Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sappy Holidays - The Brazilian Pepper


As a child growing up in South Florida I had the good fortune of living on a 10-acre rural sanctuary for primates operated by my parents. The property was covered with native Slash Pines (Pinus elliotti), Cabbage Palms (Sabal palmetto) and Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) but was persistently threatened by the noxious weed of a tree known as Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolis). As a human primate I had far more freedoms than the other inhabitants and like a modern day Jungle Boy I would often take to the trees and explore. There were times when the property had become so overgrown with what some call “Florida Holly” that I could ascend into the canopy of the pepper trees and climb from tree to tree for several hundred feet.

The problem for a kid is you end up with ripped up jeans and sticky sap all over you, as well as the possibility of a poison ivy-like rash. The problem for the ecosystem is that the highly invasive tree has spread throughout South Florida, establishing dense monocultures where little else grows.

Brazilian Pepper was introduced to Florida sometime in the mid-1800s as an ornamental. It grows natively in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. In Florida it flowers from September through November and by December has fire engine red berries that express a festive spirit around the holiday season, when Florida’s native hollies had already lost there rosy red fruit. Certainly the intent upon introduction was not malicious, but 160 years later the tree is so pervasive that we could easily deck the halls with boughs of pepper if only it were legal to transport it.

Fortunately the tree is not cold tolerant. Unfortunately it produces an abundance of berries that are perfect holiday snacks for birds and mammals that digest them and poop them elsewhere with homemade fertilizer.

Every year at this time, the sight of the bright evergreen leaves and candy cane red pepper berries brings me back to my days on the sanctuary, either climbing in the trees or hacking them down with machete or chainsaw.

I learned long ago that wherever I am for the holidays, I am perfectly content to celebrate it by enjoying it with native style and tradition. This year I’ll be enjoying the sun, the sand and berryless hollies. Happy Holidays.  

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Graffiti Artists - The Double-crested Cormorant


There is no shortage of disparaging labels cast upon the Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus). The heavy-bodied, diving piscivore has been called a nuisance, a villain, a monster and a fish terrorist, mostly by fishermen and mostly undeserved. I call them nature’s graffiti artists. Their roost is their canvas. Their feces and cloaca is their paint and paintbrush.

The name cormorant comes from the Latin “corvus” and “marinus” or Raven of the Sea. Considering the large congregations of birds that roost together, the fish-eating cormorant is seen as a threat to anglers and the fish they seek. While studies have shown that this threat is often exaggerated, cormorants can have an impact on the vegetation they roost upon as well as the other species that might inhabit the same trees (and usually lower than the canopy-loving cormorants).

Over the last few decades, the cormorant population in North America has dramatically increased, a heralded consequence of the ban of the harmful pesticide DDT. Like most fish-eating birds, cormorants suffered the effects of the chemical that bioaccumulated through the food chain and resulted in their inability to lay eggs with sufficiently calcified shells. Cormorants, eagles, osprey, pelicans and others would attempt to incubate their eggs and crush them instead. 

Here in South Florida I have seen a colony of 40-50 cormorants routinely roosting in the same Pond Apple (Annona glabra) trees and over time, the acidic feces they leave behind has defoliated the trees. The herons and egrets that might have nested here are forced to find a more suitable location.

In the 10,000 islands of the Everglades National Park, the cormorants, with hooked beak held high, sit upon the channel markers and leave the tell tale white washing upon the signs, inadvertent artistry that remains on display when the cormorants fly off and then swim for a meal.

Call them vandals of vegetation if you must but I prefer to look at the droppings left behind as a clue as to who was here when the bird is not. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Jester


Why don’t cannibals eat clowns? Because they taste funny. The same can be said for Monarch (Danaus plexippus)Queen (Danaus gilippus) and Soldier (Danaus eresimus) butterflies as well as other brightly colored showy species. Most predatory species, particularly birds will avoid the flashy flying insects because they do taste funny. Or awful. These three regal caterpillars feed on milkweed which contains alkaloids which will be necessary for breeding as adults and act as a chemical defense against predators. Once the caterpillar goes through the metamorphic process, bright colors act as a reminder to potential predators that these insects are poisonous. A predator may try one once, but if it survives, and they usually do, they probably will not do it again. This form of defense is known as aposemitism. If it’s brightly colored, best to move on to something else on the buffet line.

And then there’s the Viceroy (Limenitis archippus), orange oligarch of the Lepidoptera and faker in the first degree. Viceroys are said to effectively display Batesian mimicry. They look like the other poisonous members of the king’s court but are they poisonous? It has been long believed that they have evolved to look like a poisonous species which has provided them the defense necessary to avoid predation. Although their larval form feeds on host plants other than milkweed, it’s now thought that Viceroys may in fact be poisonous themselves. If anything the Viceroy is the Jester playing predators and naturalists the fool.

In the swamps of South Florida, the Viceroy looks similar to the abundant Queen butterfly rather than the rare Monarch. The individual that lit upon the back of the alligator prompted a debate regarding its identification. While someone claimed Monarch, I insisted Viceroy and pointed out the black band across the hind wing. They remained insistent and I, the Jester, suggested they move closer for a better look. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Awesome Imperfection of a Piebald Grackle


We can’t all be perfect. I dare say that no one is and the same can be said for the greater animal kingdom. Most people know what a Black Bear looks like. But not all Black Bears are black. Genetic mutations occur to the benefit or detriment of the species and express themselves in such ways such as color variations. The Kermode Bear, an all-white subspecies of the Black Bear is found in British Columbia. The Cinnamon Bear, a red-brown furred subspecies is found in the Rockies. Thousands of years ago mutations in their genes gave rise to populations of these subspecies that are now unique and self-sustaining.

This brings me to the oddity hopping in a crosswalk in Immokalee, Florida. From its shape, size and tail feathers I knew what it was immediately, but the colors it was displaying looked as if someone had left an ink pen in the wash with a pair of white underwear. Male Boat-tailed Grackles normally have dazzling, iridescent blue-black plumage, but this one looked more like a seagull mated with a crow in a tornado.

