Dicromantispa interrupta

Dicromantispa interrupta

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Devil's Hammock, Levy Co., FL

I have been cooped up quite a bit lately due to work and weather, so today Brack and I decided to explore Devil’s Hammock, a state-owned hydric hammock through which the Waccasassa River flows. It was too nippy this morning, but the afternoon was nice and warm, in the high 50s.

Starting out on mtn bikes, we rode along a wet woods road (photo 1) that only paralleled the Hammock, so we stashed the bikes and off we strode into the swamp. The word, hammock, is a never-ending source of questions I hear from people unfamiliar with Florida ecosystems. The word derives from an old Indian word, hummocka, which means an island of hardwoods in a sea of something else. So a hammock could be a maritime forest surrounded by salt marsh, a clump of live oaks imbedded within a pine forest, or, in this case, a mixed hardwood forest within pine flatwoods.

The wetter a hammock is in Florida, the more deciduous it is. Devil’s Hammock is dominated mainly deciduous hardwoods like bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), swamp tupelo (Nyssa biflora var. biflora), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), Florida elm (Ulmus americana var. floridana), basswood (Tilia americana) and pumpkin ask (Fraxinus profunda). Evergreen hardwoods are common too, like live oak (Quercus virginianus), diamondleaf oak (Quercus laurifolia), sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) and swampbay (Persea palustris).

You can see Brack ascending a live oak (photo 2) via its burls, a pumpkin ask (photo 3) that had grown around another tree but which had since rotted away, and the flying buttress wings of an elm (photo 4). We did find one decent sized loblolly pine in the swamp (photo 5) – I guess the hammock was too wet when the loggers came through.

This time of year is perhaps the best time to wander through our hydric (wet) hammocks. Oh, they’re wet, but only shallowly, so sneakers or boots work fine. What’s neat about them at this time of year is that the deciduous trees are still not yet leafed out so the warmth and the sunshine cause wetland herbaceous plants to flourish. Photo 6 shows part of a stand of thousands of young red buckeyes (Aesculus pavia), photo 7 a thick stand of blue flag iris (Iris savannarum), and photo 8 a stand of swamp butterwort (Senecio sp.).

We never did find the river flowing through this wetland; instead, we bound a series of shallow, slow-flowing channels where the flat topography had caused the river to braid out in a maze of drainage pathways.

If you are local and can get out there, you’d better do so before warm weather wakes up the mosquitos and yellowflies!

Night heron fishing with dead dragonfly

Here is a very interesting account of a film about a night heron using a dead dragonfly as bait to catch fish: http://www.virtualbirder.com/bmail/arbirdl/200603/23/index.html

I eagerly await the movie.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A woodpecker and its bait tomato

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my friend Eric and I each had vegetable gardens. It was a period of time when self-sufficiency was on the rise and we were caught up in it. Never mind that our labor and other costs resulted in ten-dollar tomatoes, they were good tasting tomatoes and they were of our own making!

One afternoon Eric came over to talk about a perplexing problem. It seems that a red-bellied woodpecker was drilling holes in his beloved tomatoes. Each time Eric picked off and threw away a woodpeckered tomato, the determined avian would find another tomato to damage. Eric didn’t want to kill the woodpecker, of course, but he didn’t want to lose any more fruit to that bird. So, what’s a fellow to do?

I had to admit I didn’t have a solution, but I promised to give it some thought and research to see what I could learn. I, too, had noticed a woodpecker drilling holes in my tomatoes, so I watched for that bird to see where it had damaged my fruit. When I observed it on a plant, after it left I examined the tomato I had seen the woodpecker on. I saw that the holes it had tapped into the top of the tomato fruit over the next few hours drew in sap-lapping insects. I kept watching, saw the woodpecker return to the plant and then leave again, and when I re-checked the pierced tomato the insects were all gone.

