Day 5: The day off!!


Even though it was a free day; we headed to the Barefoot beach on a talk about “Sharks of Rookery Bay” by Richard. The talk was organized by the Friends of Barefoot Beach Preserve. The talk was about the basic biology, ecology, behaviour and ongoing research works of Sharks in Southern Florida.

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The Shark talk.

We walked to the barefoot beach and spent next few hours exploring the seaside, tanning ourselves and watching the Dolphins up close. A free day planned for relaxation and fun turned out to be even more exciting with Sand dollars, Puffer fishes, Eels, Pelicans, Plovers and Sandpipers.

Back in Vester, we went canoeing and check our camera traps, and realized that we were unlucky so far. But, recently Jack and Paul told us about their Otter sighting in mangrove close by; and thus we decided to move the traps in a new location so as to get the Otters. And, during our canoe, we again saw a pair of Dolphins travelling inland. The sighting was up close and we had the best view of them.

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An eel

 

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A dead Pufferfish

 

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A Dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico

 

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Herpetofauna of Florida


A few species of reptiles and amphibians that we saw in Florida during our trip in April.

Here is the checklist:

  1. An American alligator
  2. A green iguana: In Wakodahatchee Wetlands
  3. Black Racer: Barefoot Beach Preserve, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
  4. Southern water snake: Fakahatchee Reserve
  5. Green Anole: Corkscrew swamp sanctuary
  6. Brown Anole: Invasive and common
  7. Bullfrog: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
  8. Gopher tortoise: Barefoot beach preserve

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Mammals of Florida


Even though I would not want to be biased towards large-sized animals, I can’t deny that mammals fascinate me. Could be because they are hard to locate but easy to identify. Anyway, I had a very ambitious plan of seeing a Panther or its signs in Florida, which was not successful; I have here attached the mammal sightings and signs that we encountered whilst in South Florida. All the species are common ones and should be of frequent sight. If you are in Florida  or planning to be, you just have to keep your eyes out and they will just be there.

Day 9: Coopertown Airboat trip and return trip


August 25, 2018

Unbelievably, our trip was coming to an end. After an amazing nine days of sun, wildlife, beach, mangrove, excellent team; we were a little sad thinking about the return trip. To avoid the complete disappointment on the last day, we, however, decided to go to retrieve the camera traps in the last day.

Early in the morning, we went the beach for an hour to feel the sea salt water (not pleasant to me but to others) for the last time. Also, we went to mangrove with a canoe to be the traps. In two of our traps, the first sadly had heron and just us captured during the installation. It was a little bit sad, and we didn’t have many hopes for the other one too. I always thought the difficulty to walk in mangrove will also keep the animals away (I had very little knowledge and this was the first time seeing and walking the mangrove forest). My mangrove expert friend and would get into a real discussion with this. However, it started to get exciting when I saw that the camera had around 50 pictures. Few were of us, few others were just leaves and water moving by, whereas rest definitely had something in them. It was overwhelming that we can egrets, opossum, and few racoon selfies.

 

After what was one of the highlights of the trip, we packed up our belongings and left the Vester Field Station. On our way to Miami airport, we were to stop by to take an aiboat trip in everglades to see the Saw grass marshes.

In what, at the start, was seemingly interesting and adrenaline in the airboat turned out to be not a good experience when our airboat was loud and was chasing away the birds. At the same time, the airboat driver was insensitive.

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The airboat selfie!
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Through the Everglades saw grass marsh. 
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Slow moving water in the Everglades
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An Alligator in captive

and we would literally boat above the Alligators despite knowing them that are there. All those time that we spent enjoying and respecting the nature, this brought us back to the reality that not every people understand the intrinsic value and respect the mutual existence of all the beings in the earth. 

However, we had a good briefing about the ecosystem types that we saw. In the end, we went to a place where alligators were caged in a place smaller than themselves.

This way, we ended our trip with 15-hour long flight back. Our trip days might be over now, but the good memories will always be fresh and bring a smile to our faces 🙂

 

Day 8: J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and Sanibel Island


24th April, 2018

Named in the honour of pioneer conservationists J.N. Ding Darling in 1967, the area is famous for the large acres of mangrove forest, hardwood hammock, cordgrass marshes and seagrass beds. We were received by Tony from US Fish and Wildlife Service who briefed about the wildlife refuge and we watched an informative video about the history of the refuge. Further, we learned about the biodiversity in the refuge. Wildlife refuge systems are unique in the US where the public areas are designated for the conservation of fish, plants and animals.

