Tuesday, February 27, 2007

La Cucaracha

Today's mission - Ride along with our lead guide Norman on our trip from Fort Lauderdale.

I put my company credit card to use and stayed overnight in Sunrise, FL at a La Quinta hotel. Apparently "La Quinta" is Spanish for The Quinta. It may mean villa, but their website says it means "accommodating". And for an over-priced, glorified Motel 6 hotel chain, I suppose they are. They were accommodating when I asked to move rooms from the one directly next to the elevator, which even at 11 pm was routinely, if not unrhytmically squealing up and down as I tried to sleep. They were also accommodating when I politely suggested they might want to take care of the roaches. They comped the $130 (corporate rate!) room charge. If I had paid the normal rate I wonder if I would have received a room without a moldy shower curtain or moldy tile?

The tour we do on the east coast shares similarities with the west coast tours, but my favorite difference has to do with the friendliness of the natives. While Purple Gallinules can be found on the airboat ride out west, they tend to be shy and are hard to see, but on the Miccasukee Reservation where I took the ride today, this one (my favorite bird here) came right up. They have iridescent purple, green and blue feathers and huge feet for walking in the marsh. The airboat ride

takes you out to a hammock or island in the middle of the river of grass where a Miccasuke elder sells handicrafts and Pepsi.The reservation is along Tamiami Trail (US-41) that cuts across the Everglades. Further out we stopped at the old Jetport, where in the 60's, the plan was to relocate Miami International (To the middle of the Everglades!). Now it's a mostly desolate "transfer station", but a good place to stop and look for gators and frogs. These two Green Treefrogs were tucked up under a palm frond. It's not easy finding frogs, or any amphibians for that matter. The phosphates, nitrates and pesticides that are dumped into the Everglades have had a serious impact on the populations of most frogs, whose semi-permeable skin absorbs toxins and causes all manner of reproductive issues.

We stopped in at Clyde Butcher's photography studio. I think of him as the Ansel Adams of the Everglades. He does a great deal of black-and-white photography of the area. Here's my best imitation for the day. (not the best i can do....)
We also spotted a Florida Water Snake here. Non-venomous.

The day concluded with a boat ride into the Everglades National Park and the 10,000 islands where we had the luxury of watching Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, ahem, make more dolphins. This video I made shows two males and a female roiling about around the boat. Apparently there is no breeding season and they do this as much for enjoyment as they do to repopulate the species.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Banana Shakes

My grasp of the English language is not 100%. You may have noticed that from my grammatical and spelling errors here. (And thanks to those that point them out.) Still, I think I can say that I am fluent in English. I can curse in Italian and I'm learning Spanish, although slowly. Ma-Le on the other hand is fluent in Spanish, German and English but on occasion, things are lost in translation between her Spanish-speaking mind and my English idioms. Which brings us to today's story.

Right now it's Spring Break in Florida and the roads are packed with rednecks, cottontops and lobster-colored beach revelers. As I've mentioned before, the clogged streets and severe traffic back-ups anger me, my skin turns green and suddenly I'm wearing purple pants (which is a reference to "The Hulk" and not some chemical indicator in my pants that suggests I've wet myself).
Sunday's trip to the beach was no different as it took 50 minutes to travel the 11 miles to Lover's Key State Park on the Gulf of Mexico. As we sat in traffic, I tried not to get infuriated and suggested to Ma-Le that I was trying not to get "Bent out of shape", which she responded to by saying "That sounds delicious". And I suppose it would have been "delicious" for me not to get angry, but what she heard was "Banana Shake" and whether she was subconsciously steering us towards a delicious afternoon dessert or truly misunderstood "Bent out of Shape" for "Banana Shake", I will just leave to her. And now when I sit in bumper to bumper traffic and dream of alternative modes of transportation like floating cars and teleportation, my daydream will include a Banana Shake. It's much better than getting "Bent out of Shape".

