Swallow-tailed kites (STKI) are Soaring into the CREW Lands

By Nan Mattingly and Allison Vincent

STKI feeding on the wing. Photo by Bill Zaino, CREW Trust Volunteer

If you’ve hung around any tall pine trees lately, there’s a chance – even if you didn’t notice – that you’ve been within view of one of southwest Florida’s most social flying raptors, the swallow-tailed kite (STKI). Returning from South America in mid-February every year like a romantic poem written especially for a birder just in time for Valentine’s Day, they almost immediately start circling the tall tree tops in search of their favorite nesting spot. We have a lot of unanswered questions regarding these world travelers, but there is plenty that we do know! This article will be a refresher course covering some of the top questions we hear from you about our black and white aerial artists at the CREW Trails. 

STKIs Journey to Nest

When we begin to spot STKIs in Florida in mid-February, they must be tired from their long journey because they’ve just flown in from South America, a journey of up to 6,000 miles. Some of them make it as far as seven of the southernmost states in the U.S. but Florida is their preferred destination and we see them in the greatest numbers here. We’re fortunate at CREW because they have a few favorite nesting areas within the CREW Project and between February and August we have the privilege of seeing them circle and soar over the treetops.

Left: Treetop nest toward the end of last nesting season. Right: STKI finds an old nest to make new this March, 2022. Photos by Dick Brewer, CREW Trust Volunteer

On arrival they begin looking for suitable nesting sites. There are two essentials for nesting, which they do in loose communities. They need tall trees (preferably pines, occasionally cypress and other tall trees) in open woodland where they can hunt abundant prey by sight, and they prefer to be near a source of water – a swamp, river, marsh or a slough – because they also capture and consume creatures living next to or in the water. Most STKIs return to the same nesting sites every year, often fixing up an old nest. In the early part of their stay in Florida, you’ll see them circling high overhead inspecting the territory.

Relationships of Swallow-tailed Kites

STKIs are believed to be monogamous. They may continue a relationship from the previous year, or they may find a mate during migration. Once the colony has chosen a good nesting site, they establish small territories around and above the nests and they guard their territories (or neighborhoods) by flying in small circles above the nest tree. Intruders are repelled with dive bombs and scolding cries sometimes described as loud, squeaky whistles.  

Both males and females bring nest materials to the site. They can build the nest quickly, in only one day, or more slowly, up to two weeks. They begin by making a platform of small, loosely woven sticks and then line it with soft materials such as lichen or Spanish moss, creating either a flat surface or a shallow cup. Most STKI nests are situated at least 60 feet above the ground.    

Each pair of STKIs produces a clutch of one to three eggs which incubate for 27 to 33 days. After the eggs hatch, the parents feed them frequently. The male STKI catches and carries prey in his talons to the nest, where he passes it to the female. She then tears it up and feeds it to the young. 

Photos by CREW Trust Volunteer Dick Brewer illustrating STKI development stages (starts at top left).

Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner – Feeding on the Wing

To catch that prey, the male hunts during the day “on the wing”, while in flight, picking prey off trees, shrubs and vegetation along rivers or other water bodies. And what are they looking for? STKIs like large insects such as dragonflies, wasps, cicadas, beetles and grasshoppers which they eat while flying. During the breeding season, adults also hunt small vertebrates, including tree frogs, lizards, nesting birds, and snakes. Occasionally STKIs devour bats, fish or fruit.  

We’re fortunate in southwest Florida to welcome these magnificent birds. You can identify them, at the right time of year (between February and August), first by noticing their long, forked tails and then by observing their graceful flight. They swoop and glide high overhead, catching insects in the air or descending to the treetops to find small creatures to eat. Unlike some other birds, they rarely flap their wings, and you should count yourself lucky if you see them on the ground. An individual STKI has a shrill “pee, pee, pee” call, but when they gather in flocks you’ll hear sweet, shrill cries or soft whistles. It’s a magical experience to find yourself looking up at a circling flock and hearing those whistles.  

You may have noticed that the CREW logo features the swallow-tailed kite. We don’t like to choose favorites, but it’s hard to resist these charismatic birds which are recognized by many as the most beautiful bird of prey. Just ask Brenda Brooks, CREW Trust Executive Director until 3/31/22, when she will make her own version of a migration north.

Where do you look when you hike?

By Allison Vincent

Guided program at CREW Flint Pen Strand on the Purple Trail this rainy season – summer 2021

What is your hiking personality type? Do you have one? Never thought about it? Some would say that where you spend most of your time looking while on the trail says a lot about your interests, like one of those repetitive questionnaires that asks the same question several different ways to find a pattern. For instance, is your head up in the clouds with the birds or are you flipping through your wildflower book while you crouch near the flora? Does every little insect catch your eye, or are you more the type to roll over a downed tree to see what’s hiding underneath? Whatever your type, when you’re out hiking the CREW trails you’ll find a rich assortment of interesting distractions to catch your eye, hold your attention, and spark your imagination.  