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At the entrance of the wildlife refuge 

The most iconic and unique about this area was the amount of effort that has been out into awareness and use of innovative techniques to gain public interest as well as to educate them. Most noteworthy of all was the new toilets that were constructed in the refuge. As this happens to be the most essential and visited place; why not to make them special? This was done by putting informative information and facts as well as raising conservation issues to provocate thoughts among child, adults alike.

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The most beautiful and informative toilets that I ever been to. 

Further, the feeling of history by displaying the scientific aspect of J.N. Ding Darling; I felt inspired and maybe that was the plan, to inspire as many people as it can, and I felt that it works! Further, the interactive audiovisual media used to engage and educate people was also equally fun and knowledgeable.

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The Ding Daling studio. Please forgive the quality here. 

This was followed with a walk into the refuge with Jeff from the Wildlife Refuge itself. After being in Florida and doing lots of walks around swamps and mangroves seemed to be going well as we could easily follow the information that Jeff was explaining us and sometimes it would even be something that we already knew! How cool is that? However, Jeff told us about the events of human conflict with American alligators in the reserve over time and fed us with interesting stories about the crocodiles and alligators.

Being a poop person, the interactive poop display that the refuge had was appealing to me.

This was followed by a drive along the Sanibel islands where we tried our best to spot an Otter with no good luck. Being mid-afternoon and probably too hot for the animals to relax around; it was getting pretty dull when Paul found a horseshoe crab and began running towards it. It was always my bucket list to see one and finally, it was checked. Another, new finding for us were a group of Willets feeding far in the islands. 

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A horseshoe crab: you might have to look very carefully!

 We then went to Fort Myers beach for some more tanning before we head back to the UK. In the beach, we did some more of sand dollars, crabs and dead fishes.

Day 7: Lake Okeechobee and South Florida Water Management District and Wakodahatchee Wetlands


It was a long drive to the sites.

Even though a part of the larger watershed of the Greater Everglades, the Okeechobee with a surface area of 730 sq. miles is the largest but shallow lake in the southeastern United States. The lake has a large contribution to South Florida’s water supply and flood control systems. The lake also provides a natural habitat for fish wading birds. However, our view of the lake from the vantage point was very brief.

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Our view of Lake Okeechobee

Next, we went to the Stormwater treatment areas in South Florida Water Management District. The project of Storm Water Treatment (STA) was given to us by Jill King and Oli Villapand.

The downstream areas of Everglades were facing problems of nutrient pollution mainly of Phosphate and also flooding during high storm periods. The high nutrient content of phosphate from agricultural lands and urban areas was replacing the original plant community of sawgrass (which requires low phosphorus content) with reed beds, algal blooms and duckweed. This plant grows in the water system was having the negative impact on light penetration and oxygen availability in the downstream areas, changing the whole ecosystem composition.

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Layout of STA 1 East
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Using biology to recover the nutrient pollution in Everglades.

 

 

 

 

 

The STA’s uses biological community as a way to reduce the Phosphorus content in the water. Originally, the phosphorus content of the STA in average was over 24ppb which has now been reduced to the average of 9 ppb. Of the 57,000acres of land that the all the seven STA’s cover, we went to STA 1 East which had seven cells with inlet and outlet each of their own. The area of STA 1 East occupied 5132 acres; giving us the idea of how massive the whole project was. The site was formerly an agricultural land of sugarcane and corn.

Apart from contributing hugely to the nutrient pollution control, our general observation and discussion with the staffs also led us to believe that the diversity that the area has in terms of wildlife population supported was large. We were also explained that the preliminary study about the wildlife diversity conducted in 1/10th size of STA revealed that the diversity of species as well as their count was higher than compared to the Everglades. This brings us to think, if a higher level of nutrients, especially Phosphorus is good to support the animal diversity.

The work done to control Phosphorus control was outstanding, our group during the evening discussed about the other pollution like nitrogen and higher metals. Further, the emphasis on biodiversity in the agenda was found to be comparatively low, even though it had such a huge potential.

Know more about SATs here:

After the brief, we went along the inlet of Cell 1, outlet of cell 1 and inlet of cell 2 and finally to the outlet of cell 2 to collect the soil samples for Li , for him to look at the soil biogeochemistry and how it changes along the constructed wetland systems. Together with sample collection, it was a wonderful opportunity for us to see the wading birds and the plant communities of the STA’s. It was during this drive that we spotted a racoon from the van.

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Soil sample collection for Li’s project.

It was a constructed wetland day for us. So, the next we went to a Wakodahatchee wetlands park located in Delray Beach. Using the native Seminole names, which means “created wetlands”, these wetlands were created as natural filters to aid in water treatment. Even though they are constructed wetlands, they don’t make you feel so because of the naturality in the shape and size of their construction and the diverse animal and plant life that they support.

