that hole, while holding the mangrove and the spotting scope, and grab the boots. Covered in mud from head to toe, and shoeless, I walked back to my friends and spent the rest of the day counting birds.
I have a lot of respect for the Everglades, and still do bird counts, but I am much more cautious and respectful of nature down here. The Everglades — especially the lower end — is eons of water flow heading south. There’s 10 feet of silt and sediment that just will not hold you if you attempt to walk on it.
My close encounter with the Everglades reminded me that nature is to be respected — what may seem benign may not be.
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[Image: Muddy footprints. Image source: KR1212/Flickr via a Creative Commons license.]