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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Day Trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park: I

Over the weekend my Aunt Theresa visited me in the Keys. We spent the weekend partaking in Key West culture, being tourists, and eating great food. I have been living in the Keys since the beginning of June, but I had yet to visit one of the most famous places down here, Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas National Park. As you can see on the map, it’s quite the haul to get out there. It’s located approximately 70 miles west of Key West as we know it, in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s expensive to get out there ($170 for adults which includes: breakfast, lunch, passage aboard the Yankee Freedom catamaran, National Park fee, snorkeling gear, and a 45 minute tour of the Fort), but well worth the money. It’s a long day as well, starting and ending with a 3 hour boat ride. All summer we’ve had great weather. No hurricanes, no tropical depressions, just normal tropical rainstorms that are over within in minutes, then back to sun. Of course, the weekend my aunt chose to fly down here from Michigan, we had some sort of tropical system sitting on top of us dumping wind and rain. We suffered through it by eating and drinking indoors at beautiful, delicious restaurants (poor us), but I REALLY wanted to go out to the Dry Tortugas! We waited until the very last moment, late Saturday night, to book our trip. The radar was showing an OK day for Sunday. We booked it, set the alarm for 6:00 am.

Looking from bow to stern while we
were still docked. Notice the bank of
black clouds in the direction we would be
We arrived at the Yankee Freedom III terminal, and boarded the boat with 100 other passengers, hoping and praying that we would have smooth sailing. As we pushed off, the sun was still shining, and we sat on the top deck soaking in the rays, and enjoying the breeze. Within minutes though, it started drizzling, and the water started rolling, and we were only 10 minutes into a 3 our trip. It was rough, to say the least. Pouring raining and whipping winds made for a very rocky trip, and people all around us were heaving. It wasn’t exactly the calm, relaxing, tropical tour I had hoped for. My aunt and I were strong though, and made it through without getting seasick. As we approached Fort Jefferson, the clouds did part and the sun did shine. Approaching the Fort, all I could think was that we were going back in time. I thought about how long construction projects take in 2014, and this Fort was built between 1846 and 1875, with something like 16 million handmade bricks from Pensacola, Florida! There were no high-speed ferries, or freshwater, or electricity out there then. Even now, freshwater and electricity is limited. This feat of construction is impressive. Click here for more information about the history and culture of Fort Jefferson.

Approaching Fort Jefferson within the Dry Tortugas National Park

My Aunt Theresa in front of Fort Jefferson. Sadly, my version of this picture got lost somehow!

The architecture was beautiful throughout the Fort.

From the second level looking towards the Harbor Lighthouse.

From the top of the Fort looking towards Bush Key, which is attached by a land bridge.

Bush Key
While the history is interesting, and the Fort itself is beautiful to walk through, and learn about, I was really interested in birding while I was visiting. Bush Key, as shown in the last picture, is home to two species of birds that almost exclusively nest here! Both the Brown Noddy and Sooty Terns call Bush Key home, and I was very fortunate to come at just the right time, the tail end of their breeding season. Bush Key has been closed off to visitors all summer, but the day before I visited, the beach reopened for visitors to walk. My aunt wasn’t interested in birding, so she went to tan on the beach, while I got out my camera and headed down the shore.

Unfortunately, I did not get any pictures of the Noddies or Sooties. There were just a few, and they were kind of soaring on the wind high above. I wasted 5 minutes trying to focus my camera to have *proof* that I saw them, but gave up. Who do I need to prove it to, right? :) Here are some other critters I saw while walking.

I believe this to be a house gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia), unless someone else can suggest something else!

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Unknown crab species

Ghost crab (Ocypode quadrata)

Land hermit crab (Coenobita clypeatus)

Assorted shells and coral bits that had washed up in the wrack line.
I realize this entry is getting lengthy, so I will come back with Part II in a few days. Enjoy the pictures, and start planning your trip RIGHT NOW!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Camera trap pics from Big Pine Key

All summer I’ve been camera-trapping here on Big Pine. Here are some cool images from the last round!

