Stories of the Swamp

Armchair Interpretive Walks

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Messengers from Above – The Swallow-tailed Kite

FOF April 9, 2014 Armchair Interpretive Walks

Swallow-tailed-Kite-for-webby Patrick Higgins

I start looking on Valentine’s Day and saw my first swallow-tailed kite of the season on March 1st. sailing just above a hammock in the southern reaches of the Park.   It seemed almost paper thin, flashing white then black as it effortlessly swooped, turned and soared, changing direction in an instant with slight adjustments of its scissor-like tail.  Native Americans saw these birds as the Great Creator’s window on our world or as messengers between the world above and ours below. For me too they have a spiritual quality and never fail to bring joy.

My excitement was heightened by the knowledge that this herald of spring had journeyed over 4,500 miles from the Pantanal, a vast Everglades-like wetland straddling the borders of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, to nest here and then would repeat the trip home in September.

Males and females are indistinguishable in size and plumage.  My kite would already have formed a breeding pair during migration and then together sought out a nest site in a tall tree.  In the Fakahatchee swallow-tails favor the very top of slash pines on Four Stakes Prairie.  They usually nest in clusters within a few hundred yards of a couple of other pairs laying 2 – 3 white and brown splotched eggs, which need three weeks incubation. From hatching to fledging takes another 6 weeks, although only one usually survives to this stage – the others having been killed, out-competed for food or pushed out of the nest by the first chick to hatch.

In flight Swallow-tailed kites appear petite and delicate as they perform their aerial ballet, but their wing span is over four feet. They seldom flap their wings, making flight look completely effortless.  They seize prey like dragonflies and wasps midair and deftly pluck tree-frogs, anoles, small snakes, cicadas and baby birds from the forest canopy.  Unlike other raptors they eat on the wing as they continue searching for their next meal, and even drink and bathe on the wing, skimming the surface of ponds and rivers.  They mainly feed vertebrates to their young, but most of the adult’s diet consists of insects.  Due to their aerial prowess swallow-tails have few natural enemies, but are vulnerable to nocturnal predation by great horned owls.

Sadly their distribution in the United States has been steadily reduced by direct persecution in former times and continuing changes in land use and habitat loss.  They now occupy less than 5% percent of their historic range with only a few thousand individuals found in the southeast, Florida and parts of Texas, making each sighting seem even more miraculous.

A White Tie Affair

FOF March 9, 2014 Armchair Interpretive Walks
A mass of wading birds feeding on concentrated prey during the dry-down on the salt marsh south of the Trail. Photo by Patrick Higgins

A mass of wading birds feeding on concentrated prey during the dry-down on the salt marsh south of the Trail. Photo by Patrick Higgins

by Patrick Higgins

Last month I was tearing along Tamiami Trail for an early morning FOF meeting when my eye was caught by one of those Florida spectacles that just stop you in your tracks.  Late or not, I squealed over onto the verge.  Hundreds upon hundreds of birds were engaged in a feeding frenzy in a series of ephemeral ponds stretching southward across the tidal marsh, just north of the East River. Crowds of great egrets, snowy egrets, white ibis, wood storks, cattle egrets and even white pelicans were hobnobbing in the pools.

As they strutted and bobbed they were perfectly reflected in the waters below. There was a constant fluttering of wings and an undercurrent of coarse “arrr, arrr, arrrs” from great egrets, and what sounded almost like a heron being throttled, followed by a hyena-like cackle from the snowys.  Scattered amongst this host were a few great blues, and a few spoonbills, but it was very much a white tie affair. They were gorging themselves almost shoulder to shoulder on the highly concentrated prey resulting from the seasonal dry-down. By my return in the late afternoon the birds had all dispersed.

But 80 years ago a Russian ecologist named Gause developed the Competitive Exclusion Principle. He postulated that two or more species, having identical patterns of resource use can not coexist in a stable environment, as one will be better adapted and eventually out-compete and eliminate the other.  So how do all these different species coexist?

This free-for-all is the exception.  The superabundance had allowed each species to temporarily step out of their niche.  Most of the year direct competition is avoided by resource partitioning. Although the birds share the same habitat, they avoid direct completion by either exploiting different resources, or the same ones but in different ways. This is largely achieved by specialized bill adaptations, varying leg lengths, and differing hunting and feeding strategies.

The ibis (Eudocimus albus) for example feeds by probing with its narrow decurved bill in a frenetic manner. It explores in, around and under obstacles. As a result it captures a higher percentage of invertebrates, typically crayfish and insect larvae in fresh water, and small crabs in salt water. Much of the ibis’ quarry is taken directly from burrows or other hiding places, and this strategy seems equally adapted to our lawns.

The wood stork (Mycteria americana ) typically feeds in water 18” or less with its head down. It’s a grope feeder – swinging its partially open beak from side to side until contact is made. This triggers one of fastest reflexes in the animal world. Its bill snaps shut in 3/100th of a second.  Sometimes the wood stork also sloshes its feet about to startle prey. Its tactile feeding technique works well in turbid water, but prey must be abundant to be effective and it’s ineffective in clear water as potential prey can see and evade them. Hence their nesting time coincides with the dry-down when prey is concentrated.

The roseate spoonbill (Ajaja ajaja), has an unusual spatulate-shaped bill which it swings from side to side, open-billed and submerged to stir up food as it wades in shallow water.  Like the wood stork when it feels a prey item it snaps its bill closed, pulls the prey out of the water, and swallows it.  Several birds often team-up forming a cooperative line. Most of their feeding is in salt water areas and their food is primarily crustaceans- especially prawns and shrimp, which aids the development of their pink coloring.