Once at the beach, it was a fantastic day of sitting in the sun (with sunscreen on), finding a few geocaches (treasures that are located via GPS and hidden across the globe) and walking the trails in search of wildlife (including more tourist eating Pelicans. I love Pelicans - and not because they eat tourists)

Ma-Le excited about the mama dolphin and her young gliding through the ocean at sunset.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

You Can't Go Home Again

Thomas Wolfe wrote "You Can't Go Home Again". It's a book with a lot of words and no pictures except for the abridged 9th printing that has a picture on the cover. I haven't read it. But judging by the title I would assume that someone did something really bad and probably was not allowed to come home. It was also the first American novel to use the contraction "Can't". I just made that last part up.

In my case, it's not that I can't go home but I probably should not have. Or at least, I should not have returned to the same apartment complex (or "hive") that I lived in in 1999. Things change, and returning can be complicated, which I hear is what Wolfe may have been actually talking about if I had ever read his book.

If you plan to move somewhere that you haven't been in a while, check out Google Earth. It's an amazing program that shows hyper-detailed satellite photos of just about anywhere on Earth. And had I done so, I might have noticed, not only the 4 baseball fields they've built a mere 100 feet from the complex, complete with megawatt light towers that could illuminate the dark side of the moon, but just to the west (and I mean by another 100 feet) is a huge sewer treatment plant!

Even if I could interpret satellite photos I may not have been able to discern the function of these buildings from Google orbit. But what the eyes can not make out in the photos, the nose can however (not from photos...or my computer screen...that smells like the cat who likes to sleep on the laptop when I walk away). On gusty nights when the wind blows to the south your olfactory senses are greeted with a none-too-pleasant fecal breeze. It's not something you can complain to management about. Well, you can, but what can they do? Maybe Glade can make a mammoth "SeaBreeze Plugin"? I would employ my tried and true motto - "When life gives you lemons, find someone to throw lemons at", but it doesn't seem to work in the case of raw sewage. Or I can just count down the days till the end of my lease and spin the amenities provided here at the hive to any guests that "fully-treated waste water is generated right next door!"

You can go home again, just make sure you scour the satellite photos next time for abattoirs, shooting ranges, clown colleges and bunny catapults. They'd all be deal breakers for me.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Too many people. Too much development. Too many cars. Too many traffic lights. Makes Pete angry! Want to SMASH! I've been practicing meditation while driving lately. I need to relax. A 9 mile drive to work takes nearly 30 minutes and there are over 36 lights on my way to pick up the eco-tour van. I try not to stress. I've even resorted to punishing myself for cursing. Ma-Le gets $1.00 for every really bad word I shout out. (If she hears it - she tunes out my rage!). There are nearly as many people in Lee County (565,000) where I live than all of Vermont (860,000). And the population increased 24% since 2000. Not good.

But the trade off includes beautiful beaches and amazing parks. Work today included scouting Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary for my trip on Saturday. We're taking bigwigs from the largest insurance company in the world and I need to make sure it goes smoothly. So it was walk the boardwalks as if I had a tour and see how the time goes. In the span of 1 hour and less than one mile of strolling down the Bald Cypress shaded boardwalks I spotted 6 baby Raccoons foraging in the swamp (I called them baby acoons when I was little).a juvenile Night Heron, 2 River Otters (one dove under the vegetations and spooked a flock of Ibis) and an American Bittern - doing what they do best, rocking back and forth like the plantlife to blend in. And for Mr. Charbonneau's delight, a nice 4 foot Yellow Rat Snake. Joe hates snakes. (This one didn't bite me).

This was my first day back at Corkscrew in almost three years (since the VINS Teen Eco-Trip in 2004) and I was disappointed to see so much development along the way. I'm not sure when it will stop. You'd think hurricanes and tornadoes would give people pause when they consider coming here. I'm grateful we have these places for wildlife but they're running out of room. The woodstorks are not nesting this year at the Sanctuary and that's a sign that food is not abundant enough to even think about raising chicks. Frustrating. Everyone that comes to Florida should be required to experience the beauty of this place. This is the real Florida. Sadly, it's disappearing and I wonder how many people that live here today have ever even seen it.
My sister Mandy thinks this stuff is depressing. She wants less sad and more happy. So here is a bonus picture of her crying (circa 1975). More for my amusement. And yes that is me in a blue leisure suit.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Man-eating Pelican terrorizes beach

