Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Florida's deadly snakes

While most snakes in Florida are harmless and provide important services such as controlling rodent colonies, we do have six venomous snakes that call Florida home. By learning to identify these snakes we can protect both our self and  non-venomous snakes that live in Floridian nature. This rat snake was enjoying investigating my fence and although I was startled when I saw him, I was happy to see he was not a deadly snake! All five of Florida's deadly pit vipers, including the Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake can be recognized by their stocky bodies, relatively small necks, large triangular heads, and eyes with vertical slit pupils. The coral snake is easily recognized with its color band design (red on yellow kill a fellow).

The Florida Cottonmouth or Water Moccasin, is a serpent that strikes terror in the hearts of hikers, swimmers, and freshwater fishermen. This snake is a heavy bodied pit viper with a large triangular head. The coloration of the Cottonmouth is variable. Older and larger snakes tens to be uniformly black, brown to reddish brown. the young are banded with a dark color against a lighter background. Like all pit vipers, Cottonmouths have a deep facial pit between the nostril and the eye. Unlike the harmless water snakes, the Cottonmouth tends to hold it's ground rather than go into the water, when approached. The Florida Cottonmouth  swims with his head well out of the water, a trait that other water snakes don't have. 

The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake is the most feared and dangerous snake in both Florida and the United States! Diamondbacks are found throughout the state of Florida. he average adult size of the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake is 36-72 inches, with the record length being 96 inches. The tail of the Diamondback is usually a different shade, brownish or gray, and toward the end of the tail the diamonds fade out or break into bands. The large and thick head has a light bordered dark stripe running diagonally through the eye and there are vertical light stripes on the snout. The pupil is vertical and catlike. The snakes venom is produced in glands which are located below and behind the rattlers eyes. These bulging glands, on either side of the head help give the head a triangular appearance. The Eastern Diamondback rattle is made of of a substance called keratin, similar to human fingernails. At birth, a rattlesnake has only a single button at the end of its tail. As the snake grows, another loosely interlocking segment is added each time it sheds its skin.

The legendary and colorfully banded  Eastern Coral Snake can be distinguished from the Scarlet Snake and the Kingsnake by its blunt black snout and the fact that its red and yellow bands touch each other. "Red on yellow, kill a fellow" is an old jingle that most Florida children (and adults) are familiar with. It is a quick way to know if the snake you see is a deadly coral snake or one if it's mimics, the Scarlet Kingsnake or the Scarlet Snake. Coral snakes have a wide black band touching a smaller yellow band, with a third band of red surrounded on both sides by the yellow bands. The tail is black and yellow, without any red rings. Another distinguishing feature of the Eastern Coral Snake is that it's rings go all the way around their body, although they are not as intense on their bellies. The Scarlet snake has both a red head and a white belly, two easy features to distinguish the two. Most coral snakes are less than thirty inches long, averaging between 20 to 30 inches.  The record length for a Coral Snake is 47.5 inches long.

 The Feisty little dusky pygmy rattler is rarely longer than twenty inches, and is common throughout the state of Florida. The Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake is a hot-tempered snake, usually striking repeatedly at the slightest threat. This pit vipers venom is very potent but the dose it delivers is small. Although the Pygmy Rattler vibrates its tail when annoyed, the little rattles are barely audible, sounding more like the faint buzz of an insect. The Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake is a small snake, but very thick for its size. The top of the triangular shaped head is covered with nine large scales. The body color is light to dark gray. A longitudinal row of black or charcoal, transverse blotches disrupts a reddish brown stripe running down the middle of the back. Dark spots on the side line up with the blotches. The tail is slender and ends in a miniature rattle. The belly is heavily mottled with black and white.
The Southern Copperhead  inhabits the Florida panhandle and is not found in southern Florida. The average length of adult copperheads is 30 inches. They have an unmarked copper-colored head, reddish-brown, coppery bodies with chestnut brown cross bands that constrict towards the midline. Copperheads are thick-bodied and have keeled scales. Copperheads feed on baby cottontails, swamp rabbits, rats, mice, birds, snakes, lizards, baby turtles, frogs, toads, and insects, especially grasshoppers and cicadas.