Eureka! Evidently the red-bellied woodpecker deliberately created bait for insects that it could return to and sup upon. I told this story / experiment to Eric, who then kept watch on his tomatoes and the woodpecker, and confirmed that was the story in his garden, too. True, we lost a few tomatoes to the woodpecker, but our plants produced more tomatoes than we could eat. Besides, the woodpecker was catching and removing tomato-sucking insects that otherwise would have destroyed as many if not more fruit than the bird preempted. It’s a sin to kill a woodpecker.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Can a cormorant use a tool?

I used to live on a 38ft sailboat, a Downeaster cutter to be exact. Nice boat. It was parked in a floating “trailer park” in St Augustine where a tidal channel cut thru an expansive salt marsh. The wetlands there are rich in aquatic and semi-aquatic life – invertebrates, fishes and birds. Not far away a friend had a house in the marsh where a hundred or so roseate spoonbills roosted at nights during the summer, and large fish would bang loudly on the bottom of my boat at night as they cornered and rushed at their smaller prey.

One evening I was sitting out on the stern deck and noticed a double-crested cormorant engaged in peculiar behavior. From a swimming position it would swim down under water until it caught a gafftopsail catfish, then pop back up to the surface for a breather and to orient the fish headfirst toward its gullet. These catfish looked like they might be too large for the bird to swallow, especially considering the catfish’s three long, poisonous spines.

The cormorant would then dive back under water with the catfish and evidently swim to and fro over an oyster bar, based on the long, thin lines of turbidity rapidly left behind. Then the cormorant would surface and swallow the catfish. All I can deduce is that the cormorant was using the hard bottom of the oyster bar to break the catfish’s spines so that it could be safely eaten.

If so, could the oyster bar be considered a “tool” of the cormorant?

Fear and loathing in coots

I live beside Orange Lake in Marion County, Florida, home to hundreds of sandhill cranes, thousands of ringneck ducks, scaup and coots, and every species of wading bird that lives in this part of the northern Peninsula. These will provide substance for future musings, but today I write about a particular intraspecific commotion that occurs some evenings around dusk.

About a half-hour before dark, a great horned owl will fly out of the woods and perch atop a snag on the edge of the wide marsh that surrounds the lake. It will sit and watch the coots floating out on the water in maybe 50 small rafts. As the owl sits and watches them, the coots get nervous and mill around, but there is no place for them to go. There are owls around all the lakes.

About the only thing a coot can do to “protect” itself is to band up with others to lessen the chances that it will get taken by the formidable predator. Thus, shortly the 50 flocks become 40.

Then a pair of bigmouth (red-shouldered) hawks nesting nearby will come out of the brush and hassle the owl, diving and screaming angrily. The owl watches them but seems unperturbed for the most part. Well, the coots just see this as two more predators, and they get even more nervous, and soon the 40 flocks become 30.

All this activity is not lost on the lake’s fish crows. They join this avian community presumably to try to take advantage of whatever meat that the owl cannot retrieve. The crows land on a bunch of dispersed stobs rising out of the water – I don’t know if they are dead buttonbush or coastal plain willow stems – and clash with each other for the best positions. Of course, the coots become even more agitated by this, so the 30 flocks become 20.

Then darkness and quiet falls over the lake and I can’t tell what happens next, but I’m sure it’s not good for the coots.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Fern Caving

(Please note that the process for adding photos on Google's blog system is primitive. Therefore, they are in reverse order of where they are mentioned in the text, so you must start with the pic closest to the text and move up from there).
I needed to work yesterday (Tuesday, Feb 19, 2008), but it was such a beautiful day and Brack called, so we took off and went mtn biking and woods wandering instead. The goal was a disappearing stream leading to some caves I hadn’t seen or heard of before. Little was I to know what a fine decision we made! We parked at the home of his brother’s former lover, geared up and biked off down a trail road thru planted pines.

The setting is in a physiographic province called the Ocala Hills, formed as eroded remnants of the Hawthorne Formation lying atop limestone. The Hawthorne Formation is a sandy, phosphatic clay containing chert (similar to flint) nodules, phosphate nodules and sea fossils like shark’s teeth.

