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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.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Warning: CUTE factor!

Photo credit: USFWS – Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge. 
A LKMR as seen on a research camera on Big Pine Key, FL
Big Pine Key, where I live and work, is home to several endangered species. One that I’m interested in, because they’re often forgotten because they aren’t large and exciting mega-fauna, is the Lower Keys marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri). The LKMR is a subspecies of the marsh rabbit, which is not considered endangered, but because these are only found from Big Pine Key to Key West, they have that subspecies designation.

There are volunteers at our Refuge who have told me they’ve never seen a LKMR. I think that is for two reasons: 1) LKMRs are few in number and very skittish on Big Pine and 2) You have to know where to look! They aren’t as common as Eastern cottontails, like I know back in New York. And they certainly are too shy to be in your yard nibbling. Where I have seen them most, is driving down a dead end gravel road at dusk, or I surprise them as I come around a corner on the road, and they’ve been grazing on the shoulder. As soon as they think they’ve been spotted… off they go!

Fun fact: In the 1980′s Hugh Hefner’s corporation donated money to their research and conservation efforts, thus their subspecies name: hefneri!

Four LWMRs grazing on a dead end road. No through traffic, and the houses that are on this road, seemed to be closed up for the season. (Yes, there are 4…the blob furthest to the right is 2 rabbits close together)
LKMRs are considered endangered because their population numbers have dropped very low due to habitat destruction and fragmentation due to commercial and residential development: the same old sad story, right? There is also worry of feral domestic cats hunting and eating LKMRs, which doesn’t help their situation. Naturally, these rabbits have few native predators. The only noted mammal that I suppose MAY harass them, are the raccoons. But I highly doubt a raccoon would take a rabbit and eat it. There are no foxes, wild cats like bobcats, or coyotes. There are predatory birds like hawks, owls, and eagles, but the LKMRs live in dense vegetation, which would make it very difficult for a bird to see from above, and have access to catching them.

Premium habitat includes “higher” elevation (so in the Keys, only several feet above sea level, usually the center of an island), freshwater wetlands, hardwood hammocks, and they require dense grasses and sedges for feeding, cover, and nesting. The few times I’ve seen them out in the open, dense cover has been only a few bounds away.

A Lower Keys marsh rabbit seen on Big Pine Key, FL.

 I quite enjoy seeing these small rabbits. Some people may say “Oh a rabbit is a rabbit”, but it’s just not true. In Alaska I was captivated by the behaviors and physicality of the snowshoe hares, and in NY, even though they’re very common, I love to learn about the Eastern cottontails. A past professor of mine, John (he who inspired me to blog!), just recently wrote an blog entry about small mammal live-trapping. He began by explaining that most of us, when asked to think about mammals, immediately think of our pets, farm animals, or zoo animals! In fact, this is a skewed representation of our mammals on Earth. Most of our critters are small and maybe don’t seem as “cool” as glamorous as lions, and tigers, and bears… I do like to learn about them, photograph them, and be allowed to see them in their native habitats.

A wonderful resource, although perhaps a little dated, is the Lower Keys March Rabbit Species Profile, that was written by biologists at the Refuge I’m interning at: Lower Keys Marsh Rabbits.

Since I arrived here, I’ve been trying and trying to capture my own camera trap images or videos of these bunnies. I was finally successful, although the video isn’t the greatest. I will share it though, because darn it! I finally got one!

Enjoy!

video

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Life as an Intern at Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge

Image credit: USFWS
I’ve been on Big Pine Key for 1 month, and I think I’m settled into the “swing” of things and pretty well acclimated. The hardest things to adjust to: heat and humidity, and not having my dog with me. I had to leave Addie with my parents for a few months. This is a temporary internship, and I’m staying in government housing which doesn’t permit me to have a pet. But the heat! The humidity! We have both in New York, for sure, but it’s never-ending here. After a storm, at night, first thing in the morning… around 90 degrees and high humidity! Fortunately, there is air conditioning everywhere here, so working indoors is quite comfortable.

I am interning for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex, which consists of 4 Refuges: Crocodile Lake NWR on Key Largo, Great White Heron NWR (Keys to the North of the Lower Keys), Key West NWR (Located ~25 miles West of Key West), and the Key Deer NWR (on Big Pine Key).

