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.

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.


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 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


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.

Mosquito fish – Our Unsung Heroes

FOF April 6, 2016 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Patrick Higgins

Mosquito Fish

A female Eastern Mosquito Fish (Gambusia holbrooki). Photo by Patrick Higgins.

I’m often privileged to take people into the Fakahatchee for their very first swamp walk. It’s nearly always a transformative experience for them. After marveling about the dappled light, oohing over the epiphytes, commenting on the clarity of the water, the fresh minty smell and how surprisingly firm the footing is, they often quizzically remark “but there are no bugs.” Well, that is if you take them to the right place at the right time of the year. And if the mosquito fish are dong their job.

By bugs of course they mean mosquitoes and so, on cue, I can launch into a talk about those little two-winged flies and their nemesis, the humble mosquito fish. As Floridians we can be very proud; we have over 80 species of mosquitoes. That’s more than any other state. These can be divided these into two broad groups; floodwater and standing water mosquitoes.

Floodwater mosquitoes, like our particularly vicious black salt marsh mosquito (Aedes taeniorhynchus), don’t lay their eggs in water. Instead they seek out moist ground. The eggs need to dry out before they hatch and lay dormant in mud cracks and crevices. When they are inundated by heavy rains, or in the upper reaches of our salt marshes, monthly by spring tides, they quickly develop. The density of mosquito eggs in a floodwater habitat can be staggering, as high as 1.3 million per acre.

All but 3 other species of our ‘swamp angels’ are standing water mosquitoes that lay their eggs in water. They cannot withstand drying out and usually hatch within 24 hours. Fortunately in both categories it’s only the females that need a blood meal as a protein source for egg development. The males typically feed on nectar. Think what it would be like otherwise.

In a perfect model mosquitoes should only be a problem at the beginning and end of the dry season when there are isolated pockets of water that our native mosquito fish cannot reach. But it’s not as simple as that, because sometimes the rains don’t follow our seasonal model. Last summer was a classic example. The rains started in a timely manner in June, but kind of stopped in July, then came back with a vengeance in September. I was reconnoitering a potential new swamp walk off South Main a few weeks after this occurred, and the mosquitoes were so bad I couldn’t escape soon enough.

We’d had repeated deluges that had flooded the dry swamp landscape, triggering floodwater eggs and creating habitat for standing water mosquitoes to breed. And breed they did at a much faster rate than their vertebrate predator, the mosquito fish. This created a lag, which if you plotted on graph paper would show a classic bell curve as the mosquito population surged, then a rapid decline as the mosquito fish population multiplied and spread across the newly created aquatic landscape. Eventually we reached a nice equilibrium for our swamp walk season.

Mosquito fish

An egret’s eye view of our native Mosquito Fish. Photo by Patrick Higgins.

So our unsung hero in all this is the Eastern Mosquito fish (Gambusia holbrooki). The females are about 2 ½ inches long, and the males are about an inch shorter. Gambusia are viviparous – they bear live young, which enhances their survival probability. In nature the quantity of offspring is usually inversely related to the chances of any individual reaching maturity and reproducing. So, for example, when a female cod spawns she lays hundreds of thousands of eggs. A mosquito fish typically only gives birth to 25 live young, but can do this up to nine times a season. These young reach sexual maturity in 4-6 weeks. They are technically planktivores, but are voracious predators of mosquito larvae when available. A large female can consume hundreds a day.

But here’s the rub, as demonstrated by a remark made to me on a recent tram tour –  “We should get some of those and take them up to Michigan.” That’s exactly what has been done all over the world. The problem is that they have co-evolved here in a highly competitive environment where they’ve had to eke out a specialized niche. When they are introduced to non-native waters they tend to prey heavily on the eggs and young of other fish species – perhaps the very ones that ate mosquito larvae there. So if you search the literature on mosquito fish, you’ll find most of it is about how to get rid of them where they have been introduced.

Incidentally a British biotech firm is in the late stages of FDA approval for a trial release of genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes here in Florida. The idea is to help control the spread of Zika and dengue fever. They have been engineered to pass on a ‘kill-switch’ gene when they mate with our wild females. This prevents their offspring reaching maturity. Trials in other countries have reduced the target Aedes population by more than 90 per cent, but I’m not sure the locals in Key Haven, the chosen test site, will go for it so we’ll just have to rely on our Gambusia.

