Dicromantispa interrupta

Dicromantispa interrupta

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ipomea Paean

I used to collect morning glories. I would scour the countryside during this time of the year looking for good seed sets on robust, colorful plants. Perhaps almost a dozen or so species were trying to survive in my sandhill botanical garden back in the 80s. This morning during a dawn lake marshside stroll I spied this blooming trellis of tievine blanketing a small Chinese tallow tree. The tievine keyed out in Vascular Plants of Florida (Wunderlin and Hansen 2003) to Ipomea cordatotriloba (I. trichocarpa). The leaves of this mass of tievine are mostly saggitate, although the species often has perfectly heart-shaped leaves, sometimes both on the same plant. You can also see a few larger, heart-shaped leaves of air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera) in the trellis. Bumblebees and a wild bee species were feeding on the nectar but I couldn’t get any decent pics of them.

Then a misshapen fig beetle (Cotinus texana) fell out of the sky and landed on the hood of my truck. It has a missing right shoulder that looks like it might have been burned off and then healed over; the little creature can still fly, though. One pic shows the damaged shoulder and the other reveals the spread-out tines of what I think is its left antenna:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Halpata Tastanaki Park

Bill, Bruce, Brack and I met at the Pruitt Trailhead on the Halpata Tastanaki Park of the Cross Florida Greenway this afternoon for a bike ride through mostly flatwoods ecosystems. We made it down to the Withlacoochee River, doing a loop of about 13 miles averaging a leisurely 3 mph. There was a goodly wind above the treetops, but we felt only a breeze down at the bottom of the forest road “canyons” that cut through the tall pines. Plus, there was the sound of the wind in the pines, what can I say? The wind so converted what would otherwise have been a hot summer ride.

The route took us over limerock roads and dirt roads. Limerock roads were relatively smooth and easy to ride, although bahia grass cloaked most of the graded road top and frictioned the tires. Dirt roads had been recently graded and grass was growing back in, but there was a lot of bare sand saturated with recent rains that was a little squishy to ride on. This will likely ameliorate when the grass thickens in.

Bruce said the place was simultaneously on fire and in flood the first time he visited it, right after it had been acquired into the state preservation lands program, and that it looked awful. Today, the burned area comprising the northern half of our loop was lush with a diverse plant community of grasses, sedges and wildflowers. The low upland adjacent to the marshes had thick growths of wiregrass (Aristida stricta) that was setting heavy seed. This is exactly what I would expect in a burned natural low flatwoods landscape after a very rainy growing season. Mental note to self: Return in the spring with tripod when perennial wildflowers bloom in concentric rings of varicolored wildflowers around low flatwoods freshwater marshes like these.

Most of the park’s uplands are in plantation pine that have a closed canopy and appear to be almost ready for thinning. There is little undergrowth, but I bet the durable seeds of flatwoods wildflowers are still there. If the goal of this forest’s management is to restore the native low slash pine flatwoods habitat (and I hope it is), then a good pine thinning will allow much more sunlight to reach the ground and stimulate herbaceous vegetations. In my opinion, no habitat in Florida contains more species of wildflowers than low flatwoods and their associated freshwater marshes, and there are no better conditions for them to bloom than just might exist right here next spring.

Not another soul out there.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ocala Caverns Gating

After the September 12th Saturday cleanup operation at Ocala Caverns, there was a second large turnout of Florida cavers on Saturday the 19th to install a gate on the cave entrance. Some drilling and pounding was even done by a Marion County Commissioner, Mike Amsden, a true friend to conservationists. Tim F and Danny B masterminded the gate design. Tim’s welding skills were augmented by those of Carl F, a professional welder and an instructor of welding. Tim and Carl had brought two or more welding rigs and maybe three generators, and a fourth generator showed up with Jerry J. The rest of us pretty much did what Tim, Danny and Carl asked us to do, which was mostly totin’, fetchin’ and grindin’.

