Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Living and Dying on State Road 29 - Part II - The Florida Panther

The tide of development continues to lap at the shore of wilderness. There are surges of construction that erode the natural landscape, recede and swell again. As cypress, pine and palm fall to the waves of encroaching bulldozers, buildings rise and along with them warning signs. Watch your speed. Go slow. Wildlife may be present. Did you just hit something?

Panther Crossing signs along Treeline Avenue in Fort Myers and County Road 951 in Naples have disappeared one by one, replaced by speed limit signs. Forests replaced by strip malls.

A sign along State Road 29 in the Western Everglades suggests that only 30 of the Endangered Florida Panthers (Puma concolor) remain in the wild. The actual number is closer to 100 thanks to the efforts of state and federal biologists who introduced eight female Texas Cougars (Puma concolor) to South Florida in 1995. Despite a different common name, the cats belong to the same species and are separated only by the Gulf of Mexico. In fact the cats go by Mountain Lion and Puma in other regions of North and South America. Here in Florida, the last remaining breeding populations east of the Mississippi River struggle to hang on as the relentless waves of humanity lap against their territorial shores.

While the introduction of more genetically fit individuals into the Panther population bolstered genetic diversity in the Florida cats, the problem still remains, Panthers need vast stretches of undisturbed habitat. Males require an estimated 150 square miles and do not tolerate other male encroachment. Biologists believed that enough habitat remained in South Florida to accommodate up to 250 of the big cats.

Unfortunately we lose 10% of the Florida Panther population every year as roads seep like rivulets into cat country. State Road 29 has long been the biggest offender. Year after year vehicle accidents claim the lives of panthers crossing that road. Today, fencing and wildlife crossings help funnel them from one side to another, but where there are no crossings, accidents persist.

Humans can only be fenced out for so long.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Living and Dying on State Road 29 - Part I - The Barred Owl

State Road 29 slices through the Big Cypress Swamp portion of the Western Everglades in South Florida. The two lane highway is also known as Panther Pass and bisects the largest tract of suitable habitat for the endangered Florida Panther. This is where many of them live and this is where many of them have died.

In 1998 the Florida Department of Transportation began constructing wildlife crossings and fencing along the road to assist not only the panthers but bobcats, bears, otters, deer and a variety of wildlife that would otherwise have to risk their lives getting from one side to the other. There are currently four wildlife crossings on SR29. They are essentially bridges for traffic and tunnels for the wildlife and since their inception have been successful in limiting the number of roadkills.

What about the wildlife that can’t use the underpasses? What if you have wings? A silly question? The canals that run parallel to the 45-mile north/south road contain an abundance of fish for wood storks, egrets and other wading birds and from time to time they get struck by cars as flocks take flight and an unlucky bird veers too close to the road. Recently more and more Barred Owls (Strix varia) have been injured or killed along the road and the question is why?

The night hunting owl is occasionally active during the day, but the incidents seem to happen just around dawn. Despite laws against littering, motorists and fishermen continue to discard food and garbage along the roadside. Statewide, Florida D.O.T. spends $10 million a year cleaning up roadside trash. Garbage along the highway attracts rodents, raccoons and other scavengers. Owls feed on rodents and when the silent hunters swoop in for a meal they can end up a roadside meal themselves.

The bird to the left is a resident of the Fakahatchee Strand State Park. The bird on the right was struck by a car as the sun rose in the Everglades.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Letter Bee - The Mexican Clover

It’s hard to say if laziness, divine intervention, or concern/apathy for the environment led me to turn the mower off and leave my lawn alone. Probably a little bit of everything.

Here in south Florida things are still growing. Flowers still bloom and insects still hop, fly and flit across the lawn. During the summer months you can in fact “watch the grass grow” but with shorter days and fewer rain clouds the need to mow has gone from every four days to every three weeks.

As the dry season kicked in a few weeks back, frost-like blooms took over a corner of the lawn. Days passed and the snowy appearance spread. I mowed, but the prostrate plant avoided the whirling blades and left behind a colorful white and violet ground cover. It was beautiful.

The star-shaped flower is Mexican Clover (Richardia sp.), and despite the name may or may not be a native. It is found in Central and South America as well as the southern United States but may have extended its range down into Florida in the last few decades. Some say it was here before the Spanish explorers and deserves native status. Others think it was introduced.

As I mow on this particular Sunday I find myself humming a certain song as I make pass after pass. Each consecutive lap brings me closer to the field of Mexican Clover that covers nearly half the lawn. I watch hundreds of bees dart from bloom to bloom and slurp nectar from the flowers. Monarchs, White Peacocks, Gulf Fritillaries, Buckeyes, Skippers and other butterflies do the same. It’s like musical chairs for insects.
It’s a spectacular site. My lawn is a refuge. My lawn is a cafeteria. My lawn is beautiful.

Native or exotic – the flowers benefit the bees and butterflies. The humming in my head matches the humming of the bees. It drowns out the mower. I hear my mother say to me, speaking words of wisdom – let it be.
I turn the mower off.

Friday, December 3, 2010

PAC-119 - Monarch Watch Part II

Do you like movie trilogies? The first episode is so incredible/profitable that a second episode is rolled out regardless of a cohesive plot. Typically Part II is the dour, depressing, hopeless drama in the saga. A requisite cheery ending is doled out despite the passage of decades/principle actors and we spend endless wasted hours complaining about how it didn’t live up to the initial movie.

