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FLORIDA BOUND // BIRD HEAVEN

Waiting is the name of the game as a green-backed heron stares intently into the water from an overhanging branch. Still as stone, the heron has not moved for many minutes. Just a few yards away is the bird's entourage _ photographers, birders and other onlookers. The crowd stares intently at the little bird. Finally, something catches the heron's attention, and as it tenses up, so does its audience. WHAM! Its beak strikes the water like lightning. Cameras click frantically and people whisper excitedly.

The heron is successful and promptly swallows a tiny fish. Apparently satisfied, it disappears into the shadows of a mangrove. The crowd casually shifts its attention to a nearby great egret that is also fishing for its breakfast.

And so goes another morning with the birds in Everglades National Park.

The bird show never ends in the Everglades. Of particular interest to observers are the wading birds, perhaps because they are so large. Or maybe it's because of their colors _ from bright white to blues, greens and electric pink.

Practically every species of wading bird in North America can be found in the park. Most are year-round residents. Some are part-time visitors, stopping in the Everglades as part of their annual migration.

Less rain during the winter and spring months dries out the Everglades somewhat, creating pools and ponds that concentrate fish and other bird treats. Two prime areas to view wading birds stalking their prey are the Anhinga Trail and Mrazek Pond.

Near the park entrance is the Anhinga Trail, a pleasant half-mile walk that follows an artificial canal and continues along a boardwalk for a bird's-eye view of the marsh. The trail is so close to the canal that the birds are quite accustomed to their human observers and go about their feeding unfazed. One by one, fish get plucked from the water. Occasionally, spectators' fingers point and voices rise as a bird that was too intent on finding its meal becomes one for an alligator.

At the other end of the park, near the terminus of the 38-mile park road, is Mrazek Pond. In one outing, it is possible to spot more than a dozen species of birds.

This is a great spot to watch fishing techniques peculiar to each bird. Some, such as roseate spoonbills, ibises and woodstorks, probe the bottom for anything that moves. Others, such as egrets and herons, slowly stalk their prey in the shallows or stand motionless and wait for dinner to come within striking distance. Snowy egrets are fun to watch as they fly low and drag their bright yellow feet over the water to flush small fish into the open.

The smallest of the herons, the green-backed heron, would seem to be at a disadvantage with legs shorter than its larger cousins. Nevertheless, it does quite well at catching fish from snags and branches and occasionally ventures into the shallower areas to hunt. With all this feeding going on, one would think that the food supply would run out, but there always seems to be one more fish.

It wasn't always so good for the birds. During the late 1800s, hats decorated with the plumes of various wading birds were quite fashionable. Slaughtered by the thousands, the birds neared extinction.

Plume hunting was eventually outlawed, but the current bird count still lags behind that of the prehunting era. Even today the birds are fighting to survive. Many of the birds rely on the Everglades for survival, but the Everglades itself is struggling to survive.

Much of it has been drained, developed, rerouted and polluted. Attempts are being made to restore it to its more natural state, but it is a slow and expensive process.

For now, there is no immediate danger of losing these feathered wonders. The Everglades is still a big place, with an abundance of wildlife. It is one of the last strongholds for the wild to do its wild things, a place where one can watch the birds go about their lives and wade in the waters.

Marius Moore works in the newsphoto department of the Times. He spends much of his spare time photographing wildlife.

Information from At the Water's Edge: Wading Birds of North America by John Netherton; Explore the Everglades by Mirian Lee Ownby; and "Everglades/Biscayne National Parks," a publication of the American Park Network was used in this story.

IF YOU GO

HOW TO GET THERE: The 1.4-million-acre Everglades National Park is located at the southern end of the Everglades and is bordered on the west by Big Cypress Swamp. From the Tampa Bay area take Interstate 75 south to State Road 951 south. Turn east on U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail), and take the Florida Turnpike south to Florida City. Turn east on SW 344 (Palm Drive) and follow the signs to Everglades National Park.

WHERE TO STAY: There are two campgrounds in the park. The Long Pine Key campground is near the Anhinga Trail, which is near the park entrance. The Flamingo campground, at the end of the 38-mile park road, is close to Mrazek Pond. Also at Flamingo are a marina, park lodge and private cabins. Campgrounds are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Reservations recommended for lodge and cabins. The park is open 24 hours a day. Call (305) 242-7700 for information.

WHEN TO GO: The best times to see wading birds are the first and last two hours of daylight. From November to April you are likely to see the most birds, the best weather and the fewest mosquitoes.

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