If you’re the kind of person that tends to look down while you’re hiking you can fit into several categories. For one, perhaps you’re simply clumsy and/or cautious about wildlife crossing your path – in which case I suggest finding a good hiking stick. However, you might be the type to look to the ground with intention, scanning the earth for a sign of life, whether that be a wandering turtle or a seasonal wildflower. 

CREW Cypress Dome Trails

If you have a practical preoccupation with the ground in front of you – often you’re a quick trail runner or speed hiker who doesn’t slow down for anything, except perhaps a faster runner. You’re on the right track as long as you’re moving fast enough to blur your vision of the verdant landscape surrounding you. You prefer the smells of the trees over the blast of exhaust fumes and therefore opt to test your endurance in the company of wildlife, even if you’re moving too quickly to witness them. That’s alright, because you yourself are a wild thing, gracefully caressing the ground with your quick footsteps under the canopy of trees and sky. You are a trail runner.

Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) at CREW with CREW Trust intern Angel Kelley

Then again, maybe you’re one of the many who take their time looking at each leaf and petal, searching through the many layers of green to identify something unique in the abundant chaos. You have the ability to see hidden gems, glowing silently in the leaf litter, distinct in their ecosystem. You admire how they grow, for no one in particular, but simply because we have set aside spaces like CREW for them to do so. They blossom with their seasons, adorning the landscape with pops of improbable colors. They complete their life cycle unaided and unattended, capturing your attention if you’re one of those who seeks out their inherent beauty. You are a wildflower seeker. 

Julie Motkowicz, CREW Trust Education Coordinator, often discovers and teaches about the bugs of CREW – here she’s observing a Malachite butterfly

Then there are the unique people who find themselves seeking out the most diverse group of organisms on the planet, insects. Given that insects represent approximately 80 percent of the world’s species, it’s a fair bet that you’ll find a good collection to observe on each hike. In fact, at any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive. Bug nerds like you probably already know that, which is why you’re out with your macro camera lens, focusing in closely on that mother green lynx spider protecting the next generation in her silken web. You are a bug person.

Photo from past CREW Trust Strolling Science Seminar, Herping the CREW Lands (tickets on sale now)

The last predominant subcategory of those that ‘tend to look down while hiking’ includes the herpetologists. These patient seekers know where to look and also that it’s unlikely to find anything. Not to worry though; when you’re as patient and observant as those in this category tend to be, you’ll eventually be rewarded with a cool snake or mud-soaked turtle when you least expect it. That’s when you impress your friends with your reptile spotting skills and knowledge of their behavior, calming your friends’ nerves with helpful advice about how best to interact with our reptile neighbors (give them lots of space and respect). You are a herper. 

Photographer and CREW Trust volunteer Bill Zaino out shooting on the Red Trail of CREW Flint Pen Strand

Let’s not forget about those who look up to the sky for the birds. You know you’re a birder when you prefer trails with level ground or bring along a friend specifically to walk in front – so you don’t trip. Bird nerds, as you’re often called by your nearest and dearest friends, will sometimes  politely hush hiking friends not so immersed in the sport to allow you to parse out the chorus of warblers, distinguishing their unique calls. You’re an eagle-eyed scout who can often tell a species by their wing shape or flight patterns, counting the number of birds flocking with a best estimate. With all the migratory birds finding their way to or through Florida this season, you’re sure to find your way to the CREW trails soon and often. You are a birder.

Next time you’re out hiking CREW trails, take note of where you tend to look. And then try looking elsewhere to discover new interests. There are many other wonderful things to observe out hiking around the CREW Trails this winter. What do you look for on the trails? Will you try something new?

Barred owls nuzzle at CREW Bird Rookery Swamp Trail – a resident hidden in the trees

These are a few of my favorite CREW Trails 

By Allison Vincent

Pine Lily

CREW Trust Executive Director Brenda Brooks always says that she doesn’t have a favorite CREW Trail, but instead a favorite place at each one. Since I first heard that comment I have occasionally wondered which is in fact my favorite. After close to three years exploring the diverse CREW trail systems, I’ve found a few of my own favorite places that keep pulling me back for more, surprising me with their fierce beauty. Perhaps you’ve had the same thought as you’ve explored various CREW trail systems, that excitement of walking through your favorite place on the trail.

CREW Cypress Dome Trails

While we may not have traditional seasons in Florida, we do have seasonal indicators, like the first blooming pine lilies of the fall mixed with the purple liatris starting in September. I love finding these flowers along the CREW Cypress Dome (CDT) Green and White Trails, catching the eclectic variety of contrasting wildflowers lining the elegant long straightaways. 

CREW Bird Rookery Swamp Trail

To find my favorite place at CREW Bird Rookery Swamp Trail (BRS), you’ll have to hike the whole thing, so if you’re down for the distance this is a full 12-mile loop. In fact, if you hike the whole thing and you’re considered a Looper cause let’s face it, you have to be a little loopy to do that (in a good way)! I recommend starting the loop clockwise, so after crossing the boardwalk and past the curve north at the large lakes, head west (or left) at the only fork in the trail. At this point, you will see a new “you are here” sign at trail marker B (don’t forget to hydrate). 

