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?”


But I get it. 

Monday, December 19, 2011


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.