Tuesday, January 13, 2015

New Year's Resolve


2015 is brand new and all full of promise for positive change. Most years I make a list for myself of resolutions for the coming year. As with most people, my resolutions have mixed results. I usually do ok on the easy ones like "get outside more" and "travel to interesting places". I don't do as well with "eat fewer sweets" or "exercise regularly", probably because my conviction is lacking. But this year I have just one resolution, and I'm serious about it. I am going to double down on my efforts to reduce my harmful impact on the environment. I've been working on this already for many years. I already try to cut back on driving and walk or bike when I can, I keep the thermostat low in the winter and high in the summer, I bring my own shopping bags to the store, carry my own water bottles, conserve water and don't use many chemicals around the house. But I had an eye-opening experience this week that has made me want to concentrate on reducing the amount of waste, specifically plastic, that we produce in our household. I have to give you a little background first.

My husband and I traveled a lot after Christmas this year. First we visited Santa Cruz, California. (I'll have a post about that soon.) Immediately following that trip, Art attended a conference in West Palm Beach, Florida, and I tagged along so I could see some South Florida nature, so we flew from coast to coast (a blog post about that will follow, too.) On the last day of his meeting, I decided to go visit John D. MacArthur State Park, which was about a half hour from our hotel. It's a barrier island and because it has a long stretch of undeveloped beach, it is a good place for sea turtles to nest in the summer months.
Old sea turtle egg shells from a summer hatching that I found on the beach.
But this was January and there was little hope that I would see a wild sea turtle, although I hoped I might. I turns out that they do have some rescued baby turtles in tanks that the park holds for a few years before being released. It's hard to photograph turtles swimming behind glass, but here is a baby loggerhead:

Tiny Loggerhead Turtle
I walked along the beach for a while, watching the waves and scanning for dolphins. It was a gorgeous day with blue skies and water. I saw some gulls, osprey and pelicans and a few beachcombers. Kind of a quiet and peaceful spot.

Miles of Undeveloped Beach
Then I spotted something rolling in the surf and went to investigate. It was hard to tell what I was looking at for a while, but then I saw the shell. A sea turtle! I was so excited and waited and watched to see what it would do. But the turtle kept rolling in the surf and didn't change position much. Occasionally I saw a flipper or its head and I hoped that it was just concentrating on eating something.
Sea Turtle?

Not Looking Good
It soon became clear that there was something wrong with this turtle and I decided to call the ranger station. (What did we do before cell phones?) I found my park map, made my call, and soon two Park Rangers showed up carrying a plastic bin in case the turtle could be rescued.

Ranger Rob swam into the water and reached the turtle in just a minute.
Retrieving the Turtle

Looking for injuries or signs of life

The turtle didn't make it.
I kept thinking that I could see some movement from the flippers, but it was wishful thinking. After looking at it in the water, Rob indicated that the turtle was dead. He brought it back to shore and placed it in the plastic bin and I was able to get a closer look. The rangers told me that it was a Green Sea Turtle that appeared to be a couple of years old. It had no obvious injuries and was pretty freshly dead. They noted barnacles on the shell which could indicate that it was a weak swimmer before it died. They thought that a necropsy would be done to determine the cause of death. Then conversation turned to one of the greatest hazards to sea animals--plastics. There was always the chance that the turtle had ingested plastic and may have choked, or its stomach maybe have become filled with plastic bits that could cause it to starve because it couldn't fit any food in. This turtle did not look malnourished, though.


Ranger Art talking about the sea turtle
I spent a few minutes looking at this beautiful animal, with its perfect shell, shiny brown scales and sad eyes, and felt like crying. All of us were sad. And then the rangers solemnly carried the turtle away in the plastic bin.
It was so special to be this close to the turtle

Sad, beautiful eyes

Carrying the turtle back to the ranger station
I stood on the sand for a while, soaking in the enormity of the tragedy. It was too early for me to head back home, so I planned to walk along the beach for a while more in the peace of the park. Then something blue caught my eye. There was a large tangle of rope and fishing line lying in the sand, where any critter in the surf could get stuck in it. I couldn't believe I was seeing this right after finding the dead turtle and felt so angry at humanity for creating this garbage. I went over to pull it out of the sand and carry it to the trash, but it turned out that it was stuck in the rocks and I couldn't get it out.
Rope stuck in the rocks under the sand
It was a defeating feeling. Even though I didn't know what had killed my green sea turtle, I felt protective of it. It felt to me that if I left this rope in the sand, there was no way I could protect the rest of the sea turtles. But right next to the rope I found an old shoe. And a plastic bag. And then a can. I remembered that I carried a plastic bag in my camera bag "just in case", and so I loaded up the trash I had collected. Suddenly I could see bits of trash all around me. Somehow I had just been blind to it as I walked up the beach, but now I had "trash vision", and a mission--Save the Sea Turtles! I picked up every bit of trash I could see between there and the boardwalk. It felt therapeutic.

