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