A year of regular hikes on the Marsh Trail revealed the wonders of the marsh, displayed in all its diverse, seasonal extravagance. Here then, for the prospective walker, is a brief account of what to look for and expect as one walks the trail.
JANUARY arrives with crisp, sunny mornings - mid winter on the marsh. Look in the sloughs and wet prairies for wading birds and dabblers; the water should be the right depth for both: herons, egrets, moorhens, teals, limpkins, ibis and more will be present.
Overhead, the graceful tree swallows soar and dip to the motions of the wind. Raptors, such as red-shouldered hawks, kites and harriers might be plying their trades. In the dense wax myrtle paired cardinals, northern mockingbirds, warblers and other songbirds will be hiding.
The wind plays exotic melodies on the water, creating lovely patterns, as the clouds filter a fickle sun - once there, now gone. Aquatic turtles - red bellies, sliders, and others - poke their heads out of the shallows; they are ever watchful for the stealthy, lurking alligators.
Many beautiful plants punctuate the landscape; not as profuse as summer, but still a grand show: look for purple pickerel weed in the water. January is collars-up time on the trail!
FEBRUARY emerges with many of its predecessor's aspects.
Try to spot the purple gallinule tip-toeing about in the spatterdock plants, whose tight yellow blooms always seem on the verge of opening. As the Earth moves on its axis, the sun will be just a bit warmer now.
Look for a few winter butterflies: queen, white peacock, zebra longwing, Gulf fritillary. Most of the monarchs are still tucked away in their trees, far to the south in their migration sites.
Vultures soar overhead, as an occasional anhinga dries its wings before its next dive. February is carry-jacket month in the wetlands!
MARCH rolls in with a stiff breeze, but a much warmer sun. Dragonflies are more comfortable, as they show their flight skills with dives and loops.
Colorful plants will appear now: look for smooth-leafed sensitive brier, shore mallow and a myriad of lovely asters, as well as the tread-softly and moon flowers.
Find the nymphs of the lubber grasshopper, who emerged a few weeks before. They will feed and shed their exoskeletons several times on the way to adulthood; the final product is a sight to behold!
March brings a promise of renewal to the marsh!
APRIL finds much of the water depleted in the wetlands. It seems that all the flora and fauna are awaiting the nourishing, heavy rains that are soon to follow.
Many of the birds who have wintered here will head north to their summer habitats. Butterflies, who have wintered to the south, will be returning. The sun's rays are becoming more direct. Morning and evening are the best times to trek now.
Spring brings a profusion of flowering plants: look for morning glory, primrose, lizard's tail, southern fleabane and an array of other colors. Search for the tracks of raccoon, opossum, mourning dove, egret and alligator on the levees' sandy surface; the gator's tail "drag" looks like a stick was pulled across the trail - find its claw prints on the sides of the "drag."
April brings renewal to the Refuge after the long winter!
MAY is the prelude to summer - its abundance and its heat. The insects own the marsh now, but for those who can brave a trek with sunscreen, repellant and hat, there are abundant rewards awaiting you.
Many flowering plants, dormant until now, show their spring colors: look for wild balsam apple and creeping cucumber, two aggressive vines that produce primrose-like yellow flowers. Elderberry - the wine derivative - blooms all year, but is especially vibrant in May; get close - smell its fragrance!
May is a lovely time to walk!
June - September
JUNE through SEPTEMBER are challenging times for the hiker: insects and heat! When the wetlands are arguably at their most beautiful, the most difficult conditons for walking prevail.
As the bird populations turn to northern climes the wildflowers fill in the gaps. In the sloughs and wet prairies, and along the canals and levees, the marsh is a montage of brilliant summer hues.
With the flowers come the butterflies - you might see over a dozen different types as you walk: Look for the phaon and pearl crescent, dainty sulfur, tropical checkered skipper and a host of others, drinking nectar and looking for their food plants.
Walk early or late; come prepared for the elements. You will remember your summer walk, forever.
Summer on the trail is for the bold and adventurous!
OCTOBER usually brings an end to the heavy rains and extreme heat, as the sun's intensity lessens. The rhythms of the wetlands alter as fall approaches. You might see some passing monarch butterflies en route to their winter migration sites. Look for excavated aquatic turtle nests - with eggs strewn about - on the trail; hungry raccoons are always sniffing and probing with their talented "hands."
By month's end the cypress trees will be dropping their needles; nature's patterns, relentlessly following, in orderly progression. October is the prelude to winter, and comfortable hiking, once more.
NOVEMBER heralds the return of many migratory birds - the start of winter conditions in the Refuge.
The lubber grasshopper eggs are buried in the soil, awaiting their time-honored signal to hatch; but not yet - there will be chilly days ahead. It often feels like summer in the sun, and winter in the shade. A steady breeze cools things down, as fall clouds race before the wind. In a word: magnificent! One is treated to all the splendors of the wetlands in truly perfect walking conditions. The fall blooms are still there; a ripeness prevails throughout the landscape.
Jackets - on; jackets - off, as the clouds dictate the sun's intensity. November is a fine month for a pleasant trek.
DECEMBER can bring chilly winds and lower temperatures for the hiker, or near perfect conditions - winter! Get a weather forecast before setting out. The prudent hiker might want to wait until 10:00 a.m. if the the day is cold; the sun's rays are a comfort now. Hands in pockets; feathers tucked in; fur tousled by the wind. All present note the dramatic comparisons with only a few weeks ago.
A chill breeze tears up the eyes as one gazes through one's field glasses. Those who venture out in summer garb are often soon turned back. A modest display of winter blooms, but many birds to fill in the gaps; much bird activity in the sloughs. There is little humidity. The air smells fresh and clear.
December on the marsh is a thrilling, chilly walk - followed by a hot coffee.
All the months have something special to offer the hiker in the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
I invite you to come and walk; see what you can discover!
Howard Bernstein, Marsh Rover