Dicromantispa interrupta

Dicromantispa interrupta

Monday, March 31, 2008

Mar 28 - 30, 2008 Florida Cave Crawl

This past weekend I attended the Florida Cave Crawl, which is held annually and hosted by each of the four NSS grottos (local caving clubs) around the state in turn. This year’s event was held near Tallahassee and put on by the Flint River Grotto. There was a nightly campfire to sit around and tell stories and lies, trips out to nearby caves and eco-hotspots, a Saturday night catered dinner accompanied by a local band called Naked Cavers, cool-weather camping, and meetings of the Florida Cave Survey and NSS 2008 Convention Committee.

Saturday I went to Hollow Ridge Cave with about 18 more people, with 15 of us being led by Allen Mosler. Inside the cave I saw two small concentrations of camel crickets on the walls, which hang out in the cave during the day and feed outside at night, but no bats. The cave is quite muddy, so we wandered down to a creek within the Chipola River floodplain to wash off our gear and exposed skin. Returning to the campground, I was blessed with a very cold shower.

Sunday, after the FCS and convention meetings, four of us went to explore along a bluff adjacent to the Apalachicola River on the Aspalage tract. My companions were Bruce (Sleazeweasel), Matt K and Alan C. This area we visited is a mile or so south of the I-10 bridge, is vegetated with a mixture of subtropical Florida and temperate continental flora. Being used to forests dominated by live oaks, laurel oaks and sweetgum, I really enjoyed the hybrid forest composed of live oak and various deciduous oaks, southern magnolia, beech, sweetgum, basswood, hickory and the like.

Of special note (to me) were the Atamasco lily (Zephyranthes atamasco), brown trillium (Trillium underwoodii), Chapman’s rhododendron (Rhodendron chapmanii), fan maidenhair fern (Adiantum tenerum) and Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia).

I also saw three species of wildlife that I would never see around my usual stomping grounds, the gray rat snake (Elaphe obsolete obsoleta), copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) and three-lined salamander (Eurycea longicauda). Within one of the little caves we explored was a 2cm long salamander larvae. I have pics above of the gray rat snake (but without its head! Sob!) and the three-lined salamander. The larval salamander was too small for my camera. Here are better pictures of the three-lined salamander than mine:


We were too busy jumping out of the way of the copperhead to take its photograph. It lay still as we walked almost completely around it, but as soon as the snake realized we had spotted it, it made a mad dash for the nearest cave entrance and disappeared into a pool of water. We could have chased after the serpent but we would have had to go head-first down a steep slope under a low cave ceiling, dipping one ear under water, just to look up and into ..., what? A cave passage? A snake’s irritated face. No thanks.

I found a small cave that I had to dig my way into. It is appx 2ft wide and 2.5ft high, and maybe 40ft – 50ft long. Alan found and photographed a fossilized tooth that might belong to a Plio-Pleistocene horse, camel or the like. Alan thought it was from a young individual due to the lack of wear on the top of the tooth. I have included a photo of the cave’s entrance after it was dug out.

Another cave containing several hundred feet of passage was previously found by Matt and shown to Alan and me. Its passage is larger than the first cave, up to appx 6ft high and almost that wide. We found an epigean (normally lives in above-ground streams) crayfish and a Southeastern pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus subflavus) in this cave.

I believe the limestone we encountered that day was the Bashi Marl formation. This is a very soft, fossiliferous chalky rock that can be crumbled in your hand the way Superman does to granite. There is a good description of the rock and its outcrops at these two links:


Having a long drive home ahead of me, I left Alan and Matt at that point and hiked back to my van. Sleaze, unfortunately, lost his brand-new digital SLR camera somewhere out in the woods, so he split off from us before we reached the caves. We never saw him again. I hope he found that camera.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Our gentle friends, the cottonmouth and rattler

Pure Florida (http://pureflorida.blogspot.com/), one of my favorite nature blogs, had a post recently about the cottonmouth moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus) in which he wrote about how the species is not at all aggressive despite what the average ignoramus says. Thus I am prodded into writing about a few encounters of my own re cottonmouths and the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus).

