Category Archives: Reptiles

The right front leg was the preferred point of attack for the little garter.  Most of his efforts to swallow the frog started here.

What was that snake thinking?

September 6, 2016

I’m intrigued and mostly mystified by the cognitive processes going on in the minds of “lower” animals like snakes.  Observing snakes in captivity and in the wild has at times left me with the impression that snakes aren’t the greatest thinkers on the planet;  one mutt rat snake that I had for years tried on several occasions to swallow itself, beginning with its tail.  It was so determined to self-ingest that I kept a wash bottle of ethanol nearby for those suicide attempts; a little squirt in the corner of his mouth was apparently distasteful enough that he would rapidly egest that part of his nether half already swallowed.  Which could be as much as a quarter or more of his body length.   That couldn’t have ended well.    But somehow he survived the multiple auto-cannibalistic episodes.

Arboreal rat snakes, like these black rat snakes (Pantherophis allegheniensis) spend much of their days watching the comings and goings of their fellow creatures. Then go out and eat them.

Arboreal rat snakes, like these black rat snakes (Pantherophis allegheniensis) spend much of their days watching the comings and goings of their fellow creatures. Then go out and eat them.

On the other hand, watching the intent, patient gaze of some of my big yellow rat snakes, who would bask immobile and watch me for hours made me wonder about the amount of information these big arboreal snakes might be soaking up.   Research on gray rat snakes (Pantherophis spiloides) in the southeast reveals a sophisticated learning lifestyle; they spend hours to days watching their surroundings from an aerial lair, in the process detecting and remembering the presence of rodent runs, birds’ nests, and other potential prey (Mullin and Cooper, 1998).  When they are hungry, they dash out of the pad to pick up some groceries.   That’s pretty amazing behavior for a snake.

What is this black racer (Coluber constrictor) thinking about? If I had to guess, I'd speculate that these guys are among the more intelligent of snakes

What is this black racer (Coluber constrictor) thinking about? If I had to guess, I’d speculate that these guys are among the more intelligent of snakes

How do they know how to do this?  It’s hard to know what’s going on in the minds (do non-human animals have minds, or just brains?) of animals from the perspective of a mechanistic understanding of cognitive processes.   Neurobiologists and animal behaviorists just don’t know that much about some very basic aspects of mental functions. How and how much do animals learn?  Do animals think?   Can they reason and perform other logical operations?  Do they have emotions and self-awareness? Do individual animals have distinct “personalities”?   Do they interact with other members of their species based on what they think is going in in the other animals’ thought processes, the so-called theory of mind?    These are very difficult processes to study in animals, who selfishly refuse to describe to us what is going on in their heads.   Conclusions about mental processes must be inferred indirectly from specific behaviors exhibited under controlled lab conditions.

Our lack of a deep understanding of the mental capabilities of our fellow animals has one upside – it allows me to speculate foolishly and egregiously about the thought processes of snakes, which I will do below.   The thought processes in question stem from my observations of one of the most audacious and single-minded behaviors I’ve ever seen by a wild snake.

Around 10 yesterday morning, I had nearly completed the 11-mile Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive.  I was traveling west on Interceptor, just south of the sod fields that had been producing buff-breasted sandpipers and some other notable birds in the last few days.   I had the road to myself, so I decided to do a 180 and park my car facing east on the north shoulder of the road so I could scan the flooded fields in their entirety from the driver’s side.   As I turned to the right to begin the 3-point turnaround, I saw a small dark snake with rapidly twitching tail near the road’s edge on my left.

The tail twitches that alerted me to the presence of this snake were part of a larger whole-body effort to drag this frog off the road.

The tail twitches that alerted me to the presence of this snake were part of a larger whole-body effort to drag this frog off the road.

A snake in the road with twitching tail usually means a snake that has been recently run over, a snake in the last throes of death.  I was prepared to be bummed.   The unnecessary death of any snake saddens me, more so than any other kind of animal, for reasons I don’t fully understand.   No bummer for me on this day, though.   The little serpent, a young eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), was very much alive, and intent on completing a bold and ambitious task.

A closer look at the little garter in the blonde shell-rock road revealed the pale underbelly and protruding viscera of some medium-sized frog that had been run over and flattened some time before.  The little snake was a bit thin, and well under 10”.  The anuran was at least 3-4 times the body weight of the snake, but that disparity didn’t seem to deter him at all.   As I watched, and photographed, for the next several minutes, the little garter repeatedly tried to dislodge the frog from the road surface and drag it back to the cover of the road margin.   He made no progress at all.   The next plan was to try to ingest the frog in situ, beginning with a foreleg.   No self-respecting, experienced garter snake would try to swallow an ungainly, long-limbed prey item like a frog by beginning anywhere other than the nose, but this little garter’s mother never taught him that trick.

The right front leg was the preferred point of attack for the little garter. Most of his efforts to swallow the frog started here.

The right front leg was the preferred point of attack for the little garter. Most of his efforts to swallow the frog started here.

He got pretty far up the leg. The shoulder was a fantasy.

He got pretty far up the leg. The shoulder was a fantasy.

Well that's not working. Let's think about this.

Well that’s not working. Let’s think about this.

Didn't I hear something once about starting at the head?

Didn’t I hear something once about starting at the head?

On a couple of occasions, the little guy backed off, looked around, took a deep breath, and thought things over.   And then returned to the task with renewed vigor.  Ultimately he admitted defeat and slithered back into cover without his big dead frog.

What was that snake thinking during this encounter, if anything?  Venturing onto the uniformly light-colored road surface was a ballsy move for a small snake that could be eaten by any of several dozen potential predators.   And fast, Jack.   Any of the common egrets and herons would have been on that snake like ugly on an ape; even a big passerine like a jay or thrasher would have had no problem at all dispatching that little guy.

Any of the herons or egrets would gladly scarf a little garter snake. This great blue has snagged a striped crayfish snake (Regina alleni) much larger than my little garter.

Any of the herons or egrets would gladly scarf a little garter snake. This great blue has snagged a striped crayfish snake (Regina alleni) much larger than my little garter.

Risk-prone snakes reap the big rewards some times, but they can also pay a heavy cost.  Several years ago while returning from Emeralda Marsh on County Road 42 through Lake County, I found a multiple herp fatality on the roadside.   A road-killed southern toad lay alongside a DOR cottonmouth.   I’m quite sure the toad died first; the cottonmouth was scavenging when it too was hit by a car.  No guts, no glory.

Looked like an easy meal, but it didn't work out that way for this cottonmouth trying to scavenge a road-killed toad.

Looked like an easy meal, but it didn’t work out that way for this cottonmouth trying to scavenge a road-killed toad.

One possibility is that the snake was behaving entirely according to a reflexive behavioral sequence genetically encoded and neurologically hard-wired.    The sensory cues emanating from that dead anuran were probably intense; garter snakes and other members of the genus Thamnophis are heavily reliant on olfactory cues during prey search.   For all I could tell, that dead frog was billowing huge ropy plumes of frog essence, a scent so overwhelming that the poor little snake was pulled in unwittingly and unthinkingly as if by a tractor beam.

I am powerless to stop this behavior, the little garter didn't think to itself.

I am powerless to stop this behavior, the little garter didn’t think to itself.

