Monthly Archives: November 2013

Sandhills in the Riverside Island area of Ocala National Forest

Restoring ecosystems, one part at a time

Sceloporus undulatus, the eastern fence lizard.  Members of the genus Sceloporus are fondly called scelops by herpers.

Sceloporus undulatus, the eastern fence lizard. Members of the genus Sceloporus are fondly called scelops by herpers.

November 24, 2013

The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.

  – Aldo Leopold, The Round River

I found a single eastern fence lizard at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge last Sunday.  I was doddering around the mix of habitats near the Myacca Parking lot, and noticed the scelop, who had already seen me, perched cryptically against bark in the open pine woods.   It seemed like a sighting worthy of commemorating to me.  Not because I found a scelop, though that by itself is cause for a bit of joy for me.  I don’t see fence lizards all that often, and when I do, it is usually in one of the relatively small number of places I’ve seen them before.   Once established, the populations I’ve had experience with seem pretty stable and predictable between years.

The Myacca sandhills colonizer.

The Myacca sandhills colonizer.

I remember seeing, and catching, my first Sceloporus when I was a kid in Northern Virginia.  I kept it as a “pet” for a few days, but couldn’t find a reliable source of food and let it go.  It was the only scelop I ever saw when I was a kid in Virginia, though I found one reliable population in Prince William Forest Park when I was in grad school there years later.   Lizards were pretty much an exotic mystery to me during my Virginia years.

I first begin seeing fence lizards regularly when I moved to Gainesville for grad school in 1979.   One of the entrances to San Felasco Hammock featured a tract of turkey oak sandhills with a somewhat accessible trail through much of it.  I spent a fair amount of time there in the 80’s, and saw fence lizards regularly.  Always in the same specific locations within this piece of sandhills.   So my impression of fence lizards is they are pretty much stay-at-home beasts, not venturing far from their relatively restricted home ranges.

Finding a single scelop at Woodruff seemed significant to me because of these spatial traits I had intuited.   I’d never seen one in this particular area before, though years ago there was a population located maybe a mile to the south, along one of the fire roads into the mixture of planted pine forest and xeric hammock.  Some big slabs of broken concrete, apparently from an old stock-dipping tank, provided physical shelter and thermal stability for the fence lizards, and I found them there nearly every time I made the hour-long hump down the soft sand fire road to get there.

On the other hand, the single lizard I found on Sunday is apparently a colonizer, a potential co-founder of a new population.  And that’s cool.

The planted pine forest near the Myacca parking lot in 1997.

The planted pine forest near the Myacca parking lot in 1997.

Twenty plus years ago when I first began visiting Woodruff, the area around what is now the Myacca parking lot was mostly even-aged planted slash pine.  It was uniform, lacking in structural diversity, and boring.  Sometime in the last decade, refuge management initiated a management program intended to restore this dense, monotonous pine stand into some semblance of the habitat type that existed there prior to anthropogenic disturbance – sandhills.

Fall in the restored sandhills of Lake Woodruff NWR

Fall in the restored sandhills of Lake Woodruff NWR

For me, that single fence lizard spoke volumes about the success of the sandhills restoration.  In the relatively few years since the stand was severely thinned and then subjected to regular controlled burns, this tract of pines has undergone an amazing transformation.   Vegetation diagnostic of sandhill habitats has begun to return and establish reproducing populations.   Wiregrass, Aristida stricta, one of the defining species of sandhills, is now present throughout and in the process of setting seed.  Ecologist Reed Noss argues persuasively in his splendid book Forgotten Grasslands of the South: Natural History and Conservation that while sandhills is sometimes thought of as a forest community, in reality it is a grassland that happens to feature sparsely scattered trees.   Other sandhill flora is especially evident in the fall, when the yellow and purple composites begin their spectacular flowering displays.   Liatris, Carphephorus, Coreopsis, Helianthus…these genera and more are now regular and conspicuous inhabitants of the diverse ground cover.   The change in visual appeal of this piece of habitat now compared to what it looked like prior to restoration is like the difference between a lump of coal and a sparkling diamond.

Wiregrass (Aristida stricta) is  a clump-forming grass that dominates the ground cover of mature sandhills, and requires recurrent fires to flower and set seed.

Wiregrass (Aristida stricta) is a clump-forming grass that dominates the ground cover of mature sandhills, and requires recurrent fires to flower and set seed.

Restoring a habitat to a site where it occurred in the not too distant past is sometimes made a bit easier by the presence of a substantial seed bank remaining from the original inhabitants.  Buried seeds from a variety of sandhill species that once flourished at the Myacca site may have contributed to some of the dramatic recovery and diversification of the flora.  But the lizards had to hoof it here from somewhere else.  And apparently found the restored sandhills to their liking.  Well done, Woodruff land managers and ecologists, well done.

