Something In The Air

It’s Springtime in Florida! Yes, February is the month in which trees begin to bud, flowers are blooming and the pollen is starting to fill the air! By the end of this month, many of the resident birds will be nesting, mating will have started, and a few species will even have eggs on the nest (in fact, some Bald Eagles and a few herons already have chicks).

Last week, for our Florida Master Naturalist Program class, we had classroom and field work at Saint Sebastian River Preserve State Park [map]. The focus was on “wooded wetlands”, a.k.a. swamps.

But, before heading into a cypress dome, we detoured to an area in the park with groups of the endangered Hooded Pitcher Plant. Pitcher plants are usually associated with seepage wetlands with very specific soil conditions. In this case, disruption of the normal hydrology by the placement of large power lines through the area have created optimal conditions for these plants. Pitcher plants are carnivorous. They lure prey (usually insects) into the pitcher with sweet tasting and smelling liquid. Once inside, however, the prey cannot climb or fly out. Once trapped in the liquid, they are digested. Amazing!

pitcher-plants
A mature group of Hooded Pitcher Plants. The small translucent windows just below the top of the hood marks it as this species. These windows are possibly used to confuse trapped insects, which bounce off the windows (thinking they can escape) and fall into the plant to be digested.

Along with the pitcher plants there were areas of Sphagnum Moss, which ensures a supply of water for the pitcher plants and other organisms during normally dry times. Another carnivorous plant was found nearby – the Dwarf Sundew.

sundew
The Dwarf Sundew is the smallest species of sundew. This specimen was just a bit larger than a U.S. Quarter in diameter.

Sundews attract small insects to their sticky, paddle or spoon-like extremities, where the tendrils slowly wrap around them, trapping the insect and digesting them. Such fun!

We went in to see these fragile plant communities in groups of about 5 at a time. While waiting for other groups to take their turn, I noticed a few birds in the vicinity, including  Eastern Bluebirds, Brown-headed Nuthatches, and Pine Warblers.

eBird list (St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, NW):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S27486570

In any case, we then continued on to the swamp. Technically, the State of Florida, a swamp is a wetland with over 1/3 woody plant species. Cypress domes are a particular type of swamp, dominated by cypress trees, as you might expect (Pond Cypress). Cypress domes are so named because the optimal conditions (and deepest) water at the center of the wetland helps the tallest trees grow there, with slightly less optimal conditions with increasing distance from the center. The trees get progressively shorter, creating a dome-like shape. The difference in water depth may only be a matter of inches, but that can have a profound effect on the productivity (measure of plant matter and growth) in the swamp.

cypress_dome
Cypress dome near Payne’s Prairie, during summer. © UF/IFAS Extension.

Another peculiar feature of cypress domes are cypress knees. Cypress knees are knobby projections of the trees’ roots that rise above the water. It has been speculated that this is to allow for gas exchange with the roots that are otherwise underwater, but there is not 100% agreement in scientific circles if this is true. Another hypothesis is that they are stabilization structures, working in concert with buttressed roots, to keep the trees upright in the soft soils.

cypress-knees
Some cypress knees and buttressed roots. Buttressed roots flare out like bell-bottom pants. This shape helps make a wider base for the trees to stand on, keeping them stable in mucky or soft soils in wetlands.

Some students were given dip nets and waded into the water to see what they could find in the swamp, while other (including me) walked along a gas line right-of-way that cut through the dome.

wading
Some beautiful buttressed roots on the tree, just left of center.
group
This gas line right-of-way has split the hydrology of the cypress dome, but the two halves seem to be doing OK, all things considered.

As I’ve said, February is Florida’s spring, and many plants are starting to bud and flower. Among these are various epiphytes. Florida is home to a couple of dozen epiphyte species, which include Spanish Moss, Wild Pine, Cardinal Airplant, and other bromeliads.

cardinal-airplant
This Cardinal Airplant (so-named for its bright red inflorescence) was about the size of a soccer ball (football).

wild-pine
This Wild Pine was about the size of a basketball. This, and other bromeliads, are related to pineapples. Can you see the resemblance?

Near the edges of the water, some herbaceous plants were growing, providing some cover for various invertebrate species, including crayfish, fishing spiders, and insect larvae.

lizards-tail
Another aptly-named plant, Lizard’s Tail was growing in small groups along the water’s edge.

There were a few birds flying among the cypress trees, and in the adjacent pine flatwoods community, including Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Robins, and Blue Jays.

 

As we finished our day, this lovely “Florida form” Red-shouldered Hawk was patiently grooming itself in a pine tree.

red-shouldered-hawk

ebird list (St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, NE):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S27492047

We capped off the day with dinner at Marsh Landing Restaurant, in Fellsmere. So far the FMNP is really living up to my hopes for educating and enlightening me with regards to Florida’s wildlife and habitats. The course wraps up in another week (as of this post) where we’ll be presenting our group projects and “graduating” from this module. Then it’s on to the next!

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