I’m warning you now – you will get a Part III. It may be months from now and the main character will be dead.
Our lead is PAC 119, a tagged Monarch butterfly discovered in October of 2010 at the St. Mark’s national Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The conspicuous blue dot on an otherwise orange and black butterfly is relatively unobtrusive to the insect as it bursts in effortless puffs from flower to flower, feeding on nectar. Where this butterfly picked up its tag is a mystery and where it will end up can only be resolved in a suspense filled follow up Part III in 3-D and UV. But for now we know this much, the tag reads:

Monarch Watch
PAC 119
(The coding was changed to protect the anonymity of the butterfly)

The nine millimeter in diameter, adhesive backed tag was placed delicately on top of the mitten-shaped discal cell, a tagging practice that doesn’t impede flight and increases the chance of recovering it. Tagging and recoveries give insights into fly ways, distance traveled, peak migration and survival rates.

PAC 119 is a distinct set of numbers and letters that allows Monarch Watch to track it when recovered. I’ve passed along this butterfly’s location and from here the insect will head south where it will overwinter in a select range of coniferous mountains of Mexico. Unusually harsh winters have decimated the Monarchs hoping to ride out the winter months here and illegal logging is a persistent threat to the 20+ acres of forest that is home to most of North America’s butterfly kings.

So how will our leading lepidopteron fare? Will PAC 119 survive the flight across the Gulf of Mexico? Will it arrive safely at its alpine alcove? Will it succumb in the frigid forest? Tune in next time and see.

Friday, November 26, 2010

South of the Border–Monarch Watch Part I

When I was a kid our family made an annual summer migration from South Florida to Upstate New York and back again in the fall. It was an arduous trek that I liken to that of the Monarch Butterflies that are completing their southern migration as I type.
The circadian cue that prompted our northern departure was an overdose of vitamin D and the ability to roast ants with a magnifying glass at 9 pm in the evening. Too much sun. Time to head north. This was a huge relief for me and my siblings who grew up with no air conditioning. It was also an opportunity to avoid flea season which as I look back now was something that was probably unique to our home.
Our 1200 mile journey required many stops to rest and feed. Monarchs stop at nutrient-rich, nectar-loaded flowers before resuming their flight. We seemingly stopped at every Burger King and Arby’s along the Atlantic Coast.
The return trip was no less exhausting and the ravenous fleas waiting back home made it all the more dreadful, but “South of the Border”, the tacky highway tourist trap between the Carolinas was a refuge, a sombrero-adorned landscape, illuminated like fireflies at night like with festive green and orange lights. To my parents it was a Venus flytrap. They knew they shouldn’t stop, but they couldn’t help it. It meant we were half way home and it made for a fun rest stop full of as much Mexican culture as Arby’s was full of nutrients.
For migrating butterflies there is no shortage of dangers. Windshields, predators and exhaustion surely claim thousands each migration. Not all of them intend to make it all the way south. Some lay eggs and it will be that generation that carries on the migration south.
At the St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s panhandle coastline, the last of the Monarchs are gorging themselves on sugar-rich nectar before casting themselves from the shore and heading across the Gulf towards Mexico. There they’ll ride out the winter before heading back north again.
As I take photos and watch the spectacle of Monarchs, Fritillaries and Buckeyes feeding on salt bush and goldenrods, I search for inner calm as hundreds of no-seeums, aka blood sucking midges, feast on me. I’m reminded of the fleas and as much as I’d love to stay, it’s time to go.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Grizzly Monster - the Grizzled Mantis

After a long nature walk with a group of kids, a young boy asked me “How do you know so much?” and I replied “I don’t know that much, but I’m telling you what I know”. We could learn a million things a day and the world would still be full of amazing mysteries at the moment we draw our last breath.

When I personally discover something I have never seen before I presumptively claim it as a new discovery to science. I have never succeeded in any attempt to name a critter after myself.

We were exploring the Florida Caverns State Park recently and before descending into limestone darkness my wife spotted an insect that looked other worldly. Its chitinous exoskeleton was camouflaged to resemble lichens you’d find on a tree trunk and the body shape looked similar to a cockroach. As I photographed it, the 6-legged creature bowed its back and tilted its triangular shaped head towards me. It made eye contact, giving me the creeps. I feared for a moment that this bug might rear back, launch itself towards me and rip my face off, which it didn't.

I’ve never seen anything like this but it seemed oddly familiar…vaguely recognizable. I motioned to a park ranger who was prattling on about caves, sinkholes, caverns and other giant holes in the ground and asked if he knew what it was. He looked at it with disinterest and continued his subterranean sermon.

I sent the photo to fellow Audubon Guides writer Kent McFarland, who with curiosity, in turn passed the photo around until the strange beastly insect had a name. The Grizzled Mantis, aka Florida Bark Mantis (Gonatista grisea) is native to the southeastern United States. Like a Transformer it can tuck itself neatly into the form you see here or rear back with wings fanned out and front legs up in a defensive posture like other mantids.
So no – not a new discovery – but an absolutely fantastic find nonetheless. I’ll have to keep looking for Junglis Corradinii.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Scratch that Itch

Helping a turtle cross a road is easy. Placing a starfish stranded at low tide back in the ocean is simple. Removing a fishing line from the beak of a pelican is somewhat problematic. Helping a wild snake shed its skin? Sometimes it’s better to let them take care of their wardrobe changes.

I nearly stumbled upon a Gray Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta spiloides) at the lighthouse in the St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Florida’s panhandle. Seemingly unaware of my presence, the six-foot long, foggy-eyed snake was busy scraping its head and neck along the freshly painted foundation of the early 19th century structure. Gray Rat Snakes are a subspecies of the Eastern Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta).

Snakes shed several times per year depending on frequency of feedings, environmental conditions and age. This was a relatively large snake, although they can grow to seven feet in length.

During shed, the skin cell that covers the eye pops up from the lower layer of skin giving it the foggy appearance and preventing the snake from seeing very well. Snakes tend to be more defensive during this period. Pick a snake up during shed and you very well could get bitten. Over the course of the next week or two, a milky fluid loosens the two layers of skin. Typically the outer skin peels off like a sock, starting from the head and ending with the tail.

The weather in the panhandle of Florida had been very dry over the last few weeks which may have led to this snake’s difficulty freeing itself from a dry and itchy situation.