Through the 40's and 50's, the pesticide DDT was used to control mosquitoes, lice and midges. The diseases they carried (malaria, typhus, etc) were effectively controlled if not eradicated throughout the developed world and DDT is still used in 3rd world countries across the globe. While the chemical did the job it was intended, it also had the unfortunate consequence of bioaccumulating in the food web if not outright killing unintended species. Bats, birds, fish and other predators that fed on sprayed arthropods (insects and arachnids) ingested DDT which was then stored primarily in fatty tissues. Animals that preyed upon them ingested greater concentrations of DDT and as it continued up the food chain, the high level predators were consuming toxic and potentially fatal amounts of the nasty chemical.

For birds such as Bald Eagles, Osprey and Brown Pelicans, one of the resulting effects of this noxious condiment was thin egg shells that under the weight of an incubating adult, were often crushed. This led to higher egg mortality and population crashes across their range during the 60's, 70's and 80's. Al l three of these piscivorous (fish-eating) birds were nearly extinct by the late 70's. The ban of DDT in the US in the 70's began the slow recovery of these and other species that were effected by the chemical.

DDT is still produced and sold to mostly tropical countries where it's used to fight typhus and malaria and sadly still has the same effect on the environment.

Today, Brown Pelicans abound along Florida's coasts. The trouble they have today is that they are so well loved and so often fed by locals and tourists, that in many places, it's not uncommon to find 25-30 foot tall Brown Pelicans stomping around piers and sinking fishing vessels. Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
Fortunately they only eat tourists which leads to high levels of sunblock bioaccumulating in these man-eaters. The two individuals in the left hand corner were gobbled up just after this photo was taken. The brown headed ones - pictured below - are the juveniles. The white-headed ones - pictured above - are the adults.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sneaky Pete presents: I Spy

How better to judge your competition than to see first hand what they do. Don't tell anyone, but the boss sent me on a mission - pretend to be a tourist for a day and go on the competition's tour to see how they compare. My character was a wildlife biologist from Vermont who teaches kids about the natural history of New England. My back story? I've been in town for a week and a half and want to know more about the Everglades. I also mentioned my friend Susan just had a baby (Brooke) last week, just to add a flourish to my charade. I think that just came off sounding weird. She really did have a baby. I should call her. But I digress.

The trip started at 8 am with a 9:30 am bathroom and breakfast stop at McDonald's. I wasn't loving it. We finally made it into the Everglades at 10 am and started with a walk in the famous Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, just like my company's tour. It's a 1.5 mile walk into the cypress swamp on a boardwalk that leads out to a "gator hole" where a mama gator was protecting her 15-20 young. Apparently Hurricane Wilma blew all of the mosquitoes away 2 years ago, but a recent hatch of Lubber Grasshoppers dotted the ground with hundreds of these little guys. The guide said they are an invasive, exotic species - but they're native!
Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea guttata)

This one reared up in a defensive posture to look more menacing. It's smaller than the size of a dime. I wasn't fooled. Once they molt and turn to adults, they have a much different paint scheme.

In the afternoon we took an airboat ride in Everglades City, the tiny port on the western edge of the glades. This airboat is more of a thrill ride, whizzing through the mangroves at 35 mph. It's a lot of fun, but you don't see as much of the wildlife. Well maybe except for this guy who gets fed by the guides. (Which is illegal) Tell me he's not cute?

Raccoon (Procyon lotor)

To complete the ruse, I posed with the alligator. I don't think I ever slipped up and didn't tell a lie until the end when I was asked when I was going home (tomorrow I said - when in fact i went directly home). I think my pasty white alligator-belly tan helped my disguise.
In the end, our trip has two boat rides, our airboat ride is better, lunch comes with the tour and our guides are the best! We see way more wildlife too! Who wants a tour with Everglades Day Safari?

Sunday, February 11, 2007


In the world according to Bill Schreiber there is one commandment. "Don't do bad things". In the Everglades you need to add at least one more. "Don't do dumb things".

