Dicromantispa interrupta

Dicromantispa interrupta

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Third Round of Caracara Surveys Completed

Today ended a round of field surveys for crested caracara (Polyborus plancus) nests. The team has found all the “easy” nests along the project route, so the remaining work results in fewer caracara observations. Other wildlife keeps things interesting though. Yesterday, at a semi-developed location, I spotted a river otter (Lutra canadensis) in the morning and a bobcat (Lynx rufus) in the afternoon. I get to see otters only two or three times a year, and that may have been only the 6th or 7th bobcat of my life. A gratifying coincidence and a good day.

The caracaras I was supposed to observe leaving their nest before sunup this morning either outsmarted me or have abandoned the nest that is thought to be there. Better luck next time. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes...

Appx 10 percent of pairs breed twice in a given year, I suspect due to environmental conditions. Most of the pairs we have found seem to be gearing up for a second breeding. As I survey the pastures and marshes that the caracaras forage in, I see zero prey capture success in the uplands whereas predation success seems to be high in wet marshes. Unfortunately, the marsh wetlands around here have nearly all dried up in the spring drought, so what will they feed a second brood?

The books say that caracaras eat a lot of things, and they do (doesn't most?), but let's take a closer look. I have been surveying for caracaras and their nests now for about a month. I see no real prey in the pastures; the winter grass is too short for rodents or snakes to hide in, and the only rabbit seen was in a Brazilian pepperbush (Schinus terebinthifolius) thicket. I'd like to see a caracara catch a rabbit in there!

Another team member today watched as a caracara ran down and caught a young cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus). I bet that was an amazing sight! Now I know what those long legs are for. I had guessed they were useful in tall grass, and I suppose they are, but thinking about it further now I realize long legs are usually more for running than stilting. Rabbits are fast, even young 'uns.

So then, what are the caracaras eating now during nesting season? I observe they spend more time over marshes that still have water in them. These wet marshes still have frogs, fish and snakes in them, and I believe they are pretty much the main larder right now. But the marshes are drying up. A dried marsh is even barer than a short-grass pasture, so again prey is rare or absent. What will they eat in the coming month or two? Will it rain in time for the second hatching, or is the permanently inundated marshland area sufficient for only for 10 percent of them?

They also eat carrion along the highway. We have noticed that caracaras make a “highway run” first thing in the morning, right at daybreak when roadkill can first be seen by this diurnal species. Perhaps as the mammalian young of last year are run off by their moms who are getting ready for this year's litters, their highway naivete will translate into increased roadkill as springtime comes into full flower.

Wednesday this week I spotted a burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia ) in a pasture. I had seen burrowing owls only a few times before today, and had never before seen their nest burrows. The owl would radiate out from a central location over the pasture. It appeared to be hunting when it flew off short distances, and sometimes disappeared into a burrow or a depression (I couldn't tell which) after a short forage. Presumably, it was returning to the burrow nest after each successful hunt to feed its young or mate. I could not look for a burrow on Wednesday, so I returned today to do so.

Walking a transect I set up on Wednesday in anticipation of the search, I quickly found two burrows. They are about 12 ft apart and 5 – 6 inches in diameter. There were a few small feathers in the runway of one burrow. Perhaps a dozen false starts were scattered around near the two burrows. A false start is a burrow abandoned before it is completed. These could be confused with armadillo diggings, which are funnel-shaped, whereas an owl's false start has cylindrical sides and a hemispheric terminus.

The nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) digs for small to tiny animals to eat, like ants and earthworms. When it smells a single prey item like a beetle grub, it excavates the least amount of dirt necessary to reach it, and a funnel shaped hole is perfect. We like the fact that the armadillo eats insect pests, but the 'diller has a devious side, too. One of its detriments is its propensity for taking over other animals burrows, including the burrows of the imperiled gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). Looking at an armadillo burrow near the owl burrows, I wonder if the nine-banded also takes over owl burrows?

I have read that Florida's burrowing owls usurp burrows of raccoons, snakes and gopher tortoises. I don't believe that for a picosecond. The raccoon (Procyon lotor) does not dig burrows in Florida, Florida snake burrows collapse right behind our sand-swimming serpents, and tortoises can fend off any mere tweety bird. Ok, ok, we're talking about a hooty bird, but it's still small relative to the tortoise. No, the owl burrows I saw today were dug by owls.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Big Cypress National Preserve

Sunday the 15th Brian, Tom and I met at 1000hrs at Big Cypress National Preserve at the gated entrance on the east side of SR 29 a few miles north of Alligator Alley. Our goal for the day was to try to make it east and then south along the limerock roads about 8 miles to the Hinson Mounds identified on Google Earth.

