Friday, November 23, 2012

Mission: Impossible – the Ground Beetles

Originally published on Audubon Guides on September 4th, 2012
My mother, a park ranger, once held out a cone from an unknown tree and asked a state forester if he knew which tree it came from. “Some kinda conifer”, he answered, as if that was sufficient. He wasn’t wrong. The cone did come from a coniferous tree, but the answer was as helpful as saying “food” when someone asks “what’s for dinner?”
My mother was hoping for the specific tree. Did the forester know the answer or not?  I hardly know anything and nature proves that to me daily with new mysteries. For example, why one morning was there a Ground Beetle hanging from a web-like snare from the bumper of my car? These are large, hefty beetles. Who caught it? And what type of beetle is it? I’ll give you a hint. You’re not going to find out because I don’t know.
Pasimachus Ground Beetle © Pete Corradino
I asked an insect nerd, I mean entomologist, which species it might be and considering there are over 425 different species of ground beetles, I was content to have it narrowed down to the Pasimachus, a genera with at least five indigenous species in Florida. From there he said it was impossible to tell with the photograph provided.
Most of the 40,000+ beetles in the world have hardened elytra that cover over and protect the wings. The Pasimachus ground beetles are flightless and the elytra are fused into a firm shell. They spend their time on the ground, in and under logs and leaf litter foraging for caterpillars, other larvae and other ground insects.
a mysterious situation © Pete Corradino
How this beetle came to be ensnared, flailing its limbs in the breeze like Ethan Hunt on a mission is beyond me. If it was trapped in a spider’s web, I wasn’t curious enough to look up under my car to find out which kind.
It would have been nice to offer you a genus and species name, but the beetle biologist took me as far as I could go. “Some kinda Pasimachus” would have to do. Sometimes identifying insects is a mission: impossible.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What Not To Lick – The Southern Toad

Originally published on Audubon Guides on October 8th, 2012
I had a dream about the game show Family Feud the other night. The one hosted by Richard Dawson, the guy that kissed all of the ladies.

He said “One hundred people surveyed, top five answers on the board. Here’s the question: name me something you lick.”

I couldn’t think. I panicked. Frozen flag poles. Lobsters. Newborns (no that’s what animals do). Toads!

“Show me Toads!”


Yeah that’s a bad idea. Toads in general have a powerful defense in the form of bufotoxin, a white venomous substance that is secreted through the “warts” on their skin. Licking the neurotoxin of a toad would be harmful and potentially fatal. In fact it’s illegal to produce drugs from toad venom in the U.S.  
Southern Toad © Pete Corradino
I had a dog when I was young that would routinely pick toads up in its mouth, quickly drop them and then froth at the mouth to eliminate the toxin. He often looked rabid. Did he learn? No and he repeated this behavior despite the negative reinforcement of the painful experience. Both the dog and toads survived nonetheless.

The Southern Toad (Anaxyrus terrestris) has bumpy skin with two large kidney-shaped parotoid glands behind the eyes. It is best not to handle toads and these bumps especially should be avoided. Southern Toads can reach lengths of over 3.5 inches, are slow hoppers and are found near water in sandy soiled areas. They’re also the ones hanging around your doorstep at night feeding on bugs. Keep the dog inside. During the day they dig a burrow to protect their moist skin from the long sunny days in the Southeastern United States.

In the spring, females will find a slow-flowing body of water and lay duel strands of thousands of gelatinous eggs that will hatch within 2-3 days. Once the tadpoles develop feet, thousands of them will disperse together on rainy nights, but their neurotoxin offers no defense for what awaits them on the roads.
You may have better ideas of what’s acceptable to lick. Just remember toads are not one of them. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Wishful Thinking - the Florida Panther

Originally published on Audubon Guides on September 24th, 2012
Twenty seven squirrel monkeys lived on an island at the Florida Monkey Sanctuary in Venice, Florida. They had no interest in swimming to freedom. There was no land close enough on the other side of the encircling moat that offered a chance to leap to. They were content on their island oasis.

My parents ran the sanctuary and we lived on the property when we were kids. One night while my siblings and I slept, our dogs made an awful racket. My mother asked my father to find out what was happening. He listened to the screams from the porch and stepped no further from them. One by one, the dogs returned, limping and bloodied. In the morning, my father investigated. All 27 monkeys were dead. He traced cat tracks the size of his hands; one adult and two kittens and determined that an endangered Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryii) swam across the moat with her young and hunted each and every one. Oddly, she ate none. My father’s theory was that she was teaching her kittens to hunt and quite effectively at that.

The Florida Panther is considered one of the most endangered animals on the planet. Technically they are a subspecies of the Mountain Lion, aka Puma, Cougar, Painter, Swamp Screamer and Catamount (mascot of my Alma mater – the University of Vermont – Go Cats Go!). The panthers are the last breeding population of the cats east of the Mississippi. They once ranged from Alaska, south to Tierra del Fuego in South America. In the United States they are restricted to the western states with the exception of 120-160 panthers that roam from the Caloosahatchee south to the Everglades.
Florida Panther © Pete Corradino
Florida Panthers are slightly smaller than the Mountain Lions out west. Adult males weigh in at 165 lbs, compared to western cats that top off at 260 lbs. Panthers measure over seven feet in length from nose to the tip of tail.

There are many sightings of panthers with descriptions of spotted cats or black cats that I chalk up to wishful thinking. Typically these are Bobcats (Lynx rufus) or a trick of the eye. Bobcats are a third of the size and are spotted with a six inch tailed compare to a three foot tail. The notion of a black panther may come from the black leopards from the Tarzan movies, the political group, their appearance at dusk or melanistic bobcats that have been sighted in Florida. The panther is golden brown with fur similar in color to their food, the White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

I was born and raised here and have yet to see a panther. I’ll keep looking and keep up my wishful thinking. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Catch Me If You Can – The American Oystercatcher

Originally published on Audubon Guides on October 1st, 2012
Catching an oyster only seems difficult to me if you’re tossing one around with your kid in your backyard. For a predator the difficulty is not chasing one down but prying one apart once they’ve located it. The two sides of the bivalve’s shell are bound together by an adductor that protects them from prying intruders. Hopefully.

Considering the difficulty of which it is to open an oyster for a human, the American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates) is a devastating effective predator of mollusks of all sorts. Juvenile oystercatchers are taught certain techniques by their parents that make a quick meal of mollusks. They are aided by a stout, powerful bill with triangular shaped mandibles in cross section that are reinforced in such a way that they will not bend easily when attacking prey.
American Oystercatcher © Pete Corradino
One method taught, known as “stabbing”, is to sneak up on the oyster while the shell is open even the slightest, stab at the adductor and break the shell open, exposing the meal inside. The second method, “hammering”, is to pry the oyster from the oyster bed or other place of attachment and then use the bill to shatter a hole in the shell. They can then break the adductor and eat their meal.
American Oystercatcher © Pete Corradino
In addition to oysters they feed on a variety of shellfish, crabs and tube worms. Crabs are flipped on their back and stabbed to death with the bill. To locate tube worms, sensitive nerve endings in the bill allow them to sense prey as they probe the tidal flats.
A Willet attempts to drive off an Oystercatcher © Pete Corradino
Occasionally confused with the Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger), the oystercatcher’s mandibles are equal in length compared to the skimmer’s disproportionate upper and lower mandibles. The oystercatcher has a black head, white belly, and sturdy pink legs.

As willets and sandpipers scooted along the surf, the oystercatcher above methodically probed the sand for lunch, ignoring the beachgoers. When you’re a stabber or a hammerer who’s going to mess with you?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Flip Flop - the Coconut Palm

Originally published on Audubon Guides on September 17th, 2012

One of the quickest ways to make an enemy of a native Floridian is to suggest that the Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera) is not native to Florida. The fastest way is to drive slowly in the fast lane. The iconic palm is found throughout the tropics and grows along Florida’s coast from the middle of the state south through the Keys. As a native Floridian I dare say that of the 85 species of palms found in Florida, the Coconut might not be one of the 10 native species. As more communities require Florida native plantings in their landscaping, the debate over the status of the Coconut Palm has been more heated. Certainly many of these palms have been planted on our shores, but the husked fruit can bob along in the ocean for long periods of time, so it’s not inconceivable that seeds have washed ashore and began growing here on their own. 
A Red-shouldered Hawk on a palm © Pete Corradino
The Coconut Palm is easily the most recognizable palm with its long fronds and bowling-ball sized fruit growing off of a single trunk. It’s valued for the sweet “water” found inside as well as the edible white “meat” on the inside that can be eaten raw or cooked in a variety. It is also used in soaps, shampoos and to make coconut oil. Most importantly the palm provides an aptitude test for young boys who attempt to procure the enticing seeds in a several ways. I've watched a less-than-gifted boy stand at the base of a palm and throw rocks up at a cluster of 10-15 coconuts, inadvertently providing a live demonstration of gravity.
Coconut Palm © Pete Corradino
The tree bears fruit after about five years and continues to grow 50-200 fruit for about eighty years. Clearly, as some boys age they learn the art of coconut retrieval. In Everglades City there is a group of men who drive around in an unmarked white van, locate Coconut Palms, shimmy up the trunk, knock the fruit down and collect them on the ground. Geniuses! These men are doing a public service. One of the fastest ways to determine who the tourists are is to see who parks under a Coconut Palm. Hopefully the White Van Men have already been by.
Coconut © Pete Corradino
I’ve changed my mind. As a native Floridian I’m going to flip flop and claim the Coconut Palm as one of our own. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

When in Drought – The Roseate Spoonbill

Originally published on Audubon Guides on September 10th, 2012
I could be a meteorologist in Florida. In May the weather forecast is a chance of rain through November. The rainy season coincides with the tropical storm season. A nice afternoon rain shower is par for the course on any given day.