On the other hand, what if snakes have an active mental life, and some form of information processing that might approach conscious thought processes?   Was that exposed little snake frightened?   Was he figuratively strutting like Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNbZcT8RXgE), thinking “That’s right, I’m bad”?   (Remember what I said earlier about foolish and egregious speculation?)  I have to think the behavior of that particular snake was in some respects remarkable – not every young garter snake of comparable size would attempt to consume such a massive prey item.   In the parlance of behavioral biology, that snake was particularly risk-prone, placing himself at increased risk of predation to get the big payoff.   There are certainly other garter snakes out there that would exhibit a more risk-averse approach, and never leave the cover of the roadside.   Where do these differences in behavior among individuals come from?   Do they reflect genetic differences in programmed behavior, or are they the result of prior experience (learning)?

I'm going to figure this out eventually. If only that butt-ugly stinking primate in the blue car would piss off and leave me alone.

I’m going to figure this out eventually. If only that butt-ugly stinking primate in the blue car would piss off and leave me alone.

So that’s the meaningless navel-gazing section of this post.   The other really fascinating thing about this observation was the behavior itself – consumption of carrion by an animal that is usually thought of as a pure predator.   As it turns out, consumption of carrion by snakes isn’t all that uncommon.  In a 2002 Herpetologica paper, Devault and Krochmal review the literature on scavenging by snakes, and suggest it is more widespread than previously thought, and in fact may be an integral part of the foraging strategy of some species of snakes.   Scavenging is particularly frequent in snakes that rely heavily on odor to find prey (like the thamnophines) and in pit-vipers.  Most pit vipers normally consume dead prey – they wait for the animal they have envenomated to die before attempting to ingest it.   Often an active prey item may travel a considerable distance before expiring, with the snake eventually tracking (by odor) the envenomated prey item.  Consuming carrion that they happen to encounter while tracking prey makes a lot of sense for such a predator.

In this scan from an old transparency, a pigmy rattlesnake approaches (and eventually consumed) a green tree frog that has long ago died from envenomation. It's entirely possible that this frog was killed by a different snake than this one.

In this scan from an old transparency, a pigmy rattlesnake approaches (and eventually consumed) a green tree frog that has long ago died from envenomation. It’s entirely possible that this frog was killed by a different snake than this one.

The authors found evidence for scavenging in 35 species of snakes in 5 families, dominated by the pit-vipers and fish-eating snakes, which often are heavily dependent on olfactory cues.  Their review turned up scavenging by two species of Thamnophis (T. proximus, the western ribbon snake, and T. sirtalis, the eastern garter snake).   Curiously, both records of scavenging by garter snakes were observations of snakes feeding on birds.

It always comes back around to birds, doesn’t it?

References

DeVault, T. L., & Krochmal, A. R. (2002). Scavenging by snakes: an examination of the literature. Herpetologica58(4), 429-436.
Mullin, S. J., & Cooper, R. J. (1998). The foraging ecology of the gray rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta spiloides)-visual stimuli facilitate location of arboreal prey. The American midland naturalist140(2), 397-401.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sistrurus miliar_080712_5_L Woodruff NWR

Learning snakes

August 20, 2016

As naturalists, what we observe and learn is directly connected to how we look.  I spent more than a decade involved in field and laboratory studies of dusky pigmy rattlesnakes (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri), during which time I had the great fortune to observe thousands of these charming little pit vipers in both natural and captive environments.   Still, during all that time studying pigmies, I never witnessed a behavior I was able to watch yesterday morning while road-cruising the forest roads of Ocala National Forest.

Early morning in the scrub with the birds, later with the snakes. Life is good.

An early morning in the scrub of Ocala National Forest, first spending time with the birds, and later with the snakes. Life is good.

Most of my field observations of pigmies in years past took place during systematic group censuses of our primary study population.   A group of dedicated snake searchers moved slowly through the hammock habitat, looking for the sometimes abundant pigmies, most of which were individually marked as part of a long-term mark-recapture study.  The premium was on finding as many snakes as possible during the census, and measuring characteristics of the found snakes, such as location, substrate, length, weight, and so on.  The upside of this approach is you get to see a lot of snakes.   The downside is that you don’t get to watch individual snakes very long before you’re on to the next one.

This adult dusky pigmy rattlesnake is in a typical foraging coil.

This adult dusky pigmy rattlesnake is in a typical foraging coil.

Not that watching individual snakes is a very productive use of time, in general.   Pigmy rattlesnakes normally don’t do much most of the time.  They are classic ambush predators, and will sometimes remain in a foraging coil without moving for days at a time.   The majority of snakes found are coiled and waiting for some unsuspecting frog or lizard to foolishly venture within striking range.    The frequency of pigmy rattlesnake movement varies seasonally; in winter and summer months, only 5-10% of snakes found are moving (May et al., 1996).   The remaining 90-95% are in foraging coils.  The proportion of moving snakes rises to as high as 15% in spring and fall, but at any time of year, most of the snakes that are out and about (as opposed to sheltering under cover) are immobile.    So watching a foraging pigmy rattlesnake is, for the most part, a lot like watching paint dry.   Observing the snakes that were moving when first seen isn’t much more productive; they are nearly always aware of the human observer’s presence, and when they resume movement, their goal is mostly to get to cover and out of sight.

Pigmy rattlesnakes move relatively infrequently most of the time.

Pigmy rattlesnakes move relatively infrequently most of the time.

Yesterday morning began not long after sunrise, as I started the first day of data collection for my sabbatical research.  The focus of this study is bird behavior, and in particular the effectiveness of different auditory cues in eliciting mobbing responses of passerine birds.   Snakes were not the furthest thing from my mind (they rarely are), but I wasn’t thinking as much about snakes as I was about birds.  A couple of hours of playback trials occupied me for the early part of the morning, and produced a few cool birds – lots of northern parulas, several prairie and yellow-throated warblers, a couple of FOS ovenbirds, and at least a half-dozen summer tanagers.  In addition to the neotropical migrants, year-round residents were in evidence everywhere – lots of Florida scrub jays, including many scruffy gray-headed youngsters, tons of towhees, and frequently heard, infrequently seen white-eyed vireos.  By 9:45 or so it was hot enough that bird activity was on the wane, so I gave up the structured protocol of research and switched to random road-cruising fun.

Yellow-throated vireo and yellow-throated warbler, traveling together in the scrub. Mixed-species flocks consisting of up to a dozen species are the basic functional unit of mobbing behavior.

Yellow-throated vireo and yellow-throated warbler, traveling together in the scrub. Mixed-species flocks consisting of up to a dozen species are the basic functional unit of mobbing behavior.

A couple of distant, rapidly moving black racers were the only snakes I found crossing Forest Road 33; at about 10:30 I headed east on FR 46 towards its intersection with SR19, and then home.  It was warm enough I didn’t expect to see much bird or other wildlife activity, but I was ready to be pleasantly surprised.  I saw a bear on this road around mid-day last fall, so anything is possible.

A scrub lizard, Sceloporus woodi, led me to the baby pigmy, much like the African honeyguide leads people to beehives.

A scrub lizard, Sceloporus woodi, led me to the baby pigmy, much like the African honeyguide leads people to beehives.