Staffing the front desk of the 
Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge visitor center!
I live and work on Big Pine Key, where the visitor center is. My duties include staffing the front desk, and greeting and interacting with visitors to our Refuge. Most common questions: where can we see Key deer? and: what are Key deer, how did they get so small? I also put together an evening program that’s family friendly, which is an opportunity to see parts of our Refuge that we don’t necessarily visitors to. So far we’ve traveled to the Long Beach access point and observed shore birds and learned about the importance of the stinky, smelly sea grass that’s washed up on shore (bird feeding habitat!), and last week we hung out in a freshwater wetland in hopes of catching frogs… the frogs were not cooperative. We’ve had some really enthusiastic kids join us, and I’m looking forward to the rest of our programming this summer. 

My co-intern, Heidi, and I also take out the GEM car, a cool little electric car that we used to be “out there” on the Refuge in the evening so that people can ask us questions, and so that we can also try and deter feeding of the Key deer. I’ve also worked on vamping up our Facebook posts and information sharing by starting a “Wildlife Wednesday” and “Flora Friday”, which on those days, I feature a native species of wildlife or plant with a picture and a brief blurb. It’s been fun for me learning about the biota that calls the Refuge home. Again, our Facebook page is: Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex … check us out and “like” us!

I also hope to get involved in some biological stuff as well, while I’m here. Even if it’s just a ride along for a day with a biologist. I was afforded the chance to head out to the Key West National Wildlife Refuge, which is pretty much a preserve and closed to the public due to sea turtle and bird nesting habitat. It was a real privilege to be able to accompany one of our Law Enforcement Officers, Steve, and our Deputy Refuge Manager, Chris out there. It was everything we dream and hope for with tropical islands. Turquoise, clear water, hot, sunny… paradise! And pristine because people haven’t been out there ruining it  :)

Key West National Wildlife Refuge – Mercases Keys

The wildlife sightings have kept me busy, and I have some fun entries to write. For now, I’ll leave you with a compilation of some Key deer videos I put together. They were taken via camera trap in my yard here on Big Pine Key, Florida.

video

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Blue Hole

The “Lower Keys” consists of Big Pine Key to Key West.
When many people think of the Keys, they think sand and saltwater. While there are both of those features here, you may be surprised to learn that we don’t have the BEST sandy beaches here, and we have an abundance of fresh water. The Lower Keys, where I live, is built on a fossilized coral reef.

Because of this coral reef, the ground is very hard, beaches are not that sandy, and there is coral EVERYWHERE. This also means that freshwater is able to be held in what is referred to as a “lens” just under the surface of the ground. Elevation on Big Pine is less than 5 feet above sea level, and it is probably more accurate to say its less than 2 feet in elevation. This lens just hovers under the surface, and has allowed animals and people to inhabit this island. There are many freshwater wetlands on Big Pine Key, which is surprising to many, including myself. While I’m out on the Refuge, I’ve noticed many shallow, open water habitats, all of which is freshwater.

Many years ago, when these islands were really being developed, in an attempt to raise roads, the railway and buildings, some of this fossilized coral, now limestone, was quarried. Have you ever dug a hole in the ground, and hit the water table? That’s what happens here, in the quarries.

The Blue Hole at dusk.
One of my favorite spots on the National Key Deer Refuge, is the Blue Hole, which is one of the abandoned quarries. It has since filled in with freshwater, but also contains a layer at the bottom of denser saltwater. This is primarily considered a “freshwater habitat” but, after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, several saltwater species of fish (tarpon and barracuda) washed in, and can still be seen today. I’ve witnessed the tarpon breaching, and it’s pretty impressive!

The Blue Hole is probably most famously home to several alligators (Alligator mississippiensis). These ‘gators can be seen often sunning themselves, from the safety of a wooden observation deck overlooking the pond. Of course these are wild animals, and there is no fence keeping them contained, so visitors should keep their distance, and refrain from feeding them.

One of the 'gators seen at Blue Hole.
The Blue Hole also has many species of birds that frequent the area, that may not be seen elsewhere because of the abundance of freshwater here. My favorites so far this summer are a nesting pair of Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) (+1). There is clearly a male and a female that are attentive to the nest, but there is also what I’ve deemed to be a juvenile, unsure of sex. This bird has been observed plucking dead sticks as well as green sticks, and passing them off to the pair, as well as swimming and roosting near the pair. I haven’t been able to figure their situation out, but the nest is close to the observation deck, and I’ve been getting some great pictures!

Male (standing) and female on nest.
  


Here the juvenile Anhinga was observed about 30 feet from the nest, and both adults, gathering nesting material? Apparently you can’t determine sex of an Anhinga until after it’s 3rd winter, so I don’t know if this is male or female yet.

