Friday, October 17, 2014

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year…" I've had that tune running through my head all week. But not because the holidays are coming. They're still weeks away. And anyway, I'll have plenty of time for baking and parties in December. No, I'm thinking about Fall! That most wonderful time of the year when the temperatures and humidity drop and the windows pop open and people are sitting out on their porches enjoying the cool, dry air. The time of year when there are outdoor festivals and concerts on every weekend because its so pleasant to be outside. The time of year for migrating birds and butterflies and fall wildflowers! This is the time that Floridians live for. The perfect weather between too darned hot and cold enough that you need a coat. Fall! Spring is pretty great, too, but right now I'm living the moment. And the moment is Fall! Ahh.
Florida Friendly Landscape Tour
One small problem with the Most Wonderful Time of the Year is that, in Gainesville at least, everyone needs to fit their outdoor weekend events into a period of about 2 months. And Fall is further complicated by the Gator Football schedule. People plan weddings and even funerals around the football season here because there are so many people in town for the games that there are no hotel rooms available for miles around. So on a free weekend or away game, there will be so many things scheduled that you can't possibly do all of them. Festivals, Parades, Fun Runs, Nature Walks, Bird Counts, Clean ups, the list goes on. I feel like I've been signed up for most of them and I'm ready for the busy fall season to wind down so I can enjoy it a bit! In the past month I prepped our house to be on a tour of Florida Friendly Yards, sold photos at the Native Plant Sale, worked at the Florida Museum of Natural History Butterfly Fest, led a wildflower Walk at Morningside Nature Center, gave a talk to Alachua Audubon Society about Sharing Nature with Photography, and I have another wildflower walk this weekend. And all this on top of my regular life. Whew!
My Booth at the Native Plant Sale. I got rained out about half an hour later, but the next day was beautiful!
I have no idea why I agreed to do so many things in such a short period. I can only think that when I was saying yes back in the heat of summer, I must have had some memory the vigor and enthusiasm I feel in this most wonderful time, and I let it get a little out of control. But it's fine. It may sound like it, but I'm not complaining. Having too much to do is a whole lot better than the alternative. And there is an upside. Our yard looks marvelous, I bought lots of native plants, and sold some photos. And lately I've been out at Morningside a whole lot, scoping out the possible wildflower walk routes, and that is like a source of self sustaining energy for me. When I get out exploring and hiking and taking photos, I recharge my jets and I'm ready for more. Walking the trails these past 2 weeks made me realize how busy I had become, how my activities were keeping me from getting out in the field, and how much I loved the quiet sounds, the smells and the colors. It is completely soothing, like a nice massage or meditating. All the worries and stresses slip away. Yet again I am reminded that if I just build time out in nature into my life schedule, I'll will be so much happier. Coincidentally, just yesterday I heard a story on the local radio about a health initiative in Washington DC where pediatricians and the Park Service have teamed up to prescribe time out in nature as a therapy! You can read more or listen to the radio spot  here: Health in a Heartbeat--A different kind of prescription.
This is what I look forward to for all year! Summer Farewell in the Sandhill
Fall is really the best time to to see Wildflowers in this part of Florida. You can find flowers in one place or another all year, but fall, especially in the Sandhills, is when you'll see the biggest displays. And the flowers at Morningside this year are gorgeous! They take my breath away, like they do every year. Every year, the conditions are just a little different than the last. There has been more or less rain, cooler or warmer temperatures and the land management team might or might not have been able to burn. One year there may be no real color in a certain area, and then the next, it's splashed with purple. Last year there had been a late season burn in the area I usually lead people through on the walks, and the vegetation was just barely growing back. But in another section of the park, there was Liatris everywhere--purple spears waving in the wire grass. This year the color is white. Acres of Summer Farewell, looking like soft cotton mist, spread all over the sandhill that just last year was newly charred from a prescribed fire. Every year is a surprise.
Summer Farewell--Dalea pinnata
Here are some of the surprises I saw on my walks through the wildflowers at Morningside while I was preparing to guide people. If you would like to come along for a little nature therapy and see some of these wonders on the Wildflower Walk, I will be meeting people in the Morningside parking lot at 9 am on Saturday, October 18. Bring water, bug spray, a hat, and your camera if you're so inclined. It should be a gorgeous morning. If you can't make it to my walk, there will be one more on October 25th. I believe it will be led by Gary Paul, who is a Morningside expert. And you will see why this is the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