Thursday was my first solo trip in 6 1/2 years and part of the experience for the guests is an "interactive" reptile show, where they may delicately handle the baby alligator and or various docile snakes. Docile can mean they are actually pleasant to handle or chilled enough to not do much about being handled. Thursday was warm enough that all of the snakes were active and many were draped like Christmas tinsel on the lone ficus tree in the exhibit. My job is simple enough. Avoid the feisty baby crocodile, extract the baby alligator and retrieve a few snakes to display for the guests. Easy enough, but in front of a crowd of onlookers, I stepped down the step ladder into the snake exhibit, whacked my head on the roof of the cage and slipped into the pool of water below where an infant crocodile hissed disapproval. Embarrassed, I proceeded to grab the 18 inch baby gator and all was well.
(Please note the terribly tacky "Florida shirt" that was gifted to me by the VINS staff. You may never see it again!)
Keep in mind, all of the snakes in this exhibit are non-venomous, but they are resting in the sun and enjoying it like any Floridian would, so to be dragged from their peaceful rest can't be how they expected their day to go. Regardless, I did my best to extract the Yellow Rat Snake from the ficus as a woman asked the question "Will they bite?" To which I responded "Anything with teeth will bite, including my niece!" (I'll let my sisters figure out which niece I'm referring to). The key to handling these snakes, is to not hold them directly behind the head. I held it behind the head, and the terrified snake bit me. It did not hurt. It felt like a small scratch and produced a drop of blood. I was embarrassed more than anything. The snake was only defending itself. Later in the day it itched, but I discovered a very small tooth had been left in my skin. I removed it and was fine. I should have simply grabbed the snake and let it coil in my hands. Lesson learned. For some reason no one wanted to hold the snake after that.

Red Rat Snake (held improperly!)

I did suggest that my website "staff photo" would be taken with the aforementioned tacky shirt but opted for another look. I know I ate Arby's and Krispy Kreme donuts on my trip south to Florida, but does my hat make me look fat in this photo? My shirt was billowing in the 15 mph wind so I look like a bit chubbier than I am. Excuses excuses.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Stay a safe distance from gators and snakes

Excellent advice from Morgan and Jack's mom. And that's the trick to guiding in the Everglades. You have no choice but to get very close to alligators, snakes and all sorts of seemingly dangerous plant and wildlife. So I found great humor in this advice as it came on a day when I was training to use the educational snakes and gators at Lake Trafford.

The lake (click for map) is the northwest headwaters of the Everglades and has more alligators per acre than any place on earth. There are well over 1000 of them and this is where we take our airboat ride. I don't think it's possible to find a better airboat road as this outfit takes you back among the Alligator Flag and cattails into places no normal boat could possibly go. The air or fan boats, having a 250 hp engine and a fan above the water and at the back of the boat pushes you across water, mud, grass and occasionally gators (this does not hurt them, nor does the sound seem to bother them as they rarely move when visited). This is one lake you don't want to fall into. It's one thing to fall into a cold Vermont pond (like VINS home schooler Alex B. might do) but another to fall into the muck and gator filled lake here in Immokalee, FL. Although gators have caused less than 20 deaths to humans in the last 50 years in Florida, the swamp stink alone should be a natural deterrent to inadvertent tumbles overboard.

The airboat ride is the highlight of the trip, but we do an educational, hands-on reptile program with American Crocodiles, American Alligators, Corn Snakes, Yellow Rat Snakes, Water Snakes and Indigo Snakes. The Indigo is an Endangered Species and most likely collected to the point of extinction. They live in upland areas and co-habitate with Gopher Tortoise.
Indigo's have smooth, glassy skin and the males have an abundance of red/orange around the head. This one is obviously a male. They don't often bite, but I'm a coward and thus the face.You can also determine their gender by investigating their cloaca, but the head coloration works best with Indigos. :)

Indigo Snake Drymarchon corais

To safely handle an alligator, as anyone should do, you have to grip them behind the head and hold their body tight. They can thrash and use their tail as a whip. The bite however can be very painful regardless of the size. The smaller they are, the sharper the teeth. But the older they get the duller. The problem is, the bite of an alligator older than a few years has amazing crushing strength, so being bitten by either is not good. This one is close to 2 years old. Alligators have rounded snouts and yellow and black banding when they are young.

