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.