In Florida, the Timber Rattlesnake is often called the Canebrake Rattler. The Timber Rattlesnake is not as aggressive as the Diamondback. This viper will usually try to slither away when approached, but if it is stepped on on, the Timber Rattlesnake will probably strike. The venom of the Timber rattlesnake is potentially lethal! The adult Timber or Canebrake Rattlesnake is usually 36-60 inches long, with the record being 74.5 inches. Males get larger than females. The reddish brown stripe running down the center of the back is disrupted by a series of large, black, chevron-like crossbands on the pinkish gray or tan body. The tail is uniform black. The head is large and sometimes with a dark diagonal line through the eye or just behind the eye. The pupil is vertical and catlike.  The tail  of the Canebrake Rattlesnake ends in a rattle.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Florida frogs are singing in the rain

It has been a wet summer in central Florida and all this rain is getting frogs out and about like this green treefrog I saw peeking in my living room window. The Green Treefrog is one of the most common treefrogs found in Floridian nature. Green treefrogs don't seem to mind sharing their environment with people and are often spotted on windows or the exterior walls of homes. This species of frog doesn't croak but makes a sound more like a ringing bell. Usually vivid green, the Green Treefrog can change to brown quickly. The well defined strip that runs the length of its side makes identifying the Green Treefrog easy.

When a heavy evening rain is impending during the spring or summer, many frogs and toads begin to call. This is the first signal of intense breeding activity. Frogs and toads generally mate at night, since the darkness conceals them from sharp-eyed predators, especially wading birds. As rain starts to fall more and more frog voices are heard, until in certain places it becomes almost deafening.  Although it may seem like frogs are just singing for fun, it is actually the males who are calling to set up territories and to attract females. Most frogs in Florida breed and lay their eggs in shallow, temporarily flooded ponds, ditches, and depressions. Temporary water holes do not have large resident populations of predators, such as fish, salamanders, and water snakes, that would feed on the eggs or tadpoles because theses shallow pools usually dry up quickly.

 The Pig Frog is Florida's second largest frog. Pig Frogs are rarely found on land, being almost entirely aquatic. The Pig Frog gets his name from it's call, which sounds like a loud guttural grunting of a pig. The male pig frog calls while sitting on a lily pad or other floating vegetation. Like the bullfrog, the pig frog is often collected for it's edible hind legs. Pig Frogs main diet consists of crayfish. These frogs are olive to blackish brown and sometimes have prominent dark spots. Like most of the ranids, the pig frog has a white venter. But small flecks of brown or black can be found in its groin area. The Pig Frog's  webbing on the hind feet extends to the very tip of the longest toe

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Grasshoppers & Walking Sticks

Fall must be a busy time for grasshoppers in Floridian nature because I sure have seen a lot of them in my garden this month. This southern green-striped grasshopper is a common insect  found in Florida as well as other southern states. The greenstriped grasshopper feeds mainly on grasses with a preference for succulent plants.This one was feeding off my banana tree and had eaten about 1/8 of a large leaf when I discovered him.

The greenstriped grasshopper possesses long wings that extend 2 to 8 mm beyond the end of the abdomen. A strong flier, it often travels a great distance from where it hatched. This grasshopper seems to be a female based on her size and color and she has attracted at least one male who I caught trying to put the move on her!

This two-striped walking stick is also a common sight around here. Other names for this skinny creature are devil's riding horse, prairie alligator, and stick bug. These bugs are not harmless because they have the ability to spray a defensive chemical that is strong-smelling and painful to the eyes and mucus membranes! Unlike other stick insects, two-striped walking sticks have glands at their heads and they are able to use them as soon as they are born.. These glands  shoot a chemical spray to ward off enemies like ants, birds, beetles, mice, and anything else they might consider as a threat. If the spray gets into you or your pet's eyes it can cause intense immediate pain with a burning sensation, then a dull aching pain that wears away in a few hours, then the next day or two, light and pressure sensitivity, and redness in entire cornea can be expected. Although no long term damage should occur you may want to visit the doctor or have your pet looked at by a vet.

