Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Nature Year

December 31, 2013  Cloudy 73F

Well THAT was interesting. A local neighbourhood walk yielded quite the diversity of birds, including a very robust Red-wing singing his Spring repertoire. Another large flock of Robins seen. It does cause one to reconsider the term "bird brain".

After spending a non-splendid morning and part afternoon at the car shop, I needed some local nature....nature close by not requiring an internal combustion engine.

When that need arises, I walk out my door, down Leithgow Street to Mariposa Avenue, and turn right.  There, half a block down, is the local canal, a water management banality, and yet a bird sanctuary.  There, the neighbourhood Limpkin. This unique bird, not related to herons, or ibises, but more to Cranes and Rails....it does look like a huge Rail, was pictured a few days ago in this Blog.

Two days ago I visited the storm water storage pond up on SW Tulip Avenue. This very large wetland had a large flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in Flight

Walking around the pond, I noticed these very large(10 cms long) snail shells all along the shoreline. I learned about these special Florida snails 30 years ago during my first visit to the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Palm Beach County.  Here I saw my first Snail Kite, which feeds exclusively on these snails, called the Apple Snail.  After seeing so many empty snail  shells along the edge of the pond, I recalled that a second bird feeds on Apple Snails- the Limpkin.

Limpkins are a tropical bird, which reach the northern limit of its breeding range in Florida's marshes, but only where there is an abundance of Apple Snails.  I went home and looked to see where Limpkins have been seen in this area, and sure enough, the SW Tulip St. pond had  5 Limpkins there recently.

Today, at the canal, I saw the local Limpkin foraging, and then noticed the empty Apple Snail shells scattered along the shoreline.

Apple Snail shell (SW Tulip St.)
Two Glossy Ibises flew by, as did a Wood Stork.  The Mottled Ducks were swimming on the canal.

I then proceeded west on SE Mariposa Ave. to the local small preserve, Mariposa Cane Slough, which has another recently constructed storm water wetland beside it.  The walk through the preserve is always a treat. One can always see Beautyberry and Wild Coffee.

Wild Coffee

Arriving at the pond at the corner of Lennard and SW Mariposa, I first noticed how well all the planted native plants were doing, including Bald Cypress and native rushes and sedges.  This has attracted quite a diversity of life, including Florida Cooters (turtles) and birds, in addition to the aforementioned Red-wing:  Double Crested Cormorant, Wilson's Snipe, Anhinga, Pied-billed Grebe, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret and a Merlin.

May your trails, in 2014, yield a diversity of life.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Paleo and Teague Hammocks, St. Lucie County, Florida

December 30th, 2013

This afternoon, I visited Paleo and Teague Hammocks, two large St. Lucie County preserves, in the heart of the beef and citrus farming area in the western part of the County.

Cooler dryer air (about 70 F) has pushed in, and a thin layer of cloud lifted at about 3:30.  Therefore, at 2;00 PM,  I had an hour and a half of great photography conditions (the cloud cover).

Upon leaving the car, I heard a very large number of birds calling from the Teague Hammock (across Carlton Road from the Paleo Hammock parking lot).  I went across the road and then walked up the Teague Hammock Trail towards the rising volume of bird calls.  Among the Brazilian Peppers (an ornamental exotic plant that has become invasive where sufficient water is available) were hundreds, and perhaps thousands of birds feeding on the pepper fruit.

Most of the birds were Robins, with Common Grackles, Blue Jays and about 30 Cedar Waxwings.  This was the greatest number of Robins I had ever seen at one time anywhere......they were moving and feeding in numbers over many acres of the Preserve. Good news for the northerners reading this-many of the male Robins were singing their spring song!

Brazilian Pepper in Teague Hammock

Another non-native exotic from Brazil was seen in the Hammock. Not an invasive like the Brazilian Pepper, and a strikingly beautiful vine, Brazilian Nightshade, Solanum seaforthianum. This plant has also escaped from cultivation in Australia.

Brazilian Nightshade

I noticed a lot of Carolina Satyrs Hermeuptychia sosybius  butterflies along the trail. Also seen in good numbers were Zebra Longwings Heliconius charitonius.