It took only a day to build the gate. It is made of 3x3 inch used angle steel, graciously donated by Blankenship-Pasteur, Inc., of Ocala. The working bars are horizontal and have 5.75-inch spaces between the bars to allow the free movement of flying bats. Previously, there was a large population of bats in the cave, but they had been driven out by vandals some time ago. The lowest bar of the gate was set several inches above the brick steps in order for surface water to be able to freely wash leaf litter and invertebrates into the cave. This is very important in overall energy flow within a cave, since literally all the energy and organic material that enters caves comes from above ground, the loss of which results in relatively low biodiversity. The raised bottom bar also allows small mammals, like rodents and this short-tailed shrew, Blarina brevicauda, to use the cave if they want to:

This time an Ocala Banner photographer and reporter attended. Gary Green, the reporter, interviewed pretty much everyone present. Here’s a happy reporter in his first wild cave:

The plan was to construct the gate sans opening, then cut the opening; that way there would be no problems in making certain that the angled bars lined up properly for the locking mechanism (Sean R’s idea). So that’s what Danny and Tim did, and yes, they are looking out:

As you can see, the opening that was cut is not large, being only one bar maybe 30 inches wide (that’s Tim, Danny and me):

Annette B sanded more graffiti from the concrete bunker that covers the cave entrance, Jon S and others put up warning signs on the perimeter fence, Bill C was a laborer like me plus he coaxed Carl into helping us, and several of us including Mike G performed rockwork and additional cleanup. We have a few more tasks to go to complete the property security plan including more work on the back fence and some additional rockwork, which will be discussed at the October club meeting.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Waccasassa Bike 'n Hike

I discussed in my August 3rd post a visit to some karst features in the Waccasassa River Floodplain. You may remember that we reconned a solution valley with small remnant caves, and visited a small area of karst pavement about a quarter-mile away. Later I noticed that the solution valley and the limestone pavement formed a line parallel with the river.

Today, Brack and I drove over to the public boat ramp parking lot, biked from there to a jumpoff point and then hiked in along an extension of the parallel line through low hammock, unexplored territory. We walked an approx 3-mile loop through mostly low hammock, trying to stay at the boundary (ecotone) between the low hammock and the shallowly-inundated mixed cypress-and-hardwood swamp.

So we got our feet wet but ran into some fine natural history things out there. First were the ripe persimmons (Diospyros virginiana). Their fruit are as sweet as any native Florida fruit I have ever eaten in the wild, and I have eaten just about all of them. You just have to remember not to eat them until they are ripe!

It is not often that we are privileged to experience what early Florida naturalists called the Peninsula’s “climax forest.” They often saw it in the northern and central part of the Peninsula, a mixed hardwood, old growth forest dominated by Southern magnolia, live oak, sugarberry, hickory and other trees appropriate to the local soils. All but tiny patches of it have since been logged, long gone. I have seen only a handful of such climax stands in Florida in my lifetime of wood wanderings, and today I saw another small stand of it. Not much more than 2 or 3 acres in size, its trees weren’t giants, but were definitely well beyond any “early successional stage.” Note the open, park-like nature under the canopy, and imagine the same scene a few centuries ago with trees 3 – 4 ft in diameter:

The old-timers thought the final, ultra-climax [my phrasing] forest community over centuries of time in the absence of fire in Florida would consist purely of Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). This most magnificent species of an ancient genus has large, thick evergreen leaves, piled layer upon layer, such that the shade under a mature magnolia is too dark for other plants to grow. I have seen a 5-acre stand of almost pure magnolia on the north side of Payne’s Prairie in north Florida. It is about 90 percent magnolia and 10 percent sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) at its periphery, but in its interior there is no sugarberry left standing – it is all grandiflora.

The older growth forest we saw today was composed of perhaps 50 percent magnolia, not bad. Interestingly, the swamp surrounding this climax forest unit has a large component of sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana), a sister species. Doubly interesting, sweetbay totally dominates a curious habitat type in central Florida, forming stunted and twisted epiphyte-infested forest-thickets on pedestal peat deposits in intermittent, depressional wetlands. The genus Magnolia is one tough competitor! I bet it outlasts cockroaches.

Our little magnolia McMansion today also sported a “mass” bloom of a tiny ground orchid, the name of which I am at a loss. I don’t suppose anyone out there knows what it is?

