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On a Wetland Trail

Feb/11/2024 / by rashmi-gopal-rao

Where to head for the upcoming President’s Day weekend

Great blue heron wading through wetlands
Photo via Shutterstock

Swamps, marshes, fens, vernal pools, mangroves…. wetlands are known by various names.  But what exactly are wetlands? Often referred to as the lungs of the planet, wetlands are a critical and distinct ecosystem that is saturated with water for a large part of the year.  The source of this water could be either groundwater, a spring, a river, or stream. 

Wetlands are home to distinct flora and fauna and support almost 40% of the world’s living species.  They are extremely significant as they help arrest floods, improve soil fertility, prevent soil erosion, and help mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. 

Since we have lost a whopping 35% of the world’s wetlands, it is critical to conserve these unique ecosystems.  In a bid to raise awareness and protect wetlands, World Wetland Day was celebrated early February (this is practiced every year). 

Recognizing that wetlands, people, and nature share a symbiotic relationship, the theme for World Wetland Day 2024 was ‘Wetlands and Human Wellbeing’.   The United States has a large number of wetlands and you can use the President’s Day weekend to educate ourselves and our families about the importance of these biologically diverse and fragile ecosystems.

Here are a few wetlands that you can visit for an educative and engaging experience.

Everglades National Park, Florida

Located about an hour’s drive from bustling Miami, Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness of the country. Spread over the park’s 1.5 million acres are a plethora of ecosystems which include mangrove forests, fresh and sea water marshes, pine rock lands and much more.  Home to a large variety of birds and reptile species, of which some are endangered, the park is a haven for wading birds and a corridor for migration. 

The majestic park provides an experience quite unlike another and has over a million visitors each year.  There are three main entrances to the park. One is from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center which is close to Naples, the Shark Valley area which can be accessed by US 41, and the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center which is also the park’s main headquarters.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge, California

Nested in California’s northern San Joaquin Valley, Merced Refuge established in 1951 under the Lea Act is home to over 10,000 acres of wetlands.  It mainly consists of native grasslands and vernal pools and attracts some of the largest number of wintering waterfowl which include thousands of lesser sandhill cranes, Ross’ geese, and tri-colored blackbirds. Apart from that it is home to plenty of eagles, owls, hawks, and other raptor species. 

The place is a delight whether you are an avid birder or an ornithologist. Luckily, the bird population is the highest from December to February.  The refuge offers visitors a 5-mile trail which is an auto tour route as well as four nature trails which you can cover on foot.  While the conditions and scenery change according to seasons, it is a great place to soak in the beauty of nature while observing and capturing bird and animal life. 

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina

Located in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1974.  Covering an area of over a hundred thousand acres of forested wetlands, this region is home to some of the most important wildlife species in the mid-Atlantic region.  You will find a plethora of mammals, birds and close to a hundred species of butterflies.  The flora is equally significant too with species like the bald cypress, red maple, and the rare Atlantic white cedar.  You can involve yourself in various kinds of recreational and educational activities whether you are a novice, wildlife professional, or a birding expert.  These include boating, backpacking, camping, wild edible foraging, fish viewing and the like.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

Situated on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge stretches across a massive two million acres and is often referred to “Alaska in miniature.” The ecosystem consists of an eclectic mix of ice fields, glaciers, forests, and coastal wetlands.  The refuge plays host to several species of wildlife like bears, lynx, wolves, and trumpeter swans.  It is a great place if you enjoy the outdoors and are up for a little bit of adventure. 

Engage in activities like fishing, camping, skiing, and hiking apart from naturalist-led outdoor programs.  With over 110 miles of trails, there is no dearth of activities while here.

Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Florida

Located just about 30 minutes northeast of Naples in Florida, Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is often referred to as a gateway to the Western Everglades environment.  The highlight of this sanctuary is its famous 2.25 miles-long boardwalk, where you can witness its biodiversity. This includes the remaining last group of virgin bald cypress trees in the world, some of which are thousands of years old.

Managed by the renowned National Audubon Society, the ecosystem here consists of a mix of pine flatwoods, wet prairie, marsh, and cypress forests.  The northern cardinal, pileated woodpeckers, black bears, bobcats, American alligators, and swallow-tailed kites are just some of the species that you can find here. 

Checklist While Visiting Wetlands

Dress as per the season and always wear comfortable walking shoes

Carry essentials like water, hat and mosquito/insect repellent

Use binoculars and camera to capture your surroundings

Be a responsible visitor and respect nature at all times