The Hawthorne is impermeable to water, so creeks drain its uplands. Where groundwater dissolves large voids in the underlying limestone, sinkholes form and provide routes for surface waters to sink into the Floridan Aquifer. The first photo on the right is the terminal sink of a very small, intermittent drain that was the first one we encountered. The water here sinks into three tiny sinkholes each not much larger than a washtub.

The stream photo (second on left) shows Brack kneeling beside a picturesque riffle-and-pool brook with a rocky, rooty bottom. You can also see leaf packs, which form when running water pushes leaves up against a rock, root or other obstruction, and which provide valuable habitat for myriad aquatic insects.

This edaphic setting is ideal for mixed deciduous and evergreen hardwood hammock forest to flourish. Most of this habitat has long since been converted to cattle and horse farms or loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) plantations, with the native hammock being largely restricted to karst outcrops too steep for pasturage. This can be seen in the second photo above, where larger trees have been left beside the creek but have been harvested and replaced by smaller trees away from the stream.

In the olden days, the province’s chert nodules apparently provided the basis for a prolific flint-knapping industry for the state’s aboriginal inhabitants. Having done some knapping myself, I can personally attest to the abundance and good knapping quality of the chert in these parts. The third photo shows two chert-bladed and antler-handled knives, and a black and brown-streaked obsidian blade made by a deceased friend of mine, Eric; seven chert spear and arrow points that I made, and two typical chert percussion flakes (debitage).
On our trek to the next karst spot we found some of the healthiest bear-grass (Yucca filamentosa) I’ve seen in Florida’s wilds. It normally has a low growth habit out in relatively open sunlight, so perhaps it germinated in the open before the small second growth trees grew up, which accounts for their robustness, then as tree shading increased the bear-grass plants began growing taller to reach more sunlight (fourth photo).

Moving onward we finally arrived at the main karst goal of the day. First encountering the stream pictured in photo 1, we followed it downstream toward a low ridge. In this 5th photo, you can see where this (dry) portion of the stream (lower right) sinks into a log- and limb-filled sinkhole (mid-right). Storm water also drains down the side of the ridge toward the photographer and sinks into several other small sinkholes behind the “steps” in the mid-background.

Usually, streams flow away from ridges, but the reversal of the norm is part of the magic of karst. The ridge is actually a limestone pinnacle covered with a very thin layer of limey, clayey soil, being a mixture of remnant Hawthorne Formation and decomposed limestone, plus a lot of organic detritus. The stream above sinks into the ground at the base of the ridge. Unfortunately, these lower sinks cannot currently be entered because they are plugged by loose sediments.

But just below the summit of the ridge in the mid-top of photo 5 is an entrance to the cave below via a crack formed by fracturing of the ridge’s bedrock. This entrance (photo 6) leads to a sloping floored, small chamber only high enough in the center for several people to sit comfortably. We counted 11 little brown bats (Myotis austroriparius) hanging singly around the room. I looked closely at several of them but saw no evidence of “white nose syndrome,” a dreaded affliction that is killing large numbers of bats in the Northeast US.

We donned caving gear and crawled our way up and over the ascending entrance room floor, which was only 18 inches or less from the ceiling, then to the left in back of the room is a narrow joint-controlled passage leading down in stepped fashion to a passage trending NNW-SSE. To the NNW the passage is appx 3ftW x 2ftT, and leads perhaps 75ft to a low bedding plane passage that is 6 inches or less in height. To the SSE the passage is mostly the same size as the NNW passage but in one place being 3ftW x 4ftT in size. I did not push this lead to the end because I was alone, my only light was flickering on and off, and the passage was beginning to get really muddy. Eeewwwww!

The bottom NNW-SSE passage appears to be the top of a formerly larger route. I believe it has been largely filled in by erosion from surrounding farmland. Its sediments, walls and ceiling are coated with a thin, black, organic mud that may be more recent sediments plastered on the cave’s surfaces after the surrounding farmland became overgrown by small trees. I’d estimate the total length of the cave to be appx 200ft. We obtained a GPS location for it to turn in to the Florida Cave Survey.