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Constructed wetlands of Wakodahatchee Wetland Park

The wood storks, which are usually a prized sight for someone travelling to Florida were just a hand’s distance from us. The nest of Anhinga, Great egret and green herons were shared with the storks too. Even though, it was an amazing sight; the smell of the birds made it a little bit difficult to hang around for a long time. As we moved forward enjoying the Purple gallinule and Purple swamphen, red-winged back bird, Glossy ibis, tri coloured heron, snowy egret, whistling ducks, common gallinule, Boat-tailed Grackles, we came across a meadow where we saw around six individuals of Iguanas.

The idea of receiving diverse benefits from a constructed wetlands and using them as a touristic attraction was intriguing to us.

Day 6: Fakahatchee Strand Preserve, Mangrove die-back area and Tiger-tail beach


Comparatively less developed and wild, we were greeted in with the sight of 23 Black vultures at the entrance. The preserve is famous for sightings of Panthers, Black bears and several other Southern Florida species. While in the boardwalk of the preserve, we got the view of the Alligators close enough for a decent selfie, and the Alligator also was happy about it, moving closer towards us. How cool is that? At that same time, should we be worried?

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The boardwalk was again fascinating and we had a good observation of numerous vegetation, birds, alligators and snakes. Wild coffee, cypress trees, alligator flags, duckweed, poison ivy among others. Similarly, among other birds, a juvenile bald eagle and three bald eagles were a complete highlight. We stared at the owls for dozens of minutes and it was completely breathtaking.

In the afternoon, we went to the Mangrove dieback area in Fruit Farm Creek of Marco Islands. The construction of State Road 92 dried up the mangrove forest on either side of the road, probably due to blocked or restricted tidal exchange causing flooding and waterlogging.  Even though a culvert was constructed to maintain the hydrology between either side of the road; exceeding it’s natural lifespan has disrupted the flow of natural tides. Although mangroves tolerate high salt content, lack of freshwater flush deprives the system of periodic c oxygenation and removal of excess nutrients.

Despite being the state protected trees, the dying back of large amount of Mangroves of around 64 acres and 209 acres of stressed acres gives an idea of how development and conservation together requires some careful consideration of ecosystem parameters. It was realized recently that the serious tragedy of losing huge areas of mangroves occurred due to disruption in hydrology of the area and recently, there have been attempts to restore the die back areas of the Mangrove by construction of ditches along them. Even though the restoration project is fairly recent, we could observe the influence that it already has on the survival success of mangrove trees. With high survival rate and being fast growing tropical species, the restored area of mangrove shows recovery of the species in the area.

One of our class mate, Jack was collecting soil samples from the four areas of die back, stressed, restored and pristine to compare how the soil biogeochemistry in terms of enzyme activity, gas fluxes and other soil parameters differs among the sites, and compare how effective has restoration activity been. Our basic field measurements of CO2 levels from the different sites showed high fluxes from pristine and restored sites as compared to die back and stressed areas. In theory, we would expect it be opposite but, it the apparent high flux could be short term effect or the impact of hurricane Irma.

Together, with this we also collected leaves samples from three different mangrove i.e. Red, white and Black species in all the four sites for Sarita’s project to look at the Total Petroleum Hydrocarbon content and how the dying back phenomenon might have affected the TPH content in the leaves.

But, the restoration attempt in the form of a construction of ditch looked economic and effective when it comes to restoring back the vegetation community. However, the current restoration attempt is done much as a smaller scale.

The day was then followed by few hours at Tiger tail beach with few hours of swimming, collecting Sand dollars and getting ourselves tanned. Wilson’s plover and Sandpiper were the birds that we identified along the beach.

Day 4: Corkscrew swamp and FGCU


One of the most awaited days was our trip Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to which supports a variety of habitat types ranging from pine flatwoods, wet prairie, marsh and Bald and Pond Cypress.

In the morning we were greeted by Lee, a ranger from the Sanctuary- who took us to the different elevation gradient which had different ecosystems- wet prairies, bald cypress and pond cypress. This part of the Sanctuary was not open to the public. The plan here was to collect soil samples and analyze how the soil biogeochemistry like gas fluxes, enzymes differs along the altitudinal gradient and thus the ecosystem types.

While collecting the samples, we walked along the different ecosystem types and noted the difference in the species between the pond and the bald cypress trees.Further, we also noted the understory vegetation of different species of ferns: Resurrection fern (Polypoium polypodioides), Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) and Royal fern (Vittaria lineata). Further, bull frog, tracks or raccoon, scat of Bobcat and Green Anole were the height of the day.