I slowed a bit at the Pat’s Island Trailhead parking lot, and when I did so, I saw a lizard dart from the soft sand at the road’s edge towards cover.  He stopped briefly in the open, and I maneuvered my big lens into position to scan the ground for the saurian.  I found him, briefly, before he retreated fully into cover and out of sight.  It was a male scrub lizard (Sceloporus woodi), a Florida endemic that, though locally abundant, always gets me a little hyped when I get the chance to photograph one.   Which this guy refused to give me.   But while scanning the ground for the cryptic scelop, I saw something else I would have completely missed with a naked eye view – a neonate pigmy rattlesnake stretched out on the sand and debris.  The small size and bright yellow tail identified it as a YOY – a young-of-the-year snake that was almost certainly less than a month old, perhaps no more than a few days old.  It still had only the original button that rattlesnakes are born with, meaning it had shed its skin only once (the post-natal shed, which comes 2-4 days after birth and leaves the snake with a single rattle segment).  His second shed would add the first interlocking rattle segment below the button, and and would allow this snake to actually rattle, sort of, if it chose to.  Which they rarely do.   Pigmy rattlesnakes are kind of an embarrassment to the whole notion of rattling.

My first view of the baby pig.

My first view of the baby pig.

The "rattle" of my baby rattler. No moving parts - he couldn't rattle if he wanted to. Which he didn't.

The “rattle” of my baby rattler. No moving parts – he couldn’t rattle if he wanted to. Which he didn’t.

As is typical of pigmies that are detected by a big stinking primate while they are moving, this one had frozen into complete immobility.   Such snakes are acutely aware of the sweaty mammal, and usually will remain static and somewhat cryptic for a minute or three; at some point, they apparently decide (?) that the threat is diminished and gone, and they slowly crawl to cover.   But this one didn’t do that.

Instead, it began poking its head around the palm frond debris nearby, tongue-flicking occasionally.  After a couple of minutes of exploratory behavior, he slowly formed his body into a foraging coil.  This process took several minutes, and was completed as the little snake rocked his body back and forth a few times to settle down into the sand.  It was of interest to me that when the coil was complete, the yellow-tipped tail wasn’t particularly prominent.   Young pigmy rattlesnakes sometimes use their brightly colored tail tip to mimic a small caterpillar or insect larva, wiggling it when frogs or lizards are nearby to entice them into taking a bite.  If all works according to plan, the pigmy then takes his bite.  The behavior is called caudal luring; the baby pigmy I was watching wasn’t doing it.

Exploratory behavior.

Exploratory behavior.

Beginning the coil.

Beginning the coil.

Tighten up.

Tighten up.

A rocking little snake.

A rocking little snake.

The final result. Notice that the yellow tail is barely visible from the direction the snake is facing.

The final result. Notice that the yellow tail is barely visible from the direction the snake is facing.

A neonate pigmy rattlesnake from Lake Woodruff NWR in a foraging coil, showing a bit of the yellow tail.

A neonate pigmy rattlesnake from Lake Woodruff NWR in a foraging coil, showing a bit of the yellow tail.

So at this point I figured the excitement (!) was over.  The baby pig was settled into its foraging coil, and might not move for hours or days.  Still I hung around and watched.  I was hoping the scrub lizard might make a reappearance, but didn’t really expect any other action from the pigmy.  Still, I was pretty happy with what I’d seen so far.  In all the years of watching pigmy rattlesnakes in the field, I had never observed one actually form a foraging coil while I watched.   The tongue-flicking prior to coiling suggest that chemical cues may be an important part of site selection.  Eric Roth showed over a decade ago while working on the pigmy research project that pigmies are more likely to coil and hunt in areas that have been sprayed with frog scent than in nearby similar areas lacking frog odors (Roth et al., 1999).

Pigmy rattlesnakes in some habitats eat a lot of frogs, including both semi-aquatic frogs (leopard frogs, especially) and tree frogs. This a pinewoods tree frog, Hyla femoralis.

Pigmy rattlesnakes in some habitats eat a lot of frogs, including both semi-aquatic frogs (leopard frogs, especially) and tree frogs. This a pinewoods tree frog, Hyla femoralis.

I was quite surprised when the little viper began moving his head back and forth a bit, and tongue-flicking.  He had been in his coil for less than 5 minutes.  When he initially coiled, the spot was in shade, but a moving sun fleck was beginning to encroach on his foraging site.   That particular foraging spot would be completely untenable if exposed to full mid-morning sun; the little pigmy would be overheated within minutes.

Moving to a new foraging site. Check out the stick. Good call.

Moving to a new foraging site. Check out the stick. Good call.

So the little dude did a very reasonable thing – he switched spots.  But not very far.  He slowly crawled to a still shaded spot less than a foot away, and repeated the behavior.  He began nosing at and tongue-flicking around a small twig, and soon settled into a foraging coil situated partially under the stick.  The process of forming a coil was much quicker this time.  Time stamps from the series of photographs I took reveal that it took him several minutes to form the first coil, but only a little over a minute for the latter.He was still in his second coil when I drove away, but I doubt he stayed there long either. The entire area was soon to be exposed to direct full sun, which would surely require that he relocate again.

Scoping out the new neighborhood.

Scoping out the new neighborhood.

Beginning to coil.

Beginning to coil.

The second bout of coiling happened much faster than the first.

The second bout of coiling happened much faster than the first.

Coil nearly complete, but the tail is still exposed.

Coil nearly complete, but the tail is still exposed.

Coil complete, tail hidden. This is how I left him.

Coil complete, tail hidden. This is how I left him.

Was this baby snake learning how to choose a foraging site?   Snakes as a group have never been considered by most biologists to be particularly “intelligent”, whatever that term means.   The general view of comparative intelligence among the vertebrates has long been that while birds and mammals are highly intelligent and capable of complex cognitive feats (“learning animals”), the ectothermic vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles) are primarily “reflex animals”, relying mostly on hard-wired, fixed behaviors to respond to environmental challenges.  My personal view is that we probably underestimate the cognitive capabilities of most animals.   There’s shit going on there we have very limited means of studying and understanding.

Are older pigmy rattlesnakes smarter than younger ones? What is animal intelligence?

Are older pigmy rattlesnakes smarter than younger ones? What is animal intelligence?

From a purely practical standpoint, it seems reasonable that young pigmy rattlesnakes should learn how to choose better foraging sites as they get older.  A successful foraging site, particularly one that results in capture and consumption of a prey item, should provide positive reinforcement regarding the characteristics of that foraging site, and the site-selection behavior of that individual should be modified.   Actually demonstrating learning by individual animals is a tough nut, though, especially in the field.  For learning to have occurred, the snake would have to modify some aspect of its site selection behavior as a result of earlier experiences.

Snakes in the genus Thamnophis (garter and ribbon snakes) have been shown in laboratory studies to learn how to better track prey. This is a peninsula ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus sackeni) trying to hang on to an uncooperative leopard frog. Scanned from a transparency.

Snakes in the genus Thamnophis (garter and ribbon snakes) have been shown in laboratory studies to learn how to better track prey. This is a peninsula ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus sackeni) trying to hang on to an uncooperative leopard frog. Scanned from a transparency.

