Temperature: Max 27oC
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.