Lake Trafford is a 1600 acre inland lake in northeast Collier County. It’s been called the headwaters of the western Everglades. There are no springs or creeks to fill it up. The lake relies solely on rain water. At its deepest point it’s about thirteen feet deep. As the afternoon rains have fallen across south Florida, the clouds have parted as they’ve passed the lake. When Tropical Storm Isaac skirted the gulf coast, rain bands slipped past the lake on either side. The result is a 1600 acre lake that has dried down to about 1200 acres with mudflats extending far out from shore. The lake is more than four to five feet lower than normal.
Roseate Spoonbills on Lake Trafford © Pete Corradino
The consequence is a high concentration of American Alligators, estimated at about 3000-4000. A variety of wading birds are also enjoying the late summer shallows. The Roseate Spoonbills are most conspicuous. In a landscape of leafy greens and muddy browns, the cotton candy pink plumage of the spoonbills is a carnival of contrast.

The bald-headed, spatula-spoon-billed bird has a distinct method of feeding, sweeping the bill back and forth over the shallow mudflats, sucking in water, fish, crustaceans and insects and straining out anything undesirable through its serrated-edged bill. The pink is diet related. Certain algae contain carotenoid pigments which shrimp consume and then pass on to spoonbills. These pigments are displayed in the pink flight feathers as well as the creamcicle-orange tail feathers.

Spoonbill populations have suffered for over a century in part from plumage hunters who collected the feathers for ornamentation in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Populations declined further due to the use of the chemical pesticide DDT that caused thinning of the eggshells and low birthrates. The population has increased in the last few years and despite the lack of rain on Lake Trafford, the low water has created a refuge of sorts. If every cloud has a silver lining, than it’s reflection on Lake Trafford is pink. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Hurriconundrum - The White Ibis

Originally published on Audubon Guides on August 25th, 2012
On Sunday, August 26th, Tropical Storm Isaac loomed 150 miles southwest of me in the Gulf of Mexico. For five days, hurricane trackers had forecast the storm’s position and strength and offered suggestions of where it might hit. Flooding, storm surges and high winds are a big concern. When the call goes out to evacuate, it’s time to go.
A mixed flock of Ibis, Wood Storks and Egrets © Pete Corradino
Birds and other wildlife are sensitive to barometric pressure changes. When storms rage through, strong fliers will depart in advance of the approaching storm. Tree cavity dwellers like owls and woodpeckers will take shelter while others will simply gran a branch, hang on and ride it out. The ibis can fly at speeds of up to 28 miles per hour, so it is possible that they are the last to go, but Ibis also amass in huge flocks and fly in “V” formation making them conspicuous to even a non-birder.

The White Ibis was named the mascot for the Miami Hurricanes back in 1926 because as the school’s website states, “Folklore maintains that the Ibis is the last sign of wildlife to take shelter before a hurricane and the first to reappear after the storm.” Clearly this is fact because several other websites state that “Folklore maintains that the Ibis is the last sign of wildlife to take shelter before a hurricane and the first to reappear after the storm.”
White Ibis © Pete Corradino
I was born and raised in Florida. In my 41 years I have yet to experience a hurricane (lucky!). I’m sure it made little sense to others that a native Floridian was asking when and if we will need to evacuate. I wonder if the birds do as well. Do they look to the Ibis or decide for themselves when it’s time to go? There are plenty of people who wait until the last minute to evacuate and then it may be too late.
Juvenile White Ibis © Pete Corradino
Thankfully there was no need for me to evacuate and I had the opportunity to watch to see which birds returned first. Keep your eyes open – with storms like these, occasionally a rare species like the Greater Flamingo will have been gusted north and made a rare appearance in Florida. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Walking on Sunshine – The Sunray Venus

Originally published on Audubon Guides on August 20th, 2012

The gulf coast beaches of Florida are famed for the amazing seashells that wash ashore. Scallops, conchs, whelks, pen shells, turkey wings and a myriad of others become treasures to tourists and locals who are no doubt entranced by the variety of colors and shapes these sea creatures come in. What is easy to overlook, is what is underfoot when we walk in the water along our coasts. The shells we gather were once occupied and lived in a community of unseen denizens in the sand.  
Gulf Coast shore birds © Pete Corradino
Bunche Beach in Fort Myers is a little known, sand and mud bottomed beach between Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel. At low tide, the crowds arrive. Black Skimmers, Laughing Gulls, Royal Terns, Least Terns, American Avocets, Whimbrels, Ruddy Turnstones, Dunlin, Willets and other coastal birds probe the flats in search of bivalves, crustaceans, sand worms and other critters that are vulnerable when the tide falls. One of the favorite snacks of gulls and terns is the radiant Sunray Venus Clam (Macrocallista nimbus).