Gaining little progress from scraping the wall, the snake slid across the grass, turned its head over and rubbed it on the sandy ground, eventually making its way to a rough, pebbly sidewalk that helped relieve the hang up.
As the snake slithered along the ground, the skin slowly rolled itself off, revealing a vibrant, colorful skin. No thanks to me.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Watcher in the Woods - The Bobcat

When you’re in the woods do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched? Do you feel unseen eyes gazing upon you and following your every step? You feel nervous. Hairs stand up on end. You want to run. You need to get away!

I imagine that is how this Bobcat felt as I watched it cross a field, spring across the trail dart into the woods and crouch down, waiting for me to leave.

Bobcats (Lynx rufus) are shy, ubiquitous felines that range from southern Canada, throughout the United States and into Mexico. They tend to be smaller is Florida with males averaging 25 pounds and females 15 pounds. Relative to the three foot long tail of the Florida Panther, the six inch “bobbed” tail is distinctively shorter. Most Panther sightings, although still exciting are Bobcats.

Here in Florida the Bobcat feeds on Raccoons, Opossums, Cotton Rats, Squirrels, Rabbits and other small prey items. I’m not on the menu and I’m at no more risk from the cat than the cat is of me.

As I stare between two pines and through the brush I can see the Bobcat starring back at me. The tan and black markings help conceal it. Its unflinching, stone-faced stare is mesmerizing. Hypnotizing. The longer I stare the more my mind begins to convince me the cat is not there. I know it is. But I blink and it’s gone.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

One-Eyed Jack

I can’t stand being sick, but when I have a stuffed up nose I’m grateful I have an extra nostril to breathe through. If they’re both plugged up I can still breath through my mouth. It’s good to have a back up system when things don’t work. Nature has provided us with a pair of lungs, ears, arms, legs, etc. I wish I had a second brain for the times when the one I have fails me.

Which leads me to One-Eyed Jack, the visually impaired Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) who lives in a big open field in Cape Coral, Florida. If I had a second brain I might be able to tell you what is wrong with his eye, but I don’t, so I can’t. As sympathetic as I am to the bird’s plight I can’t help but find amusement in the inappropriateness of a Cycloptic owl from the genus Athne. Owls of course are the mascot of the Greek goddess Athene (or Athena) who helped conquer the famous Cyclops with a poke in the eye, what was, at the time, an ingenious strategy. I think that was in Homer’s Odyssey. I’m not positive. Look it up on Wikipedia. Again this is where two brains would come in handy.

Regardless of mythological misinformation, the one-eyed wonder pictured here and photographed by wildlife photographer Milla Voellinger, should survive just fine. Although binocular vision would certainly come in handy as the pint-sized, diurnal raptor hunts down lizards, insects and other prey, it’s a handicap that can easily be overcome.

Try your hand at monoscopic vision. With one eye covered, run as fast as you can to the kitchen, grab your favorite snack or beverage from the fridge and return to this riveting piece of journalism. It would have helped to have had both eyes right? But you did it.

Living in the wild, the owl has concerns beyond the family cat, the banister and the step-stool you had to navigate around in this experiment. Burrowing Owls have to contend with outdoor cats, cars and other obstacles as the go about their day. Fortunately for this owl it has friends and family. One-eyed or two-eyed, they all watch out for each other.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Web Slingers

The prevailing sentiment seems to be that the only good spider is a dead spider. With over 40,000 species worldwide, that’s a large group of animals to drop the shoe on. Some people have expressed that it’s ok to have some spiders around but they just don’t want them in their house. Others go so far as to not want any of them anywhere near their home. For many people every spider is misidentified as a life-threatening Black Widow or a Brown Recluse.

The truth is spiders are around us everyday whether we see them or not and most of them serve a vital role in the diversity of habitats in which they are found. While it’s important to protect yourself from the extremely rare danger of a venomous spider bite, it’s also beneficial to offer restraint and tolerance towards those species that are not only harmless to humans but potentially valuable pest predators. Not to mention they come in a wild variety of colors, shapes and sizes and exhibit some amazing behaviors.

The Golden Silk Orbweaver (Nephila clavipes) (top left) is a beautiful species that spins incredible golden webs. They feed on grasshoppers, flies and other flying insects. Hairy “legwarmers” allow them to easily traverse their webs. A stunning, horror movie, skull-like cephalothorax (essentially the head and thorax) with black eye-like spots tricks would be predators into believing the spider can see in every direction.

The Spiny Orbweaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis) (bottom right) with its crab-like carapace, spins a web in gardens and around homes where it feasts on flies, beetles and moths.
While not dangerous, I usually escort the Daring Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) (bottom left) back outside where it can return to feasting at the lawn buffet and practice its standing long jump. (They can jump over 50x their body length). This one wanted back in.

Even the notorious Brown Recluse (Loxosceles reclusa) (not pictured) eats its fair share of household pests like silverfish and cockroaches, but I wouldn’t put a welcome mat out for it.
Although spiders are unfortunately considered terrifying to most, when they are understood on an individual species basis they can be quite enjoyable to live with and near.

Monday, October 18, 2010

JunglePete turns 40

40 years. Time for a post-mid-life crisis. In the meantime - here's a nice montage put together by my sister of 40 years of birthdays. Some have reported this to be a tear jerker but I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying I don't die in the end of the montage.

Thanks Tiff and everyone who has shared them with me.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hermit Crab Vacancy Chain

When I was single I rented a one-bedroom apartment. It was the perfect amount of space for a social hermit.

When I got married, more space was required and we moved into a two-bedroom apartment with two cats.

With a baby on the way, the space requirements have leaped considerably and we now have a spacious three-bedroom house. As space requirements changed I constantly looked around for new living quarters. But I never looked back until I thought about the Hermit Crab Vacancy Chain.

