Dicromantispa interrupta

Dicromantispa interrupta

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Folk Wisdom

Jim Conrad writes a terrific weekly naturalist’s newsletter that I receive via email (his website is in my list of Favorite Links). Currently living on a hacienda beside Chechen Itza in Mexico, he has acquired many Mayan friends by living beside and hanging out among them. Jim grows some of his own vegetables and discusses gardening with them, and being a gardener myself, it is interesting to read some of the conversations they have.

In today’s newsletter, Jim relates two discussions he had with Mayan farmers that might shock a modern organic grower; at least, I think it shocked Jim. He suggested to one fellow that laying down a mulch of leaf litter might aid in retarding soil moisture loss. The M-dude quickly responded by turning over a clump of leaves to reveal a large spider, and said "Look, that's the kind of thing that plant-trash on the ground attracts. That 'bicho' eats plants. Why attract things that'll eat up your garden?" Another Mayan sodbuster admitted that he knew of no instance when Mayans would use organic matter to cover the soil, saying "When dry weather comes, mulch sponges up moisture from the soil, and of course that hurts the plants." Thus, Jim felt moved to bemoan their ignorance of soil moisture control and feeding habits of spiders, not to mention the fact that the spider they looked at ATE ‘bichos’ rather than WAS one.

Forgive me for saying so, but I saw it coming. Some time back, Jim had a story about woodpeckers in the garden, specifically a species closely related to our own red-bellied woodpecker. It seems that the Mayan farmers hate that bird because they believe it damages tomatoes by eating the fruit. I must admit that I grinned when I read that, because I had a similar experience with a woodpecker and a tomato, but mine had a much different and far better ending: http://tinyurl.com/2d328xx

Like Jim’s Mayan farmers, my neighbor misinterpreted the actions of a red-bellied woodpecker that was damaging an occasional garden tomato. By conducting a little investigation, I discovered that the woodpecker would drill a dime-sized hole in a single tomato and leave, and when it returned a couple of hours later, there would be a few insects in the wound, sipping juice. The woodpecker would eat the invertebrates and leave, and continue to revisit that tomato every few hours in the day until the tomato soured. It would then repeat the process on a subsequent tomato, but rarely used more than one tomato “trap” at a time. My neighbor was educated and was not raised by traditionalist subsistence farmers, so he (we) learned from the experience that woodpeckers set traps for garden pests. We also concluded that, just possibly, fewer tomatoes were ruined when there was a woodpecker in the garden because of the efficiency with which the traps lured vegetable-eating insects.

Jim inadvertently reminds me over and over again that so-called “folk wisdom” often stinks. My grandfather, for example, grew up in the 1890s+ and truly believed that polluted water cleaned itself after flowing seven miles. I bet you have examples of this, too. Maybe we could collate ‘em all into a poster for the bath…, er, I mean the refrigerator.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Marshall Swamp - A Chapter in the Book of Nature

Last Sunday morning (Nov. 21) was spent on my second Meetup.com day-hike on part of the Cross-Florida Greenway, accompanying 14 other North Central Florida Explorers led by Linda Duckworth on the 2.5-mile Marshall Swamp trail east of Ocala. We walked the trail from the CR 314 trailhead to the 64th Avenue Trailhead, plus a little loop on the far end, totaling 6.1 miles. This was my second time here, the first being on a bike ride last May. After the day-hike, we went to Tracy’s Restaurant on the north side of Ocala for fish sandwiches and soda (Tracy’s deserves its own blog post).

A few of the little treasures we experienced were a mild sweetgum “seed rain,” a small colony (clone?) of toothpetal bog orchid (Habenaria odontopetala):

and a shy Florida mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum steindachneri):

 The rest of the group walked faster than another fellow and me because the two of us stopped to take photos along the way. Eventually, I quit continually trying to catch up and just lapsed into a solo routine at the end of the line for most of the trip back. I had noticed some uncommon flora and wanted to photo-document it, flora that eked out a living on the buttressed bases of cabbage palms (Sabal palmetto). It occurred to me that this is a neglected microhabitat – why, I bet not one scientific journal has been dedicated to it – so I resolved to give it some attention. Yes, I am easily amused and you may laugh, but I made several anecdotal observations about cabbage palm root balls that may be new to science, so there!