I'm not sure how often stick bugs mate, but I always see them together like this. Like all stick insects, the two-striped walking stick is herbivorus, feeding on the leaves of trees and shrubs. The life history of this species has not been reported in detail, but in Florida at least, the adults are most abundant in the fall, and that is when they lay their eggs. A botanist observed these types of walking sticks  laying eggs in the Ocala National Forest and noted that the female actually dug small pits in the sandy soil where she deposited eight to ten eggs in the pit, then covered them over with sand before repeating the process in a different area.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Red tide dangers for Florida

Strains of red tide crop up every year along Florida's coastline, but this year looks to be potentially more devastating with the strain called karenia brevis reeking havoc with marine life like fish, turtles, manatees and more. Right now, the algae is collecting in an area about 60 miles wide and 100 miles long, about 5 to 15 miles off St. Petersburg in the south and stretching north to Florida's Big Bend. Recent satellite images from the Optical Oceanography Laboratory at the University of South Florida show an offshore surface bloom extending between Taylor and Pinellas counties, approximately 5 to 35 miles offshore between southern Taylor and northern Levy counties and 10 to 20 miles offshore southern Levy to Pinellas counties.

Red tide destroys marine life by releasing a toxin that paralyzes their central nervous system. The algae also hurts Florida's beaches and can be harmful to people who inhale the algae's toxins when winds blow onshore or by crashing waves, particularly those with asthma and other respiratory ailments.Red tides are not a new problem, in fact they were documented in the southern Gulf of Mexico as far back as the 1700s and along Florida's Gulf coast in the 1840s. Fish kills near Tampa Bay were even mentioned in the records of Spanish explorers.

Because manatees are mammals, they need to come up and breath fresh air just like we do. They can get sick or even die from breathing a concentrated aerosol form of the red tide toxin found in the supersaturated layer of air just above the water's surface. A manatee suffering from the effects of red tide may exhibit muscle twitches, lack of coordination, labored breathing, and an inability to maintain body orientation. If rescued in time, most manatees can recover from the effects of red tide toxicity, so please report a sick manatee immediately to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922), #FWC or *FWC on your cellular phone. Last year's red tide is reportedly responsible for the death of 276 manatees.

No human  deaths have been attributed to red tide, however respiratory and skin irritations  have been reported. Shellfish should not be consumed during a bloom, however it is considered safe to consume shrimp, crabs and fish  during a red tide.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Remembering hurricanes from our past

The list of Florida hurricanes encompasses approximately 486 tropical or subtropical cyclones that affected the state of Florida. More storms hit Florida than any other U.S. state, and since 1851 only eighteen hurricane seasons passed without a known storm impacting the state. Of the 34 major hurricanes in Florida’s recorded history of storms to make landfall or produce Category 3 winds in Florida, 18, have occurred in the month of September. I thought it would be fitting to reflect on some of Florida's best known September hurricanes.

The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 was the first ever Category Five Hurricane on record to hit the United States. The compact and intense hurricane caused extreme damage in the upper Florida Keys, as a storm surge of approximately 18 to 20 feet affected the region. The hurricane's strong winds destroyed most of the buildings in the Islamorada area, and many World War I veteran workers were killed by the storm surge. Portions of the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad were severely damaged or destroyed. The evacuation train, which left Homestead was filled with veterans and 100s of other locals from the keys came to a sudden halt. When it reached the Islamorada water tank the 10 cars were tossed off the track and over on their sides by powerful waves that were now surging over the islands. The engine alone remained on its wheels, but it ceased to move because the fire in the box was out. The hurricane also caused additional damage in northwest Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. In total, more than 400 people were killed. 

Hurricane Easy Easy hit Florida in September of 1950 and produced the scariest weather for a 24-hour period in this section of the Gulf Coast. Easy hit Cedar Key on Sept. 5 as Category 3 storm and looped back out to sea before hitting Cedar Key again, which caused the town to face the same side of the storm twice and experience the eye for 2 1/2 hours. Following the loop, Easy headed back out to the Gulf briefly in a southeasterly direction before hitting land again at Hernando Beach and heading northeast across the state toward Jacksonville.The hurricane produced 100 mph winds in Cedar Key for 9 1/2 hour! Because of its unusual trek and low barometric pressure (28.30 inches), Easy caused some unusual occurrences. Cedar Key experienced 24.5 inches of rain in a three-day period, while Yankeetown took on 38.7 inches of rain in 24 hours, a record amount for the U.S. at the time.The low barometric pressure was also blamed for mysterious blisters forming on cars following the storm. Apparently the low pressure caused air pockets to form under layers of paint.
Cedar Key lost its entire fishing fleet of more than 100 boats. Ninety percent of its buildings were damaged and 150 homes lost their roofs. Miraculously, no one in Cedar key was killed by the storm.