Blazing star (Liatris sp) and Pityopsis blooming in the sandhills restoration plot

Blazing star (Liatris sp) in the sandhills restoration plot

The profound wisdom of Aldo Leopold quoted at the beginning of this piece was simplified and popularized by ecologist Paul Ehrlich in this dictum: “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts”.   I don’t think anyone would ever accuse Homo sapiens of intelligent tinkering with their planet, and indeed we haven’t saved all the parts.   Habitat restoration projects like the one at Woodruff are an admirable way to start putting some of the remaining parts back together in ecologically meaningful ways.

The sandhills restoration project at Woodruff is one facet of a larger effort to restore sandhills habitat throughout the uplands of central Florida, where it was once one of the predominant habitat types.  Outright destruction of habitat converting it to commmercial or agricultural uses, combined with decades of fire suppression, have contributed to a drastic decline in the extent of this characteristic and charismatic Florida plant community.   In the absence of regular (every one-several years) low-level fires, hardwood tree species eventually invade sandhills and replace it with hammock, given enough time.  Foresters at nearby Tiger Bay State Forest have been engaged in similar restoration projects along the Rima Ridge tract in the last several years.   Ambitious and enterprising Volusia County conservationist Steve Strawn is in the process of restoring a large tract of private land, used for decades for pasture and citrus farming, back to sandhills near DeLeon Springs.

Longleaf pines are the anchor species for the developing Volusia Sandhill Ecosystem Teaching Landscape at Stetson University.

Longleaf pines are the anchor species for the developing Volusia Sandhill Ecosystem Teaching Landscape at Stetson University.

Even my home institution is now engaged in sandhills restoration.  Stetson biologist Dr. Cindy Bennington and Gillespie Museum director Dr. Karen Cole are several years into an innovative project converting a former lawn of less than an acre into a sandhills teaching landscape.   No seed bank to help with establishment here – every plant species characteristic of a sandhills ecosystem will have to be reestablished by hand.  This site is so disturbed and modified that rumor has it an in-ground swimming pool is buried there somewhere.   Which makes it all the more impressive that in just a few years since the first plantings, the change in this small piece of land has been striking.   The educational impact on the many students who have contributed to this project and on those who will be exposed to this novel resource will surely surpass the ecological benefits resulting from restoration of this piece of land to its former state.

True success of the colonizing Myacca scelop will have occurred once the little hatchlings like this guy start showing up there.

True success of the colonizing Myacca scelop will have occurred once the little hatchlings like this guy start showing up there.

The jewel in the crown of the teaching landscape could well be colonization of this patch by Sceloporus undulatus.   Doesn’t seem likely, though; the nearest populations are at least several miles away, and the little squamates would have to brave numerous road crossings just to reach the site.   Maybe, someday, I’ll have to give them a little help getting there.

Ephemeral flatwoods pool on Dark Entry Road

Gray day, brown birds

November 15, 2013

Mesic flatwoods with a recently cleared swath full of senescent redroot (Lachnanthes caroliana)

Mesic flatwoods with a recently cleared swath full of senescent redroot (Lachnanthes caroliana)

There was a sliver of open sky hinting at a glorious sunrise on the horizon when I left home, but by the time I got to Tiger Bay, no more than fifteen minutes later, it was a memory.  Leaden skies, with no hint of optimism about them.  Skies like these could have come straight from the prose of The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s minor masterpiece.   Well hell, they’re all masterpieces, aren’t they, minor or major.  Who am I to label?  A compelling novel whose main character is a depraved necrophiliac engaging in Davian behavior, including the cave – are you kidding me?  Child of God indeed, coming soon to a theater near you.

So as I drove up the charming brick road leading into the north entrance of Tiger Bay State Forest, I was a bit bummed.  My mellow had been slightly harshed.   No glorious early morning light to be had this morning.  I was questioning whether it would brighten enough for any photography at all. Melanins were to be the theme of the day.  Melanins are the class of pigments that give vertebrates their neutral tones; in the feathers of birds, they span the range from blacks and grays to rusty browns and everything in between.  The skies were seemingly tinged with melanins this morning, and as it turned out, the great majority of birds I saw followed the sky’s lead.

The gray, cool conditions suppressed most insect activity.  Even these little bumblebees were moving incredibly slowly as they nectared on these asters.

The gray, cool conditions suppressed most insect activity. Even these little bumblebees were moving incredibly slowly as they nectared on the asters.

