Saturday, May 22, 2010

Summer's a Creepin

Everyone told me when I got to Audubon that I came at a cushy time, arriving in the temperate month of November. Now that June is around the bend I’m starting to see what they were talking about.

Adam Chasey paddling out in the Florida Bay.

Temperatures are reaching a balmy 94 degrees in the afternoons, which feels more like 105 slogging around in the humid mires of the Everglades. At our sample sites, the water around the flats could hard-boil an egg and the bays are about as refreshing as backwash. The only option for cooling down is pouring my ice-cold drinking water down my shirt, which I’m pretty sure will one day induce cardiac arrest.

I have yet to see the mosquito swarms famous for carrying off small children, but the deer flies, oh my lord the deerflies are unbearable. If mosquitoes are the infantry then the deerflies are the delta force of the bloodsucking army.  They always seem to bite the hardest when both of my hands are occupied or they’ll attack in tactical nondescript locations like the ends of toes, the shoulder blades, or right on the soft spot of my arch. To boot, they are extremely fast and difficult to kill. I loathe them with such deliberate malice but when combined with the intense heat of a cloudless sun and the stillness of everything else, my rage probably looks more like a temper tantrum from some frustrated schizophrenic. Although, I must admit that killing them occupies the greater part of my day and really gives me a sense of purpose and direction. I feel just as accomplished in crossing out items on a to-do list as when I hear the crunch of their blood-filled abdomens on my arm. A little demented? Perhaps, but I guarantee if you spend a week out here you’ll be talking trash to the lifeless deerfly bodies smashed in your hands too.

Red mangrove in the flats at Joe Bay just before a large rainstorm.

Summer in the field might mean some slight discomforts, but when four o’clock rolls around and those cumulous nimbus clouds start building on the horizon, it all seems worth it. The energy in the Florida summer sky is intoxicating especially when out on the open water or mangrove flats. There’s just a certain vulnerability and appreciation I feel when the thunderheads tower over the landscape.  May is only the beginning and I can’t wait to see what kind of fickle weather patterns ensue with the coming months, despite the bugs that come with them. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Weekend Warriors

Garl Harrold (back center) with group in one of his secret gator holes.

After a full week of work, Saturdays usually come with a dilemma. On one hand, I have my big, beautiful, and neglected bed, while on the other an entire national park is going through some dramatic seasonal changes. Either way, it’s a win-win situation and I can easily justify one over the other, usually at the influence of weather. This weekend, I chose the Everglades.

My roommate Adam (right) with coworker Erin (center) and Wolfgang (left) 
dare the other to walk into the gator hole.

Normally I go out alone, but since Garl (of Garl’s Coastal Kayaking) had a group of paying customers to where I could hitch a ride, I decided to tag along.

You can see here how cypress domes get their names.

We went out to a few cypress domes off the beaten path and looked for snakes and owls. After only ten minutes of looking, we came upon a slight depression, which looked like the perfect hideout for water snakes. Fortunately we had three herpetologists in the group and they helped us find 6 cottonmouths in one small pile of logs.

Hiking into one of these domes can be pretty muddy.

Of course, on a branch just above these snakes sat a barred owl. 

Quill-leaf epiphyte (Tillandsia fasciculata) takes over the trunks of pond cypress in this dome.

With the return of the rains, all of the parched epiphytes are starting to perk up and fill out. Walking through the trees amongst the varieties of air plants and orchids carries the same silent awe as snorkeling a coral reef. It’s just so beautiful how every inch of livable space is occupied by something that contributes to the overall health of the ecosystem.

For sunset, we paddled out into the Bay and got to see my favorite seasonal change of all: clouds.