The great blue heron (Ardea herodias ) on the other hand by virtue of their large size – up to 4’6”, are able to fish in waters deeper than other wading birds. They are fairly representative of the 12 Florida species in the heron family. They are all visual hunters and mostly tallish birds that tend to stand upright and still in shallow waters or on the shore as “sit and wait predators” staring intently at the water, or patiently stalking through them. When prey is spotted they dart out their long necks to seize or spear it. Great blues tend to be solitary hunters not tolerating the close presence of other birds and are able to tackle larger fish up to 15” or even small mammals.  Some of the other herons may employ lures like the snowy wiggling its yellow feet to attract prey, or the tricolor heron may dash about in a shallow pool, then suddenly stand stock still with its wings out to create shadow to attract the panicked fish.

Resource partitioning may be temporal as well as spatial.  We have two nocturnal specialists, the black-crowned (Nycticorax nycticorax) and yellow crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea), although the former is the more nocturnal. Both of these stocky birds have larger eyes to aid night vision, but comparatively short legs for herons.  This restricts them to shallower water. They prefer wading on mud flats and sport heavy shear-like bills to tackle their favourite prey: crabs and crayfish, which they pull apart before ingesting.  Unlike most herons they prefer not to stand in the water when hunting, but to perch on mangrove roots or other objects at the water’s edge, leaning over to seize their prey.

Other wading birds like the limpkin (Aramus guarauna) are even more specialized with a chisel–like bill to tackle their favourite food, the Apple snail. After breaking through operculum,  the snail’s trap door, it slips its lower mandible into the shell to snip the muscle that attaches the snail to its shell and extracts and swallows it whole.  Its lower mandible actually curves slightly to right to accommodate curvature of shell. Although it hunts visually the limpkin can also probe tactilely under surface vegetation and in turbid water. Due to its selective diet it encounters little competition from other wading birds.

Similarly the cattle egret has carved its own niche via its association with cattle and by frequently hunting in terrestrial habitats.  Similarly differences in heron sizes sort them into what depths they can stalk. While diminutive green-backed herons are restricted to hunting on the edge and extreme shallows, great blues can wade out into substantial depths and tackle sizable fish that would be impossible for a greenback to handle.

So while the great blues, greenbacks and snowy egrets pursue fish, white ibis forage for fiddler crabs, roseate spoonbills sift in search of tiny aquatic invertebrates and least bitterns snap at dragonflies, all avoiding direct completion through resource partitioning aided by their specialized bill and other adaptations.

A Window On The Strand

FOF February 9, 2014 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Patrick Higgins

A-window-in-the-strand-for-webAbout 1 ¾ miles up Jane’s Scenic Drive just after the first bend there is a distinct ecotone where the prairie on either side abruptly transitions to forest. You’ve entered Fakahatchee’s strand; the world’s largest subtropical strand swamp and a geological feature unique to southwest Florida that provides habitat for many threatened or endangered species.   Technically a strand is simply a shallow, water-filled channel in which trees are growing. But it’s more than that. The Strand’s canopy moderates extremes, creating a microclimate that retains humidity, making it just a little bit cooler in the summer and a little bit warmer in the winter. This in turn allows a rich community of native bromeliads, ferns and orchids to flourish; it literally drips with life.

180 yards beyond the entry into the Strand, where a culvert passes under the Drive, there’s a small semicircular pond on the right that provides a window into this world. It’s worth pulling over to dwell a while, but best to go on some 20 yards and then double back on foot so you can approach slowly and quietly.

A broad slough spills out of the swamp here before it is channelled under the road.  On this windless early January day mottled grey pop ash trunks and a blue sky were perfectly reflected in the pool below.  Despite the Sun’s glare I could see a school of sailfin mollies (Poecilia latipinna) close by, hanging almost motionless in the 2 foot deep, tea-colored water. This robust native fish is the same that is often chosen for home aquariums, probably because they can tolerate a wide spectrum of conditions from low oxygen to high salinity. Their natural range is a crescent from North Carolina around through Texas to Mexico’s Yucatan, including Florida. Sadly someone thought it would be a good idea to introduce them to California’s hypersaline inland Salton Sea. A perfectly benign species here is now out-competing the endangered desert pupfish (Cyprinodon macularius) there. We can’t leave well enough alone.

Beyond the mollies but still beneath the surface are feathery patches of bladderwort (Utricularia inflata). The whole plant is submerged with only their yellow buttercup-like flowers poking above the surface. Their flimsy roots do little more than serve as anchors.  The plants absorb what nutrients they can directly from the water through their thin cell walls. But the slough’s acidic waters are nutrient poor.

Like some other bog and swamp plants, the bladderwort has evolved a means to supplement this pathway by exploiting the ready availability of essential biochemicals in animal tissue. It is carnivorous. Some of its leaves are modified into bladder-shaped traps to ensnare passing zooplankton and even small fish hatchlings. These operate like the compressed bulb of an eye-dropper. Minute hairs around the bladder’s mouth are touch sensitive. When stimulated they cause the bladder’s walls to relax, sucking in passing prey that is then slowly digested.

At the back of the pool is a rhizomatous mass of emergent vegetation between a wall of heavily buttressed pop ash trunks.  Their buttresses probably serve a similar function to those of cypress trees, helping to absorb oxygen. Today this part of the Strand is a pop ash swamp, but it wasn’t always so. These trees would have been an understorey species before the cypress was logged. Even though logging ended almost 60 years ago the damming affect of the road and the culvert’s channelization has probably kept the water high enough at this particular spot to prevent cypress seedlings from establishing. It’s very hard to undo man’s work.

Something caught my eye at the back of the pond; an almost imperceptible out-of-place shape. The principles of camouflage and concealment from my army days (shape, shine, shadow, sound, movement and color) came seeping back into my mind as I peered harder. Yes!  I could just make out an alligator’s eye ridge barely above the surface. Nearby a darker crouched shape attracted my attention. It was a little green heron obscured behind a tangle of leaves. It slowly emerged, picking its way towards the hidden gator. I suspected that they were both aware of each because it foraged just so close, then changed direction. And when it did so, the gator, now discovered, moved out a little into the open pond to expose and orientate the bony scutes along its back to the Sun and warm up. If dinner was out of reach, there was no point in being cold.