Sunrays are found in muddy environments where they can burrow up to twenty five feet deep. Storms often send them tumbling up towards the beach where they make easy pickings for birds, raccoons and other coastal species. My son plucked one from the sand. It was empty but the radiant sun burst of color was evidence that it had been freshly vacated. Sunrays, while brilliant with pinks, salmons, grays and blacks will quickly fade in the sun.
Sunray Venus Clam © Pete Corradino
The ligament that holds each valve together was tenaciously protecting a ghost of an occupant. The umbo, the terminal meeting point of both halves was chipped and scratched as if the shell had taken a turbulent ride in the sand. Inside, the shell was porcelain with a faint touch of salmon around the centers.
It’s a beautiful shell and certainly made a good home for the departed owner. Now in my son’s collection of sea treasures, it is a reminder of the mysteries underfoot and the sunshine in the sea. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Fence Me In

Originally published on Audubon Guides on August 13th, 2012

Traveling across the Everglades, a motorist will see signs that caution “panther crossing”, and “wildlife on roadway”. Speed limits are reduced at night to protect nocturnal species. Hundreds of miles of fences stretch from one side of the state to the other. Wildlife is often observed behind the fence and one might wonder if you’re traveling through a zoo or you are part of the zoo.

The Big Cypress National Preserve, established in 1974, is a vast 750,000 acre wilderness in the heart of the Everglades. Three main roads cut through the preserve. I-75, also known as Alligator Alley runs east/west from Fort Lauderdale to Naples. SR-29, aka Panther Pass runs north/south along the western border of the preserve and US-41, aka Tamiami Trail cuts just above the southern boundary of the Preserve and runs from Miami to Naples.
Wildlife crossings in the Everglades\
In the 90’s, the Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi) population dropped precipitously low to an estimated 35 cats. Various methods were used to help the population, including introducing eight Texas Cougars, installing reduced speed limit signs in popular panther habitat and building wildlife underpasses and overpasses. The majority of the passes were built along I-75 with an additional 6 passes built along SR-29. They were built in locations where an unsustainable number of road fatalities to panthers had occurred as well as American Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis), American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and many other species.
A White-tailed Deer safe behind a fence © Pete Corradino

Fencing helps redirect the wildlife to the bridges where they can safely cross, prevents vehicular accidents and maintains contiguous habitat for animals that are known to wander far and wide throughout the wet and dry seasons.

In January of 2012, Florida DOT installed solar-powered, Remote Animal Detection Systems in areas where fences are not practical. LED-slit signs flash when the RADS are triggered, warning motorists of wildlife on or near the roadway.
White-tailed Deer © Pete Corradino

Safe from vehicles, the deer in the photo was grazing behind the fence, oblivious or uncaring that I stood just fifteen feet away. It also happened to be inside the Panther Refuge…..

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Undertaker – The Crested Caracara

Originally published on Audubon Guides on October 14th, 2012
Throughout Florida’s rural landscape, thousands of miles of asphalt scars bisect pasturelands and create obstacles for every species of wildlife including rodents, frogs, owls, pigs, bears, panthers and so many more. A desolate wilderness is not a promise of safe harbor and the roadsides are often littered with carcasses of the quick…and yet dead.

A ghoulish gaggle of Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures often accompanies the funeral service, completing the deceased’s transition from life to death. Vultures feed primarily on carrion, although Black Vultures will assist in dispatching creatures still clinging to life. With weak talons and slow flight, they are ill equipped to chase and kill anything with much more spirit.
Crested Caracara and Turkey Vulture © Pete Corradino
In south central Florida, one of the rarest birds in the state can be seen in pairs, crowding a flock of vultures and dominating a carcass. The Crested Caracara, also found in Texas and Arizona is endangered in Florida in part due to increased agriculture lands. The roads that bring the roadkill also put the caracaras at risk of becoming roadkill themselves.

While the Crested Caracara is sometimes referred to as a Mexican Eagle, it is a member of the Falcon family, albeit in the much slower genus Caracara. The long-legged, sharp-beaked bird of prey is capable of chasing down its quarry and spends much of its time hunting on the ground. They are opportunistic and will feed on reptiles, small mammals and invertebrates but the preference in the prairielands is easy game, aka dead stuff.

