Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Florida is for the Birds (and the plants, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, crustaceans, molluscs......)

Wednesday January 29th 2014  Cloudy, showers, 21C

I saved this one for a rainy day!

No drama today. Just rest.  And I thought back to the last few days.

On Sunday, January 26, I drove out to Allapattah Flats in Martin County. This is a very large multi-use tract of land which is a remnant of the large swamp that was drained to permit agriculture in the 1940's and 1950's.  Some of the damage done by these drainage programs is being reversed slowly. Still, a fraction of the original inland wetlands exist. They once stretched from north of Orlando to Florida Bay.  You know the southern portion as the Everglades.

The last few days did remind me of our spring, with familiar plants and birds in spring garb and song.

We see Violets at home in eastern Ontario in April-May.  Here at Allapattah Flats, on Sunday, they were springing up all over.    The species is well named: Bog White Violet Viola lanceolataIn Ontario, this is a plant found in boggy conditions.  Much of the interior of Florida has similar ecological conditions.  The leaves are lanceolate,  a very unusual form of leaf for violets.

One bird that catches the eye is the Loggerhead Shrike.  This is a handsome predatory bird.  Its cousin, the Northern Shrike is appearing in good numbers in Eastern Ontario this winter.  They both live in open areas, where they hunt and impale their prey on convenient shrubs, like Hawthorn. For reasons as yet not fully understood, the Loggerhead Shrike has become an endangered species in Canada. But, it thrives in the Savannas and even parks in South Florida.  It doesn't happen often, but for a very brief period in late April and Early May in Eastern Ontario, it is possible to see both-the Northern Shrike before it migrates back to the North and the Loggerhead, arriving from southern climes to nest. I saw three Loggerheads in Allapattah Flats. Here is one of them: It was looking forward, until I used my patented technique of causing this bird to turn its head. I yelled: Hey Shrike!

In several areas  in central and in coastal Florida, I have encountered these familiar birds in large flocks of hundreds.  You know how territorial they are when they arrive in your neighbourhood.  Here in Florida, I have seen them crowded together singing spring tunes, as shown in the photos below, the first to ensure that  you recognize the bird, the second to give you an idea of the numbers.

Someone commented, after I told them about their penchant for eating ( and spreading) the invasive Brazilian Pepper fermented fruit, that perhaps they were like young men in a bar after a few drinks....just a little tipsy singing the songs everyone knows.  Perhaps.....

At Allapattah Flats, I also saw a familiar butterfly, the only one of this kind I have seen down here.....and one we will see in Eastern Ontario later in Spring,  the Pearl Crescent, Phyclodes tharos.  I missed the photo...but just after seeing this familiar butterfly, I caught a glimpse of a male Common Yellow Throat Warbler in full spring regalia.  Soldier on, dear northerners, Spring is warming up and getting ready to roll.

At the Paleo Hammock Preserve, there were a few Florida specialties, scenes one only sees here.  The Spaniards left two of their shipboard meal items here and there in the 16th Century that are still found today.  One is the Seville Orange, which did usher in Florida's citrus industry. The other has gone squealing away into the woods before I could get their photos-the feral pigs, which have spread far and wide, and cause damage to the environment, including many ground nesting birds, lizards, snakes and any other living thing they find, being, like us, true omnivores.

And just a few hundred meters away from this orange tree, in the pasture, you can once again see how Cattle Egrets earned their common name:

While across Carlton Road, in Teague Hammock, I saw one of the shyer members of the Heron/Egret Family of waders, the Green Heron, which also nests in Eastern Ontario wetlands:

And speaking of wetlands, the largest central Florida marsh, fed solely by rainwater, and which covers 1000 acres with the 10000 acre Savannas Preserve State Park, in the heart of the City of Port St. Lucie has been a focus for me in the last two years.  This is the view, best explored by canoe or Kayak:

Happy mid week, and hopefully those suffering the very frigid air from Northern Florida to Pennsylvania get a break soon!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Some Ends and Odds

Tuesday January 28, 2013  Sunny, 27C

Pete Seeger: We lost a great performer and principled man today.  This one is for you.

