Thursday, December 20, 2007

Merry Christmas

Another great week in the swamp, so the year is ending on a high note. The TNC Florida office had our Holiday party at Bahia Honda state park, which was really fun. Ruddy Turnstones, a type of sandpiper, were really active bulldozing the piles of seaweed around. These Laughing Gulls were also chasing things in the surf as the tide comes in (they are currently in their winter plumage, which is why they appear more drab than in summer). Like the rest of the USA, the Keys had a cold front blow through earlier in the week, with temperatures plummeting to as low as 72 degrees in the daytime! Brrr! Well, if that makes you envious, don't worry... since it never freezes here, the mosquitos and noseeums always think it's a Christmas Feast.

I'm flying out tomorrow, so I'll be home for Christmas. I'm looking forward to being home again!

I wish everyone a wonderful holiday, yuletide greetings, and a peaceful and prosperous new year!!!!!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Der Terminator

Originally, hardwood hammocks on the Keys were considered pristine areas that would be very difficult to invade. They are a climax forest, meaning that the growth progression from a disturbed site is complete when mature hardwood trees have established themselves, taking up most of the sunlight available in the canopy.

Therefore, we began our workweek treating the edges of the Blue Heron Hammock on Marathon Key. There were lots of Lead Tree, Asparagus Fern, and Jumbie Beans to keep us busy. Treating these plants was tedious, since required harvesting pods & berries to prevent reseeding. After that was done, we began a transect into the interior of the hammock. It was very thick undergrowth, but unfortunately not pristine. It took nearly two hours to walk about a half mile. We killed thousands of papaya trees along the way, so the blades of our weapons (Peppersbane, Texas Chainsaw, etc) dripped heavily with green sap. Some infestations were so huge that our team could not effectively treat it, such as dense thickets of Sansevieria with stalks over 6ft tall!

The remaining work days we covered public land on Big Pine Key. The pine rocklands are more open than the hammocks, but the rocklands most prevalent shrub is the Poisonwood Tree. Poisonwood causes severe skin rashes similar to Poison Ivy, so we wear gloves and long sleeves, and frequently wash up. Fortunately, it is a native, so we merely try to keep away from it.

Occasionally, we see wildlife; key deer, also called "toy deer" because of their tiny size, are common on Big Pine. Adult deer weigh only between 60-80 lbs, and have adapted to life on the keys. More uncommon is the Island Tree Snail, a terrestrial gastropod with pretty stripes on its turret. The snails once were abundant, but have declined precipitously from habitat destruction and tourists collecting shells. Large kettles of black vultures can be seen during the afternoon, circling higher and higher. In one such kettle, I spied a Bald Eagle trying to join in the fun. On a nearby powerline, I saw a small brown hawk that turned out to be a new addition to my lifelist, the Short-tailed Hawk, a tropical Buteo whose range in the USA is limited to southern Florida.

When we're all tired from a hard day's work, we can always "unwind" at the various evening sports. Monday night is for volleyball; there are many great players out here and it's lots of fun. Thursday night, we decided to try starting up a weekly kickball session. I hadn't played since the 5th grade. My first kick landed me on first base, full of too much adrenaline. Next, sprinting towards second, I began a slide to dodge the ball and ended up spraining my ankle! Ugh!! So my weekend plans for fun and adventure were postponed.

I spent my downtime wondering why the nearby banks to the Flower Gardens off the coast of Texas don't support the same healthy stands of corals. Could these banks (Bright, Sonnier, Geyer) be artificially enhanced to begin growing a healthy reef? Could corals be cultivated to become hardier to temperature changes?

Reefs are very desirable ecosystems because they are the most productive habitats and support a bewildering array of biodiveristy. Stony corals have the added benefit of being excellent carbon-sinks, by locking away CO2 dissolved in the seawater and creating calcium-carbonate, which becomes literally the backbone of the reef community.

I also spent time this weekend walking some of the nature trails on the island, such as those around Blue Hole. Some of these trails cross the old mosquito ditches that were created to drain solution holes of water that allows mosquitoes to breed. There are over 100 miles of these ditches on Big Pine Key.