The Crested Caracara is distinctly different in appearance from its undertaker associates. They look like a small Bald Eagle with a toupee. Their white neck and flight feathers against a body of brown set them apart from the mostly black vultures. Caracaras also have a stout orange beak with a blue tip. I often see them perched on fence posts, snags or in Slash Pines when not feeding on roadkill. The kill sites are always dynamic with an obvious pecking order among vultures and caracaras. Regardless of the number of vultures, a pair of caracaras will always dominate. It helps to be a Falcon and makes the job that much easier of an undertaking.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

iPed Shuffle – The Southern Stingray

Originally published on Audubon Guides on July 30th, 2012

From May through October, anyone heading into Florida’s coastal waters is encouraged to do the “stingray shuffle”. This Frankenstein’s monster-like gait stirs the underwater sediments and frightens the bottom dwelling rays into taking off. No doubt this aquatic march is a Sand Dollar’s (Echinarachnius parma) worst nightmare.

The Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana) is the most common ray found along Florida’s coast. Its range extends from New Jersey south through the Gulf of Mexico and down the Atlantic coast to Brazil. This relatively flat-bodied, cartilaginous fish is related to sharks, whom happen to be one of their main predators. Despite their venomous bite and stinging barb, the stingray is non-aggressive, but those that don’t heed the “shuffle” warnings run the risk of stepping on one when they enter the water. Stingrays will burrow into the sand to rest and if stepped upon will involuntarily slap their four inch barbed tail up at the offender.
Southern Stingray
Southern Stingray © Graeme Teague
Less than two thousand incidences occur each year in the United States and most of them are minor injuries around the feet and ankles. The knife-like barb is serrated on both edges and terminates at a venom gland at the base which is equipped with a serious nerve toxin. Rarely is the injury serious or fatal and can be treated initially by immersion in hot water which breaks down the proteins in the venom and eliminates the pain. Further treatment is suggested.
If anyone should feel threatened it’s the clams, oysters, mussels, tube worms, coquinas, sand fleas, sand dollars, shrimp and even octopus that the stingrays feed on. The bat-like fish will flap its wings to uncover critters in the sand or blow water over the sand to achieve a similar effect. It even possesses an acute sensory system that detects its prey’s electrical field but most commonly uses its sense of smell.
What is harder to detect is a foot descending from the world above the waves. If you’re heading to the beach in stingray territory, make sure you shuffle; you never know what will surprise you.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Suckers – The Common Octopus

Originally published on Audubon Guides on July 23rd, 2012

A friend called me the other day and asked me why we don’t have octopuses in Florida. “Why?” I questioned. Apparently someone she knew was going snorkeling on the reefs in Biscayne National Park off the coast of Miami. The woman was deathly afraid of octopuses and wanted to make sure the world beneath the waves was devoid of the well-suckered ones. I laughed. We have plenty but they’re nothing to worry about.

Octopuses are mollusks, more specifically cephalopods. They’re related to snails, slugs, clams, oysters and squid. Like any carnivore, they come well equipped to hunt. Like any prey species, they are well equipped to defend themselves. Their greatest weapon perhaps is their brain, a well-developed organ with the processing power that rivals some birds and fish. Not bad for an invertebrate species in the same phylum as the slugs.

All octopuses are venomous and can secrete a chemical from their salivary glands that incapacitates prey (The only octopus that secretes a deadly neurotoxin is native to the oceans around Australia). A powerful parrot-like beak allows them to puncture the shell of their prey which is mainly mollusks and crustaceans. Cephalopod means “head” and “foot”, a perfect characterization of a massive head seemingly mounted on four pairs of legs. Each leg is armed with rows of hundreds of suckers that prevent prey from escaping their powerful grip.

Most fascinating is the ability of the octopus to change colors dramatically within seconds. The malleable mollusk is capable of squeezing and relaxing muscles that control chromatophores, specialized cells that contain a variety of pigments. These cells can mimic the color, texture and brightness of the octopus’s surroundings, enabling them to blend into their surroundings in an instant and not only ambush prey, but hide from predators.

If you snorkel or dive in Florida you will be among octopuses. The Common Octopus (Octopus vulgaris) is the – ahem – most common. You may not see them but they will most likely see you. Fear not, their preference is to remain camouflaged and undiscovered.

During a recent trip to the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, FL my son and I watched an octopus in an aquarium scramble across the interior glass and duck into a corner – in plain sight. It turned from a bright red to a mottled brown color. A pair of visitors ambled up, looked into the tank, scanning past the octopus and complained, “There’s nothing in here”.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Olympic Wake Zone – The West Indian Manatee