American Alligator Alligator mississippiensis

Alligators were once endangered in the US. Now there are well over 1 million in Florida and can be found in just about every body of fresh water around (even swimming pools) with perhaps the exception of the Winn-Dixie storm run-off pool near my house. There is a turtle living in it though. More on him another time.

This silly project of mine is being read on 5 different continents. If you know of anyone in Africa or Antarctica that would like to read of my wild adventures, feel free to pass along the link to them or anyone else for that matter. Especially anyone who has ties to TV producers at the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet. hehe

all photos © Pete Corradino

Sunday, February 4, 2007

What's that Smell?

I woke up this morning to a fun game of "What's that smell?" The offending odor smelled not unlike burnt dog hair and there was an unrecognizable hum that I have yet to hear in my first 4 days in this apartment. Anything that smells as if something is aflame rouses me from sleep instantly. Not to worry. It was just the heat kicking on for the first time. Yes it does get cold in southwest Florida. Apparently someone forgot to close the window and it got down to 53 degrees inside overnight.

It's my last day of "vacation" so I decided to get away from the moving boxes and get out into the Florida cold. There's a great little town park called Six-Mile Cypress Slough, a good spot to walk the boardwalks, get back into the sub-tropical wilderness and brush up on my natural history before my first eco-tour into the Everglades on Monday.

It warmed up to 60 degrees, just below average for February in Fort Myers. On a cold, cloudy day, i didn't expect to see this curled up hoping for some sun.

The Water Moccasin or Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) is one of several poisonous snakes found around here. I'm still looking to get confirmation as there are other non-poisonous species that mimic the Cottonmouth. But the large head and alternating light and dark bands suggest that this 2-footer is a juvenile. As an ecto-therm or cold-blooded reptile, snakes need external warmth to warm themselves so this one, although a few feet away, was not in a peppy mood.
On my way out, Mr. Dumbleton (my generic name for any numbskull) and his spawn had broken off Cypress branches and were lookin' to "whack that ugly snake". I'm sure they weren't bright enough or observant enough to spot the beautiful snake, resting on a cypress stump near the boardwalk.

Feel free to leave comments - I get to approve them....but you're welcome to say what you'd like (within reason - I'm looking at you Mr.Sale)!

All Photos © Pete Corradino

Friday, February 2, 2007


I'll start by saying I'm a native Floridian. I was born here. I was raised here. I've spent 24 years in this state. So I feel I have at least two legs to stand on in this case.

There are many things found in Florida that have been introduced; Golf courses, Seven Elevens, Geckos. It's hard not to look around and see these exotic and invasive things. Melaluca trees were introduced from Australia to drain the wetlands decades ago. Dozens of exotic fish species have been dumped into local rivers and lakes. Even Dunkin Donuts have made their way to the corners of several strip malls down here. Florida has become a zoo of exotics.

Today I was a victim of a home invasion by one such exotic. Upon entering my apartment, a Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei) raced between my feet and ducked in among the stacks of boxes. If a cat chasing a mouse is entertaining (if not horrific for the mouse), than a cat chasing a lizard is even more exciting. These lizards can shoot straight up a wall - infuriating for felines. I lost track of the 2 inch reptile only to open a box later and have it spring up at me, resulting in an embarrassingly unmanly scream. No one rushed to my help. And I was grateful.

Anoles (pronounced like cannolis - the delicious Italian pastry) are diurnal - or active during the day and not as tasty. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous lizard, normally found in Cuba, the Bahamas and other Caribbean locations has displaced the native Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) which tends to stay off the ground and mostly among the foliage where camouflage serves them well but limits food supply.