What's wrong with this picture? Little plastic pieces everywhere.

Don't get me started on balloons. I hate them. This one was caught in the protected dune plants so I didn't go in after it. I'm sure the park staff will take care of it.
Another beach walker stopped and thanked me for cleaning up and invited me to the beach cleanup on the weekend. I told him that I wasn't from the area, but after finding the dead sea turtle, felt moved to do my part to help that day. He told me that people clean up the beach all the time, but more trash washes up every day. I asked about the rope stuck in the sand and he said there were a lot of things like that on the beach, including a huge ship's engine that had been stuck in the rocks for years. Sometimes there is only so much you can do. And yet there is so much that needs to be done.

When I got back to the trash can, I had planned to lay out all my collection and take a photo to show how many small plastic bags, plastic shoes and bits of styrofoam I had found in my half hour of cleaning, but I was afraid the wind would blow it away. This is my bag, pretty much full:

Just a small assortment.
I couldn't help but feel that we humans must do a better job with our stewardship. I've read about trash islands the size of Texas floating in the ocean, and dead sea birds that when autopsied are so stuffed with bits of colorful plastic that they starved. Sea turtles gobble plastic bags and balloons that look like their favorite food, jellyfish, and they choke and die. There are microscopic bits of plastic in the bellies of most sea animals. This is absurd. Here's an interesting chart from Mote Marine Laboratory that shows how long it takes for various kinds of ocean debris to degrade:

So where does the trash come from? Some is probably just carelessly dropped by visitors to the beach. But some washes off of boats, blows off of piers, out of trash cans, and even flies out of garbage trucks on the way to the dump. I witnessed trash blowing out of a garbage truck as I drove away from the park down A1A later in the day. So even if you put your trash in the can, it might blow out and end up in the environment. Some people are careless, but sometimes accidents happen. You can read an interesting article about ocean trash from National Geographic News by clicking here.  It seems like the best solution is just to create less waste. But it's not that easy. I'm all for measures like banning plastic bags and plastic water bottles, but they are just a small part of the immense problem. In our disposable society, there is plastic packaging on almost everything and our products are not made to last. When something breaks, we just throw it away and buy another. The coasts and parks and ditches are loaded with old tires, TV's, and other crap that people didn't want any more and just tossed. I was surprised and sad to find trash in the Peruvian Amazon when we visited a few years ago. The importance of reducing my impact isn't new news to me. I've been aware of it for much of my life. But somehow seeing that beautiful turtle made it more real and urgently important. I don't even know if it was trash that killed it, but I want to work harder to make the world a better place for other turtles and other creatures, including myself. It's important to me to be able to someday see a free, healthy sea turtle in the wild, and not only through the glass of an aquarium. So I resolve to do my part to cut back, to reduce, re-use and recycle with a vengeance, and keep my crap from ending up in the ocean and the environment. This is for the sake of the turtles and for the world we all live in.
We all have to do our part.







Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Keep the Barr Open!

It's hard to believe, but once again the people of Alachua County are doing battle with a small group of homeowners who are trying to limit access to public preserved lands. Last time it was an individual trying to buy part of a city nature park. This time it is a group of homeowners whose property borders a half mile section of the Levy Loop Trail at Barr Hammock Preserve. They claim that the noise of hikers on the trail disturbs them and that increased foot traffic so near their homes is a security danger. They are complaining about cameras aimed at their homes, loose dogs on their property and increased bear sightings, among other things. As a solution, these homeowners have proposed that the half mile of the loop trail that borders their yards be closed to the public. County land managers have tried to work with them, posting signs that ask visitors to be quiet for half a mile on the loop, and offering to plant vegetation that would create a privacy screen. But the homeowners want to have their views of the natural area, and they want to be alone while they view it.
Public Support, Public Funding, Public Land
The property was acquired between 2006 and 2010 by Alachua County using conservation funds from many agencies dedicated to purchasing, restoring and preserving environmentally significant land. Originally a wetlands, the prairie had been drained and used for many years for cattle grazing. It took several years after the purchase to restore the wetlands--to fill in canals that drained the marsh, build the levee trails to hold the water in and install water pipes to control the water levels during seasonal flooding. The community was very excited about this new trail that would loop around the marsh. Barr Hammock Preserve opened to the public in February of 2013. At the ribbon cutting, there was a large crowd of enthusiastic nature lovers of all ages and types. There were local politicians, birders, runners, bikers, conservationists and just people who appreciate beautiful places. After the introductions, histories and dedication, there were hikes and hay rides led by naturalists and it was a wonderful day. Barr Hammock quickly became a popular spot for nature lovers all over the county.
Educational Bike Rack