Tomorrow, work begins again. My ankle is still swollen and sore, but hopefully it'll be ready for action come morning!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Flora, Fishes, Woodrats & White Herons

After my plane landed (late), I hit the ground running. Monday we spent finishing up the work we didn't complete before Thanksgiving; mostly controlling periwinkle, kalanchoe (more aptly named, Mother of Millions), and a few rogue australian pines. Each plant has an interesting story behind them. For instance, the Madagascar Periwinkle contains complex alkaloids that are used to treat childhood leukemia. Unfortunately, it is native to Madagascar, which is a huge island with an enormous environmental problem. As with most species indigenous to that beleaguered land, the periwinkle is endangered in its natural environment. Here in the keys, we it is an invasive that threatens our own endangered species. This photo is my coworker Topher basal treating some pines.

It began raining, so we caught up on office work: mostly verifying the data for our assessment and treatment work was correctly entered into the Trimble units. Toto also researched the growth histories of our target plants, trying to determine when the best time to treat them so that we could reach them prior to seeding. Since the Keys are tropical, the growing season of some plants never really stops, so prolific seeders like Lather Leaf and Periwinkle are not subject to timing. Grasses tend to be the most faithful to obeying a season, but they tend to seed in the early fall. That would mean treating grasses in the summer, when the heat would make us wilt faster than the grasses.

The next morning was very early; we woke up at 5am to drive down to John Pennekamp state park. This is an excellent park to visit, with an aquarium, lagoon, and a dive shop that offers snorkel and dive trips on the park's reef. We setup camp in an area near the old drill site. They were looking for drinking water, and found it 1000 feet below. Unfortunately for humans, it was a warm mineral artesian spring that reeks of sulfur. The water drains up from the drill site and feeds a small pond that nurtures what appear to be the majority of mosquitoes and no-seeums for Key Largo. Ugh!

The Nature Conservancy organized a two day course to teach the various Greensweep allies techniques in how to successfully treat different invasive species, and also how to identify invasive and important native plants. Considering there are over 3000 plant species living in the keys, this is a ton of information dumped in a short time. We also learned about other invasive pests, like 6ft pythons attacking the closest thing america has to a koala bear: the endangered Key Largo Woodrat. In one of the brackish channels, we saw a crocodile; the first time I had seen one in the wild!

After that intensive course, we prepared for and then took the Florida Core and Natural Areas licensing exams. I sure hope I passed (the Natural Areas exam was zomg intense; example: is the ester form of Triclopyr best used on monocots or dicots)!

The weekend was more fun. Saturday morning, the Looe Key Reef Resort hosted a garbage cleanup on the reef. Free dive trip, free beer (afterwards), and great karma. I only recovered a few pieces of garbage, which was great because the reef seemed very clean. Unfortunately, I heard that just a few days ago, a drunken party barge ran aground on the reef. They were hit with $3 million in fines, but I'd rather have the coral back. The western edge of the reef patch we were on was shallow, with a max depth of 30 feet. There were coral ridges with sand channels in between. We saw several large nurse sharks about 7ft long! Also, a large stingray was hiding below the sand with just his eyes and tail poking out. At first, I thought his tail was a fragment of fishing rod! There were also some bahama grouper, queen & french angels, tricolor damsels, hogfish, yellowtail snapper, bluehead wrasse, barracuda, schoolmasters, porkfish, squirrelfish, soapfish, triggerfish, smooth trunkfish, blue chromis, midnight parrotfish, and lots of others I couldn't identify or remember long enough to log.

Today, I went on a long kayak trip around Howe Key with Toto; about 6 miles. We saw many juvenile hammerhead sharks about 3 feet long, and a stingray. The bays are very shallow, often only 1 ft deep, with seagrass growing right to the surface. This makes for challenging work. We did get to see a bald eagle, several osprey, cormorants, great egrets, and most importantly, the rare white morph of the Great Blue Heron! Indeed, go tell your friends, as my lifelist now includes Ardea herodias occidentalis!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Giving Thanks

Last week went by really fast. We started Monday with a thorny problem: Night-blooming Cereus, which is a cactus that sometimes thinks it's an epitphyte. It can climb into trees when nobody is looking and grow so top-heavy that it topples palms and breaks branches. We filled up several truck loads of cactus, leaving the space open for the native barbed-wire cactus to move in. It was hard work!

