Stories of the Swamp

Armchair Interpretive Walks

Friends of Fakahatchee: Dedicated to financial and volunteer support to preserve the unique ecology and cultural heritage of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and educate the public about its importance.

A walk along the Big Cypress Boardwalk – March 2018

FOF June 28, 2018 Armchair Interpretive Walks

By Andrew Tyler

Whether you’re a regular seasonal visitor to Southwest Florida or a year-round resident, being here in 2018 one cannot fail to be struck by the changes in our floral landscape wrought by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. While many of the impacts on personal and community properties have been cleaned up, the effects on trees and their branches along the Boardwalk will be with us for a long time to come.

Blue skies and newly emergent spring growth above the Big Cypress boardwalk, where the loss of canopy is striking.

Examples abound in Naples. The inventory of the City Arborist shows that about 9% of all trees on City property had to be removed after the storm. A second example is the Naples Botanical Garden in East Naples. The devastation among the trees and plantings was cleaned up in fairly short order thanks to the Garden’s dedicated professionals, visiting arboreal specialists, and volunteers. What emerged was a landscape now lacking the extensive canopy shade that existed prior to Irma. Many of the perennial plantings, which had been strategically positioned to take advantage of each plant’s preferences for sun and shade now found themselves in a far sunnier spot, and most did not fare well.

With these thoughts in mind, the last Friday in March presented an opportunity for me to visit the Big Cypress Boardwalk. Visitors are thinning out and the perennial spring changes to our flora are underway. I had not been on the boardwalk often this season, so it was a good opportunity to observe what’s different this year.

You are likely well aware that some of the Friends of the Fakahatchee worked diligently to clear and repair the boardwalk and trail in the second half of September. The evidence of their hard work can only be fully appreciated when one compares what we see today with the scene immediately afterwards, documented in this report by Patrick Higgins. The new Chickee immediately adjacent to the start of the Boardwalk is a great addition. I noticed it being enjoyed by at least two parties of visitors during my visit.

Gazing into the sky, as with the Naples Botanical Garden, the loss of canopy cover is quite striking. While many of the big trees have survived the onslaught, a lot of branches must have been lost to allow through the amount of light we see today. The impacts of increased illumination on the vegetation below remain to be seen.

Red bellied woodpecker, much easier to see with less vegetation, inspect a pre-Irma dead tree, with newly-emerged Cypress needles in the background.

A ‘silver lining’ from the visitor’s perspective, however, is that it’s now much easier to see what’s going on in the lower-to-mid-levels of the vegetation. Whereas in the past one would hear a lot of scurrying around and bird activity, being able to identify their sources depended largely on luck and perhaps some knowledge of bird song. Today it’s much easier to see even the smaller birds scurrying around, and the views of the epiphytic plants are far superior.

We’re at the end of the usual Bromeliad blooming season, but there were numerous cardinal air plant (Tillandsia fasciculata) examples along the boardwalk still in full bloom. Raising one’s eyes from the ground, the epiphytes that enjoy the 10-20 ft off the ground zone are also thriving. Many of the needle-leaf epiphytes are showing that reddish tinge that goes with the time of year.

A collection of epiphytic bromeliads enjoying life in the upper canopy at Big Cypress Boardwalk.

There are two epiphytic dingy star orchids that live close to the far end of the boardwalk; one has red leaves and the other has green. Both were flowering on the day of my visit, and it is interesting to note that they are blooming somewhat later than the examples of the same species we observe on the weekly swamp walks 3 or 4 miles to the north. Why this might be is mere speculation, but they are thriving. One hopes that they continue to do so during the summer, since they will surely receive far more summer solar radiation now than a year ago.

Two dingy star orchids (Epidendrum amphistomum), Red-leaved (left) and Green-leaved (right), in full bloom just off the boardwalk.

Blue heron enjoying a fresh fish lunch at the alligator hole.

At ground level I noticed a lot of ferns thriving in the areas currently lacking standing water. There have always been ferns here, of course, but whether they’re more noticeable because they enjoy the changed circumstances, or merely appear so because it is so much brighter remains to be seen.

Reaching the platform by the alligator hole, I noticed the local large alligator in mid-pool, just finishing lunch. My guess is it was a turtle, judging from the delicious ‘crunching sounds’ coming from the mouth end, but it declined to surface again for a photo opportunity.

A single blue heron was the only wading bird present and patience was rewarded, for the bird succeeded in catching a tasty fish for lunch. I’m always astonished at the seemingly impossible size of fish these birds manage to swallow. There seems to be a certain amount of stunning the fish (or killing it) by ‘slapping it around’ beforehand, presumably so that it doesn’t wriggle so much on the way down. This bird was kind enough to demonstrate, then pose dramatically for photo opportunities before finally downing the fish.

A family of Florida banded water snakes appeared to be in residence, and their relatively small sizes suggest that these are perhaps one year olds. I did not get an accurate count of their number; there was a lot of coming and going around their favorite log. I would estimate six animals visible during my stay.

A juvenile water snake enjoying a swim in the alligator hole. Fortunately the snake was a sufficient distance from the heron to avoid being a lunch target!

A striking difference this year is the color of the water in the alligator hole. The water is very obviously green. Presumably this is a result of increased light levels at the water’s surface allowing enhanced photosynthesis among both algae and small plants. Not my area of expertise, but the coloration seemed restricted to the water itself, as opposed to small clumps of duckweed, for example. This leads me to assume we’re looking at the results of enhanced algal growth.

Algal growth could have positive or negative consequences for life around the pond, or both, or none at all! Most Floridians are aware of ‘red tide’ at the beaches. Red tide is caused by marine algae Karenia brevis, that under certain conditions undergo rapid growth, a process also known as ‘blooming’.

Less well-known is the fact that freshwater algal blooms pose more of a human health threat. Some, but not all, species of freshwater algae can release chemicals that are highly toxic to most animals, including humans. These events can happen anywhere in North America. For example, Toledo, Ohio had to shut down its civic water supply in 2014 as a result of toxic algal blooms on Lake Erie.

These algal blooms are usually caused by abundance of nutrients and sunshine. In Florida, Lake Okeechobee annually suffers this problem to varying degrees, because of nutrients present in the lake’s waters as a consequence of local agricultural practices.

If the bloom uses up certain nutrients, it can cause the algae to die. Although algal blooms oxygenate water as a bi-product of photosynthesis, mass decomposition can lead to oxygen depletion and fish-kill. Blooms can also shade the aquatic plants growing beneath the surface and reduce their growth opportunities. It’s clearly very complicated, but it will be interesting to keep eyes on the alligator hole to see if there are any noticeable longer-term consequences to this mini-ecosystem.

I highly recommend taking some time to check out the Boardwalk of our favorite State Park before the mosquitoes hatch. I’d love to hear about your own observations.

Andrew Tyler, shown here at the Grand Canyon, was elected to the FOF Board of Directors this spring.