This is known as a “piebald” morph and can be expressed in mammals, birds and reptiles. This grackle has a random assortment of skin and feathers that lacks melanin. This is not to be confused with albinism which is the complete lack of melanin or leucism which is a reduced amount of all pigments. It is possible that this bird could mate and pass on the piebald gene but the offspring will not retain the same pattern. The odds of finding a mate are not good though. Male Boat-tailed Grackles (Quiscalas major) have courtship duels to impress the females and without the sexy iridescence, the piebald grackle probably doesn’t stand a chance. Excessive whiteness can also cause issues with thermal retention.

Take it for what you will, this grackle was dropping what I assumed was food from a wire into the street and retrieving smaller bits after cars had run it over. I know ravens and crows do this. It was fun to see this grackle do it as well. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Seasonal Attitude Disorder


“I don’t know how you stand living in Florida. I need the seasons”. This is typical response when people learn that I’m from Florida. Generally what they mean by “seasons” is six to eight months of long cold nights, one month of rainy spring and flooding, two months of grotesquely humid summer days and then eleven magical days where the chlorophyll-pigmented adornments to woody vegetation (leaves on trees), are awash in a wave of spectral undulations that lap at the foliage over and over until it sucks the life from each beautiful leaf and leaves them dead on the forest floor. I get it.   

Having lived in Vermont for 14 years I can understand the visual spectacle that is leaf peeping. I appreciate the stillness and solitude of a billion snowflakes falling all around me in a moonlight hayfield. I love the notion that a 60 degree spring rain is a warm rain and the ephemeral flowers come and go too quickly. And it may be only two or three hot months of summer but after a long cold winter I can deal with 90 days of listening to someone ask me “Is it hot enough for ya?”

I get Florida too. The changes are just as subtle and vary from region to region and coast to coast. In the Everglades we have our seasons. Wet and dry are the most obvious but we have the changing of the leaves as well. For a few short weeks the Red Maples (Acer rubrum) and Willows (Salix sp.) slow their production of chlorophyll, revealing the carotene pigments that display oranges, xanthophyll pigments that show yellows and red producing lycopenes.

The feathery leaves of the deciduous conifer Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) will brown and fall to the ground, explaining the tree’s name. Nighttime temperatures will dip from the 60’s into the 40’s. The swamp will cool for a few months and to us Floridians it’ll get downright chilly. Someone will ask “Cold enough for ya?”

Yep.

But I get it. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Stuffed


Having just returned from a Thanksgiving vacation in Massachusetts, I had hoped to write about something uniquely New Englandy. To me the greater Boston area is all about clams, lobsters, shorebirds and cranberry bogs. Granted it’s a narrow, stereotypical view but if I could expand my limited expectations then my trip would be a success.

Unfortunately I only spotted a few dumpster gulls and a couple of Deer Ticks (Ixodes scapularis). I probably should have gotten out more. But you know how Thanksgiving is. It’s all about the thanking and the eating and despite picking up a cold on the plane ride up (thanks open air sneezer in seat 24A!) I still managed to eat more than any normal person should at any given meal. It’s a funny thing, I don’t need to eat so much. I just want to and this makes me wonder how much joy a snake gets when it consumes a feast much larger than it appears it should.

A few years ago I was leading a summer camp in Vermont. A couple of kids heard a strange noise in the woods, called me over and we discovered a Common Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) eating a Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). Several kids were horrified but for the most part there was great interest in the likelihood that this slender snake could eat this wide-bodied and seemingly unflappable frog. The snake meticulously maneuvered its ever widening mouth to position the frog into an easy transition down its throat.  

Once in the intestine, the gartersnake has the ability to elevate its metabolic rate, increase enzyme activity and blood flow to the digestive system and increase the mass of the intestine, liver and kidney to aid in removing and storing nutrients from its prey. It can just as quickly reverse all of these functions and revert to normal conditions. Ultimately the quick digestive process prevents a snake from slithering about with a large meal in its belly.

No such luck for me on Thanksgiving. My digestive system is used to a pattern of thrice-a-day feedings and I had clearly overwhelmed my system. Happy Belated Thanksgiving. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Formerly Known As the Louisiana Heron


I have a book called “American Wildlife Illustrated” from 1940 that sits on my book shelf with all of my other aging natural history references. Some of the books are as new as 2010 but for every day that goes by there is a fact, a theory or a matter of taxonomic nomenclature that becomes wrong, disproved or obsolete. Printed material is old school. Your digital Audubon Guides can be updated when needed.

When I started guiding in the Everglades in the 90’s there was a bird that everyone in the swamps called the Louisiana Heron. I was told it was also called a Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor), but people can be stubborn and despite the bird carrying a name of another state, the locals were content to keep the traditional name. I took a few years off from guiding and returned again in 2007. When I pointed to a heron and called it a Louisiana Heron you would have thought I called a Badger a Buffalo. “It’s a Tricolored Heron. Ain’t no one calls it Louisiana Heron no more.” Ok then. Tricolored it is.

To be fair the name change had been approved by the American Ornithologist’s Union in 1983 so everyone had ample time to acclimate to the new colorful name. Why the change? Eliminating local geographic names was deemed more appropriate. After all, the “Louisiana Heron” is found from the eastern seaboard of the United States, south through Texas and in a few spots in Central and South America. The three colors of the Tricolored Heron include a white belly, a powdery blue body and a reddish patch on the back.    

They are occasionally confused with the much larger Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) and the similarly sized Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea). What always stands out to me is the white crest of feathers that the Tricolored adults develop during the breeding season. It pops out a bit in the back and looks like a mullet hairstyle.

