Day 10: Heading home 06/03/2916

Temperature: Max 26oC99

With our final morning waking up at Vester I took in the views around the field station for the last time. In particular the osprey nest which I had been enjoying watching at such a close distance over the past week. After final photo opportunities of the mangroves and the nest we gathered our possessions and clambered back into the vans for the long drive back to Orlando airport.

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Osprey on nest at Vester

On the drive we had the last chance for spotting any wildlife we hadn’t come across beforehand. Despite the lack of this we came across large numbers of roadkill on one stretch of road. This included many turkey and black vultures which had likely been attracted to the road by other roadkill.

After that excitement we made our way to the airport and before we knew it were back in the chilly UK.

This had been an incredible trip where I saw more wildlife than I could ever have expected. It gave me the opportunity to witness habitats which were vastly different to those I had seen before.

This could not have been done without the members of staff at Bangor University who organised and lead the trip to who I would like to thank. Thakyou so much!

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Day 9: Lovers Key 05/03/2016

Temperature: Max 24oC  0000000

With the week winding up I was itching to get on the boats early in the morning to catch a sunrise in the mangroves. Myself and Katie set our alarms early and managed to get on the water while the sun was still rising which gave some amazing views over the mangroves. Because of the time and the lack of company we were hoping to see more wildlife than the first time we had used the boats, however we saw nothing we hadn’t seen on our last trip. Despite this we did have a close encounter with a rather ferocious looking coconut in the water (which we believed was an alligator).

 Lovers Key

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Io moth (Automeris io) seen before leaving Vester

After coming across a rather beautiful IO moth (Automeris io) at the field station we set off towards Lovers Key State Park. The state park consists of 1,616 acres of barrier islands including; Lovers Key, Black Island,  Inner and Long Key which is run by the Florida Park Service.

Brief history of Lovers Key 

Lovers Key was only accessible by boat until 1965 and so was named this due to its secluded location and so visits by young lovers.

In the 1960’s and 70’s the island was earmarked for development. Preparations for this damaged the natural mangrove habitats and included the dredging of a canal system. In 1983 the state acquired the islands which merged with the adjacent Carl E. Johnson County Park to become the “Lovers Key Carl E. Johnson State Park”. The area is open to visitors for a variety of recreational activities such as; swimming, kayaking, cycling, fishing and interestingly “shelling”.

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Manatee tail fin sketch

As we first arrived in the park we crossed a bridge where we saw two manatees (Trichechus manatus) swimming towards us, a mother and a calf. What I found interesting was the shape of the tail fin which I had expected would be shaped similarly to a dugong tail but it was in fact a rounded paddle shape. I sketched this  in my field notebook.

We continued around the key and came across two eastern screech owls (Megascops asio) in two hollows of a tree. This we were told was a spot where the owls were seen each year.

Two interesting plant species that we had not seen up to this point were the Grey Nickernut (Caesalpinia bolduc) which produced a smooth whiteish seed is used to make jewellery and crafts.  And secondly the gumbo limbo tree (Bursera simaruba), an interesting looking tree with red peeling bark. It is fittingly known as the tourist tree (which made a lot more sense by the time that we had left the beach looking a little redder than we had done when we arrived).

My highlight of the  Key was witnessing a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) diving into the water for a fish, this was something that I had never witnessed before which was impressive to watch.

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Crab carapace found washed up on  the beach

We later headed to the beach and came across many washed up red mangrove propagules (Rhizophora mangle) and many washed up shells along the tide line. These included the interesting looking  Fargo’s worm shell (Vermicularia fargoi),  the turkey wing ark clam (Arca zebra ) and the shark eye shell (Neverita duplicate). 

Once back at Vester we  went for a meal in Bonita Springs and packed up our belongings ready for the long drive back to Orlando in the morning.

Day 8: Corkscrew swamp 04/03/2016

Temperature: Max 23C66

On this day we visited Corkscrew Swamp, although while exploring this swamp we managed to keep our feet dry thanks to the boardwalk.

Corkscrew swamp background

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a 13, 000 acre area within the Western Everglades. The primary habitat is wetlands which boast the largest remaining area of bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) forest in the world. Some trees are thought to be ~800 years old.

Corkscrew like many wetlands in Florida was exploited for its heron and egret populations by plume hunters in the 1900’s. This lead to the organising of wardens by the National Audubon Society to protect Corkscrews bird populations.