This cave has an interesting secondary deposit reminiscent of scales. I believe the formation is composed of a background of black, organic mud on which is superimposed a scale-like pattern of fungal or other microbial structure; hence the name Mud Scales Cave.

The entrance to this cave and the more cool and moist locations of the exposed bedrock and boulders are covered with ferns and wildflowers. The most interesting flora to me are the ferns. I watch for ferns and other primitive plants at cave locations because the microclimate and alkaline soil and rocks ordinarily host several species of ferns. Commonly found ferns include woods fern (Thelypterus kunthii?) and ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron), and these do grow here.

Moving uphill from Mud Scales Cave we found several sinkholes that are plugged with dirt and rock, one of which was also the repository of farm trash including fence wire, concrete rubble and roofing tin (photo 11). Digging here might gain access to the cave below, or it may not.

More importantly, however, is the abundance of three other fern species that I only very rarely see at north Florida cave entrances. These are tentatively identified as abcissed spleenwort (Asplenium cristatum) (photo 7), cretan brake fern (Pteris cretica) (photo 8 – 5-fingered) and creeping maiden fern (Thelypteris reptans) (photo 8 – more numerous). The latter species is classified by the State of Florida as endangered. It is always way cool to find a rare species at a cave entrance, but to find three rare species is unreal! Thank you, oh great Fern Spirit.

The most important plant to Brack, however, is the heartleaf nettle (Urtica chamaedryoides) (photo 9), which has stricken him several times recently, including on this day. It appears to have eighth-inch spines composed of crystal urtic acid, which forms blisters that sting and itch for a day or two. Yeowch!

Live Oak Log Pit (photo 10) steps down from the entrance at least 30ft. I entered it by chimneying down to the detritus covered floor seen in the pic, then squirmed down through the dark spot to the left of the log into a joint-controlled room about twice as large as the entrance pit depicted. At the bottom of that room was another squirm hole with a pointy rock making the climb-down an ordeal for another day. Bring a sledge hammer! This pit drops at least 30ft, and may connect to Mud Scales Cave.

We headed back out of the woods, and when I returned home there was a message for me from Karen to meet her at a Gordon Lightfoot concert at the Phillips Center. We got rush tickets for $10 apiece. His mellow voice and music were just what I needed at the end of a long day of biking and caving and fern-watching in perfect Florida winter weather. Oh, and my stock portfolio went up 3.1 percent, too. It doesn’t get any better than this!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Payne's Prairie State Park Wanderings

Karen and I went to the south side of the Payne’s Prairie State Preserve to enjoy this glorious Florida winter day (Sunday, Feb 17, 2008). The sky was a nearly cloudless blue, the temperature in the high 70s F and the wind a cool and breezy 10 mph. It doesn’t get any better than this!

We first went to the south edge of the Prairie where the park service has erected a 3-story observation platform right at the edge of the tree line. Fortunately, the tower is not absolutely solid, so it wobbled and swayed as people climbed the stairs, kind of like being in a tree.

We spent some time watching birds soaring over the prairie, mostly vultures but also a couple of red-shoulder hawks. I saw one harrier floating just above the marsh grasses, a phoebe, a small flock of (tree?) swallows circling over a small pond, and one quiet crow. I bet you didn’t know crows came in ones, or that they could be quiet?

Then we turned around and looked into the evergreen forest canopy for a while, especially at the resurrection fern and Spanish moss on the live oak limbs. I was reminded of the times past when I would climb (arboresce) into the canopies of large, old live oaks, sit down on their brontosaurian limbs and eat a sandwich, drink a glass of red wine and listen to the incredible rock and roll band playing fantastic music in the small black church a quarter-mile away.