While preparing for our bicycle outing a group of Trinidadians were cast-netting for armored catfish. This first pic shows one fellow throwing a 7-ft (radius) cast net out over the canal beside SR 29. You can also see ripples on the water's surface where the armored catfish come up to gulp air which their gut absorbs oxygen.

This second photo shows what another cast netter can do with a very small net. We estimated perhaps 20-25lbs of fish in that net, and it was caught in a single cast!

Brian tells me they are in the genus Corydoras. The canal was loaded with them and Florida spotted gar (Lepisosteus platyrhynchus). I also saw the fishermen pull out a walking catfish (Clarias batrachus) and feed it to a 6ft alligator they call “Rosie:”

Sated on catfish, we headed east on the shaded limerock road, enjoying the coolness of the morning and the scenery. This part of the route goes through hammock forest that burned a couple of years ago. The fire killed some vegetation, mostly hardwoods, but evidently there wasn't enough fuel to really cause a canopy kill. Most plants were leafing out pretty good, especially at this time in early spring. Hammock vegetation is dominated by cabbage palm, live oak, laurel oak and red maple. Strangler fig (Ficus obtusifolia) and iguana hackberry (Celtis iguanaea) are also common. My favorite-name tree, the gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba), also occurs here sparingly.

The first open water we came to, an old borrow pit, also supported a mess of fishes, but is ruled by larger alligators than Rosie:

The one in the foreground is appx 9 ft long, and the thing that looks like a reptilian hippopotamus behind it is a huge alligator (photo by Brian Houha). It is hard to estimate the size due to its angle, but it was perhaps 12 ft long. A small body of open water in a shaded swamp a mile or so further east harbored another giant 'gator, this one perhaps 10ft in length. As we continued bicycling down the shady lanes, we marveled repeatedly at the very large alligators we were privileged to spot along the way in the small water bodies that remain in this spring drought.

Tom spotted a 9 ft 'gator with a bloody snout, evidently obtained in a fight with another 'gator. As we watched, it slowly paddled into the shelter of a culvert out of our sight. Perhaps the largest alligator we saw was a gray old geezer more than 12 ft long - use the immature little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) for scale):

Two other 'gators had a couple feet each of their tails missing, and both of them were in the 10-ft length range. When droughts drain the swamps and everglades, the 'gators converge on the few deep waters remaining such as these canals, roadside ditches and borrow pits. Large old male 'gators are mean enough, anyway, but when they are concentrated during mating season like right now, fights will ensue.

We pedaled a total of about 17 miles based on a Google Earth path distance:

It was all done on easy biking limerock roads, mostly under a moderate to broken shade canopy. We encountered very few people, all friendlies, although we did have to empty our packs for the ranger due to one of us blurting out to everyone he came to that we were looking (on federal lands) for the Indian mounds. The ranger wanted to see if we had shovels with us.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

As I understand it, the Kissimmee Prairie is a physiographic province of wet-dry prairie habitats through which the Kissimmee River / C-38 flows. The upland portions of the prairie comprises a patchwork of habitats, mostly dominated by grasses and other graminoids. Saw-palmetto occurs in small patches and in larges swatches along with the graminoids. Here and there are hammocks dominated by live oak and cabbage palm.

The state park is an outstanding example of the Kissimmee Prairie. It contains numerous types of habitats from xeric uplands to possibly permanently flooded wetlands and the Kissimmee River / C-38.

Mapping resources for the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park (KPP) are wanting. The Florida Parks website does not have a map, the park is not identified on the Florida Gazetteer and Google Earth has it placed incorrectly and does not display its boundaries. Okeechobee County has a good interactive GIS mapping program, but that is still a hugely tedious way to obtain this property's boundaries.

Fortunately, the park itself provides a pretty good generalized map at a scale of 1.1 mile per inch on 8.5 x 11 format depicting trails and mileages, but you have to go there to get the map. Obviously, this situation makes it impossible to plan routes or schedules until you arrive on-site. The park map should be on the park web page.

There are over 100 miles of so-called “multi-use trails” on this 54,000-acre property. Fair Warning!!! Strong opinions ahead!!! There is no such thing in reality as a multi-use trail; it is merely a phrase that signifies nothing. If horses hoof and crap up a trail, hikers and bikers won't go there. And if mowing the tall grass on either side of a trail road means leaving deep tractor tire marks into the dirt median or road shoulder, it will make the ground too uncomfortable for bicycling. Both of these errors are being committed by KPP staff.

I encountered no trails on KPP. The so-called multi-use trails on KPP are actually dirt roads. Tractors and horses wander all over them, ruining them for bicyclists. A simple, cost-free solution would be to put bikes and peds on one side of the road and horses on the other. I don't know why KPP's mowing method tears up the ground so much, but that is not a problem on trails in other state parks, so there is no reason for it to occur at KPP.