Areas around the site had a history of logging following WWII  due to the size, pest, fire and rot resistance of the cypress trees. In order to protect Corkscrew from this fate  the National Audubon Society and other organisations purchased the land in 1954 (what is now the sanctuary).

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Alligator flag in bald cypress swamp

As we entered the visitor centre we had a short talk with a warden and caught a glimpse of an indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) on a feeder.

Walking along the boardwalk we came across the different community types that made up the sanctuary. These included; bald cypress, pond cypress, pine flatwood, marsh and wet prairie. These habitats varied due to small changes in topography were compiled of a wide variety of species which we were able to see as we walked along the boardwalk.

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Downpour in bald cypress swamp

As we reached the bald cypress swamp there was a sudden blackening of the sky and we had our only experience of Floridian rain. During this downpour we had a chance to sense a different side to the swamp. This also gave a close up encounter with a raccoon (Procyon lotor) which sauntered along the boardwalk near to where we were sheltering and climbed up a tree.

Once the rain had eased off we continued along the boardwalk, looking out for the Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) which we found out was not in flower this time of the year. Despite this we were told by one of the rangers that there was an orchid which was in flower.  We did manage to find this although we were unable to identify it through the binoculars.

 

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Resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides) “resurrecting” on branch

As a result of the rain we were also able to see the resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides)  in its greener “resurrected” form.  Another plant we got up close with was the strangler fig (Ficus aurea) surrounding a cypress tree. This was rather impressive as both were massive plants reaching incredible heights.

While walking through the cypress forest we came across a group of green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) which made a change to the invasive brown anoles (Anolis sagrei) which we had mainly seen throughout the trip. Within this group one was displaying territorial behaviour bobbing its head and extending its red dewlap. In addition to this we also witness one anole changing from the bright green colour to  a dark brown colour. I was unaware that this colour change was exhibited by the green anole.

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Strangler fig (Ficus aurea)

A behaviour that I had hoped to witness since the visit to Merritt Island was an Anhinga fishing. Despite a large group of school children we witnessed  an Anhinga fully submerge itself under the water only to re-emerge with just its head. While seeing this you could really understand the reason behind its name the “snake bird” (especially after a child exclaimed “ahh it’s a snake”).

We had time for lunch at the sanctuary which allowed us to observe the birds on the bird-feeder for a while longer, despite this the painted bunting (Passerina ciris) evaded me.

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Barefoot Beach

Barefoot Beach

We then headed to Barefoot Beach which is located near to the field station. This is a preserve of 342 acres which is one of the last undeveloped barrier islands on the southwest coast of Florida.

We had an opportunity to swim in the sea where we witnessed brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) and osprey (Pandion haliaetus) diving into the sea to catch fish.  This was an incredible behaviour to witness, let alone witness while in the water. We later came across an osprey sitting on a nest when another flew in with a fish it had caught.

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Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)

After swimming we explored the boardwalk and came across a few gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) both in and around their burrows. These are the state tortoise of Florida and an important keystone species because of it digs burrows. These are used by other species including gopher frogs (Rana capito) and burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) for feeding, protection from temperature extremes and predators.

Gopher tortoises are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN with habitat loss due to land development being a major factor.These tortoises require relatively large areas to occupy. Therefore it is likely problematic that the area surrounding Barefoot Beach is largely occupied by luxury accommodation. (Jeannine et al., 2003)

Reference:                                                                                                                                                                                                                           JEANNINE, O.E., MICHENER, W.K. and GUYER, C., 2003. Patterns of Movement and Burrow Use in a Population of Gopher Tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus). Herpetologica, 59(3), pp. 311-321.

 

 

Day 7: Canoeing, Dr Bill Mitsch, Naples Botanic Gardens and invasive species 04/03/2016

Temperature: Max 25o C55

We had a late start this day and so explored the mangroves around the field station in the canoes. We were able to go into the smaller channels where the larger boats were unable to travel which meant we could get amongst the mangroves.  Despite this we bumped into another boat load of students so most wildlife would likely have been scared off. We did however see a mangrove tree crab (Aratus pisonii) and a sheepshead fish (Archosargus probatocephalus) which some fishers caught.

Dr. Bill Mitsch

After canoeing we headed off to a talk at the universities Everglades Wetlands Research Park (EWRP) by Dr. William (Bill) Mitsch a lecturer at FGCU and a leading wetlands scientist. The talk was titled “Climate change: What can wetlands do for us?” which outlined how wetlands are one of the best natural environments for the sequestering  and long term storage of carbon. In fact each year carbon sequestered by Florida’s mangroves equates to carbon released by 110, 000 car’s worth of emissions per year.

