Friday, February 22, 2008

By the Dark of the Moon

We had Monday off for President's Day! That made for a short work week, which was really nice. Unfortunately, that was also our last holiday until our job is over in mid April. Also, we need to attend an all-day first aid class this saturday on Stock Island, so this weekend is a bust.

It rained on us once again yesterday, but we persevered and nearly completed our sweeps through Stirrup Key, which is the sister tract to the Blue Heron refuge. One more transect, and a lot of lead-tree clearing, and we should be done with it. Lead tree is especially tedious to treat, as we must bag all the seed pods for each tree we cut down, and then spray the stump with double-strength Garlon (40%). To celebrate our victory, we spent the evening in Key West for the annual Walk on White Street, which is when the art galleries have an open-house with finger foods, and one gallery even had a string quartet playing.

Wednesday night, we stayed up late for the first Annual South-Florida Film Festival that was hosted at our house. We saw some local productions that I'm certain you've never heard about:
The first movie, "Wind Across the Everglades" had that canned Hollywood cast to the characters, but the plot could be considered way ahead of social issues, being filmed a decade before "Silent Spring" would be written, or for that fact, before most of the wildlife refuges in Florida had been created (Key Deer NWR was created the same year the film was released). It has some awesome quotable moments that are applicable to my new job, such as commenting on a dead man: "I'd say that boy had 'nough o' the glades."

The movie was fairly factual, however, including the deadly practice of tree-hugging the Manchineel, a tree the Spanish called "the little apple of death". It is so toxic that just the vapors from standing nearby can be deadly and scars from the sap may not heal, so it's a tree that likes to carve its initials in you. It is a member of the spurge Family, Euphorbia, and we often encounter its invasive relative, the Pencil Cactus Tree. Breaking off a branch or slicing the trunk of most spurges will cause white sap to squirt or ooze out, and this sap is toxic, and special care must be taken to never get it into your eyes. We have been trying to treat, unsuccessfully, a HUGE Pencil Tree with a trunk 3 feet in diameter with a veritable forest of branches. (photo of a Large Orange Sulphur on an endangered Semaphore Cactus blossum.)

The second movie we saw that night I nominate for the worst movie ever: "Nude on the Moon". Now, don't get me wrong, I'd call a movie with nice music and pretty women a form of art... but this movie attempts to write a plot and then make models act. The result is so stunningly stupid and then more stupid that it warps the fabric of space-time.

Meanwhile, back to reality. Our own job has it's comedic moments.
Some plants we find have a really funny names, like:

But getting back to matters of the moon, we were bummed the night of the film festival because it was cloudy and we missed the lunar eclipse. As if to recompense, Nature put on an amazing spectacle I was fortunate to witness: about 30 minutes after sunset yesterday, when the tide was high and the winds calm, the sheltered part of the bay began to glow. I counted about 50 individual, brightly lit, miniature whirling dervishes. Each were about an inch long and would swim furiously in tight circles for around 10 seconds, weaving a glowing web that would slowly fade back into the black water. It was the most amazing display I've seen of bioluminescent phenomenon. I went out again tonight, but only 9 worms were out dancing tonight. I tried taking a photo, but without proper equipment, it's kinda blurry. I think they are the art of Odontosyllis luminosa.

We finished up our RedCross First Aid & CPR training today too, so the weekend is going by fast. I'm ready for a day of rest, and daydreaming about nightly glowworms.

This coming week is National Invasive Weed Awareness Week! Go kill a bad plant to celebrate!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sea Turtles

Sorry for the delay in updating, but my PC's mobo is fried. I'll keep this update short n' sweet.

Some lame news: Americans, especially, kids arent getting out in nature as much anymore, according to this study.

Some great news: Christmas Mountains will become a park... hopefully a national park!!!!

Meanwhile, we had a rainy work week, getting rained out on two afternoons. All of us passed the fire-training pack test, which was carrying 45lbs in a backpack 3 miles in under 45 minutes. It's a tougher workout than I expected! We spotted a few saplings of Chinese Tallow that are likely the first documented case of them infesting the keys. Tallow is a big problem on mainland coastal states. Some birds like the oil-rich seeds and can spread them to other pristine areas, where the trees can displace coastal praries.