Originally published on Audubon Guides on August 6th, 2012
Who wouldn't tune in to watch a showdown between the “slow moving”, baked potato-shaped  West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus)  and an Olympic gold medalist swimmer? Few people would put money on the bulbous beast to win a race against any human let alone an Olympian, the fastest of which can swim nearly 4 ½ mph. Surprisingly, the aquatic plant-munching manatee lazily drifts along at 3-5 mph and when pressed can zip along at 15 mph—three times faster than an Olympian.
West Indian Manatee
West Indian Manatee and calf © Jungle Pete
As of the start of the 2012 London Games, swimmer Michael Phelps had won 16 medals in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. He stands a sleek six feet four inches and weighs around 185 pounds. Compare that to the barrel-shaped manatee that can weigh over 1200 pounds and reach lengths of thirteen feet long it’s hard to believe this would even be a contest but it is – in the manateesfavor.
Despite their ability to swim rapidly in short bursts of speed, manatees are often victims of collisions with watercraft that can seriously injury or kill them. It has been disproven thatmanatees cannot hear approaching boats. The question remains – why don’t they escape? Is their reaction time too slow? Is there too much auditory stimulus to sort out?
In 2011, Florida Fish and Wildlife conducted their annual manatee survey and counted 4834 – the second highest number since surveys began in 1991. That same year, 453 confirmed manatee deaths were recorded in Florida’s waters. Eighty-eight deaths were attributed to watercraft collisions including impacts and propeller wounds. One hundred and twenty deaths were undetermined and in the wake of an extended cold spell, 112 died from cold stress.
While wake zones have been established in high traffic manatee areas, boater complacency and accidental collisions still occur. Every year we continue to lose roughly ten percent of themanatee population, but many of those losses can be prevented through respect of their habitat by boaters and access to natural springs and warm water discharge from power plants.
Many tune in to watch the grace and athleticism of the Olympians competing in London. Consider There’s a show going on under the sea too, if only more of us would slow down and enjoy it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Ghost Hunters, Part IV

Originally posted on Audubon Guides on July 16th, 2012

My companions take the first step into the duckweed (Lemna valdiviana) covered muck. It stirs slightly and closes back in over the black water as they wade out into the slough. “Something moved in the water” one of them says. “Probably a snake”. I’ve seen Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) out here in the past, most notably one that bobbed to the surface after I stepped on it. They can inject venom with an underwater bite. I got lucky. We carry sticks for balance, to probe the water depth and to check for critters. We can’t dismiss the American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) either. We believe there’s not enough food for an alligator out here yet. At least that’s what we’re telling ourselves.

With each step we look a few feet above us. Ghost Orchids are leafless plants that have recognizable green-white cord like roots that radiate from a center point. They typically grow 6-10 feet above the water on Pop Ash and Pond Apples which provide excellent cover and trap the perfect amount of humidity for these epiphytes to thrive.
My one mistake of the day sets me on edge for the rest of it. As I wade into deeper water I sidestep an unseen fallen branch at my feet. I plunge from knee depth to hip deep in a second and suddenly my cameras, which I've raised over my head are not my biggest concern. I safely scramble onto a dry island and consider the importance of my walking stick.

I pick up the “trail” – a loose separation of duckweed that my companions have slogged through and continue hip deep at a cautious pace. They have found the first Ghost, a double with two blooms floating to either side of the host tree trunk.
The decision is made to check the edges of the slough as the plants in the middle seem to have bloomed early. I gratefully make my way out of the deep water as my shoes make one last sucking gasp as the mud releases them. Two year ago we found four Ghosts in another slough. Suddenly we were surrounded by them. Several were just blooming, some wilting and others in full resplendent glory. We found singles, doubles and one triple blossom plant – 22 all told.
Ghost Orchid twins © Pete Corradino
As I wrap my head around our good fortune I hear whispers. Babbling sounds from the center of the swamp. Am I imagining this? It sounds like people but we are out in the middle of nowhere. After a few moments, three strangers make their way across the slough and beam in on a flower their GPS has led them to. We introduced ourselves and left them to their work. That’s when we found this beautiful “triple” double, a double blossom with a single blossom growing from a neighboring plant. Beautiful.
After all of that, I’m afraid it’s time to head back the way we came in. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ghost Hunters, Part III

Originally posted on Audubon Guides - July 9th, 2012

Fear is an acceptable emotion that can lead to a heightened sense of awareness and ultimately protect one from a potential threat. I’m not afraid of ghosts. Nor am I afraid of seeking them but there are situations involved in the hunt that make you pause and consider that what you are doing is extremely dangerous and each step must be made with the greatest level of caution. The reward is ephemeral – 22 ivory white Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) blossoms floating under a canopy of Pop Ash (Fraxinus caroliniana) and Pond Apples (Annona glabra) in the midst of Florida’s greatest wildernesses – the Everglades.