Key deer doe

Virginia opossum (considered invasive)

Keys raccoon

Key deer doe

Two mice or rats of unidentified species… hanging out together. I’m not sure what they are, but I do have an idea of what they’re doing!
Key deer buck

House cat
Keys raccoon

Green iguana

The bane of a camera trapper. Vegetation blowing in the breeze.

Key deer doe and fawn

Curious fawn

Keys raccoon

Green iguana

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Nonnatives vs invasive species

My posts concerning the Florida Keys have all been fluffy and full of pretty pictures and cute animals. I’ve decided that for this entry, if there’s anyone out there reading this, then I will teach you something!

I want to discuss native/nonnative/invasive species. I live in an area that is warm– nay, HOT, all year round. There is this general rule, that the closer you get to the equator, the more diverse the flora and fauna is. As far as American soil goes, I’m pretty much as close to the equator as one can be (OK, fine Puerto Rico is closer, but I’m talking STATES here people). Let’s define these terms, shall we? Then I can be on my way and get to the cool pictures I’ve been wanting to share with my blogosphere friends.

(I’ve kind of gleaned these definitions from various sources, and recollections from undergrad courses, and mushed them into the following…and I’m speaking to North America)

Native: those species present pre European settlement
Nonnative: species introduced intentionally or unintentionally post European settlement
Invasive: species that have a negative impact on the economy, environment, and/or human health.

It’s important to note as well, that not all nonnatives (or sometimes referred to as introduced species) are invasive, and sometimes natives can becoming invasive.

A male Ring-necked Pheasant, seen in the
Finger Lakes region of NY. Photo credit: Art Kirsch
Here are some examples: the Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) ranges across North America, and was brought here in the 1880′s from Asia, as a game species (All About Birds: Ring-necked Pheasant). Back in those days, this was common practice, and in some parts of the world it still is. This bird is a popular upland game bird hunted by many, but it’s not a species that has not become invasive. In fact, in New York for example, the population isn’t as abundant as hunters would like, so there’s a Pheasant Propagation Program. An example of a invasive nonnative species in NY, is the Eurasian boar (Sus scrofa Linnaeus). They are aggressive, compete for food with native species (black bear, Turkey, white-tailed deer), and they can destroy crops and agricultural lands. This is not a species NY wants on it’s landscape. For more info: NYSDEC: Eurasian boar.
Ok, so the point of all that information, was to provide you, the reader, with some definitions and information. I really wanted this posted to be all about the cool reptiles and amphibians I’ve seen in the Florida Keys. Unfortunately, many of the “herps” down here are nonnative and invasive. Here’s what I’ve seen, by order of discovery!

*Please note that my classifications of what is invasive, may be incorrect. This is information that I’ve learned living and working here, but may differ by opinion, agency, and location.

Six-lined racerunner (Cnemidophorus sexlineatus sexlineatus), NATIVE, No Name Key, FL, June 2014
Brown/Cuban anole (Anolis sangrei), NON-NATIVE/INVASIVE, Big Pine Key, FL, June 2014

Rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus), NATIVE, Big Pine Key, FL, June 2014
Green iguana (Iguana iguana), NON NATIVE/INVASIVE, Big Pine Key, FL, June 2014

Cuban treefrog (Osteopilus septentrionalis), NON NATIVE/INVASIVE, Big Pine Key, FL, June 2014
Mediterranean gecko (Hemidactlyus turcicus, turcicus), NON NATIVE/INVASIVE, Big Pine Key, FL, June 2014

American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), NATIVE, Big Pine Key, FL, June 2014
Florida softshell (Trionix ferox), NONNATIVE, Big Pine Key, FL, June 2014

Southern leopard frog (Rana spenocephala), NATIVE, Big Pine Key, FL, July 2014

Juvenile ashy gecko (Sphaerodactylus elegans), NON NATIVE/INVASIVE, Big Pine Key, FL, July 2014

Key ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus acricus), NATIVE, Big Pine Key, FL, August 2014

Eastern narrowmouth toad (Gastrophrynae carolinensis), NATIVE, Big Pine Key, FL, August 2014

Green anoles (Anolis carolinensis carolinensis), NATIVE, Big Pine Key, FL, August 2014
*Note, these individuals are copulating in this picture. The female is smaller.