But most notable was that midway up the pop ash trunks, amongst the narrower-leafed cardinal airplants (Tillandsia fasciculata), a scattering of giant airplants (Tillandsia utriculata) still hung on. These bromeliads are ecosystems in themselves.  Their aerial ponds support a microcosm of life.

Sadly these giant tank epiphytes are an increasingly rare sight due to the depredations of the Mexican bromeliad weevil (Metamasius callizona) – an invasive exotic.  This so-called evil weevil arrived in Florida from Mexico on imported ornamentals. The giant airplant is particularly susceptible because of its ‘big bang’ reproductive strategy.

All our other native bromeliads reproduce both asexually (typically by pupping) and sexually. The giant doesn’t propagate vegetatively at all, and only flowers once in its 10-20 year life span, after which it dies. That’s a long time to be susceptible to the weevil with plenty of opportunity for infestation before reproducing. If it does successfully reach this stage, the giant airplant pushes up a huge flowering shoot over 6 ½ feet high in a final burst of energy. This may ultimately bear 10,000 seeds which are then dispersed on tiny wind-borne parachutes.

Several stages of the weevil’s life cycle may be busy eating away various parts of the plant at the same time, but the death blow is when their larvae bore into and shred the plant’s stem tissue to build cocoons. The answer may be biological control. A lot of work has been done on an imported parasitoid tachinid fly, Lixadmontia franki. After extensive testing these have been released in small numbers but rearing them in sufficient quantities has been problematic. You have to have bromeliad weevils for them to prey on and these then need bromeliads to feed on. They’ve tried using trays of pineapple tops leftover from supermarkets for the latter, but the process isn’t completely cracked yet.

The weevil’s devastation has been progressing inexorably southward through the Fakahatchee. But I’m an optimist and like to believe that perhaps the solution lies here in the bromeliad’s gene pool by our little pond. Maybe the random genetic shuffle of sexual reproduction has produced a combination that is somehow resistant in this location. We’ll have to keep observing.

Another possible salvation might be giant airplants surviving in isolated hammocks or cypress domes. The weevil is a weak flyer that travels from branch to branch rather than over long distances and perhaps these reservoirs may serve to repopulate the Fakahatchee in the future.

My thoughts returned to the scene before me and my eyes moved upward to the grass-like tufts of reddish-tinged southern needleleaf (Tillandsia setacea) higherin the trees. Behind them I could just make out the white blotches of several roosting egrets. As I lingered I heard the plop of a fish, then the mutterings of some herons and finally the flap of wings. I turned to leave. On the other side of the road, a limpkin was patiently stalking over some logs floating in our slough which continued ever so slowly to carry the Strand’s waters towards the sea. All this in a fifteen minute stop – that’s the Fakahatchee!

Under the Dome

FOF January 9, 2014 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Patrick Higgins

Photo by Rose Flynn

Photo by Rose Flynn

For a change of scene I decided to visit a cypress dome instead of a prairie hammock. The mid-December day I choose coincided with the passage of a rapidly moving cold-front, so I set off under a grey sky. I had noticed a classic dome on Copeland Prairie on a previous excursion and thought it would be fun to investigate, as domes are really the opposites of tree islands, as I shall later explain. My target was located 1• miles up the track running north from the first bend of Jane’s Scenic Drive.

I had expected the Prairie to be essentially dry like Lee-Cypress across the road, so was lazily sporting calf-high Wellington boots appropriate for muddy English country walks, but which would fill with water if overtopped. As it turned out several inches of water remained, perhaps because of JSD’s damming effect. I found that I had to teeter-totter along the track’s central ridge to avoid sections where the ruts were perilously deep – something I wouldn’t have thought twice about if I was wearing my regular ‘wet’ boots. But this gave me the opportunity to observe the little mosquito fish that had been concentrated in them and only weeks before were spread all across the Prairie.

Photo by Patrick Higgins

Photo by Patrick Higgins

Dull light isn’t the best to appreciate the Florida landscape, but to either side, bare hat-rack cypress stood like lonely sentinels. These dwarfs, standing only 10-15 feet high, are stunted pond cypress that eke out a meagre existence on slivers of soil over the prairie’s bedrock and may actually be over 150 years old, deserving our respect. There’s debate whether pond cypress are a separate species from bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) or merely a variety of the same species (var. nutans) but opinion seems to be leaning towards the latter. Whatever the taxonomy, pond cypress do have special adaptations to the harsher niches they occupy, including thicker bark to increase fire resistance and needles closely appressed to their upturned branchlets to aid in water retention, versus the droopy feathery branchlets of bald cypress.

All around me the almost fluorescent, blue, bobbing heads of Glades Lobelia visually popped against the dry grass along with the intense white of String Lilies in their prime. There were still the occasional Grassy Arrowhead in bloom, but these had long peaked and were looking forlorn. Crushed Water Hyssops underfoot released a minty-lemon fragrance and attracted White Peacock butterflies. Frosty-colored Liatris seed heads released tufts of white as I brushed by, and the odd apple snail shell caught my attention. With the sound of the wind as a companion, I had a delightful hour’s hike to the dome. A line of Slash Pines, perhaps only inches higher in elevation gradually closed in from the west at my destination leaving only a narrow gap for the track to continue onwards.

As if on cue a ray of sunshine pierced the clouds transforming the grey leafless dome momentarily to gold. With the Sun appeared several Halloween Pennant dragonflies and a Scarlet Skimmer. I stopped to take a photograph and despite the shallow depth of the mud, my boots began to stick, pulling out with a distinct pop as I left the track to approach the dome. My cypress stand was some 80 yards in diameter. Classically lower trees encircled it and each succeeding concentric ring rose slightly higher creating a perfect dome shape with the tallest trees towards the center perhaps as high 70 feet and certainly besting the tallest pines nearby.