What sounds like branding nightmare for a chain of hotels, the Hermit Crab Vacancy Chain is an interesting study in recyclable resources. First of all, “Hermit” Crab is a misnomer. Although it’s usually a one crab, one shell scenario, Hermit Crabs (Pagurus sp.) are far more social then they are given credit for. It has less to do with loneliness and more to do with securing their next housing upgrade. As they outgrow their current living requirements they begin seeking new and improved digs. Unoccupied sea snail shells tend to be the preferred type as they can easily grasp the interior curvature of the shell.

Hermit Crabs will often gather around a new shell and line up for a fitting process in a game like musical shells. It’s known as a synchronous vacancy chain. If the new shell fits, the crab slips out of its old shell creating a vacancy for a smaller crab waiting nearby. Each subsequent smaller shell is tried on until each crab has a new upgrade.

The Hermit Crab I found on Bunche Beach in Fort Myers died of unknown causes. When resources are slim, fighting may occur and a crab can be left without a shell or even be killed. This one may have lived out its life in this Pear Whelk (Busycotypus spiratum). The ants will eat it and the tides may return the shell to the sea for a future occupant.

The housing market is such that I didn’t experience such harsh circumstances. In retrospect I think about the places I once lived and the people who slipped into them after my departure. Someday they’ll outgrow those places too and have an eye on a bigger home. For better or worse, shells abound here in south Florida.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Deck the Palm With Shells and Snail Kites

In the middle of Estero Bay, half way between the Fort Myers mainland and Fort Myers Beach in Florida is Mound Key, a 140-acre island comprised primarily of the discarded remains of shellfish. Centuries ago, the Calusa lived along the gulf coast of Florida from Tampa south to the Everglades. Mound Key was thought to be the ceremonial center of their civilization and over the course of thousands of years, the fishery dependent culture developed several massive middens. At an elevation nearly 40 feet above sea level, Mound Key is the highest point in Lee County, Florida.

It’s hard to imagine the amount of shells necessary to create such a pile, and these days it’s not particularly easy to see either as Gumbo Limbos, Red, White and Black Mangroves and other subtropical trees now dominate the landscape. From a lookout at the apex of what is now a state park you can survey the gulf waters, the bay and the mainland. The height of this particular mound would have given the Calusas a visual advantage over invaders as well as protection from storm surges.

Snail Kites (Rostrhamus sociabilis) thrive in a similar fashion. I watched an endangered kite perched on a dead Sabal Palm (Sabal palmetto) trunk and upon approach I noticed the “boots” or dead fronds of the tree were decorated with empty Apple Snail (Pomacea sp.) shells. Snail Kites feed exclusively on the semi-aquatic gastropods, hovering over the shallow lakes and canals, swooping down and fishing an unsuspecting snail from the water. They usually find a perch to rest on and feed while they watch for winged pirates who might take their prize away. They use a deeply hooked beak to pluck their prey from the shell before discarding the now empty home. Many kites use a perch repeatedly and in a short time an amazing mound of shells begins to form.
After witnessing the debris that one escargot-eating bird can create in a few weeks, it becomes easier to imagine how thousands of Calusas, over several millennia can create the impressive mounds that they did.

Friday, October 1, 2010

How To Check A Bear's Prostate

If you have never seen a black bear at the urologist’s waiting to get a prostate exam there are two good reasons why. A) I would imagine most doctors have a “no bears” policy and B) from late summer through fall, American Black Bears (Ursus americanus) in the southeastern United States are feeding heavily on Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) berries – a food source that has been shown to have positive medicinal value for men with enlarged prostates.
Saw Palmettos are one of the most common palms in the U.S. and are found in the Gulf states from SW Louisiana to Florida. The shrub-like palm is often overlooked and occasionally confused for a young Sabal Palm. The palmetto has a similar fan-shaped frond but has distinguishing spines along the leaf edge, thus the name. The branching trunk often grows parallel to the ground before reaching skyward but rarely attains heights above seven feet.
The insect-pollinated flowers bloom from April through July and by September, greenish-yellow, olive-like fruits begin to ripen and turn black. They make an excellent food source for deer, bears, raccoons, pigs and gopher tortoises among others. Apparently they don’t taste good. I haven’t tried one but if someone asks me to I will.
The fruits that are not eaten by wildlife, collected by pharmaceutical lackeys or tasted by curious naturalists will fall to the ground where it make take them months to germinate as the endocarp or interior layer of the fruit slowly breaks apart. New growth is slow, but eventually the shrub matures and fruits.
The question remains, do Black Bears that live outside the range of saw palmettos have enlarged prostates? Check to see if the bear has a hard time peeing, which is the first indication of this condition. (Keep in mind that bears go into torpor in the winter and can convert urea to amino acids – the building blocks of proteins). Next get a pair of latex gloves. I haven’t tried this next step and if someone asks me to I won’t.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Invisible Threat - The Atlantic Bottle-nosed Dolphin

While bobbing in the ocean recently I heard a young boy scream “TIBURON!”

I know some Spanish, but it was the frantic tone in his voice that helped me quickly translate a word that I normally associate with a local golf course or a Hyundai coup. In this case – Tiburon meant “SHARK!”
Neck deep in the Gulf of Mexico, I turned away from the beach and watched a pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphin (Tursiops truncates) arc through the water in graceful undulations. I looked down around my feet and watched, just in case, fully prepared to launch myself from the water if anything shark-like stirred beneath me. It didn’t. And there are worse things than sharks in the gulf.

Throughout the summer of 2010, an estimated 5 million barrels of oil streamed from the bottom of the ocean and spread north along the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coast, impacting hundreds of millions of sea creatures including fish, shellfish, sea turtles, birds, manatees and dolphins. Thousands of injured or dead animals were collected as the oil flowed unabated day after day in the largest oil spill in U.S. history. When the leak was plugged and the oil stopped flowing, the threat to wildlife and the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico continued even if the media coverage trickled to a stop.