In 1960 Hurricane Donna caused big trouble for Florida. After swiping the Florida Keys and striking land near Fort Myers on Sept. 10, 'Deadly Donna' did not travel along the usual path that storms of her magnitude usually take. Instead of heading back to the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, Donna took on the unusual distinction of being the only hurricane of record to produce hurricane-force winds throughout the U.S. East Coast from Florida, the Mid-Atlantic states and New England. The hurricane's center passed through 60 miles west of Miami, sparing Broward County. This time, Broward residents only experienced 80 mile-per-hour winds as Donna's fringes passed by, causing a few trees and signs to tumble down. Unfortunately, residents in the Florida Keys fared worse, having to endure 13-foot storm surges and 150 mile-per-hour winds. Bridges were washed away and homes resembled splintered matchsticks for miles. The Fort Lauderdale News reported that the Tampa Weather Bureau predicted statewide property damage to reach $2 billion. Hurricane Donna was the fifth-strongest hurricane of record to hit the U.S., causing 50 deaths, $387 million in property damage and affected over 50 million people according to the National Hurricane Center.

Fifty years ago this week, Hurricane Dora hit St. Augustine. It was the first hurricane to strike north of Stuart on the East Coast of Florida since 1880. While the subsequent 10-foot storm surge and 125 mph winds severely damaged the St. Augustine area, it was the back end of Dora that caught the attention of Citrus County residents and emergency personnel on Sept. 10, 1964. Pushed along by 60 mph winds, a high tide, 6 feet above normal, rolled in, flooding the Gulf Coast from Citrus County to the Panhandle.

Category-2 Hurricane Frances came ashore on the central east coast of Florida on September 5, 2004. Hurricane Frances was the sixth named storm, the fourth hurricane, and the third major hurricane of the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season. The system crossing the open Atlantic during mid to late August, moving to the north of the Lesser Antilles while strengthening. Frances then passed over the central sections of the state of Florida in the U.S. only three weeks after Hurricane Charley, causing significant damage to the state's citrus crop, and closing schools. The storm then moved briefly offshore Florida into the northeast Gulf of Mexico and made a second U.S. landfall at the Florida Panhandle before accelerating northeast through the eastern United States near the Appalachians into Atlantic Canada while weakening. A significant tornado outbreak accompanied the storm across the eastern United States, nearly equaling the outbreak from Hurricane Beulah. Very heavy rains fell in association with this slow moving and relatively large hurricane, which led to floods in Florida and North Carolina. Some areas of Florida received over 13 inches as the system moved slowly through the state. Heavy rains caused a large sinkhole to develop on Interstate 95 in Palm Beach County, which closed the highway to traffic. Frances caused heavy damage to the large Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, ripping off over a thousand 4-by-10 foot aluminum panels used to clad the building. A total of 49 lives were lost from the cyclone. Damages totaled $12 billion.

Hurricane Ivan  lived up to name of "Ivan the Terrible when it made landfall on September 16, 2004. The hurricane was the strongest hurricane of the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season and the tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. The cyclone formed as a Cape Verde-type hurricane in early September and became the ninth named storm, the sixth hurricane, and the fourth major hurricane of the year. Ivan reached Category 5 strength on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, the strongest possible category. At its peak in the Gulf of Mexico, Ivan was the size of the state of Texas. It also spawned 117 tornadoes across the eastern United States. After peaking in strength, the hurricane moved north-northwest across the Gulf of Mexico to strike Gulf Shores, Alabama as a strong Category 3 storm, causing significant damage. Ivan dropped heavy rains on the Southeastern United States as it progressed northeast and east through the eastern United States, becoming an extratropical cyclone. The remnant low from the storm moved into the western subtropical Atlantic and regenerated into a tropical cyclone, which then moved across Florida. Ivan caused an estimated $13 billion in damages to the United States.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An update on Yuma the Florida panther

Yuma, which is Native American for “Son of the Chief.”  is the name of the rescued baby Florida panther that now resides in Homosassa Springs Park. According to the Citrus County Chronicle, the kitten was rescued by biologists in Collier County when it was only about a week old, The 1-pound male panther was found in a matted-down area of sawgrass and was nonresponsive with a dangerously low body temperature.The panther kitten was taken to Naples and treated for dehydration, malnourishment and to raise his body temperature. Once he was stable, he was transported to Lowry Park Zoo for further rehabilitation and vaccines. His permanent home is now the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park.