On the way home, we pass by a neat place in the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge called the "Blue Hole". It's a natural sinkhole in the limestone that has a lens of fresh water that sits atop a denser layer of salt water, creating a nice pond for wading birds, fish, and alligators!

Tuesday was another rough day, as we needed to survey a hardwood hammock in Marathon. Hammocks are the name for the dense climax forests, which have a high species diversity. The plants can grow quite dense, and walking through it is very challenging at times. Most hammocks are thought to be resilient to invasives, since the native vegetation grows so dense that it crowds out any newcomers. However, some invasive plants can make a strong presence in them, particularly after a storm creates a disturbance. We saw 10 different species of potentially aggressive invasives there: Peppers, papayas, asparagus fern, lead tree, seaside mahoe, coral vine, and others. Trying to treat all these areas was physically demanding, and at some point during the day, my sunglasses were ripped away and never seen again!

Fortunately, our last day before the holidays was picking periwinkles at the beach! This is a photo of my coworker, Toto, introducing himself to these endangered species. Periwinkles are very hardy and reseed themselves. They are pretty plants, but have no wildlife value. There were some key deer out to visit us at the beach too, along with someone's friendly parrot.

After that, it was a quick trip to pack and then join the throng of folks at the airport, all trying to do the same thing -- get home to family for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was in Texas, where winter was making its presence felt. After a short visit with lots of food, now I'm back, and ready for more!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Thoughts from the Swamp

It looks like I'll have to rely on weekly updates to this blog, since opportunities to write are few and far between.

Saturday, Nov 10 - Thoughts of Home

I wanted to thank the most important person in my life, my wife, who helped me with everything in making this adventure happen. There was scant time to prepare for this trip, so many things had to be resolved before leaving home for many months. I could not have made it here without her.

Sunday, Nov 11 - Pale Green Dot

During the long drive from Dallas to Tallahassee, I drove through heavily logged areas. This large scale impact of human activity is one reason why protecting our remaining biodiversity is so important. The last stronghold of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker was the Singer Tract in Lousiana, and an ornithologist had just enough time to describe the species before the forest was felled and the largest woodpecker in the USA plummeted towards extinction. It's reliance on the dynamics of old-growth forests was incompatible with unsustainable logging practices.

Another ghost of south-eastern woods is the Carolina Parakeet, the one and only parrot of the USA, which was last seen in 1918. This parakeet was an important seed disperser of the bald cypress and kept many weed species in check. Unfortunately, humans did not value those traits and deliberately destroyed them. Now that large areas of these former lands are dedicated to lumber and agriculture, and the even-age stands of young trees, often a monoculture stand, quickly begin to lose their diversity. Should a commonly occurring insect appear, such as a pine beetle, it causes severe damage because the woodland resembles a corn field more than the original robust and dynamic forest that has been lost. The predators have been extirpated and the other tree species are gone. The forest, and all that depend on it, suffer catastrophically.

Ecologists with a global view often compare this "Pale Blue Dot" to an airplane, with species forming components of the airplane. Some species are integral to the entire plane flying, and without understanding how the entire plane functions, it is a death wish to begin randomly destroying its components. How many rivets can be lost before the whole thing falls apart?

As I drive on, I see a bald eagle perched on the snag of a long-dead bald cypress in the Henderson swamp. I'm reminded that thoughtful action is a positive counter to these ecological issues, and I know why I'm leaving home... to make a difference.

Monday, Nov 12 - There and Back Again

I drive across the Everglades, and then the Keys. I see many birds; ibis, hawks, egrets, and even a wood stork. I reach the keys as the sun begins setting, and take a few photos. I have returned after a trip 19 years ago to dive the reefs. Now I'm back! I meet up with my new new team and some other nice folks for an evening of volleyball. We are graciously invited to sleep at someone's house; where we're fed pizza, beer, and a soak in the hot tub! What a great welcome!

