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. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Family Bonding - The Ani

I was recently in Ecuador and while I certainly expected to add a few birds to my life list while touring the jungle, I hadn’t expected to discover my first Groove-billed Ani (Crotophagasulcirostris) while strolling my son in an urban park in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. 

I spotted my first Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Florida back in 1993 and have not seen one since. Anis are slightly larger than a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), members of the Cuckoo family and look like a cross between a crow and a parrot. Their distinctively stout bill clearly separates this tropical black bird from anything similar.

During our stay in Ecuador, my wife, son and I stayed with my in-laws in Guayaquil, a sprawling 125 square mile city on the banks of Guayas River. Their modest, three bedroom home in the heart of the city played host to grandparents, aunts, uncles, dozens of cousins and many friends during our stay. The size of this close-knit “family” seemed as expansive as the city and it was clear that not only was every friend and family member welcome in this home, each of their homes were a welcome extension of the family compound. (I believe the 85+ cousins were raised together and are genuinely close.)
© Pete Corradino
Taking no exception to this, but finding it somewhat unfamiliar, I would clear my head on a daily basis by strolling my son down the street to the local park where I discovered my second ani. The locals playing basketball eyed me suspiciously as I photographed the birds. To most people I suspect, the anis are just birds. Upon closer inspection of the photos I realized that not only were the birds anis, but they were Groove-billed Anis with distinct ridges along the bill.

Groove-bills nest in Texas and are occasional visitors to Florida and other states. They are also found throughout Central America and along the coast from Columbia down to Peru. Both species of anis are unique in that they are communal breeders. Only three percent of bird species exhibit such behavior. Essentially one to five monogamous pairs of anis defend a territory and build a single nest in which the females lay their eggs. Each member is involved in incubation of the eggs and care of the young, but this does not exclude all competition. Occasionally females will push eggs out of the nest that are not their own to assure the successful hatching of theirs.

I spotted two pairs of anis in the park during strolls with my son, an only child. As I wheeled him back to his grandparent’s home I considered the effort required for two people to raise one child versus many parents helping raise many kids. With such a loving family, I can’t imagine any cousins have ever been kicked out of the nest. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pain in the Grass

Take great care when walking on
A grassy dune or beach
Avoid the spiny sandburs
Is the lesson I would teach

Oddly it is classified
As a grass with flattened blade
The well protected prickly seed
Inflicts a pain I would not trade

To any other person
The one-seeded fruit may look benign
But as a kid the stalk of spurs
Was used like a cat-of nine

By bullies armed with barbed bouquets
A devilish construction
Persecuted mercilessly I was by
Weapons of grass destruction

The biological intent although
Is not to cause one dread
The seeds instead attach themselves
And from there the grass can spread

Food it is for larval forms
Of several butterflies
Like satyrs and many skippers
Just before they metamorphasize

The many forms of sandbur species
All members of the genus Cenchrus
Have caused a many manly men
To tiptoe along the seashells

The last thing I’ll say
I’ve saved for last
Please watch your step
For this pain in the grass

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mahogany Bombs

When the fruit fell from the tree it clanged on the hood of the car with the force of a well hit baseball. It rolled off the grill, falling to the pavement with the sound of the crack of a bat. The rock hard exterior of the fruit had cleaved into four neat quarters, each maintaining a slim connection to the adjacent quarter. Inside, several dozen reddish-brown, winged seeds had separated from the core, while a few had been ejected out upon impact. Today, this is a commonplace occurrence in department store and grocery store parking lots of South Florida where the West Indian Mahogany (Swietenia mahagon) has been planted.

The long sought-after hardwood is native to many islands in the Caribbean as well as extreme South Florida. Over harvesting has reduced the range and abundance of this tropical species, which most likely found its way to Florida millennia ago on the winds or waves churned up by tropical storms or hurricanes.

© Pete Corradino
Shoppers might find it hard to believe that the seemingly ubiquitous tree that has been planted prolifically is recognized as a threatened species. Most wild specimens are found on the hardwood hammocks (aka tree islands) of the Everglades. Mahogany can grow to fifty feet in height with a sixty foot spread. It’s an excellent shade tree and as landscapers recognize the importance of using native species, the mahogany is found  more and more in urban areas.

The adage “never park beneath a coconut tree”, which is understandably a useless sentiment for most of North America, should apply to the West Indian Mahogany as well. The problem though, is the popularity of this species in parking lots and the inability of most people to identify it. The main telltale clue is the brown mahogany fruit growing upright on a tufted stalk. At this time of the year, a good sized tree could have fifty or more. They don’t all fall at once. Some ripen, split and expel their seeds while still attached to the tree. But the rest? Bombs away. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Two and a Half Shaqs

What do James Joule, Daniel Fahrenheit, Charles Richter, Heinrich Hertz, Isaac Newton, Georg Ohm, James Watt, Allessandro Volta and Shaquille O’Neal have in common? They all have units of measure named after them.

When the largest Burmese Python (Python molurus bivittatus) ever found in the Everglades was discovered, the Washington Post described the 17 1/2 foot exotic beast as “more than twice as long as former basketball player Shaquille O’Neal is tall.” Technically Shaq stands 7” 1’ – so really the snake would be 2.5 “Shaqs” long. Naturally I pictured an engorged constrictor with two and half of the fifteen time, NBA All-Star in its belly. Eating a 325 pound Shaq might be a stretch, although another Python was captured recently that had consumed a 76 pound White-tailed Deer.

The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) stands an impressive .60 Shaqs (5 feet) tall but more incredibly has a 1.25 Shaq (9 foot) wingspan. That’s the second largest wingspan of any bird in North America. Only the 1.4 Shaq (10 foot) California Condor has a greater wingspan.
© Pete Corradino
Most of the White Pelicans are heading out of Florida. They’ve spent the last few months feeding along the coast in a manner entirely different than their Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) cousins who dive for their food. White Pelicans work in groups on the surface of the water and round up fish in the shallows. When the fish are trapped, they dunk their bills into the water and scoop up their prey.

As we progress through spring, developing thermal updrafts allow for the pelicans to migrate en masse to their breeding grounds in the mid-western United States and central portions of Canada. Their massive wingspan allows them to rise quickly in the thermal column and soar for long distances at high altitudes. Flocks of hundreds can be spotted travelling together at this time of the year

Who’s to say if this unit of measure will stick? Consider the measure of a man is not by his free throw percentage but how he stacks up next to enormous snakes and gigantic birds.  

Friday, July 13, 2012

Prickly Pear Necessities

Wherever I wander, I keep one eye on the ground and one eye ahead in search of the next fun thing to write about. Occasionally this method leads to an inspiring, albeit, cross-eyed vision. Green Briars (Smilax sp.) are a particularly nasty, thorny vine. Field Sandspurs (Cenchrus incertus) are alarmingly painful and hurt as bad being pulled out as when they went in. The Florida Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa) is the grand daddy of local thorny plants with long, sturdy spines attached to fleshy, succulent pads. So far I’ve had the good fortune of avoiding them. A friend of mine? Not so lucky. 
© Pete Corradino
Watching someone stomp out of the woods like Yosemite Sam with a cactus pad and spines sticking out of their leg is cartoonishly comical. But it’s best to keep your amusement to yourself. It was hard not to feel his pain as he yanked each spine from his shin. In addition to the obvious barbs, smaller tufts of hair-like spines called glochids are located closer to the pad and can cause serious irritation. 
© Pete Corradino
Despite being torn from the parent plant, the cactus pad that ended up in my friend’s shin and subsequently discarded, is capable of putting down roots and continuing to grow. Prickly Pears are right at home in an astounding diversity of environments, from the coastal dunes of Massachusetts, to the sandstone cedar glades in Kentucky to the saw palmetto scrub of Florida. One thing they don’t tolerate is shade, but where there is sun, watch out for the Indian Fig as it’s also called. 
© Pete Corradino
In Florida, Prickly Pears bloom all year, producing a waxy, yellow flower that grows at the top of the pad. Eventually an edible, red “fig” remerges. Both fruit and pad are edible but all spines and glochids have to be removed. If you don’t want it stuck in your leg you certainly don’t want to ingest it. 
© Pete Corradino
The Prickly Pear is found throughout two-thirds of the United States and part of Canada, so watch your step and watch for critters that use the cactus as a spiny fortress. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Squirrel on Fire

When I bought my house a few years ago, a realtor advised me that the location I was interested in was undesirable because it was overwhelmed with “vegetative fuel”. That’s a fancy euphemism for “trees” in the business. I found another realtor and bought a house surrounded by beautiful Slash Pines, Live Oaks and Saw Palmettos.

Over the last few weeks my town has been plagued by wildfires. With an exceptionally long dry season and little rain in the forecast, the vegetative fuel forest that has enveloped the neighborhood now seems foreboding. Despite the lack of any pattern, arson was suspected for each fire, making the situation all the more concerning.

© Pete Corradino
On April 17th, a 5-acre brush fire broke out up the street, consuming one house and charring neighboring property. One burnt squirrel was discovered at the base of the power pole leading to the home and some began to blame the squirrel population for the outbreak of wildfires in the area.

Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are well known for their high wire acts. As nimble as they may be while crossing a line, if they touch a second line they can create a surge, electrocuting the animal and in this case, sending a flaming squirrel to the ground and starting a fire.

This isn’t the first time it has happened and it won’t be the last. Dry conditions continue in South Florida and hungry squirrels are on the move. I’m hoping for rain because we need it but I’m also concerned for the squirrels climbing around in the vegetative fuel in my back yard.  

The photograph of the Eastern Gray Squirrel was taken in the mangrove forest of Secret Woods County Park in Fort Lauderdale, FL – far from any power lines. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Deception - Simpson's Grass-Pink

Cross-pollination is most commonly achieved by wind or insect. Pollen from the male part of the flower is transferred to the female part of another flower of the same species. Insects are lured in with the promise of nectar and are the ambivalent dupes of this well orchestrated exchange of genetic material. Not all promises are what they seem.