Demonstrating learning in non-human animals requires controlled conditions and laboratory studies.   A quick and dirty Google Scholar search for primary literature on learning in snakes turns up only a handful of citations, some of which show limited modification of behavior based on experience, and others that don’t.  Garter snake babies become better at following worm trails with experience, but Richard Shine and his colleagues have shown that Australian black snakes (Pseudechis porphyriacus) don’t learn to avoid toxic cane toads (a novel, non-native prey for these snakes) after encountering them.  However, populations exposed to the toads rapidly evolved behavioral avoidance of cane toads, compared to populations with no previous exposure to the toads (Phillips and Shine, 2006).  The naïve snakes readily consumed the toads, much to their detriment. This result suggests that toad avoidance in these snakes is an evolved, genetically based behavior.

It would be an extremely premature and foolhardy conclusion to state with any confidence that I had observed a snake learning. None the less, I’m pretty sure that’s what I did.

 

 

References

May, P.G., Farrell, T.M., Heulett, S.T., Pilgrim, M.A., Bishop, L.A., Spence, D.J., Rabatsky, A.M., Campbell, M.G., Aycrigg, A.D. and Richardson, W.E., (1996). Seasonal abundance and activity of a rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri) in central Florida. Copeia, pp.389-401.
Roth, E., May, P., & Farrell, T. (1999). Pigmy Rattlesnakes Use Frog-Derived Chemical Cues to Select Foraging Sites. Copeia, 1999(3), 772-774.
Phillips, B. L., & Shine, R. (2006). An invasive species induces rapid adaptive change in a native predator: cane toads and black snakes in Australia.Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences,273(1593), 1545-1550.

 

 

Image Gallery: Return to Lake Apopka Restoration Area

 

The yellow flowers blanketing this pool are bladderworts, Utricularia sp., a carnivorous plant.  I've never seen a concentration of bladderwort like this.

The yellow flowers blanketing this pool are bladderworts, Utricularia sp., a carnivorous plant. I’ve never seen a concentration of bladderwort like this.

May 18, 2015

All images are linked to larger versions.

I couldn’t help myself.  I visited the new wildlife drive at Lake Apopka Restoration Area again yesterday, and though the light was miserable for photography for the first couple of hours, the wildlife was there.  Here are some of my favorite shots from the morning.

Recently fledged great blue heron.

Recently fledged great blue heron.

Bullfrog feeding a mosquito.

Bullfrog feeding a mosquito.  Look closely under his right eye.

Common moorhens and their broods were once again one of the most entertaining sights.

Common gallinules and their broods were once again one of the most entertaining sights.

Sorry, bro, you cannot pass.

Sorry, bro, you cannot pass.

This osprey was sitting atop a leaning pole trying to eat his fish.

This osprey was sitting atop a leaning pole trying to eat her fish.

She was repeatedly harangued by this boat-tailed grackle, who bum rushed her several times.

She was repeatedly harangued by this boat-tailed grackle, who bum rushed her several times.

Why?  Eventually the osprey moved on, and the grackle took top spot and cleaned up on the fish scraps.

Why? Eventually the osprey moved on, and the grackle took top spot and cleaned up on the fish scraps.

 

Least bittern in the willows.  You don't appreciate how long their neck is until they stick it out.

Least bittern in the willows. You don’t appreciate how long their neck is until they stick it out.

A more typical view of a least bittern.

A more typical view of a least bittern.

Green herons were abundant, but very shy.  This one allowed me one shot before taking off.

Green herons were abundant, but very shy. This one allowed me one shot before taking off.

A juvenile little blue heron showing high breeding colors in the cere and base of the bill.  Yearling birds in juvenile plumage will sometimes breed in this species.

A juvenile little blue heron showing high breeding colors in the cere and base of the bill. Yearling birds in juvenile plumage will sometimes breed in this species.

Not a bad day for herps.  This Florida green watersnake (Nerodia floridana) was basking in the dead cattails as the sun struggled to make an appearance.

Not a bad day for herps. This Florida green watersnake (Nerodia floridana) was basking in the dead cattails as the sun struggled to make an appearance.

That's one chilled out baby gator.

That’s one chilled out baby gator.

A big female soft-shelled turtle (Apalone ferox) mucking around in the shallows.

A big female soft-shelled turtle (Apalone ferox) mucking around in the shallows.

Pig frog (Lithobates grylio) surrounded by several floating aquatic plants, including Lemna sp., (duckweed),   Salvinia minima (water spangles), and Azolla filiculoides (American waterfern; not a fern).

Pig frog (Lithobates grylio) surrounded by several floating aquatic plants, including Lemna sp., (duckweed), Salvinia minima (water spangles), and Azolla filiculoides (American waterfern; not a fern).

Eastern kingbird.  I don't see this species often in central Florida except as a migrant in passage.  This bird is probably a breeder.

Eastern kingbird. I don’t see this species often in central Florida except as a migrant in passage. This bird is probably a breeder.

I saw a half-dozen or so limpkins.

I saw a half-dozen or so limpkins.

These two great blue herons were arguing over territorial rights, using the  head up-wing droop posture that says get the hell out of my space.

These two great blue herons were arguing over territorial rights, using the head up-wing droop posture that says get the hell out of my space.

By mid-day, it was getting quite toasty.  Barn swallows were basking on the hot shell rock roads, overheating to the point that they were panting to cool down.  Why?  Probably to kill ectoparasites with the heat load.

By mid-day, it was getting quite toasty. Barn swallows were basking on the hot shell rock roads, overheating to the point that they were panting to cool down. Why? Probably to kill ectoparasites with the heat load.

Anhinga performing gular flutter, a heat-dissipating behavior.

Anhinga performing gular flutter, a heat-dissipating behavior.

 

A splendid morning in the wetlands

Black-necked stilt snags a mosquitofish

Black-necked stilt snags a mosquitofish

Click on any image to see a larger version.

May 10, 2015

On Friday I visited the Lake Apopka Restoration Area’s newly opened 11-mile North Shore wildlife drive for the first time. To say that I was impressed with the wildlife viewing opportunities there would be a massive understatement. This area will surely become one of my regular destinations for natural historizing and photography in coming years.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Florida in the 80’s, I remember hearing of the incredible birding opportunities in late summer at the Zellwood muck farms. I never made the drive to check the area out. I should have. My first visit to the north shore area of Lake Apopka came in the fall of 1998, when I was checking out potential field trip sites for the Ornithology class I was teaching that fall at Stetson. From DeLand, it’s less than an hour’s drive, mostly through bucolic mixed agricultural habitat in Seminole County. I distinctly remember driving down one of the shell rock roads, surrounded on both sides by browned, fallow vegetation with little evidence of the legendary concentrations of migratory birds I had come to see. A couple of times I saw small groups of aquatic birds, including some waders and terns, flying past me towards the west. Encouraging. Then I topped a small rise that allowed an overview of one of the flooded fields that acted as the great bird attractors, and I nearly ran off the road at the stunning sight of hundreds of acres of shallow water fields teeming with aquatic birds of every stripe. Tons of waders, including hundreds of great blue herons, white pelicans, other egrets and herons, wood storks, and a panoply of smaller birds including shorebirds, terns, anhingas… I was ecstatic. I made several visits to the area in the next couple of weeks, and then the St. Johns Water Management District closed the whole area to public access. Dead birds started showing up by the hundreds.