Tues, Nov 13 - The Nature Conservancy

This is my first day as an employee of the organization I've been a member of for the past 15 years. I'm now officially an Exotic Strike Force team member. We're introduced to the friendly, highly motivated staff and fed more pizza! Our first task is to inventory the gear we will be using in our work: chainsaws, chippers, herbicides, mattocks, and information. Knowledge is power, and knowing which species are most invasive, where they are located, how to effectively treat them, and a strategy to accomplish it all is our most effective tool of all.

Wed, Nov 14 - Welcome to the Jungle

We begin the day with a quick drill into using the GIS system; Trimble units loaded with ArcView & custom TNC weed management software.

After that, we meet with Randy Grau, a Wildlife Biologist from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. We toured conservation land on Marathon Key that had a variety of invasive plants along the perimeter. The interior had yet to be properly sampled, so it is a work item of concern. The adjacent airport land contains excellent habitat, but also is becoming infested with some of the alien invaders.

Thurs, Nov 15 - Strike Force Mobilized!

After checking out on how to operate the chainsaws and monster chipper, we meet county botanists that manage many of the public lands. Most of these public lands are conservation easements that are created through a permit process for development which requires mitigation for loss of habitat. Tina & Gary are already on site along Hwy 1 at Ramrod key. Both of them are very knowledgeable about native and exotic plants, and they show us stands of healthy Lather Leaf trees that are growing up from an area that had been previously treated.

The problem is Lather Leaf can grow from just branches dropped on the ground & it also a prolific seeder. The berries can float on the ocean and colonize new beaches. We had to be very careful to pull them up by the roots and chip them into mulch. If the berries were turning red or brown, we needed to bag them so that the chipper wouldn't end up spreading their seeds across the site. These characteristics make Lather Leaf one of the most aggressive invaders, since hurricanes can actually result in greatly spreading it to many sites and regenerating from falling branches.

After that warm up, we visited another site that was infested with Brazilian Peppertree. This plant produces massive amounts of berries, and has no grazing pressure or diseases adapted to its presence, so it can quickly overtake a disturbed lot faster that native species. The sapwood is a pretty pink color. We work very hard and make a few mounds of mulch from them, but hardly make a dent in the strand.

The day was closed with an introduction to Mother-in-law Tongue. This is an ornamental that has escaped yards and now growing in tight clumps along wetlands. It propagates from a running tuber that must be dug from the ground. Nearby Lead Tree is yet another invasive, and we work to collect the seed pods from dispersing to adjacent lots.

Fri, Nov 16th - Winds of Change

A cool front blew in this morning. Even the key deer seemed to stay hunkered down to escape the cold in the dawn hours. We toured some areas along Big Pine with Ben from the F&W service. It's clear there is a lot of work to be done! Another afternoon of studying the GIS software and reviewing our employee benefits and responsibilities. We are graciously invited that evening to attend a party from a long-time resident and employee of the Key Deer Wildlife Refuge.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Protecting Biodiversity in the Florida Keys

It's that time of year; trees begin shedding leaves, birds begin their long migration, bears prepare for hibernation, and others change careers.

Ecology and other natural sciences are really interesting to me, so I was very excited about the prospect of working with the Nature Conservancy. I've been a member of that organization for many years, so it's great to finally be a part of the team and make a difference.

I have joined a team to combat the spread of invasive exotic plants in the Florida Keys. These invasive plants disrupt the natural ecology of the region, often resulting in a loss of biodiversity and weakening the ecosystem to resist diseases, storms, and other disruptions. An unhealthy island is a dying island, and something as simple as an eroding shoreline could smother the nearby coral reefs. One lesson that becomes obvious studying ecology: everything is connected!

I hope to use this blog to describe my new career as I move from the prairies of Texas to the islands of Florida and join forces to stave off what some paleontologists have referred to as The Third Event.

I'm busy packing today and leave tomorrow for my LONG 1500 mile drive out to the keys. My first day of work will be Nov 13th, where I'll meet my fellow employees and my new roommates in person for the first time. Our project is planned to continue until May 1st.

Well, I better get back to packing!