We ran across several hefty old live oaks along the way, warming up on yer garden variety of large live oak that we see down here all the time. Then we came upon this terrific live oak with a hyper-swollen bole:

This tree must be 14 ft across at its base, with the fat bole rising 3-4 ft above the ground. It is not unusual for a live oak’s ground-base to be 2-4 ft wider than the trunk proper, but this old lady has a gown flowing out a full 5 ft out from her bunions all the way around. Nonpareil! Hunkered down about 5 ft above the ground on this live oak was this 2-inch Southern toad, Bufo terrestris:

Don’t you agree it’s a particularly beautiful frog? Lovely browns. This tree is hollow, has numerous entrances into the refuge, and probably shelters more herps than just this blue-tailed skink, Eumeces sp.:

As I was wondering why the nocturnal toad was spending the day off the ground in plain sight, Brack stopped suddenly and whispered, “water moccasin!” He pointed down at his feet and then slowly backed away while I got out my camera. Perhaps the little toad is hiding above the normally ground-dwelling moccasin? Any port in a storm, I guess. Brack got too close to the serpent’s personal space, so it vibrated its tail and held its mouth wide open in warning, getting his attention.

Oh, I almost forgot the karst. As I said, we didn’t find much of interest, although we did find more limestone outcroppings along that extended line, but they petered out into foot-high rocks set into a zero mean sea level swamp. This is truly where ridgewalking in Florida swampland drowns out.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ocala Caverns Cleanup

I think he said there were 38 of us out there, working on securing the defunct Ocala Caverns property. Recent vandalism included spray paint inside the cave on ceiling and walls. Jon S, Sean R and Bill W removed the paint last week using a wire brush on a drill. Over the years kids occasionally mess around in there, leaving trash within the old tourist attraction, but seldom painting the rock. The recent offense consisted of large, multicolored, crudely drawn spray painted peace symbols. Furthermore, it occurred between re-mapping trips by Sean R, Kitty M and Mike G. The paint was the last straw for them.

The landowner allows us to do pretty much whatever we want to do on the property. Jon and others communicate regularly with him, resulting in an excellent relationship. In the past we have conducted cleanups and practiced cave rescue on site, and a determined few like Bill W have dug for virgin passage. Other members have guided numerous scouts through the cave. Jon S put together a schedule that included working on the trails, fences and signs all this weekend, but so many people showed up that we finished the weekend’s goal by, like, right after lunch!

Bernice N laid out an incredible lunch spread, as big as Texas, or more appropriately, as long as Florida. Ziplock baggies lined up like fat dominoes filled with good food and condiments like several kinds of tasty pasta salad, pickles and olives, and raw fetal carrots. You could have a bowl of prepared garden salad, modified most anyway you wanted it, including with feta cheese, or just chow down a prepared chicken or egg salad sandwich. Yum.

Next weekend we intend to install a gate at the cave’s entrance, or I should say Tim F and Jon are going to install it. And maybe Mike Somebody? Others are assisting in one way or another, I don’t remember it all. We’ll see how it goes. Jon’s strategy seems to be to blitzkrieg the place this month to get the critical fencing repaired, new signage erected, regular sheriff’s patrols begun, and the last resort - construct a vandal-proof gate, all before the TAG Fall Cave-In and hopefully before vandals return. Whew! Ambitious! But we are ahead of schedule.

Additional work is planned for after the Cave-In, including the remaining fencing and dry cave gating. More money will be required to repair the back fence and gate the dry cave entrance. Contributions from anyone are welcome and should be sent to the FSS at:

The FSS is a nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation. We raise money almost solely for cave resource protection uses, primarily by purchasing cave-containing real estate and gating significant caves that are under particular threat of vandalism. We are sensitive to the need to allow wildlife free access to the caves we gate, and we make our caves available to good people for scientific, educational and recreational uses.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pupfest 7

I drove to TAG (Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia) last Wednesday with Sleazeweasel for a week of easy caving and camping. It was the 7th annual Pupfest, named after Peter “Mudpuppy” Michaud and hosted by the Sewannee Mountain Grotto of the NSS. I have been attending another annual regional caving event in the southern Appalachians for almost four decades called the “TAG Fall Cave-In.” Coincidentally, my first Cave-In and first Pupfest were each event’s seventh soiree.