With 8-10 million km2 of wetlands and 3-4% of wetlands being mangroves and saltmarshes there is huge potential for carbon sequestration. The measurement of carbon sequestration from mangroves can be measured by how much carbon remains in the substrate below mangroves.  Disturbed areas generally have reduced carbon within the substrate and so carbon sequestration is lower in these areas.

We were however told that mangroves are in fact sources of methane due to the anaerobic sediments which they inhabit. Despite this  we were told that this was less import because methane decays in the atmosphere. We were also told that some climate scientists view wetlands as sources of green hose gasses due to lobbying from forestry and agriculture.

After this talk we walked over to the Naples Botanic Gardens that EWRP shares a site with.

 

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Silk floss tree (Celiba specios) to the left

Naples Botanic Gardens

The  botanic garden was founded in 1993 with much of the present garden having been purchased in 2000 and development completed by 2009. The gardens boasted a variety of themed gardens compiled of both native and non-native species. While exploring the garden we noticed many epiphytes including many orchid species, and a species of staghorn fern.  Another interesting plant species we came across was a silk floss tree (Ceiba specios) which had a trunk covered in thick, sharp prickles and  masses of fluffy silk-like matter in the canopy. 

The garden was also filled with wildlife with the common grackle (Quiscalus major), yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata) and grey catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) showing up.  Despite this we did come across some species we had not seen yet, with our first spot of a green anole (Anolis carolinensis) seen amongst a large bromeliad. We also came cross a red headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) which we had not come across until this point.

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View within the botanic garden

After a short trip to the supermarket we had a “biology tailgate” with Win Everham (or a barbecue out the back of a pick-up truck, as us non-Americans may call it).

We then had a talk with Professor David Lodge from the University of Notre Dame titled “When nature bites back: solving the budget busting invasive species epidemic”

Invasive species talk

This talk discussed the logistics of dealing with many invasive species from a financial perspective of which the definition for invasive species was particularly important.

Non-native: a species which evolved elsewhere and arrived in a new location as a result of human intervention…

Invasive species: ‘’ … whose introduction does/ is likely to cause economic, environmental or human harm.

Therefore whereas all invasives are non-native, not all non-natives are invasive.

What the talk also considered was the reason why some species may have been intentionally introduced. For example Kudzu (Pueraria lobata), an invasive vine which is able to grow at a rate of 60 km2 annually. This leguminous vine native to Asia was intentionally introduced by farmers to reduce soil erosion and fix nitrogen into the soil. This has become an invasive with control costing $6 million annually.

The cost of invasive species within the US we were told was around $120 billion/year. With damages as a result of invasive species often exponentially increasing the longer an invasive specie remains. Therefore policy would be beneficial if it addressed an invasion before or as soon as it became a problem. However current policy generally waits until an invasion has occurred and negative impacts have begun showing.

Comparisons to the effective control of invasive human diseases were made with the 2003 SARS case, an effective example of management being made due a coordinated and rapid response. Whereas with invasive species there is a lack of global public infrastructure to respond to potential invasives.

A clear plan for the prevention and effective responses to an invasion were highlighted, summarised below.

  1. Species in pathway: prevent by species profiling to find whether a species will likely be harmful and ban its import.
  2. Transport: reduce species in pathways e.g. ballast water treatment.
  3. Released alive: early detection e.g. using environmental DNA (eDNA) to test for invasive presence easily followed by rapid response through fast eradication.
  4. Population establishment: control invasions that cannot be eradicated.
  5. Spread: worst case scenario.

This talk allowed us to get an insight into how decisions are made regarding invasive species, not necessarily from a conservation but from an economic perspective.

Day 6: Invasive species talk, Miami and Florida Keys 03/03/2016

Temperature: Max 27o44

This day consisted of a long drive down to the Florida Keys but with a couple of stops along the way, including one in Miami which gave us a chance to take in some of the human habitats of Florida.

Invasive species talk

We started the day with a talk on invasive species by Jake Edwards; a non-native Wildlife Technician for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). This gave us the chance to understand what was being done in Florida to deal with the abundance of non-natives.

In Florida there are 600 species of non-native wildlife as a result of the ideal warm climate, the numerous ports and the exotic pet trade.