My wife and I toured beaches and gardens from Key West down to Bahia Honda. We also visited the Sea Turtle Hospital down in Marathon. We saw Sandwich terns fishing in the surf and an Ovenbird hopping around the shrubs.

One thing I found interesting at the Turtle Hospital is that sea turtles do not breath involuntarily; each breath is a conscious effort. This means they must be intubated when they are operated on, so that they don't sufficate when asleep. They can easily hold their breath for 30 minutes, and with preparation to dive, can hyperventilate to saturate their blood for much longer stays underwater. As an emergency to prevent drowning, their brains can even undergo anaerobic respiration for a short period of time! I suppose most air-breathing sea animals have this issue of breathing not being a reflex action - I remember reading that dolphins sleep half of their brain at a time, so one eye is closed while the other half of the brain stays awake - weird!

My roommate loaned me a great book called Voyage of the Sea Turtle, so I hope to learn more about their natural history.

Time for bed, as I'm already half asleep!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Life's a Beach

Another week has zoomed past. We finished up our transects in Blue Heron Hammock on Marathon Key. Wahoo! Then we started on the next parcel just down the street... but it's only about 1/3 the size, so should go faster, right? We're also finishing up our sweeps on Tropical Key colony here on Big Pine Key, so it'll be interesting to see where we go next.

For entertainment, my wife and I went off exploring parts of Big Pine Key, like the salt marshes along Long Beach to the south of the island. We saw an osprey and lots of other shore birds. Areas of the mangrove woods were infested with Australian Pine and Periwinkles, so we pulled a few invasive plants and planted a few red mangrove propagules in their place. We also picked up lots of trash that had washed ashore, mostly plastic bottles. A scary 5 gal container of paint thinner was almost rusted through, so we brought that in before it contaminated the mudflats.

The next day, we went down to Crane Point Nature Center, which has an excellent museum, aquarium, nature trails, and the Wild Bird Rehab Center. It felt kinda funny to PAY money to walk through the hammocks, but it was great learning a few more plants. Their hammock also had infestations, including Brazilian Pepper and Seaside Mahoe. It seems I'm losing the ability to just look at a forest and enjoy it for the trees; now I tend to analyze and assess it - trying to determine what might be wrong or doesn't belong.

That led to a discussion that often plagues nature preserves, especially small ones like those on the Keys: What is the "right" ecosystem that belongs here and how should it be managed? Usually that question is answered by a form of crisis management: Key Deer Refuge was created to protect the nearly extinct deer (only 26 were left when the refuge was founded 50 years ago). Therefore, any habitat change good for the Key Deer is the correct management choice. But what about Crane Point, that does not exist as the last stand? How would that hammock transition "naturally" without human influence? Or, considering Indian middens are present there, should management recreate "pre-Columbian" human influence? Many of these topics are argued about, such as weather coconut palms or opossums should be considered aliens or naturalized components of the ecosystem. Another more timely management question could be: how should this ecosystem be managed with respect to long term climate changes?

Then again, I suppose I've always had trouble enjoying the "peace and serenity" of nature. For example, most folks find beaches very soothing places to visit. I can too, so long as I just look out to the sea and think Deep Thoughts ('I love the ocean... it's so damn... so damn wet'). But the beach is not a peaceful place. Each tide often strands gobs of living debris, from seaweed to seashells... in varying stages of dessication, dying, or decomposing. Here is an Upside-down Jellyfish, turned right-side up and drying in the hot sun, but still pulsing. There is a log of driftwood with mussels 'gasping' for water. Isopods hop among the sargassum eating what they can, as crabs chase them and sandpipers chase crabs. Over all lurk the seagulls, snatching what they can for a snack. Even from a geological perspective, beaches are where land is giving way to sea, with many barrier islands drifting over time like the treads of a tank - like on Mustang Island, Texas - inexorably leaving great oak trees to fall into the sea on one side, and smothering an oyster reef on the bay side.