Now comes the fun and exciting dance I like to call the alligator-side-step, part of the enthralling section heading west between trail markers B and E . I think it’s best to get there early because the early bird avoids the alligators. After all that side-stepping, it’s quite relaxing to take a break at the lake, next to trail maker E. Sit, relax, enjoy a snack break – you’ve earned it! For those long-distance hikers willing to continue, you’re in for a treat, as this next portion is my favorite place on the trail, which you can also access from CREW Flint Pen Strand’s Purple Trail! For those of you ready to call it a day, trail marker E makes for a great turn around point. 

Are you still with me? Good! This section is amazing! Continue walking toward the northwestern curve of BRS, from trail markers E to D. This is a beautiful place where your eyes get a break from the sun under the dense verdant cypress trees arching high above. Preludes to this section are foreshadowed earlier along the trail, with the first cathedral-like corridor of cypress trees buffeting the raised railroad bed between amber swamp water on either side. Still, nothing compares to the density of this northwestern section of enormous cypress stands mixed with pond apple, maples and magnolia trees. Stop and take it all in!

The northwestern curve of the loop trail, which is essentially as far from civilization as one can get on a trail around here (outside of the Fakahatchee), will transport you beyond your day to day existence and allow you that moment of pause that happens at a truly beautiful vista. However, this place has no mountain view; instead it boasts a sensational overload of lively trees dripping with color, screaming with cicadas above and choruses of frogs below; mix in the whispers of warblers and you’ve got yourself (arguably) the best show in town. Reaching this far corner of wilderness is an empowering experience not for the faint of heart.  

CREW Flint Pen Strand Trails

Another of my favorite places is located at CREW Flint Pen Strand, on the section called the Yellow Trail North. During the rainy season this is like one huge lazy river- so splash in the seasonal sheet-flow of water cascading through the dwarf cypress forest, which starts just north of where the trail stops hugging the Kehl Canal. The dendrochronologist (tree lover) in me wonders at these cypress trees’ diminutive stature; with basically nothing to hold themselves up, they hold on. How they hover on spindly, sometimes hollow trunks buttressed by their neon-lichen painted skirts exploding with cardinal tillandsias swinging from their branches baffles my mind! I highly recommend you return to this trail at least twice a year, once in the rainy and once during the dry season to appreciate the dwarf cypresses and their fragile-by-appearance-only buttresses surviving in the sugar-sand, waiting for the waters to return, but thriving nonetheless. 

CREW Marsh Trails

At CREW’s oldest trail system, the CREW Marsh Trails (CMT), you’ll always find a diversity of ecosystems, wide open trails and a little more infrastructure than at the other trail systems. However, at CMT it’s the single-track section that winds through the pop-ash and oak trees of the southwestern loop on the Green Trail that captures my heart. My favorite way to navigate to this favorite place along the Green Trail is to approach it from the north. Head past Suzanne’s Pavilion, past the south-facing Blue “short-cut” Trail and around the dry gopher habitat until you’re forced to walk single file. That’s where the trail narrows and the trees grow. Enormous oaks dwarf your tiny little human body and give you that sense of wonder that accompanies forest exploration. Slosh through the muddy water in the wet season and revel in the brightly colored mushrooms reaching from the fallen limbs overwhelmed by carpets of green moss, resurrection ferns and “troll ponytails” (AKA shoe-string ferns). This is a trail that gives the sensation of forging a new path, as you carefully plan each step – looking up, down, side to side with every single step.

It’s special to take pause and stand witness to the innumerable special places at CREW. Maybe appreciate that place where ecotones exemplify the jargon that defines them (an ecotone is a transition area between two biological communities) such as enjoying that first overflow of water spilling from one marsh to the next during the rainy season. Take your time and you may find that you like to see the early wildflower buds ready to bloom, knowing what they will become, so you can plan your next hike to correspond with the future flowery-fireworks show! Whatever your favorite place or thing may be at CREW, we’re glad you continue to come back for more throughout each Florida season.

What’s so invasive about that plant?

by Allison Vincent

Urena lobata, Caesar’s Weed

When you visit the CREW lands you’ll come across invasive plant species, and whether you’re aware of them or not, they’re there! Some invasive species are beautiful, like the caesar weed, and you might find yourself wondering why the land managers have it out for them. What could a few plants possibly do to impact the broader ecosystem? 

Let’s begin with a few definitions, because invasive species are best understood by discussing the meaning of native and non-native and their interactions with humans. The scientific community agrees that native species wandered into an area naturally and long ago – some time during or after the mid 16th century at the time of European contact with the unexplored land across the Atlantic – either by wind, sea, birds, animals or other natural factors. As species expand or contract their native territory, they go through a process called “range change”. The native species then go about the process of adapting to the changed ecosystem, which in geographic terms was a feat considering that much of Florida was once the bottom of the ocean. 