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.

Mollusking in the Fakahatchee – Part 1

FOF March 9, 2016 Armchair Interpretive Walks

By Patrick Higgins

As I was recently stalking through one of Fakahatchee’s sloughs, I found myself fantasizing that I was a great big wading bird. It seemed perfectly natural to move ponderously so as not to create a ripple in the golden water. I slid each foot forward in slow motion, conscious of everything around me: the Sun streaming through a leafless winter canopy, a single red maple leaf floating by, a movement in the cutgrass to my left, the rustle of an anhinga taking flight ahead, the plop of a frog into the water. I froze as my eye caught something shimmering on the dark bottom. And then, fortunately just before I plunged the imaginary spear-like bill on my face into the water, I shook myself out of my revelry.

A handful of Florida shiny spike (Elliptio buckleyi) freshwater mussels shells fished up from one of Fakahatchee’s sloughs. They can grow up to 100 mm (3.9”) The neatly chiselled holes look like the work of a limpkin. Photo by Patrick Higgins.

A handful of Florida shiny spike (Elliptio buckleyi) freshwater mussels shells fished up from one of Fakahatchee’s sloughs. They can grow up to 100 mm (3.9”) The neatly chiselled holes look like the work of a limpkin. Photo by Patrick Higgins.

Instead I fished down clumsily with my hands, wetting my sleeves in the process. I had to feel around a bit due to refraction, but finally my fingers closed around my target. It was the fragment of a bivalve’s shell and shone like burnished silver. When we think of swamp invertebrates our minds tend immediately to go to crayfish, insects, snails and such, but we seldom give much thought to the snail’s mollusk cousin: the freshwater mussel.

After a bit more probing I was able to come up with a whole shell, although it was empty. Its ebony exterior was striated by growth rings, some of which had eroded revealing the iridescent mother-of-pearl beneath. In the center was a neatly chiselled rectangular opening, probably the work of a limpkin’s bill.

This is the same mother-of-pearl that was used for over half century in button production until plastic came into being in the 1940’s. Today ground freshwater mussel shell is still favoured as a seed material for Japan’s cultured pearl industry.

However, freshwater mussels are not simply freshwater versions of the marine mussels we love to eat cooked with butter and garlic and washed down with a glass of white wine. True, they both are aquatic filter feeders, sort of resemble each other by having asymmetrical shells that are longer than wide, and are both bivalves, but freshwater mussels are members of an entirely different subclass (Palaeoheterodonta). In fact, marine mussels are more closely related to oysters and scallops than they are to their freshwater namesakes.

The biggest difference is in their life cycles. Marine mussels are sessile. They typically attach themselves in clumps with those stringy byssal threads we scrape off when preparing them for the pot. They reproduce by releasing sperms and eggs into the water in a rather hit or miss fertilization process. They then go through a floating planktonic stage before settling out of the water column to live in a fixed location.

On the other hand, freshwater male mussels release gametes into the water column. The gametes are then sucked into a female’s siphon, where her eggs are fertilized internally. The fertilized eggs develop in specialized brood chambers in her gills into tiny motile glochidia. This specialized larval form has an array of hooks, which allow them to attach to fish where they live as parasites for a period.

Many species are highly host specific. Some mussels even use mimicry to lure in host fish by packaging their glochidia to look like prey items such as fish eggs or insect larvae. Typically the glochidia attach to the fish’s gills, although some species also utilize the tail fins. This is an important adaptation to aid distribution. Otherwise, in freshwater streams and rivers distribution would be one in direction only, i.e. downstream. After a few weeks feeding on the host fish they complete their metamorphosis into juvenile mussels, then detach and fall to the bottom to begin their adult stage.

This is where a second huge difference comes in. Freshwater mussels have a powerful clam-like foot which enables them, through a series of muscular contractions and expansions to burrow, anchor themselves or move along the bottom. They seldom move more than a few hundred feet, but that could be critical to survival as water levels drop. Finally, they are known for their longevity. Some species live up to a hundred years.

The mussel I was holding in my hand appeared to be a Florida shiny spike (Elliptio buckleyi or to some taxonomists E. jayensis) – one of 365 North American, 62 Floridian and 14 lower-peninsula species. I say probably because many freshwater mussels are incredibly hard to identify without the aid of magnification.