Yuma has grown considerably since he was first brought to the park. FWC cameras show the panther enjoying himself and he is often seen chasing butterflies, and pouncing on imaginary prey. The young panther seems to be completely recovered from its rough start on life but will remain in the park for its lifetime because of his human imprint and no natural instruction for survival.

According to the FWC " Florida residents can support conservation efforts like the rescue of this kitten by purchasing a "Protect the Panther" license plate at BuyaPlate.com. Fees from license plate sales are the primary funding source for the FWC’s research and management of Florida panthers".

Monday, September 15, 2014

Florida's wonderful birds

Florida is home to over 480 variety of birds! A great many of these birds live here year round but some migrate here just like our human form of "snow birds".  Over 175 bird species are known to breed in Florida and almost three hundred birds migrate here in the fall spring or winter months. These sandhill cranes were a welcome surprise when I went out to get my mail. Sandhill cranes are long legged, long necked, gray, heron-like birds with a patch of bald red skin on top of their head. These large and beautiful birds can be seen in Florida pastures, prairies and freshwater wetlands in peninsular Florida from the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp. This is a male and female couple and a youngster was spotted shortly after I took the picture. Cranes are monogamous breeders, and mated pairs stay together year round.

Cardinals are always easy to spot, especially a male cardinal like this one. We have several cardinals that call our backyard home and I never tire of seeing their bright red body against the green wooded background. Our male cardinal loves strutting his stuff near the bird feeder. He acts like he has worked hard to find the seeds, then he calls to the female and shares the feast with her. Often called "mate feeding"  the male cardinal picks up a seed, hops over to the female, and the two momentarily touch beaks as she takes the food. How romantic is that?

Wild turkeys are another common sight in Floridian nature. I usually spot them just after or during a rain.  The birds are seldom seen alone and in our neck of the woods they travel in groups of between 12-16.  The females are not quite as pretty as this male turkey but they are still fun to run into. I haven't figured out yet why they are out in the rain but they sure do like to come out and play or look for food during or after one of our afternoon showers.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Little Bunny Foo Foo

Eastern cottontail rabbits are a common sight in Floridian nature and this little guy was willing to sit still for the camera yesterday as we passed by on our morning walk. The average Florida cottontail is between 14-17 inches in length and only weighs 2 to 4 pounds. They are grayish-brown in color, but are best recognized for their distinctive white "cotton" tail. Cotton tails in central Florida are often seen on the side of the road and stay near wooded areas. Twice last month I awoke to see a cottontail in my back yard despite the fact that the yard has a six foot privacy fence. When he saw me and decided to run for the hills, I saw that he had probably entered the yard the same way he exited it, by fitting under the narrow space beneath the gate 

Rabbits are strictly vegetarians with their main food being green plant parts when available. They will eat young woody shoots and bark in a pinch if there is nothing better to choose from. I know they definitely love broccoli because a few years ago I awoke to find all the broccoli plants in my garden were eaten with the rabbit still there, finishing up on the last few nubs!

The eastern cottontail has keen senses of sight, smell and hearing. It is crepuscular and nocturnal, and is active all winter. During daylight hours, the eastern cottontail remains crouched in a hollow under a log or in a thicket.  Here it naps and grooms itself. The cottontail sometimes checks the surroundings by standing on its hind legs with its forepaws tucked next to its chest. I like watched him wiggle his nose in the video, taking about 30 breaths in 10 seconds.

Although cottontails are quick runners and can reach speeds up to 18 miles per hour, they have a relatively short life span. Most do not survive beyond their third year. Enemies include hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, weasels and man.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Summer time is snake time in Floridian nature

While walking this morning I came across a small red rat snake that had been unsuccessful in crossing the street. Snakes are a common sight in Floridian nature especially during these hot summer months. As reptiles they  appreciate that hot baking Florida sun and so as Floridians we need to keep our eyes open to avoid a run in. Snakes are feared in part because of the very few species which are actually dangerous and in part because of ignorance about their mysterious ways

The Red Rat Snake, often called the corn snake in Florida, lives near pinelands, hardwood hammocks, swamps, agricultural fields, and residential areas. Corn snakes are one of the most colorful snakes in Florida. Adult red rat Snakes are orangish-brown with black bordered orange, red, or brownish blotches. The belly usually is a black and white checkerboard pattern, though orange may also be present. The underside of the tail has 2 black stripes. Adult red rat snakes reach a length of  18-44 inches.