To the uninitiated cypress domes are counter intuitive. They appear from a distance almost as little hillocks but are in fact water-filled depressions, at least in the wet season, which brings us back to opposites and prairie hammocks. Those tree islands typically develop on limestone outcrops that raise them slightly above the surrounding terrain. Cypress domes, however, form in slight depressions created when weaker areas of limestone bedrock subside or dissolve from the action of the acidic by-products of rotting plant material. One might think the taller trees in the middle represent greater age, but the difference in height may be down to increased growth vigor instead.

Photo by Rose Flynn

Photo by Rose Flynn

Imagine a newly formed depression on the prairie. The initial trees that colonize the beginnings of that ephemeral pond will have no better soil conditions than our hat-rack cypress. So an outer ring of stunted trees develops. Over time they drop their needles into the pond creating slightly better soil conditions for the next ring of trees which grow slightly taller, and so on and so on. Each successive ring also has a slightly longer hydroperiod because they are further into the bowl. So the tallest trees may not necessarily be the oldest trees, rather they have just experienced the best growing conditions. And to confound the model, were we able to count the tree rings of outer individuals, they might not be older because the outer trees also experience the highest mortality due to a shorter hydroperiod and greater susceptibility to fire.

Cypress trees, like all aquatic organisms, face certain challenges from being periodically inundated. Water is an excellent solvent, able to readily transport most chemicals required for life, but it’s also about 10,000 times more viscous than air, meaning that life supporting gases, primarily oxygen and carbon dioxide move very slowly in their dissolved state, requiring special adaptations. Water lilies for example have hollow stalks so that oxygen can be channelled to roots buried in anaerobic muck. On the outer fringes and into the dome’s interior I encountered cypress knees; those knobby conical structures that have proved such a mystery to scientists.

All sorts of sophisticated experiments have been conducted over the past 80 years, even hermetically sealing them in transparent cases with hoses connected to all sorts of instruments, but the results are inconclusive or contradictory. However, most likely they are involved in some sort of gas exchange as they typically grow to an average height just above the local site’s mean high water level, and they also provide some sort of anchoring mechanism as they typically appear where the root system takes a distinct downward turn, perhaps here in South Florida exploiting a small solution hole. We also know they store starch.

Although the dome was dominated by cypress there was a struggling understorey kept in check by the cypress canopy’s shade. It comprised pond apple, Dahoon holly, pop ash, a few Carolina willow and some cabbage palms near the outside; all species that create a succession canopy in swamps if there is a perturbance like logging or fire. This one sheltered some sparse sawgrass too.

The cypress trunks had characteristic buttressed bases. These swellings help them absorb oxygen and provide stability in high winds. I could detect the normal high water level from the line where the patches of lichens ended. The closely spaced trunks serve to dampen air movement and trap moisture under the canopy, so that higher up, the cypress branches were festooned with bromeliads.

Cypress cones. Photo by Rose Flynn

Cypress cones. Photo by Rose Flynn

Waxy cones and pendulous catkins hung on many of the cypress and the typically clear water below was instead dusted with their pollen. Each cone typically contains 16 seeds that look a bit like dried-up petals the size of a finger nail. Squirrels often messily tear apart ripe cones and in the process drop seeds. In the not so distant past noisy flocks of now extinct Carolina Parakeets would have also performed this service. The seeds then need a complex sequence of conditions to successfully germinate. Ideally they will fall into water where they can soak for several months to soften their tough outer husks, but they can’t germinate there and must ultimately settle on exposed, but moist soil. This is why cypress trees need alternating wet and dry.

The seedling then must quickly thrust upwards to avoid being submerged when the rainy season returns or they’ll drown. Once mature however, they can survive both periodic flooding and drought. Because of this, if there’s permanent water in the center of the dome, there will be what looks like a donut hole from the air, devoid of cypress.

My dome was true to form and sure enough as I sloshed inward I encountered a small flag pond open to the sky. The alligator flag indicated even deeper water. Had I been a truly dedicated scientist I would have waded into the center to measure the depth, but in the dry season these frequently become gator holes, and as I was alone and had the excuse of inappropriate boots, I opted just to admire the pond then head home. My hike back was much quicker as I decided to bypass the rutted track altogether and found it much faster striding over the firm prairie in just a few inches of water. It helps to have long legs though!

Beneath the Prairie

FOF December 9, 2013 Armchair Interpretive Walks

By Patrick Higgins
patrick-higgins-for-webI happened to step out on the south end of Lee-Cypress Prairie on the very day in mid-October when the last of the water receded. That event was so fresh the black mud was still glistening. As I stood still to take in the scene I could hear water seeping back into my footprints. The grassy arrowhead, whose white billowing flowers had dominated the prairie only weeks before had now mostly gone to seed.

prairie-rose-flynnThis year’s rain had come early and heavily, and as the whole Prairie tilts ever so slightly to the southwest, water had stood here long and deep enough that most of the clumps of bunch grass had rotted away. This left wide spaces between each arrowhead plant. On the surface between them was a patchwork of overlapping prints from half a dozen species of wading birds that had feasted here only days before on their concentrated prey of amphibians, small fish and crustaceans. They had now moved on.

But something else was happening. All around me the surviving crayfish were busy excavating their burrows down to the water table where they would spend most of the dry season. Their chimneys looked like piles of miniature black meatballs and their earthworks contrasted starkly in patches where the dun-colored periphyton had already dried.

photo by Patrick Higgins

photo by Patrick Higgins

At 3 to 5 inches, crayfish are the Park’s largest invertebrates. There are something like 350 species in North America. Some are obligate burrowers and others not, and many of them are such habitat specialists that they may occupy only one particular river basin system. We have more than 50 species here in Florida, even some cave dwelling troglodytes, and two that make the Fakahatchee their home. These are the similar looking Everglades Crayfish (Procambarus alleni) that we find on the wet prairies and the Slough Crayfish (P. fallax) who are less adapted to seasonal drying and favor more permanent water like their namesake sloughs.