In a swamp like this where it is wet or moist for much of the year, some but not all cabbage palms sprout a mass of roots at the base of the trunk, coating as much as two feet of the stem. These exposed roots are seriously shaded by several layers of leaves in the mature floodplain forest. The roots are dense and hard and grow parallel to each other with little if any space between them. It is a moist but otherwise inhospitable surface, yet is transformed by weather slowly eroding the outer roots. The raggedy surface thus created easily collects peat and inorganic sediments, making a decent substrate for small plants whose roots then tie the whole mass together in a natural Bonsai microcosm.

Cabbage palm root mass flora is dominated by mosses (actually bryophytes) that form a luxuriously thick carpet, interspersed with such things as panic grass, common blue violet, whisk fern and strap fern, even the odd green-fly orchid, all crisscrossed by vines such as partridgeberry and poison ivy. As the plants burgeon on the root ball over time, the peat soil grows thicker and richer, and so presumably does the number of plant species (now there’s a student science project!). And whenever a patch of the carpet moss is broken off, the newly exposed peat is a perfect little seedbed for shade-tolerant plants.

The first thing I noticed was that cabbage palm root masses sustained more plant life than pretty much any comparably-sized piece of ground, hunk of deadwood or buttress of any other tree species. Here is an old hardwood with "knees" to the ground that has a good growth of mosses and ferns at its base, but even this is not as lush as the growths on the cabbages:

Too, as you look through these pics, notice that the ground surface is more often than not almost devoid of small plants. Indeed, it can seem to be a veritable desert for little herbs. The second thing I noticed was that some plants when growing low to the ground occurred only on cabbage palm root balls; these species include whisk fern (Psilotum nudum):

strap fern (Vittaria lineata):

and goldfoot fern (Phlebodium aureum) (the root ball on this cabbage palm is well above the ground):

Third, although mosses are less picky, also growing on other types of wood both living and dead, nowhere were bryophytic mosses carpeting their substrates as profusely as on cabbage palm bases.

Fourth, I noticed that it looked like this swamp’s cabbage palm root masses were rarely if ever totally inundated, unlike the forest floor, and if so it would mean the root masses were elevating small plants above the flood line.

A keystone species is one that other organisms require the presence of in order to carry out their life cycle. Although at first blush it might seem that cabbage palm bases perform this function, in fact all the species mentioned do well in other habitats. The goldfoot fern and green-fly orchid (Epidendrum conopseum), for example, prefer to grow in the canopies of cabbage palms and live oaks, respectively, mosses occur on many substrates in the swamp and violets occur on the ground in the swamp and elsewhere. The cabbage palm base microhabitat stands out by perhaps providing the best habitat in the swamp for certain species, thus being a platform for “parent” plants to re-seed the ground after flood waters have drowned low-growing vegetation.

I like to say that I read “the book of nature” when I’m in the field, each soil type, weather formation and plant species being a paragraph or a page of the tome. It absolutely delights me that I will never get to the end of the book. Even in my sixties, I still encounter new script worthy of marvel on every outing. I truly pity those whose careers were spent doing things they never again want to do upon retirement and am immensely saddened upon hearing that someone is bored with their retirement.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Lubee Bat Conservancy & Blue's Creek Swallets

Saturday afternoon (11/13), Bruce and I headed over to the Lubee Bat Conservancy north of Gainesville for their annual festival, along the way exploring the numerous, mostly dirt, back roads in the vicinity of Monteocha. This is the one day of the year that Lubee’s facilities are open to the general public and I had been meaning to see the place for some time now. The tours were self-guided and led through large, outdoor cages containing the bats. The Conservancy is dedicated to the conservation of fruit bats. It seems odd to me to locate a fruit bat center in Florida because our native bats are all insectivorous, but I guess fruit bats cannot become established here if there is an accidental release. Unfortunately, the dense fencing between the bats and my camera denied photography, but their website contains plenty of pics: (http://www.batconservancy.org/).