Down here, the afternoon storms and towering, anvil-shaped cumulous clouds are famous for appearing out of nowhere. Summer isn’t here quite yet, but when it is, I’ll be ready!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Playing the Audubon Card

Last spring I worked for the National Audubon Society at the Francis Beidler Forest Sanctuary in Harleyville, South Carolina. In the office chatter I would always pick up little tidbits about one of their sister sites, Corkscrew Swamp in Naples, Florida. One of the top grossing Audubon enterprises, Corkscrew Swamp brings visitors around a 2 mile boardwalk that weaves in and around cypress, slash pine, and marsh. I always wanted to visit, but never found the time to drive the four hours from Gainesville. This weekend, however, four of my friends and I booked two nights in one of the researchers cabins. Playing the Audubon card, we slept in air conditioned rooms, cooked full meals in the kitchen, and most importantly, were granted unlimited access to the swamp. 

Day 1:
Adam Chasey photographing Alligator Tail and Pond Cypress on the boardwalk.

Within five minutes of getting on the boardwalk we came within 6 feet of a Pileated Woodpecker
and he pecked at a tree for 15 minutes without minding our presence. 

Raccoons came and went, cutting us off on the boardwalk. 

These guys just roamed around looking for crawfish, though the water was high which made
hunting a little difficult. 

Strangler figs wrap around six hundred year old bald cypress.

A view of the boardwalk at sunset.

Alligator tail and bald cypress.

Day 2:

Adam Chasey climbing one of the strangler fig vines. In this photo he is about 30 feet off the ground.

Although invasive, these little brown anoles are fun to watch. The red pouch is call a dewlap
that the males swell in order to attract females. 

Alligator Tail detail.

Green tree frogs were everywhere this time of year!

This is another exotic invasive called water hyacinth. It's pretty, but just to name a few things:
it clogs waterways, impedes sunlight from reaching native aquatic plants, depletes oxygen in the water,
and provides breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The park is going to spray for them next week.

Tillandsia, an epiphyte, grows everywhere here. 

Here's the fun one. We spent forty five minutes playing with flashlights to light up this one part of the canopy
where the big dipper peeks through. We decided just to highlight the rims of the tree to draw you in more to the center. 
Fun times, although the mosquitoes and horseflies were making it a little difficult. 

Day 3

Sunrise on the marsh.

A nice fog rolled in through the slash pines just as the sun came up.

Red ant with dewdrops.

The eyed click beetle has the distinct marks on top of its head. When a bird sees this
beetle from above it appears to be a snake. 

One of the staff, Mike Knight, gave us a tour of the entire swamp property on their famous Swamp Buggy. 

We saw tons of red-shoulder hawks

Tree frog detail on alligator tail. 

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day!

Tricolor heron with chicks.

My mom always encouraged exploration. Whether living abroad or even climbing trees in the backyard, my mom cautiously embraced my curiosity. Well, more appropriately, I’d say she accepted it. My hands-on approach to the outdoors was often a topic of conversation (heated debate) at the dinner table. More than a few times I ran the risk of having my camera confiscated, as it was viewed as the end to my reckless means. As budding photographer, it proved exceedingly difficult to hide the evidence of my close encounters. So, before every family viewing, I preemptively apologized, officially pardoning myself for any worrisome images. 

The same technique endures to this day. From Ecuador I called during the coup d'├ętat to forewarn her of the tear gas and Molotov cocktail photos that would soon be posted on the internet. In Honduras I made sure to write immediately after I rappelled down a waterfall too tall for my rope, in attempts of capturing the sunrise through a wall of water. Each time she sighed, grew a few gray hairs, and then handed the phone over to my dad so he could yell at me. I’m sure though, she was smiling to herself.  

It has always been and will always be easier to ask for forgiveness before permission; but she wouldn’t be my mom if she willingly let me throw myself to the wolves, or gators in my case. So this is a thank you to my mom, Sarah Stone, a wonderful woman who would disapprove when appropriate, but always welcome me home with loving arms when I arrived back in one piece.

I love you mom!

Off Loop Road, gators are often fed by fishermen which makes them very people-friendly.
Feeding gators, however, is a terrible idea and often makes them unpredictable and 
dangerous. I snapped this photo just before he turned back towards me and started hissing.