When live oaks begin to reach maturity, resurrection fern and green-fly orchid form nearly continuous carpets of greenery on the top and sides of the limbs, anchored by roots and pseudoroots that force their way into the oak’s bark. They are fertilized not just by nutrients in rain but also by manure from numerous critters – squirrels, birds, anole lizards, rat snakes, tree frogs, caterpillars, raccoons and even mice. Sediments are brought in by wind and decomposing oak leaves round out the substrate such that a soil, or something that looks very much like a soil, replaced the outer bark of the oak.

By the time the live oaks attain old age, two-and four-legged wildlife migrating along the tops of the limbs have trampled a path thru the epiphytes so that the limb in cross section looks much like a bald man with a lateral fringe of hair and lamb chops. It was a fine old thing for a young man to discover!

Conversely, the picture of Karen in the sunshine is against a backdrop of Spanish moss that takes hold out at and near the ends of the oak’s branches.

Leaving the observation tower, we walked out the semi-paved levee-trail to the edge of the nearly dry prairie. We are in a drought, so much of the prairie is dominated by pigweed, dogfennel and grasses. This time of the year they are dry and boring, so we took no pictures of it. Instead, we walked back to a picnic area where a bunch of folks looking up into the trees caught our attention. It turned out to be a bald eagle sitting placidly on a pine bough, occasionally preening its feathers.

We got out our picnic basket and made sandwiches, drank Sprite, and desserted on Tootsie Pops. Then, noticing that the eagle had left, we looked around and suddenly spied two eagles in another pine a few feet away, and then spotted their nest beside them. Just then a third bald eagle flew over. A three-eagle day for Karen! I had seen another eagle when I was driving earlier to the park, so it was a four-eagle day for me. No big deal, just another Florida winter day. Yawn...

We drove to the southern side of the park and took a walk on another trail that led first thru early successional growth laurel oak woods that segued into pond pine flatwoods. Flatwoods can be dominated by one to several species of southern pines, but the pond pine flatwoods plant community is usually nearly completely dominated by its namesake.

The substrate of this habitat is a layer of nutrient poor, fine silica sand appx 18 – 24 inches thick overlying a nearly impermeable “hardpan” of dark brown fine sand that is cemented together by iron- and other metal- oxides. Consequently, in rainy seasons it is very wet and in dry seasons it is very dry. Pond pine and a myriad species of shrubs and wildflowers are adapted to these alternating wetland and desert conditions.

Here we spotted dwarf blueberry and highbush blueberry blossoming, along with a few species of wildflowers. The most interesting of the latter to me were a white-flowered species of butterwort (Pinguicula sp.). This plant is carnivorous, trapping tiny insects in its sticky glandular leaves and digesting them for nutrients. Hey! Where else is it gong to get nutrients in this acidic sand habitat?

Our next stop was at the edge of Lake Wauberg, also within the preserve, where a short boardwalk was being used by fishermen hunting catfish. You can see two happy anglers holding up a pretty good sized brown bullhead (Amieurus nebulosus). They had caught five of them on chicken livers. There, we also saw the fellow in the watch cap catch an 18-inch mudfish (Amia calva), which is a relatively primitive fish that most people, including him, throw back into the water.

I have met very few people who say they have eaten mudfish, and Mr Watchcap is one of them. He says the meat is soft, so he grinds up the meat and mixes it with corn meal, chopped onions, milk and scrambled eggs and deep fat fries them like hush puppies. He has also eaten gar, which, although hard to clean, has firm meat like grouper. Hmmm, I think maybe I’ll just have to try a gar for dinner next time I snag one.

We also saw a few turtles off the boardwalk. One might have been a softshell (Trionyx ferox), but the others were cooters (Chrysemys sp.). I posted a pic of one of the latter.

After all that wandering around we headed off to a roadside pizzarea for food and drink. A fine day was had by all.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ridgewalking in the Swamp

There is a wonderful old growth bald cypress forest in Marion County, FL, not far from where I live. I estimate the trees to be up to 400 years old, if not more. Although the boles of the largest trees are only 4+ ft in diameter, their buttressed bases can be more than 12 ft across. There are no logged stumps, and large old logs are strewn across the ground like pickup sticks. It is a place of wonder and grandeur. I revisited the place this past Sunday, February 10, 2008.