Most of the habitat in the Lake Apopka Restoration Area is highly disturbed, consisting of former agricultural fields that are converting back to a variety of  marsh habitats.

Most of the habitat in the Lake Apopka Restoration Area is highly disturbed, consisting of former agricultural fields that are converting back to a variety of marsh habitats.

The vast wetlands fringing Lake Apopka, a 30,000-acre lake that is Florida’s fourth largest, had been heavily farmed since the 40’s, and the “muck farming” operations devastated the water quality in Lake Apopka and its surrounding highly modified wetlands. These farming operations left behind miles of levees, roads, canals and pumping systems to move lake water onto and off of the agricultural fields that had been formed by draining the natural wetlands. After spending nearly $100 million between 1996 and 1999 to buy out about 13,000 acres of former farmland, the St Johns River Water Management District began major restoration efforts in the mid-90’s. Restoration plans for the area featured a 760-acre flow-way designed to circulate highly eutrophic lake water through restored wetlands in order to filter out excess nutrients and pollutants, and also included the flooding of large tracts of farmland in the fall of 1998 in the Zellwood farming district. The Zellwood muck farms were legendary for years among Florida birders for their late summer and fall concentrations of shorebirds. Large numbers of sandpipers, plovers, gulls, terns and other aquatic birds would congregate in the temporarily flooded fields in late summer to feed and prepare for the rest of their migration. During the farming era, however, these fields were drained and planted with winter crops by November, and whatever birds remained in the area moved on.

Canals and water control structures permeate Lake Apopka Restoration Area.

Canals and water control structures permeate Lake Apopka Restoration Area.

In fall of 1998, the management plans for the area called for prolonged flooding of some of these fields, and the response by the avifauna was incredible. Between August 1998 and February 1999, local bird groups and district scientists documented over 111,000 individual birds using an 8000-acre area. Flocks of tens of thousands of teal, diving ducks, and American coots were present at times. Beginning in November, however, dead birds began to appear on the site. White Pelicans were the hardest hit; at one time, the white pelican flock at Zellwood numbered over 4000, believed to be nearly half of Florida’s wintering population of these huge, lumbering birds. By February of 1999, nearly 500 bird deaths had been recorded on site, and another 500 or so dead birds, mostly white pelicans, were found throughout Florida, and were suspected to have originated from the Zellwood area. Also affected were smaller numbers of wood storks, an endangered species, along with great egrets and ring-billed gulls. I remember watching a juvenile wood stork at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge in DeLeon Springs for several days in a row during January 1999, some 40 miles away from Lake Apopka. That bird moved fairly slowly, was quite tame, and stayed in the same restricted area for the entire time I observed it. Nearly a week later, I found the carcass of a wood stork near where I had seen that curiously behaving bird. I still have the skull on a shelf in my office.In retrospect, I suspect that it was also a Zellwood bird.

Ospreys were abundant on this lovely May morning, especially in the parts of the drive closer to Lake Apopka.

Ospreys were abundant on this lovely May morning, especially in the parts of the drive closer to Lake Apopka.

The catastrophic bird mortality took everyone involved with the project by surprise. Although extensive sampling of the acquired lands was done before flooding to determine if there were any contamination hazards, the assays failed to turn up anything that looked like a threat to the health of the birds. In February 1999, the flooded fields were drained to encourage the birds to move elsewhere, and extensive soil and water sampling was performed, along with necropsies of many of the dead birds to attempt to determine the source of mortality. A period of uncertainty and debate about the source of the bird kill ensued, during which a variety of hypotheses, including pesticide contamination and epidemic outbreaks of avian cholera and Newcastle’s disease, were proffered. Eventually, acute toxicity due to exposure to multiple pesticides (toxaphene, Dieldrin, DDT) was identified as the most likely cause, and the restoration/remediation plans for the Apopka North Shore Restoration project were modified accordingly. Apparently, a concentrated “hot spot” of discarded pesticides on a restricted area of the north shore property was responsible for all of the problems. Amazingly, the pesticides involved had been banned and out of use for 10-30 years.

This boat-tailed grackle was engaged in "gaping behavior".  They insert their beak into some substrate and open it to push aside obstructions.  Many icterids use this behavior to find soil invertebrates, but this male was using it to open a little hole in the duckweed through which he could peer down into the water.

This boat-tailed grackle was engaged in “gaping behavior”. They insert their beak into some substrate and open it to push aside obstructions. Many icterids use this behavior to find soil invertebrates, but this male was using it to open a little hole in the duckweed through which he could peer down into the water.

The target?  Snails.  He deftly pulled them out of the shell and enjoyed fine dining even without the garlic butter.

The target? Snails. He deftly pulled them out of the shell and enjoyed fine dining even without the garlic butter.

For the next decade, as mitigation and clean-up efforts proceeded, most of the North Shore area of Lake Apopka was mostly off-limits to the public. One of the mitigation techniques used to deal with the elevated concentrations of organochlorine pesticides and excessive nutrients that had accumulated from decades of farming was a method called soil inversion. Modified agricultural equipment was used to plow down to a meter or more into the heavily contaminated top layer of soil and flip it over, replacing it with deeper layers of clean soil.

The vegetational composition of the wetland habitats is highly variable.  Many areas are dominated by cattails, usually an indicator of high nutrient levels (eutrophication).

The vegetational composition of the wetland habitats is highly variable. Many areas are dominated by cattails, usually an indicator of high nutrient levels (eutrophication).

Restricted access to the public ended in 2014, when the SJRWMD began opening some of these north shore properties, easily accessible due to the extensive networks of diked roads, to the public for hiking and biking. The North Shore Wildlife Drive opened on Friday, May 1. It is open from sunrise to a half-hour before sunset on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays year-round.

Waders of all types were common, including great and snowy egrets, great blue, little blue, tricolored and green herons, and a few black-crowned night herons.  This bird is an immature.

Waders of all types were common, including great and snowy egrets, great blue, little blue, tricolored and green herons, and a few black-crowned night herons. This bird is an immature.

Little blue herons and green herons were probably the two most common waders I saw.

Little blue herons and green herons were probably the two most common waders I saw.

Green herons were omnipresent, but a bit skittish.  Not many photo ops for these shy guys.

Green herons were omnipresent, but a bit skittish. Not many photo ops for these shy guys.

I wasn’t expecting huge numbers of birds or great diversity on this visit; wintering birds have largely left the state, and the passage of transient migrants is rapidly winding down. It’s that time of year for Florida birders when diversity is plunging to its summer nadir. Still, I was hoping there might be a few bobolinks around, and perhaps some other lingering migrants. I wasn’t disappointed. Almost as soon as I entered the drive, I heard, then saw a small flock of bobolinks in the marshes north of the drive. Too distant for photography, but it didn’t matter. Much. I love seeing and hearing bobolinks, anytime, anywhere, at any distance. The first stretch of the drive heads due west, so the sun was directly at my back and the habitat on either side was strongly side-lit. Not the best conditions for bird photography, but still I was impressed by the dozens of herons, egrets, ibis, limpkins, and other aquatic species foraging in the canal paralleling the drive. And the marshes were full of singing icterids on territory – red-winged blackbirds and boat-tailed grackles. So I was a little bummed out by the lack of photo opportunities in the first couple of miles of the drive, but there was so much bird life around that it didn’t feel right to be disappointed. In addition to the waders in the canals, several black-bellied whistling ducks and a couple of mottled ducks did flyovers, along with lots of waders. Barn swallows were coursing low over the marshes throughout the morning.

