Dicromantispa interrupta

Dicromantispa interrupta

Friday, June 19, 2009

Revegetating Orange Lake Spoil Islands

An early afternoon thunderstorm Thursday moved quickly over Orange Lake and cooled the air from the high 80s to the low 80s, and that was enough to set me free! I put on swimming trunks, calf-high rubber boots, a tee shirt and hat, and strode off through the lake margin hammock down to the wetland continuum of shrub swamp, dry marsh, wet marsh and thence back uphill in the dense shrubs dominating the first island.

The goal was to plant some early successional tree seedlings on the island. The four islands are created from dredge spoil and are vegetated by invasives, both native and exotic. I had been thinking to make a little project of occasionally walking over to the island carrying plant species that might increase the biodiversity of the island. A small collection of black cherry, sweetgum, cabbage palm and sugarberry seedlings were dug up from my plant nursery and bagged for the trip over.

On my previous trips out there the weather had been relatively dry. The island's “soil” had been dessicated and plants had made a only a modest cover on the ground. I figured the summer rains had softened the ground by thoroughly moistening it, but was not prepared for the rampant foliage I met. Elderberry was flourishing everywhere over the island, not just along the its margin, as were pokeweed, blackberry, fireweed and thistle. Passionflower and peppervine, an odd couple in name only, had spread atop much of the shrubbery.

It was a mess of leaves and green stems that looked like it would shade out my poor little tree seedlings. I would be throwing them to the wolves, I thought, so brought them back home for reconsideration. Methinks I need to carry some serious gardening implements out there the next time, and possibly larger transplants, or just forget it.

At any rate, I have been experimenting with my new Garmin GPS 60CSx, and how it can interface with Google Earth. Here is the track of my 3-hour wander:

I was following the edge of the water along the northeast part of the track when I stumbled upon an alligator nest. Judging by the looseness of the top of the pile of dead vegetation that comprised the nest, I'd say that the last sheaf had been placed there only a short time ago. Oh, it wasn't as if the top was still visibly settling in, it's just that the storm had just beat down pretty hard and yet there was this airy looseness about the nest. Creepy. I remained alert while taking the waypoint and photographs, I did.

Did I ever tell you about the time I was flagging wetlands in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL within The Guana? The Guana River comes out of real old residential development in the form of a manicured, eutrophic stormwater reservoir. It drains into the next, old-but-not-quite-as-old residential development that also uses it for stormwater disposal but has left significant portions of its shoreline wild. There I was along this moderately long wild stretch, making slow time through dense shrubs and intertwined vines and golden orb spider webs, when suddenly an Enormous Black Thing erupted from the ground and bolted straight at me!

In the first half-second I figured out it was either a bear or a feral pig or a mature alligator or the largest indigo snake that had ever slithered over the earth. “Well,” I thought, in the next half-second, “if I think this could be a snake, then it must have scales, and if it has scales it cannot be a pig or a bear, and since this is not the Miocene, it must be a 9-foot 'gator running straight at me! ... I'm gonna die.” But then it suddenly turned hard left and made a beeline for the water, and I realized it had simply taken an established path to the water and never intended to attack me.

Several biologists have observed and recorded instances of startled reptiles heading straight for a person only to continue on their trajectory after the person moves aside. Bruce Means wrote about his experiments on the subject using poisonous cottonmouths. He may have been the first to realize that the snakes were just trying to take the shortest path to the escape pod (lake) and that they were not trying to attack. I believe my 'gator was in that same mode.

Monday, June 15, 2009

It's a sin to kill a crane

You know what you get when you don't hunt large animals? You get large animals foraging in your back yard.

I finished pruning a flowering bush raised garden and turned around, and standing about 6ft away was a Florida sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pratensis) feeding on scattered bird seed below my bird feeder. After retrieving my camera from inside the home, the bird had moved to my neighbor's bird feeder where I got these shots from within 8ft of the apparently unconcerned beast.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Another Floodplain Grotto

On Saturday, Sleazeweasel and I visited some mature limestone hammock and cypress swamps along the edge of the floodplain of Florida's southern Withlacoochee River. The day was hot and humid, and my tee shirt was literally saturated and dripping with sweat by the end of the afternoon adventure. Mosquitoes were so bad that we were compelled to take two cans of repellent along on the dayhike.