I biked and walked ~18.3 miles on and off the park's dirt roads. Starting at the preserve office parking lot, I cycled west on Military Trail where the road alternates between good and bad stretches. Although it was good exercise, it was hard to enjoy the scenery. After ~1 mile, the road crossed a ditch and a linear hammock. Lying at the wet edge of the ditch was the first and largest alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) of the day, an 11-footer.

Another third-mile brought me to a second monster in another ditch crossing. Its head is partially submerged and thus its length is uncertain, but I believe this 'gator is about 10 ft long. Notice that both giants are in small waters. Breeding season it is, and lovely lady 'gators to be found in those sweet headwaters there are.

After another 0.4 mile of alternately good and bad biking road, I came to the Grasshopper Sparrow Trail. This is a very nice biking trail, transitioning from mesic graminoid and saw-palmetto prairie,

down into to mesic graminoid prairie, like the above but without saw-palmetto, and then to mesic graminoid / hydric graminoid prairie.

Although not part of the “trail” system, this habitat continuum extends even further downhill into the floodplain of the Kissimmee River, here a hydric marsh dominated by brushy species like sand cordgrass, wax myrtle and wild hibiscus.

Perhaps a third-mile or more of the Grasshopper Sparrow Trail road was under a few inches of water. I able to ride in the water next to the road due to the wet-packed sandy substrate, but at times the water was too deep and I had to walk the bike beside the flooded road. After seeing the 11-ft and 10-ft maneaters a few minutes before, I kept a good distance between the open water and me, and also put the bike between me and the water. You know what they say: “Don't turn your back to the water!”

After 4.7 miles, the Grasshopper Sparrow Trail ended and I took a 1.5-mile unnamed trail road through more prairie and hammock land. Then I came to a hammock large enough to have a forest microclimate, and stopped for lunch.

The stem of saw-palmetto (Serenoa repens) in north Florida nearly always grows along the surface of the ground. Occasionally one will rise upward from the ground and become a tall bush or small tree. This rarity has always fascinated me, at least in part because my circle of north Florida naturalists debates whether the reason is fire (grow upward to keep flames out of leaves and fruit) or flooding (grow upward to avoid drowning). Now, after seeing so many arborescent saw-palmettos in south Florida, methinks the primary reason might be freezing and that fire and flood are secondary. Anyway, here is an example of arborescent saw-palmettos in the lunch hammock:

Unnamed trail road terminated at Military [road] Trail, from whence I turned west onto a half-mile trail leading, I thought, out to the river. But no! There is a dire warning No Trespassing sign on it, and I could see tons and tons of freshly bulldozed trees scattered around what looked like an on-going construction site. I was disappointed because it is the park's only river access, and it was closed off for what looked like a hurricane wrack dump site. Oh, well, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and suppose that the park is actually cleaning up a previous owner's mess, and that river access to recreationists will soon be restored.

Then it was north onto the McGuire Hammock Trail. This started out as an almost invisible field road that follows the edge of the Kissimmee Floodplain just downhill from a strand of hammock that runs along the side of the floodplain. It looked like a bit of a soft grass slog, albeit reasonably doable.

After only a few hundred yards, though, a delayed disaster began. Park staff have plowed a strip of land exactly where the road trail appears to have once been.

Perhaps the trail was damaged by feral pigs? Indeed, there is a huge impact on all the hammocks in the park from pigs rooting. I saw at least 10 pigs while out there, and they were all large and fat. Remind me to take my .22 pistol and small game license the next time I go there.

Anyway, it is impossible for me to bike plowed land, so I tried alternatives. I tried pedaling through the hammock, which sometimes worked but often failed due to pig rooting topography. I tried to cycle downhill from the plowing but the bahia grass was too high and soft. Someone had driven a truck down a portion of the plowed strip, and I tried to bike within the packed ruts, but the ruts were too narrow and I kept grounding out. I tried biking on animal trails uphill and downhill of the plowed strip and hammock, but found myself getting too far from the trail for comfort.

At this point, I was a long way from the van and in a sandy and piggy quigmire. Should I go on or should I turn back? I looked at my watch - I had been out 3.5 hours, I was half-way from the van and I had 4.5 hours to go. The adventurer in me said “onward you go!” The conservative in me said “it's not so far back to known ground.” The adventurer replied “but this mess could end at any moment, maybe just a little further.” And then the adventurer twisted the knife in by telling himself the fateful words, “you can never go back the way you came, else you will see only half of what you would have.” So onward I went, and (another) death march it became.

Somewhere along this 3 miles of plowed purgatory I lost the ability to continuously pedal my bike. Mostly walking a bicycle over 3 miles of pig and disk ground is harder than you might think, especially when one runs out of water. Cramps began to set in. To make a long story a little shorter, I aborted the day's mission and mostly walked but also biked a little the remaining 7.4 miles, about half of it with the wind and sun in my face.