Apparently the Gulf dodged an unprecedented environmental disaster? According to a government report, as of August 4th when the Deepwater Horizon wellhead was capped, of the estimated 120 million gallons, 17% of the oil was captured, 8% was burned, 8% was dispersed with chemicals, 26% remained onshore and 41% evaporated, dissolved or dispersed naturally. Images of vast oil slicks have been replaced by news of oil-devouring microbes that have perpetually kept natural oil seeps in the Gulf from blackening the waters. While many are quick to declare victory after an agonizing four months of the disaster, I can’t help but be a cynic. I worry that the health of the gulf will continue to be impacted for years to come.

I watch the dolphins swim away and eventually disappear. I can’t see them but I know they’re still there.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What is Wrong With This Picture?

I was driving north on SR-29 in the Everglades when a pair of Limpkin (Aramus guarauna) caught my eye as they surveyed the canal for Apple Snails. I pulled onto a bridge spanning the waterway and took a few pictures. If the water in the canal beneath me was clean and clear, I wouldn’t have this irrational fear of falling in, but the narrow concrete wall I’m standing on descends down into the water where there is an amassment of garbage and floating plants that reminds me of the trash compactor scene in Star Wars. I think I’d rather fall into that mess than what I’m looking at. At least I’d have a Wookie to save me.

The culvert was packed with garbage-battered Water Lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) and Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes). Although listed as an exotic species, Water Lettuce is considered by some as a native plant, having been documented in Florida as far back as 1765. As the name implies, it looks like a floating lettuce plant. Water Hyacinth was introduced to Florida in 1884 and has been a nuisance in our waterways ever since.
Just about everything that had floated down to this point was jammed into a floating trash heap. A soccer ball, a light bulb, ceiling insulation, various glass, plastic and Styrofoam bottles and cups and a bag of dirty diapers. Adorning the bloated bag of baby waste – several thousand flamingo-pink, exotic apple snail eggs.

Although we have native Florida Apple Snails (Pomacea paludos), a favorite food for Limpkin and Snail Kites, several exotic species including those pictured here, have been introduced through the aquarium trade. Exotics out compete the native species and are a low-grade substitute food source.
So what is wrong with this picture? Everything.

I pledge to myself to help clean up messes like these, prevent waste from getting in our waterways and educate people on stopping the spread of nuisance aquatics. As I return to my vehicle, I notice a cup has escaped through the culvert and is floating down the canal.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Fly and I

Life is short. Enjoy every moment. Clearly that is what this Common Housefly (Musca domestica) was thinking when it lit upon the radiant, pinkish-purple, rain-kissed Glades Morning Glory (Ipomoea sagittata). Right?
With only 2-4 weeks to enjoy life as a winged adult, there is so much to see and do! There’s the perfect mate to find – oh those compound eyes! Garbage to locate – does this smell rotten to you? Perfect! And 500 maggots to tend to – the sight would be enough to drive a fly to drink – out of the glass at your picnic.
Through multi-faceted lenses in the eye, the subtle gradient from cherry blossom pink to violet, reflected through massive, coalesced water droplets must look magnificent. The tightly spiraled tendrils of the climbing vine must appear dizzying as it twists skyward and out of sight.
Or maybe a fly landed on a perfectly water-dappled flower just as I took the picture and my attempt to shoo it away cast off the liquid decoration, leaving with a lovely photo of a flower with a fly in it.
Either way, I’d like to believe the fly and I enjoyed this ephemeral moment. The Morning Glory unfurled with the rising sun, stayed open all day as it enjoyed a rare, overcast summer day and a typical Florida, late-afternoon rain shower before it withered up and went to seed as morning glories do.
The fly probably flew off and regurgitated on someone’s BBQ before being swatted.
What a day.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Small Bites - The Yellow Rat Snake

You know you’ve done it. You ate the whole thing. And you can’t believe it. Now you’re trying to digest the 32 ounce steak and a double serving of apple pie (with a slice of cheese) along with the side of vanilla ice cream. You couldn’t help yourself. I do it too, from time to time. I get overwhelmed by the notion that I might never eat again so I better eat everything in front of me.
Snakes do not have to eat every day. Some don’t have to eat every year, but when they do they put themselves in a precarious position during digestion. When I came across this 5-foot Yellow Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) in the Big Cypress National Preserve, it was hard to miss the rat-shaped bulge in its midsection. I could tell it was a male because if it was a female it would have asked “does this rat make me look fat?”

The snake paused. Clearly not blending in. Probably thinking it did. It didn’t even blink. Mostly because snakes don’t have eyelids. Not wanting to disturb the digestive process, I kept my distance while I photographed the constrictor.
I considered what had gone on before. An unsuspecting rodent of some type was seized by the snake, who coiled around its prey and squeezed the life out of it. Once its lunch was dead, the rat snake opened its mouth upwards of 130 degrees and began to systematically swallow the critter whole. Muscles in our esophagus help us get food from mouth to stomach. Snakes don’t have those muscles but instead rely on the movement of the entire body to envelope their prey and get food to where it needs to be for digestion.
I then considered what was in store for the rat snake. The rodent was now riding the reptilian roller coaster of digestion and within the next five days will be reduced to nothing but fur. Inside, the snake’s intestine will grow 2-3 times the normal size, allowing for an increased amount of digestive juices to dissolve the food to nutrients. It’s a meal that may hold the snake over for weeks if not months if no other prey is available.
I better go eat dinner now. Must remember to take small bites.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Chew Your Food - The Swallow-tailed Kite

How long does it take to eat a few cheeseburgers and a shake? If you’re going to eat junk food you should eat least take the time to savor the grade D beef and triple-thick, corn syrup shake that requires a ¼ inch wide straw to drink it through. I watched incredulously the other day as the man in the car next to me at an intersection devoured his lunch like a gator eating a softshell turtle. Chomp. Swallow. Next.  Eating really should take place in front of the television as nature intended it.