There are still some old school birders who prefer “Louisiana Heron” but Tricolored Heron is certainly the norm. What you won’t see or hear anywhere  is someone petitioning for a name change to “Mullet Crested Heron”. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Spirit of the Sand – The Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata)


In mid-dark hours under a starlit sky
Porcelain apparitions flirt at edge of sight
Spirits of the dead that poke and pry
Rotten flesh-eating ghosts that haunt the night

Fallen sea stars crash to shore
An aquatic wish, a wish no more
Scallops and whelks ground into sand
A coastal cemetery where gulf grazes land

Midnight monsters rise from sandy grave
A four foot burrow and a daytime shade
“Fast of foot” Ocypode glides
Seeking beach line bounty of nightly tides

Scavengers of sorrow sift skeletal remains
Washed ashore by unforgiving waves
Bones and shells now picked clean
Are left on beach as tombstone memory

Coquina Clams and Mole Crabs beware
Dead or undead the ghouls won’t care
They hunt and feed and disappear
Underground to their shell cave lair

As sun arcs high up overhead
Predators hunt the haunted sand
Few ghosts emerge in fear as well
That they’d be rendered down to shell

Yet large stalked eyes help to see
While four paired legs aid well to flee
And one large claw is meant to scare
It’s hard to catch one unaware

But do not fear
The beast of the coast
After all
It’s just a ghost.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tame Deer - the White-tailed Deer

Animal identification can often be quite tricky. Differentiating a Yellow-crested Olive-sided Warbler from a Olive-cheeked Yellow-rumped Warbler can be nearly impossible without a 4-D 300 meter spotting scope, cannon-fired mist net and your own University of Cornell-trained Ornithologist. The larger animals on the other hand should be easily identified. Bears. Moose. Dolphin. How about the White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)?

White-tails are the most wide-ranging members of the deer family in North America and can be found in Canada, most of the United States, Central America and Venezuela, Columbia and Ecuador. Here in Florida they tend to weigh in on the leaner side. Males average 125 lbs and females a bit less than 100 lbs. Key Deer, a subspecies of the white-tail is even smaller with males maxing out at 80 lbs.

Deer are noted as being crepuscular, meaning they are active at dawn and dusk but I often see them in the Everglades and similar habitat during the daylight. My thinking is that the main predator of deer in south Florida is the Florida Panther which is a nocturnal hunter and with few other species to be concerned with, the deer forage in the daylight.

The deer in the top photo were spotted in the Picayune Strand State Forest, east of Naples, FL. They seemed to smell me before they heard me, and heard me before they saw me. As I carefully approached they raised their white tails and began to trot away. This serves as a guide for the fawn to follow as they flee. It also attracts predators and when the deer stops and the tail is dropped, the predator has now lost the white tail it was chasing.

The deer in the bottom photo was clearly aware of my presence. I proceeded no further. Eight tines in a rack of antlers trumps a 300mm zoom lens. The buck eventually sauntered off.

And as for the deer in the central frame? They were tame and quite possibly the ugliest White-tail Deer I have ever seen.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Babies vs Alligators


I am often asked if I worry about alligators. As a hiker and an Everglades tour guide I see them often. In fact we guarantee guests that they will see them on our tour. I never take for granted that we have massive reptilians that can grow more than fourteen feet in length. I understand them and I respect them. I do not worry about them.

Recently my wife and I took our baby for a stroll on a trail next to a marsh near our home. As she pushed the stroller through a muddy portion of the trail I noticed the stroller tracks bisecting an animal’s tracks. There was no mistaking it. A large all­igator had recently crawled from the river, climbed the muddy berm and descended into the pond on the other side. The large webbed feet made deep impressions in the mud and the sinuous trail of its heavy tail drew a perfect impression of an animal walking with a side to side gait.

The alligator was nowhere in sight, nor was it lurking in wait to snatch our baby. It was a hot day and no doubt it simply wanted to get from one body of water to another. Fish, birds, turtles and other prey that are easily chomped and swallowed are typically on the menu. American Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) often take to the water at the sight of a person and while attacks do happen, there have been only 568 reported in Florida since 1948. Males were involved in 86% of attacks and unsurprisingly, many of those were provoked.

Feeding an alligator often results in an alligator losing its natural fear of people and they are more likely to approach. Swimming in rivers, canals and ponds, especially at night can mimic the sound of injured prey which draws the attention of an alligator. Water hazards on golf courses can be literal hazards as well.  

Having said all of that, the number of fatalities caused by alligators since 1948 is twenty three. The number of babies in strollers chased by alligators? Zero. Am I careful? Yes. Am I worried? There are more important things to worry about.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Willet stay? Willet go?


Willets are seemingly inconspicuous shorebirds that are easily ignored by the general beach going populace. Chances are if you’ve seen a wedding photo on the beach there is probably a Willet skirting the shoreline behind the bride and groom.

Willets (Tringa semipalmata) are often the bird that some kid on the beach is throwing shells at because the bird ignored the bread thrown at it. (Don’t do it kids, especially if my sister is around. She will throw shells back at you.) Willets have more class than to beg like gulls. Come on kids. They eat tube worms, aquatic insects, mollusks and fish.

To most people a Willet is just a drab-colored shorebird, but when it takes flight it has a striking and very obvious white and black color pattern on the underwing that makes identifying and enjoying a bit easier. The pattern isn’t just for our benefit, a flash of wing helps Willets indentify each other from other shorebird species. The preening Willet in the photo is showing a bit of the black and white in the lower right block.

Willets are monogamous during the breeding season. They split time between the Atlantic coast of South America and the east and west coasts of North America. While they grace our beaches, the males and females tend to nest in the vegetation near the shore. The nest is a well-hidden/conspicuous nest which is to say the nest itself is hidden among the reeds and grasses while a tunnel to the nest is more obvious.

The onomatopoetic name Willet is just one of the various calls the bird makes. It sounds very much like the soothing white-noise “ocean” sounds on my baby’s mobile. Will Will Willet. Will Will Willet.

Males help incubate the eggs and feed the young. Despite their mate fidelity, the females take off two weeks before the chicks fledge, leaving the last of the rearing to the male. I don’t know why this is, but with my own 6 month old at home, the thought of it makes me nervous.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Washed Away – The Sculpin


On Sunday, August 28th, the Weather Channel reported the last bands of rain and wind had passed through New York City. Hurricane Irene was dubbed a meteorological flop. From the often storm battered coast of Florida, I found it hard to believe that this storm had let so many off the hook.