Sleaze had previously been there to a group of medium-sized caves and wanted to go back and explore further for more. The upland woods are dominated by live oak, laurel oak and sweetgum, and the floodplain edge wetlands by bald cypress, red maple, sweetgum and popash. Although a mature forest landscape, it is in an arrested successional stage due to periodic logging. Fortunately, cattle are excluded where we wandered.

Of particular delight to me, we encountered a small copse of forest-grown live oaks. Most of Florida's huge live oaks are open-grown; that is, they get their start in life in an open field where sunlight is not limiting, so rather than grow straight and tall they grow upward a few feet and then branch out into several to many limbs that are only the diameter of a Brontosaurus neck. Forest-grown live oaks, however, have to compete for sunlight from Day One, so they tend to have a single stem until they can grow up into the canopy where they branch out. One of the oaks in this stand was almost 4ft in diameter appx 50ft above the ground. Now, that's stolid!

The first karst feature we encountered was a small line of low, stepped rock faces within a first order drainage route that might become small waterfalls during storm events. We took GPS readings and moved on. The second feature was a genuine cave containing appx 60 – 70ft of joint-controlled passageway, all of hands-and-knees height and similar width:

We then came upon the caves that Sleaze had promised at the edge of the floodplain along the base of a rocky scarp. They are formed at the river's normal high water elevation by acidic floodwaters primarily along joints. Some of the caves are formed within rock pedestals that rise above the floodplain sediments, with each pedestal containing one or more caves. The pedestals are less than 100ft across in any dimension, and have heights up to perhaps 20ft. The pedestals are within a short floodplain “valley” that extends away from the floodplain axis.

Most of these caves have two or more entrances picturesquely framed with boulders and bedrock. These offer numerous walk-in entrances, skylights and twilight zones extending ex luce in tenebrum.*

Mosses, liverworts, ferns, vines, and other herbs blanket the soft, moist rock. Here the forest canopy is dominated by deciduous trees, including bald cypress, swamp tupelo, red maple, Florida elm, Shumard oak and sweetgum. Sleaze encountered a cottonmouth on his previous trip, but this time we heard only narrowmouth toads, exotic greenhouse frogs and common birds like the Carolina wren, northern cardinal and northern parula warbler.

I get the impression that this little valley once was a cave formed by a small underground stream that was enlarged at the edge of the floodplain where it discharged into the river. Over time the cave roof eroded mostly away as the rock surface eroded downward and the cave roof dissolved upward. The main passage of the cave is the little valley now, and the caves that remain are all that's left of the original cave.

The total effect is spectacular. Imagine walking through tall trees and a lush, subtropical fernery among hanging gardens draped over rock blocks and cliff walls, with the easiest routes being through well-lit caverns. This is truly a jewel of a spot.

*Note: The University of Florida's motto is ex tenebrum in luce, which is Latin for from darkness into light.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Morning Snakes

After spending this morning reviewing the literature on the Southeastern American Kestrel (Falco sparverius paulus) in prep for upcoming field work designed to find nest cavities and foraging habitat, I walked outside to stretch my legs and eyelids:

Then ever so softly I crept over to a marina bulkhead to look down where a week or so ago I had spotted a juvenile cottonmouth (Ancistrodon piscivorus). At first I didn't see a serpent, but as my eyes moved slowly over the tangled marsh vegetation, lo and behold there was an adult moccasin! Unlike the distinctively marked juvenile, this adult was dullish dorsally, dirty yellow below and with a hint of opaqueness to the eyes, so it may be shedding its skin soon:

As I reached out my hand to steady against a utility pole, I looked over and spotted a yellow rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta quadrivittata) an arm's length away amongst my hanging bromeliads:

Aaaahhhhh, with all the rains we are having after so long doing without, the snakes are back in force at Orange Lake. No wonder the red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) are doing so well here at Sportsmans Cove.