I drove west along the Tamiami Trail, the kernel of anticipation inside me growing with each Egret and Heron that I saw and with each glorious transmutation of the Everglades from bright daylight through sunset to the richness of a deep Thalo blue night sky. It was all so different and new; I could barely contain my eagerness to get out of my car and soak it in.
Then I saw the sign-- "Panther Crossing"...
Oh my goodness! Really??!! I pulled over to text a friend about the sign and to say that I hoped I would see a panther. Within minutes she texted back, "Of course you want to see a panther, my dear." My friends know me.
Alas, according to the proprietor of the motel-- a very knowledgeable and helpful outdoorsman, and according to the rangers at the national park visitor center and the woman at the area information center, my chances of seeing a panther were close to zero. There were very few remaining in the wild; they were secretive; their territories were very large, so even if one were in the area, chances were it wouldn't be where I was; you could live in the area for years and never see a panther. Well, I hadn't come here even thinking about panthers, so I would still have a wonderful time birding and adding to my life list. But still... I would keep my eyes open for large cats...
I was staying in Everglades City, a small fishing and crabbing town where the Gulf Coast visitor center to Everglades National Park is located. There was very little traffic, few people, and much wild space-- my kind of place. But, some of the travel guides I'd read had said that one should really go to the other entrances of the National Park rather than this one if time was limited.
I was torn. I wanted to get the most out of my time there, but I loved the area I was in and was loathe to leave it for a busier area. Waffling in indecision, I called a friend to ask for help thinking through my options. She wisely didn't tell me what she thought I would enjoy, but instead asked what I was afraid I would miss. I replied that the guide books said to go to the other places, to which she responded that the guide books are written for standard Americans, and that I am not standard-- that I could find beauty sitting on the curb of a parking lot. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, I knew that I would stay where I was. It felt like the better fit for who I am. I might miss some spectacular birding, but I would enjoy the peace and quiet of the less populated area.
I headed out on dusty Wagon Wheel Road to see what birds I could see in the swamp/sawgrass prairie that extended from both sides of the road. Driving very slowly, stopping often to get out and see birds, I traversed only about 16 miles in four hours. After driving a few miles along the road I looked up to see what appeared to be a person hiking in the distance. As I got a bit closer, I realized it wasn't tall enough to be a person, and I felt a sudden thrill of excitement-- maybe it was a BEAR! I stopped the car and raised my binoculars to my eyes...
Just then the large animal turned and stood sideways in perfect silhouette-- unmistakably a Florida Panther.
I stared in wonder as the panther stood motionless for a minute or two, then watched as he walked off the road and vanished into the trees of the nearby hardwood hammock.
I may have missed some spectacular birding by staying where I was, but I received the gift of a panther sighting, something that will be etched on my mind and soul for the rest of my life.