I checked my facebook page to see how friends and family in Vermont were doing. Photo after photo, along with unbelievable videos of catastrophic flooding proved that A) forecasters and news outlets were quick to dismiss the consequences of heavy rain in a landlocked, mountainous state and B) Vermont is in fact part of the United States. They even have maps to prove it.   

My friend Chris Saylor, the ranger at Camp Plymouth State Park in Ludlow, Vermont uploaded some stunning photos and videos of the park as the rampaging Buffalo Brook stormed through it. Turbulent mud and boulders had ripped through roads and taken out bridges leaving behind an unfathomable landscape of debris and muck. In all of the destruction, one little curiosity caught Chris’ attention. Buffalo Brook is known for gold panners who occasionally find flakes and nuggets. Chris found something else bright and shiny. He sent me a photo and asked “what’s this?” In his hand was a now deceased Sculpin (Cottus sp.) that had been washed away from its stony brook hideaway into an open field.

Vermont is home to the Mottled Sculpin (Cottus bairdi) and the Slimy Sculpin (Cottus cognatus). Both thrive in the pebble and stone filled streams and creeks that were severely impacted by the hurricane. These slow-flowing, well-oxygenated waterways are breeding grounds for aquatic invertebrate larvae which sculpin feed on. Although the cryptic coloration of the sculpin aid them in blending in to their aquatic surroundings, they are preyed upon by trout who share the same habitat.

It’s hard to say how Hurricane Irene impacted the wildlife of Vermont’s brooks, streams and rivers. It is clear how it has affected the Vermonters. Despite over 200 road closures, 30 bridge washouts and hundreds of houses destroyed across the state, the people of Vermont are picking up the pieces, digging themselves out and standing tall in the face of adversity. Their positive spirit can not be washed away.

To help Vermonters in need please visit the Vermont Food Bank and offer what you can.  

Photos provided by Chris Saylor.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

One Hundred Steps – The Centipede


Centipede loosely translates to one hundred steps per second, which is the speed at which A) a person moves away from such a creature and B) the speed at which the creature can move. I say “loosely” because I made it up. Centipede combines the Latin roots for “hundred” and “foot”, referring to the many legs of this predatory arthropod.

When this centipede darted across the shower stall floor I took all one hundred steps as I leapt from corner to corner trying to avoid the incredibly swift, zigzagging beast.

Centipede is actually a misnomer considering they can have any number of legs ranging from 20 to 300 depending on the species. Centipedes are different from Millipedes. They both have many segmented bodies but centipedes have two legs per segment where Millipedes often have four per segment.

Centipedes have an odd number of segments including the first segment that has modified legs, known as forcipules, which they use to inject venom into prey. Depending on the size of the centipede they can sting and harm a human. This one is a Florida Blue Centipede (Scolopendra viridis) and is about two inches long with small pinchers. Some centipedes can cause anaphylactic shock and since I had yet to I.D. it in the shower I did my best to step around it.

In a way, this species is my friend. They hunt roaches and spiders at night. I just prefer that the action is on the outside of my house. What comes around goes around and they in turn are preyed upon. I’ve seen Loggerhead Shrikes and Mockingbirds munch on centipedes. During the day the centipedes hide in moist areas like leaf litter, under the bark of a tree or in an exfoliating luffah.

There’s no shortage of critters that get into my house from my wooded neighborhood. I’ll continue to protect my fortress, all the while curious as to what’s going on just a few steps out side my door. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Things that bite in the Night - the Fire Ant


“Coffee” is usually the first thought that I have upon waking. On this particular day I awoke, panicked, thinking “I need to get my wedding ring off my finger now”. I didn't know why but the band was cutting off circulation to my finger which had swollen to a light shade of grape. The ring itself looked like a hula hoop on a hippo. Butter, Vaseline, WD-40, there was no way I was squeezing out of it.

I found a red bump at the knuckle. It itched so my assumption was I had been bitten. I treated it with “after bite”. I put my hand in ice. I kept it elevated. I tried Benedryl. Nothing was working. The finger was turning a deeper shade of purple and aching like a thumb hit by a hammer. By 10 pm it was time to go to the ER.

In the ER the red bump had grown into a white-capped pustule and the doctor quickly identified what I should have guessed already. As I slept I was bitten by a single Red Imported Fire Ant (Solenopsis invicta). Fire Ants are native to South America but can be found throughout the southern U.S. Back in the 30’s they were inadvertently introduced by a cargo ship docked in Alabama.

They are mound builders that can establish multiple satellite colonies of hundreds of thousands of ants. They inject painful venom to both defend the colony and take down potential prey. In Florida, these ants stand accused of causing the population decline of the Southern Hognose Snake (Heterodon simus) and the Florida Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula floridanus) by consuming incubating eggs.

A White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) fawn will freeze in place at the sight, sound or smell of danger. If they happen to do so in or around a Fire Ant mound, the ants will begin climbing up the animal and then bite in unison. The bites are not only painful but the itching and swelling can last for four days or more. This of course happens to people as well. Some experience anaphylaxis.

In the ER I was given a choice. Leave the wedding ring unscathed and hope the swelling subsides or cut the ring off to alleviate the pressure and save my finger.

“Cut it off! The ring not the finger”

They did. The swelling subsided and wife insisted I get the ring fixed immediately. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Angry Bird - The Evening Grosbeak


They say a bird in hand is worth two in the bush but sometimes a bird in hand is worth a bite to the face.

My recent trip to Vermont had me reminiscing about an incident that occurred in nearly the exact spot where I saw last week’s Porcupine. In the summer of 2005, as I made my way through the hilly roads up to Plymouth, I spotted what looked like a piece of litter in the road. As I drove closer I recognized it was a bird and it wasn’t going anywhere. I stopped, waved cars around it and carefully picked up a dazed and confused Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinu) that had no doubt been struck by a car.