Common gallinules were abundant, including numerous pairs tending to their broods of newly hatched fuzzballs.

Common gallinules were abundant, including numerous pairs tending to their broods of newly hatched fuzzballs.

This half-grown juvenile common gallinule was all by his lonesome.  Perhaps the only surviving member of his brood.

This half-grown juvenile common gallinule was all by his lonesome. Perhaps the only surviving member of his brood.

Common gallinules are attentive parents.  This one was teaching her youngster how to preen.

Common gallinules are attentive parents. This one was teaching her youngster how to preen.

How do I look, Mom?

How do I look, Mom?

Feeding the babies.

Feeding the babies.

About two miles in, the drive reaches the shore of Lake Apopka and a large, historic pump house remaining from the agricultural period. On a small, drying pond near the pump house, I found a black-necked stilt, solitary sandpiper, and least sandpiper feeding in the shallow water and muddy shoreline, directly front-lit by gorgeous early morning light. As I spent the next 20 minutes or so burning up my memory cards on these photogenic birds, my slight dudgeon lifted. This is what I had come for.

Black-necked stilts are very active foragers, frequently submerging their entire head searching for prey.

Black-necked stilts are very active foragers, frequently submerging their entire head searching for prey.

Like this.

Like this.

Got one.

Got one.

The rest of the morning followed suit. Though the birds were mostly breeding residents, it mattered not. Common gallinules, various egrets and herons, blackbirds, including a couple more small flocks of bobolinks, barn swallows (along with a few tree swallows in one flock), and other birds were everywhere. In one of the canals paralleling the drive, I was shocked by the huge numbers of big frogs half-submerged in duckweed and Salvinia, occasionally making short leaps to capture prey. Both bullfrogs and pig frogs were calling, which was somewhat surprising to me. I had always thought of those two species as ecological equivalents that didn’t normally co-occur. I don’t know where I picked up that bit of dubious knowledge, but clearly it doesn’t apply to the big Lithobates (could it be true that this horrendous genus is about to be decommissioned and the members of this genus placed back into Rana, where they belong? Joy.) frogs of the restoration area.

While shorebirds weren't particularly diverse, and I only saw a few individuals of any species, it was still nice to see killdeer, stilts, spotted and solitary sandpipers, and several of these tiny little least sandpipers.

While shorebirds weren’t particularly diverse, and I only saw a few individuals of any species, it was still nice to see killdeer, stilts, spotted and solitary sandpipers, and several of these tiny little least sandpipers.

Solitary sandpiper

Solitary sandpiper

Solitary and least sandpiper

Solitary and least sandpiper

With all of those frogs, I figured there must be tons of snakes to prey on them, but I saw no water snakes or other aquatic serpents. A couple of black racers crossing the road were the only snakes I saw on this morning, but I’ve got to think the frog-eating aquatic snakes are there somewhere. Another time.

Bullfrog (Lithobates or Rana catesbeianus)

Bullfrog (Lithobates or Rana catesbeianus)

Pig frog (Lithobates or Rana grylio)

Pig frog (Lithobates or Rana grylio)

The bullfrogs were freaking thick!

The bullfrogs were freaking thick!

Besides the frogs, the other herps seen included lots of gators, a couple of black racers, and this cute little striped mud turtle (Kinosternon bauri) who looks like she just finished laying eggs.

Besides the frogs, the other herps seen included lots of gators, a couple of black racers, and this cute little striped mud turtle (Kinosternon bauri) who looks like she just finished laying eggs.

And there certainly will be other times. I can barely wait until August, when the vanguard of fall migrants will begin to appear in numbers. I’m particularly excited about the potential for big numbers of yellow warblers, which I haven’t seen aside from an occasional lone individual or two since I stopped doing bird censuses at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area. In August and September I sometimes found hundreds of yellow warblers a day in the willow thickets along the levee roads. There’s an abundance of similar habitat along the wildlife drive at Lake Apopka.

The best part of the day? In the 4 hours I spent there, I saw only one other car. I wish it would stay that way, but I know it won’t. The area is too amazing to remain a secret for long.

A quick trip to the parking lot of the North Shore trailhead at the end of Duda Rd. produced this lovely indigo bunting.

A quick trip to the parking lot of the North Shore trailhead at the end of Duda Rd. produced this lovely indigo bunting.

For more information about the North Shore Wildlife Drive, go to http://www.sjrwmd.com/recreationguide/lakeapopka/

Image Gallery: Okefenokee Swamp

 January 3, 2015

My somewhat serious resolution for the upcoming year is to increase the frequency of Volusia Naturalist posts.  To that end, I’m initiating the year with a new type of post – an image gallery.  For those times when I don’t have much to say, but want to share some photos of my adventures.

The photos in this set were taken over several days just before the new year.  All of the photos are hyperlinked to larger versions.  We spent most of our time in the Fargo area, at Stephen Foster State Park, with one afternoon trip to the east side of the Okefenokee at the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, near Folkston.

A gray morning in the Okefenokee Swamp.  This is in Stephen Foster State Park, on the west side of the Okefenokee

A gray morning in the Okefenokee Swamp. This is in Stephen Foster State Park, on the west side of the Okefenokee.

The habitat surrounding the swamp is overwhelmingly dedicated to 20-year rotation timber farming.   This includes a significant acreage in Okefenokee NWR.  This is a tract of young slash pines that have been thinned and burned.

The habitat surrounding the swamp is overwhelmingly dedicated to 20-year rotation timber farming. This includes a significant acreage in Okefenokee NWR. This is a tract of young slash pines that have been thinned and burned. The profuse pale fuzzballs are seed heads of Pityopsis graminifolia.

This Google Earth image shows part of the entry road through Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (177).  The Suwannee river near its origin in the Okefenokee is above the road.  Notice that nearly all of the habitat that isn't wetland is covered by plots of timber at various stages of the harvest cycle.

This Google Earth image shows part of the entry road through Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (177), leading to Stephen Foster State Park on the western side of the refuge. The Suwannee river near its origin in the Okefenokee is visible above the road. The long straight line in the NE quadrant is the Suwannee River Sill, a several-mile long levee built in the 50’s to control outflow of water from the swamp into the Suwannee. This was an attempt to reduce fire frequency in the swamp during dry years by keeping more water in it. It was a failure. Notice that nearly all of the habitat that isn’t wetland is covered by plots of timber at various stages of the harvest cycle.

Alligators were out  basking on this gray day.  These beasts are in the canal paralleling the Suwannee River Sill.

Alligators were out basking on this gray day. These beasts are in the canal paralleling the Suwannee River Sill.

Great blue heron in the swamp.  Notice the fire-scarred trunks in the background; many of the plant communities in the swamp are fire-maintained.

