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


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.