Evening Grosbeaks are members of the finch family and as the name might imply, especially to the French of which it derived, they have “large beaks”. Grosbeaks have the largest bill of the finches and feed on insects and seeds. The bill is strong enough to crack open the toughest of nuts. They also have been known to feed on roadside dirt and gravel to obtain minerals. Since roadside dirt is located near roads you can imagine the fate that often becomes of these birds.

I just happened to be heading to a bird rehab center where I worked at the time. I scooped the frazzled flyer up, put it on the seat of my truck and put my hat over it, noting to myself that the towel I should always have for these instances was nowhere to be found. While driving down the road I heard a few peeps from under the hat and decided to check on the poor thing. I lifted up the hat and maybe it is post-traumatic stress but I distinctly remember seeing flames shooting from the bird’s eyes and foam coming from its mouth as it flew at me.

It bit me on the face.

Imagine the power needed to crack open the hardest seed, unleashed on the softest skin on your face! 

I grabbed the bird, which quickly let go of my face and bit my finger. In agony – I swerved to the side of the road, jumped out and desperately shook my hand trying to unleash this angry bird.

It let go and flew off with vicious determination. It had escaped its horrible captor.

No good deed goes unpunished and I had a V-shaped wound on my cheek to prove it. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Swamp Cabbage Patch Kids

If you’ve ever seen a palm fly by at 60 MPH you were either in a hurricane or watching palms being transported on a flatbed truck. There are over 2500 palm species in the world and many have shallow root systems that allow them to bend in the wind but can be plucked from the ground and relocated by landscapers.

A safer and more natural way to discover the beauty and diversity of palms is to take drive through any neighborhood in south Florida. Over twenty-five species are used as ornamentals but only ten are actually native.

The Sabal Palm (Sabal palmetto) was voted Florida’s state tree in 1953 after what I can only imagine was a contentious and bitter dispute between the two state branches of congress. The House selected the regal Royal Palm (Roystonea regia) in 1949 but when the Senate passed on the idea, it wasn’t until four years later that the ubiquitous and iconic Sabal Palm with its fan-shaped fronds became the official state tree.

Palms are unique in that they don’t have bark, cambium or heartwood like most trees. Instead they have an inner core protected by an outer sheath and both sections have living tissue. Most palms grow from a terminal bud out of the top of the tree with some exceptions that branch, including the Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens).

Growing up in Venice, FL my family would often camp along the Myakka River. During nature walks, my dad would find a young Sabal Palm, aka Cabbage Palm. He would cut the new growth which resembled cabbage and my sisters and I would eat it, and - surprisingly enjoyed it. We call this treat Swamp Cabbage down here. You’ve probably eaten it too. They sell it in stores and serve it in restaurants with the entirely more delectable name of Heart-of-Palm.

Sabal Palms are considered one of the hardiest palms and can be found throughout the southeastern United States. In south Florida they’re found in lawns, parking lots, oak forests, cypress swamps, coastal areas and occasionally in the middle of your living room after a hurricane. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Amazing Feets


What makes a bird unique? Feathers. No one else has them. Beaks. Birds own it. Wings? They all have them too, as do bats and a variety of insects. But feet? Just about everyone in the animal kingdom has feet and yet birds feet come in an amazing array of shapes and styles. Each set says a great deal about a bird’s lifestyle.

Purple Gallinules (Porphyrio martinica) and American Coots (Fulica Americana), both members of the Rallidae family, can be found in the same marshy habitat and yet have distinctly different feet.

Rails in general are secretive birds that move through densely vegetated marshes to forage. Rails, moorhens and gallinules all have long slender toes which enable them to carefully step on, over and around, submerged, floating and swaying vegetation. Purple Gallinules are well-known for their gorgeous, iridescent emerald, turquoise and violet plumage. But they also have extremely long toes which they use to nimbly navigate the arched, tightrope-like leaves of Alligator Flag in search of seeds and insects. Flight seems to be a chore for these birds but if required they can propel themselves across the surface with heavy wing beats, as they tiptoe across the lily pads.

American Coots on the other foot, have flat flanges that extended out from each toe. Although coots forage in the same marshy wetlands as gallinules, they also flock in open water. The flanged toes allow them to walk on floating vegetation as well as give them a flipper-like foot to paddle with or to dive up to six feet deep.

Wings, beaks and feathers are impressive, but a bird’s feet can provide some amazing feats as well. Which bird’s feet impress you?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Turtlenecks and Knee-highs


I’m not fond of going to the beach. I was born a few miles from it. I grew up going to it. I was just never enamored with sand-encrusted crevices or sunburn streaks where mom missed with sunscreen. Occasionally I’m inexplicably drawn to it and when I find a far flung beach devoid of umbrellas, noodles and men wearing black, knee-high socks, sandals and Speedos, I find I can handle it. When that beach is littered with fossilized shark’s teeth and etched with sea turtle tracks, I look forward to going back as soon as I’ve left.

Don Pedro State Park is located on a barrier island in Charlotte County, Florida. It’s only accessible by boat – a quick kayak paddle from the mainland. The relatively undeveloped island is covered with sea oats, Sea Grapes and Sable Palms. It’s not hard to have the beach to yourself. During a recent trek I noticed what looked like tire tracks going into the dunes and another set coming out. As I got closer it became apparent it was a turtle track. Most likely a Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta) crawled out of the ocean during the night, dug a funnel shaped nest, laid her eggs, covered it and returned to the sea.

Loggerheads come ashore from April to August every year to nest and can lay up to 135 eggs. After nearly three months of incubation, the hatchlings will dig out of the sand and head to the sea. When nests like these are discovered, they are protected from nest predators and beachgoers by placing a wire cage over it.

Sea turtles need beaches like Don Pedro. Undisturbed beaches are few and far between and essential for the sustainability of their populations. Many beach communities are flooded with unnatural light that disorients female turtles coming ashore at night to nest. Debris found on popular tourist beaches, like litter, beach chairs, nets and other obstacles make it difficult for the sea dwellers to navigate on land and can entrap hatchlings headed back to sea. It’s important to keep our beaches clean and protect the few remaining undisturbed beaches.