As you probably already know, wetlands are protected by federal, and in the case of Florida, state laws. My former profession as an environmental consultant often involved delineating wetlands, which is done by walking around a wetland’s perimeter and hanging surveyor’s plastic flagging at the legal edge of the wetland.

One day while doing so I hung a flag on a large slash pine (Pinus elliottii), at the base of which was a spongy mound of pine needles more than a foot thick. This unsteady purchase was hard to balance on when looking upward at the flag I was tying, so I leaned forward to brace myself against a stick that I saw out of the edge of my vision. That worked fine, so I finished tying the flag and then looked down in order to see which way to go on to the next survey point.

As I looked down I suddenly realized that the “stick” was actually a 3.5ft long momma water moccasin with a half-dozen babes draped over her thick body. The instant they were discovered, several of the young ‘uns leapt into the water and hid, although momma and her remaining children merely pulled their heads back a little as if startled, too. Of course I stepped back quickly, very quickly I might add, but they never made a hostile move toward me.

On another instance I was hanging a flag on a wax myrtle bush (Myrica cerifera) around a wetland within an abandoned phosphate mine near Lakeland, Florida. I finished tying the tape and looked down, and there were two 4.5ft long diamondback rattlesnakes at my feet. One was coiled up in a pre-position to strike while the other was stretched out. Both were easily within striking distance of my legs. I have a slight mental block as to exactly where the two were relative to my feet (can you blame me?), but I think my left foot was actually touching the coiled snake. Why were there two of them together like that? Possibly, they were “smoking a cigarette” after the act, if you know what I mean. LOL

Kirk, a friend I used to work with, was delineating wetlands on another abandoned phosphate mine nearby, and was having trouble figuring out exactly where to place the next flag. There are “gray areas” in every profession, and these highly disturbed sites are often highly “gray.” Anyway, he was walking back and forth and around and around, pondering the soils, hydrology and vegetation of the place, when suddenly a stretched out diamondback rattler came into focus, a big one maybe 5.5ft long.

That snake had a dent in the middle of its back that was exactly the size and shape of Kirk’s boot. Kirk surmises that the snake saw him coming and “froze” in order to avoid being seen. That tactic worked for a while, in fact long enough for Kirk to actually step on the snake at one point, leaving his boot mark in the back of the serpent.

How could Kirk NOT have felt the snake’s body when stepping on it? Well, imagine you are walking through a field and you step on a clump of broomstraw grass (Andropogon virginianus). The clump is soft and will tip sideways when you put your weight on it, and you will likely slide off. Evidently, that’s what the back of a large rattlesnake feels like!

Point of order: Snakes do not actually “freeze” when they want to remain hidden as you walk beside them. What they really do is relax, and that way if you step on them you think you are stepping on a rotten branch or a tuft of grass.

I have spent 30 years as a field biologist, plus another 10 years as a woods-walking adolescent and teenager, plus the last 9 years as a woods bum retiree. In those 49 years I have never been threatened by any of Florida’s four species of poisonous snakes (the other two are the pygmy rattlesnake, Sistrurus miliaris miliaris [http://tinyurl.com/yq84ua], and coral snake, Micrurus fulvius fulvius [http://tinyurl.com/yr7w57]).

A few weeks ago a small moccasin (15 inches long) was killed by an iggerant working at the RV park where I now live. He didn’t know what kind of snake it was, but he killed it because he kills all snakes that he finds. His fellow iggerant drove up and got really uptight when I approached to photograph the corpse, telling me stories of how a dead snake can bite me (and they can). the latter also kills all cottonmouths he runs into.

I don’t know how many times (but many!) I have looked down at my feet and seen a poisonous snake there, or how many time I have watched a companion walk directly over a poisonous snake, yet none of us were bitten. Usually we were not even threatened. Think of it this way: How much do you weigh? How much does a snake weigh? If that serpent knows anything in its dim little reptilian brain, it knows that if it bites you that you are going to kill it. So relax – poisonous snakes do!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Cursory Caving Trip Report

I chair this year’s annual convention of the National Speleological Society (NSS), to be held in Lake City, FL, and attended by an anticipated 700-900 NSS members (http://www.nss2008.com/home.html). This week I have been assisting Faye B in looking at facilities and attractions that the Junior Speleological Society (JSS) might like to experience, and ferrying her around to meet helpful civic and caving resource people.