Cigar Orchid restoration project explodes in color

FOF May 29, 2018 Armchair Interpretive Walks

By Howard Lubel

Cigar Orchid Cyrtopodium punctatum bloom. Photo ©Rich Leighton

Finding a cigar orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum) in flower is a stunning visual experience. Firstly, a mature plant can be enormous, reaching two feet or more in diameter with pseudobulbs measuring 15 to 20 inches in length. Secondly, the flowers are a vivid splash of yellow and brown that can number from 50 to in excess of 200 on a single plant at the same time.

Unfortunately, due to logging, poaching and other causes, these iconic orchids have become difficult to find in the Fakahatchee. It has been estimated that as few as 25 naturally occurring plants remained in the park’s 85,000 acres. Now with a little help from their friends, this dismal count is changing in the orchid’s favor.

Dennis works on orchid restoration in 2009.

The cigar orchid restoration project in Fakahatchee was conceived in December 2006, when Matt Richards from Atlanta Botanical Garden (ABG) contacted then park manager and FOF board member, Dennis Giardina, about a collaborative effort to re-populate the park with these exquisite plants. Dennis and Park Biologist, Mike Owen, eagerly agreed. The project was about to begin.

Assessments of the remaining native plants were conducted by Mike and Dennis in a search for seed donors. A suitable donor, DG 19, was finally located and in 2009, a seed pod was collected and sent to Matt at ABG. Over the years other donor plants in Fakahatchee as well as a closely related plant in the Big Cypress were located. Unfortunately, one of our fellow human beings has since poached the Big Cypress donor. Seed pods were sent to ABG, seedlings became juvenile plants, were measured and documented and finally returned to Fakahatchee as pioneers in a grand experiment.

Between 2011 and 2015, approximately 200 juvenile cigar orchids were out-planted in various remote locations in the park by dedicated researchers and volunteers. The plants have been attached to cypress, pop ash and pond apple trees at various heights ranging from 4 feet to 20 feet. Watching Dennis Giardina climb a 30 foot tall cypress tree using ropes and a harness to attach a 6 inch tall plant to a sunlit home is to view parental love at its best. Approximately 1000 juvenile cigar orchids have now been re-introduced to the Fakahatchee through this collaborative effort.

The plants are monitored annually, although not all sites may be assessed each year due to time limitations and the remoteness of the out-planting locations. This year’s assessment began on April 16 under the supervision of Matt Richards and Mike Owen. Also lending support, expertise and sweat were Nick Ewy from Naples Botanical Garden and folks from Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Also, researchers from Florida International University collect and maintain data on each plant, Jay Staton along with FOF members Dennis Giardina and Karen Relish also slogged through the swamp, stepped over cottonmouths and carried ladders for untold distances to document the success of the project. The FOF Highlifter was used to transport folks to remote locations allowing for more time for monitoring the plants. While 2017 was a tough year for all plants in the Fakahatchee due to the effects of Hurricane Irma, it appears that we have presently an approximate 40% survival rate. Another 400 cigar orchids in the Fakahatchee would be a true success story.

So, what was the reward for spending 12 hours a day in the swamp, carrying ladders and collecting data nonstop while side stepping alligator poop? Well, some of us got to see three of our wild, native cigars in full flower. The largest of these was DG 19 with 172 flowers. Some of us got to see number 35, an out-planted cigar approximately 7 years old, with 50 flowers. Some of us got to see a ghost orchid two days away from flowering, an extremely early bloomer. All of us got to see the Fakahatchee, a remote, wild and truly beautiful place.

Climate change – natural cycle vs anthropogenic

FOF April 3, 2018 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Patrick Higgins

It was some ten thousand years ago that the last ancestral Paleo-Indians were able to make the foot crossing from Asia into North America. Behind them the sea would have swallowed up the Bering land bridge as huge ice sheets reaching as far south as Manhattan Island melted and retreated.

When these hardy souls were trudging through a tundra-like landscape clad in furs, past scraggily spruce, dwarf willow and shrubby birch, perhaps following a herd of wooly mammoths, the Florida peninsula was almost twice as wide as it is today. But as sea levels continued to rise, Florida slowly shrank to its current shoreline. As it did so, the world’s climate became warmer and wetter, with our Everglades and precious Fakahatchee Strand developing about 5,000 years later.

For the past million years the Earth’s climate has alternated between warm interglacial periods of 10-20 thousand years and ice ages of some 80-90 thousand years. These climate oscillations correlate with what are called Milankovitch cycles. There are actually 3 different Milankovitch cycles at work, each with its own periodicity. They affect the shape of Earth’s orbit around the Sun from almost round to quite elliptical and therefore our distance from it, as well as the amount of tilt in Earth’s axis and the direction of that tilt. These all combine to vary the amount of solar energy Earth receives, which determines the advance and retreat of our glaciers.

A common question posed by our visitors is: how do we know that current global warming isn’t just part of this natural cycle? The answer is that these natural changes occur extremely slowly over a 100,000 year timeframe. So if the warming was the result of the natural cycle it should have taken many thousands of years instead of just the few hundred since the industrial revolution.

There’s another major difference, too: we know from ancient gases trapped in ice core samples that in prior interglacial warmings increases in CO2 levels lagged behind (followed) rises in temperature, which is what we would expect if the rise was from the natural Milankovitch cycles instead of from a rise in CO2. However, in our current warming the temperature rise is being led (preceded) by an increase in atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

You may also hear people talk about fluctuations in solar output. In fact, over the past 35 years of global warming the sun has shown a slight cooling trend, so recent warming cannot be attributed to changes in the Sun’s radioactive forcing either. Our insulating blanket of greenhouse gases has a bigger climatic influence than any slight fluxes in incoming solar energy anyway.

No skeptic has come up with a viable natural explanation for the magnitude of climate change that has occurred over the last few decades, whereas the unnatural answer of increased greenhouse gas emissions fits the bill. The physics of the greenhouse gas effect is beyond dispute.

The final question we may have to answer is this. If we know that our planet has survived past warming episodes, why does it matter? Because our entire civilization – where we can live, where we can grow food, what food we can grow, where and whether we’ll have sufficient water, our biodiversity and whether there’ll still be an Everglades – is all dependent on the climate we have experienced for the past 10,000 years.

We are now past the point of being able to stop change. We are just struggling to limit the amount and rate of change, so we and the natural world have time to adapt to it. And that’s just half of it. Right now we are being partially shielded from the full effects of our excess greenhouse gas emissions by the thermal inertia of our planet’s vast oceans. In a few decades we can really expect temperatures to take off.

The Value of a Swamp

FOF April 3, 2018 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Patrick Higgins

value-of-a-swamp

Although the official economic impact assessment does not take into account the swamp’s non-recreational services, one of its greatest values is the tremendous biodiversity of plants and animals it supports.

If you asked a group of hikers sauntering along East Main through stands of towering native royal palms under a blue sky, or gently proceeding through the waters of a slough in dappled light – What’s the value of a swamp? – you would get very personal and deeply felt, almost spiritual answers. To us, as members of the Friends of Fakahatchee, they’re obvious and would just spill out.