 This was the PERFECT day to lock myself out of my condo.

Since I also left my car keys in the condo, I couldn't drive. NO problem!  I had one of my moments of heightened anxiety, and decided to walk it off through this neighbourhood.  With storm water storage ponds, local canals and the Mariposa Cane Slough Preserve, there is quite a variety of habitat for wildlife.  Twenty-four species of birds made themselves known in the two hours.  Turtles, butterflies, dragonflies...even fish, lizards and the local alligator made an appearance.

At the end, I visited my neighbor Izzy, who is originally form Mississippi, who told me his brother had told him that it was snowing in his home town (near Jackson), and the afternoon temperature was hovering around 25F.  People along the Gulf of Mexico rarely see such temperatures and snow, and they aren't prepared for it.  Izzy didn't have a copy of my key, but he shared a beer with me, and we had a good talk until my other neighbor, Debby, came home from work and let me into the condo.

So much for Art's Culture.

There were 47 Glossy Ibis in the local canal. I hadn't seen one for weeks!

They are much rarer than the White Ibis, also seen on my walk.

For those hoping for Spring in Eastern North America, I heard several Mockingbirds jubilantly declaring their territories, and at the entrance to this condo, several hundred Robins  cavorted, many in full spring song.

In keeping with the climate-weather may recall that on Thursday January 9th we had quite the rainfall in the late afternoon and evening. Reports from the local airport were that 9-12 inches of rain fell in 7 hours, creating local flash flooding, and closing roads.  The evidence of that storm is still with us. Trails that normally dry up during the winter are still covered with water, especially in Savannas Preserve State Park.

In a visit this Saturday at that Park, I talked to staff who told me their two rain gauges measured 16.5 inches of rain.  Considering that summer/fall hurricanes and tropical storms typically drop 9-12 inches of rain when they hit the Florida coasts, this event in January was a record deluge.  Since the 1000 acre marsh in Savannas Preserve depends exclusively on rainwater, the good news is that the marsh and all of its special biota will thrive due to this rainfall.

Yesterday, Monday January 27th, I visited D J Wilcox Preserve on the Indian River Lagoon.  Once again, Tony was fishing the pier there. I didn't bring him luck this time.  We did see lots of wildlife.....what Tony referred to as Marlon Perkins moments.  Well said Tony.  Aside from Pelicans fishing, Mullett constantly leaping; we also saw a pair of dolphins feasting, a Roseate Spoonbill, Sandwich Terns, a Great Black-backed Gull and a large Ray feeding in the shallows.  Another large predator was also in the shallows but it was too far off to see....likely a Black tipped or Bull Shark.

Tony's friend Charlie was on the pier with us hoping for some of the Finger Mullett used for bait.

Alas, none was left as you can see from his sad expression:

Tony left, as did Charlie, and I went up the trail.  There were the 17 Least Sandpipers feeding under the Mangroves.  They have been here longer than me.  These Arctic nesting birds never see snow! They do score an 8 on my cuteness scale as they skim the tidal shore for crustaceans.

Then I saw this Horseshoe Crab shell on the shore.
And I was being observed

when I spotted this animal not far from the Horseshoe Crab shell. Can you see it?
How about now?

Sometimes you have to look very closely to see a creature:

I ended  my walk, after unsuccessfully attempting to capture a photo of a flying Sandwich Tern with a much more cooperative bird, a Tri-Coloured Heron:

 May your nightly dreams have the colour and diversity nature offers.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Out of the Way and Out of This World

Queens Island Preserve 65F Sunny

The Preserve is just of A1A on Hutchinson Island, north of Fort Pierce.  This small preserve provides Indian River Lagoon access amongst some large state preserves, which are, paradoxically, inaccessible to the public.