Nothing noteworthy happened. Above are five photos of me, a friend and the general scenery.

Bust Caving

When cavers go looking in areas for “new” caves, that is, caves that are not previously known to them, it’s called “ridgewalking.” The term originated in hilly or mountainous areas, where the word is appropriate. We use the word here in Florida, too, just to be consistent, but more often than not we are far from a ridge. So it was this day, Sunday, February 3, 2008.

Linda D, a friend of mine, had previously told me about a cavey area in Marion County, FL behind her house that had been looked at by Jennifer and her father, Warren, several years ago, but Linda didn’t know if they had found any caves there. She gave me permission to look for myself, so I called Sean and Al to accompany me. Al has been the main driving force behind the Florida Cave Survey for decades, and Sean and I have been surveying a few other caves lately.

When we arrived, Linda pointed out the direction and off we tromped thru the brush, shortly arriving at the edge of a sinkhole where two dry, intermittent streams joined, flowed across the length of the sink, and then sumped into the ground in 3 places. A fourth, small sink at the edge of the main sink looked like it had taken water in the distant past, but no longer (see pic). The main sink is appx 75ft wide by 125ft long.

All of the sumps are floored in sediments. Any cave down there will have to be dug into, which would take a lot of work and need a half-dozen or more volunteers. Al collected notes and photos for the FCS cave files, and I took a few pics also. Two of mine are reproduced here, one of Al taking notes beside the most promising (driest) dig, and the other of the sink bottomland hardwood forest dominated by sugarberry trees (Celtis laevigata). The hillside was carpeted with blooming violets – quite pretty!

We then drove to Citrus County, FL to an abandoned quarry that had been bought by a fellow who was concerned that there might be caves under his property. He didn’t want his house to fall in one, nor did he want to necessarily fill any in and cause problems for any critters that might reside therein.

The three of use met him at his house on site, and a short while later Tom, Jason and
Robert from the Tampa Bay area showed up and joined us. The owner, Edward, showed us all the holes in the ground that he had found so far, but only one was large enough to enter. And that one was not very large, being a body tube so tight that we could penetrate only about 20ft to a horizontal bedding plane passage that was maybe 6 – 8 inches in height.

I have posted one photo of a fern-draped hole too small to enter, and two shots of Jason coming slowly out of the body tube.

All in all, we found no caves. A bust day? Nah, any day spent out ridgewalking with friends in the beautiful Florida winter weather is a fine day, indeed!

Home Boy Rockets

Saturday (February 9, 2008) Sean invited me to attend a monthly home-made rocket launching event hosted by the North East Florida Assoc of Rocketry (NEFAR). We drove to a sod farm near Bunnell, FL, where the land is flat as a pancake, a little late for maybe the first tranche of launches, but not too late for some incredible feats of human male testosterone. I was totally at home.

Like every 14 year old hellion, I tried to make rockets in my youth. The best I could muster was to stuff a piece of bamboo with match heads, stick a firecracker fuse in the butt, light it and run like hell. Yup, no fins or any other kind of aiming mechanism. And yup, again, it’s a good thing I ran like hell! LOL Those flying eye-pokers went anywhere and everywhere. Good thing my momma hadn’t the foggiest!

But these NEFAR men, and they are all men (to the tune of fists beating on chests), are GOOD at making rockets. These fellows know what they’re doing. They have standard fuels and standard engines and standard physical rocket designs and standard launch “pads,” and there was not a single launch that endangered anyone present. These folks know exactly what they are doing.

There is one man who does all the launches. You set up your rocket and you give him your launch card with your name, rocket name, engine type, and maybe expected apogee (maximum height). After everyone is back behind the safety line, he then calls out all these specs, does the countdown and then presses the launch button. It is all set up for maximum safety, with fuses, anti-stray spark electronics, test apparati, etc. You set up your rocket and back off, and he does the rest. Continuity of launch procedure breeds safety. No fists on chests here.