First, there’s the joy and inner peace that any natural space generates, even if it’s just a well planted little corner of your yard. In fact, as I was typing this in front of my office window, I was willingly interrupted first by a soft-shelled turtle emerging from the undergrowth to cross into a lake on the other side of my road, looking silly with its massive 24-inch carapace and thick neck ending in a tiny snorkel nose.

A little later a hummingbird made a fleeting call on some coral bean blooming in a patch of sunlight in the woods, and after that the primeval head of a Knight anole peered around a tree trunk. Each time I rushed out with my camera, I felt the sun’s warmth on my back, breathed that earthy tropical Florida smell, and became distracted by something else in the garden. A half-hour easily passed each time – which is why it takes me so long to write these pieces – but back to the Fakahatchee.

There’s a special thrill about wild places – a feeling of discovery. Your senses are sharpened. You begin to notice smaller details. There are views into the depths of the swamp that are both beckoning and forbidding at the same time. And then there’s the knowledge that large predators are about, even if they are usually unseen and only evident from tracks, scat and tufts of fur – unless of course they are scaly. However, when one does have a chance encounter with a wild creature, there’s that momentary wondrous connection as you size each other up.

Sadly, much of our population has not had the time nor inspiration to experience the real Florida. To them, the sentiments above wouldn’t be convincing enough argument for the value of a swamp. With the exception of warm winters and palm trees, so many new residents want Florida to be just like up north, which is where the second part of FOF’s mission comes in – educating the public about the Fakahatchee’s ecology and its importance.

Wetlands deliver a wide range of ecosystems services apart from opportunities for recreation and tourism. They are reserves of water for our ever-growing population. They serve as flood controls. Without them rainfall would rush towards the ocean without any brake. Instead they slow down the water’s progress, acting like giant sponges, gradually releasing and cleansing it in the process.

Our swamp tree species sequester and store large quantities of carbon, helping to regulate our climate. And in our case, the Fakahatchee’s deep sloughs create a unique microclimate that allows tropical plants to flourish in its interior. Along the coastal portions of our park, mangroves serve as buffers against storms. In fact, the mangrove swamp and its trapped sediment and associated ecosystems can store as much as 10 times the amount of carbon as the same surface area of terrestrial forest, what is referred to as blue carbon.

However, one of the greatest values of wetlands are the plants and animals that make up their communities, and the tremendous biodiversity they support. This is certainly the case of the Fakahatchee, which is one of the most biologically rich regions of the greater Everglades ecosystem. We aren’t the orchid and bromeliad capital of the United States for nothing.

As guardians of this wonderful resource we need to be able to monetize this value as well, to convince the unbelievers. The state makes a pretty good first stab through its economic impact assessment for each park. Its 2016 assessment showed that visitors to the Fakahatchee supported 144 jobs in the area and contributed just over $9 million to the local economy. This will rise dramatically when our Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk expansion project is completed. We’re still expecting construction to start this year.

Unfortunately, our economic impact assessment does not take into account any of our park’s non-recreational ecosystem services. The state’s top 10 parks in terms of economic impact are all beach resources with high attendance. If the value of the Fakahatchee’s other ecosystem services could be factored in, the ranking would be flipped.

Cuba: So close, but a world away

FOF January 25, 2018 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Tom Maish

CUBA: So close it is almost a part of Florida, but ideologically a world away!

My first Cuba experience was in 2000 with Pastors for Peace. This humanitarian trip was illegal by a US Government Treasury Ruling, but strangely not actually against the law. Federal agents watched us assemble the ambulances, school buses and medical supplies we were taking to Cuba, and then escorted us across the Mexican border and paid our toll. Even back then the Cuban travel embargo seemed more an inconvenience than an actuality.

This first visit was during the country’s “Special Period” after the Soviets pulled their financial support and the Cuban economy went into survival mode. Times were hard, and people were encouraged to grow gardens in the strips of land between the sidewalk and the street. There was even a national hero who wrote, spoke and demonstrated to Cubans how to grow their own food. Gardening gained new importance in the Cuban culture.

Subsequent trips exposed us to various agencies and aspects of central planning. We visited a “medical school” where doctors were being trained to be sent all over the world – this was thought provoking.  Although these “doctors” may not qualify by U.S. standards, if you were a sick villager in some remote part of the world you would be very thankful for this Cuban “doctor.” Cuba also provided treatment free of cost to children from the Ukraine exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl explosion.

In January 2017, Florida Gulf Coast University’s Everglades Wetlands Research Park Board of Directors made the trip to Cuba to explore the mutual ecological problems experienced by the Florida Everglades and the island’s Zapata Swamp. For example, in both the Everglades and Zapata Swamp historical water flow has been truncated by roads – where water flows, systems remain healthy; where the flow has been interrupted, ecosystems are dying.  The U.S. contingent was interested to learn of the similarity of problems from these Cuban scientists. (A side-note: the Zapata Swamp is the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

Such stories inspired our family to request a visit last fall (2017). With all the negative hype in the press, we were apprehensive, but wanted to make the trip to allow our family to compare U.S. democracy to the realities of a totalitarian state first-hand.

Trinidad, Central Cuba

Our first stop was Trinidad, a colonial city in central Cuba which we had visited and enjoyed before. Arriving late in the evening, we were met by a local doctor who assigned our lodging. Dr. Alex earned commissions for organizing lodging at casa particulares (Spanish for “private houses”), private accommodations similar to a bed and breakfast. She also rented rooms in her home and hosted dinners.

We learned that Cuban doctors earn a state salary of about $100.00 US per month – our dinner for 15 which she hosted paid Dr. Alex far more! This doctor had apparently given up medicine to become an entrepreneur.

With an average urban state salary of $2000.00 annually, and rural still under $1000.00, everyone seems to hustle for “extras.”  (These state salaries are not quite as bad as they sound since Cubans also receive free medical, education, subsidized food and housing.) Small shops, restaurants and take-out places were often in people’s apartments or convenient public places. Men would walk the streets with strands of garlic to sell, or bicycle around selling bread. Residents “hawked” anything they thought someone would buy to help them make that “extra.”

 

Cubans supplement their basic income through entrepreneurial ventures, such as selling produce on the streets.

Due to recent adjustments to Cuba’s socialist model, people are now being allowed to purchase houses or apartments. We learned that family members often pool their money to purchase for their own multi-generational use or rent as casa particulares. This has caused a boom in interior remodeling for tourist rentals. Our small apartment in Havana was sparkling new and very clean.

It is also now permissible for Cubans to travel abroad to purchase up to 250 kilos of goods annually to resell back home. Although cars are beyond the means of most Cubans, motor scooters are common prized possessions, often housed in the living room for secure display.

Valle de San Luis, Topes de Collantes

From Trinidad, we took a trip on an old sugar train into the Valle de San Luis to tour the ruins of old sugar mills. This picturesque view of rural Cuba hasn’t seen much change, and people appeared to be very poor. Leaving the train at San Isidro we toured Mirador de la Loma del Puerto, an aging mansion that reflected the glory days of king sugar, complete with a 600’ tower to watch over the slaves.