Crayfish are non-selective omnivores. They will eat almost anything organic they can catch or scavenge and chop up small enough to put in their mouths, including algae, plant material, fish eggs, worms and insects. But they’re also cannibals too, usually directed from larger to smaller and particularly molting individuals. Like all arthropods they have a rigid exoskeleton and need to periodically molt to grow, and it is at this stage that they are most vulnerable. Maybe because of this females exhibit some parental care.

Most crustaceans release their eggs into the water and do not care for them. Crayfish females carry their eggs on their swimmerets to protect them from predators and here they hatch as perfect miniatures and go through three molts before releasing and taking up free-living lives, thus increasing their survival rate.

They reach sexual maturity in about two months and probably live up to three years although chances of surviving that long are pretty slim. There are sharp beaks everywhere. Females in their burrows are egg laden at the end of the dry season and young crayfish are very quickly able to repopulate newly flooded prairies. This makes them critical prey for wading birds in the lag before fish species appear in any quantity.

photo by Rose Flynn

photo by Rose Flynn

Crayfish are a vital component of Fakahatchee’s food web by dint of both their sheer numbers and because virtually anything that can catch a crayfish will eat it. There are at least 40 species of vertebrates that feed on them: from fish to pig frogs, water snakes, young alligators, raccoons and wading birds. They are a particular favorite of ibis who use their long curved bills to probe for them. On my visit the exposed mud was still pitted with holes from their foraging.

The numbers of crayfish tend to increase with the plant community’s complexity as this provides both shelter from predators and increased food resources. True to form, where I first stepped on to the denuded beginning of the Prairie, I was observing about 2 – 3 burrows per square meter, but by a quarter of a mile in, where there was more vegetation, up to eight, and remember this was after the feasting of the dry- down when the population is at its lowest.

crawdad image

But their role as a food source is only part of their importance. In wet prairies they may be considered a keystone species with a role analogous to that of the gopher tortoise in the pine flatwoods, but on a miniature scale. Crayfish burrows serve as refuges for many other small aquatic organisms that retreat to them as the prairie dries and then quickly repopulate it when water returns. Also by heaping up piles of earth they are creating perfect habit for seeds to grow where fire has not exposed the soil. Whatever name you call them: crayfish, crawfish, crawdaddies or mudbugs, crayfish are a vital part of the Fakahatchee’s ecosystem.

Taking Stock of Fakahatchee’s Prairie Hammocks

FOF October 27, 2013 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Patrick Higgins

Typical small hammock on Lee-Cypress prairie to the west of Janes Scenic Drive.

Typical small hammock on Lee-Cypress prairie to the west of Janes Scenic Drive.

Late this spring during a chance conversation with Karen Johnson at the ranger station’s newly-planted butterfly garden I was outed as a ‘cryptobiologist’. By that I don’t mean someone who goes in pursuit of mythical creatures like Sasquatch, but rather someone who has trained as biologist but never practiced as one. As Karen’s eyes lit up I could almost see the thought bubble with the word “RESOURCE” flashing in it. She quickly pounced and the next thing I knew I was meeting Park Biologist Mike Owen to discuss a couple of projects tasked by Tallahassee on his ever-growing, but completely under-resourced, ‘to-do’ list. This was the beginning of the Prairie Hammock Survey.

When we think of the Fakahatchee we tend to focus on the Strand itself but there are seven main prairies within the Preserve. These are wet prairies – the least flooded of any Florida marsh type covered by water for only a few months of the year. They are also very species rich, even without taking into account the myriad of tree islands (hammocks) dotted across them. These develop on limestone outcrops that raise them slightly above the surrounding terrain and are mini-ecosystems in their own right. Their drier ground, abundant food supply and cover make them important resources for wildlife, but the Park does not have a lot of data on them.

That’s where the Prairie Hammock Survey comes in. It will provide data for input into the Park’s Burn Zone Map. Hammocks containing oaks are of particular interest because their acorns are an important food source for white-tailed deer, which in turn are the favorite prey species of the Florida panther. Acorns are most abundant on the ground from October through December when the nutritional value of the prairies’ other plant species are at their lowest. Knowing which hammocks are important for acorn production feeds in to the Park’s panther management objectives, although acorns are also an important food for the Florida black bear, as well as wild turkey, gray and fox squirrels, mice, voles, rabbits, raccoons, opossums and foxes. The survey will help the Park identify which hammocks should be protected when the surrounding prairie is subject to rotational (prescribed) burning and will also provide a baseline for detecting and monitoring any changes in species composition over time.

A typical survey day is on foot and often begins by wading waist deep across the borrow ditch after a careful check there aren’t any alligators lurking nearby. Once on the prairie during the wet season, and this is a very wet one, water is usually calf deep except in the hammock interiors where you have to be alert for other critters seeking dry feet or bellies, as the case may be. Rose Flynn has been joining me recently and adding her knowledge of the Fakahatchee. So far we’ve concentrated on Lee-Cypress, Copeland and West Prairies. When we’ve collected enough survey data we may see trends in species composition. But you only have to look at a close-up of the Park on Google Earth to see that that there are an awful lot of hammocks. It’s rather like painting the Brooklyn bridge.

Each hammock is surprisingly different and brings a sense of discovery. We record its latitude and longitude, write a brief description, photograph it, measure its circumference, calculate its canopy height, do a transect, tabulate the quantity of each tree and shrub species, as well as log water depth, wildlife sightings, bromeliad and ferns present, and note nearby blooming flowers. This usually involves circumnavigating each hammock 3 or 4 times, so we cover a lot of ground, but the real time involved is getting there. Some of the prairies are quite remote and just to do one or two hammocks can take a whole day, especially when you are diverted by an interesting spider or some other natural marvel.

Still, it’s a privilege to be able to tramp across such a beautiful landscape, even more so when there’s a purpose to the trek, and as a new member of the FOF Board it’s a fine opportunity to ‘learn’ the Park. Besides, there is something about open spaces and big skies that appeals to the human psyche – perhaps because mankind evolved in a similar savannah environment.

Photo by Rose Flynn of Patrick carrying survey gear on the way to the prairie.