Blue Curls--Trichostema dichotemum

Blue Sage (With Beetles)--Salvia azuria

Buckeye Caterpillar on its host plant, Black Senna--Seymeria cassioides

Cloudless Sulphur feeding on Florida Paintbrush--Carphephorus corymbosus

Yellow Crab Spider on Golden Aster--Chrysopsis sp.

Young Buck on the Trail--I took this with my macro lens. He watched me and then stomped his foot a few times to let me know he didn't like me. Then he bounded off with a flip of his white tail.

Delta Flower Scarab on Florida Paintbrush--Carphephorus corymbosus

A profusion of Dog Fennel Flowers--Eupatorium compositifolium

Little bee inside of False Foxglove--Agalinis fasciculata
(FYI--we won't see this one on the route I will take on Oct. 18.)

"Bee Killer" Robber Fly with Bumble Bee prey

Flower Moth on Yellow Buttons--Balduina angustifolia

Golden Orb Weaver Spider that didn't bite me on the face when I walked through her web. I feel a little wimpy because I shrieked and dropped my camera.  She didn't seem too happy with me either, and I can't blame her.

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly feeding on Summer Farewell--Dalea pinnata

Little Orange Caterpillar covered with debris on Yellow Buttons--Balduina angustifolia

Colorful Katydid Nymph on Hawkweed--Hieracium sp.

Long Gayfeather Spear--Liatris tenuifolia

Lopsided Indiangrass--Sorghastrum secundum

Male mosquito feeding on Eupatorium mohrii (Males don't feed on blood. They like nectar!)

Pink Palafox--Palafoxia integrifolia

Procession Flower--Polygala incarnata

Rayless Sunflower--Helianthus radula

Red Banded Hairstreak on Black Senna--Seymeria cassioides

Tattered Tiger Swallowtail feeding on Florida Paintbrush--Carphephorus corymbosus

Southern Toad in a Gopher Tortoise Burrow



Monday, September 29, 2014

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes...

The Sweetwater Dike Trail--you can see the canal on the right 

This past weekend my husband and I took a trip to La Chua Trail in Paynes Prairie to get one last walk up Sweetwater Dike trail that will disappear after this week. It's funny, but for most of the 17 or so years that I've been visiting La Chua Trail, I didn't pay much attention to that trail. It was often overgrown and seemed hot and a little snaky, and I didn't think it really went anywhere. I was more interested in following the main trail down to the viewing platform at the end. But a few years ago I got more involved in birding and found a group of people that hiked out there a lot. Soon I discovered that it was a good place to look for certain birds. The path was lined with bushes and grass that provided good habitat for birds such as Orchard Orioles, Yellow Breasted Chat, Yellow Billed Cuckoo, Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Bobolinks and the occasional Painted Bunting, just to name a few. I also discovered that the trail could be a good place to find the bison, wild horses and feral hogs, as well as raccoons and an occasional bobcat. This year we had a very wet winter and a lot of the main La Chua trail was under water for much of the season. The Park rangers directed visitors out along the dike trail so they could still experience the wonders of Paynes Prairie and the path became very popular with birders, photographers and hikers. The marshes were especially vibrant this year, allowing good views of King Rails, Least Bitterns, Purple Gallinules, Sandhill Cranes, and Pied Billed Grebes and all varieties of chicks. Butterflies of all types enjoyed the flowers along the trail and the presence of Willows guaranteed a Viceroy in the late summer and fall. The wet weather flooded the low lying areas this year and we had an incredible display of American Lotus and Pickerelweed. And, yes, there were lots of alligators and snakes. My friends and I usually tried to make a lot of noise when we walked, but still managed to stand next to or even right on snakes in the grass. And many times I stood on that dike, surrounded by the bellowing of gators up and down the canal. It was a scary and thrilling sensation. Just this week I worried a mama gator and her clutch of new hatchling babies. It has been a wonderful addition to my Prairie experiences and it gave me many opportunities for amazing wildlife viewing.

