Gearing Up For What’s Next!

It’s been time to take a breath and a pause, here at Lonely Birder Central. I just completed the Freshwater Systems core module for the Florida Master Naturalist Program. Part of that course were group projects that we presented on our last day of class (“graduation day”). There were some really spectacular presentations; we have everything from Freshwater Systems Jeopardy to video productions.

The group I was a member of did a signage proposal for the Moccasin Island Tract/Lake Winder. Readers of this blog will remember that the Moccasin Island Tract is part of the River Lakes Conservation Area in Brevard County, and site of several Lonely Birder adventures!

fnmp-fresh-group
Our project group: Brian Bowers, Jim Higham, Jolyn Rozzo, Lucy (not pictured), and me (also not pictured).
on-the-trail
Working our way through the Oak Hammock Trail (this is one of the drier sections).

Our group’s presentation is embedded below. It’s a little rough around the edges, and it remains to be seen if the St. Johns River Water Management District wants to use anything we’d produce. The point of the project, of course, was not to necessarily have anything accepted or officially approved, but to get out and experience Florida’s freshwater systems (lakes, rivers, springs, swamps, and marshes) and work together.

I can’t link to everyone’s presentation, but the videos produced by Curtis Whitwam and Peggy McGrath were well done. They are meant to be used at nature or environmental education centers. They are concise and informative. It’s amazing what a little GoPro will do.

Allison Arteaga made a watercoloring book that anyone can download and put together of various freshwater wetland animals and plants. Allison is (among other things) the Lagoon Restoration Specialist at the Brevard Zoo. I’ll try to link to the files when she gets them uploaded and ready.

Now that the module is over, it’s time to both consider my next move in the FMNP, and of course, to get back to some regular birding! Migrants and spring/summer residents are already starting to move through the state. In fact, Swallow-tailed Kites and Great Crested Flycatchers have been reported as far north as Daytona Beach and Lake County.

I’m ready and excited for the Spring. I have trips to south Florida planned for this month, and we have the Florida Ornithological Society’s Spring Meeting in April. I also hope to make it out to Ft. De Soto in April and there’s the Global Big Day in May.

I hope to see you here in these virtual pages!

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!

FMNP: Viera Wetlands

We had our first field trip for the Florida Master Naturalist Program‘s Freshwater Systems core module today. The class spend several hours at the Viera Wetlands, looking at the various plant and animal communities and how they fit into what we are learning about Florida’s herbaceous wetlands.

I note that I FINALLY got my lifer King Rail today, just after my batteries died for my camera. It’s just as well, since after a brief 2 second flight after being flushed, the bird disappeared into the reeds. I was super excited nonetheless!

Here are some of the photos from the morning.

I learned a bit more about the plant communities, including a song/rhyme to help us remember the differences to otherwise confusing vegetation types:

Rushes are round,
Sedges have edges, and
Grasses have nodes
From the crown to the ground.

Hundreds of American Robins were in flight over the wetlands all morning, and the American Coots are starting to assemble in larger and larger rafts. There are still very few ducks, though. I did notice huge flocks of ducks headed toward Merritt Island, in the afternoon from Riverwalk (the flocks were far in the distance, but numbered in the thousands), so perhaps they are finally set to arrive.

My eBird list for the morning:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26925142

We finished up the day with classroom time at the Riverwalk Nature Center. Classes are off next weekend because of the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival! It’s almost here!