Too wary to photograph, I saw three flocks of wild turkeys at the edge of the Kissimmee floodplain, a 6-ft and a 7-ft 'gator missing at least 2 ft of its tail, red-shouldered hawks, a bald eagle, armadillos, several rather tame deer, a raccoon, wood storks and white ibises.

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve is very friendly to horse riders, somewhat friendly to hikers, and distinctly unfriendly toward bicyclists. I recommend you go elsewhere for biking and hiking, and I recommend that the park staff member who is in charge of the bike “trails” get a mountain bike and actually ride the trails that he manages so that he sees first-hand how the bike trails could be bettered.

Highlands Hammock State Park

My 5-day-off period is in full swing. Wednesday I visited Highlands Hammock State Park (HH), an acclaimed unit within the state park system that I have long been looking forward to visiting.

As you may know, I like to print and carry with me an aerial of the place when I hike or bike or paddle. It is difficult to relate the trails on HH website's simple map to the Google Earth image of the park due to the dense hammock canopy. Nonetheless, the trails and their lengths are depicted on the park map:


All the trails in the hammock proper are either paved drives

or are boardwalks and catwalks,

I slipped off the trails a little here and there.

To the north of the hammock forest lies a bike trail thru pine flatwoods habitat. Two, much rougher horse trails are depicted on the north side of the park map. I found a cross trail (logging road) connecting the north bike route with the next-north horse trail and rode it for awhile.

Few if any horses have been there lately so the trail is not all torn up and crapped out. This is where I got my real exercise for the day. The other trails could hardly be called exercise, 'cause I don't bike fast thru beautiful old growth hammock. I figure I hiked ~1.5 miles and biked another ~8.5 miles that day.

I pity the people in the family campground, as the park's main drag is unpaved and runs thru the middle of the campground. I suspect campers get a fair amount of road dust. Bad planning, that.

The “exit” sign located at the intersection of Park Loop Drive and CR 634 cannot be seen by drivers exiting the loop from the south. I got confused trying to exit and made a wrong turn, and had to go around the loop again, which was annoying. I saw other drivers pulling over and trying to figure that one out, too. This situation could be fixed by moving the sign.

It is such a beautiful place. I am surprised there were so few people wandering its trails. Perhaps a benefit of visiting on a weekday?

Ok, now let's get serious about exploration and adventure in and around HH. There are over 9000 acres owned within this park, yet only a fraction of that is open to the public via park facilities. Looking at the locale using Google Earth, you can see a lot more forestland around those facilities, with the implication that much (many? Most?) of it is also within park boundaries.

9000 acres of wild land to explore seems like a terrific opportunity for naturalists-in-exile, but you gotta know where the boundaries are. Nope, you cannot get a map of HH property boundaries from the Florida Parks website. Highlands County does not have an interactive GIS system, so you cannot get the boundaries from their property appraiser. Google Earth shows only 3800 acres of the park, as does my Florida Gazetteer. But surely some of that interesting forestland adjacent to park “boundaries” is publicly owned?

It would be nice to return to HH with a local naturalist that is very familiar with the place.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Back to Work :-(

I have been forced out of retirement by Bush's gang of deregulators and their smashing style of economic management. Thus ends 9.75 years of a slower and quite pleasant lifestyle. One good thing that came out of having to return suddenly to work, though, was the gratification of being immediately given about six months of interesting field work by friends in my line of work. Only one's health and family are more important than friends.

Since last November I have been conducting field surveys for imperiled species in preparation of a linear development project. Specifically, I have been looking for nests and significant habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) and crested caracara (Polyborus plancus). The rcw work took me from the Florida Panhandle to southwest Alabama Nov '08 to Jan '09, and the caracara work has had me in Okeechobee, FL since then.

I moved my RV to Okeecbobee from Orange Lake for the duration of the caracara work. Once inside the RV with curtains drawn, I could be in Okeechobee or back in Orange Lake for all I know, or beside Lake Tanganyika for that matter. I get homesick living out of hotels on field trips and am hoping that living out of the RV will eliminate that threat. Plus, living in a new locale should allow for abundant new opportunities for adventure. Anyway, I'll be here until March or April, 2009.

I get up at 0515 hrs in order to be on site a little before daybreak, and am there until 1100 hrs; then I return to the field a few hours before sundown and remain there until about a half-hour after sunset. At each station I continuously scan the environment for caracaras using binoculars, and I mark down where they are seen and what their activity is. After doing this within the known range of a pair, we get an idea of the core portion of their territory. We then focus on locating the nest.

It is a good job for me at this time. I have no illusions about the difficulty in breaking back into “The Game.” I know it will be trying. But in the meantime I am out in the field at crepuscular times when wildlife, and especially bird life, is active and visible, I am in a new and interesting place yet still at home, the client and my boss treat me right, and I am making good money. I may be recently fleeced, but life is still good.