Yesterday we visited four caves that she might take the kids to explore this coming summer. Our first stop was Bat Cave, located in Alachua County and owned by Santa Fe Community College. Jim S took of from work so that he could obtain the keys to the property’s perimeter fence and cave entrance gate. Photo 1 shows Karen, Faye and Jim at the entrance gate to the cave.

We went to the cave’s main room, below the entrance shaft, and briefly toured the front of the cave where Faye got a good look at what this cave is like. The pool below the entrance room had only a foot or so of water depth. We saw three blind, albino cave crayfish, the Pallid Cave Crayfish (Procambarus pallidus), in the pool.

We also saw a handful of Southeastern Bats (Myotis austroriparius) hanging singly in small pockets in the cave walls and ceiling (photo 2). All appeared to be healthy and without symptoms of so-called white nose syndrome (WNS). This dreaded affliction is estimated to have killed up to 11,000 bats in the Northeast US in the past two years (http://tinyurl.com/2kqs3x). Bat species known to be directly affected include the Little Brown Bat (M. lucifugus), Tricolored Bat (Perimyotis subflavus), Indiana Bat (M. sodalis), and Gray Bat (M. grisescens), the latter two of which are considered endangered species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although not visited today, I pointed out the location of a small cave called Seven Chimneys that Faye could take the children to. Photo 3 is a depiction of the interior of this cave, showing a caver standing on its entrance debris cone below five of the cave’s seven entrances.

Our next stop was to Warrens Cave on the northwest side of Gainesville, FL. This is the longest known air-filled cave in the state, and is guarded by a stout, heavy entrance gate and perimeter fence. We got the keys from Bill O, an NSS Fellow and winner of the first Stewardship Award ever given by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc. We entered the cave only as far as the First Drop. On the way out I observed a small (2ft to 3ft long) yellow rat snake (Elaphe obsolete quadrivittata) in the sinkhole entrance (photo 4).

We cavers have seen a yellow rat snake at this cave entrance and just inside the cave on many instances over at least three decades. Evidently, one such snake takes up residence there at any time and territorially drives off other rat snakes. Over time, older snakes are replaced by younger snakes in turn. In warmer weather the yellow rat snake can usually be found at the cave entrance, whereas in winter it remains a hundred feet or so within the cave where it is warmer.

We saw no bats in the cave. Warrens once harbored a population of bats (Little Browns and Pips), but they were driven from the cave by teenage and college aged partiers. The current gate serves well to keep out trespassers and vandals, but it also keeps most bats out of the cave because it is not “bat-friendly.” Also, the yellow rat snake is known to catch and eat bats that fly through cave gates.

Photo 5 is of a caver in the back of Warrens Cave within a 600ft long body tube passage called Agony Alley. I have surveyed passage on the far side of AA, and can tell you that I’ll never go there again. Some places must be left to younger generations to explore, heh heh.

We then drove south to Ocala to meet up with Bill B, the Keeper of the Gates for several Marion County caves. No one has done more to protect Marion County caves, and in recognition of his efforts the NSS has awarded him Fellow status and the Southeastern Cave Conservancy has given him their coveted Stewardship Award.

Bill took us to Whitecliff Cave, which is frequently used by Florida caving clubs to introduce caving to scouts and other youth groups. We did not enter this cave. Photo 6 shows Bill, Faye and Karen beside the cave’s entrance, which is beneath the steel plate on the ground to Bill’s right. You can see graffiti on the rock walls behind Karen.

Our last stop was Jennings Cave. This cave was purchased from Marion County for about $1,700 in back taxes, and then donated in fee simple to the Southeastern Cave Conservancy. The entrance to Jennings is via a 30ft deep solution pipe that is climbable with a proper belay. The Marion County Sheriff twice blocked the entrance by dumping tons of boulders into the pipe, but Florida cavers have both times removed them and re-opened the cave. We are not happy with the sheriff’s attitude towards property rights.