Photo by Rose Flynn of
Patrick carrying survey gear on the way to the prairie.

Patrick Higgins has been tromping around the Fakahatchee since 2004 and has helped with FOF Coastal Cruises and Ghost Rider tram tours as an expert interpreter. He operates his own eco-tour company, TropicBird Ecotours+.

 

The Problem with Pythons

FOF March 27, 2012 Armchair Interpretive Walks

by Dennis Giardina

It could be said that if you haven’t heard about pythons in the Everglades yet, you’d have to have been hiding under a rock. If that rock happened to be in South Florida, you may still have become aware of the presence of pythons because there’s a chance you’d be sharing that cool, dark shelter with one of them. Over the past ten years there have been many very good articles written about pythons. There have been interesting, informative vignettes on radio and television programs but now it seems that the hype machine is rolling wide-open, pummeling hapless consumers of information with sensational anecdotes and images of an invasion of giant, malevolent snakes. The reality of the situation may be somewhat less shocking than portrayed by the sensationalistic media but no less concerning, albeit for different reasons. Let’s start close to home. Are there pythons in Fakahatchee and, if so, what threats do they pose?

Yes Virginia, there are pythons in Fakahatchee. We know this because one was collected by an exotic plant treatment crew in January of 2007 at the borrow pit lakes area in the northeast corner of the preserve. Another was observed floating upside down in the canal on the south side of US 41 by Mike Owen about a month ago, most likely hit by a vehicle. The epicenter of the spreading population of Burmese pythons is Everglades National Park. There are several theories of how they got there but whether the population originated by a breeding facility destroyed by Hurricane Andrew or as a result of multiple separate releases or both – the damage has been done. That SE Florida population has now spread in every direction aided by the network of canals that crisscross South Florida. For the past ten years Burmese pythons have been observed and collected in SW Florida, especially in the Collier-Seminole State Park – 6L Farms – Rookery Bay NERR – Marco Island Airport area. Some suspect that this SW Florida population may be the result of a separate introduction of Burmese pythons but regardless, there seem to be more sightings and collections every year. Mike Owen and I feel that the number of pythons that occur in Fakahatchee at this point is very low, filtering in up from US 41, down from I-75 and over from Big Cypress. We have yet to receive a report of a python on Janes Scenic Drive. When that happens, we will have to reconsider our population estimate.

The threats that pythons pose have more to do with their impact on native wildlife, especially local mammal and bird populations and less with any direct danger to humans. Pythons are not accustomed to eating us and even the largest Burmese pythons would have a hard time getting their jaws around even the narrowest of human shoulders to swallow one of us. They, like any animal, when threatened or cornered will defend themselves. Their bite/constrict/swallow feeding behavior is different from their defensive behavior which is more like other snakes: they coil up, inflate their body and raise their head, making a loud hissing sound. There are few animals (other than humans) that would continue to approach a large python in full-blown defense display but if one were to do so, the python would then strike repeatedly. Unlike animals, human beings usually wear clothes and if the curved teeth of the striking python were to snag a pant leg or a shirt sleeve, the python would not be able to simply release it and would try to pull its head back into its coils and perhaps it would go into wrap and constrict mode. I don’t know but if you are afraid to walk in the woods because of the danger of being bitten or eaten by a python, all I can say is don’t be, they are not going to bother you.

Skip Snow, the Wildlife Biologist at Everglades National Park who has been dealing with pythons longer than anyone, has noticed something concerning. It seems that small mammal populations, everything from marsh rabbits to bobcats seem to be on the decline along the main road inside the park. In areas where there were numerous sightings and sign of animals like tracks and scat, now seem to be much less or absent. Because circumstantial evidence does not a case make, Skip, UF Scientist Frank Mazzotti and others have embarked upon a study to see if they can prove that this observed decline has been caused by pythons alone, or whether its due to other factors like disease – or both. It’s hard to imagine that a population of pythons, likely numbering in the thousands wouldn’t have a noticeable impact upon a native mammal fauna unaccustomed to their predation but it’s our job to back up our feelings, insights and observations with data. That is science and there is (in terms of the physical world) no better arbiter of truth.

It seems to me and most of my colleagues that pythons and other large exotic reptiles like monitor and tegu lizards are here to stay. We think they will continue to spread, eventually throughout the entire peninsula. Cold weather events will knock them back, but they will self select for more cold hardiness over time as well. Native mammals and birds will have to develop strategies to avoid being eaten by them so that enough of them are able to reproduce and persist as species. Natural areas managers and scientists will continue to innovate methods to trap and kill them to keep their population levels low and reduce the average size of individuals but there is no magic bullet. There are however many tools in the toolbox. One particularly promising one is the use of dogs trained to sniff out pythons. A pilot project last year, using two Labrador retrievers from the Auburn University Canine Unit showed that in certain applications they were tremendously successful at locating hidden individuals and with targeted seasonal surveys, many pythons could potentially be removed from the environment in a short amount of time. Currently there is so much information available that if you want to read more, Google “Burmese pythons in Florida.”

Dennis Giardina is the Everglades Region Biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and was formerly the Park Manager of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve.

Don Juan

FOF May 27, 2006 Armchair Interpretive Walks

The Capture of Florida Panther #79

by Dennis Giardina

“Cougar” McBride with Florida Panther #79 after his capture on February 16, 2006.

“Cougar” McBride with Florida Panther #79 after his capture on February 16, 2006.

Because I have the opportunity to work “hands-on” with Florida panthers in the wild, and because I’ve been asked frequently about this issue, I’d like to mention a couple of things about the capture of Florida Panther 79, “Don Juan,” in Copeland on February 16 (2006). I feel fortunate to be able to contribute in whatever small way to the recovery and management of this species and it is my pleasure to share a bit of it with all of you FOF members.