Great blue heron in the swamp. Notice the fire-scarred trunks in the background; many of the plant communities in the swamp are fire-maintained.

The canal leading from the boat basin in Stephen Foster State Park to the Billy's Lake section of the middle fork of the Suwannee River.

The canal leading from the boat basin in Stephen Foster State Park to the Billy’s Lake section of the middle fork of the Suwannee River.

White-tailed deer were common and tame around the cabins at Stephen Foster State Park.

White-tailed deer were common and tame around the cabins at Stephen Foster State Park.

Red-shouldered hawks were abundant, many hunting the the grassy shoulders of the entry road.

Red-shouldered hawks were abundant, many hunting the the grassy shoulders of the entry road.

Sweetgum

Sweetgum

There were only a few hours of decent sun, on Tuesday afternoon, during the 3 days we were there.  This longleaf pine forest with cane understory is from the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, on the east side of Okefenokee.

There were only a few hours of decent sun, on Tuesday afternoon, during the 3 days we were there. This pine forest with cane understory is from the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, on the east side of Okefenokee.

Longleaf pine forest

From the Swamp Wildlife Drive in the Suwannee Canal Area.

A magnificent 3/4 mile boardwalk into Chesser Prairie are of the Okefenokee provides stunning views of this landscape still showing the effects of the 2011 Honey Prairie fire, which was allowed to burn.  Charred posts from a previous boardwalk are still present.

A magnificent 3/4 mile boardwalk into the Chesser Prairie area of the Okefenokee provides stunning views of this landscape still showing the effects of the 2011 Honey Prairie fire, which was allowed to burn. Charred posts from a previous boardwalk are still present.

Chesser Prairie, from the boardwalk.

Chesser Prairie, from the boardwalk.

Eastern phoebe from Chesser Island.

Eastern phoebe from Chesser Island.

Way too distant shot of a male northern harrier, from the boardwalk.  I don't see male harriers often, though females and immatures are common in winter in Florida.

Way too distant shot of a male northern harrier, from the boardwalk. I don’t see male harriers often, though females and immatures are common in winter in Florida.

Pig frog?  Active in the last week of December.   Ranids in Pennsylvania can only dream about that shit.

Pig frog? Active in the last week of December. Ranids in Pennsylvania can only dream about that shit.

Interesting assemblage of insects in the unwet portion of a water lily leaf.  There's a little water strider (Gerridae) in the notch, a small fly (Ceratopogonidae?) above it, and a "herd" of what look like some kind of leafhopper or planthopper nymphs.

Interesting assemblage of insects in the unwet portion of a water lily leaf. There’s a little water strider (Gerridae) in the notch, a small fly (Ceratopogonidae?) above it, and a “herd” of what look like some kind of leafhopper or planthopper nymphs. You have to click and see this at maximum resolution to see any detail in these tiny insects.

The diversity of fungal structures in this rotting branch was impressive.  I have no idea how many species of fungi are visible here.

The diversity of fungal structures in this rotting branch was impressive. I have no idea how many species of fungi are visible here.

Swamp doghobble, Eubotrys racemosa.  These are young flowering spikes that will bloom sometime in early spring.

Swamp doghobble, Eubotrys racemosa. These are young flowering spikes that will bloom sometime in early spring.

The last afternoon we were there produced the best light of the trip.  This shot of the Okefenokee from the boardwalk at Stephen Foster State Park was taken in late afternoon, as the window of sunshine was getting ready to close.

The last afternoon we were there produced the best light of the trip. This shot of the Okefenokee from the boardwalk at Stephen Foster State Park was taken in late afternoon, as the window of sunshine was getting ready to close.

Golden afternoon light can make any shot look decent, but with this kind of view, it's like taking candy from a baby. Which I've never done.

Golden afternoon light can make any shot look decent, but with this kind of view, it’s like taking candy from a baby. Which I’ve never done.

Crotalus ad DOR_05172014-01_Ocala NF FR05

Shameful shit

 May 18, 2014

I have no words to fully express my shock and profound sadness on finding this magnificent animal, head and neck crushed by a cretinous driver, in Ocala National Forest yesterday. I’ve been fantasizing about photo ops of an EDB crossing a forest road for several years now; this was not the picture I had envisioned. We watched with disgust and disbelief as he slowly writhed and tried to gape while the last spark faded from his defiant eyes.

Crotalus ad DOR_05172014-08_Ocala NF FR05

A 4′, heavy-bodied healthy eastern diamondback crossing a pale sand road in Ocala National Forest. This animal was run over intentionally.

What kind of deeply depraved mindset does it take for someone to do this?

Some of my Facebook friends captured some of the thoughts that occurred to me, and some that didn’t.

“Damn, Peter, that ruined my day. People suck. Some people suck.” – John Jett

Ours too, JJ.

“Only someone unhappy would do this.”  – Mary Ohlman Shaperow

Unhappy and morally retarded, Mary.

Crotalus ad DOR_05172014-03_Ocala NF FR05

“The real issue, is that it’s really hard to change people’s minds on this, it is really, really entrenched in so many…just ignorance multiplied and taught to others.”  – Chris Kincaid

Education is one answer, Chris.  But it’s futile when dealing with closed minds.

“Oh man, I hate hate hate hate hate to see this. I’m preaching to the choir here, but I truly can’t understand how/why so many people aren’t able or willing to respect this amazing (and very important) species.” – Janson Jones

Keep preaching, Janson.  You make a difference.

Crotalus ad DOR_05172014-20_Ocala NF FR05

“That is FUCKED UP. Period.”  – Patrick McGowan

Right on, Patrick.  Right on.

 

WISN_01112014-63_Rodman Dam

A snipe hunt in Ocala National Forest

Title credit: E. Eugene Spears

January 12, 2014

Regenerating sandhills on FR11.

Regenerating sandhills on FR11.

My buddies for life (I think) Skeate and Spears made their annual trek from the hellish cold of Banner Elk,  North Carolina to pay me a visit this week.   The three of us met as grad students in the fabled zoology department at UF back in the 80s, and they have been my closest friends since.  All of us were Florida newbies, and we learned about community ecology and the terrestrial ecosystems of peninsular Florida from the same mentors at around the same time.   Nonetheless, it was a major rush for me to spend a couple of days sharing my recently ignited passion for Ocala National Forest and its diversity of plant communities and landscapes with them by visiting a couple of my favorite spots in the forest.   We had all taken Community Ecology at UF with field trips led by the great man, Dr. Archie Carr, whose knowledge and understanding of Florida natural history and ecology were nothing short of miraculous.  So by comparison, my puny attempts to enlighten them somewhat about the scrub, high pine, and associated habitats were kind of laughable.  But all we can do is take what we’re given, G.  We had no particular target taxa in mind; we were just road-cruising, happy as scallops for whatever natural history nuggets we might chance upon.

In fact, this post might be better called the anti-snipe hunt, as it is antithetical in nearly every respect to the traditional snipe hunt.  In a regular snipe hunt, a naïve nimrod is stationed somewhere in purportedly suitable habitat, preferably on a dark, moonless night, to wait for the mythical snipe to appear and bag it.  It’s a very focused pursuit, but typically produces no useful outcome other than amusement for the instigators.  By contrast, we were three unfocused but somewhat knowledgeable fellows, looking for nothing in particular, nearly constantly in motion, covering a lot of territory on a bright morning.   And our efforts produced several useful outcomes, including crippling views of the legendary snipe.  No capture other than digital, though.