Afterwards, we made our way over to Sleazeweasel’s house to attend a campfire dinner party for a family of visiting birdwatchers (see the post following this one). It was a long, busy, satisfying day.

Bird Year and a Cuckoo

I had the great pleasure of meeting yesterday an interesting family of naturalists from the town of Whitehorse in Yukon, Canada. They are Malkolm Boothroyd and his parents, Wendy Boothroyd and Ken Madsen. Malkolm is 15 years old and is on a year-long quest with his parents to see 500 species of birds in North America, traveling exclusively by bicycle. As of “February 29th, they had traveled over 9400 miles and identified 459 species of birds” (quote from Malkolm’s blog: http://www.birdyear.blogspot.com/).

Last night my friend Bruce, better known as “Sleazeweasel,” cooked up a feast of spicy catfish and greens, and Ann W supplied a vegetarian rice dish. Sleaze’s cooking was done on his backyard campfire as we sat around it to stay warm while drinking chilled adult beverages on this nippy eve, and Malkolm remained inside to work on his journal.

After dinner was done I asked everyone to tell bird stories. I kicked off the event with my own story about the woodpecker and the tomatoes, followed later by my story about the double-crested cormorant and gafftopsail catfish, both of which I have posted already on this blog. Several other good bird stories were told by Ken, Bruce and Eric. These anecdotes reminded me of this story about a yellow-billed cuckoo.

Back in the mid-1970s, I wearied of society and decided to try my luck at living off the land. I quit my job and sold many of my trappings, and set off for the Ocala National Forest, which is a largely xeric ecosystem dominated by sand pine (Pinus clausa) scrub. Between this habitat and the Oklawaha River Floodplain forest is a relatively narrow band of beautiful mesic hammock forest dominated by live oak (Quercus virginianus), laurel oak (Q. hemisphaerica), southern magnolia (Magnolia grandoflora) and pignut hickory (Carya glabra).

One day in April I was down at the river’s edge washing breakfast dishes when I suddenly heard from across the river within the floodplain forest a loud “KOOK-KOO!” It sounded like a cuckoo clock announcing one o’clock. My vertebrate zoology teacher had taught us that the North American cuckoos never made that call, that it was made only by European cuckoos. I retrieved my binoculars and studied the forest over there, but never did see anyone wandering around with a cuckoo clock in hand.

Two days later I heard the same call at about the same time of day, mid-morning. The Cornell Bird Lab states that the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) has 6 calls, and provides textual interpretations of 3 of them, but says nothing about the “kook-koo” call (http://tinyurl.com/2udc2k). Cornell also has two recordings of one of the yellow-billed cuckoo’s calls (http://tinyurl.com/2l8z9l).

I am left wondering just what it was that I heard on those mornings? Was it a rare type of call that the yellow-billed cuckoo is not otherwise known to make? If so, I was quite lucky to have heard it! This would not be an unusual occurrence, as other birds are known to have many more calls than the average person ever hears. The common crow, for instance, has been said to have over 100 distinct calls, yet most naturalists I know have heard fewer than a dozen of them. The Cornell Lab, in fact, has links to very few yellow-billed cuckoo calls, and the ones it does have are faint, so perhaps this species’ calls have not been sufficiently sampled?

Could the call have been made by an escaped pet European, or common, cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)? Wikipedia states The (London) Times reports (http://tinyurl.com/3786l2) that the common cuckoo ordinarily first makes its eponymous call around April14th, which is approximately when I heard that bird. Coincidence?
Is there another explanation?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Biking for new karstography

I took a slow bike ride today south and west of McIntosh, FL to look for karst features and potential cave locations. The goal was to find properties where I might want to ask landowners if they will allow me to look for caves on their properties. I took a few photos of potential properties, mainly along the route through back roads to Dungarvin Rd, and along the latter, finding little of real interest elsewhere.

I covered a total of approximately 16.5 miles, and my butt feels every mile of it! I stopped along the way at the bar and grill at the Orange Lake public boat ramp to have a beer and a fish sandwich, and a break, and then finished the ride. I am including a Google Earth photo showing the route I took, and a picture of one sinkhole with water that looked plugged. There was nothing else of note to mention.