When an invasive species first arrives in an area it follows an invasion curve where as time passes the cost of dealing with the situation increases. Therefore the approach with regards to invasive species goes as follows;

  1. Prevention of invasion: e.g. exotic pet amnesty days.
  2. Early detection: monitoring for non-native arrival and use of the “I’ve got 1” app for reporting invasive species.
  3. Rapid response: “throwing as much money at the problem at the beginning”.
  4. Control/ manage: keep a population at a controllable level.
  5. Education/ outreach: educate the public on the release of non-natives

We were then given some classic examples of invasive reptiles for example the Nile monitor lizard (Varanus niloticus), native to Africa and released due to the exotic pet trade. In Florida there are three confirmed separate breeding populations which generally inhabit canals. These are a particular problem as a result of their varied diet which means they are a risk to Florida’s native species.

These are a conditional species meaning that they are not allowed to be possessed personally, the case for many invasive and potentially invasive species. In response to the invasion a live trapping programme is underway, although we were told it is a lot more effective to shoot them. Those that are caught have their gut contents examined to see what they are eating and their reproductive health is also examined.

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Jake Edwards alongside  tegu (Tupinambis merinae) “Max”

We were shown a live Argentine black and white tegu (Tupinambis merianae) native to South America. 600 of these were caught last year and rapid response actions were undergone in Bonita Springs to remove a small population of tegus. This  was effective at removing the population before it became impossible to eradicate.

We were also shown frozen specimens of a black spiny tailed iguana (Ctenosaura similis) and a panther chameleon  (Furcifer pardalis) which had been caught in invasive species control programs.

Invasive species which are endangered in there native range can be an issue for control. For example the barasingha deer (Rucervus duvaucelii) native to India which are known to spread disease to Florida’s native deer but cannot be shot or controlled.

A case where eradication is not attempted is the Burmese python (Python bivittatus) native to Southeast Asia. A species with a large breeding population within the Everglades has been near to impossible to control as a result of the inaccessibility of the Everglades. In 2016 the Python Challenge was undergone lead by the FWC with the aim to increase public awareness and catch as many pythons as possible. This entailed public training on removal of pythons of which 1,066 people registered, however only 106 pythons were removed.

After the talk we got back into the van and made the decision to take a detour that would take us through Miami. This gave us a chance to take in the human side of things and we had a short visit to the beach. We then continued our journey towards the Florida Keys.


Florida Keys

The Florida Keys is an an archipelago consisting of 1,700 islands located off the southernmost coast of the continental US. These are primarily composed of ancient coral reefs and oolite (a sedimentary rock) which are formed behind reefs.

The Keys have a tropical savannah climate with a frost having never been reported. They boast a diversity of both native and non-native wildlife including the endangered and endemic Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) and the critically endangered  American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus).

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Satellite image of Florida Keys

The water surrounding the Keys is part of the 9, 600 km 2 Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This includes the Florida Reef which is the only barrier coastal reef in North America. It also consists of mangrove forests and seagrass fields which are the largest in the world.

Key Largo was the particular island we visited which is located in the upper Florida Keys. It is the largest section of the keys spanning 53 km and connected to the mainland by two road bridges.

We were taken out on a boat to White Banks Dry Rocks reef, a shallow inner reef within the National Marine Sanctuary located 3.5 miles offshore. The guide instructed us that we were not to touch any of the coral or to pick anything up from the bottom. We were also told that at no point were we to stand up when in the water, so as not to damage the coral in any way.

As we got in the water we swam across a seagrass bed towards the reef where we came across our first great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda)  and southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) which I had really been hoping to come across.

Once I had arrived at the reef I came across a variety of coral species some of which I was able to identify.  Including the common seafan coral (Gorgonia ventalina), the labyrinth brain coral (Diploria labyrinthiformis) and the Palmers sea rod (Eunicea palmeri). Amongst  these we came across many classic coral fish species including the yellowtail snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus), blue tang (Acanthurus coeruleus). We also saw two species of parrotfish; the Queen parrotfish (Scarus vetula) and the stop-light parrotfish (Sparisoma viride).

Some interesting fish behaviour I came across when in the water was some territorial behaviour  by a female rock beauty (Holacanthus tricolor). A member of the angelfish family these are protogynous hermaphrodites meaning they change sex from female to male.  They begin life as a female as the until they reach around 12 cm. I thought that this fish could potentially be guarding its eggs as whenever any small fish came near to the spot it was defending it would chase them off.

Exploring the reef allowed us to see a wetland habitat contrasting to that we had seen up until this point and was one of the trip highlights. Once our time was up we headed back to land where we came across some rather expensive houses, which had been built in areas where mangroves would previously have lined the coast. We had a chance to get some Key Lime Pie before the long drive back to Vester.

