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.

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.