The Sierra del Escambray mountains and the Topes de Collantes reserve are also a short trip from Trinidad. Surprisingly, Topes de Collantes was the only area where we observed damage from hurricane Irma; many downed trees in the reserve. There are four small parks within the boundaries all with beautiful hiking trails. Topes is home to a large resort with an imposing medical facility for high government officials and military that was built by the Dictator Battista in the 1950s. We had an opportunity to visit the facility when our grandson had an attack of kidney stones. The doctors told him what was needed, but that they didn’t have the medicine to help. Not unusual in Cuba; first rate medical attention, but no medicine. This is the reason we bring a selection of over the counter drugs to leave at the local clinics.

One afternoon was spent hiking in the mountains and down into a 1500’ deep gorge where we were treated to a beautiful waterfall and pool for swimming. Along the trail we passed several small farms and encountered the inhabitants’ subsistence lifestyle. We also were fortunate to encounter a West Indian Woodpecker; Cuba’s national bird, the Cuban Trogan, a Cuban Tody, Emerald Humming Bird, Red Legged Thrush and a Cuban Bullfinch.

Speaking of birds; the Cubans have a propensity to collect and cage wild birds. The folks at Halifax River Audubon learned of this and designed coloring books, in Spanish, of Cuba’s birds. We took several along as gifts for children. One would have thought Santa Claus made a return visit when we would give these books to local children with a box of crayons.

Tom’s family gave local children coloring books of Cuba’s birds in Spanish, designed by Halifax River Audubon.

Cienfuegos

On to Cienfuegos, blessed with a beautiful bay and adorned with French-style architecture.  We spent the afternoon people watching in Parque Jose Marti, the cultural center of the city. Around the park we found the beautiful old Teatro Tomas Terry (still very much in use), Museo Provincial de Cienfuegos (Cienfuegos Regional Museum) which is housed in an old Spanish Casino, Antiguo Ayuntamiento, a palace housing the provincial government, and the city’s oldest building, once residence of city founder Louis D’Clouet and now a souvenir shop.

A quick look shows that Government Stores continue to focus on the basics, offering mainly household staples.

Along the avenue to the bay are many street vendors and craft shops that appeal to both locals and tourists. Here we looked inside one of the neighborhood subsidized food shops. A sparse selection; mostly rice, sugar, flour, eggs and other staples. The farmer’s market, on the other hand, offered an array of meats and vegetables all at market price. Cienfuegos is prosperous due to a large shrimp fleet, petrochemicals and a thermo electric plant.

Now the six hour trip to Havana. To reach the main cross-country six-lane highway from Cienfuegos you traverse a scenic two lane road with many horse-drawn carts amidst tractors and trucks loaded with local residents. No way to make any time, but one does get a sense of the small farms, tourist facilities and large sugar cane fields. In this area of Cuba sugar cane lands are farmed with fairly modern equipment. This is in stark contrast to western Cuba where the small tobacco plots are tended by oxen.

Once on the main highway, the traffic is sparse and you can make time. Interesting, all along the highway one would see groups of people hitch hiking. You’ll see el amarillo, the “yellow man,” a state employee who is empowered to flag down any vehicle with a government plate; certain vehicles are required to pick up travelers by law as there is no organized inter-city transportation. Other travelers choose to wave money to entice a ride in a private vehicle.  Again, more box trucks loaded with travelers.

Havana

Havana is the grand dame of the Caribbean!  But she has been a more than a bit down on her luck.  This once elegant and prosperous capital shows the effects of the revolutionary government.  Although many buildings have and are being restored, once one gets into the side streets you can see there much work ahead. Residents can purchase their individual flats, but the government is supposed to maintain the building exteriors.  There is little money for this to date. Even though flats can be owned, there is not yet a building association concept; collecting money to maintain the exterior is not part of the culture. One may have a remodeled flat, but if the roof falls in, one queues up for another apartment from the state.

Now, about the vintage American cars. One has to appreciate the mechanical genus that has kept these cars on the road. In the suburbs these “oldies” are used as local taxis and packed with people. With regulations loosening up, people will invest in a car and a driver to capture the tourist dollar (or more correctly, a CUC, the Cuban Convertible Currency). Cuban entrepreneurship at its best! At $20.00 per head they are coining the money. Some of these cars are beautifully restored – others not so much. We rented a ’52 Chevy that had a new Kia engine and a ’53 Chevy with a new Mercedes five-cylinder diesel. Others may even have old Russian tractor engines for power. These vintage cars are so valuable they become family heirlooms to be passed on to the next generation.

Havana is a beautiful, vibrant destination city. In our five trips there is always something interesting to see. Travel to Havana is featured almost weekly in articles from many sources, so no point in going into detail here. We’ll just say that there are several beautiful hotels with a few more being constructed in partnership with the Cuban government.  On one trip we visited a central planning office as saw a complete scale model of central Havana in the future. Very impressive!

What has surprised us is how many more visitors are coming to Havana from all parts of the globe. It has been discovered. We are asked, “is it safe and should we go?” Yes and Yes!  U.S. government regulations have been clarified and travel agencies know to meet the regulations. If you go, consider combing your wardrobe for serviceable clothing to go on a one way trip. Many Cubans still have so little. Cuba is definitely worth seeing before it is overrun with more tourists that it can handle. Cubans are very hospitable and love to show off their country.

We teach our children to give back. One way has been to take a Polaroid type of camera and ask locals if they would like a photo of themselves. Believe me they do! This is a great ice breaker to start a conversation.  This mime enjoyed seeing the success of her look in a Polaroid photo.

Tom Maish is a past President of the Friends and currently on the Board as Chair of the BoardWalk Vision Committee.
He also serves on the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Sustainability Board and the Everglades Wetlands Research Park a part of Florida Gulf Coast University.

Brrrr, is it cold

FOF January 25, 2018 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Patrick Higgins, President, Friends of Fakahatchee

Wading birds trying to warm up in the day’s first rays of light, in the marsh south of US 41.

It’s certainly been cold lately, but despite the U.S. President’s mistaken conflation of the terms ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ by wishing for a little bit more global warming, our recent cold snaps don’t negate the overwhelming evidence of climate change. While we are shivering here in Florida with iguanas in cold shock dropping out of trees, on the other side of the planet they’re sweltering. Australia’s flying foxes are falling down dead from heatstroke and baby green sea turtles there, whose sex is determined by nest temperature, are hatching out 99% female.

Whilst we can’t positively state any particular individual event is the direct result of climate change, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and the annual average global temperature are both continuously rising. According to NOAA, global surface temperatures since 1970 have been rising on average twice as fast as for the entire period of recorded observations from 1880-2015. This warming isn’t necessarily uniform around the world, but it’s all about the average. An increase of 0.3° F every decade may not seem much, but when you consider Earth’s 196.9 million square mile surface area, that’s one that one heck of a lot of extra energy going into our climate system. This rapid increase is ten times faster than the average paleoclimate rate of warming during ice-age recoveries.