-Tokay gecko (Gekko gekko), NON NATIVE/INVASIVE, Big Pine Key, September 2014 (Look these guys up on YouTube... they TALK!)
Other reptiles observed, but lacking photos:
-Southern black racer (Coluber constrictor priapus), NATIVE, Big Pine Key, FL June 2014
-Atlantic green turtle (Chelonia mydas mydas), NATIVE, Open ocean in Key West NWR, June 2014
-Black spinytail iguana (Ctenosaura similis), NON NATIVE/INVASIVE, No Name Key, June 2014
-American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), NATIVE, Key Largo, FL, July 2014

Many, if not most of these reptiles/amphibians, were released pets at one point. This is not only illegal, but unfair to that individual critter. The way someone once described this scenario to me, is to imagine yourself naked, without ID or money, and suddenly finding yourself in a foreign country. Now try to survive. Oh, and by the way it might snow and freeze on you! Other ways animals are finding their ways around, are as stowaways. As kids, my mom found an anole in BJs, in Albany. We don’t have those types of lizards in NY, nor does BJs have a pet department. A shipment of plants from a nursery in Florida had recently come in. Guess which kid got a free pet lizard that day?! This happens on cargo, freight, boats, cars, trains, etc. regularly.

The point of this entry was not to bore you with definitions, but to share some of the neat slimy and scaly wildlife I’ve seen this summer. It’s all cool to me, and I learned most of these guys in the herpetology course I took last year at SUNY Cobleskill. I just hope no one ends up in my car for the drive back to NY the end of this month!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunsets over Big Pine Key

I’ve been scarce this summer, I know. I’ve been super busy running around the Florida Keys working, educating, learning, playing, and soaking in the sunshine.

Sunset as seen from the Port Pine Heights neighborhood, July 2014

Sunset as seen from the Port Pine Heights neighborhood, July 2014

Highlights of my summer have included watching a pair of Anhingas court, build a nest, lay eggs, incubate, and now care for their 2 chicks.

Anhingas on the nest, Blue Hole, Big Pine Key, FL

Exploring Long Beach
I developed and help run a 6 week guided nature walk series throughout the summer. It ran Wednesday evenings, which quickly became my favorite time of day to be outside. The temps are lower, the sunsets are beautiful, and the bugs aren’t that bad! We’re finished now, as the kids here are back in school, which has surprised me! In NY I didn’t go back to high school until after Labor Day Weekend.

Our 6 weeks of walks had a different theme. Week #1 brought the group to the Long Beach part of the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge. This is an ocean-side (as opposed to bay-side, this is Keys lingo) beach. It’s not very pleasant for us humans, as there is a lot of vegetation, coral, rocks, and sea grasses. It’s fun to explore the intertidal zones, watch for birds, and run into Key deer along the way. We scooped up handfuls of sand, and realized that it’s not born from granite and quartz, like on the East Coast beaches, but it’s biological in nature. We could pick out tiny shells and bits of corals, which was really neat.