Day 5:Big Cypress National Preserve and airboat ride 02/03/2016

Temperature: Max 26oC11

We set off towards the Loop Road scenic drive cuts through 24 miles of the Big Cypress National preserve running paralell to the Tamiami trail. The preserve is compiled of 720,000 acres of predominantly cypress swamps but also mangroves and sawgrass prairies.

History of Big Cypress National Preserve

The area has had a history of exploitation with Early European settlers hunting herons and egrets  for plume. American alligators and Crocodiles were also hunted near to extinction. The area had also been exploited by the timber industry with parts cleared for farming.

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Cypress swamp along loop road

In 1974 the preserve became one of the first in the United States National Park system. The preserve was historically occupied by Native Americans and is still occupied by descendants. These descendants have rights to occupy and exploit land on the preserve and so differing from the Everglades National Park.
The preserve is currently used by hunters and for recreational activities including; camping, walking and various scenic trails such as the Loop Road we used.

Loop Road

We drove onto the trail and stopped to stretch our legs near to a sawgrass prairie. What I found particularly interesting was the abundance of epiphytes, in particular the cardinal airplant (Tillandsia fasciculata) which seemed to be everywhere. As we continued along the road we came across a just as appropriately named species, the brightly coloured Northern cardinal bird (Cardinalis cardinalis).

 

The trail offered some close views of some rather large alligators which were basking along the side of the road, seemingly unbothered by our presence. At one point we witnessed two alligators together and a few of the herpetology students noticed that one was holding its offspring in its mouth.

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Resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides)

As we continued along the trail we came across many plant species we had not come across beforehand, the most interesting being the resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides). This plant can lose up to 97% of its water content during an extreme drought, shrivelling up to a brown clump of leaves (how we saw it on the trail).  When the plant comes into contact with water it will become green again, hence the name ‘resurrection’ fern.

Airboat Ride

After completing the trail we drove to the Coopertown Airboat Tour. As we entered we came across some alligators in what could only be described as a fish tank. Unfortunately this was the theme of the visitor centre.

Taking the airboat ride gave us a chance to get amongst the open sawgrass and needle grass which we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to otherwise.  The ride then took us alongside a hardwood hammock, or an elevated area that is higher than the surrounding wetland. This area showed a differing habitat to that of the open wetland including pond-apple (Annona glabra) and a variety of fern species. Most interestingly a species that I didn’t expect to see: the whisk fern (Psilotum nudum).

As we travelled alongside the hammock the guide pointed out alligators, at one point he whistled to call them. Our group were unsure if this was part of the routine or if he was calling the alligators. This would likely mean that the people working at the airboat rides had been feeding the alligators in the area (which is illegal).

We then had a short “educational” talk where we were told about some of the alligators kept in the enclosures around the site. One alligator having been caught from the wild as it had become a nuisance alligator due to humans feeding it. The majority of the group were more than happy to leave feeling a little bewildered by the conditions in which the alligators were kept.

 

Day 4: Bird ringing at FGCU, slogging and Florida panther talk 01/03/2016

Temperature: Max 27o0000C

With an early start  for our first morning at Vester Field Station we got an opportunity to take in the surroundings, in particular the Osprey nest  just in front of the field station.

We  set off to Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) an 800 acre campus which has set aside half of its land for environmental preservation principally consisting of restored and preserved wetlands.  There have also been various lakes constructed to account for the loss of habitat and water run-off as a result 0f the universities development.

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A constructed lake on the FGCU campus

Bird ringing/banding

After a short drive we arrived early for bird ringing (or banding as it is referred to in the States).

Birds were caught using mist nets. Mist nets are typically made of nylon or polyester mesh, suspended by poles. They are used by ornithologists to capture birds and are illegal to own and use without a license. Luckily we were accompanied by Prof. Jerome Jackson (Jerry), a professor at FGCU and permit holder.

We were guided to a piece of woodland by the side of a carpark consisting largely of slash pine (Pinus elliottii) and saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Set up were three mist nets which we were told must be visited every 15-20 minutes, a bird banding  regulation to prevent stress to birds. Once caught the birds  were removed from the nets and placed inside a sock for transportation.

Brief history of bird banding 

Modern day bird banding began in 1890 in Denmark by Hans Christian Mortensen who first banded European starlings using zinc rings. These were too heavy but by 1989 aluminium was used as an alternative due to its lightweight properties.

Once a bird is removed from the net it is ringed, each ring has an individual number and address which can be used if  a bird is re-caught. This information is used by researches to  identify bird population dynamics and migration patterns.

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Male yellow-rumped warbler being held in the photographers grip (Dendroica coronata)

The first example caught was a yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata), one removed from the sock it was held in the photographers grip to prevent it from injuring itself. Relevant information regarding the bird was then recorded including; species, age, location, date and band number. Jerry recorded this using the Grenell system including bird weight, wing and tail length. The bird is then transferred into the banders grip and the ring is attached to the leg. It is then held in the hand of the bander and allowed to fly away.

Male yellow-rumped warbler

Wing length: 67 mm

Tail length:  55 mm

The second bird caught was a yearling female pine warbler (Dendroica pinus), this unfortunately died during the banding process. We were told this was likely as a result of the bird having a prominent sternum, suggesting that the bird was undernourished.

Female pine warbler

Wing length: 69 mm

Tail length: 51 mm

The final bird caught was a grey catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), this was a bird that I had been spotting since our arrival in Florida and finally had a chance to see it up close.

Much larger than the warblers caught the catbird  is characterised by its black cap, grey body and “rusty butt”. We were shown fine whiskers around the beak which assist in guiding insects into the mouth and the uropygial gland which secretes oil.

The age of catbirds can be found by looking at the colour of the mouth. Young birds display pink, grey and yellow mouthparts, whereas older birds after the hatchling year will be black and dark grey.

Slogging

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Dr. Edwin Everham

After bird ringing  we had a quick change  into our swamp suitable footwear and met with Dr. Edwin Everham an ecologist at the university who would take us slogging. We were told that after the development of the campus many areas had to be set aside to account for water  runoff from the university. This included water retention ponds and restored wetlands located around the university supporting a diversity of species.

We were then led to the cypress swamp for what can only be described as a complete immersion in a Floridian wetland, thanks to the swamp being much deeper than it would usually be this time of year. This was as a result of the El Niño effect leading to a wetter than usual January.

A we approached the swamp we witnessed the ecotone between the slash pine area and the cypress. Due to the flat topography of Florida  a slight change in height drastically changing the vegetation present.

This we were told is an area shaped by fire and water. The fire shaping the “uplands” which transitions to a  traditional wet prairie and towards the cypress in the wetter swamp area.

In the swamp we came across cypress trees and were told about their adaptations to the
area:

  • The wider bases improve stability in times of high water and hurricanes, which occur twice per century.
  • Cypress knees of the trees  are likely to provide support or play a role in gas exchange as they are exposed above the water unlike the submerged roots.

The swamp was also dominated by alligator flag (Thalia geniculata) a rather charismatic swamp species which was growing in the deeper parts of the swamp.

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Inside the cypress swamp

We  came across some really interesting species while exploring the swamp, including a rabbits foot fern (Davallia fejeensis) and an eastern ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus).

On return to the university we were shown how wildlife had found a home in many unexpected areas, including snake eggs which we saw inside electricity boxes.

After an amazing experience with one of the most  enthusiastic people  we had time for lunch in the university canteen. Although not before an encounter with a rattlesnake. This had been radio-tagged for research, its presence likely being unknown by many of the FGCU students.

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An inner campus lake- home to an alligator

On leaving the canteen we also noticed an alligator swimming in a constructed lake which perfectly summed up how FGCU was not just surrounded by nature but also filled with it.

Panther Talk

We then had a short talk with Florida panther education officers. The Florida panther is a cougar (Felis concolor) subspecies know as Puma concolor coryi or Puma concolor couguar. We were told that the Florida panthers historic range is now much reduced in size and only ~180 individuals remain with 16 of these currently radio collared.

 

There are three major causes of death;

  • Road collisions with 40 incidennts recorded in 2015.
  • Feline leukaemia as a result of eating infected house cats.
  • Fights amongst Panthers as a result of small territories due to habitat loss not allowing the 200 km2   territory required.

Tracking is undergone looking at scat, scrapes, scratches, kills and drags (where the panther will drag the kill between its belly leaving marks on the ground). Capturing for the attachment of GPS and radio telemetry collars will use these methods in addition to dog tracking. On most occasions dogs will corner the panther so that is heads up a tree where it will be tranquillised.

Panthers that are caught will be treated for feline leukaemia, tattooed a unique number on the back of the ear and fitted with a collar. This process we were told usually begins in February.

Panthers are also monitored using infra-red motion cameras, some of which  are set up under wildlife underpasses (another panther conservation method  to reduce traffic collisions).000000

We were told that as a result of the small population, inbreeding was a problem. Therefore  8 Texas cougars (Puma concolor stanleyana), a closely related subspecies were brought in. This we were told had been a contentious issue amongst conservationists as  these are different subspecies, although with such a small gene pool this had been decided to be the best solution to maximise genetic viability of the population.

After a long day we headed back to Vester all rather envious of the FGCU students who were lucky to be surrounded by an incredible diversity of wildlife.

 

Day 3: Travelling and LILA 28/02/2016

Temperature: Max 23o C

000Day three largely consisted of travelling from Kissimmee to the Vester Field station in Bonita Beach which gave us an opportunity to spot wildlife on the journey. In particular we saw large numbers of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) and black vultures (Coragyps atratus) catching thermals by the side of roads likely looking for roadkill. The black vultures which  I had previously thought were turkey vultures, I learned could be identified by different white sections on the underwing when  flying above (which I sketched).

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Above: Turkey vulture       (Cathartes aura)  Below: Black vulture (Coragyps atratus)

 

The drive also took us alongside Lake Okeechbee, the largest freshwater lake in Florida being 1,900 km 2 yet having an average depth of 2.7 metres.

LILA

We had the opportunity to visit to  the Arthur R.
Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge home to LILA (Loxahatchee Impoundment Landscape Assessment) an 80-acre model of the Everglades ecosystem. The model is used with the goal of restoration of the Everglades.

The Everglades system has been altered over the years by humans, in particular by draining, building levees, canals and floodgates for land development. This has resulted in the loss of much of the natural hydrology with little being known about the original hydrology.

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Equipment used for monitoring fish populations under different hydrological conditions

Much research at LILA is into how water management can alter conditions within the Everglades ecosystem. This is used to test models prior to altering the Everglades system.

Water can be managed in three ways; depth, flow and timing. These are altered at LILA and the effect of this is recorded.

An example we were given of this was the effect of water availability on bird breeding:

  • 1-2 years after a drought event breeding of wading birds is known to increase.
  • This was thought to be as a result of reduced aquatic predation by predatory fish on crayfish. Therefore increasing crayfish populations and so influencing wading bird breeding.

Therefore…

  • A drought was staged and 25,000 predatory fish were removed.
  • Compared to a year without drought crayfish numbers increased fourfold which was as a result of reductions in crayfish predation due to removal and death of predatory fish. Whereas crayfish are able to burrow and survive  periods of drought. As a result, a year after a drought there is an increase in crayfish populations explaining why there was an increase in bird breeding. (Dorn & Cook, 2015)

We came across a wide variety of species at the refuge, in particular many invasive species. An interesting find was the brightly coloured apple snail eggs attached to bulrush and the empty shells including that of the island apple snail (Pomacea maculate), native to South America. Apple snails are the primary food source of the snail kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis) and also the Limpkin (Aramus guarauna), likely culprits of the empty shells.

We also had the first chance to witness a swamp area  along  a boardwalk . This meant that we came across many fern species, which I am particularly interested in. Below are a few of the species that we came across, a species that I wasn’t expecting to see was the water fern (Salvinia minima) which is an invasive aquatic fern from South America and the West Indies.

Having had time to explore LILA we piled back into the minibuses and continued with our journey to the field station. We travelled along alligator alley which gave us an opportunity take in the sheer scale of the Everglades while travelling through the Big Cypress National Preserve (although the lack of alligators was more than a little disappointing).

Reference                                                                                                                                                                                                                               DORN, N.J. and COOK, M.I., 2015. Hydrological disturbance diminishes predator control in wetlands. Ecology, 96(11), pp. 2984-2993.

 

 

 

Day 2 Merritt island and NASA 27/02/2016

Temperature: Max 21o C

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After a much needed sleep we set off at 8am to Merit Island. On the drive I spotted American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) and a Wood Stork (Mycteria Americana) flying overhead which were surprisingly close to a relatively built up area. A sight that would be hard to imagine in the UK and a taster to the array of birds we would be treated to in the day to come.

As we arrived at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge an Osprey flew overhead as we were taken into the educational room for a short talk by members of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. We were then treated to a drive around the refuge accompanied by a volunteer named Betty who had a vast knowledge of the history and ecology of the island.

Brief history of Merritt Island

  • 1945-53– DDT used to control mosquitoes.
  • 1950’s– Mosquitoes no longer respond to DDT, levees build around salt marshes to create impoundments which filled with rainwater. Controlled to disrupt saltmarsh mosquito populations. Changed predominant habitat of estuarine wetlands (saltmarsh and mangrove swamps) which added to the crash in dusky seaside sparrow populations.
  • 1962– NASA purchased 140,000 acres of land for space exploration due to its transport links and isolation from human populations (The previous human residents were bought out)
  • 1963– The northern part of the island was not developed by NASA. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) signed an agreement with NASA to establish a wildlife refuge on the island.

Merritt Island is now made up of an array of habitats occupied by 1,500 species of plants and animals.

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Saltmarsh

Habitat types include:

  • Coastal dunes
  • Saltmarshes
  • Freshwater impoundments
  • Scrub
  • Pine flatwoods
  • Hardwood hammocks

Two major forms of management are utilised by USFWS;

Prescribed fire is used on Merritt Island to improve and maintain wildlife habitat and reduce the risk of wildfires. Wildfires within Florida were a natural part of the ecosystem occurring every 3-10 years.  With prescribed fires this is mimicked in a controlled way.

Fuel load (grasses, pine needles, saw palmetto) is also reduced by controlled burning; meaning that risk from an uncontrollable wildfire would be reduced.

Water levels are also managed, previously these were used to control mosquito populations but are now used more to create and maintain the diversity of habitats for wildlife.

On the drive around the island we saw a diversity of habitats, plants and animals. The diversity of wading birds seen was vast resulting in different requirements for water depths. These are provided on the island by various impoundments and levees which are managed throughout the year, often responding to seasonal changes in water availabilities. These impoundments are also managed to control the salinity which is altered by Florida’s wet and dry season which can affect plants and prey availability.

Three different mangroves species were seen; white (Laguncularia racemosa), black (Avicennia germinans) and red (Rhizophora mangle). We were shown the zonation pattern of the three different mangroves, all of which belong to different families.

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Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)

We saw a female anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) sunning itself on a black mangrove as it does not have oil coated feathers. This is because while fishing the anhinga will dive underwater for long periods at a time with only the head above water, therefore buoyancy is not useful. This fishing behaviour, later seen at corkscrew swamp.

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Manatees in foreground of sign (Trichechus manatus)

The first mammal spotted on the trip was a group of manatees (Trichechus manatus) in a small lagoon resting. These were in an area near to a group of fishers and there were a few boats in the area seemingly unaware of the manatees presence. Manatees are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN’s Red List with over 20% of recorded fatalities in Florida being down to watercrafts (FWC, 2016). Despite the “slow speed-minimum wake” sign there was no indication that there were manatees in the area. Our guide told us that this was an area where manatees were regularly present, without signs signalling this boat collisions seemed likely in this area.

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Florida scrub jay in scrub habitat (Aphelocoma coerulescens)

 

 

The next exciting bird we came across was the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens). The Florida scrub jay is the only species of bird endemic to Florida. The scrub jay benefits from the prescribed fire management to maintain the scrub habitat it occupies. It was extremely inquisitive as we approached. This we were told, was because people often come and feed them by hand so humans are associated  with food.

 

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Kennedy Space Centre

NASA

Later in the day we travelled to the other side of the island to Kennedy Space Centre allowing us to see how the land was being used by humans in pursuit of space exploration. These large buildings and roads would certainly have resulted in habitat loss. Without this development by NASA the protection of the reserve by the prevention of human developments would not have happened. Therefore suitable wildlife habitats would have likely been replaced with large developments seen on the mainland.

Reference                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 FWC, 2016-last update, Marine Mammal Pathobiology Labratory YTD:  Preliminary Manatee Mortality Table by County From: 01/01/2015 To: 12/31/2015 [Homepage of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission;], [Online]. Available:http://myfwc.com/media/2970595/YearToDate.pdf [03/29, 2016].
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Buildings on NASA site

Day 1: Travelling 26/02/2016

Temperature: UK:  4oC – Orlando: 22oC

With an early awakening in cold Bangor we set off to Manchester airport at 5 am. Having spent the majority of the day at the airport and 5on the plane it was a welcome sight to see a glimpse of America in the distance. After my first bit of wildlife spotted being a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) as we landed  in Orlando I was itching to get off the plane and get cracking on my species list.

Once we arrived at the Seralargo hotel in Kissimmee my second bird was spotted. Although to my disappointment it was only a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), being the start of a growing trend of non-natives occupying my species list.