The first step off the unpaved road is a hot one. Sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense) radiates intense heat and although it’s just after 8 AM, it feels like someone opened the oven door. Drainage efforts over the years have created high and dry ecotones, where welcoming shade comes from Slash Pines (Pinus elliottii) along the trail. A Black Bear (Ursus americanus) footprint reminds us that we are not alone out here. This doesn’t concern me. The bear mostly likely knows we are here and has gone in the other direction.
Black Bear tracks
Eventually the slightest elevation change brings us through a transition zone where towering Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens) draped with briars make the narrowing trail all the more difficult to traverse. There is no water here yet, but by the end of the rainy season, it will be two feet deep where we stand.
As the elevation plummets by the inch, the canopy closes in, the temperature drops nearly 20 degrees and we come to the edge of the water. The rainy season began a month back and the sloughs of the Everglades have been the first to fill. The limestone has been carved out by flowing water and has created the perfect environment for Pop Ash, Pond Apples and an assortment of native, spectacular orchids.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Bite the Hand That Feeds You

Recently, an Everglades airboat captain lost his hand to an American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) during a tour. Feeding, harassing or molesting alligators is punishable with a maximum fine of up to $500 and 60 days and jail. Losing your limbs or your life is an additional punishment for bad behavior.

In all of my years in the Everglades I have seen people do some dumb things around these giant reptiles. I watched a mother with a shovel in one hand and a bag of mystery meat in the other feed a wild alligator as her small children stood by and watched. The shovel she claimed was to hit the alligator over the head if it approached. I explained to her the first rule of alligator etiquette. Don’t do dumb things. I explained the law and she left (and probably to return another day).  

© Pete Corradino
I watched in horror as a European couple walked their child down to the edge of the water and backed away to take a picture. No doubt the picture of a small child with a six foot alligator just feet away might have impressed someone but I carefully approached and pantomimed the first rule. They didn’t speak English, but “don’t do dumb things” was easily articulated with two arms making a chomping motion.

I watched two teenage boy inexplicably chasing an eight foot alligator down the main road in the Everglades National Park. I stopped them and asked them what was going to happen when they caught up to the alligator. They had no clue. The alligator found an opening in the mangroves and slipped away.

© Pete Corradino
The law has a purpose. Alligators have a natural fear of humans. In fact there have been less than 600 wild alligator attacks in Florida since 1948 and only 23 of those were fatalities. Of those attacks, most were either alligators that were fed, alligators that were being handled (molesting) or occurred when someone was swimming in the water with them.

Once an alligator loses its fear of people it becomes a dangerous alligator. If you dangle a piece of chicken in front of an alligator, it’s going to bite the hand that feeds it. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Great Lengths - The Green Heron

As I ride my bike back to my house, I have one hand on the handle bars and one delicately cradling a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) that is thankfully behaving.
The bird is beautiful with deep green plumage on its head and back, rusty-colored feathers around the neck, a long pointed beak and a deceivingly long neck. From a riverside perch, Green Herons can extend their neck great lengths to the water and snap up an unsuspecting fish.
Green Heron © Manfred Dangel
The Heron was found in shin-high grass in the Harns Marsh in Lehigh Acres, Florida. As I peddled by, I expected it to fly and when it didn’t I considered it was injured. I parked the bike and stepped towards it. The bird rolled on to its back and offered its feet in a meek attempt to defend itself. I placed my hat over its head and examined what I believed was an injured wing. The bird could not fly. I carefully placed him under my arm and headed for home, chanting softly “please don’t bite me”.
Green Heron © Maria Elena Corradino
What I have done so far and what I will do is nothing exceptional. Rescuing injured wildlife is something that everyone with the capacity to do, should. What the rehabilitators do is something extraordinary and should be supported. Chances are you have a wildlife rehabilitation center nearby (and this is your chance to give them a shout out). For me, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (C.R.O.W) in Sanibel, FL is the closest. They have a wide reaching network of volunteers who are willing to pick up the animals on location or at designated facilities.

Back at home I placed the heron in an animal carrier. I drop the bird off at the local vet’s office who secures it in a safe area. Later, a volunteer will pick the bird up along with an injured turtle that is awaiting transport. Once at the clinic, they will assess the injury and with good fortune and good medicine, have the animal back in the wild as soon as possible.
Green Heron © Pete Corradino
Consider the great lengths these rehabilitation centers go to for these wild animals and consider supporting their cause. Help injured wildlife. Volunteer to be a transporter. Donate to their organization. These clinics and the wildlife need all the help they can get. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Flowers for Father's Day

The Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve is a nine-mile long, third of a mile wide, linear strand of forest in Fort Myers, Florida. I assume the name “Nine Mile Cypress Slough Preserve” had already been taken. The 2500-acre preserve is home to a remarkable diversity of plants and wildlife, many of which can be seen on a two and half mile boardwalk.
Florida Butterfly Orchid © Pete Corradino
My dad and I came out here years ago and while others were quick to speed around the circuit we stopped and sat on a bench. We watched Green Anoles flaring their dewlaps in a reptilian show of dominance. We watched a Yellow Rat Snake glide between cypress knees. We spotted a female NorthernCardinal flitting from branch to branch and we listened to a Carolina Wren belt out an unimaginably loud call for such a small bird. A couple of people walked by at a brisk pace and dejectedly remarked that there was nothing to see here. I’ve heard this complaint repeated many times through the years no matter where I go. I’m hoping they’re referring to the wildlife and not me.
© Pete Corradino
I spent Father’s Day at the Six Mile Cypress this year. The rains have yet to fill the swamp and I found myself saying how little there was to see. Thinking about my visit with my father, my wife and baby stopped and took it all in.