From the very beginning of the debate on global warming, climate modeling predicted increases in extreme weather. Worldwide record breaking weather events from heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires and super-storms – both summer and winter – seem to bear this out. Every summer, every winter, every year seems to set a new record. For example, globally 2017 was the second warmest year on record, and the warmest on record without an El Niño’s influence. And weather patterns are changing too; for the first 5 months of 2017 we had 5 inches of rain and for the second 5 months, 5 feet of rain!

As for the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, there were 17 named storms, ten of which were hurricanes. These hurricanes formed consecutively, without the usual weaker tropical storms in between and six were major category 3 or higher hurricanes. Harvey in August brought the largest amount of rain from any tropical system on record – over 5 feet, causing Houston $200 billion of damages. This was the third ‘once in 500 years’ flood Houston has suffered in the past 3 years! Irma, which devastated the Caribbean (not to mention the damage it caused here), was one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever, with sustained winds of 185 mph that lasted 37 hours – longer for that wind intensity than any tropical system anywhere else in the world. And then there was Hurricane Ophelia, which reached Spain and Portugal – the farthest east any major Atlantic hurricane has ever gone. Get the picture?

So it was with interest and a freeze warning, clad in my Berghaus mountaineering jacket, hat and gloves, that I set out in the dark on the morning of the 18th of January to record what was forecast to be the park’s coldest day yet of the year. I caught a few good photos of shivering wading birds trying to catch the first rays of warming light in a grey landscape en route through the southern reaches of the park.
I only recorded a low of 36°F. For my purposes it was not as cold as I had hoped, although I don’t think Park Manager Steve Houseknetch was as disappointed as I was. I found him in the park office warming his hands in front of an open oven door, wearing what was probably the only Florida Park Service winter parka in all of South Florida. The building’s heater had failed.

During my park visit that day there were no signs of frost along Janes Scenic drive. On the way up I crossed over the sensor hose of the newly installed traffic counter by the water treatment plant. It will give us a much better idea of visitor numbers. I stopped periodically to take some temperature measurements. At 7:25 AM at Six-Pipe Slough, with a nip on the tip of my nose, I recorded an air temperature of 37.6°F. The water temperature at a 1 foot depth, 3 feet into the slough was 54°F, a difference of 16.4°F. A few dead cichlids were caught in eddies; these cold snaps are good at culling some of our exotic fishes.

No doubt had I been more enthusiastic and penetrated a few hundred feet in to the slough, I would have found a higher air temperature. The swamp has a moderating effect. Even in the dry season the humidity radiated from accumulated peat is trapped by the forest canopy so it’s always a little cooler in the summer and a little warmer in the winter. As the sun rose it began to cast long cold shadows, I heard the distant drumming of a woodpecker, punctuated by the languorous argh, argh of a great egret gliding overhead to its morning feeding station. Finally, the sporadic twit-twitting of some small warblers could be heard as the swamp woke up.
Whereas alligators are at the southern limit of their range and have no problems dealing with these, or even freezing temperatures, this is not the case for the American Crocodile found in our brackish waters nearer the Gulf. They are at the very northern limit of their range and are very susceptible to cold. Over 150 dead American crocodiles were identified during aerial and boat surveys immediately after the severe cold snap in 2010. Apparently, rather than taking shelter in what is usually warmer water, they will continue to bask as the temperature drops, sometimes leading to fatal results. But by the time I was driving back home around 10:00 AM our alligators were hauling their black bodies in numbers out of the canal to catch the sun.

Unfortunately, although the cold weather slows the activity of Burmese pythons, the Conservancy of SW Florida reports that our local radio-collared specimens seem to be have weathered this particular cold spell fairly well, as they can seek shelter in deep undergrowth and in armadillo and gopher tortoise burrows. A prolonged deep freeze is needed to hit them hard. The recent cold weather may, however have hindered the expansion of their range northward in the State

The Gulf waters are currently in the low 60s, which is too cold for our manatees. They go into cold stress when the water temperature drops below 68° and need to seek out natural warm water springs in places like the Faka-Union Canal and Henderson Creek. The outlets of power plants or areas of deeper water where a salty bottom layer may trap heat are other refuges from the cold. Our sea turtles have also suffered. Some 900 cold-stunned marine turtles were rescued throughout Florida as a result of this recent cold spell; they have since been released.

Three days after our record low, the afternoon air temperature has risen to the 80’s, long trousers are put away and shorts on again until the next cold wave comes through. Fingers crossed; the days are getting longer and there won’t be too many more. Happy New Year to everyone.

Some Effects of Irma on the Fakahatchee’s Ecosystem

FOF November 29, 2017 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Patrick Higgins

Irma

John Kaiser, Francine Stevens and Tom Maish on Sunday, October 15. Amazingly, debris from Irma had already been cleared up to gate 12 except for this pile. Photo by Patrick Higgins.

After devastating the Florida Keys on the morning of September 10th and wreaking havoc on Everglades City and the Fakahatchee as it moved north, Hurricane Irma’s eye made a second U.S. landfall on Marco Island around 3:30 PM as a category 4 storm with sustained winds of 130 mph. Irma had been swirling at hurricane strength since August 31st and had been a major category 3 or above for nearly all of that time. It battered both coasts of southern Florida, swept up the peninsula and produced high seas and storm surges as far north as South Carolina.

We don’t have a recording for Irma’s wind strength in the park because the anemometer failed and even an accurate rain gauge reading was not possible because much of the rain was horizontal. Although the park recorded some 12 inches of rain it probably received closer to 20. The tremendous destructive force of the hurricane was obvious to all from the downed trees, ruined powerlines, damaged roofs, collapsed structures, and flooding and debris everywhere. At one stage water was even flowing over Highway 41 and State Road 29. But there are many more subtle effects on the natural world which may not be as immediately apparent.

For instance, Hurricane Irma will have affected birds in the eastern flyway on their autumn migration from northern breeding grounds to their winter homes in the tropics. Not only will many have been blown perhaps hundreds of miles off course, and some even drowned at sea, but the landscape they traversed would have been substantially altered and in many cases denuded. Food sources like berries and insects may have been eliminated and flooding would have reduced foraging opportunities on the ground. Certainly in the storm’s immediate aftermath in my own yard I saw the few butterflies that had survived desperately searching for nectar sources. All the blooms had been blown away.

But there will be some winners too. Driving down San Marco Road to Goodland a few days after the storm, our vultures had clearly benefited. Hundreds lined the causeway feasting on the fish that had been trapped on the road when the tidal surge receded.

Irma’s path across Cuba may have transported a fresh infusion of orchid and bromeliad seeds to the Fakahatchee. Tropical storm winds are how many of our epiphytes originally arrived. Who knows, maybe some lost species could even reappear?

Toppled trees in our swamp will have created more horizontal habitat suitable for skinks and reptile sunning. Snapped tree trunks may have opened-up cavities in which small animals can make homes. Uprooted trees will also have left depressions which may later become ephemeral ponds which will be safe from predatory fish and available for tree frogs to spawn. The same uprooted trees will have exposed bare earth making it easier for seeds to sprout. Ground birds will benefit from increased shelter, and highly adaptable raccoons will find new food sources by scavenging Irma’s debris.

