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NAPLES, Florida — The bird enthusiasts gathered near the backdoor of the Blair Audubon Visitor Center were oblivious to the world around them.

They stood transfixed, cameras and binoculars in hand, eyes darting from the small water fountain directly in front of them, the four bird feeders and the rose bushes adjacent to the building. They were awaiting the appearance of a painted bunting, a veritable rainbow of feathers, roughly the size of a house sparrow.

Eventually, the bunting made a cameo appearance, setting off a celebration usually reserved for a winning lottery ticket.

The painted bunting is just one of the hundreds of attractions at the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The 13,000-acre sanctuary has been under Audubon control for 64 years. The sanctuary was formed in response to the plume hunting industry that nearly wiped out various species of wading birds like the great and snowy egret and a logging industry that was decimating the cypress habitat near Naples.

The Audubon Society bought the land in 1954 and turned it into a sanctuary. The facility draws nearly 100,000 visitors each year. The centerpiece of the sanctuary is a 2.25-mile boardwalk that takes visitors through five distinct habitats.

“The No. 1 attraction is the ancient forest,” said Beth Preddy, the marketing and public relations director for the sanctuary. “The trees have been there for about 600 years. It is the largest remaining intact forest of bald cypress trees in the world. The forest supports a lot of wildlife. In addition to all the plants and flowers, there are critters and reptiles and dinosaurs and birds, birds, birds.”

The boardwalk passes through a pine forest, pond apple habitat, juvenile bald cypress, old growth forest and marsh prairie.

“It’s an evolution as you walk through,” Preddy said. “It’s so safe. It’s elevated with rails. It’s made of sustainable hardwood. It’s a sanctuary. It truly is.

“The forest and the boardwalk are an incredibly small part of the 13,000 acres. The rest is wetlands. Has a center for the restoration and preservations of wetlands, wildlife and water supply.”

And, late winter and early spring is prime time to visit for wildlife sightings.

“Right now, we’re experiencing a feeding frenzy,” Preddy said. “Because of the heavy rain, we have a lot of fish. What happens is when we start to dry down, the fish congregate into the condensed waters. This draws fabulous numbers and varieties of birds and gators as well. It’s a wildlife extravaganza.”

In addition to hundreds of species of birds, there are opportunities to view alligators, black bears and even the Florida panther. And, that doesn’t take into account the hundreds of plant species.

“The biggest attraction is our super ghost orchid,” Preddy said. “The reason they call it the super ghost. It has multiple blooms. Ghost orchids generally have 1-2 blooms. You can see it from the boardwalk. When that is in bloom, the crowds that come … people fly in from around the world to see it.”

The ghost orchid is in bloom during June and July.

As with most natural attractions, the reasons to visit Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary are as varied as the number of visitors.

“We have photographers, birders and sanctuary seekers,” Preddy said. “People who just want sanctuary. In fact, we have a monthly swamp meditation. People go deep in the forest and meditate. That’s in addition to all our guided walks. We offer complementary guided walks, with admission, at 9:30 a.m. most days.”

Admission is $14 for adults, $6 college students, $4 children 6-18, free for under six, and $10 for Audubon Society members. For more information, call $14 for adults, $6 college, $4 children 6-18, free for under six, and $10 for Audubon Society members.

For more information, call $14 for adults, $6 college, $4 children 6-18, free for under six, and $10 for Audubon Society members.

For more information, call 239-348-9151.


On Twitter: @LesWinkeler​


Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

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