Florida is home to a wide variety of snakes and of the 43 species of snakes that call Florida home only six are venomous. Florida's non-venomous snakes come in a great variety of size and colors and are found in all Florida habitats from mangrove swamps to the driest scrub, from limestone spring runs to the Everglades, and even the backyard.

Rat snakes can sometimes be feared because they are confused with the venomous  dusky pygmy rattler.This is a small snake, usually less than 20 inches in length. Pygmy rattlers are a hot-tempered snake, usually striking repeatedly at the slightest threat. This pit vipers venom is very potent but the dose it delivers is small. Although the Pygmy Rattler vibrates its tail when annoyed, the little rattles are barely audible, sounding more like the faint buzz of an insect. This is all the more reason to be wary of this snake. Although its bite is unlikely to cause death, it can be very painful and can cause infection or tissue destruction.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Enjoying the beauty of the Withlacoochee River

Living so close to the Withlacoochee River is such a blessing and it offers an opportunity to see such a wide variety of Floridian nature. Nothing says Florida better than the knotty roots of the Cyprus tree. The bald cypress, often overgrown with Spanish moss, is the tree that gives the Louisiana bayous and the Florida everglades their exotic atmosphere. Despite its association with the South, the bald cypress is hardy and adaptable to many parts of the continent. The bald cypress has a pyramidal shape similar to other conifers, with a broad buttressed base. It reaches up to 100 feet in height in its native environment, but rarely more than 70 feet in culture. In wet situations it develops 'cypress knees': curious growths which rise out of the ground or water and are believed to help the tree breathe in swampy conditions. The short green needles turn brown and drop off in the fall. Its bark is fibrous and an attractive reddish brown. The small, rounded cones are of little decorative effect.

The Withlacoochee River which is one of the few rivers that flows north,originates originates in central Florida's Green Swamp, east of Polk City. It flows west, then north, and then turns northwest and finally west again before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico near Yankeetown. The river is 86 miles  long and has a drainage basin of 1,170 square miles. "Withlacoochee" probably stems from a Muskhogean dialect. It is compounded of Creek we (water), thlako (big), and chee (little), or little big water. This word combination signifies little river in the Creek language, and as we-lako or wethlako may also refer to a lake, it may signify a river of lakes, or lake river.

A wide variety of wildlife lives along the shore or in the Withlacoochee River including the short tailed hawk seen here. The Short-tailed Hawk is a small hawk of grass and woodland habitat in Florida and it occurs in two color morphs. The light phase is dark above and white below; the dark phase (more common in Florida) is black above and below except for the light bases of the primaries. Both phases have banded, black-and-white tail, yellow cere, and yellow legs and feet. Immatures are like adults, but with more numerous tail bands. The rare and wary short-tailed hawk is easily identified in either color phase, as it is the only hawk in the area that is pure black or pure white below. Although not designed for speed, the Short-tailed Hawk is a habitual bird hunter, preying on medium-sized birds of open country, such as Eastern Meadowlarks and Red-Winged Blackbirds.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

2014- The year of the salamander

You may have missed the scuttlebutt but Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC) and conservation groups from around the world have designated 2014 as the Year of the Salamander! The goal of this world wide effort is to energize salamander education, research, and conservation.