When the water subsides, the dead material littering the forest floor will decay and the newly abundant sunlight streaming through gaps in the canopy will promote lush new growth in which small herbaceous seedlings will compete – ultimately probably unsuccessfully – with fresh vertical shoots from now horizontal trees. In this race vigorous vines may smother some of the defoliated trees before they have fully recovered, producing a dense secondary jungle-like habitat.

Openings in the canopy will allow formerly shaded saplings to make a dash for the Sun. Unfortunately some of these opportunists may be invasive species. A week after Irma, I already noted Brazilian pepper rushing into bloom.

Some trees in exposed locations would have had their bark entirely stripped off and will die standing up, turning them into snags ripe for colonization by fungi and invertebrates. However, the many downed trees, broken branches and stripped leaves will increase the fuel load and the future risk of wildfire.

Wounded trees may also be more susceptible to future insect infestation and disease as happened in Everglades National Park following Hurricane Andrew. A few months after Andrew many pines began to yellow and die as they succumbed in their weakened condition to pine bark beetles and weevils.

Endangered species with small residual populations nearly always fare badly from catastrophic events like hurricanes. A huge number of epiphytes will have been torn from their perches. Some of the rarer species may take years to recover or disappear.

Generally however, our native plant species are better adapted to hurricanes than non-natives. For instance it was very rare to see a toppled royal palm in Naples despite their huge numbers and exposed street plantings. They just shed their fronds as the wind load increased, leaving their growing tip intact. This was very evident going up Janes Scenic Drive last week. Where everything else was reduced to a tangled mass, royal palms protruded upright and only slightly frazzled all along the road north of gate 7. Most were already in flower or even fruiting in reaction to the stress. Gumbo limbos pursue a different hurricane strategy. Their limbs are very brittle and easily shed to reduce wind load and then readily root where they land.

Our southern slash pine, Pinus elliottii densa, is also adapted to the higher frequency of hurricanes in south Florida. Unlike its cousins north of Interstate 70, it doesn’t grow quite as tall and has a deeper tap root making it more resistant to extreme winds. My house is near Naples Airport where they clocked 142 mph gusts. I feared the 60+ ft pines behind my house would come crashing through the roof, but they stood firm just shedding a few limbs and masses of needles.

In the southern reaches of the park, Irma’s wind and waves will have rearranged coastal sands and inundated sea turtle nests, wiping out the last 6 weeks of our hatching season. Further out, Gulf surface waters will have been re-oxygenated by the storm’s wave action, but this could also have churned up dormant red tide cysts which may haunt us later. Meanwhile, Irma may have temporarily broken up algal blooms, but the release of extra nutrient-laden floodwater from Lake Okeechobee is quickly countering this further up the coast.

The same forces will have driven salt water into our coastal marshes leaving salt concentrations that may persist for years. Conversely, subsequent floodwater discharge through the Faka Union Canal and East River will have reduced salinity in our bays, disrupting some estuarine life cycles.

Our tidal mangrove swamps, where many of our wading birds would have sheltered in the storm, acted as a natural buffer by absorbing its energy, but may suffer delayed damage as they did from Hurricane Donna. This was as the result of extra depositions of mud as the mangroves slowed the storm’s water flow. In Donna’s case the extra layer of mud interfered with the oxygen supply to the mangroves’ roots, killing vast tracts months later where accumulations were the greatest.

But the speed of the natural world’s recovery in a tropical-like environment is remarkable. The live oaks, West Indian mahogany and gumbo limbo in my yard were almost completely defoliated, yet 10 days later were leafing out again. Fresh blooms are everywhere as plants compete to produce seeds to exploit Irma’s disturbance.

Sadly the economic loss and human recovery from the devastation takes much longer. I think we are all still a little shell shocked. The only saving grace from the prolonged loss of electrical power and a blacked-out Naples was that for the first time, I could see the Milky Way right in the city center – a reminder of the fragility of our civilization.

Fakahatchee’s Bay Trees fall Victim to Globalization

FOF March 14, 2017 Armchair Interpretive Walks

It happens over and over again.  A foreign shipment arrives in some U.S. sea or airport. Only a tiny portion of the cargo can be inspected. Unnoticed, hitch-hiking in the wooden packing material of something as innocuous as kitchen tiles, may be a non-native insect’s eggs or larvae. The tiles and infested wood quickly move through the distribution chain, and the insects freed from their native controls and with plentiful hosts, rapidly multiply. Another invasive species has arrived that will probably remain undetected until it’s too late and out of control.

In this horde of invaders are numerous species of bark beetles belonging to the weevil subfamily Scolytidae. Over 55 different exotic scolytids species have now established themselves in the USA. Among their ranks are some of the most damaging insects our North American forests. In western United States alone, aided by shifts in temperature and increased water stress from climate change, they are felling as many as 100,000 trees a day.

The rust colored leaves of a red bay killed by laurel wilt. Photo by Patrick Higgins

Here in the Fakahatchee you’ve probably noticed rust-colored dry leaves suddenly appearing in many of our hardwood hammocks. These are redbay trees (Persea borbonia) that have succumbed to laurel wilt. The disease is vectored by a tiny bark-boring beetle, the redbay ambrosia (Xyleborus glabratus) which arrived on wooden pallets from Asia in Georgia in 2002.Here in the Fakahatchee you’ve probably increasingly noticed sprays of rust-colored dry leaves poking through the canopies of many of our hardwood hammocks. These are red bay trees (Persea borbonia) that have succumbed to laurel wilt. The disease is vectored by the tiny bark-boring, redbay ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus), which arrived from Asia on wooden pallets in Georgia in 2002.

Most ambrosia beetle species only attack dead and dying trees and can actually be considered beneficial to forest ecosystems as they speed the recycling of nutrients. The redbay ambrosia beetle, however, attacks healthy trees. These are in the Laurel family and include avocado, sassafras, spicebush, swamp-bay and of course redbay.

The beetle has a symbiotic relationship with a pathogenic fungus (Raffaelea lauricola) whose spores it transports in special pockets in its mandibles. When it initially attacks, the redbay ambrosia beetle bores through the tree’s trunk without ingesting the wood tissue, leaving behind telltale frass in the form of a sawdust straw on the outer bark.

The characteristic sawdust toothpicks at the entry point of an ambrosia beetle. Photo Patrick Higgins

The beetle doesn’t create galleries directly below the bark like most bark borers, but heads straight for the sapwood where it injects its symbiont’s spores into the vascular system, effectively farming it. The growing fungus leaves a streaky black discoloration in the xylem. This is the ‘ambrosia’ upon which both the adults and larvae feed. Most of the life cycle takes place within the galleries, where beetles mate and lay eggs. It takes about 30 days to develop from egg to adult. As the next generation of female beetles matures, they collect fungal spores to carry to another hapless tree. It is thought females can fly 2-3 km in search of a host, whereas the males are flightless.