At ten years plus, Florida Panther 79, was certainly approaching old age for a male panther but he appeared to be very healthy and presumably still able to hunt and kill large, wild prey. About two weeks or so before he was captured and taken into captivity, he started to prey upon domestic animals at several different residences around the western Big Cypress National Preserve. After his second or third depredation, the BCNP Panther Capture Team caught him, inspected him and then relocated him to the far eastern Big Cypress National Preserve. Within two days however, he traveled over twenty miles back to the scene of one of his previous crimes and he tried to get back into a chicken coop that he had torn open several days earlier. I say tried because between then and the first time he visited, Big Cypress personnel strung up an electric wire fence around the chicken cage. I wish I could have seen his reaction when he discovered the electric fence but apparently it shocked him all the way across State Road 29 and into the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve which is interesting because at least while he wore an active radio collar, it is a place that he was never known to visit.

National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Commission personnel began to notify people in the Copeland community about the presence of Panther 79 and within a day or so, he found a pot-bellied pig in a resident’s backyard and killed it. Strangely though, just as he had done in at least one other attack on livestock during the preceding weeks, he did not eat it. On that morning, after the panther recovery team received word of yet another attack, the decision was made to remove Panther 79 from the wild. Members of both capture teams, law enforcement agents and media people convened in the lot next to yard where the pig was killed. Soon thereafter, the panther trackers entered the dense brush behind the house with two hound dogs. Within a short amount of time, using a telemetry receiver to follow the signal of the big cat’s radio- collar, they reached the edge of a little hammock a couple of hundred feet west of Jane’s Scenic Drive. They released the hounds and the startled panther quickly climbed a big live oak tree surrounded by a thicket of Brazilian pepper.

The signal was given for the capture team to enter the hammock and take position as one anesthetic- bearing dart was fired expertly into the cat’s hind quarters. As the post-injection clock ticked, the capture team began to clear the pepper, vines and brush from the area beneath the branch where Panther 79 perched nervously. The capture net was spread out and pulled tight. The six persons holding the net shifted anxiously following Panther 79’s movements anticipating where and how he would fall. At six minutes post injection it became apparent that Panther 79 had lost consciousness in the canopy and was not going to fall.

At that point I was given the command to climb and I ascended the pepper branches up to the oak tree trunk as quickly as I could. When I approached the semi-sedated panther, he reacted to me and I was cautioned from the ground to back off for a minute to let the drug take a bit more of an affect. Panther 79 was mostly still when I resumed my approach and I stretched the rope I carried with me underneath his forelegs and around his back. I tied a knot and slipped it down tight. I tossed the bulk of the climbing rope down to the team and began to try to work the heavy cat out of the forked branches where he was hung up. I had very little leverage; I couldn’t stand up to lift him so I had to wrap my arms around him and work him towards me to position him to be lowered down. As I did, he growled, our heads so close I could feel his breath on my face. I eased him back away from me and he gave a defensive hiss, his eyes fixing upon me, then crossing and rolling into unconsciousness.

In a calm, non-threatening manner I talked to Panther 79 as I do all the panthers I have to interact with, telling him to just take it easy and to work with me, and good boy… good boy. I pulled the claws of his rear paw out from deep in the branch and slowly rolled him over the left side. What complicated that maneuver was a small broken branch beneath the cat that I didn’t see, which caught underneath the noose right in the center of his chest and for a minute, Panther 79 hung in mid air suspended by it. Fearing that in spite of all my effort he would slip out of the noose and plummet to the ground, I tried to lift the rope over the six-inch stub but I couldn’t. No one on the ground could see the look of sheer panic on my face as I grabbed hold of that branch with both hands and frantically rocked back and forth on it with all my weight. After a few seconds I felt it give way and it broke enough to finally lift the loop over it. I yelled to the team below to take up the slack and pull hard. In a dream-like state of relief and elation, I watched Panther 79 slowly descending. Once he touched the ground, he regained consciousness somewhat and the team piled on to pin him down and sedate him. I remained in the canopy for a minute longer, catching my breath, looking down, feeling extremely lucky and grateful.

Panther 79 was taken to the University of Florida, School of Veterinary Medicine where he was given a full examination. Nothing abnormal was found. In every physical sense, Panther 79 appeared to be in good health. At the moment, Panther 79 is living away from the public eye at Busch Gardens. He seems to be adapting to captivity. He is eating. Caged wild panthers have been known to bite relentlessly at their chain-link enclosures and break their canines. So far he has not. The question remains though, why did Panther 79 leave the wilderness and wild prey and shift to hanging around humans and preying on their pets and livestock? I don’t know if we’ll ever know. Another question is did the capture teams and their agencies react appropriately and expeditiously to this situation? Did logic and science and the protocol of the problem panther response plan effectively guide the decisions and actions made on all levels? I would have to say yes. Regardless how anyone may have felt personally about removing this magnificent animal from the wild and putting him

in captivity for the rest of his life, everyone knew it was what needed to be done. As the Florida panther population continues to grow and their active range continues to expand, we will have to be vigilant. We will continue to communicate with individuals and communities in rural areas to provide information about protecting pets and livestock, and avoiding encounters with panthers. At the same time, we have to be cautious not to let emotional, irrational or unscientific concerns dictate our responses or management strategies. I have been saying, and I believe, that human beings and panthers can coexist. We have to be aware of them and take precautions not to attract them. They have to remain very wary of us.

Dennis Giardina is actively involved with Florida Panther Capture and is the Manager of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.

Lost for a Century

FOF May 27, 2004 Armchair Interpretive Walks

Finding the “mossy helmet” in Fakahatchee Strand

by Russell Clusman

rclusman@Miami.edu

It was a perfect January morning. The sky was clear the air was dry and a pleasant 74 degrees. I turned my vehicle off of Janes Scenic Drive onto the white gravel road of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park’s offices. There I met up with a few members of our group and stretched my muscles, sore after the long ride from Miami. We exchanged greetings and pleasantries and awaited the last member’s arrival. Already my pulse was quickening in anticipation of the day’s events with our seasoned, fun-loving field companions. A brief discussion of the day’s strategy, a few laughs and last minute equipment checks and we were on our way.