Salamanders are amphibians that have long tails and moist skin. All salamanders must keep their skin moist because it is comparatively soft and does not protect them against loss of moisture. For this reason they require damp environments. Even the land species are usually found in shady, wooded areas near water. Some burrow into damp ground. With the exception of sirens and amphiumas, salamanders look basically like scaleless lizards. Floridians sometimes call salamanders "spring lizards" because they are often seen near springs. But unlike lizards, salamanders have neither claws, nor scales, and their legs are so short that their bellies drag on the ground. Being amphibians, most salamanders undergo metamorphosis. Unlike frogs salamanders don't lose their tails when they change from the larval stage to adults. What would be called the tadpole stage in frogs is called the larval stage in salamanders. Salamanders can regenerate limbs as well as tails and can even regenerate eye retinas and severed optic nerves.
 FWC biologists are currently working to restore the native habitat of the reticulated flatwoods salamander, one of Florida’s own endangered amphibians –  The flatwoods salamander is medium-sized, reaching an adult length of 5 inches  and its body color ranges from silvery gray to black, with the back heavily mottled with a variable gray cross-band pattern. The underside is plain gray with faint creamy blotches. The head is small and equal to the neck in diameter. The flatwoods salamander used to crawl over 100 million acres of longleaf pine habitat in the Southeastern United States. Now there is less than 3 million acres of habitat left - most of it in 11 wetland-rich Florida counties.
The best time to flatwoods salamanders are at night, when they come out for food. They are solitary creatures who live alone and spend most of the daylight hours in underground burrows or in cool, damp crevices under rocks or logs. They have fragile bodies and should be handled as little as possible.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The hard working dung beetle

When we think of Floridian Nature, we tend to concentrate on large mammals like bears, deer, and panthers or marine mammals like the Florida manatee, or dolphins, but I doubt anyone in Florida works as hard as the dung beetle.

Dung beetles are small beetles found everywhere except for Antarctica. Dung beetles come in a variety of colors, from dull and glossy black to metallic green and red. They are fairly small insects that are capable of moving dung (manure) much larger than they are. In fact one dung beetle can bury dung that is 250 times heavier than itself in one night.

Ancient Egyptians thought very highly of the dung beetle, also known as the scarab and believed the dung beetle kept the Earth revolving like a giant ball of dung, linking the insect to Khepri, the Egyptian god of the rising sun.

Dung beetles are one of the few groups of insects that exhibit parental care for their young. In most cases, the mother constructs the nest and provisions it with food for her young,  but in certain species, both parents share child care duties to some degree.

Its hard to imagine a bug that is dedicated to eating, moving and storing poop could be a fussy eater, but its true! Australians learned this lesson the hard way, when the outback was nearly buried in cattle dung. Two hundred years ago, settlers introduced horses, sheep, and cattle to Australia, all grazing animals that were new to the native dung beetles. The Australian dung beetles were raised on poop from Down Under, like kangaroo poo, and refused to clean up after the exotic newcomers. Around 1960, Australia imported exotic dung beetles that were adapted to eating cattle dung, and things got back to normal.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Liquid Sunshine in Florida

We may be the Sunshine State but this summer has been extra rainy in central Florida. One of the nice perks about the rain is that often times it doesn't mean the sun stops shining and we end up with some beautiful rainbows. The climate has always been Florida's most important natural resources, which is reflected in its official nickname, the "Sunshine State." Florida is famous for it's generally warm climate. The climate of Florida is tempered somewhat by the fact that no part of the state is very distant from the ocean.

This is a shot of a splendid double rainbow that I was able to view from my front porch. I wonder if the Rainbow River got its name from the way it sparkled with rainbows like this overhead. The opposite of sparkling rainbows, lightening is another site that is often seen in Florida skies. Florida receives the highest density of lightning strikes within the United States. The corridor from Tampa Bay, Florida to Titusville, Florida is referred to as "lightning alley", since this area has the highest amount of lightning per year in the United States.  Several deaths per year are blamed on lightning, making lightning one of the deadliest weather-related phenomenon in the state. In Citrus County, we have had three homes catch fire from lightening so far this summer.The home shown below was in Lecanto Florida. According to the Citrus County Chronicle "Firefighting units from four stations  were unable to save the Lecanto home and it's contents valued at more than $500,000.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Banana spiders in all their splendor

This is one corner of my Citrus County home, and on every other other corner and lots of places in between there are banana spiders. When we lay on a raft in the pool we can see multiple banana spiders high above us, their webs connecting from tree to tree.

Banana spiders, also known as golden orb weavers are large colorful spiders with little known predators besides man. The name banana spider is from the shape of their body and not the fact that they live near banana trees. Golden orb weavers got that name because they web has a golden hue to it. When I started to do some research I found some amazing information including claims that a banana spider is able to capture and eat a small bird!

Banana spiders build their webs quickly and unlike other spiders, they stay in plain site and await prey to be caught in the web. Its also almost impossible to tear down the orb weavers web because they work on it all the time and make repairs faster than you can knock it down. If I had a dollar for every banana spider web I have walked into over the years I could take a nice long vacation! Females can grow up to three inches (not including the legs) so we are talking about some pretty good size spiders.