Did I mention that Sean’s wife, Becky, and her best friend Michelle, were there, too? These launches are so safe that these ladies sat thru all the launches cavalierly doing needlepoint and crochet, respectively (see the pic of Michelle’s tablecloth).

All rockets had time- or altitude-release parachutes. Some rockets had a drogue and a parachute. Most rocketeers had several rockets. A few rockets had video cameras. Some rockets were considered low-powered due to their being fueled by black powder, some were powered by a concoction of table sugar and other ingredients (I didn’t catch the actual), but most seemed to be powered by ammonium perchlorate. The latter were the most impressive in terms of speed and height reached.

All these rockets are home made. The smaller ones have nose cones of plastic, bodies of multi-layered paper and fins of balsa wood. The larger ones might be made entirely of fiberglass. The small ones would weigh less than a pound, while the largest would weigh 85 pounds or less. All went up like bats out of hell. Some had speeds approaching 500 mph. You definitely wouldn’t want to be in front of something going that fast! Remember about tornados pushing straws into telephone poles. We decided that sitting in a car wasn’t safe enuf if one were coming your way, that you’d need to be underneath the car! Better yet, under the car’s engine! LOL

Sean made 2 or 3 launches, all going off perfectly. Zoom! Up, then turn-over at apogee, then the parachute deployed, then the gentle landing. Sean does well everything he does – caving, cave mapping, cave dive gear invention, electronics, photography, rocketry, ... It all excels what he does. Gee, I wish I were Sean. Ok, not really. I like me, actually. Anyway, Becky is probably glad I’m not Sean. LOL Sean is the fellow in the NASA ball cap, kneeling on the ground holding a 2.5-ft tall white, black and blue rocket on launch pad #1.

Perhaps the highlight of the day was a rocket that was commissioned by the US Air Force to commemorate the launch of the first US satellite, and was to be launched at Cape Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first US satellite. Bureaucratic snafus, however, prevented that from happening, so the project manager for the scale model decided to launch it on the day of my random visit. What luck!

I don’t remember the names of the rocket or the satellite, sorry. Anyway, the rocket is a 1:6 ratio model of the original, and was set up on a launch pad brought in by one of the fellows who made it. The rocket was made in pieces by several rocketeers around the country, and assembled by the fellow in the staff group picture wearing the black tee shirt. That guy, BTW, works for NASA. There is another picture of this rocket lying on the ground.

I have posted several other pics of rockets on the ground and taking off. There were a few odd rockets, like the one that looks like a flying saucer, and the glider look alike. The flying saucer went straight up, altho not too high, and then settled straight back down without flipping or tumbling.

I doubt that I’ll ever get into rocketry, but it was a fun day to participate in.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Orange Creek & Ocklawaha River, Feb 2, 2008

Abhaya and I decided to go paddling last Saturday (Feb 2, 2008) upstream on Orange Creek from the Rodman Reservoir (Lake Ocklawaha), a damnable impoundment of the Ocklawaha River. She was in her small kayak and me in my 13ft canoe. I tried to get Brack and Bruce to join us, but no.

The Ocklawaha River was once arguably Florida’s prettiest river. Its headwaters are freshwater marshes near Cape Kennedy, which discharge water that is nearly clear and very clean. Flowing northward, the Ocklawaha gathers dystrophic (brown, tannin-stained) waters from small tributaries draining cypress and hardwood swamps along the way, resulting in the river becoming more opaque. East or Ocala, the river receives the ultra-clear discharge of the Silver River, known for its principal source, Silver Springs.

Silver Springs was the setting for numerous movie battles between Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan vs alligators, snakes and other dangerous denizens of Africa’s jungles. I had the privilege of cave diving in Silver Springs some years ago when Eric Hutchinson was hired by the concessionaire to “discover the source of the water.” It turned out that the spring has at least two sources, one relatively shallow and clear, and the other mineral-laden and probably quite deep, but we were never able to penetrate far into the cave due to its tightness.