Our native Green Anole

The night shift of nocturnal creatures is monitored by the equally invasive Tropical House Gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia) which hails from sub-Saharan Africa. With large eyes and pale skin, these lizards have ridges or lamallae to grip to walls and ceilings and are often found in urban areas in Florida, hanging around near lights where they can prey upon insects that are drawn to the light. This one pictured has staked out a territory and appears nightly, barking or chirping and bobbing its head. It's quite cute despite what seems to be aggressive behavior. I've named him Progressive the aggressive Gecko.

Tropical House Gecko

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Jungle Pete's Wild Ride

A few things that I will never do again-

  • Fall asleep on election night assuming the results are certain
  • Order anything off of the Taco Bell Dollar Menu. Or the regular menu for that matter

  • Seek refuge from a thunderstorm during a canoe trip by huddling under a train trestle

  • Drive a 16-foot rental truck while towing a pickup on a car carrier from Vermont to Florida

It's more than 1500 miles from Manchester, Vt to Fort Myers, FL so what better way to get all of my stuff down south? I don't know, but if I ever move again I figure something else out.

I'm notorious for losing things out of the back of my truck.

  • a giant stuffed teddy bear

  • a 3-foot tall plastic coke-bottle penny jar filled to the top
  • an 80-year old wicker chair heirloom

  • a twin-sized mattress

Don't follow behind me is what I'm saying. So to drag my truck on a carrier was 100% nerve wracking. Followed every safety instruction. Went over them again 2-3 more times. Packed the last of my stuff and away I went.

Somewhere near Binghamton, NY the car carrier began fishtailing resulting in the moving truck doing only what I can describe as "the Penguin", by rocking back and forth so violently that I actually said a prayer. Mostly so whomever had to clean up the wreck that would be my life would not have to ask why someone would be moving 30 year old Tonka Trucks and a vast assortment of pine cones, feathers and sea shells (among other oddities.)
It slowed me down. And I was only going 55, but from that point on, 45 became the standard speed.

In Vermont I had grown accustomed to ignoring weather forecasts, so it made little sense that I was now listening to every local weather forecast as I continued to waddle south. Snow and sleet expected in northern Pennsylvania. Strong gusts in Maryland. And even snow and ice in Georgia of all places. Somehow, while ambling down I-95 and having only the radio to listen to, the repetitive prognostications began to stick in my subconscious like pine sap. But without fail, as I raced along at a Wood Turtle's pace (they're quick for turtles) I left behind a wake of winter misery without ever experiencing the weather myself. Including snow in GEORGIA!

Somewhere in South Carolina I stopped for dinner at Arby's. There are only so many places to park a 16 foot-truck towing an 18-foot trailer. And who doesn't like their sweet BBQ sauce. Come on! Apparently not many since it was just me and a trucker dining in that night. If the trucker noticed me enter I wouldn't know. He was transfixed to Chris Matthews on Hardball (why this was on in the Arby's is a mystery). This man must have been 300+ lbs, tattoos up and down his arms, huge beer belly and a descent set of jowls. He watched intently until I sit a few tables back and then whirled around, looked directly at me and in Cracker (his word, not mine) says "sdhfldfhfvlhsd Hilary Clinton". I can only assume what he said was not nice so I tried to counter with a "time for change" or "there are a lot of candidates and we only have 21 months left to figure out who will be able to leap the low bar that has been set". But he would have none of it. The man poured his heart into a 15 minute diatribe on why this country needs a woman President and if elected the world will stand at attention out of respect and fear for one of the greatest trial lawyers in the country! All while I finished a beef n' cheddar. mmmm. Never make assumptions. Crackers can be left-leaning and faux roast beef with cheese whiz can be tasty.

In 1500 miles I never passed a single moving vehicle. It was a long, slow process but the cats and I made it in only 3 days. Oof.

Arriving meant only that I now had to unpack the 16-foot truck. At least I wouldn't have to move the 100 lb 3-foot tall plastic coke-bottle penny jar. So intent was I to unpack that I neglected the one rule of Florida. one rule....sunblock. So though I may say to the jealous hordes in the great white north that it is sunny, breezy and 77 degrees, it also stings a little. Curses to the bald head.

Sunset on Sanibel Harbor