Loggerheads and other sea turtles spend a fraction of their lives on the coastline and usually only to nest. Like the turtles, I spend little time there as well but when I do, it rouses my curiosity. Where do these turtles go and how do they spend their lives? When they come ashore are they curious about life on land and what do they think of the men in their knee-high socks?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Kite Has Landed


Bald eagles, hawks, owls and ospreys get a great deal of attention but of all of the raptors, the kites are often ignored. Part of the lack of enthusiasm for Swallow-tailed Kites (Elanoides forficatus) is that they never seem to land. As soon as morning thermal updrafts develop they take to the sky and soar like a kite – rarely flapping their wings. (In truth, the toy is named after the bird). Just a warm summer breeze and both are carried aloft.

The Swallow-tailed Kite has a deeply forked tail which they use to exercise amazing twists and turns. Their prey includes dragonflies and other aeronautic insects which the birds catch and eat while in the air. They swoop from the sky and take unsuspecting birds, lizards and other terrestrial prey, taking no time to rest  and enjoy their meal.

Another possible reason many people don’t get wild for Swallow-tailed Kites is the snow white bellied birds return from South America from roughly April through August when the southeastern United States is heating up. The Kites arrive just as the bird watching season wanes. When it’s 95 degrees out, the birds are out while the people are in.

On my Sunday morning bike ride in the Corkscrew Regional Watershed Ecosystem’s Bird Rookery Unit, We inadvertently spooked a flock of kites roosting in a dead maple tree. This was the first one I have ever seen perched, which gave me the chance to check out a well curved beak and navy blue wings that look like a five year old had colored sloppily over the lines.

In a few weeks the Swallow-tailed Kites will begin to gather before migrating south. People that hadn’t noticed they were here are missing out. Those that saw a bird fly by and paid no mind are too. But those that realize what they are looking at know what a special bird it is. See you next year STKs.    

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Grunt


In the next few weeks, baby alligators, cramped in chicken-sized, leathery eggs that look like deflated balloons will begin to grunt. It’s really more like a bark. It tells mama alligator, who has patiently defended the nest for the last sixty-three days, that her babies are ready to bust out of their eggs and crawl into the light.

Female alligators often make nests in secluded areas of a swamp, mostly for protection from other alligators. They scrape vegetation and mud into a large mound typically four feet wide and three feet high. They can lay anywhere from 20-80  eggs in the nest before covering it over and allowing the decaying vegetation to produce the heat that will incubate the eggs and support the development of her baby gators or “grunts”.


As an ectotherm, or “cold-blooded” reptile, she can’t contribute heat to the nest. Her role is to protect the nest from predators like raccoons, opossums, snakes and crows. The sound of the grunts barking encourages her to scrape the top off the nest and assist in their introduction into the water. When they are born they are typically six inches long. By their first birthday they have grown to a foot in length and grow on average, a foot a year for the first seven years of their lives.

As young grunts they are near the bottom of the food chain. Hatchlings can be eaten by Wood Storks, Snapping Turtles, Raccoons, Large Mouth Bass and other Alligators. Within a few years they are on the top of the food chain and can eat anything they can chomp and swallow. People are not on the menu.

On an incredibly scenic bike ride through the 7,017 acre Bird Rookery Swamp Management Unit in the Corkscrew Regional Watershed Ecosystem in Naples, FL we spotted well over one hundred grunts, many gathered in “pods” and sitting on logs or floating in the duckweed. Most of them did an alligator cannonball at the sound or sight of our presence. Each one guarded by a mama gator, seen or unseen. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Buffet Mixer


There are a variety of benefits to doing things in groups. Consider the last cookout you attended. Someone else bought the food. Someone else cooked and cleaned up. There was less risk of being eaten by a predator. Communal roosting makes sense too. Eating and roosting together makes sense for Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and White Ibis.

More ears and eyes means predators are at a disadvantage during a sneak attack. While roosting, huddling can conserve warmth for those with the best spots in the roost. The downside is when you head out for breakfast in the morning everyone follows. The older and experienced birds tolerate social parasitism in exchange for safety in numbers. There is a pecking order and bigger birds can dominate others in the flock.



Finding food is also easier with many eyes looking. Once located, the buffet commences. Here a flock of Great White Egrets, Snowy Egrets and a few White Ibis have found a high concentration of fish and frog eggs to feast on.

Around the outskirts of the buffet are Little Blue Herons who are exhibiting commensalism. As the Egrets and Ibis stir things up, the Little Blue Herons feed on what the rest of the birds are not interested in. Essentially commensalism is when one species feeds among others and benefits without harming or benefiting the main species. In this case the Little Blue Heron is the guy that came to the party with the friend you invited. Little Blues are twice as successful when feeding commensally as opposed to individually.

May marked the end of the dry season in Florida which generally runs from December through May 15th. As the wetlands begin to fill with water and prey species re-colonize the marshes and swamps, many of the wading birds will rely less on communal feeding and venture out to forage solo. After a long day of hunting, it’s back to the communal roost for an evening of preening and sleep. Party on.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Murder in the Marsh - The Florida Sandhill Crane

“Someone just shot a Sandhill Crane in the marsh” I said with disgust. “Is that bad” a friend asked.

Yes that’s bad.

A)    The Florida Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis pratensis), is listed as Endangered in Florida due to habitat loss and over hunting.
B)    Hunting of Sandhill Cranes is no longer permitted in Florida.
C)    The marsh where it was shot is off limits to hunting.
D)    The marsh where it was shot is within 300 yards of an elementary school
E)     I had just been riding my bike within the range of the shooter.

While a third of the Sandhill Crane population breeds in Canada and Alaska, the Florida subspecies is non-migratory and adults are rearing chicks right now. The marsh I visited has no less than four pairs of adult Sandhill Cranes. Presently at least two of those pairs have several week old chicks. Adults form long-term pair bonds and tend to their young for up to ten months. The marsh is ideal in that the cranes create a nest of debris and vegetation surrounded by water. They feed on insects, small vertebrates, like frogs and snakes and even they also eat seeds and fruits.