Zebra Longwing, Florida's State Butterfly on Bidens

Carolina Satyr

I then walked the Paleo Hammock Trail. Both of these Hammocks contain large forested tracts and marshes/swamps, which are remnants of pre 19th century and 20th century regional water systems drained to permit agricultural development, mostly beef and citrus farming in this area.
The larger area that was drained was the Alpatiokee Swamp (the term in the 17th and 18th centuries included marshes), a very large area dotted with slightly elevated "islands" of forested dry land, called Hammocks. The Hammocks in the Everglades National Park consist mainly of Cypress and tropical tree species. Here there is a mix of temperate and tropical species, for example, Live Oak and American Elm living close to each other. And, of course, the ubiquitous Sabal Palm is here in abundance

Spanish "Moss" on Live Oak
Sabal Palm

The Paleo in Paleo hammock refers to the First Nations that occupied this area in Pre-Colombian North America. There is some evidence that the first peoples were in Florida 10,000 years ago, and there are large mounds in Paleo Hammock Preserve which, along with world war 2 era excavations for the German Canal, have yielded artifacts dating back 2000 years. It is estimated before the Spaniards arrived, that up to 100,000 people lived in Florida in areas like this one. You can read more of this fascinating history, and more about the natural history of this preserve at these two sites:


Click on "brochure" to learn more about Paleo Hammock.


The above links to an excellent document containing  much of the water management history of the area.
As a former water manager, I find that Florida's water systems are fascinating, since they account for much of its natural history. Many of the political battles in the State concern water system conservation.

Alpatiokee Swamp, which covered much of this region historically, linked the Cypress Swamp to the north (source of the St. John River) and it was the main source for the St. Lucie River, which flows off to the East, and was contiguous with the great Everglades to the south. It is believed that , originally, the Alpatiokee and the 3 rivers created on continuous system throughout the center of the full Florida peninsula.

When the Spaniards arrived, they began the long tradition of introducing exotic species to Florida's ecosystems. They brought pigs, which now roam and consume anything on the ground, and the Seville orange. Seville oranges were grown in this area in the post Colombian period. Amazingly, local trees survived the two year freeze of the 1890's. These trees were the origin of the Florida citrus industry. Some of their offspring survive in Paleo Hammock. Sevilles are very juicy AND very sour. They are excellent for flavouring a large jug of water.

The local soils are perfect for citrus, once drained. Below are "maroc" oranges and grapefruits growing happily on the reserve without any cultivation.

"Maroc" type orange

Grapefruit in Paleo Hammock

The other major agricultural product in this part of Florida is beef, This is a major beef production area. Both Hammocks originally were part of large ranches, the Teague Hammock preserve includes the family name of the ranch owner. Right next to the preserves are large numbers of cattle and their co-inhabitants, Cattle Egrets, Sandhill Cranes and Crested Caracara.

Driving down Carlton Road back towards Highway 70, I had to stop the car several times, with exciting bird sightings. I saw all 3 of the co-inhabitants mentioned above, as I drove, including the largest fly-past of Sandhill Cranes I have ever observed. There were 64 in one "V" (yes they form "V"s in flight, like Canada Geese). Well over 100 flew over.

Sandhill Crane "Fly Past"

Crested Caracara

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Oxbow Center and Canal

December 28, 2013

Two of my favourite spots to visit are the St. Lucie County Oxbow Eco-Center, a 225-acre preserve on the North Fork of the St. Lucie River  and Savannas Preserve State Park, which has the largest basin marsh (water comes from rain only) in the southeast of Florida-1000 acres.  The latter includes another 5000 acres or so of pine-oak scrub and savanna, increasingly rare ecosystems in south Florida.  All this right in the center of the City of Port St. Lucie. 



I spent some time at the Oxbow Eco-Center today. I met Joe and his daughter Sarah on the trails, and we shared some knowledge about birds, other aspects of natural history.  We traded info on good places to visit outside of the area.   Joe and Sarah suggested the Audubon  Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary at Naples on the Gulf of Mexico side of Florida.


I suggested they might like to visit Green Cay Nature Center, in Palm Beach County.


The Oxbow Eco-Center contains a wide diversity of ecosystems.  Just a slight change in elevation, and a change in the water table; or a small creek or ephemeral stream in a bottom land results in a moving a few feet into different natural worlds. If you go along the "Otter Trail", you come upon the ecological jewel of the region, the St. Lucie River. This unique river has been well protected by Floridians, and much looks so much like the Amazon, that it stood in for that river in the making of the James Bond movie "Moonraker".
Shore of the St. Lucie River with one of its more notable inhabitants

A trail will cross through the fire dependent Slash Pine-Scrub Oak savannas and scrub, dominated by the Florida Slash Pine, which has very long paired needles, and large cones.

Young Florida Slash Pine
 Add a little chance of more water, and the oaks and pine are replaced by Florida's State Tree, the Cabbage Palm, also called the Sabal Palm (Sabal palmetto).