Just as I take exception to the feeding habits of carbivores, I wonder how much enjoyment eating is for the Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus). I’ve never seen a STK that wasn’t in flight. I’ve never seen a Skunk Ape or a Florida Panther either but I think I may see one or both of those first. It’s that rare.  

Just about everyone has flown a kite, the string-tethered toy that can stay aloft for hours if the wind and operator cooperate. The toy is named after the bird of which there are several species found around the globe. Here in Florida we have the Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis), Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis) and the split-tailed STK. All of them ride updrafts and thermals to stay aloft, mixed with the occasional wing flap, but the STK feeds on the wing, meaning the dragonflies and other flying insects they enjoy noshing on are caught and eaten as they fly. They also swoop to capture lizards from the treetops.

The Kite pictured here was one of five STKs circling above me at the Harns Marsh in Lehigh Acres, FL. This one appears to be a juvenile. The tail is shorter than a typical adult’s tail and the fanned tail feathers don’t have the pronounced fork like the adults do. The birds cried a wheezy ki-ki-ki  as they picked off dragonflies above the marsh, each twitch of the tail gracefully steering the bird into a smooth banking turn, dive or ascent. Within seconds of noticing me, the birds were 100 feet higher, apparently not appreciating being watched as they ate.

The guy eating his lunch in traffic had no such qualms. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

Everglades Airshow

After an exhausting six hour swamp walk in search of Ghost Orchids, my friends and I emerged from the blazing, sweltering sawgrass prairie and arrived back at our vehicles. The desolate dirt road they were parked on paralleled a drainage canal in the Everglades that carried the life blood of the “River of Grass” from points north towards civilization. Water does not flow naturally out here like it once did, at least not on the horizontal plane. Most of the water that nourishes the Everglades comes down vertically as rain. Everything else is consumed by humans.
Entirely wiped out, I unfold a chair, sit and drink the last of what is now sun-heated water from my water bottle.
I don’t stir. I don’t have the energy to. But the air buzzes with activity as I witness my own Everglades air show. Bees, wasps and butterflies zip from flower to flower checking for nectar. Predatory dragonflies navigate the tall grass like lace-winged fighter pilots seeking prey to tear apart and devour.
What is striking to me is the diversity of creatures in the small roadside patch of grass before me. In an area no bigger than a kiddy pool, I count numerous insects flitting about and without leaving my chair I’m able to pan a total of six feet and spot four seemingly distinct species of Dragonflies. Or did I?
Top Left – Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens)
Top Right and Bottom Left – Common Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)

Bottom Right – Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina)

As the male Common Pondhawk matures, green with black stripes gives way to a powdery blue pattern. The dragonfly in the top right is the same as the one in the bottom left.
Your homework is to figure out which dragonfly is in the top left. Note the yellow spots on each wing, the amber pattern on the upper forewing and the distinct black coloration on the tail? All photos were taken in Collier County, Florida. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

Ghost Hunters, Part II

There is no shortage of danger in the Everglades. Our quest to find the rare and endangered Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) in the swamps of South Florida has led us to a tiny slough in a remote area of the Big Cypress National Preserve.

I have seen one Ghost Orchid in the wild – the now famous Corkscrew Swamp “Super Ghost” that can be seen at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, FL. It’s the only orchid whose location is not a secret. It’s unusual in that it was discovered growing forty-five up on the trunk of a Bald Cypress. It also showed off eleven blooms at one point and could be seen for several weeks straight.

Ghost Orchids are most commonly found growing on Pop Ash or Pond Apple trees, offer one bloom for a couple weeks in the summer and can be found floating like an apparition just a few inches from the tree and just above eye level.

Our quest involved wading hip-deep in cool water from tree trunk to tree trunk, looking for the signature spider-like tendrils of the Ghost Orchid. Unseen underwater logs impeded progress while floating debris had to be cast aside as we poked our way around the swamp with hiking poles. Here there may be dragons of the Alligator variety but slow, methodical probing of the area around us would most likely encourage any restless reptiles to move elsewhere.

Within a few minutes of entering the slough we had found our first Ghost Orchid plant, an amassment of green, cord-like vegetation with distinct white-dashes, giving each “branch” the appearance of a divided highway. Our next plant offered success in the form of a single, ethereal bloom seemingly suspended in midair.

Ghost Orchids are pollinated by the Giant Sphinx Moth (Cocytius antaeus), a long-tongued night flyer that sips sweet nectar from the unusually long nectary of the Ghost Orchid. By visiting the bloom, the moth unknowingly rubs it’s head on the anther cap or pollinium of the flower. If it visits another flower it has the rare opportunity of assisting in pollination. From there the Ghost casts out wind-borne seeds to hopefully begin the next generation.

After several water-logged hours of listening to the incessant buzzing and biting of “swamp angels”, navigating around softball-sized woods spiders and watching for Cottonmouths and other critters we had the good fortune of discovering over fifty ghost orchids with four in bloom.

My Shangri-la exists but you have to believe in Ghosts. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ghost Hunters, Part I

The exact location of my whereabouts on this Sunday morning shall remain a mystery. A map to Shangri-la would only entice a stampede of curious explorers, whom however well-intentioned could cause the downfall of this subtropical Floridian utopia.

Our quest is the rare and endangered Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii), an epiphytic bloom that resides in the most far-flung swamps and sloughs of South Florida. The site could be considered paradise to few. To find our quarry required driving the dust-choked back roads of the 750,000 acre Big Cypress National Preserve to a “trailhead”. From here we would bushwhack through sharp-toothed sawgrass and slosh in muddy, ankle-deep, sun-boiled water before we reached the blissful partial shade of the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) forest.