Purple Gallinule Chick along the Sweetwater Dike this week

New Hatchling Gators by the side of the trail. They scattered as soon as they saw us!

The Sweetwater Dike trail is going to disappear because of a big, exciting water management project that is nearing completion on the edge of the Prairie. Filling in the canal that runs along the dike is one of the last phases to complete that project. Basically, the City and our local utility company (GRU), the County, and Paynes Prairie State Park have worked together with environmental consultants and contractors to purchase land next to the park and create a storm water treatment area that will filter and buffer storm run-off from the city through a series of created wetlands. The water will flow out of the wetlands, and the sheetflow over the Prairie will help filter and purify the water before it reaches the Alachua Sink, where it goes directly into the aquifer. You can read more about the project here at the City of Gainesville's website. Currently, the water is channelled through the Sweetwater Canal that was built in the 1930's by previous owners who ran cattle and wanted to dry out sections of the Prairie. The water comes into the canal from the city with all the associated pollution and excess nutrients that come from street and landscape runoff. The water also contains trash and seeds and pieces of invasive plants. Creating the wetlands and filling in the canal will help restore the sheet flow to spread the water runoff evenly over the Prairie and the plants and trash will be caught in traps before they reach the Prairie. In addition, the project includes 2-3 miles of trails and boardwalks around the 3 wetlands and there are plans for an educational buildings and observation towers, too.

Wetlands to the left, construction road in the middle

Boardwalk and Plantings

Outdoor Classroom, Boardwalks and one of the Wetlands

Boardwalk over the Wetlands

I had an opportunity to tour the Sheetflow Project construction site with members of Alachua Audubon last month. It was not my first trip there, but it was my first trip coming in the "front door" and walking on the trails and boardwalks, rather than from the Sweetwater Dike trail which leads right there. Judging from my preview of the Sheetflow Project, I'm pretty sure it is going to become one of my new favorite places for hiking and photography. The wetlands are almost complete, but even as the ponds were first being built, the alligators and wading birds were moving in to this attractive new habitat. The native plantings around the construction area are taking hold and during the tour I took last month, we saw Roseate Spoonbills, many types of Sandpipers, Limpkins, Black Bellied Whistling Ducks, Dowitchers, Plovers, Kingfishers, and a Great White Heron, just to name a few. Tracks in the mud showed that that raccoons, armadillos and deer had moved right in, too. One of the rangers at Paynes Prairie told a group of volunteers last fall that a side benefit from the construction of the Sheetflow Project was that it will be such a nice wildlife viewing area that might take some of the pressure off of the more fragile La Chua Trail that has become enormously popular over the past 6-8 years.
Birds already moving in. There is a Roseate Spoonbill in the group.

Wide Variety of Wading Birds

Sandpipers

Big Colony of Black Bellied Whistling Ducks

Something for Everyone! Note Kingfisher in the tree.

Semi Palmated Plover

Limpkins have found some exotic Apple Snails

Have no fear, Raccoons are Here!