Large Sabal Palm at Oxbow


And in the understory amongst the scrub oaks (for example the Myrtle Oak, which grows up to about 15 feet,,,,,some scrub oak species don't reach 2 feet!), you may find an Oak Toad (maximum size, an inch and a half) and, perhaps, a Fetterbush, which blooms through the winter.
Oak Toad Adult-less than 2 inches long

Fetterbush in flower

A continuing problem through Florida is the presence of over 150 species of exotic plants.  One of these, an attractive invasive flowering shrub of bottom lands, is the Large Ardisia (Ardisia elliptica), a native of south Asia and the south Pacific islands.  Thanks to Jill at Oxbow, a member of the always helpful staff at Oxbow, for helping me to identify this plant, pictured below.
Fruit of Large Ardisia

Large Ardisia
Then, scattered amongst the Sabal Palms, where water is more available than in the oak-pine scrublands, we see the native, well-named  Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)..and YES the berries are edible.


At 5:00 PM, I arrived home and immediately went out to Leithgow and to SE Mariposa Ave and the local canal.  This 30 minute round trip walk yielded an interesting list of birds.  A bird on the wire on Leithgow was a Kestrel.  As I got to the canal, I saw a flight of birds approaching along the canal from the south:  7 Wood Storks, 8 White Ibis, and one Tri-coloured Heron.  I watched as they landed up the canal, and also noticed a Great Egret,  a Great Blue Heron, and 5 Mottled Ducks.

Wood Storks discussing local politics at the local canal in 2012
As I stood, I heard a low "cluck" repeatedly above my head.  About ten feet up on a large diameter cable, a Limpkin was looking me over!  Then, a Merlin flew into a grove of trees beside the canal, where, a few days ago, a large flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers were roosting.

Limpkin at Wakodahatchee, Palm Beach County in March 2011


Friday, December 27, 2013

Walk on Jensen Beach-Southbound

December 27
Walk on Jensen beach, Southbound. Sunny with scattered cumulus with the temperature in the low 80's (about 27C).
Beginning at 11 AM this morning, an east wind blowing briskly, bringing an unwelcome visitor to the public beach-Portugese Man 'O War Jellyfish (Physalia physalis).

These are common winter hazards to beach-goers, as the tentacles will cause a painful sting, usually treated by lifeguards with vinegar.

Photo: Man 'O War- note that the tentacles are under this specimen.

Another mile or so up the beach, there is no development, and birds abound. I noted several hundred Brown Pelicans in many of their loose “V” formations all flying south. They are likely going to the Jupiter area where the Florida Current is close to shore, with the large schools of fish they need for feeding.

There were also dozens of Willets and hundreds of Sanderlings feeding in the surf, though I did capture a mixed flock having a well-deserved rest.
Photo: Willets (larger birds)  and Sanderlings

Also, about half a dozen Ruddy Turnstones, 4 Black-bellied Plovers, a few Royal Terns, and one Magnificent Frigate Bird, probably checking for vulnerable nests (pelicans, herons etc.).

Two miles down the beach, I flagged down another beach-goer to capture your hard-working blogger at work.

Your Intrepid Blogger-the larger shrubs in the background left of the photo are Sea Grapes.
Yesterday I mentioned the propagule of the Red Mangrove. Here is a fully formed one on the beach today.

These are self contained fully formed plants which, if washed ashore in a favourable spot, after a few weeks exposure in water, the brown end spouts the roots, and the green end, leaves and stem. I also noticed the “lima-bean” sprouts of the Black Mangrove at one place on the beach, and they were germinating. The third Florida species is the White Mangrove.
Photo of Red Mangrove propagule

Thursday, December 26, 2013

December 26th, 2013

Late this afternoon, battling US 1 southbound boxing day shoppers in Jensen Beach and Stuart, I made it to  Possum Long Nature Center which is the home of Audubon of Martin County.  This active club owns over 400 acres of wildlife preserves, including this 4.7 acre gem which they share with the local garden club.

The property is also the local bird banding center.  The time of day and year isn't conducive to many species of birds, and the clouds reduced butterflies in the ideally-planted butterfly garden.  Fans: no new wildlife/wildflower photos today.

In solidarity with the Pakenham/Arnprior Ontario annual Boxing Day Bird Count, which included me as a participant when I was more tolerant of cold, I did a bird count at the Possum Long Nature Center, and then at the public beach on Hutchinson Island, also in Martin County.

At Possum Long Nature Center, the osprey platform was occupied by a pair of.......hold on......Ospreys!

Also heard were Blue jays, and Yellow-rumped Warblers (lovingly known as Butter Butts). Seen were Boat-tailed Grackles and Mourning Doves.

On the drive to the beach, the omnipresent Starlings were seen.

At the beach,  I watched as a young woman fishing with her boyfriend, caught a Jack Crevalle. 