Under the canopy of the cypress, the temperatures cooled mildly, while the humidity seemingly required the use of gills. Wasps clung to nests, carefully tucked under the fronds of the cabbage palm. Knock a frond and we’d have to move quickly through an invisible trail where thorny green-briar vines, camouflaged and draped from tree to tree threatened to decapitate the hurried, careless hiker.

As we waded further through the cypress, the water became deeper and darker, the trees taller. With water now up to our hips, we sloshed past the last of the cypress and into our final obstacle of our swamp gauntlet, the Pop Ash slough. The suffocating cypress now behind us, we pushed into the slough, filled with Pop Ash (Fraxinus caroliniana) and Pond Apple (Annona glabra) trees. Their roots are inundated and their trunks emerging from cool, black water that surrounded us in every direction. The well-shaded canopy permits the occasional beam of sun to poke through and illuminate the tannin-stained leaves that rest on the bottom of a nearly imperceptible flow of water.

Here is where our search begins. There is hardly an inch of tree trunk that is not covered by lichens, Resurrection Ferns (Pleopeltis polypodioides) or Clam Orchids. With space at a premium in this small nook of the Everglades, plants grow where they can and competition is fierce. There are an estimated 1200+ Ghosts spread out in various locations in South Florida. The question is “are there Ghost Orchids here?”

The adventure continues tomorrow…

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Bad Parents

During a recent trip I was lucky enough to see a Black Bear up close. While I took pictures, a family stopped and brought their toddlers over to the bear despite my objections. I don’t have kids of my own yet, but I know bears and kids don’t mix.

Humans have perfected the art of bad parenting. Balloon Boy and the teenager who attempted to sail solo around the world are famous examples, but how often do you see wildlife make bad decisions?

It’s a boring name for a beautiful bird but the Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) has a distinct red shield above the bill that make them easy to spot in the wetlands of Florida. Moorhen chicks are a tasty morsel for just about everything including Snapping Turtles, Large-mouth Bass and Alligators. This explains why moorhens lay an average of eight eggs per brood and why both parents tend to their young until they are fully grown. It’s a tough job and I’ve seen a brood of eight dwindle down to two in a matter of days. Mom and dad want to make sure at least one survives.

I watched this happy family bobbing about on a lake in Weston, Florida. The six birds paddled about, feeding on insects and seeds. One of the adults veered off on its own while the other herded the chicks. When one little bird found itself away from the group, the parent herding the brood darted over, rounded the little ones up and made an audible and seemingly angry peep to its partner.

I can’t tell a male from a female moorhen, but since I enjoy anthropomorphication, I will assume the wayward adult bird was the father. (I’ve seen enough fathers stray off to the automotive section, while their kids turn the toy aisle into Wrigley Field to know which parent to stereotype as irresponsible.)

The mother, having grouped her young ones in the cattails, ran across the lily pads to her partner and pecked him ferociously on the back of the head. They both returned to their hatchlings and resumed foraging for lunch. The goal is survival and for moorhens cooperation is required.  The consequences range from a small family tree to severe neck injury. It’s probably best to pay attention.  

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Yellow-bellied Varmint

My wife is trilingual. As an Ecuadorian, her first language is Spanish but she speaks fluent English and German. This does not mean she always understands me or the odd American idioms I spout out. I once attempted to calm her frustrations by suggesting she not get “bent out of shape”. She heard “banana shake” and the conversation thankfully turned to desserts. After a close encounter with a Black Bear in Yosemite National Park, I pointed at a bird across the meadow and said “Hey a cowbird”. My wife replied “you’re not a coward – you got very close to that bear.”

I’m not a coward, although as a child I did react to a fire alarm in our house by fleeing and yelling for someone to save my sister. Labels can be hard to take and tough to shake. Yosemite Sam indoctrinated a legion of Loony Tunes fans to believe that a Yellow-bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris) or varmint is a coward. Having never seen one I assumed this to be true. I also believed that all gunpowder trails lead to a shed full of TNT.

 I spotted my first Yellow-bellied Marmot on a walk in the woods in Sequoia National Park where the whistling rodent stood tall on a rocky perch and scouted its surroundings. The plump, fuzzy ground squirrel never backed down but darted from perch to perch whistling to other Marmots unseen to me.

Although marmots are cousins to the eastern Woodchuck (Marmota monax), they are social and live in colonies. One individual often gets sentinel duty and watches for danger while the others forage. The shrill this “whistle pig” was producing apparently had the effect of an alarm and sent the other marmots into their underground burrow, which in some colonies can contain over 200 feet of passages.

In the high Sierras of California, marmots hibernate from September to May but if this Yellow-bellied individual was shaking off its eight month slumber you could never tell. It had all the energy and excitability of Yosemite Sam with a stick of dynamite in his pants. It was endearing to watch this individual protecting the colony. It’s time to rethink the “yellow-belly” label and I guess I better go save my sister. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Low Gear

A few years ago my dad and I sat on a park bench on the boardwalk at the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers, FL. We watched a male Green Anole flaring its dewlap in the hopes of impressing a female. We spotted a Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a rotting snag where it would soon nest and we watched and listened as a Black Racer slithered between the cypress knees a few feet below. Intermittently people would march down the boardwalk and interrupt the moment. One guest bemoaned to her partner that there was nothing to see and they continued their apparent training for Olympic Speed Walking. Our outing revealed that there is much to see if you slow down, be patient and let the natural world show itself.

The serpentine switchbacks of the Generals Highway in Sequoia National Park trace the alpine edges from 7000 feet down into the valley. It’s over fourteen miles of cliff-edged driving at 20 MPH from the largest living tree on the planet to our hotel and despite the late May snow flurries and a setting sun, we were in no hurry to leave the park. Not everyone appreciated our pace but timely pullouts allowed for us to let the speed racers past so we could enjoy the fresh mountain air, laced with a noxious smell of burning brakes. 