I did buy a bat at the festival. How could I not? After all, this is a bat place and I collect toy bats for decorations in my home. Mostly they are plastic Halloween horror decorations, but several are cute plush toys, some of which are hand puppets. Saturday’s find was a cotton print stuffed bat. Ordinarily I like a demure bat, almost invisible, like a genuine chiropteran cruising overhead after dusk. Perhaps that’s just what I’m used to, because toy bats are typically manufactured in black and brown, and it is hard to find them more colorful. The only prior exception is the white, pink and green banana leaf bat ensemble hanging in my living room, but now this fiery little devil gets added:

The Occasional Bat (http://www.theoccasionalbat.com/) produces two sizes of these bats with a variety of print patterns. The more I look at this thing, the more I want to get another, and another. In fact, I think I will get one for the raffle at the annual Florida Cave Cavort.

After that, we went to the bicycling trailhead at San Felasco Hammock State Park, pedaling over to the NE slope of Sanchez Prairie and walking from there. Bruce had never been to the Blue’s Creek swallets from the north, so I retraced a previous trip for his benefit. Not having any other goals and the daylight fading, we covered ground quickly. In fact, we returned to the trailhead in a round trip of only 2:16 hrs (covering a total of 8.1 miles), implying that an early start could place explorers in the heart of the east side of Sanchez Prairie in a little over an hour of biking and hiking. That would provide up to 5 or 6 hours of discovery time where it is most involved to reach and where I have spent the least amount of time. I’ll be back there soon.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Land Bridge Trail Hiking and Biking

Ordinarily, I run off into the woods solo or with a few buds, but today I did something different – I went with an organized group called the North Central Florida Explorers that operates under the MeetUp.com banner, and I was the only caver there (I can just hear the gasps). We met at the Land Bridge Trailhead of the Cross-Florida Greenway and hiked to the bridge over I-75 and westward before heading back to the parking area, a total of 4.3 miles (butterscotch line).

It was not one of my usual hard-(old)-man treks, much less one of my occasional death marches. It was instead more leisurely and social, and I’m not worn out, scratched or bruised at the end of the day. I didn't know you could do that! I had the opportunity to walk and chat with several interesting people. It is good to get out in the woods with new acquaintances and trade knowledge banks, plus I met some naturalists that I plan to invite on my next bike-n-hike. New blooood, bwa-ha-ha-haaaaa!

Ecologically, the Land Bridge Trail is nothing to write a home blog about. The trail from trailhead almost to the land bridge is second growth, very low diversity broadleaf evergreen forest totally dominated by live oak and laurel oak. In fact, I saw only one other tree species in there, and that was a single individual sugarberry. Oh, there probably was sweetgum or water oak in there, somewhere, but I didn’t see them. Nonetheless, the canopy is mature and shady, and the live oak limbs are draped with resurrection fern, so it is quite pleasant. Since most of the participants today were not botanically inclined, I may have been the only one there noticing the floral poverty. Prem Subrahmanyam, one of my blog readers and an orchid aficionado, suggested in a previous post comment that I should be on the lookout for Triphora orchids, as this is the time of year when they begin to flower, which I did but saw none. Maybe next time?