In recent years, the concession established a zoo comprising numerous species of native and exotic animals within the wetland floodplain of the river. Manure and urine from the animals have built up such that now the park stinks of animal wastes, which are deposited into the spring basin and spring run with every rainfall event. This excessive nutrient load, in combination with nutrients from the overpopulated commercial and residential development in the springshed has caused the replacement of most of the beautiful native aquatic grassbeds in the spring basin/run by ugly mats of drab olive algae.

In the olden days, before local overpopulation, the Silver River would discharge clear, clean spring waters into the Ocklawaha River. In my childhood, my family took a glass-bottom boat ride from the spring basin out into the Ocklawaha and back, and along the way the Ocklawaha was so clear that we could see schools of catfish swimming along the river’s bottom approximately 20 ft deep. Some of those catfish were over 4 ft long!

The Ocklawaha would be that clear only during droughty times, as at other seasons the tannin-stained tributaries would darken the river. Nowadays, the Ocklawaha runs dark all the time, a result of overpopulation and nutrient overloading, and longer droughts.

The Rodman Reservoir was one of two reservoirs constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) back in the 1970s as part of the notorious Cross-Florida Barge Canal. Although the barge canal was finally de-authorized by congress, portions of the obscene canal still exist in parts of the Peninsula, as are the two dams and their reservoirs.

The credit for the de-authorization goes to Marjorie Carr, whose dedicated, focused anti-canal activism over a period of 20+ years resulted in her becoming Florida’s leading environmentalist. Her victory over the barge canal was the first time the USACOE had ever been defeated on a major pork barrel project. Incidentally, her husband, Dr Archie Carr, almost single-handedly achieved a similar distinction in that his activism saved the green sea turtle from extinction. Marjorie and Archie Carr are heroes of mine.

The Rodman Reservoir today is very popular for largemouth bass fishing, so popular, in fact, that despite numerous attempts over the decades by environmentalists have failed to de-authorize the reservoir. One good thing about the reservoir, however, is that it is a trap for organic sediments from the overpopulated upstream landscape, which would otherwise discharge into the St Johns River and eventually the ocean to pollute them.

This detritus is so abundant that the reservoir bottom quickly becomes too muddy for bass, crappie and panfish to nest and breed, so periodically the reservoir is drained down to the level of the original river and the mud allowed to oxidize. This cycle is repeated every few years.

Unknowingly, Abhaya and I chose to go paddling during one of the drawdown episodes. Thus, our scenery was of vast expanses of sand and mud and dead, rotting vegetation. As I wrote above, we had planned to launch at the reservoir’s edge and paddle upstream in Orange Creek, so we grimly tried to follow our plan. Unfortunately, the creek, which would normally be maybe 10 ft deep at the confluence with the reservoir, was only a couple of feet deep. Doubly unfortunately, this depth quickly decreased to less than a foot and often less than 4 inches.

That is an insufficient depth for me and my canoe, so I hopped out of the boat and started pulling it upstream. The bottom was composed of coarse sand here and soft mud there, but the water was cool and refreshing on this 80+ degree winter day. Abhaya soon joined me out of her craft, and upstream we slogged until it became obvious that the water was only going to get shallower and shallower. So, we turned around and slogged and paddled back downstream to the river, going first upstream and then back down to the boat ramp from whence we came.

It was not a great day on the water, but it wasn’t a total loss, either. Any day outdoors is better than a day spent inside. We saw numerous wading birds, including the great blue heron, common egret, snowy egret, cattle egret, little blue heron, tricolored heron, green-backed heron, sandhill crane, white ibis and wood stork – pretty much all the species of wading birds that one might find in north Florida in winter. We also saw the fish crow, common crow, common grackle, redwing blackbird and an unidentified gull, and possibly a small alligator.

That would have been an excellent day to cave dive into Blue Spring, which is near the east bank of the river at the place where the river has a major 90-degree bend from south to east. Ordinarily, Blue Spring is submerged under the reservoir’s waters, which it pushes up in a visible boil. We did not see the spring, but it was undoubtedly not submerged that day.