The fungus quickly spreads throughout the tree’s vascular system clogging it and depriving the tree of water. The tree wilts and dies within a few weeks of initial infection. It happens so fast the tree doesn’t even have time to form abscisic acid, the usual reaction to severe stress that causes leaf loss, hence the characteristic brown dried leaves that persist well after the tree is dead.

Because our bays evolved on the opposite side of the world from this disease, they haven’t had an opportunity to develop resistance. So far there’s nothing we can do to stop this plague other than monitoring it and avoiding transporting dead wood.

During a field trip to Naples Botanical Garden, however, my wife’s 4th grade class members were involved in transplanting and tagging bay tree seedling into specialized air-pots. (Photo of healthy redbay plants by Chad Washburn.) The Garden has been working with several local conservation organizations to collect bay tree seeds that they have been growing indoors. The idea is to preserve a pool of the tree’s genetic diversity. They currently have about 150 plants.

Chad Washburn, the Garden’s Deputy Director shared an interesting thought. Since juvenile bay trees don’t seem to be susceptible to the ambrosia beetle, Chad is considering experimentally coppicing healthy bay trees to protect them, i.e. cutting them right down to the ground so they will re-sprout. Hopefully this can buy time while a long term solution is sought, or at least allow the bell curve of the epidemic to peak. Other strategies involve chipping infected wood. The fungus dies within a couple of days of chipping but can persist in a standing tree for at least a year. Chipping also disrupts the beetle’s life cycle. Unfortunately this is not practical on an ecosystem scale.

Palamedes swallowtail butterfly, endangered by the loss of their host plants in the laurel family. Photo Patrick Higgins

However the damage doesn’t stop with the trees’ demise. Apart from losing a valuable shade tree in our hammocks, there is a knock-on effect in the food web. White-tailed deer forage on new bay leaves; black bear, and wild turkey and other birds feed on the redbay’s fruit. But most serious of all, our redbays are the major host plant for two of our swallowtail butterfly species; the palamedes (Papilio Palamedes) and the spicebush (Papilio troilus). If the redbays, go so may they.

If this was not enough, there’s an even more menacing invader looming over the horizon. It’s the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis). Although not a scolytid, it’s also a native of Asia that probably arrived on wooden packing material. In common with many invasive species, in its native range it’s not a significant pest. But here in North America it is decimating our native ash trees, threatening the entire Fraxinus genus. It hasn’t reached Florida yet, but on November 8, 2016, the Emerald Ash Borer was confirmed in neighboring Alabama.

The State of Alabama has just issued a quarantine order “prohibiting the movement of firewood of all hardwood (non-coniferous) species, ash nursery stock, non-heat treated (green) ash lumber, and any other living, dead, cut, or fallen, material of the genus Fraxinus, including logs, stumps, roots, branches, and composted and uncomposted chips that have not been ground to a small enough size to destroy Emerald Ash Borer in any life stage, by any means of conveyance whatsoever.”

Alabama’s quarantine will slow, but probably not stop the emerald ash borer’s spread. Unfortunately, 85% of our iconic ghost orchids grow on pop ash trees (Fraxinus caroliniana). Globalization is a real threat to biodiversity.

 

Autumn in the Fakahatchee

Next Steps Collective November 8, 2016 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Patrick Higgins

Autumn has come to the Fakahatchee; not with the spectacular color display of the northern woods but nevertheless it’s here. You just have to look a little closer for subtler signs, and I don’t mean the proliferation of out-of-state license plates. In early October it seemed like mother nature had suddenly turned off the tap and we went instantly to the brilliant blue cloudless skies of the dry season and the cooler nights of autumn.

Here though in southwest Florida, nearer the equator, the shortening days of autumn have a less dramatic effect on foliage than up north. Cooling doesn’t become significant until much later in the season, so it’s the dry-down that has biggest impact. We see one last fling from many plants and a super abundance of food. Holly, beautyberry, myrsine, sabal palm and wild coffee are laden with fruit, and our oaks are beginning to produce a welcome bounty of acorns. This comes at the very time when the nutritional value of our prairie grasses are ebbing to its lowest.

Even though they don’t hibernate, our Florida black bears – in response to primordial patterns – will be fattening up on this excess. The bears are preparing for ‘winter’ denning from late December through March, when they will reduce activity and the females will cub.

Already the water has left our marl prairies. Drying periphyton is leaving a khaki film that will add minutely to the very thin soil layer. Muhly grass is beginning to cast a purple haze over the grasslands, especially in areas that were burnt earlier in the year.

autumn-phragmitesAlong the lower sections of Jane’s Scenic Drive there’s a lushness of impending senescence and an explosion of flowering in a rush to set seed. Tall, tasseled phragmites are bending to autumn winds, and masses of broom sedge are spreading their fluffy seeds. Spikes of goldenrod are adding color amongst the delicate white umbels of water dropwort that remind me of Queen Anne’s lace back home in England. There’s a riot of creamy-white climbing hempvine covering almost everything, and the needles of lonely dwarf pond cypress are browning.

Image by Rita Bauer.

In the swamp, clamshell orchids are blooming under an already thinning canopy. Pop ash are casting off their leaves and the normally seasonally confused red maples seem to be getting their act together. Carolina willow just gives up: its leaves blacken, whither and quickly drop off. Dogwood foliage has a pretty scruffy end too, but the undersides of giant leather fern fronds now have a glow of golden brown spores.

Through a combination of evaporation and a fresh infusion of cypress branchlets, the water is darkening to the color of stewed tea. Our snakes are a little more visible in autumn as they climb more frequently out of cooler water onto old stumps or cypress knees to thermoregulate.

autumn-climbing-asterAlong our trams, poison ivy and Virginia creeper are reddening, and the saltbush have a dusting of white flowers. Fresh, green toothpetal orchid stalks are thrusting upwards out of the leaf litter. There’s a profusion of buckeye butterflies, their numbers augmented by northern migrants. I also notice quite a few ruddy dagger-wings visiting the purple-tinged climbing asters which are now at their peak.

Image by Patrick Higgins.There’s still plenty of water about elsewhere, so there aren’t yet huge congregations of wading birds in the Fakahatchee. However, at the very beginning of Jane’s Scenic Drive, just before the park entrance where the borrow ditch is most shallow, a mixed flock of ibis and egrets are feasting on newly concentrated prey and roosting in nearby trees in between.

As the season and dry-down progresses, so they will advance up the Drive until they reach the deepest sections of the borrow ditch. Their large numbers by then will produce enough phosphate-rich guano to sustain the out of place cattails for another season.

Our swallowtail kites are long gone, but I saw my first wheeling flight of white pelicans, newly arriving from the western lakes. The signs however are not just visual; there’s the rattling of dried leaves and seed pods in the wind, and I think I heard the faint turkey-like wattle of distant Sandhill cranes. So we do have seasonal change, it’s just a little bit slower and only apparent in the detail.

Patrick Higgins with an apple snail. Photo by Robert Fisher.

Patrick Higgins with an apple snail. Photo by Robert Fisher.