Coachwhip

Coachwhip

On Friday, we first visited a tract of private property a bit south of Astor Park that included the remains of some old sand-mining operation, and then we headed southwest towards the Alexander Spring section of the forest.   As we tooled southeast on FR18 towards the 52 Landing boat ramp on Alexander Springs Creek, we saw (incredibly briefly) a 3-4’ snake speed across the road and into the cover along the margin.   Perhaps as quickly as I’ve ever seen a snake cross a 20’ wide roadbed.   I didn’t even get a look at the head before it disappeared out of sight, but the sand-colored caudal half of the body and rapid rate of transit was enough to identify it:  coachwhip.   As we savored the buzz of the sighting, we reminisced about the coachwhip we saw while on a Community Ecology field trip to the Ordway Preserve over 30 years ago.   Most of the dozen or so grad students in the class, and a couple of faculty, were in the departmental van ahead of me.  As I still am, I was a driving fool and so was following the van in my tortured old ’75 Ford Futura.   I had to slam on the brakes and skid to a sudden stop in the sugar sand ruts as the van ahead of me did the same; the side door opened and about a half-dozen people exploded out of it in pursuit of the coachwhip that had crossed the two-track we were driving on through the successional pasture.   Most of these herpetophiles were young men in their physical prime, but the great Dr. Carr, then somewhere in the neighborhood of 71 years old, beat them all to the beast and with a great flying leap pinned the coachwhip with his torso.

Coachwhip

Coachwhip

The nasty masty turned around, clamped down on Dr. Carr’s nose, and held on.  And Dr. Carr stayed chill, knowing that any movement might cause the snake to rake his not-insubstantial rows of sharp teeth through his rostral flesh.  After a few seconds, the coachwhip, still mostly immobilized by Dr. Carr’s weight pressing on him, let go of his nose and looked around.  One of the other members of the group immediately grabbed the snake a bit too far down the neck and pulled it from underneath Dr. Carr.   The coachwhip promptly latched onto his hand and raked, causing him to begin gushing blood from numerous small lacerations.  After they released the snake and it began its retreat from the band of stinking primates, I took two photographs of it as it periscoped and scanned its surroundings before boogying at top speed.  When I received and viewed the processed slides, I saw that a small turkey oak seedling beside the snake was speckled with blood.

Skeate, Spears and Buckeye.

Skeate, Spears and Buckeye at Alexander Spring Creek.

Buckeye.  This charming little canine played no significant role in any of the adventures related here, but he's so damned handsome I had to include his portrait.

Buckeye. This charming little canine played no significant role in any of the adventures related here, but he’s so damned handsome I had to include his portrait.

We had no comparable adventure with the Ocala coachwhip yesterday; it was gone before the three of us had even processed our sensory input and identified the snake as a coachwhip.   Conclusion from this and countless other anecdotal evidence:  Dr. Archie Fairly Carr Jr. was a great, great man.

Dr. Archie Carr, Jr.  The most amazing man I've ever known personally.

Dr. Archie Carr, Jr. The most amazing man I’ve ever met.

The rest of Friday’s trip, which included Paisley Road and FR06, was lovely but unproductive of anything other than stunningly beautiful habitats.   Our sampling of gorgeous and diverse habitats resumed on Saturday, when we took FR11 north from SR40, a bit west of Astor Park, and followed it to its end at Ocklawaha Lake, on the boundary of Ocala National Forest.   Unlike most forest roads, the stretch of FR11 between SR40 and its intersection with SR 316 just northwest of Lake Kerr is paved.  This section of FR11 passes mostly through scrub, though the range of scrub subtypes spans nearly the entire gamut, from recently harvested clearcuts to mature, even-aged stands of nearly pure sand pine, and all the intermediate successional stages connecting these two endpoints.

The first of the two black bears we saw on FR11.

The first of the two black bears we saw on FR11.

Once north of 316, as FR 11 approaches the Riverside Island tract, the road reverts to the more typical yellow sand. It was here that within a stretch of no more than a mile or two we spotted two different black bears poking around the road margins. We stopped and glassed both animals for a minute or two from a distance of a couple hundred yards, and they glanced up the road at us but remained unconcerned until I tried to drive closer to them, at which point they both slowly retreated back into the sand pine scrub.  It seems like there must be some meaning to the observation that in the 35 years I’ve lived in Florida, I’ve seen black bears in natural habitats (I’m not including the young bear I saw at 2 a.m. in the morning from about 5’ away destroying the bird feeder and pole just outside the window of my DeBary home, nor the one that wandered onto the Stetson campus one fall a few years back, climbed up into a smallish oak tree in front of the student union, and snoozed there for several hours as students and staff treated it like a rock star and gathered around to ooh and aah) maybe 11 times, and that eight of those sightings have been in the last 6 months.  But more likely it is just a reflection of the random and unpredictable nature of actually seeing uncommon and wary wildlife.

Regenerating sandhills

Regenerating sandhills

Further north on FR11 the habitat transitions from scrub into regenerating sandhills, and then a bit further on, mature tracts of longleaf savannah where I had several killer encounters with roving clans of red-cockaded woodpeckers last year.  The bright cloudy skies on this breezy morning provided the perfect diffuse lighting to accentuate the panoply of brown hues produced by the numerous conspicuous grasses.   Luscious golden browns of Andropogon, creamy tans  of wiregrass, a diverse range of intermediate tones from other grasses and senescent forbs – it’s a beautiful time of year to be in the sandhills.

Mature sandhills with wiregrass

Mature sandhills with wiregrass

At Rodman Dam, I was hoping for a variety of dabbling and diving ducks, but the only aquatic swimmers to be found were big flocks of American coots.  While watching a couple of killdeer exploring the broad grassy berm of the dam, I saw a lone Wilson’s snipe toddling slowly up the slope.   Confident that it would flush with a buzzy prrrrrt as soon as I got anywhere close to it, I idled towards it hoping to grab a shot or two.  And behaving exactly like a consummately cryptic bird should, it surprised me by never flushing, ultimately allowing me to drive within about 15 feet and fire away to my heart’s content.  It was still hunkered in the same spot as I slowly pulled away.

Wilson's snipe.

Wilson’s snipe.

The friends I made in graduate school were some of the finest people I’ve ever been privileged to know, and those relationships seem to sweeten and intensify with time like a fine wine.   Can’t go back to those halcyon, treasured times, I know, but spending time with old friends like Skeate and Spears is maybe the next best thing.

Coco and her dude.

Coco and her dude.

The post-script to this story concerns stuff we didn’t see.  Before their visit, I was totally jazzed by the prospect of showing off the pair of painted buntings that had been visiting my gardens for the previous couple of weeks.  But both those birds disappeared about a week before my friends arrived, and despite my repeated entreaties to the bird gods, the male never returned while they were here.   Coco, the female, did put in brief appearances on Friday and Saturday afternoon, but the incomparably beautiful male waited until 3 hours or so after they pulled out this morning to make his return.   The serendipity of natural history.   Next year, my friends.

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.

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.