Gambusia sp. or more commonly known as Mosquito-fish, 
are dumped in the freshwater wetlands by a mosquito 
control company. These fish are used as a biological control 
for mosquitoes, which eat the larvae, and therefore help make 
the Keys liveable.
On our second guided walk, we ventured off the beaten path and explored a hidden freshwater wetland. People are surprised to hear that we have an abundance of available, fresh water. But, that’s a reason why we have wildlife like Key deer, marsh rabbits, wading birds, and amphibians. Personally, I wanted to find frogs during this trip. I spent a lot of time online the day before, looking up documented NATIVE species of frogs found on Big Pine Key. I even spoke with a herpetologist who had done work in the Keys, and was familiar with local critters. Unfortunately, we were skunked, and did not catch any frogs. We saw a couple, but they were much too quick! The kids thoroughly enjoyed it though, getting wet, catching fish with little nets, and I think just being outside!

Green Heron seen at the Blue Hole during the photo safari!
Week #3 brought us to a popular place on the Refuge, the Blue Hole. This is an old limestone quarry, and has filled in naturally with freshwater. Alligators, fish, turtles, birds, deer, lizards all spend a lot of time in and around Blue Hole. There’s a nice gravel patch that walks you through the trees, and out onto a wooden observation deck to view the pond. We encouraged our guests during this trip to take pictures. We called it a “photo safari”, and when we were finished, we returned to the visitor center to view everyone’s pictures and to print a couple of the best ones out.

Myself and a male fiddler crab! 
You can tell it’s a male, because of that 
one very large claw, used for defense and courting.
Week #4 wasn’t really a walk per se, but an adventure! We used seine nets at a boat launch area, to try and catch some little fish, crabs, or whatever else was present. The kids were really into it! We caught 2 different kinds of crabs (and these may not be 100% accurate names); mangrove crab and fiddler crab. We also caught a few species of “bait” fish which was awesome! We talked about the importance of mangroves, and the ethics of handling live animals. The weather was “mild” (as mild as it can be in the FL Keys in July… so, not SCORCHING), the sunset was gorgeous, and the kids got soaked! All around a great night, one of my favorites this summer.

These tree snails (Liguus fasciatus), are listed as species
of special concern in the State of Florida, and were almost
 completely wiped out due to over-collection.
We were lucky to spot some on No Name Key!
Week #5 took us onto the No Name Key, and the goal was to learn about and hopefully spot a White-crowned Pigeon. This is a very cool bird that is elusive, and wary. In the United States, it’s only found in South Florida, specifically the Keys. It is found through the Caribbean and Bahamas as well. Of course along the way we saw other cool critters like the tree snails, Key deer, spiders, and other birds! We had an assortment of folks join us throughout the summer, but had 2 families stick with us for the entire series. On this night, one of our youngest, a 6 year old little boy, led the pack. He was outfitted with a flashlight, binoculars, stainless steel forceps, and a “poker” stick. This kid cracks me up, but I’m refreshed by a kid who LOVES the outdoors and nature just as much as I do. His 3 year old sister as well was really into it. She collected every little thing she found to show me, and it was adorable.

Our final walk led us to find this rare Key ringneck snake 
presented itself to us. At first, I thought it was a juvenile, 
but after some research, it may be an adult! Very small, 
and that ring as seen on other ring-necked snakes, is faint.
The final walk was my favorite. We had perfect weather, the humidity seemed to slack off a little, and the sun was low. We took this walk to get folks out into the pine rockland habitat, which Southern Florida used to be in abundance of, especially the Keys. We saw birds a-plenty, and hoped for Lower Keys marsh rabbits and Key deer, but I think our group was a little too rambunctious!

The summer is winding down here. Even though this is the land of perpetual summer it seems, I can feel a difference in the air, the water looks different when I’m snorkeling, and the days are shortening. My time here as well is dwindling. It’s bittersweet, as I’ve made some great friends and contacts, and truly enjoyed the Keys lifestyle. But, I’ve landed another temporary position within the National Wildlife Refuge System, this time in Alabama! I’ll be journeying to NY the end of next month to visit friends and family (including the Albany area!), and to retrieve my dog Addie. Then Addie and Alyssa will make the journey south, once again! Alabama, here I come!

Sunset over the pine rocklands on Big Pine Key, August 2014.