At the intersection of Gopher Ridge Road and Dark Entry Road (oooh, spooky!), in the southeast quadrant, there is a stand of maybe a couple hundred acres that was modified several years ago by the foresters at Tiger Bay.  This area, formerly dense young wet flatwoods, had been most notable to me for years because of the large numbers of hooded pitcherplants, Sarracenia minor, that flowered each spring along the roadside ditches and depressions.  It was never particularly remarkable to me for birds until the land managers severely thinned the pines and cleared most of the thick undergrowth.  Now, several years later this stand has the feel of a pine savannah, and is often loaded with great birds, including red-headed woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, Bachman’s sparrows, northern flickers, and so on.  It’s a wonderful demonstration of the power of effective habitat management.  But this morning it was as empty as McCarthy’s road.   I heard a sedge wren chitting from a dense clump of broomsedge and forbs, but the light was so dismal I didn’t even think about photography.

Dark Entry Road

Dark Entry Road

Further east on Dark Entry, past the savannah, the young flatwoods become denser.   But the foresters have been at work in that section recently as well, thinning and opening up the understory in patches.  At one of these patches, a few acres of cleared land now supporting a successional field, I found a large stand of Sesbaenia vesicaria, a weedy legume that can get 6-8’ tall in good conditions. It’s not too dense a thicket for seeing birds, but provides enough cover that even skulky birds feel secure there.   A bit of chattering told me a house wren was in the thicket, so I began a bit of low-level pishing and playback, using just a chickadee scold call.   Response was slow to develop, but within a couple of minutes I saw a couple of birds moving around the back of the thicket, tending in my direction.  One seemed a bit dark for a house wren, but I didn’t pay it much attention at first. Everything seemed dark this morning.  Eventually it moved to an only semi-obscured perch and I was able to get bins on it.

Lincoln's sparrow.

Lincoln’s sparrow.

Shock.  And delight.  It wasn’t a wren.  It was a Lincoln’s sparrow.  This is a bird I see on very rare occasions.  I had never seen one before I came to Florida, though they pass sparingly through northern Virginia, where I began birding.  I had lived and birded in Florida for over 20 years before I saw my first one here.  It wasn’t until I began doing weekly bird surveys at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area back in 2000 that I saw my first.  Lincoln’s sparrows were regular, but rare, migrants and winter residents in the wet thickets of Emeralda; I saw them on perhaps 10 occasions there during the 7 years I did censuses.  I had only seen one outside of Emeralda, and that was also at Tiger Bay, in a thicket by the canal that parallels the South Entrance road that takes you to Rattlesnake Pond.   Thickets and nearby water seem to be a common theme to all of those sightings.  Similarly, this morning’s LISP was in the Sesbaenia thicket, which was less than 20 yards away from several small depression ponds.

Lincoln's sparrow

Lincoln’s sparrow

What an elegant little sparrow.  But what a recluse.  That was my experience at Emeralda as well; rarely did I get unobstructed views or photo ops with Lincoln’s.   After thoroughly intoxicating myself with lovely binocular views of this dapper dude, my thoughts turned to shooting it, if only for documentary purposes.  Didn’t seem likely, as he was still way too distant for decent shots, and completely or partially blocked by vegetation about 90% of the time.  Eventually he did give me a couple of distant and brief photo ops, and in the last, he was completely exposed on an open perch surrounded by maidencane.  Not the frame-filling fantasy shots I had visualized (yeah, like those visualized fantasy shots ever happen), but good enough, with massive cropping and consequent low image quality, for decent record shots. I was as happy as a little girl.  The gray morning was now glowing.

Seeing sparrows well, and in particular the less common sparrows, has that effect on me.  Sparrows are tough.  Seeing many of the wintering Florida sparrows clearly or regularly often involves slogging through dense cover to flush them out.   My people don’t do slogging through dense cover well.   Seeing the rarer sparrows is both difficult and exhilarating for me.   One of the high points among my Florida birding experiences was the cold, dank, drizzly January morning that birding legend John Puschock took me to a weedy field near Bull Hammock at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area and flushed both LeConte’s and Henslow’s sparrows, affording me killer views of both species.  Two lifer sparrows within minutes of each other.  Awesome.

The LeConte's sparrow John Puschock found for me.  Scanned from a badly underexposed slide.

The LeConte’s sparrow John Puschock found for me. Scanned from a badly underexposed slide.

So this morning’s Lincoln’s sparrow didn’t quite reach that level of excellence, but it was pretty damned fine. It’s kind of a funny feeling seeing what you know will be the best bird of the day the very first thing.  Kind of a release – no matter what I was to see or not see the rest of the morning, I already had that peak experience under my belt for the day.   And in fact I didn’t see anything else as buzzworthy as the Lincoln’s sparrow, but I saw lots of other cool birds.   Even without the Lincoln’s sparrow, it would have been a totally fulfilling communion, which I should know by now.  It’s always worthwhile going out to look at the real world.