This night, I was fortunate to watch the female take over the nest from the male. The video quality isn’t the best (sorry), my camera was constantly trying to focus, and I was without a tripod! Still, it was awesome to watch.

Mom is now on the nest, and dad tends to her and the nest.
A White-crowned Pigeon 
seen feeding amongst poisonwood.
The next bird I finally got a picture of at Blue Hole, but found all over Big Pine Key, is the White-crowned Pigeon (Patagioenas leucophela). These birds are unlike other pigeons or doves that we’re all familiar with. They are uncommon in the Keys, except for this time of year, and they are very timid and wary. They’re seen flying in small groups, and feeding in poisonwood, which is a nasty cousin of poison ivy. They eat the fruit, and nest on the more remotes islands of the Keys. It’s been difficult to catch one close enough, and sitting still to get a picture. I’m pleased with the one at left!

These birds are at their northernmost range in Florida, but are common throughout the Caribbean island. They are even hunted and eaten in those islands. Here in Florida though, they are protected. I am glad to add another member of this Pigeon/Dove family to my bird list, to expand past the Rock Dove and Mourning Dove!

While I was trying to photograph the above Pigeon, I kept hearing a musical song and frenetic movement in the canopy over me. I couldn’t get a good look at it, as it was moving quickly and it was reaching dusk. I finally was able to pinpoint it, and get a good look at it. The picture below is the best I could do given the lighting and the bird’s behavior. Before I left Blue Hole for the night, I was guessing that I had photographed a warbler or vireo, just based on it’s location in the canopy, and I saw it feeding on insects (both warblers and vireos are insectivorous).

White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus)

After getting home, and sending my picture to my ornithology professor from SUNY Cobleksill, I confirmed that it was a White-eyed Vireo. Check it out at All About Birds: White-eyed Vireo, and give it’s song a listen.

The last bird I got the chance to see, was an Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). He was quite a distance away, sitting on a snag. But the sky was beautiful behind him, so he’s included!

Osprey at Blue Hole

The FINAL cool critter I saw over at Blue Hole the other night was a Florida softshell turtle (Apalone ferox). We had a soft shell in our herpetology lab at Cobleskill, which could fit in the palm of my hand. It was so different than any other turtle or tortoise I had seen. Their shell is leathery and soft, and they have a little snout on them, which they can use as a snorkel!

I saw this Florida softshell at Blue Hole, right next to an alligator. They were totally unconcerned with each other. This turtle was probably 12-14″ from end to end of his carapace (top shell). Really cool animal.

Florida softshell turtle
More to come soon, as I get the time and inclination to post! Happy summer!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Life on Big Pine Key, FL

SUNY Cobleskill graduation 
May 10, 2014
Whoa!

Life has been crazy this past month! On May 10th, I graduated with my Bachelors degree in Wildlife Management from SUNY Cobleskill. Rewind back to the week of Thanksgiving last fall, I started applying for jobs and internships to begin immediately after graduation. I watched my friends and classmates snag awesome opportunities all over the country, and I felt left out and disappointed. I felt like I was lacking somehow, and that all this work and energy was for naught. I know, kind of dramatic, but 6 months of rejection will make you think the worst of your abilities!

Finally, finally, FINALLY I got the call: Would you like to come on board??? And lucky, lucky, LUCKY me, it was for an internship in the Florida Keys! The Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Ranger, Kristie, interviewed me on a Thursday, and hired me on a Monday. Within 5 days, I was on the road and I made it down here on June 9th. It was a quick transition from hanging out in my college town, empty of friends, trying to figure out my week/summer/life, and trying to budget my limited funds to stuff whatever I could into my car, and heading 1,500 miles South!

I’m working as a “Visitor Services” intern in the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge office on Big Pine Key. This is the most commonly visited refuge, out of the other 4 refuges in the Keys. Key West NWR, Great White Heron NWR, and Crocodile Lake NWR are the remaining refuges that make up the complex. Hey, check us out and “like” us on Facebook! You’ll see some of my pictures and writing from time to time as well as some awesome wildlife pictures –> Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex .

Ok, you’re all here for pictures. So I will post pics of the critters I’ve run into so far, and in subsequent entries I will elaborate on the natural history of some. I hope you enjoy!

The first animals are the famous Key deer. These guys are the same species of white-tailed deer found in Northern/Eastern United States and Canada. They are a subspecies. I’ll get into all of that later, but for now: notice their SIZE and how TAME they are!

A Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) buck checking me out. You’ll notice how close I am to these deer. They are very conditioned to be in close proximity to people, unfortunately, but they do make for nice photos.

Key deer fawn

I was exploring the refuge the other day, and sat on a stump when these two walked right up to me, to check me out.

No zoom. They were looking for a hand-out, which unfortunately many people have probably fed them before. This makes them less “wild” and more susceptible to getting hit by a vehicle, because they’re often fed from cars.

This is a refuge vehicle I was using the other day, and as I was walking to the car, the pair followed me and cut between me and the car. Begging for treats!

Signage is EVERYWHERE to warn visitors and residents to watch their speeds, and that it is unlawful to touch or feed the deer.

A Florida box turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri) found rummaging in the yard in front of my house.

A six-lined racerunner (Cnemidophorus sexlineatus), a VERY speedy lizard!

An anole lizard, specific species unknown. Likely a brown anole (Anolis sangrei). This guy is probably a male, and he’s showing me his dewlap trying to scare me off!

I found a Mediterranean house gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) in…the house! The poor guy was very easily caught because I think he was dehydrated and starving, but also slowed down because of the AC. I released him outside, but I found him dead later. This is an introduced species to the Keys.

Mediterranean house gecko

Sea turtle nest site on Bahia Honda State Park beach.

Sea turtles nest along the shores of the Keys, and nests are taped off. I hope to be able to see live sea turtles and hopefully snorkel with them while I’m here!

This is an interesting bird. I believe this is a W├╝rdemann’s heron. This is a controversial bird-nerd topic, and I’ll be sure to discuss more in a later entry. For now, this is a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) with a white head :)
Assorted shore birds. To be honest, I’ve not taken the time to ID them. I just thought I’d share, as they are happily feeding in the sea grass at low tide!
This was a *SPECTACULAR* capture, I thought. I believed I had photographed a rare species, the Bahama Mockingbird (Mimus gundlachii). After submitting my sighting to eBird, and conferring with some people here, and my orno professor from Cobleskill, everyone agreed this was in fact a juvenile Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) that had yet to molt into it’s adult plumage. Not as exciting as I had hoped, but neat nonetheless.
And my final picture to share, the Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)! I believe we have a nesting pair at a popular visiting location on the Key Deer NWR, which is really neat! These guys more often hang out in the Everglades than the Keys.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

The continued "tail" of the squirrel...




Last week I posted a camera trap image (seen at left) of a stray cat with a strange looking red squirrel in it’s mouth. Red squirrels are mostly…well, red. Of course there are variations, and they’re not ALL truly red. But this was really something, the body appeared (in this picture) to be either naked of fur, or covered in a very light coat of white fur. Strange color variations can occur in all mammals like leucism (lack of pigment in localized areas), melanism (excess of pigment), and albinism (complete lack of pigment: all white/blonde fur, pink skin and eyes). If it was anything, I guessed this squirrel was leucistic through it’s trunk/abdomen area. Other theories were that this was a baby squirrel, it was albino, it had an ectoparasite like mange, it was shaved, and/or fur loss. Having only this grainy, unfocused camera trap picture to go by, we could only guess.

Then, yesterday morning I opened the back door to let the dog out, and there was ANOTHER “white” red squirrel in my backyard, this time alive, and happily feeding on bird seed. I quickly got my camera and started taking pictures.




A side by side of the front and the back of Squirrel #2.

As you can see, he or she appears very healthy and is gorging on black oil sunflower seeds. You can also probably see that this squirrel IS covered in fur, but just a fine downy layer. It was suggested, and I agree, that this squirrel appears to just be missing the guard hairs, but the downy undercoat is still there. If you have a dog or a cat, part their fur and you’ll likely see a color difference in the coat. Longer hairs also are longer and coarser than the fine down.

So, are these squirrels just shedding or molting? It’s the strangest thing.

I stuck my camera trap back out to try and get some footage of them. Here are a few of the images.




Then, this morning I sit down at my kitchen table, at which I have a great view of the backyard, and there are TWO of these strange-looking squirrels now! So a total of the strangest looking red squirrels I’ve ever seen, end up in my back yard!

Two “white” red squirrels in my yard, Schoharie, NY
The bar you see in the above picture is part of an old porch swing frame that I use to hang my feeders from.
I’ll leave you with this video of Squirrel #2 yesterday afternoon. Feel free to comment with ideas. I’ve sent pics in to the DEC and am awaiting a response!