Friday, March 28, 2008

Kegs n' Eggs

The cultural heritage of the Florida Keys is unique, and perhaps nothing underscores that quite as well as the Big Pine Key traditional Easter/Vernal Equinox celebration known as Kegs n' Eggs. The festivities begin on Saturday evening with egg decorating around a nice campfire. Many eggs picture neptunian images of turtles, fish, and dolphins, others have nautical themes of boats and pirates, and others convey important feelings, such as "Jesus loves ducks" and "Godzilla loves Jesus".

The eggs are carefully saved for the following day, which first begins with a wonderful potluck banquet served under the hot and obnoxiously bright sun. Fortunately, local medicinal lore includes a cure for such ailments; a beverage commonly known as the Mimosa. From there, boats (in various degrees of serviceability and seaworthiness, much like their passengers) are loaded up for an awesome cruise to the fabled Picnic Island.

Once at Picnic island, the main goal is to improve the buoyancy of the boats via unloading the cargo . To keep the weather nice, it is considered good luck to quaff Dark & Stormy's, a blend of dark rum and spicy ginger beer. Thence proceeds the celebrations of Dodge This, and the Airing of Joyfulness. Cute girls then begin lobbing decorated eggs into the ocean and the Games Meister calls for the hunt to begin! Snorkleing for eggs is as fun as it sounds, and certainly a time to remember.

Near Picnic island is small Bird island, which has a small colony of roosting juvenile Magnificent Frigate Birds. We also saw the remains of a dead sea turtle and some By-the-Wind Sailors floating past on the currents (which come in left and right handed forms). Festivities officially ended at sunset, but I needed to wait for our Zodiac and kayaker to come into dock, which took much longer than expected. We had our final celebration at Looe Key's Tiki bar, to close out Easter at Big Pine.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Carpe Schinus equestiofolia

Q: what is a pirate's favorite herbicide?

A: Garrrr-lon!

Ok, maybe i haven't found anybody to laugh at that joke yet, but give it time. This past week was spent working alongside Americorps and Alternative Spring Breakers, and we put em to hard work. The first day was mostly a 1-day bootcamp, where we taught them to identify the top 5 most-wanted plants (Mahoe, Pepper, Australian Pine, Colubrina, and Lead Tree) and then how we treat them. That afternoon, we worked together to clear the fireline around a house in the pine rocklands; removing fuel material such as dead palm fronds and deadwood.

The Americorps crew were hard workers; our first day it rained constantly, but we still had 4 chainsaws going all day long, slicing up peppers and then dragging them over to a giant chipper. The next day, we continued the chainsaw blitzkrieg, but instead of rain, it was hot and sunny. We were soon as soaked as if it were pouring rain, and a few folks hit the first stage of heat exhaustion. It was a tough two days, but we finished the job (and thereby rewarded with ice cream). Yeah - the perks in this job are just sublime.

We finished the next two days working on chainsawing + chipping Australian Pine. The spring breakers were very impressed with the powerful diesel chipper, and even named the beast. They invited us over to their camp for a really nice dinner of grilled food, volleyball, and a campfire. We wore out the chipper, the chainsaws, and ourselves. We worked nearly 50 hours that week of intense, hard labor, so it really is nice to have it behind us. You'd think that after such a hard week, we'd take the chance to rest up, but not so. We had a great time exploring Key West and kayaking over the weekend. I was able to get some nice photos Sunday kayaking near Picnic Key of some Magnificent Frigate Birds.

See ya next week!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Playa Grande

This week's title, "Playa Grande", translates to "The Great Beach" in spanish. I chose it because it's been a working metaphor for me lately; it's a powerfully emotional chapter in the book I'm reading (Voyage of the Sea Turtle), it's a beach in Costa Rica near my honeymoon, and by using a play on english words, I'm reminded of the grand play that Shakespeare equates with life. This photo is of my boss, Hau, working on Stirrup Key, where shortly afterwards we stumbled across the large bee-tree pictured below.

We spent several days in Tavernier Key, sweeping through state-managed land. Here we found large stands of Tamarind Trees, which have a dense wood and requires a chainsaw to girdle. The trunks are very straight, so in some ways it is a shame to treat them, but they were slowly spreading through the hammock and shading the understory with their broad canopy.

We also performed more chainsaw and chipping work on Big Pine Key, as a warm-up for this coming week when we host volunteers from Americorps and then Alternative Spring Breakers. This year is a record for how much volunteer help we have, so we want to make the best use of the people-power and take out some heavily infested stands of peppers. It's really excellent there's so much enthusiasm in students that choose to spend their precious free time on environmental projects!