I am definitely going to miss the Sweetwater Dike trial. In a short time I became quite fond of walking up there. I know that animals will be displaced and that there will be casualties. My husband and I saw the remains of a squashed snake on the trail, probably run over by heavy equipment, and a little turtle that didn't make it. The gator nest I saw this week will be relocated one way or another. And the birds will come back next spring to find their familiar bushes and trees missing. But nature is pretty good at healing and I'm fairly confident that the animals will find new places and will probably really benefit from the new, improved landscape. I am very optimistic and hopeful about the changes to come and look forward to this winter when the boardwalks are supposed to be open to the public. All of the people that I have met who are connected to the Sheetflow Project have been dedicated and sincere about their commitment to the project. I believe that they have done all they can to make sure that disruptions to the wildlife will be done with great care.  We visitors will lose one nice access to close nature encounters, but we will gain many more in the boardwalks around the wetlands.
Setting up Silt Baffles before the construction begins

Taking out Trees on the sides of the path

Snake Casualty--Not sure what happened to it
So, things they are a changin'. And just imagine--2 incredible natural areas, La Chua Trail and the Sweetwater Branch/Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Project right next door to each other! I can't wait to get out there and explore!
Pickerel Weed on the Wet Prairie


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

It Had to Be Done

I have a Cuban Tree Frog in my freezer and it makes me sad. It's in the freezer because Cuban Tree Frogs are invasive exotic species that outcompete native frog and lizard species for food and habitat, and even eat them. Even their tadpoles compete with other species. Their skin has toxic secretions and they can make other animals that touch or eat them sick. They are causing huge environmental harm here in Florida, outside of their natural habitat with disease and predators that will control their populations. Biologists recommend that if you find a Cuban Tree Frog in Florida, you should kill it. And freezing is a humane way to do this. When I found this big frog sleeping on a fence in my yard, my heart sunk, because I knew what I had to do. I hate killing animals. I tried to find someone who would take it off my hands, someone who would use it to do environmental education or who would keep it in captivity and know to never let it get out or spawn. But I couldn't find anyone like that. And when I looked on line to make sure I was doing the right thing, I read that it was actually illegal to release them and that it was my responsibility to kill it. Wow. Heavy stuff.
Cuban Tree Frog
I'm not entirely sure, but I think it could have been the same Cuban Tree Frog that I found living in a rock cavity on my front porch earlier this summer. I didn't kill that frog because I had no way of getting it out to catch it in the first place. The frog had chosen a very secure hiding space. And so it sat in its hole, day and night, looking out at me like Jabba the Hutt. I checked on it regularly for several days, until one morning, to my relief, I found the hole empty. I immediately plugged it up with a paper towel and the frog did not return. Or so I thought.
Cuban Tree Frog in The Hole
Then last week, when I was cutting bamboo in the yard, I saw it. Big, about twice the size of our native tree frogs, and beige, with huge toe pads. Definitely a Cuban Tree Frog. I was wearing garden gloves for protection, so I reached over and grabbed it. It wasn't at all hard to catch, which made this feel even worse. I put the frog into a plastic mango container and poked some air holes in it, in case I could find someone to take it. I felt guilty taking a photographs of a condemned creature, so I just took a few shots on my phone for a record. I sat the container with the Tree Frog on the table and looked at it, feeling great sadness and respect for the beauty and life of this creature, but also knowing that it was impossible for it to remain here. It was a beautiful animal with huge, patterned eyes, distinctive facial features, and such delicate and interesting toes. And I felt this terrible sense of guilt. Who put me in charge of life or death? But there was even more guilt knowing what would happen if I let it go. This stewardship thing is hard.
Cuban Tree Frog
I read that the preferred way to kill a Cuban Tree Frog is to rub benzocaine or some other topical numbing agent on its abdomen, and then freeze it. This is supposed to knock them out and make the freezing more humane. I am sad to admit that I did not have any benzocaine (but I will buy some to have on hand if I ever need it again) and so I just put the mango container with the frog in the freezer, wrapped in a plastic bag so I couldn't see it. I didn't feel very brave or heroic. I told the frog that I was very sorry, and that if I had found it in another place and time, I would have admired and appreciated it for all its glory. I would have photographed it and told everyone at home about how lucky I was to have seen one of these amazing animals. But this is the sad reality of invasive exotic species. They can be beautiful and wonderful, in their native environment. But outside of that place, they become ecological horrors, through no fault of their own. I have a Cuban Tree Frog in my freezer and it makes me sad.