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!