The marsh is a manmade stormwater filtration wetland but considering Sandhills lost most of their wetland habitat to drainage and suffered a subsequent population decline, they’ll take what they can get. What they don’t need is a random knuckle dragger using protected birds for target practice.

As my brother-in-law and I made our way towards the exit of the marsh trail, a shot rang out ahead of us. And another. The shooter turned, with rifle drawn on us, turned back to the Sandhill and fired. The bird went down with a wing flapping. Ibis, Anhingas, Herons and Sandhills joined a frenzy of squawks as they ascended and descended on the injured bird. I expected them to fly away but they were as traumatized as we were and seemed to be rallying around the wounded bird. One final shot and the adult bird was gone.

We raced home and called the sheriff, who was dispatched immediately. The shooter left before he arrived, but the single parent, mother of two Sandhill Crane fledglings remained. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sand Trapped - The Big Cypress Fox Squirrel

People don’t appreciate squirrels. One person’s pest is another person’s treasure. Such was the case as I drove past a golf course on my way out of a gated community in Fort Myers. Bounding across the fairway was a large Big Cypress Fox Squirrel (BCFS). I slammed on the brakes and jumped out, camera in hand. The tan-bellied, salt-and-pepper backed squirrel was as interested in me as I was of it and we stood for a moment like two gunslingers, unflinching. A disgusted woman shook her head and headed after her ball.

The Big Cypress Fox Squirrel (Sciurus nigra avicennia), is an endemic subspecies here in southwest Florida. They’re found from the Caloosahatchee south through the mangroves along the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike most of Florida’s terrestrial mammals, the BCFS are diurnal (day active), ground foragers. They feed on pine and cypress cones, palmetto berries, bromeliad seeds and a host of other native seeds and fruits. They prefer an open understory in the pine flatwoods, cypress swamps and mangroves. What is unusual is that as development continues to slice up their habitat, leaving it more and more fragmented, the squirrels have taken to golf courses which retain characteristics of their preferred habitat – open grazing areas with forested refuges.
Golf course BCFS have been shown to be more gregarious. They mate year round and are less susceptible to food shortages. Land managers have helped protect the species by leaving natural vegetation and planting trees, shrubs and grasses around the golf courses that specifically benefit the BCFS. The problem is sustainability. Increasingly these squirrel-occupied urban islands become more separated from natural communities and any link to other populations requires hazardous and often fatal road crossings.

Additionally, foraging around a golf course may seem like the life of leisure but without the protection of a forest canopy the squirrels must keep an eye skyward for birds of prey.

Their relaxed social standards could put them at risk as well. Normally solitary, golf course squirrels that congregate are at greater risk of spreading diseases to one another like Squirrel Poxvirus. A BCFS was found to be infected in 2010 and although an outbreak has not been reported, the virus is spread by contact and would have the greatest impact on sociable squirrels.

Golf courses have benefited BCFS to a degree but ultimately these populations must remain connected to their backwoods neighbors or they are all doomed. Will anyone miss them when they’re gone? 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Distracted–the Polyphemus Moth


I’ll be honest. I was just playing Angry Birds, the horribly addictive app I can play on my iPhone. It’s right next to Audubon Nature Florida. I’m supposed to be writing about a moth. I had intended to simply look up the scientific name for the moth in question on the Audubon app. No I don’t know all of the scientific names of every plant and animal. Gorilla is easy. But in doing that quick bit of research my attention was drawn to the small square box on my shiny smartphone housing an angry cardinal. The next think I know I’m launching ferocious birds at pigs. I’m ashamed.

The Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus) lives and dies by behavior such as mine. The massive, night-flying member of the Saturniidae family of moths is decorated to both blend in among the leaf litter and confuse would-be predators with flashy eye spots. The six-inch wide, heavy-bodied moth has a week to live as an adult. There’s no time to feed. Females cast off an enticing pheromone that the males pick up on with their large, feather-like antennae. The males mate with multiple females while the females mate and go about finding a safe spot to lay their eggs.
At rest the tan, scalloped wing margins look like leaves and the insect can simply camouflage with its surroundings. At risk of being preyed upon, the Polyphemus Moth can flash the hind wings, unveiling two massive eye-like spots that give the appearance of something looking back. The wings are folded back in. The eye spots disappear and a confused predator either weighs the possibility of a challenge from another predator or can no longer find the thing with the bright flashy colorful spots that it wanted to eat.
Those familiar with Greek mythology might recognize Polyphemus as the one-eyed son of Poseidon and thus the naming of this beauty of a moth, which got me wondering why they named the movie the Poseidon Adventure. Back to the internet and long story short, Ernest Borgnine is still alive. Ugh. Now I need to research why the Angry Birds don’t have wings.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hate/Love Relationship–The Love Bug


Florida is currently experiencing the worst outbreak of Love Bugs in 50 years. The astute naturalist will recall last year’s crop was also the worst in 50 years. In fact every year seems to herald a never-before-seen airborne apocalypse of amorous insects.
For most of the year, Love Bugs (Plecia nearctica) go unnoticed in their larval form, living in the soil just under a layer of decaying vegetation. At this stage they’re quite beneficial, as they chew up the leaf litter and process it into soil.
Despite the fact that they neither sting nor bite, they are considered an absolute nuisance when the adults emerge from their pupal stage and take flight. It doesn’t help that they’re in the fly family and related to gnats and mosquitoes. For several weeks at a time one can not walk, drive or fly anywhere in the state without enduring a face or windshield barraged by slow-flying, conjoined, copulating Love Bugs. It’s as if someone shook a snow globe full of bugs. It’s disgusting.
What’s curious to those not swatting them out of their face or washing them off of their windshield is the romantic bond formed by a pair of adult Love Bugs. The larger female will seek out a swarm of males. A couple is literally formed end to end and for hours and often days the female will drag the male around shopping for a place to find nectar and lay the eggs the male has graciously been helping to produce.
My cousin asked me to explain to her son why he shouldn’t be freaked out by these affectionate insects. I relayed a story from my childhood when I had to get out of the car and open the gate at our farm. By the time I had reached the gate I was covered by hundreds of the black-bodied, orange-thoraxed flies. I screamed and carried on as if they were eating my flesh.
My story didn’t help.
If I recall correctly, that year was the worst outbreak of Love Bugs in 50 years.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Allergic Reaction to Suspense


If you’re the kind of person that has to peek under the Christmas tree before the day has arrived, go ahead and skip to the end. If you read the last page of a novel first or if you fast forward through the movie because you have to know “what is in the box!”, go ahead and skip to the end. I wouldn't want the suspense to kill you.