We entered the swamp, our destination, the heart and arteries of Southwest Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand. Our small company, of varied interests and backgrounds, was intent on exploring new areas to observe, document and photograph all of the rare flora and fauna, as well as digest the beauty of this wilderness. Although I thoroughly enjoy every moment I have in the Fakahatchee, I hope in some small way we are contributing to the vast body of knowledge of this magnificent cypress strand and continue to offer more reason to preserve this natural wonder. The trek is arduous, but this company was focused only on the rewards. Little did we know what treasure was waiting for us to discover!

The first slough we entered looked like it had potential. We split into smaller groups and headed south, interrupting the silence by communicating with an occasional shout of “hooty-hoo” or the calling out of a threatened or endangered orchid, bromeliad, or fern. An hour had passed and I was not impressed with the area. The slough became shallow and my quest was the deeper limestone troughs that have been dug by Mother Nature throughout the centuries. The slow flow of water has gradually eroded the limestone to form a kind of stream within the strand. The predominant trees along the edges of these deeper areas are pond apple and pop ash. It is here that these trees become festooned with rare epiphytes. We altered our search pattern and intercepted a great looking slough. I broke south while the rest headed north.

Mike Owen, the Park’s biologist, and his assistant, Karen Relish, teamed up on their northerly trek. Karen, while slogging, was intently recording the rare flora she encountered up in the tree branches, cypress knees, stumps and logs (fallen dead trees). Something different caught her eye so she called out to Mike for further examination. There on a seven- foot long prostrate log laden with moss was a group of small plants with their roots embedded in the abundant moss. Several plants were in bloom and after a cursory examination, Mike believed they were orchids, so they carefully removed a specimen for identification.

I returned to Janes Drive about 20 minutes ahead of Mike and Karen. When they emerged out of the water, they told me about their find and proceeded to remove the carefully wrapped plant out of a backpack. Upon seeing it, I immediately identified it as Cranichis muscosa and 1903 flashed in my mind like a blinking neon sign. But could this really be? I called out to Saul Friess, a member of our group, in the hope that he had his copy of The Wild Orchids of Florida by Paul Brown, which he usually carries with him.

Intent on confirming its identity I excitedly turned the pages to the index and than to the photo of the plant, I loudly exclaimed “touchdown”, an expression this group uses when we discover something special or unusual. For me the moment was truly thrilling. I don’t think my companions realized the enormity of the find but my zealous enthusiasm eventually caught on. Plans to return the next day for photographs were confirmed and I had a euphoric ride back to Miami.

The genus of Cranichis is comprised of approximately 30 species (Luer, 1972). Cranichis muscosa is a small terrestrial or semi-epiphytic orchid approximately 4 to 10 inches in height when in bloom. It has a peculiar basal rosette of leaves which are petiolate and green to light green in color. The spike has several bracts as it ascends. The flowers are white with greenish speckles. I found it to be similar to Platanthera nivea. Cranichis is derived from the Greek words meaning, “having a helmet” and muscosa from the Latin word meaning “mossy” (Correll, 1950). These words clearly describe this little gem because the lip, which is uppermost, forms a cover over the column and our plants were found imbedded in abundant moss.

J.E. Layne first collected a specimen in May of 1903 in Lee County (Correll, 1950), which included the Fakahatchee at the time. In December that same year A.A. Eaton vouchered a specimen in Dade County (Correll, 1950). I have since learned that Eaton collected another specimen in 1905 in Dade County (Gann, Bradley, Woodmansee, 2002). In a personal communication, Dr. Carlyle Luer, the author of the landmark book The Native Orchids of Florida (1972) advised this writer that he had seen it once in Florida but there is no formal record of this sighting to my knowledge. The moss orchid’s range extends from Mexico to the West Indies then down into Central and South America and is now re- confirmed that it also occurs in Florida.

This colony we saw was made up of 40 individual plants of which seven were in bloom. Three of these plants were growing on a cypress knee a few feet away. The best news is that Mike believes he has seen this plant at three other locations within the strand and we hope to investigate for confirmation in the next few weeks.

If you are ever in south Florida and orchids are your agenda I suggest a trip to the Fakahatchee. The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park (FSPSP) is a unique swamp forest that is approximately twenty miles long and three to five miles wide. This 80,000- acre wilderness has a diverse plant and animal population. It has 44 species of orchids and numerous threatened or endangered ferns and bromeliads; many not found anywhere else in the United States. It is home to the Florida Panther, Everglades Mink, and Florida Black Bear. Late October through November is an excellent time to visit the strand. The temperature is cooler and you may see many epiphytic orchids in bloom. June through July we consider the best time to see the infamous Dendrophylax lindenii, ghost orchid, in bloom. You may need to pack some mosquito repellent because they may be somewhat pesky during the summer. For information regarding ranger-led swamp walks contact the Park Manager, at (239) 695-4593 or see their website.

If you are interested in becoming a member of the FSPSP Citizen Support Organization, the Friends of the Fakahatchee, contact them at orchidswamp.org. This is a worthwhile organization dedicated to support and educational activities specific to this Florida natural wonder.

Group members:

  • Mike Owen, FSPSP Biologist
  • Karen Relish, FSPSP Biologist’s Assistant
  • Saul Friess, Professional Photographer
  • Robin Drake, Americorp Environmental Sciences Educator
  • Rick Janiec, Outdoor Enthusiast
  • Russell Clusman, Orchid Enthusiast

References:

  • Luer, C.A. 1972. The Native Orchids of Florida, New York: The New York Botanical Garden. 85p.
  • Correll, D.S. 1978. Native Orchids of North America North of Mexico, California: Stanford University Press. 179p. Gann, G.D., Bradley, K.A., Woodmansee, S. W. 2002. Rare
  • Plants of South Florida: Their History, Conservation, and Restoration, Florida: The Institute for Regional Conservation. 75p.
  • For a photo of Cranichis muscosa, see pages 64-65 in Wild Orchids of Florida by Paul Martin Brown.