A few of us camped at ‘Pup’s house, with everyone else camped at Maureen’s expansive, tailored facilities, maybe about a hundred of us altogether? ‘Pup and Maureen are perfect hosts. The Grotto raised somewhere around $2,000 via auction of donated stuff. After expenses, about a thou should remain for charitable karst conservation efforts. I got a great deal on an old scuba regulator set at the auction, which I will try to sell for a profit to be donated to Sewannee Mtn Grotto, but I’m keepin’ the $6 sheath knife I scored.

We visited Sinking Cove Cave the first day, Thursday Sep. 3, parking at the Wolf Entrance and walking uphill to Entrance #4, doing a through trip from there back to the Wolf Entrance. It is a spacious stream cave of mostly walking height or larger, and stream depths that were always less than a meter where I went. Speleothems are generally small, many being eroded by flood waters in a deposition-erosion cycle, with speleogens being better developed. Speleothems are calcite deposits and speleogens are bedrock projections that remain after the cave has been carved out.

On Friday we visited Stephen’s Gap Cave, one of the most photographed karst sites in the Southeastern US. This is “Nuke” ascending the rope after his rappel:

Stephen’s Gap is a deep, vertical-sided sinkhole with two entrances side-by-side, one which you rappel into and the other you clamber down into. I took the latter route as I was still recovering from the previous night’s revelry. Sleaze had some trouble with the lip at the top of the drop, so much so that he became quite heated up there on the edge after ascending from the pit. As usual, he was quite cheerful and optimistic about this predicament, so I snuck over and rocked his pack. It wasn’t a big rock, just a little thing maybe a couple of centimeters in diameter, just large enough for me to be able to count coup.

But I had messed up. I had accidentally rocked Brian H’s pack instead! How embarrassing. But I bided my time, and when Sleaze was repacking for the hike down the mountain and was having a little trouble getting a gear bag into his pack, I leapt forward. “Let me help you,” I offered, as I held the other side of his pack open. He gratefully allowed me to do so, and as the gear bag slid into the pack, so did a little rock.

I snuck over to ‘Pup and counted coup with him again, and then I got evil. I sidled over to Brian and told him I had rocked Sleaze’s pack, and we howled together in glee over “our” secret. Well, what worked once, I thought, might work twice, so I sidled this time over to Sleaze, and told him I had rocked Brian’s pack. But to my surprise Sleaze was not amused, he just got suspicious, and obviously justifiably so. Here is our happy rappeller:

Saturday I returned to Conley Hole after not having been there for several decades. It is a great big chamber accessed by a central, smaller vertical shaft at the top, not unlike a flask sitting right side up. It has a total free rappel distance of 51 meters (167 ft). This is me on the verge of descent:

On Sunday the 6th we went to Bluff River Cave. This is another stream cave, similar to Sinking Cove although smaller. It was discovered by a friend of mine, Bobby W, and I wish I could reproduce his map of the cave here – it is a masterpiece. Researchers were there collecting benthic samples and looking at water quality and cave critters. We saw two troglobitic crayfish and perhaps 5 or 6 Tennessee cave salamanders, Gyrinophilus palleucus, in the stream. We see trog cray in Florida all the time, but G. palleucus lives only in TAG and thus is a treat to see. It is lightly pigmented and has exterior gills, which are neotenic characteristics. Although an obligate cavernicole, it is among the larger salamanders in the region, reaching 22.5 cm (8.875 inches) in total length:

Monday we wandered around the countryside, hiking about 4 miles of trails in Fiery Gizzard Cove at Grundy Forest State Natural Area. Even on Labor Day, this place of fine trails had few visitors.

We did not see a single snake in 5 days of wandering around the countryside. In NE Alabama we drove by what surely must be the largest, densest patch of cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) I have ever seen. It occupied a 20-meter stretch of roadside ditch, gorgeous: