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.