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…..