At one stop, a traveler had overshot the pullout and decided to stop in the road to take a photo of the landscape. A parade of cars stacked up behind it and horns began to blare along with shouts of disgust. We stopped. We waited and eventually the line of cars snaked down the mountainside and out of view.
And then the bear stepped out. This beautiful American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) had waited for the traffic to pass before it crossed the road, flat-footed as they do, walked into a meadow and then sat and relaxed. For 45 minutes we watched the bear eat grass, sniff the air and poop (not in the woods).

As I photographed the bear above I heard grunting and snuffling behind me. As I turned I noticed a bear about 15 feet away, digging for grubs to eat. 
Immersed in the moment, I later wondered why most of the humans couldn’t just shift into low gear and enjoy one of the most gorgeous nature drives around. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fantastic Fragrance - The Southern Magnolia

On a muggy, May afternoon in Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa, FL, I find myself wiping rivulets of sweat off my face. As we amble down the trail, I swat away an entourage of mosquitoes that gravitate towards me and retreat with every swing of an arm. There is a hypnotic fragrance that wafts through the woods on the slightest of breezes. I raise my shoulder to wipe away the sweat. I flail my arm at the marauding blood suckers. The motions become routine. But the sweet aroma that undulates on unseen air currents leads me by my nose to undiscovered treasures.

To describe a fragrance is as easy for me as tasting music. No description could do it justice. It’s a pleasant, sugared scent that distracts me from my sweat-soaked clothing, and blood-spattered, mosquito bitten skin. As we make our way through a forest of Bald Cypress and Live Oaks we arrive at a clearing spiked with half-a-dozen, 60 foot tall trees adorned with massive white blooms. There is no mistaking the identity of the Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).

Magnolias are named after French botanist Pierre Magnol and the species name “grandiflora” refers to the head-sized flowers they produce. The foot-wide bloom is decorated with a pineapple shaped structure that includes the female carpels and the male stamens at the base. Magnolias have been around since before the rise of bees and the trees were originally pollinated by beetles. The flowers evolved tough carpels to prevent damage from beetles crawling around on their surface. Today, bees and other flying pollinators assist beetles in propagating the species. Eventually the petals will fall away, the sweet scent will dissipate and by late summer the fruit will mature and spit out dozens of crimson, half-inch seeds.

We can’t linger long. The mosquitoes have caught up and the sun is blazing. I break the hypnotic hold the tree has on my olfactory senses and ponder the notion that I can’t remember what it smells like already. I just know when I smell it again I’ll like it. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Send in the Clones

I’m a sucker for big trees. For an ecologically young environment, Florida has some big ones. Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) and Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) are the Redwoods of the southeast and the behemoth pictured below is one of the largest Live Oaks in Florida. Located in Lake Griffin State Park in Fruitland Park, FL, the tree stands over 83 feet tall and has a 131 foot crown spread.

The name Live Oak refers to the evergreen appearance of the tree. Each year the oak develops new leaves before shedding old growth, so it lacks the bare look of its northern deciduous cousins. This particular one was once a “Champion Tree” and considered the largest of its kind until others were discovered and displaced it. One of the reasons Live Oaks are successful is their ability to clone themselves. While the Live Oak maintains genetic diversity through cross-pollination and the subsequent dropping of a crop of acorns, they can also spread via clonal roots, also known as root suckering. Underground buds attached to the roots send a genetic copy of the primary tree to the surface and the shoot begins to grow. This can be in response to various forms of damage to the primary tree; clipping, storm damage, insect damage, etc., or it is simply a way for the primary tree to compete with other forms of vegetation growing in the understory.

Live Oaks are capable of enduring hurricanes, tolerant of salt-spray and are relatively disease free – attributes which provide the opportunity to grow for centuries. It’s difficult to tell how old this particular tree is since they won’t let me cut it down and count the annual rings, but park staff suggest it’s anywhere between 250-350 years old.

Measuring the circumference was a bit easier. I had to send in my clones to measure the distance around the base of the tree. Assuming each of my clones stands 5’9” and it took six of us to wrap around the tree, that’s a circumference of 34 feet and nearly 11 feet in diameter. Now if I can just get one of my clones to write my columns for me.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Faker - The Black-necked Stilt

I remember lying flat on my back on the soccer field, staring up at an oval formation of heads. Teammates. Coaches. Refs. And my mom who warned me “you better not be faking it.” I was twelve and apparently prone to such behavior, but in this case I wasn’t. In a spectacular attempt to score a goal, I had torn my ACL. I think about my mom when I see certain birds exhibit “distraction displays” and I always think “FAKER!”

Ground nesting birds such as Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) have developed a unique method of protecting their chicks. While many birds would rush back to the nest to cover up their young, Stilts and Killdeer leave the nest when disturbed. They use themselves as bait to draw the attention of the predator and lead them away from the nest. The key to success is their flair for drama. With one wing outstretched, the bird will limp along as if injured or sick. The predator thinks they’ve stumbled upon an easy meal and as they follow the feathered thespian, they are unknowingly lured away from lunch in a nest. Some fakers will sit on the ground and pretend to incubate a fake nest as well. Once the parent feels the predator has been sufficiently duped, they drop the act and take off, leaving the bamboozled hunter hungry.

Stilts have distinctly long, red legs with a higher leg/body ratio than any other bird in North America except the Flamingo. Currently they are winding up their nesting season in south Florida. Some Stilts nest near the shore and just above the hide tide mark, while others nest on mounds in muddy marshes where they have 360 degree views. The excessive amount of winter rain we received in South Florida has left the inland mud flats underwater. You can’t lay an egg if you don’t have a place to nest.

Despite knowing the injury ruse, I can’t help but follow spectacular birds with my camera and snapped these two in flight, only later realizing they had led me away from their chicks. The parents soon returned to this chick, who someday might be a good little faker too.