What is the fine specimen we have before us? It is a caterpillar entering the pupal stage before it becomes a butterfly. It has crawled up under a metal guardrail on a desolate road in the Everglades. Here it remains suspended, awaiting a transformative process that will entirely change its way of life. But which species will it become?

Brightly colored insects, reptiles and snakes are usually warning signs for predators to stay away. The caterpillars of this specie feed on passion flowers which cause them to be toxic.

While some predators ignore the warnings and suffer the consequences, others have adapted to the poison and can enjoy what most others can not. Will the fly on the bottom right of the caterpillar be one of those predators?

If the color wasn’t enough of a deterrent, the well-fortified exterior should repel the hungriest of predators. Surprisingly, the fierce looking spines are innocuous, flexible ornamentation that rounds out the repulsive costume.

Within a few days, the metamorphic process will conclude, the pupal casing will cleave and a beautiful butterfly will fly off, but which species?

If you skipped ahead from the opening paragraph, you’ve ruined it for everyone and now I won’t tell you what it is. But hey, what’s the fun of me telling you what is wrapped up in the package when it’s more fun to find out yourself. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Twisted Nickers - The Knicker Bean


“Watch this magic trick” a friend said as he took a marble-sized nickerbean and rubbed it on a rough surface. I watched as he placed it on my skin. The burning sensation caused by that brief amount of friction, reminded me of a searing hot branding iron scorched on a cattle’s hide. I jerked my arm away. ‘We used to do that to each other when we were kids” he said with glee.

Never mind that the bark of the tree has been used to treat malaria and venereal diseases or that new leaves can alleviate tooth pain, this plant can be used to inflict mild harm on others! “Don’t do that again” I groused with fiery irritation.

The Nickerbean (Caesalpinia bonducella), aka Gray Nicker or Nicker Nut Tree is a thorny, shrub that grows along the sandy coastline of South Florida. It is native to Florida but can be found along coastal habitats around the world.

The spiny-limb and leaved shrub can grow to nearly five feet before sagging branches droop towards well-drained sandy soils. They can take root and grow from there. It’s a bushwhacker’s nightmare to clamber through a twisted, tangled jumble of vegetation.

Canary-yellow blooms grow on tall stalks year round and give way to a well-armored, clam-shaped seed pods. As they mature, the pods open and two gray seeds are released.

Seeds are washed from shore by tides and floods before the sea returns them to potentially suitable, sun-drenched, sandy soils. As the seeds float about, scarification, or “nicking” occurs. The seed casing is chipped away by sand, insects and animals. Once water enters the seed it germinates and can begin to grow.

Beans don’t always get nicked and I’ll pick up whole ones when I find them. Who can resist magic beans? If someone performs a “magic nickerbean trick” for you someday don’t get your nickers in a twist. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Purple and Orange - The Royal Poinciana


Few trees are as showy as the Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia). Native to Madagascar, the Poinciana is a beautiful shade tree that was introduced to Florida decades ago. It’s a nice enough tree throughout the year, but as the rainy season kicks into full gear this month, the Poinciana – also known as the “Flamboyant Tree”, bursts with showy orange blossoms and gives color to a generally green landscape here in South Florida.
Cruising around the island of Everglades City, this particular tree was unanimously voted the most beautiful Poinciana around. The flaming-red spoon-shaped blooms will last for a few weeks into summer. The downside is it has a shallow root system that spreads out wide and wandering, preventing natives from growing and upending sidewalks and roughing up building foundations.
In addition to the flowery fireworks this month we also have many of the local residents putting on a spectacular air show. Purple Martins (Progne subis) ducked in and out of their condo and gourd-shaped homes, taking to the air to feast on unsuspecting insects or bringing in nesting material for their clutch of all white eggs.
The largest member of the Swallow family, the Purple Martins spend the winter in South America before returning to North America for the breeding season. Scouts arrive in January in south Florida and conclude nesting later in the month before heading south.
White apparently is the most attractive color to paint a Purple Martin house. I would assume they don’t mind Orange either.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Don't Tread on Me - The Cottonmouth


Americans drive a lot. Every year we build new roads and expand old ones. Wildlife is always in danger and the need for rescue is constant. Where the rubber meets the road, there is often a critter in between.
I make no judgments when a rescue is required. My safety is the number one priority. Getting the animal to safety is number two regardless of the species. There are times when my safety involves more than dodging traffic. The wildlife that is injured, stranded, trapped, etc. usually does not understand your intentions and can make the situation more difficult. Such was the case when a Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) made the proverbial “crossing of the road”.
Turtles are easy. Pick them up by the shell in front of each rear leg, carry them in the direction they were heading and place them far off the road. (Snapping Turtles and Softshell Turtles require a gentle grab by the tail and with arm fully extended away from your body, to bring them to safety).
When it comes to a venomous reptile, the plan changes. As I approach the snake in the road, it coils in defense as Cottonmouths do. It’s not helping. The approaching traffic spots me waving them into the other lane and had I not stood in the road they would have surely run the snake over. A car stops and asks if I need help. I explain I’m trying to shoo the snake off the road. Thoughtfully and with a twang reminiscent of a character from Deliverance, the driver points out that it’s a “ven-mus snake and it’ll bite cha!” He drives around.
The snake heads east, changes its mind and heads west. I carefully move to the opposite lane and direct more traffic around. A driver shakes his head. The snake slides off the pavement and into the grass, safe for now.
Certainly encounters with venomous snakes require caution, but out on the roads there is no question who is the more dangerous species.