Meanwhile, Topher's knee began giving him trouble this week. (Topher is the guy in the foreground, laughing with me at being totally surrounded by a toxic PencilTtree. Hopefully, it's nothing serious - the doctor just told him to take it easy to see if it'll heal up on it's own. We've been doing lots of crawling and stooping on the job, and all of us have had our shares of aches, cramps, cuts, bruises, and itches. It looks like I'm not immune to Poisonwood, after all, since after swamping up chainsaw debris, I began to have several small rashes appear.

Last week, I reported on how amphibians the world over are having trouble. Well, here's a happy tree frog that is doing quite well here in Florida - unfortunately at the expense of other native frogs he likes to eat. He's the Cuban Tree Frog, an is considered an alien invasive. I wonder if herons can be trained like falcons to hunt them down? They were likely introduced by escaping from irresponsible pet owners/traders, so please remember; Don't Let it Loose!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Time to Play - Name That Bird!

Ya'll are likely exhausted from your Invasive Weed Awareness Week fun, but I hope you still have some partying left in ya, because this year is also dedicated to... Year of the Frog! Amphibians are very sensitive to habitat changes and are being hit hard with wetland destruction, disease, and water pollution. Populations are drastically falling all around the world. So consider signing AARK's petition and getting involved in caring for your local water quality.

Meanwhile, I've been hard at work conducting research from my comfy beach towel. Can anyone help me identify the bird in the above photo? His legs were yellow and he liked to pump his tail as he scampered to n' fro.

This beach was formed on the eroding side of the island, since it did not have a protective flank of mangroves to shield it from the powerful waves. At one time, large Buttonwood trees and a paved road went along the shore, but now the sea has eaten away at both trees and asphalt.

The rocky shore had tidal pools that were full of small Limpets, tons of shells from tiny Augers, and larger Checker Nerites. On a small tidal marsh, i saw a congregation of Hermit Crabs that had taken up residence in colorful Whelk and Tulip shells. I never see such pretty shells on the beach, so I wonder where the hermits find them?

This work week we spent wrapping up transects on Stirrup Key, although we left behind a large amount of lead tree to be chainsawed, chipped, and bagged. We also revisited TNC's Torchwood Hammock Preserve on Little Torch Key. This preserve came very close to being a suburb, when a botanist visited a friend living nearby and noticed a potted cactus on her porch. Realizing it was the Semaphore Cactus, which was thought extinct, the botanist questioned where she found it, and then involved TNC. John Pescatello worked very hard to protect the preserve, and now the cactus is safe... except for encroaching invasive plants and the newly arrived Cactoblastis moth. The preserve is named after the most prevalent plant, the Torchwood Tree. Torchwood is notable for the oily resins, which make branches burn well as torches, as well as for making field workers crawl entire transects on hands and knees since it is such a dense shrub.

Another exciting event this week was the Pine Rockland Conference organized by TNC. My team was invited to attend the local field trips to learn about ecological management issues for the Pine Rocklands. I was able to meet several interesting people, most in this photo. Chris Bergh, standing in the back with a visor, is leading the field trip on TNC's Terrestris Preserve. My boss's boss, Alison Higgins, is in the blue bandanna to his right. The lady dressed in all brown to Chris's left, is Paige Schmidt, an NWR biologist, who carries the fate of the endangered Keys Marsh Rabbit in her hands. Tall men to the far right background are Park Wardens and Foresters from the Bahamas, whom the Conservancy is donating a fire engine too, since fire is such an important tool in maintaining the pine habitats. The big guy with the Night Heron feather stuck in his cap is the botanist for the Turks & Caicos Parks, who had the best quote of the day... replying to an innocent plant-id inquiry with a condescending 'back off, man, I'm a scientist' glare, "I don't do common names." I need to start taking fashion tips from Fire Crews, they always have awesome pictures and slogans.

The Terrestris Preserve is jokingly referred to as the "most frequently burned habitat in Florida". Being privately held land, it's much easier to obtain permit for controlled burns, and the small 20 acre plot was bought by the Conservancy specifically to help the NWR learn exactly how the Pine Rocklands respond to burns. Burning the NWR land is hotly contested on Big Pine Key, since residents fear the flames. Fortunately, nearby military bases have been allowed to burn and show that it does greatly benefit herbivores such as the Marsh Rabbit. Other topics of discussion included rising sea levels, hurricane damage, and other disturbances that must require active management.

One other fun thing I did this week was touring a very quirky historical site, The Perky Bat Tower, which is amazing to me that its wooden structure has survived 80 years of hurricanes. I'll have to make a pilgrimage to one of the other surviving Hygiostatic Bat Roosts in Texas and try to promote modern ones being constructed near Dallas!