House wren

House wren

Melanin-dominated birds were the order of the day.   Leaving the Dark Entry pine savannah, I found the sedge wren I had heard earlier, along with a buddy.   Light still sucked, but they teased me for quite a few minutes with brief glimpses and ephemeral open perching.  As it turned out, sedge wrens were widespread in Tiger Bay this morning.  I saw or heard them at nearly every stop with appropriate habitat.  Along with their even drabber, browner cousins the house wrens.

Sedge wren

Sedge wren

A bit later, in one of the large clearcut tracts of drier flatwoods on the east portion of Bear Swamp Road, I found more LBJs.   I had taken my Ornithology class to this section of Tiger Bay earlier in the week, and we had found both chipping sparrows and a coquettish song sparrow in the dense successional tangle of the clearcut.  The song sparrow taunted us at great length, moving all around the group while chimping constantly, but giving only the most fragmentary of views.   He was still in the same area this morning, still chimping, and still staying mostly hidden.  A couple of congeners, however, were a bit more obliging. Two swamp sparrows ventured quite close to me, though they never fully came out into the open.   I think swamp sparrows are the most understatedly handsome of our common winter sparrows, but getting clean BOAS-style portrait shots of them is no easy feat.  If that’s what you’re in to.

Swamp sparrow

Swamp sparrow

By now, it was nearing 10 a.m., and the sky was starting to spit.  Work beckoned.  Which might give the erroneous impression that I actually work for a living.   Gray and now damp with declining prospects for the near future.  But what did I care?  The little brown birds had given me all that I could have hoped for and more.

The most colorful bird I photographed this morning. Nonetheless this male common yellowthroat chose a lovely brown background for his portrait.

The most colorful bird I photographed this morning. Nonetheless this male common yellowthroat chose a lovely brown background for his portrait.

EATO_11102013-00_L George CA

Remembering old friends

Saltbush (Baccharis halimifolia) blooming in the mesic flatwoods of Lake George Conservation Area

Saltbush (Baccharis halimifolia) blooming in the mesic flatwoods of Lake George Conservation Area

November 10, 2013

True fall tends to make me ruminisce (a hybrid mental process involving both reminiscence and rumination), often tending towards the melancholy.  True fall is for me defined by two things:  the point in time when I begin to perceive a significant change in temperature, cross-factored with a decided shift in the bird fauna from the transient migrants towards winter residents.   The indicator event of the latter is for me is the ascendance of the yellow-rumped warblers¸ the fourth wave of migrant warblers, to numerical dominance.  I encountered both those indicators this morning when I cruised Lake George Conservation Area, just west of Seville.  So it’s not surprising that a lot of stuff I experienced today brought back memories.   Most good, some bittersweet.

After a spectacular mackerel sunrise that I was unable to capture on sensor because I failed to follow Skeate’s 6 P’s (prior planning prevents piss-poor performance), I reached the entrance to LGCA at Truck Trail 2 a bit after sunrise.  The spectacular sunrise soon turned to a mostly overcast, dully-colored kind of early morning.   Bird activity was notably lacking at first light.   At my first stop, unproductive for birds, I found a jaundiced-looking lynx spider in a fruiting branch of beautyberry that seemed photoworthy.  As happens nearly every time I do anything related to spiders, I thought of my graduate school friend Craig Hieber, who taught me a significant proportion of what I know about Florida spiders.

Green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans)  on American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

Green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) on American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

Craig was a great blond bear of a man, with a huge appetite for life and a big, big heart.  He was also a spider fanatic.  We spent many enjoyable hours in the field cross-pollinating each other with inane trivia from our own area of expertise.  I’ll never forget the time Craig hummed to a Neoscona in its web, and by hitting some particular frequency to which that species is attuned, caused the spider to snap immediately into an alert, forelimbs-raised hunting posture. A revelation for me about spider behavior.  Craig died unexpectedly several years ago, far too young.  I remember feeling like I’d been stabbed in the heart when I first learned of his death.  But I remember him and the cool stuff he taught me all the time.  I think it was Alice Sebold who wrote in The Lovely Bones something to the effect that when you have a memory of someone who has died it means that person’s spirit or essence is near you.  If that’s true, Craig spends a lot of time hanging out around me.

Craig Hieber and a nesting soft-shelled turtle we found on one of our outings.

Craig Hieber and a nesting soft-shelled turtle we found on one of our outings.