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Wet prairies followed by bald Cypress in Corkscrew Swamp.
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Bobcat scat found along the trial. Presence of fine hairs and bones
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A handsome bullfrog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After lunch, we started the boardwalk in the sanctuary. Being a dry season of the year, the swamps were all dried up and few concentrated wetlands attracted a massive amount of wildlife- probably as a habitat refugee. The first wetland we went to had American Alligators, Green Heron, Anhinga, Great egret. The sight of Anhinga catching a fish and then drying itself over sun up close was mesmerizing in itself. But, one after another, the further we went along the boardwalk, the more concentrated the bird population, snakes and Alligator sighting were. The checklist of all the birds that we saw is in here.

The huge chaos that sudden movement of an Alligator causes in the bird community was in itself of interest among us and the general people. The nesting site of Anhinga and Green Heron were very close to the boardwalk, and thus I found the tolerance of the bird community towards human to be quite high. It is probably due to the fact that the birds are given the priority and they do not feel threatened by the human.

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Typical Cypress habitat in Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Walking further, we were in another pond, which was I suppose what a heaven looks like. The water body surrounded by the massive pond and bald cypress trees providing the shelter in the sun to the animals had a picturesque view. Hundreds of birds of a variety of species ranging from the Wood storks, Rosette Spoonbill, Great egret to white Ibis and green heron were flocked together. Also, sharing the same habitat we noticed two alligators and few snakes. The sharing of habitat among the bird communities where the centre part was occupied by the larger ones like a Wood stork and Great egret whereas the Spoonbills and Ibis were limited in number and adjusted themselves towards the edge.

Together with distribution, we also took our time to observe the behavioural pattern and fishing mechanisms that each different birds use. The fishing efficiency of wood stork was comparatively higher in our limited time of observation. Their large size is definitely a factor that requires them to be efficient in food capture.

An hour of time spent in watching the birds felt so little, but we had to keep going to our next destination at Forida Gulf Coast University We were greeted by Win Everham and his sea turtle earring definitely grabbed our attention. Surrounded by wetlands in all three sides, Win explained to us that the design of the building is for safety from an engineering point of view as well as provided advantages for biological and ecological benefits. I found the design to be aesthetically pleasing as well, thus the whole setup of FGCU was a good site in itself.

Soft-shell turtle, the exotic Sicklet fish, the Tilapia fish, the red-bellied egret and the Tri-color heron were the birds that we spotted around the campus. The wetlands all around the campus were also habitat for American Alligators and there were many interesting stories about the Alligator encounters within the campus. Between the wetland, in patches where the green spaces occupied by native forest tree species of Sabal palm and their understory which provided a habitat corridor for Bobcats and Panthers, whilst also support over terrestrial/ semi-terrestrial mammalian species like Raccoons and Otters.

It was also from Win that we learnt about the importance of fire in maintaining the Southern Florida ecosystems. Habitat for charismatic species like Wood stork requires the presence of dry land and fire can also be expected to keep away the invasive species in the area that are not adaptive as compared to the native. As expected, prescribed burning as a habitat management tool was controversial and didn’t gain public support as much.

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Florida Gulf Coast University.

Day 3: Everglades Wetland Reasearch Park and Freedom Park


April 19, 2018

On this day, we went to Everglades Wetland Research Park in Kapnick centre to meet the wetland research team of Florida Gulf Coast University. In Kapnick centre, we went for a brief meeting with Dr Bill Mitsch, the author of numerous journals and textbooks that we have to go through for our coursework. So, in a way, it was like meeting a wetland superstar! After brief greetings, we obtained the overview of the research being carried out at the university and a talk about the Nitrogen isotopic study conducted by the exchange student in Lake Okeechobee in identifying the point and non-point source of pollution. It was followed by the talk on enzymic latch from Prof. Chris Freeman from our team.

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View of Naples Botanical garden
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Orchids in Naples Botanical garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following this, we went to Naples Botanical Gardenthe  within the research park, which was an attraction locally. The tropical climate was able to support seven different ecosystems tropics and sub-tropics including different parts of the world i.e. the Caribbean, Latin American, South Asian, South East Asian, and so on. It was a pleasure to see some of the flora that I grew up with and gave a sense of huge pleasure. The most fascinating of all was the collection of 1000 species orchids. The latest addition to the garden was the statues of dinosaurs. The part in itself was surrounded by a natural wetland in two ends and had several constructed aesthetic wetlands within it- making it visually aesthetic. Further, this mosaic of habitat was ideal for different species of herons, egret, and tortoises. Further, it was here in the botanical garden, that I made my first observation of Red-shouldered hawk and two different species of vultures that Florida hosts: the Black vulture and the Turkey vulture.