Patrick Higgins is a National Association of Interpretation Certified Interpreter, Vice-President of the Friends of Fakahatchee and Project Manager for the development of the Boardwalk Master Interpretive Plan.

Life in a high rise

FOF April 21, 2016 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Patrick Higgins

Sloshing through the swamp, our view is primarily tree trunks and water. However for our recently arrived migrants from the Amazon, the swallow-tailed kite, it’s an entirely different view. As they swoop low over the swamp’s canopy to snatch an unsuspecting tree frog, they see an undulating carpet of almost endless green. Occasionally this verdant aerial landscape is punctuated by a splash of color. This will be the bloom of epiphytes.

Epiphytes in the canopy

Southern needle-leaf, cardinal airplants and Spanish-moss festooning an oak canopy. Photo by Patrick Higgins

Epiphytes are plants that grow harmlessly on other plants without drawing nourishment from them, using them merely for support. Ours fall into 5 main groups; bryophytes, lichens, ferns, bromeliads and orchids. The largest concentrations of epiphytes are found in tropical rainforests. Thinking about that environment, it’s easier to understand the evolutionary pressures to become an epiphyte.

Light and space on the forest floor are scarce. That same forest floor may become periodically flooded. So it’s natural that some species would migrate upwards towards brighter light, protection from flooding and from the foraging of animals. There also is greater air circulation for better seed and spore dispersal.

But as always in nature there is a trade-off. Perched in the canopy water is scarcer; removed from the ground, nutrients are harder to obtain. So these plants have had to evolve special adaptations to retain moisture and to capture nutrients. Some root systems have become diminished, functioning solely as anchors. In these plants nutrient absorption has been taken over by their leaves. While others, like our ghost orchid, have abandoned leaves altogether and evolved strap-like chlorophyllous roots in their place to both anchor them and produce food.

Other adaptations are micro seeds that are easily wafted by the slightest breeze or tufts of fine hairs to help transport seeds on the wind. However, the evolutionary arms race is two sided. Whilst Fakahatchee’s epiphytes seldom achieve enough mass to damage branches, many tropical trees like the gumbo limbo have evolved shedding bark to rid themselves of juvenile epiphytes and twining vines.

Our most obvious epiphytes are our bromeliads, those spiky growths in our trees that resemble the tops of their terrestrial cousin, the pineapple. They are almost exclusively tropical and a new world phenomenon. Of the 3,400 known species, just one has made it outside of our hemisphere. Here in the Fakahatchee near the northern limit of their range, our 16 native species qualify us as the U.S. bromeliad capital.

Bromeliad water and nutrient absorption have largely been taken over by their leaves and they can be categorized by how this absorption takes place. Spanish moss and ball moss are atmospherics or true ‘air plants’. Their leaves are typically silvery gray and coated with unique leaf scales called trichomes. Trichomes can absorb water – and the minerals dissolved in it – directly from the air when available, then clamp down to minimize moisture loss when it’s not. Their silvery surface also helps to reflect light, further reducing moisture loss.

The rest of our bromeliad gang are impounders. These have their leaves arranged in whorls to trap water in a central reservoir. This tank also collects litter falling from the forest canopy and drowned insects. The process of decay transforms the water into a broth from which the plant extracts valuable nutrients. These tanks also form miniature ecosystems in their own right where micro-organisms may live out their entire life cycles. In the tropics some may even become nurseries for tadpoles. It’s not uncommon to see birds drinking from them, who might then leave nutrient–rich droppings.

Most of our silvery-gray bromeliads have another important adaption to living in Florida’s periodic drought conditions. They employ CAM photosynthesis rather than the more common C3 pathway. In CAM the leaf stomata only open at night to take up CO2 which is then stored for use in the daytime. This avoids their pores having to open in sunlight when water loss would be higher.

Half of the Fakahatchee’s native orchid species are epiphytic. All have precise fungal associations necessary for nutrient uptake, many have pseudobulbs – swollen stem bases that serve as water storage organs – and three are leafless. They are also all of tropical origin, with most in common with Cuba. This connection is not surprising as the Park is less than 200 miles from Havana – the direction of our prevailing winds. But there’s more to it than that.

Our sloughs, especially the central slough, continuously radiate humidity even in the driest years from an accumulation of peat. The moisture is trapped by the forest canopy creating a microclimate. In the summer it’s always just a little bit cooler and in the winter just a little bit warmer. This means that many parts of the Strand never freeze in the even the coldest years, allowing those minute, windborne orchid seeds blown up from the tropics to flourish.

Less spectacular are our bryophytes (mosses and liverworts). They are often represented by a fuzzy green layer on logs and branches, which if you examine closely appear as tiny forests. They have a lifestyle halfway between that of aquatic algae and ferns. They require moisture, but can dry out, go completely dormant, then spring back to life when moisture returns. Their ability to readily store and release water is an important ecosystem function. They can also help create a secondary ‘terra firma’ high up on horizontal branches by stabilizing detritus. This improves the habitat for other epiphytes.

Another epiphytic group is our lichens. They form those beautiful blotches of pink, orange, white and blue-gray on almost every trunk and limb, varying in texture from crust-like to scaly or even filamentous like old man’s beard. Lichens can be so numerous it’s hard to discern a tree trunk’s true color.

They are composite organisms: a fungus and an algae or cyanobacteria living together symbiotically. The fungus provides shelter and water absorbing services to the algae, which would otherwise be unable to survive, and the algae in turn produce sugars through photosynthesis.

It was often thought that lichens were more abundant in northern latitudes, but in 2009 a group of lichenologists conducted a 5-day survey in the Fakahatchee and recorded 432 species, putting paid to that theory!

Our epiphytic community wouldn’t be complete without mention of our half a dozen or so species of epiphytic ferns. Many of them utilize the organic material in the boots of Sabal palms like rabbit foot, hand, and shoestring ferns.

The most remarkable of all is our resurrection fern which favors rough-barked trees. Its leaves curl and turn brown when desiccated, then resurrect themselves after a good rainfall, quickly becoming a lush green – a throw-back to a bryophyte ancestor.

The canopy and all its plant diversity combine to sequester carbon, produce oxygen and support a complex web of life, from pollinators and millions of other insects, to spiders, mites, snails, tree frogs, snakes, lizards, birds, bats and squirrels. We don’t often get a close-up look, but this may all change.

Epiphytes in the canopy

Architect’s renderings of future Canopy walk in Phase II of Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk Expansion Project. Rendering by David Corban pllc

In partnership with the state, FOF has a major boardwalk improvement project underway at Big Cypress Bend. Phase 1 this year is a new parking area, a bridge over the canal, and low-level marsh boardwalk. Yet to be funded is Phase 2, that includes plans for an 1100 ft. long elevated canopy walk through the Strand. In a few years we  may all be able to experience life in the high rise.

Patrick Higgins with an apple snail. Photo by Robert Fisher.

Patrick Higgins with an apple snail. Photo by Robert Fisher.

Patrick Higgins is a National Association of Interpretation Certified Interpreter, Vice-President of the Friends of Fakahatchee and Project Manager for the development of the Boardwalk Master Interpretive Plan.