Neoscona crucifera, the spider Craig sang to.

Neoscona crucifera, the spider Craig sang to.

The other old friends that I remembered this morning didn’t bring such a mixed bag of feelings.  They were mostly the winter resident birds that have recently begun to dominate the avifauna.  I love seeing transient migrants simply because of their evanescence.  My encounters with the transients are too brief to feel like I really grok them though.  With the winter birds, it’s different.  They are around for a good four to five months.  I get to see them and interact with them over and over again during their winter stay.  And for some of the more common ones, I get more of a visceral feel for what they are and what they do. Whatever the hell that means.

Ruby-crowned kinglet, one of the winter residents that defines the onset of true fall.

Ruby-crowned kinglet, one of the winter residents that defines the onset of true fall.

Yellow-rumped warblers were the most abundant passerines of the morning.  One flock contained several dozen birds.  They just continued to drop out of the skies.  As is typical of my experience with the butterbutts, they are dedicated mobbers, but relatively shy and skittish compared to most other mobbing warblers.  In the large flock, not a one came down from the treetops.  When the occasional bird does approach more closely, the slightest movement is all it takes to send the lot of them scattering for cover.  Still, it’s just very cool to see flocks containing that many passerines again.  One of the things I really like about the winter bird fauna.

Every afternoon from about this time of fall until spring migration, the yellow-rumps move through my yard about an hour or so before sunset.  Flocks of anywhere from a half-dozen to 30 or more will appear from nowhere and glean the oaks and cherries in my yard.  They usually stay a half-hour or so, then move on.  Regular as clockwork.  Where are they coming from, and where are they heading to roost?   They clearly have a schedule to keep.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are another winter friend I love seeing again each fall.  I had seen a few sapsuckers in the previous couple of weeks with the Ornithology class, but hadn’t got a chance to watch one at length before this morning.   I don’t think I can say I really grok sapsuckers yet, but I’m getting closer.  Such a recluse, for a woodpecker.  Maybe that’s one of reasons I like them so much – the whole birds of a feather thing.   All of our other woodpeckers are pretty good at making a dramatic entrance when they want to – a big power glide and swoop onto an open trunk is pretty hard to miss.  Sapsuckers may be able to do that, but they don’t seem to want to very often.  They just kind of slip in quietly most of the time, and all of a sudden they are there.   And disappear just as quickly.   Their presence is better judged by their works.  In some habitats, sapsucker drill holes are everywhere.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker at Lake George Conservation Area.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker at Lake George Conservation Area.

Can plants be friends? Hell yes they can.  As the great Zappa once wrote, “Call any vegetable, call it by name. Call one today, when you get off the train.  Call any vegetable, and the chances are good  That the vegetable will respond to you”.   So I was thrilled to see big lavender swaths of my old friend Garberia in the flatwoods this morning.  I think of Garberia as a scrub plant, but there they were in the flatwoods looking happy as clams.   Not only is Garberia a lovely plant as judged by the standards of the pure botanist, it is notable for other less obvious reasons.  It’s a very non-composite-like composite to me, which is especially welcome at this time of year when composites of all kinds are going nuts.  Garberia seems to me to be a composite that would really rather be an ericad.   So it has that going for it, which is nice.

Syrphid fly partaking of the pleasures of the botanical hussy Garberia heterophylla

Syrphid fly partaking of the pleasures of the botanical hussy Garberia heterophylla

But it’s also something of a whore for pollinators.  Anybody will do, it seems.  I have, of course, fallen victim to one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia”, but only slightly less well known is never make the assumption that all insects visiting a flower are pollinators.  Still, given the relatively open flower morphology and the long easily accessible stamens and style, it doesn’t seem like total heresy to suggest that most of the flies, bees, wasps, skippers and other butterflies swarming over these lush Garberia flowers might effect pollination to some degree.

Buckeye at Garberia.  Lake George Conservation Area

Buckeye at Garberia. Lake George Conservation Area

Skipper at Garberia.  This was one of the happier skippers I saw visiting the flowers.

Skipper at Garberia. This was one of the happier skippers I saw visiting the flowers.

The highlight of the activity at the Garberia patch was provided by another old friend, a Carolina anole.  This one was creeping around the foliage below the big flower heads, his pie-hole crammed with a skipper he had recently snagged from above.  The stink eye he was giving me as he tried to figure out what to do with his mouthful of chitin suggested that his thoughts towards me weren’t as fraternal as mine towards him.  At least at that moment.

Green anole (Anolis carolinensis) scarfing one of the less happy skippers I saw at Garberia.

Green anole (Anolis carolinensis) scarfing one of the less happy skippers I saw at Garberia.