Approaching the land bridge, the topography rises and the plant community becomes a sandhill habitat. It has been thoroughly modified by timbering, the absence of fire and earthmoving associated with the abandoned Cross-Florida Barge Canal. (Pause for a moment to remember that we have Marjorie Carr to thank for being the first person in America to defeat a major US Army Corps of Engineers water works project, this damnable canal, and say hallelujah!) The profound disturbances have transformed the habitat from a dominance of longleaf pine and turkey oak to one of a mixture of scrub oaks and ruderal pines, including myrtle oak, scrub live oak, Chapman’s oak, sand pine, loblolly pine and (rarely) longleaf pine. Before being stopped, the canal was partially dug with short segments excavated down several tens of feet but not deeply enough to reach the water table. The trail we walked took us alongside and atop some of the spoil banks, which had been piled up so long ago that the second-growth sandhill scrub vegetation has colonized and blurred the line between them and the original sandhill soils.

Despite this native Florida ecologist’s haughty attitude toward the floral fiasco, the trail here is carpeted in quietening pine needles and is quite peaceful and scenic.

Garberia (Garberia fruiticosa) was blooming all along the sandhill trail, its light purple blossoms slightly fragrant and attracting a few pollinators. It probably would have lured in many more pollinators and my pics of it might have been less blurred from shivering if the day had been warmer. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) was everywhere but its flowers were fading into brown and thus unworthy of pictorial attention. Likewise, dense blazing star (Liatris spicata) was past its prime but still attractive. Deer moss (Cladina evansii), a lichen composed of a fungus and an alga, formed large beds in places, indicative of the long-term absence of fire which kills it.

A single fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) was spotted by an alert hiker and pointed out to me, hanging out in the sun on a pine log in the chill wind. Possibly, because it was so close to the ground and flattened against the log, it was within a “boundary layer” of still air that protected it from the cold. It allowed me to approach to within 4 inches, so it must have been desperate for warmth. Ordinarily, just you try and approach this “swift;” it will dart away before you can get within a yard of it. Compare it to the photo of a scrub lizardat the end of this post – they are closely related, and possibly the latter evolved from the former during a higher Plio-Pleistocene sea level when the Florida peninsula was reduced to a series of islands. The scrub lizard is found only in xeric scrub plant communities in Florida whereas the fence lizard is found in many open xeric and mesic woodland habitats throughout most of eastern North America.

I should also point out the rockwork on the land bridge. Ever since I saw the intricate, imaginative, mortar-less stone walls of central Mexico in the late 1970s, I have closely inspected literally every rock wall that I have walked by to compare them with their Hispanic hermanos. Frankly, I find American rock walls wanting, most being slathered with mortar and some being nothing more than random, long stacks of rocks (Bruce J. Morgan’s sublime stoneworks being the sole exceptions). But I have to admit that the one on the land bridge is a good one. True, it uses mortar, but there is rather little of it and the stonemason took care to closely match edges.

The hike lasted from 10am until noon. After lunch, the trip organizer, Linda, and I got on our bikes and pedaled back to the land bridge and beyond (green line on the Google Earth image above). We had intended to ride the Christmas Trail, but it was closed for unknown reasons so we took the limestone road down the center of the Greenway property and then back, covering another 6 miles. I hope to do more outings with this friendly group.

Tomorrow I’m off to the low hammocks along the west side of the St. Johns River floodplain in the Ocala national Forest. I have seen some really cool serpentine cabbage palms, snail middens and older growth forests there in the past, and have stayed away too long. Who knows what treasures for Buford Nature lay in store for the morrow?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Land Bridge Trail + Santos Bike Trails

The brisk weather this morning sent me back to the Santos area bike trails; specifically, I parked at the Land Bridge Trailhead and biked east and west from there, covering about 15 miles in 2 hours:

It was a relatively easy route over flat terrain with few rocks, roots and fallen logs to deal with, so I was able to lean into the pedals and burn quads pretty much the whole way. Park managers have created separate trails for bikers, hikers and horse riders, which is great. Notably, there were more horse riders out this morning than the three of us bikers and one solo hiker. Tomorrow, I’ll be back to hike with a bunch of Meetup.com people, and afterward bike with a few of them. I’ll include some pics of the trail environment when I post tomorrow’s adventures.