Non-native species, on the other hand, are introduced to a new environment either intentionally or by accident. The distinction in defining invasive takes non-native issues one step further because invasive species, in addition to being introduced by humans, often pose an environmental or economic threat and may cause harm to humans.

Still, what exactly is so negative about the impact of these invasive plant species, given they all make oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide? These tough questions are outlined by land management professionals who rely on current science to categorize the level of impact invasive species have on lands they manage, like the CREW lands. For instance, some invasive species, like the Melaleuca tree, will overtake wetlands and absorb an inordinate amount of water if not treated, which is exactly why they were brought to southwest Florida – to drain the  swamps. 

Melaleuca tree at CREW Flint Pen Strand

In turn, land managers use mechanical, chemical and biological control efforts to manage the spread of invasives, because without naturally occurring factors that limit their impact – like weather, diseases or insect pests – invasive species can disrupt the balance of the ecosystem they’ve supplanted, often out-competing and displacing the native species. The reduction in biodiversity can adversely impact wildlife and alter natural processes such as fire and water flow, all of which directly affect the human population which relies on those same resources.

Let’s talk more about the unintended impact that invasive species have on human populations, specifically in south Florida. Primarily, invasives threaten remaining wetland environments that provide a freshwater recharge of our drinking water sources in the underground aquifers. Native species have had time to adjust to the particular conditions of the Florida environment, so when the wetland composition goes from a natural state to a place overrun with counterproductive species, some of our basic needs – like water and safe shelter – are drastically affected. 

Protecting these wetland areas provides habitat for wildlife that in turn generates billions of dollars a year in expenditures by wildlife enthusiasts, hunters and anglers. The financial benefits of preserving the complicated ecosystems of south Florida are well documented and worthwhile. Without the wetland environment to slow the flow of rainwater so that it can be absorbed into the ground and replenish the drinking water supply in the aquifers, Florida would not be able to sustain its current significant population, much less what we expect to see in the future. 

The CREW Project began watershed preservation in the late 80s and the CREW lands will continue to be preserved in perpetuity. Several large scale projects, like the hydrologic restoration project completed at CREW Flint Pen Strand and the ongoing CREW Marsh trails restoration focused on carolina willow, provide visible examples of the land management process you can witness in person on the trails over time. The 60,000 acres of CREW preserve land for water retention, wildlife and all the other ways these important resources overlap. To protect this land and the water it stores for the next generation we all must partner to fund this preservation, to protect it, and to educate everyone about it.

Youth hiking CREW Flint Pen Strand through hydrologic restoration area.

Wet Walk 101

by Allison Vincent

CREW Flint Pen Strand trail during the rainy season

Walk the seasonally wet trails of CREW for an education in watersheds! Join our education coordinator, Julie Motkowicz on any of the four upcoming Wet Walks – each at a different trail location. We’ll give you a list of what to wear and what to pack at the bottom of this, but first we want to go over a few “W’s”, such as why would I ever want to take a wet walk?

What is the appeal of a Wet Walk?

One of the many joys of a wet walk

Imagine hiking down a lazy river, one with pure nature surrounding you, shading you from the sun and cooling your calves with the fresh rainwater from the days before. Have a picture in your head? This genre of adventurous outings never gets old. Plus, it has a feeling of accomplishment, like reaching a summit, when you complete an out-of-your-comfort-zone wet walk, no matter how many times you’ve been in the swamp.

What about alligators, or worse, mosquitos?

While we can’t ever guarantee that you’ll have a mosquito-free hike, or never see an alligator sunning, we can guarantee that you are only on the menu for one of those top Florida predators’. So bring some bug spray just in case and try to enjoy the prehistoric majesty of our resident dinosaurs. They’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone.

What if you’re not ready to go it alone? 

School groups at CREW Marsh trails

The excitement of a wet walk is fanned in a group of like-minded enthusiasts and you can benefit from the interpretation of our guide and the comfort of camaraderie. This otherworldly feeling can be yours, all within a relatively short drive to one of the CREW trails this summer.

So, what should I expect, you ask? 

To get wet, for one! Verdant landscapes with bromeliads and various air plants, quiet soundscapes muted by water, and probably very few reptiles (sorry, not sorry). 

CREW trails wet walk tour

Lastly, what to wear and what to pack:

  • We recommend wearing old sneakers – always close-toed, as they drain and dry more quickly than hiking boots. However, if you are more comfortable in boots, that’s just fine. Steer clear of waders and tall water-proof boots, as the water inevitably finds its way over the ledge and they’re heavy. 
  • Long pants that dry quickly are going to be more comfortable than heavy pants or shorts. 
  • Long sleeve shirts will help protect your skin from brushing against plants and from the sun on the return journey when the rays are more harsh. 
  • Hat
  • walking stick – if you don’t have a walking stick we will provide one
  • camera in a waterproof bag
  • Pack enough water for the wet walk, sometimes splurging on a flavored electrolyte pouch in your water will save the day. 
  • Bring snacks too, in case you need a little pick-me-up to move those quads through the extra weight of the water. 
  • The rest is up to you! 

Horseback Riding on the CREW Trails

By Allison Vincent, CREW Trust Communications Director

Equestrians at CREW Cypress Dome trails

Have the equestrian trail rules changed? Not exactly, but there has been some need for clarification. The CREW lands, managed by the South Florida Water Management District in partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision (FWC), have designated two trail systems available for riding. Two equestrian access points are available to riders, including one at CREW Flint Pen Strand main parking lot for the Yellow trail North and South, and the other at CREW Cypress Dome trails. Trails were designated for equestrian use based on several parameters, including the impact horses have on various ecosystems, including sensitive wetlands. 

To help make these rules easier to navigate for our equestrian riders, the language was updated on the special use license (SUL), the permit required to ride, including a map with more specific instructions for each trail location. Additionally, for the protection of the preservation lands, especially the wetlands, brown signs have been installed along the trails at CREW Flint Pen Strand aimed as a last effort to remind riders of the boundaries patrolled by FWC law enforcement. 

You might be wondering why aren’t all the trails accessible to equestrians? This is a complicated question, but ultimately it comes down to the long-term protection of the 60,000-acre watershed and the role preservation plays in the recharge of the local aquifer where our drinking water is extracted. Understandably, horses cause more disturbance to the land on which they tread than the average hiker, especially in sensitive areas throughout much of the CREW Flint Pen Strand trails. Which is why hikers won’t find equestrian riders in wetland and marsh areas such as the new Purple trail and lakes area of the CREW Flint Pen Strand trails, nor will they ever be seen on the CREW Bird Rookery Swamp tram. However, when you share the multi-use trails available to horseback riders, like the Yellow trails North and South, please be sure to yield to the horses.

Thank you to all our equestrians for pulling permits and staying on the designated trails. Your cooperation ensures the conservation of these CREW lands for future generations. We hope you enjoy the equestrian trails at CREW Flint Pen Strand and CREW Cypress Dome trails. 

Permit Required:

  • Learn pertinent information about equestrian riding trails by going to crewtrust.org/horseback-riding
  • Permits provide you with legal permission from the South Florida Water Management District with the Special Use License
  • Register yourself through the SUL page and pulling permits becomes quick and easy

Geocaching at CREW

by Allison Vincent, CREW Trust Communications Director

Geocache Day April 24, 2021 at CREW Marsh Trails, 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. Register here for this event as space is limited.

Geocaching is an any day, anytime­­ adventure that can take you to amazing and beautiful places or even just to a place in your town that you’ve never been before! That’s the introductory hook of the “What is Geocaching?” video on the Geocaching website, Geocaching.com, that captures the excitement and universal enjoyment of Geocaching adventures. The caches at CREW fit neatly into the “amazing and beautiful places” category with 122 active caches!

What is Geocaching you might ask! Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunt using GPS-enabled devices to locate your geocache. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location. These containers vary greatly in size and appearance. In the field you will see everything from large, metal cases, a fake stump with a hidden compartment, to a coconut with a film canister sized hole drilled out. First thing you need to do is get a general idea of the cache’s size from the cache page then narrow down your search with the location point. When you arrive at your coordinates, put down your GPS device and look around for the cache. Think to yourself, if I were to hide a cache, where would I put it?

Many individuals, families and friends start Geocaching because they like to get out in nature and experience places they would never have seen before with a purpose in mind. Geocaching brings that extra layer of motivation that gets all ages out the door exploring. Often Geocaching includes solving puzzles, searching for clues and answering riddles that challenge you to see your environment in a new way. When you go Geocaching get ready to challenge yourself in a mental exercise, in addition to a physical one! It’s literally active problem solving! Geocaching also lends itself to seeing a place like a local, often embracing insider knowledge of an unknown area. So, get out there, visit new spots like a local and discover incredible places like the CREW trails through fresh eyes!  

Q & A with Pete Corradino AKA JunglePete of Everglades Day Safari

What originally got you into Geocaching?

In 2004, I was working as an environmental educator for the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. I had befriended a man on one of my programs who was an avid hiker and was looking to go on a 4-mile excursion to a half-frozen waterfall. He needed someone to accompany him for safety reasons and so I volunteered. During the 2-mile trek up to the falls he revealed his primary purpose for the hike, but I was sworn to secrecy. I was a bit concerned he was going to push me over the falls, but he turned out to be an active geocacher in the early years of the sport. Here we were, only four years after Geocaching was invented, creating one of only a few thousand geocaches hidden around the world! It’s named “between a rock and a hard place” and was placed in 2001 – just a year after geocaching started and it’s still active! While the idea of finding a hidden container in the woods and logbook to write of your adventure was intriguing, the most important thing to me was that it brought me to this place – Lye Brook Falls and I have this story to retell. It set me off on thousands of adventures in the US, Canada and Ecuador, everyone with their own story!

Do you have any advice for new Geocachers?

Go to events! You’ll meet interesting, weird, goofy, fun, adventurous people and that leads to crazy new adventures too. I’ve met some of my best friends through geocaching including Milla and Dick (Nolehawks) who are like surrogate grandparents to my kids. I would also say enjoy “the numbers”, the statistics that you accumulate over time, but appreciate the experience (good and bad) that comes from finding these hidden treasures.

Tell us your best geocaching story.

During Hurricane Irma we evacuated to Pikeville, Tennessee where my family lives. They brought us out to Fall Creek Falls State Park which has spectacular waterfalls and scenic views along a mountain ridge. There are a few caches in the park, but Piney Creek Falls was my favorite and probably the most dangerous one I have found. I had to cross a swinging bridge that traversed a small chasm. From there my 7-year-old son and I descended to the river, made our way across cold, wet rocks and then removed our socks and shoes so we could make it the rest of the way across the river. Once we had our socks and shoes back on, we climbed 20 feet up a cliff landing where my son sat with my camera taking pictures of me as I climbed another 20 feet straight up above the river to find a cache that was tucked into a rock ledge. It was quite the adrenaline rush and fortunately my son didn’t have to record me plummeting to my death on my birthday while retrieving a cache.

What type of gear works best?

I use my iPad and iPhone which is limited by cell service and battery life. I bring backup charging bricks to keep them charged for long excursions. Tweezers are good to retrieve paper logs that get stuck in the container and replacement paper and plastic baggies are helpful to maintain caches that need some love. 

What makes the CREW trails a great place for geocaches?

The poison ivy! The green briars! The rattlesnakes! I absolutely love the CREW Marsh trails, the CREW Cypress Dome trails and the CREW Bird Rookery Swamp trails. We have had so much fun placing over 400 caches over the last 13 years. We can’t wait to put caches out on the CREW Flint Pen Trails! The thing that I love about these trails is I can hike for miles in solitude and each location has its own unique beauty. I love the dew-covered spider webs in the morning, the Zebra Longwings roosting before sunrise, the cypress dome at sunset. I could go on and on but the great thing about the caches of CREW is that it’s an introduction for many people to one of the least known and most beautiful places in Southwest Florida. Once people have visited and found a few caches they want to keep going and explore every nook and cranny including the Wild Coffee Trail, the Pop Ash Trail and even the service roads! I’ve seen bears, painted buntings, armadillos and so much more on those service roads and yes rattlesnakes and poison ivy. 

Why should I come to Geocache Day at CREW?

Attending events is a great way to meet new people who share the same interest in geocaching. It brings together people that might not ordinarily meet and most importantly it brings everyone together to explore! This might be the first time that someone visits the CREW trails, or they may have been out to every event we’ve done since 2009. Either way we are all in good company! 

Geocache Stats!

The very first Geocaching Event was held at CREW on 5/9/2009
12 Events have been held (4 at the CREW Marsh trails, 6 at the CREW Cypress Dome trails, 2 at the CREW Bird Rookery Swamp trail) and one was cancelled due to COVID.

As of Saturday 4/24/21 there will have been
        290 Traditional Caches
        59 Mystery Caches
        21 Letterbox Caches
        12 Event Caches
        10 Multi Caches
        7 Wherigo Caches
        1 Earthcache

As of Saturday 4/24/21 there will be 122 active geocache
       CREW Cypress Dome Trails – 36
       CREW Marsh Trails – 41
        CREW Bird Rookery Swamp Trails – 45

The Event on Saturday will be the 400th cache!

Thanks to the following geocachers who have placed caches over the years at CREW:

Blue Diamonds – Roger Terrel
FLPirate – Roger Primus
JunglePete – Pete Corradino
Junglito – Theo Corradino
Ecuadorable – MaLe Corradino
Lehigh Mafia – Rob & Staci Johnson
Matkat* – Gary Mangan
Nolehawks – Milla and Dick Voellinger
Pilot searcher – Brian Wylie
rbmotmot – Tim Hall
sandbetweenmytoes – Kris Slagle
Team Crime Scene – Kenny Jenkins
The Wench – Jean Primus


A Lesser-known Squirrel

The Big Cypress Fox Squirrel

By Allison Vincent

The Big Cypress fox squirrel (Sciurus niger avicennia) at CREW Flint Pen Strand

Most of us are familiar with the gregarious tree climber, the grey squirrel, but what do you know about its relative from southwest Florida, the big cypress fox squirrel (BCFS)?

Theirs is the classic story of the city mouse and country mouse, except of course, they’re squirrels. Grey’s a typical synanthrope, or a wild animal that lives near and benefits from human beings, whereas the BCFS is well, more of a hermit, except perhaps when you get them on the golf course.

One can easily tell a BCFS from a grey squirrel by color and size. BCFSs sport an array of colorful coats, commonly with a black jacket running from their head to back and tan sides extending over the belly. However, they can also show a rusty orange or more fully tan. Their most universal color feature tends to be their white ears and white around their nose. BCFSs also have a larger body size when compared to the grey squirrel, reaching up to 26 inches compared to the grey squirrel’s average of 19 inches and under.

CREW visitors are often lucky enough to see BCFSs throughout the CREW trails because these squirrels prefer a habitat mosaic, like the one preserved within the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, including pine flatwoods, cypress swamps, and hardwood hammocks. Prescribed burns greatly benefit the BCFS as they have greater foraging success with broad transitions between ecotones, or the area of transition between two plant communities. Their limited range extends from southwest of Lake Okeechobee and south of the Caloosahatchee River to south Big Cypress Basin.

Mating is thought to occur year-round but mostly around November – February and April – July. The best way to determine if a nest is active is to look for freshly stripped cypress bark on the trunk. BCFSs often build nests starting with a stand of Tillandsia air-plant gathering nesting material near the trunk. Another way to locate BCFSs is to keep an eye out for the remains of the following food items near cypress trees: fruit from pond apple, cabbage palm, cocoplum, wax myrtle, saw palmetto, hog plum and fungi; seed cones from south Florida slash pine and pond cypress.

The future of BCFSs is uncertain, as they face considerable threats to their population as development continues to increase in Southwest Florida. The suppression of fire due to land use changes, such as agriculture and development, causes the understory to grow and make habitat unsuitable. Additionally, changes in hydrological conditions, hunting, poaching, wildlife diseases (like the deadly squirrel poxvirus), predation, road mortality, and hurricanes also affect the species survival. However, projected human population growth in Southwest Florida ensures that habitat degradation, fragmentation, and loss will remain the biggest threat to the BCFS.

The long-term survival of the BCFS is dependent upon the public awareness and support of habitat management projects on private and public lands (like the CREW lands), where the use of prescribed fire, the control of invasive non-native plants/animals, and the maintenance of natural hydrologic conditions are necessary to retain habitat characteristics that benefit the BCFS.

The Big Cypress fox squirrel is protected as a state-threatened species by Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule.

Where Can I See a Big Cypress Fox Squirrel? Although BCFS are rare in natural habitats, you may catch a glimpse of one at any of the four CREW trail systems, although they are most often photographed at CREW Flint Pen Strand. Big Cypress fox squirrels are typically found in their nests within approximately 1 hour of sunset and begin their daily activity approximately 1–2 hours after sunrise. Therefore, the best time to see one is typically between 9:00 am–4:00 pm.

A perfect BCFS nesting perch, however no nest is present in this photo

Fine Feathered Friends Found at CREW

By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust volunteer

You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the birds at all four CREW trail systems, and you don’t need fancy equipment. Just an inexpensive pair of binoculars and the will to get outside and use them.

We consulted with some birding experts to identify birds you’re likely to see throughout CREW. Their best tip for seeing most of the birds named below is to start early in the morning, just after sunrise.

CREW Marsh Trails

Blue jay: A medium size bird with a blue body, black bars on the wings and a crest on the top of the head. Present year-round in Florida. At CREW Marsh Trails, look for them in the large live oaks just north of the tower overlooking the marsh. You may hear them before you see them; they have a variety of loud calls and unique songs.

Red-shouldered hawk: Medium to large size raptor with rust-red bars on its breast and where the wing meets the body. Tends to use the same territory for years, even the same nests. Screeching, repetitive call. This hawk stalks prey from a perch, so look up when you hear that loud call. Found throughout CREW; at the Marsh Trails, you may see them in the pine flatwoods and oak hammocks.

CREW Cypress Dome Trails and Caracara Prairie Preserve

Swallow-tailed kite: All black and white with a sharply forked tail and a four-foot wingspan. Nests in the tops of pine trees in early spring in southwest Florida, migrating from South America. It’s a breathtaking sight to see a group of kites circling and swooping, dropping briefly to skim the surface of lakes to drink or bathe. Listen carefully for their sweet, shrill cries or soft whistles.

Turkey vulture: Red head, white-tipped beak, dark body feathers that resemble those of a turkey. Soars above tree tops alert for freshly killed prey, using both sight and smell to find food. They are a consummate scavenger, cleaning up the countryside one bite at a time. This bird has no song, but it hisses, grunts and growls when eating.

Carolina wren: Medium size bird with a brown crown, white throat, buff-colored or white underparts, rufous-colored back and wings and a distinctive white stripe above the eye. Once paired, they define and maintain a territory and stay together for several years. They raise multiple broods during the summer breeding season. These birds like to hang out in undergrowth and sometimes you have to identify them by their loud, distinctive song which sounds like “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle” or “cherry, cherry, cherry.”

CREW Bird Rookery Swamp

Snowy egret: A small white heron with black legs and a long black bill with a yellow patch at its base; yellow feet (think of them as yellow snow boots to remember their name). At one time the plumes of the snowy egret were in demand to decorate women’s hats and plume hunters decimated their numbers, but now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and their population has rebounded. Snowy egrets wade in shallow water to spear fish and other small aquatic animals.     

Northern parula: Small, compact warbler with blue-gray upper parts and bronze-green back patch. Throat and breast are yellow and belly is white. Winters in southwest Florida. The northern parula feeds on insects and invertebrates; occasionally hovers or hangs upside down on foliage to catch insects in the air. Its song is an ascending “zeeeee-yip”. Fairly common in Bird Rookery Swamp, less common in other parts of CREW, because it prefers the swampy, forested habitat.  

Green heron: Small heron with a glossy, greenish cap and back. Its wings are gray-black grading into green or blue, and it has a chestnut-colored neck with a white stripe. Active during the day, it walks slowly or stands motionless in water to wait for prey, and then it strikes quickly with its daggerlike bill. This heron has been seen to place food in the water to attract fish. Sometimes you’ll see them perched in trees and shrubs. 

CREW Flint Pen Strand

Bald eagle: The bald eagle is the star of the show at Flint Pen Strand, larger and more impressive than other raptors found there. Most of us are familiar with its distinctive look – white head, neck and tail, big yellow bill and dark brown body. Swooping over water, it hunts its favorite prey – fish – and its strong hind talon pierces the fish while the front talons hold the fish securely. Its wing span is six to seven feet. A pair of bald eagles has been nesting around the eastern side of Flint Pen Strand for some years, and lucky hikers are occasionally treated to the sight of a bald eagle soaring overhead.     

Eastern bluebird: Brilliant blue back and wings, with a rusty breast and white underparts. Often seen in open woodlands and clearings; look for them in the northeast corner of the lakes area. It makes its loose nest of grass or plant stems in natural tree cavities, even in abandoned woodpecker holes. Its population declined by 90% in the last century, partly because as trees are felled, it loses its favorite nesting sites. Bird boxes have helped restore the population. 

Woodpeckers: Woodpeckers of all kinds are year-round residents, including red-bellied, downy, pileated and sapsucker woodpeckers. Most remarkable is a sizable population of red-headed woodpeckers, with their solid red heads, black wings and white wing bars. You’ll see them near the southern portion of the red trail, usually hunting insects on dead trees.

Some hints for beginning birders:

Invest in a pair of binoculars and learn how to use them; take along a good field guide like Sibley’s Bird Basics, which will teach you how to identify birds by characteristics; download a good bird identification app like the Audubon Bird Guide and eBird; wear dull, neutral colors to blend into the natural background; and respect nature – don’t step off the trail to get a good picture, and don’t harass birds. If you can, tag along with an experienced birder and don’t be afraid to ask for advice. If you want to start and keep a list of birds you’ve observed, there are many apps that provide guidance and allow you to keep your list on your phone.

More resources on birds:

Cornell Ornithology Lab maintains a web site called “All About Birds” which covers just about everything you need to know to get started and develop your skills. A particularly useful book for this region is Birds of Florida by Fred J. Alsop III. And here’s a cool website:  https://birdcast.info/migration-tools/, where you can follow bird migration in real time all over the U.S.

Please share your best bird photos with the CREW community, on our CREW Land & Water Trust Facebook page or send them directly to Allison@CREWTrust.org.     

Many thanks to knowledgeable birders who contributed to this piece: Jayne Johnston, former education coordinator, CREW Land & Water Trust; Dick Brewer, volunteer naturalist and brilliant citizen scientist; Barbara Centola, CREW Trust volunteer and birder extraordinaire; and Kathleen Smith and Lauren Plussa, biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

Consider a “Wet Walk”

By Allison Vincent, CREW Trust Communications Director

Hiking out on the CREW trails can have a transformative effect, especially during the rainy season. Traversing wet trails evokes something deep within us, an urge to take the road less travelled, to walk quietly in the woods hearing the twigs snap underfoot.

Perhaps it’s some childhood nostalgia that transfixes us. Given the chance to have uninterrupted time in a wild place filled with trees, pools of water, and hidden places can fine tune the ear to the sound of animal footsteps or the wings of a bird.

Even still, some hikers avoid the trails during the rainy season, but why? Let go of having dry shoes and enjoy the cool clear puddles after a rain storm or wade into the tannin-rich tea-colored water on a hot day! Once you make your first satisfying splash there is no turning back!

Another highlight of the rainy season is finding animal tracks in the mud. Our game camera footage and years of wildlife monitoring have shown that many crepuscular creatures are most active in the early dawn and twilight hours before dusk.

Many of the wildlife that call CREW home are elusive but like us all, leave footprints behind. So remember next time you’re on the trail, there is a chance you are walking the same path a wild creature strolled a few hours earlier. Check in the mud, you may catch the outline of a print!

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