I saw my second Bobcat during this visit on Thursday, January 23. It flatly refused to have its photo taken! And the answer to "whose tracks are those?" from several days ago......the BEST Bobcat tracks ever at D J Wilcox Preserve. Sadly,  no prize has been awarded.

Thankfully, flowers can't run.  This one looks a lot like Sneezeweed-several species occur in Florida. But it isn't. It is another Southeastern specialty with scattered distribution throughout the state.

And what a lovely long name: Coastal Plain Honeycombhead, Balduina angustifolia.

Snags (standing dead trees, in this locale mainly Sabal Palms) make great homes for woodpeckers.  The very vocal Red-bellied Woodpecker, and the very large Pileated both showed up on the same tree.

Many other birds showed up here, including a number of  Painted Buntings (which would NOT be photographed, no no no).  

I realized when I saw it, that I had not one decent photo of Florida's State Bird. This one posed when I called to it:)  Why would someone want to kill one, Harper Lee??

Over the last week, I have had help identifying 3 flowers- two from Blowing Rocks Preserve on Jupiter Island, and one from the Oxbow Center.  They are very interesting plants, as two have edible/pharmaceutical interest, and the third just looks good.

Thank you, thank you Green Deane. Check out his website at:

and George Rogers, Professor of horticulture and botany at Palm Beach Sate College, tree-hugger, and general nature-bug:

They have been generous with their assistance with identification.

The first flower is
Creeping Cucumber, Melothria pendula

The second has many common names, as it is a most interesting plant with wide distribution throughout the globe. It is Bitter Gourd, Momordica charantia. Read about it on Green Deane's Website:

And the third is another southerner, a very attractive plant with bright red berries.  Look, but don't taste. This berries are not edible. Rouge plant, Rivina humilis is a member of the Pokeweed family.    It is a true southerner, not found in the Florida Panhandle, just in the southern counties.  It is also found in south Texas and in the Caribbean.

On Wednesday January 22, a very cool sunny day, I visited the Kiplinger Preserve in Martin County. Hearing a rustling beside the trail, I crouched down and waited in the brush beside the trail, and was rewarded with a decent photo of a very shy species, an Armadillo,

Have a good night.

Monday, January 20, 2014

I Can't Say that my Life has had No Egrets

Jan. 19 Full sun, 70F

Pelican Island National Wildlife Sanctuary

Last week, the focus was on barrier islands. At that time, my exploration had gone no further than Round Island, on Hutchinson Island in Indian River County. That range is now expanded with the inclusion of the USA's oldest National Wildlife Refuge, created by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Roosevelt was a visionary and a pioneer in North American conservation. His accomplishments were the inspiration for all that followed:  the expansion of parks and refuges; and legislative/administrative innovations.

The full history is a most compelling story. Read about the first caretaker. Pelican Island deserves its own biopic.

There are three trails in current day Pelican Island NWR. The trails extend for 7 miles. I traversed the full 7 miles.

The first trail, Bird's Impoundment Trail, is a path through the Indian River Lagoon mangroves. There are three mangrove species (plus Buttonbush, which is a cousin): Red, Black, White.

 Red Mangroves, Rhizophora mangle, are in the harshest inter-tidal environment, with their prop roots anchoring the plants in the very salty waters of the lagoon. The prop roots enable the plant to spread and occupy most of the shoreline in an appropriate lagoon environment. In turn they create, with their prop roots, and foliage density, an excellent nursery and safe haven for most species...thus enabling the bio productivity and diversity of coastal Florida.

The Red Mangrove's close relative, Black Mangrove, Avicennia germinans, lives in the slightly less harsh layers on the near shore. The distinguishing adaptation of the Black Mangrove is long horizontal roots and root-like projections known as pneumatophores. These projections cover the ground amongst the trees, enabling rapid growth of new Black Mangroves should some be taken out. Both of these trees are so dense, that they create, as well as safe haven, a modified micro climate. Brutal summer heat, hurricanes and winter cold are all tempered by Mangroves.

Remarkably, the Red Mangrove excludes salt at the root surface, thus absorbing only fresh water. The Black and White Mangroves excrete salts at the leaf, White Mangrove through glands at the base of each leaf, and Black Mangrove on the upper leaf surface. If you walk along this trail and see the lighter green leaves of the Black Mangrove, note that the upper leaf colour is dependent on excreted salt concentrations. After a dry winter week, you may see salt grains on the leaves. Even after a dry day or two, lick a Black Mangrove upper leaf, and you will notice a very salty taste.

The White Mangrove, Laguncularia racemosa, is not common along the Pelican Island trails. It occurs at the highest elevations of the 3 major species. It is not common here since it is the least cold tolerant. It also has no visible aerial roots.

Both Red and Black Mangroves reproduce through unique structures called propagules. These are “mini” trees, ready to grow immediately. In a previous edition, I included a photo of a Red Mangrove propagule on a local beach. Currents distribute them throughout the tropical oceans. Here are some at various stages of development on the tree on the trail:

Red Mangroves in Lagoon Shallows

Many Mangrove Buckeyes were seen, then this butterfly appeared.  It was rather beat up. Even so, I was happy to see it, as it was the first Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta,  of this stay in Florida.

It continued to be an unexpected butterfly day with another trip and Florida first: a Julia, Dryas iulia, which was behaving as the textbook claims, flying along the path visiting every Bidens alba,  Beggars Ticks, the white flower seen here.

Botany fans, much special for you too on this trek.  Another pantropical plant, the Caesalpinia bonduc or Yellow Nicker, a bean. Touching the unripened pods, shown here, is not recommended.

At one of the few spots I could see out into the lagoon (only where water management culverts are installed), the reason for the title of this edition:

Followed by yet another southern butterfly (clearly they were enjoying the modified climate amongst the mangroves)...this one is a Great Southern White, Ascia monuste.

I then moved on to the 3-mile Joe Michael Memorial Trail. Joe was another remarkable man central to the additional lands that now make up the Pelican Island NWR.  Beginning in 1959, Joe, a local citrus grower, began an 8 year campaign to stop State-sponsored development and dredging of the Lagoon and organized local conservationists to gain federal protection of the lands that make up the modern NWR.  Remarkably, there is a spot called Joe's Lookout on this trail.  It is a well chosen spot.

Here it is:

Here are some of the winter residents:

No Egrets....Joe's winged friends include Lesser Scaup, Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper and Northern Shoveler. Thanks Joe, a true man of action.

Not to be outdone by birds, the local mammalians sent forth one of their own to make an appearance.  I expected a Marsh Rabbit, and I was surprised to see a Cottontail.

Then two surprises towards the end of Joe's trail. The first, a bird that is difficult to photograph, a Ground Dove.

Just like the finale of a fireworks competition, the trail ended with a true sensation:

The Spotted Beebalm, Monarda punctata, is seen in small numbers throughout much of Eastern North America, including Ontario and Quebec.  In Florida, it blooms  in January. A fine day with some egrets.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Barrier Islands, Birds and Botany

January 17, 2014 Sunny 66F

On warm days, the local barrier islands beckon. There are two: Hutchinson Island and Jupiter Island which are separated by the St. Lucie Inlet. Hutchinson Island (Jensen beach to Vero beach) contains many public beaches, preserves and parks. Some of these visited to date are Walton Rocks, Bathtub Beach (south end of the Island), Round Island (in Indian River County, as far north on the Island as I have been), and Fort Pierce State Park. 

Cultural note: Hutchinson Island is where the original base and training facilities were for the US Navy UDT, founded during World War 2. In 1962, President Kennedy changed the UDT into the US Navy SEALS special force. SEAL, by the way, is an acronym for Sea, Air and Land. An excellent museum has been built on the original site. People will recognize in the museum yard two “practice” space capsules, as it was the UDT-SEALS who recovered astronauts who landed into the Atlantic after their missions.

Jupiter Island, at its north end, is the major part of the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge is contiguous with the St. Lucie Inlet State Park. Further to the south, in the middle of the very upscale homes is the Nature Conservancy's Blowing Rocks Preserve, carved out of land donated by Jupiter Island residents.

Cultural Note: many celebrities live in this community. You may see a famous golfer at the local golf club; a Quebec chanteuse; and a film actor known for his centerfold photo in Cosmopolitan.

From the north end of Hutchinson Island to the south end of Jupiter Island, enough climatic change occurs to create a significant difference in the biota, with more tropical species at Blowing Rocks. One may assume the 50 miles distance is responsible for this. This has a small influence, Much more important is the Florida Current, a warm ocean current which emerges form the Gulf of Mexico, and is, even in winter, close to the shore at Jupiter Island, but 20 miles off shore at the north end of Hutchinson Island.

At Round Island, you see a natural large area of Mangroves. Red Mangroves and their White and Black cousins, create, within the lagoons and quiet beach areas, the cradle and the safe haven for life to develop, multiply and feed. Most of the biological diversity owes its existence to the modifying climatic and habitat features of the Mangroves. Across the Indian River Lagoon at D J Wilcox County Preserve, fish, fish-eating birds and dolphins abound. I always take the opportunity to explain to fisher people that the excellent local fishing is entirely due to the great job of preservation of the mangroves by public bodies, notwithstanding great development pressures.

Jan and I met Tony and his friend Roy at the D J Wilcox fishing/wildlife viewing pier. While we chatted, Tony hooked and landed a very exciting large fish, seen here. I have seen fishing shows dedicated to this species. Many fishers spend thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars to catch one. They are highly protected under Florida law, and Tony did the honourable thing-he released it as it is out of season.

Readers, I leave it up to you to identifying this fish (comment or email). I will let you know who gets it right, and reveal the species name then. Tony isn't eligible!

Barrier islands along the south Atlantic coast and through the Gulf of Mexico, attract a lot of resort and vacation development, so conservation is a challenge. The islands and the lagoons between them and the mainland, are some of the riches and most biologically diverse sets of ecosystems on Earth.
An excellent web resource about North American barrier islands:
These Sanderlings, a bird that nests at the northernmost extremity of terrestrial Canada, but spends most of its time on North American beaches, at Bathtub Beach. Also, my nominee for Canada's cutest bird:
Often mixed with the sanderlings on beaches is the Ruddy Turnstone:
And the larger, peripatetic Willet, a Prairie nester:
Chasing larger fare, there are many Osprey inhabiting the Lagoon:
And, at D J Wilcox, the salt water pond behind the Lagoon has exposed mudflats at low tide, where the Least Sandpiper feeds:
While a roosting Yellow-crowned Night Heron emerges for an instant to take a look (Round Island):
And the Mangroves are also home to the Mangrove Buckeye butterfly:
At Blowing Rocks, Canavalia maritima, Beach Beans climb onto the Sea Grapes (not pictured). While, on the lagoon side, Pithecellobium keyense, Blackbead abounds this time of the year. This plant is native in North America, ONLY to SE Florida, and most are seen here and south. The "keyense" species name refers to the Florida Keys:
And for the marine mammal fans, the above Common Bottlenose Dolphin, Tursiops truncates, enjoys chasing fish at D J Wilcox's part of the Indian River Lagoon.
Thanks to Jan's keen eye, we spotted these tracks on the D J Wilcox trail.  Guess what they are. Answer in the next edition. Extra points for probable candidate prey, evidenced by the scat at the lower part of the photo.
Let me know if you have preferences for future editions. Enjoy the weekend.