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Natural wetlands around Naples Botanical Garden

The day, then followed to Freedom Park the,we were accompanied by Dr. Mitsch and Lee which is a 20-ha constructed wetland complex in Naples. The park was started in 2008 in an abandoned citrus grove so as to treat urban stormwater runoff. The shape of the constructed wetland was irregular and dis-similar, which range of habitats from deep areas in the centre to shallow portion. This shape would also help in increased ecotone; thus the added biodiversity benefits. Data measurement stations were located in the wetlands; providing data on the various chemical and physical parameters of wetlands like depth, pH, salinity, etc.

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Constructed wetlands of Freedom Park

The main attraction for us in Freedom park was, however, wetlaculture: a fancy name given for multidisciplinary experiment using business, engineering and science models in a mesocosm experiment that aims to study the potentiality of using nutrient retaining capability of wetlands and converting them into agricultural lands. The experiment hypothesizes that the flipping of land between wetlands and agriculture will reduce in use of excessive nutrient for agriculture and thus, have reduced nutrient pollution, mainly with Phosphorus. The ten year long experiment is setup in different states of US, in China and in Poland. You can follow the research here:

The proposed experiment if successful will definitely provide an insight towards sustainability and possibility of reduction of nutrient use without compromising the productivity, at this stage, however in large scale, it is not full of ambiguities in regards to feasibility, benefit-cost ratio and other environmental impacts like gas fluxes and soil stability.

On the other side of the Freedom park was bottom hardwood forest that we took a boardwalk into on the same afternoon. We spotted tricolour heron and green heron in the hardwood forest. Further, noteworthy was the presence of mangrove trees and bald cypress in the same place.

Back in Vester field station, we installed a pair of camera traps that we had to find out about the animals that were out and about in the nearby mangrove forests.

 

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Checking out ideal place to put the camera traps.

 

Day 2: Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park


April 19, 2018

Even though we slept through the sunrise, in the morning we were greeted by the Osprey with its two chicks just outside the field station. And, the sight of a white pelican in distant in one of the mangrove island added joy to the day in itself.

Our second day and the first day of field visit was a very good start of the trip as we went to the Barefoot Beach PreserveBarefoot beach preserve and were greeted by the Master Naturalist and Retired park ranger Jimi Turlock. For some of us, the vegetation and wildlife communities in Florida was completely new, so, the detailed information that Jimi gave us in different vegetation and animal types, their local and commercial uses as well as their biology was very useful. With a narrow strip of 342 acres of land along the shoreline of Gulf of Mexico, the preserve is claimed to be one of the last underdeveloped barrier islands on Florida’s southwest coast. The preserve provided us with the idea of how the vegetation communities change with the change in distance and elevation from the mean sea level. The five bands of vegetation from west to east region in the preserve were:

1) Pioneer zone

2) The foredune

3) The coastal strand

4) The maritime hammock

5) The tidal swamp

The dominant part of the preserve in the eastern region was that of mangrove swamp composed of red and black mangroves respectively towards the swamp and buttonwood trees in the centre areas

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A Gopher tortoise sunbathing in the Barefoot beach preserve.

above the high tide line. This diverse habitat types, thus also provided a variety of vegetation and animal diversity. Most noteworthy of the species observed were Gopher tortoises (Gopherus Polyphemus) of which we saw two different individuals in the burrows. The same burrows during the time of emergency are shared by several other species, preys and predators alike. Moreover, we were greeted by a Black Racer and lots of Brown Anoles.

Among the vegetation, we learned about Sabal Palm- the state tree of Florida whose was extensively used by the native peoples for varied uses ranging from food to clothing and roofing, Gumbo limbo- the tourist tree, Poison Ivy- something to stay far away from when in Florida and the different trees of the mangrove habitats. Seagrape and sea oats were of interesting find that day [ For more information: Plants of Florida ]

The preserve is managed by the support of Friends of Barefoot Beach Preserve; and the work done by the group in terms of lecture series, guided nature walks and conservation of the area was commendable. The preserve was declared in 1990 when the development. For me, it was a very good learning that when an even small group of people are committed towards conservation; the intact habitats of the small area can maintain the diversity of an area and provide an ample opportunity as a centre of learning, recreation and awareness.

After the preserve, we went back to Vester Field Station and explored the estuary and the surrounding mangrove forest.

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View of sunrise and mangrove forest from Vester Field station.