The same species from different habitats often have variations in shell shape. There is so much speciation in freshwater mussels due to their intolerance to saltwater. This inhibits spreading from one river basin to another, isolating populations. It is therefore not surprising that 69% of Florida’s freshwater mussels are endemic, some to specific catchment areas.

To date, three host fish species have been identified for Florida shiny spike’s glochidia. These are Bluegill, Largemouth Bass and the Florida Gar, but in the incredible web of life about 40% of shiny spikes are in turn parasitized by several species of mites.

Freshwater mussels provide an important ecosystem function. As filter feeders they are constantly straining bacteria, algae and particulate matter from the water column, cleansing it in the process and reducing contaminant loads. They can filter as much as of 1-2 quarts per hour depending on the bivalve’s size. Their faecal matter and ejected particulates then provide food for invertebrate communities that in turn support fish populations.

They occur in almost every freshwater habit, except highly acid rivers which inhibit shell production. However, some 60 North American and 7 Florida freshwater mussel species are listed as threatened or endangered. This is due to habitat loss or alternation such as silting or pollution. So keep a look out for those telltale glittering fragments of mussel shells next time you’re in the swamp.

Oh, one final difference between marine and freshwater mussels: they are a prized food source of raccoons, otters, crayfish, and many wading birds. Also, they were consumed by Native Americans after much boiling, but apparently taste like old boot – something I haven’t put to the test yet!

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.

Hammocks and Cypress Domes

FOF March 9, 2016 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Tony Marx

Visitors to Southwest Florida are often intrigued by the undulating tree-covered backdrop which seems to comprise small hills. Most obvious as you drive along I-75 Alligator Alley, this is also evident in the Fakahatchee Strand State Park as you begin driving along the dirt-surfaced Janes Scenic Drive after leaving the paved road. Look to your right at the distant tree line and it is not level as you would expect, when viewed across the open marl prairie. Rather than a rise and fall in elevation, the dome shaped mounds of trees actually indicate a water-filled depression or solution hole under the dome. At its deepest point, the bald cypress trees grow tallest, gaining height and strength from the peat that accumulates at its deepest point. Where the trees grow around the edges of the dome, they grow shorter although they are actually the same age.

These Cypress Heads, or Domes as they are called, remain wet all year round, when the sawgrass prairie and open areas dry up and become parched during the winter and early spring Dry Season. Here alligators and wading birds collect to feed on the surviving aquatic life, and the turkey vultures gather in great numbers to feast on the left-overs. In winter, the cypress trees are bare as they annually shed their needles. These decay and, besides adding to the peat, produce acid which continues to dissolve the limestone base. Thus, the depression very slowly expands over the years.

The sub-tropical South Florida landscape, although seemingly flat, is sensitive to the slight rise and fall of elevation, when a matter of inches can promote a sharp change in scenery. The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park offers an ever changing skyline. Just about all tree and plant communities found in the larger adjoining Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades  National  Park  are found here. Where the land remains mostly unflooded, pine and palm trees replace the cypress or dense tracts of hardwoods. The ‘tree islands’ seemingly sprouting out of the open stretches of marl prairie as you drive along Tamiami Trail are also found here and one can be seen next to the road on your left about a mile along Janes Scenic Drive.

The opposite to a Cypress Dome, which sometimes looks like a tree island set in a wide expanse of sawgrass prairie, is a Cypress Head, or Hardwood Hammock. It may be a small clump of hardwoods and palms growing on a limestone ridge above the surrounding marshland. Or it may be a wider stretch of jungle vegetation dominated by Gumbo Limbo, Cabbage Palms, Oak, Mahogany, Red Maple, and others which need to remain several feet above the surrounding swamp land. As may be expected, it is home to a variety of animals, birds, and reptiles.At the center it often contains a ‘gator hole’ where alligators gather when the surrounding marsh land dries up in winter. In times of heavy rain – when the surrounding area can flood to a depth of several feet – deer, bear, and Florida panther may also take temporary refuge there.

Seen from the air or on maps, these hammocks have a distinct tear drop shape usually running north to south. They rarely flood and are often surrounded by a moat of water which keeps fires at bay. A profusion of ferns, orchids, and bromeliad adds to the jungle atmosphere. Knowing and recognizing the different tree and plant cover as you drive along Janes Scenic Drive will make your trip all the more rewarding. Deer may be seen on the open prairie, wading birds in shallow water, an owl perched silently watching for an unsuspecting rodent, a raccoon climbing a tree, and always an alligator floating lazily by or resting close to the trail. If you are really lucky, and it’s early morning or close to dusk, you may encounter a black bear or panther crossing the road or appearing ahead on the trail.