My good friends Milla and Richard and I were wildflower hunting on the CREW lands in Collier County, Florida recently. A prescribed fire and an extended drought have made conditions optimal for an amazing diversity of wildflowers, but there was one in particular that Milla insisted we had to find. She had seen it days before and she promised it wasn’t far from the parking lot.

How far?
“Near Lettuce Lake!”
Ok, that’s not far. I had an appointment and had to be somewhere as promised.

After an hour of stopping to photograph flowers I asked again “how far?”
“Just at the bend in the trail!”

Thirty minutes later the trail bent. There amongst a myriad of wildflowers, as promised, stood tall, a lone Simpson’s Grass-Pink (Calopogontuberosus var. simpsonii), a terrestrial orchid variety only found in seasonally wet, marly soils. The genus Calopogon translates to “beautiful beard” and refers to the unique bristles on the upper lip of the three-petaled flower. The bristles give the appearance of stamen and a false promise of nectar. While attempting to land on the upper lip, heavier insects will cause it to bend, dipping them back onto a mass of pollen grains which can then be transferred to the next flower where cross-pollination is achieved.
© Pete Corradino

This variety is distinguished from the common form, Tuberosus Grass-Pink Calopogon tuberosus) by a narrow and elongated upper lip and is found in grassy savannahs (at the bend in the trail!)

We found several more plants nearby, which all seemed to benefit from the recent fire and open canopy. It was well worth the walk and I was thankful for trusting in Milla’s promise. It did make me wonder how many insects have been tempted by the Grass-Pink’s deception and how many have learned to turn around before wasting their time. I’m glad I didn’t.  

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Undiscovered Egg

(Originally posted for Easter 2012) On Easter morning, my baby escaped from his sleeping mother’s grasp, toddled into the hallway and found a basket full of “grass” and a few starter eggs. He then proceeded to instinctively embark on an egg hunt throughout the house. He was a noisy predator and was discovered quickly but we permitted the search to continue.

Eggs in the wild are not meant to be discovered. They are buried, camouflaged or tucked away. They are laid singularly with maximum parental protection or in multitudes with the hope that a percentage will survive. The effort that reptiles, birds, insects, amphibians (and yes the mammalian Platypus) go through to protect their potential offspring is perhaps what makes it so interesting to seek out and discover eggs.

When an egg is found, there are often plenty of clues that suggest who might emerge at the conclusion of incubation (if at all). The cotton candy-colored, spherical eggs in the top left corner are less than ¼ inch in diameter and have been deposited on a blade of cattail in a freshwater marsh. Tiny Florida Apple Snails (Pomacea paludosa) will hatch and descend to the water just several inches below.

Many birds camouflage their eggs with unique colors and markings. As the egg descends and rotates through the oviduct, fixed pigment glands color the shell and create unique works of art on the eggs of the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) (top right corner).

The five glossy white PurpleMartin (Progne subis) eggs in the bottom left corner would be conspicuous in any hanging bird nest, but in the cavity of a tree or in a bird house, color serves little purpose.

Not every nest is successful. The turtle eggs in the bottom right corner were dug up and eaten. The colorless, ping pong-sized eggs were discovered, most likely by an animal with a good sniffer.

Brown Anoles (Anolis sagrei) will lay one to two eggs in soft soil or under leaf litter. Their eggs range from white to speckled brown.

I can still recall the thrill my sister experienced when she found an Easter egg at my grandmother’s when we were kids. My parents were amused. It was the day before Easter and this well hidden, well camouflaged egg had remained undiscovered for nearly a year. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Verdant Vulture - The Turkey Vulture

I offer you a green Turkey Vulture. The photo is real and untouched. I took it. I do apologize that it has the same blurred quality to it that most of the photos of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster have. A canal full of alligators separated me and the emerald-feathered bird and a zoom lens can only do so much.

There are no shortages of natural curiosities on the shores of Lake Trafford in Immokalee, FL. The 1600-acre lake has more alligator per acre than anywhere on the planet. Colorful Roseate Spoonbills, Purple Gallinules, Tri-Colored Herons and Little Blue Herons stalk the shoreline. The nearby marina is home to several exotic birds like Macaws, Cockatoos and an African Grey Parrot. So when I saw what I thought was a Peacock sipping water in front of a backdrop of Pond Apples (Annona glabra) and Alligator Flag (Thaliageniculata) it didn’t seem entirely out of place. As I approached, it quickly became clear that I had been fooled by a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) in disguise.
© Pete Corradino
Turkey Vultures are so named because of the red, featherless skin on their head that is similar to the male Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Turkey Vulture feathers are black to brown with white markings underneath from the wing tips to the body. The legs are pink to white. This vulture was green. Closer inspection shows that feathers closest to the tail are almost entirely green while those closer to the shoulders are brown with green tips. The eye appears white but is sunken and desiccated suggesting an old or sick bird.

I wish I had an explanation. As the photo has been passed around, the theories include: splattered with paint on St. Patty’s Day (this blog was originally posted in March), inadvertently doused with liquid copper (an orange tree fungicide), a nutritional deficiency, stricken with a parasite or an escaped character from World of Warcraft. What do you think?