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.

Wading Into Controversy - The Great White Heron

It would be easy for the casual observer to dismiss a tall white wading bird in Florida as a Great Egret (Ardea alba-top photo). The long, black-legged wader has a slim frame, thin beak and is found in a variety of shallow wetlands around the state. But in the fringes of southern Florida, every all-white wading bird requires a second look. It might be a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodia-bottom left).
I took a walk in the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge recently. Located just east of Naples and north of the Florida Keys, the refuge is part of the second largest mangrove forest in the world. On this sweltering March morning, a volunteer welcomes me and suggests I may not see much on the boardwalk since most of the water has dried up. I step on the path, round the corner and standing before me is a Great White Heron (bottom right), a rare color morph of the Great Blue Heron. This all white heron is larger than the Great Egret, has a heavier bill and sports light colored or yellowish legs.
The Great White Heron population is estimated to be around one thousand and most of them live on and around the Florida Keys and mangrove islands. The debate that I will not settle for you has been their taxonomic classification. For years they were considered a distinct species (Ardea occidentalis), geographically isolated from the Great Blue Herons of the mainland. They have also been considered a subspecies with the ability to interbreed with Great Blue Herons but do not do so naturally due to geography. Or do they?
Great White Herons do migrate up to the southern peninsula of Florida but mainland Great Blue Herons rarely migrate down to the keys. The Great Blue Herons and Great White Herons that live in the keys are larger than their relatives to the north. When they do form mating pairs it is often with a color morph similar to their own.
The Great White Heron probably does not merit species status. It could very well deserve a subspecies distinction. I’ll leave that to the taxonomists, but it certainly warrants a second look.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ghosts of Australia - The Australian Pine

That which we call a pine by any other name might not be a pine.
Growing along the coast of South Florida is an invasive tree known locally as an Australian Pine (Casuarina equisetifolia). It is in fact found in Australia as well as other locations in that region. It is in fact not a pine. Despite the peaceful sound the wind makes as it passes through the tree’s pine needle-like branchlets, it is a tree we need to do without here in Florida. Eradication programs exist but it is a resilient tree and has numerous fans.
My wife and I went for a short walk to take photos of a living Australian Pine. It was a blistering, hot March day and when we reached the shade of the 50-foot tall tree she said with sincerity, “Excellent. Shade.” It’s no wonder it has been hard to convince people that these “pines” have to go.
The evergreen was introduced to the sunshine state as a shade tree and a wind break. Its tolerance to high salinity gives it an advantage in old beach communities as well as newly formed beaches. It grows fast and as it does, drops needle-like branchlets that cover the ground. It renders the soil toxic to dune grasses, sea grapes and just about every other native species.
The other big issue is beach erosion. C.equisetifolia is the tallest of three invasive Australian Pines and can grow up to one hundred feet. Surprisingly is has a very shallow root system. The tree is easily toppled during storms and the massive trunks create unnatural breakers on the beach, leading to severe beach erosion.
Management of the three species is difficult. Cutting the main trunk can lead to root suckers – new trunks that grow from the roots. Herbicides are used with caution and fire can be used with care in fire tolerant plant communities. While the beauty of this tree can be appreciated, the destruction it causes must be recognized as well.
In the photo, a lifeless Australian Pine skeleton has succumbed to the sea – a ghost of Australia on the Florida coast.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Are You Smarter Than A Raccoon? - The Northern Raccoon

Several years ago I went camping at the Myakka River State Park. After a campfire dinner we took a walk down to the river to look at the stars and watch for gators. When we returned to our seats around the campfire we were showered with garbage! In the short time we were gone we had been raided by one of the locals, a Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor), who had grabbed our garbage and dragged it up into the safety of an oak. There it sat eating our leftovers and hurling bun wrappers and bean cans at us. Not very smart.
I took an airboat ride in the Everglades a few years back. Raccoons live on and around the islands and take advantage of the tides where they hunt for crabs, eggs and whatever else they may find. The boat captain pulled up to a mangrove island and pointed out a raccoon on the shore. “There’s plenty to eat here, but for some reason this one is always here every day so I feed him marshmallows.” Not very smart.
On the boardwalk at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary two women noticed a raccoon sitting in the water. One explained that they only live around dumpsters. The other nervously suggested it might be rabid and they should leave. Not very smart.
They walked off and the mother and the rest of the raccoon clan peeked out and continued poking and prodding the mud for invertebrates and other snacks. They were healthy raccoons. They were just in their natural environment.
At a local Florida beach, a teenager watched a raccoon climb a garbage can, lift the lid and pull out the garbage he had just placed in it. Incredulous, he turned to a gathering crowd and explained he had put the lid on it and doesn’t know how the raccoon did it. Not very smart.
Raccoons are found across North America. They’re adaptable, versatile, intelligent creatures who despite the reputation for carrying rabies as well as raiding our garbage cans are doing what any other species is doing. Surviving. As omnivores they have a full menu to choose from plus they have the dexterity, agility and intelligence to adapt to just about any environment.
In other words – pretty smart.