But these grinding wheels exist in all of nature, and I suppose I celebrate them in my own funny ways. I like to build sandcastles at low tide and watch them wash away, or visit abandoned homesteads and see what has changed, like crossing this orphaned bridge to Wahoo key. (We had fun doing a few geocaches and created a few waymarks too).

Tomorrow is my Pack-Test for fire training. I hope I'm up to it! I keep telling myself, it's just like hiking with the Sierra Club, trying to make it back to the trailhead before the bus leaves!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Fun in the Sun

This week went by fast, partly because it was just a 3-day workweek for us, but mostly because my wife flew down on Friday. We went straight from Miami International to the Royal Palm Visitor Center at Everglades National Park. There was a broad-shouldered hawk and yellow-rumped warblers right by the parking lot. I asked a ranger about the chance of seeing flamencos along the infamous Snake Bight Trail, but it is the wrong time of year for them.

From there, we went to the Anhinga trail, which is a really nice boardwalk through alligator infested marshes. Being cold-blooded, alligators do not need to eat nearly as often as warm-blooded predators. Therefore, large populations of them can be supported in the same space only a few Florida Panthers would be able to live. In a short half-mile hike, we must've seen around twenty 'gators, most over four feet in length.

True to the trail's name, we saw lots of Anhinga, some were total hams for the cam. We also saw several nests full of noisy chicks. Anhinga can be best differentiated from
Double-crested Cormorants by the silvery neck and shoulders, and also by the straight bill, compared to the gull-shaped hook at the end of cormorant bills.

Compare the photo of the friendly Double-crested Cormorant to this image of an Anhinga below, drying off his wings. The small bird in the foreground is a Little-blue heron, which I really enjoy watching because they are so very focused and methodical in their fishing tactics. They slowly canter their heads back and forth, always judging distance to strike. Near these two birds was a Purple Gallinule, which looks like a Coot that was dipped in psychedelic blue and green paint, with a bright red bill. We also saw his cute relative, the Moorhen, creeping carefully along the far bank.

There were many large Red-bellied and Softshell turtles swimming around. River otters are supposed to inhabit the area, but we didn't see any mammals about. One butteryfly that was locally common, but a rare sight outside of south Florida is this White Peackcock Butterfly. We also hiked the short half-mile Gumbo Limbo trail, which is named after a keystone species of the Keys hardwood hammocks.

After that, we pushed our truck hard to get over the rugged terrain of Rock Reef Pass, which the sign indicated had a peak elevation of 3 feet above sea level. There was another nice trail through the pine rocklands, and we saw this majestic Wood Stork haunting one of the boardwalk overlooks. Another awesome Florida rarity we saw was the Great White Heron. All this hiking had built up quite a thirst, so we pulled into Robert Is Here, kinda of a landmark fruitstand, and had an excellent Key Lime shake = yum. We managed to run a few geocaches just outside the park, but ran outta daylight.

The next day, we went to Key West. We toured the new NOAA Eco-Discovery Center, which is definitely worth the stop the next time you're in town. Mote's Marine Lab has several excellent aquariums there (including a mobile one!). It is also next door to Fort Zachary State Park, which is one of the nicest beaches on the island. We lounged in the sun and I snorkled amongst the rocky breakwaters that sheltered many pretty fish, inclusing a fairy wrasse and princess parrotfish. There's also an excellent geocache: Pirates of Fort Zachary. Towards the end of the day, we had to stop by the Southernmost Point of the USA (which has 3 geocaches nearby), and then back to the beach to watch the sunset.

Today, we hung out at Bahia Honda state park, which included more sun worshipping, snorkelling, and seeing a reef shark and huge sea turtle from the top of the bridge. We also saw palm warblers flying around, feeding on the bugs in the knicker beans, and a huge iguana guarding the visitor's center.

Time for bed; tomorrow comes bright & early!