Birds included: Black and Turkey Vultures; Ring-billed, Herring and Laughing Gulls; Royal Tern; Double-Crested Cormorant; 15 Brown Pelicans; and 13 Willets.  Note that I didn't visit the nearby wetlands in order to include all of the usual species!

Now back to Starlings and Grackles.....which hang around shopping centers in south Florida.

Two stories:

1. A week ago on December 19, I noticed that the Starlings and Grackles, which attempt to roost at dusk, were being disturbed, panicking . Then right in front of my car and to the left, I saw a Merlin just miss snatching a Starling, and the Merlin landed on the pavement. The light was red, so the Merlin was safe. It sat for a moment then took off again after another Starling.
Nature does show itself in odd places at times.

2. At another St. Lucie, Florida shopping center,  on December 11th,

there were hundreds of Common Grackles being raucous, and totally dominating the local boat-tailed Grackles cowering in the palm trees. Up to that day, I hadn't seen many Common Grackles.  These are the Grackles we see in eastern Canada.  The Boat-tailed Grackles are much larger, and are resident in southeast coastal Florida.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Walk on Jensen Beach, Florida.

Dec. 25, 2013
I had notions of beginning this blog with an account of an edible weeds course taken on December 15th. That installment is coming!
Today, following a cold front late on Monday and an incursion of cooler drier air after some rain yesterday, the Trade winds (subtropical easterlies) re-established themselves, as the clouds pushed to the south. The Trades bring the warm humid weather, that characterizes south Florida, from Lake Okeechobee, south through the Florida Keys.
The stiff onshore breezes, and the relatively cooler temperatures made it an ideal afternoon to walk Jensen Beach in Martin County. I ventured out for a few hours at 1 PM, and managed a 4 mile (6.5 kms) round trip on the low tide. Low tide allows a beach walker to use the relatively harder sand surface reached by the high tide surf.
I hoped to see something my daughter, Ilana, observed on the same day a year ago:

The Shark that Ilana saw jumping on the beach a year ago was likely a Spinner Shark (Carcharhinus brevipinna) (a Florida State Parks Biologist told me it was a Torsion Shark, same idea, same fish).

The following text from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinner_shark#Feeding


Spinner sharks feed primarily on small bony fishes, including tenpounders, sardines, herring, anchovies, sea catfish, lizardfish, mullets, bluefish, tunas, bonito, croakers, jacks, mojarras, and tongue-soles. They have also been known to eat stingrays, cuttlefish, squid, and octopus. Groups of spinner sharks are often found pursuing schools of prey at high speed. Individual prey are seized and swallowed whole, as this shark lacks cutting dentition. This species employs an unusual tactic when feeding on schools of small fish: the shark charges vertically through the school, spinning on its axis with its mouth open and snapping all around it. The shark's momentum at the end of these spiraling runs often carries it into the air, giving it its common name The blacktip shark also performs this behavior, though not as often Off Madagascar, spinner sharks follow migrating schools of mackerel, tunas, and jacks. Like blacktip sharks, they congregate around shrimp trawlers to feed on the discarded bycatch, and may be incited into feeding frenzies.

Photo Credit Tumblr.com

On March 8, 2013, news reports reported “thousands” of these and black tip sharks from Boca Raton to Jupiter, Florida. Beaches were closed, as a precaution.

Today however, nary a shark was seen.

I did find some of the South Atlantic's botanical travelers. I will follow up after an expert confirms the ID.

The next is one of the common travelers in tropical seas. If it lands on a lonely beach, a lovely coconut palm results.


I also saw several red Mangrove propagules. These are my favourites. They are a little “seedling” which, like the Coconut Palm, travels the worlds south seas and anchors itself along shorelines, forming dense shoreline vegetation, with characteristic prop roots.

Moving along the shore, this time of the year in South Florida, even with large numbers of sunbathers on the beach, you will see birds. Typically, Brown Pelicans, Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls, the comedic Sanderlings, and Ruddy Turnstones will be seen. Offshore, terns, especially Royal Terns, and Osprey hunt for fish. If you are a shore fisher, look for feeding terns, pelicans and osprey. That is where the fish will be.

Sanderlings, a small sandpiper which nests in the far north, spends the fall, winter and early spring along the Atlantic shore, feeding on small crustaceans and other small organisms in the surf.

Sunbathers love to watch their antics, as they rush away from oncoming waves, and rush back to feed in the receding surf.

The Ring-billed Gull, pictured above, is the common inland gull around the Great Lakes. Quite a few spend time on the beach begging for handouts from beach-goers, along with their Laughing Gull cousins.