Take your time, drive slowly, and stop where safe and clear. Look down at the water, then through and up into the trees, and you will often get a pleasant surprise and a photo opportunity. Whether you see them or not, the Fakahatchee animal, reptile, and bird population is always nearby. Find a spot to park and watch quietly; one of them may appear and venture across the road or be noticed only a few feet away. Of course, a short hike along one of the marked trails is better still. Walk quietly and stop now and again to look and listen. A rustle, call, or movement will direct you to where one of our wildlife friends is going quietly about their business.

Tony Marx is a Florida Master Naturalist and former FOF Board Member. He is also a volunteer interpreter for the Fakahatchee guided tram tours and frequently contributes articles to The Ghost Writer.

Walking on Gators

FOF November 10, 2015 Armchair Interpretive Walks


by Patrick Higgins

Anyone who sails in the skinny waters of the Ten Thousand Islands, as l regularly do on my catamaran Tropicbird, will occasionally bump the bottom. And so I suppose it’s inevitable that if you stomp around the swamp often enough, you will eventually step on an alligator. I did so for the first time a few weeks ago.

Far from scary it was quite Pythonesque (of the Monty variety). Mike Owen and I were alone deep in the Fak, about 1,000 yards west of East Main surveying some ghost orchids. It was just before the September deluge and water was scarce.

We found ourselves in a broad, shallow depression where there was still 6-8” of water and were focusing on pop-ash trunks about 6 feet above the ground. Mike was ahead as I was determined to make my own discovery, which I didn’t, of course – at least, not of a ghost.

As I put my foot down, a gator whipped around in a lightning splash and grasped onto it. Now, you have to look at this from the poor gator’s perspective. It had nowhere to go as there wasn’t water elsewhere; so it probably had elevated down as I approached, pressing itself hard against the bottom to gain a few inches of cover. It can’t be pleasant to have 240 pounds step on your back. Its reaction was purely defensive.

Luckily I was already raising my foot as its teeth fastened onto my boot, so it had a grip on the sides on my sole rather than the top of my foot where I would have felt the bite force. Also, it was only a five-footer.

So there we were; the gator’s teeth stuck momentarily in the rubber sides of my boot’s sole and me hopping backwards on one leg dragging the creature with me whilst trying to keep my balance with my stick – all the while trying to shake the darn thing off and shouting, “Mike, I got a five foot gator on my foot!” This impasse lasted only a few seconds. I think the gator was as keen to let go as I was for him to do so and maybe even had his teeth stuck.

Mike almost stepped on a cottonmouth coiled on a dry patch during the distraction but was most solicitous, insisting if there was any skin broken I go to the hospital because of the risk of infection. But the only injuries were my pride and a few small perforations in my boot sole. I did get some kudos, though, because scientist to the end, even in my excitement, I hadn’t exaggerated the gator’s length. When we approached him afterwards sure enough he was five feet, and with nowhere to hide, he rotated around to face us and scowled.

I suppose seeing the humor of the moment even as it happened comes from a long, albeit sporadic, association with reptiles. Growing up my father wouldn’t allow us to keep any pets that could harbor fleas, and so by eleven years old I had a caiman living in my bath tub and a collection of snakes and lizards.

I should mention for the benefit of those whom I lead on swamp walks, that it was entirely my own fault and that when I lead the public groups I always pre-reconnoiter the route so I can concentrate on their safety and enjoyment. In any case, our swamp walks are during the cooler months when gators are less active or inactive. As I often tell my parties: they normally avoid humans, don’t feed when the water temperature is below 70°, and like all predators are very cautious about injury so won’t tackle prey bigger than themselves. And even if you’re not six foot one like me, when you’re in a group you seem like a big organism.

I’ve never actually encountered an alligator on a public swamp walk in the water. If we see one it’s usually on the tram and by that, in case I’m alarming any potential tram tour participants, I mean on the old logging trails which in the Fakahatchee we have come to call trams, not on the tour vehicle! But just knowing they are out there, along with black bears and panthers, adds to the enjoyment of being in one of Florida’s last remaining wilderness areas.

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.