Clinging to a Pop Ash, about ten feet off the dry swamp floor was a beautiful Florida Butterfly Orchid (Encyclia tampensis). This bee pollinated epiphyte (a plant that grows on another plant) gets its name from the way the flowers dance in the wind like butterflies. The relatively common orchid blooms from May through August from central Florida south through the Everglades. The plant is not parasitic but does get support from the tree and nutrients and water from its heightened position.
Florida Butterfly Orchid © Pete Corradino
We spotted five different flowers in the preserve today which is five more than I’ve seen before here. It helped to have beautiful yellow flowers cast about in the breeze but I might have missed them had I not stopped to look up and around.

I couldn’t be with my father today but here are some flowers for Father’s Day.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Aves Non Grata - The Blue-footed Booby

I pushed my sister off the roof our house once. I meant no harm. We were simply filming what we expected would be the big winner on America’s Funniest Videos. When her cue came and she didn’t jump, I pushed her. That’s what big brothers do. She was fine. Anyway I have two more sisters where that one came from.
Booby with chick © Pete Corradino
Blue-footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii) are occasional visitors to the United States but they nest primarily along the Pacific from Mexico south to Peru. They are opportunistic nesters, laying between 1-3 eggs on the ground inside a curious white ring. The eggs are laid and incubated asynchronously and hatch in the order in which they were laid. If times are good, everyone gets fed and fledged. When food is scare, competition sets in among the hatchlings who participate in siblicide. They kill their own brothers and sisters. In theory, the first hatchling has the upper hand, or wing as it were, which they use to push the younger siblings out of the nest. In some cases they can push them off a cliff edge but here’s where the mysterious white ring comes into play. What looks like a monochromatic circle of spin art is a fecal ring. The female will rotate around the center of the nest and squirt feces and uric acid in a scattershot pattern.
White fecal ring around nest © Pete Corradino
During a trip to Ecuador I had an opportunity to see the nesting behaviors and artistic displays firsthand. The Blue-footed Boobies will let you approach and seemingly don’t even recognize your presence until you step across the magic white fecal line (which I did not do out of respect for the wildlife). Now facing a threat, her pointed beak becomes all business. Anything within the circle conversely must be protected.
© Pete Corradino

A hatchling does not understand this. They understand hunger and survival. When they push their siblings, hatched or unhatched, across the magic line, the female booby suddenly earns her name. Beyond the line, her young become aves non grata.
© Pete Corradino
It had never occurred to me that with one less mouth to feed I’d have a greater opportunity for more food. In fact our incident on the roof had the opposite effect. No dessert that night and no more access to the roof.  

Monday, July 23, 2012

Pacific Piracy - The Magnificent Frigatebird

© Pete Corradino

To take from others that which is not yours would seem an easy way to acquire any number of things. Treasure comes to mind. Regurgitated squid as well. As long as men have sailed the oceans there have been pirates plundering the belongings of others and as long as birds have taken to the skies, there have been certain species that would steal rather than hunt on their own. The colonial roosting, coast-dwelling Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) is one such bird. While they are quite capable of plucking flying fish and other pelagic species from the ocean’s surface, they have the unscrupulous habit of pestering fellow avian species into reluctantly giving up their meals.
© Pete Corradino
Many of Ecuador’s islands, from the far flung Galapagos (over 500 miles off the South American coast) to Isla de la Plata (just a few miles from shore) were famed pirate hideouts. A stone throw from the rocky cliffs of Islamar is Isla Salango, home to colonies of Blue-footed Boobies (Sulane bouxii), Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis). The island’s high cliffs, draped in tropical vegetation and capped with stone turrets provide excellent habitat safe from many terrestrial predators, but the Blue-footed Boobies must keep a watchful eye on their piratical island neighbors. Frigatebirds target boobies returning to the island with an obvious crop full of recently captured food. The frigates are light-weight, aerial acrobats, weighing in at no more than three and a half pounds with a wingspan nearing six feet. Their ability to pursue and harass boobies and other coastal birds provides them an additional food source besides scouring the seas themselves.
© Pete Corradino
As I stand on the mainland of Islamar, I watch the long-beaked frigates gliding on an imperceptible wind. For hours they drift back and forth across this span of sea. Beyond the limits of my vision, males return to the island with sticks and vegetation for the females who build the nest for a singular egg that both will tend to for nearly two months. The young will remain with the mother for up to eighteen months and by age five they will have learned that the entire ocean contains treasure to feast upon, even if someone else found it first.