Florida Watersnake

Water Moccassin

History of the Property

You can see the Loop Trail on the Lower Left

Watch for snakes, no dogs, protect the cranes and be careful!
I am one of those nature lovers and I've been on the trail probably 10 times over the past year and a half. I walked the entire 6 1/2 mile loop the day of the ribbon cutting, but for most of my visits, I walk a mile or so out on one side, then walk back, and then walk a mile or so and back on the other side. That way I can experience a little of the open, sunny walk on the north, as well as some of the shady, swampy side on the south. My experience is that the north side tends to have lots of birds, bugs and flowers, while the shady south side is where I've seen snakes and otters.
Beginning the Sunny Walk Along North Levee

Looking Back from the North, Over the Prairie

Phoebe

Sandhill Cranes

Great Egret

Dewy Spiderweb

Coyote Scat

Burmarigold (Bidens laevis)

Beggars Ticks (Bidens mitis)

Big Flock of Pigeons

Bladderwort (Ultricularia inflata)

Swamp Sparrow

Viceroy

Mockingbird

Then you go back and try the other side

Walking on the South Levee

Orbweaver Spider and bugs

Phaon Crescent Butterfly

Shady Swamp

So here's the problem. This is a 6 1/2 mile loop trail and the homeowners who live near the beginning of the loop would like to turn this into a one way trail and not allow visitors to pass in front of their homes. This means that anyone who wants to walk to the north side, with its vast horizons and marshes for birds will need to walk 6 miles in and 6 miles back. This just isn't fair. It restricts access for all but those who have the ability to go so far. In the summer, especially, 12 miles will be daunting. There are no bathrooms or drinking fountains. Essentially, these homeowners would close most of the trail just by making it too hard to get to. They want to enjoy the fruits of a beautiful wet prairie restoration (remember that just a few years ago it was dry cattle grazing ground), paid for by public funds, all by themselves.
Six Miles Either Way
One funny thing about the noise complaint--the trailhead is right next to I-75. It is so loud there that when my hiking buddy drove in today, I was taking photos and couldn't even hear her car come in. The traffic is very loud up to about the first half mile on either side of the loop. Only after you turn away from the road does it start to quiet down. It just seems like a stretch to say that the voices of the birders, bikers, hikers and families are more disturbing than the interstate. And there usually are very few people out using the trail, anyway. My friends and I are usually alone when we hike during the week. Weekends may be different, but it's just hard to imagine it's that bad.
Entrance Right Next to I-75

Quiet Parking Lot
I can sympathize to a small degree with the homeowners. It probably feels intrusive to have someone with binoculars aimed toward your house, even if the person is looking for birds. The same goes for cameras with big lenses. And people outside enjoying themselves can be loud. Some people might bring dogs, even though it is not allowed. And there are just jerks everywhere who yell, litter, and do stupid, rude things. And if these homeowners did live in the houses before the trail opened, they got used to their privacy, with their vistas looking out over the grazing land. But now the land has been restored and is gorgeous and they still want their privacy. You just can't have it both ways. They just have to share. It's public land and you can't make it private for just a few. But the public has to be respectful and polite. People with cameras and binoculars can remember that there are homes behind those bushes, and everyone should keep their voices down in the early morning hours. You see more wildlife that way, anyway! We can find a way to get along and play well together.
Mutual Respect is the Only Way
This is late notice, but there is an Alachua County Commission meeting tonight to address this issue. Come to the meeting and show your support for public lands. 5pm. Alachua County Administration Building, 12 SE 1st Street, Room 209. Keep the Barr Open.

************************
Update after the Commission meeting: The Commissioners decided to keep the entire trail open after the homeowners withdrew their request to close the half mile, which is a good thing. And then in order to ease the concerns of the homeowners, they voted to ask the land management staff to do further evaluation about how to discourage visitors from taking the North Levee and add some more interpretive signs. I won't go into the meeting. It was, as a friend put it, like watching the sausage being made, and I'm a little queazy over it still. Local government is not a pretty thing. But I think the public was mostly served in the end and our trail is open. Go enjoy.

One thing I learned at the meeting that I hadn't fully appreciated before was that this is just the first phase of a much larger project. In the near future there will be more trails to the south, with more options such as horse trails and better bike trails. And there will be another entrance, which should take some of the pressure off of these homeowners.

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