Although the spiders are large, they are mostly harmless. Banana spiders do have small fangs and a small amount of venom but they are docile unless provoked and I have never heard of anyone getting bitten. You don't have worry about the bite being dangerous, the way you do with black widows or the  brown recluse spider.  The video below shows how they respond when my son gently prods the web with a piece of pine straw.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Gopher Tortoises Killed and Ate in Citrus County

Gopher tortoises are protected under state law and for a good reason. The loveable, slow-moving Gopher Tortoise is famous for digging underground burrows 10 to 35 feet long with "bedrooms" at the ends. The burrows are found in sandy well drained areas through out Florida. In good weather, the tortoise emerges from its burrow to graze on low-growing vegetation, including leaves, grass and wild fruits. Over seventy other kinds of animals have been found using the state protected Gopher Tortoise burrows in various ways. These include burrowing owls, raccoons, opossums, gopher frogs, spiders, insects, cotton rats, indigo snakes, and rattlesnakes.

In my location, it is hard to take a walk in the woods without coming across numerous tortoise homes and developers have to pay thousands of dollars to move gopher tortoise burrows to a safe location before building, While gopher turtles  had been a food staple  for southerners in the past, it is illegal to move or kill a gopher tortoise in the state of Florida.In fact it's illegal under state law to even possess a gopher tortoise, which is a designated by the state as a "threatened" reptile. In 2006, the state estimated the gopher population in Florida at 785,000, threatened by habitat destruction.All this makes it especially frustrating when I hear that someone in Citrus County has been catching and eating gopher tortoises.

A Citrus County, Fla. man could face felony charges after being busted with 11 gopher tortoises. Working off a tip, Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission officer Tommy Reid. found a pile of dead gopher tortoise shells in the Citrus County woods. When he went back to the area the next day he found 11 live tortoises trapped. A short time later the culprit showed up in a truck ready to claim the trapped gopher tortoises. When asked what he was doing with the illegal catch, the man reportedly replied that he was eating them!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Florida Anoles

Anoles are those common lizards we see everywhere in Floridian nature. There are several varieties of anoles found in Florida nature but the most common is the green anole. Green anoles are similar to chameleons but they are unable to change colors as easily as their cousins. An easy way to identify an anole is by the bright flaming skin he expands on his throat when alarmed. Anoles can live between four and eight years and if you catch one it can be calmed and petted.

Other anoles found in Floridian nature include the bark anole, the cuban brown anole, and the knight anole. If you are looking for more anole information be sure and check out our page on anoles at Floridian nature

Monday, September 1, 2014

Endangered manatees?

Florida manatees are large marine mammals and a big topic of debate in the state right now. West Indian Manatee are large, aquatic mammals with a body that tapers to a flat, paddle-shaped tail. They are grayish-brown in color and have two flippers with nails on them. The head and face of these animals are wrinkled with whiskers on the snout. The closest relative to the West Indian manatee is the elephant! The average, adult manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs about 1,000 pounds. They can reach up to 13 feet in length and weigh up to 3,000 pounds.

In areas like Crystal River Florida manatees are a year round tourist attraction, and in the winter months large groups of manatees escape the cold weather by enjoying the spring waters of the Crystal and Homosassa rivers. Not everybody loves the manatees though. Boaters resent the no wake zones created to provide manatees more safety against deadly boat propellers. If any of you have ever seen a manatee in person, you probably noticed the scars on their backs because it is hard to see a manatee that hasn't been cut by a boat propeller.

Now it is the legislator's turn to get involved with the manatee debate. In 1967 manatees were added to the federal listing as an endangered species, the most protective classification. Since that time the manatee numbers have improved. Florida's manatee population has grown from several hundred in 1967 to over 4,800 in this year. A growth that has some people speculating that may be able to shifted from endangered to threatened. Endangered species are in danger of becoming extinct throughout all or the majority of its range while a "threatened" species is one that is likely to become endangered in the near future.

According to the wildlife service, officials began working on the reclassification proposal in 2013, but those efforts were suspended amid funding constraints, the U.S. government shutdown and concerns over recent spikes in manatee deaths, particularly during cold snaps. A record 829 manatees died last year, breaking the 2010 record of 766, according to state records.