Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sandhill Cranes - Mycotoxins

In an ecosystem rife with bobcats, coyotes, alligators, vultures and snakes, it's rare to see a dead animal without any apparent wounds. So when I stumbled on this scene in Kanapaha Prairie I asked myself, what could have done this? I recently posed this same question to a group of fans on my Facebook page and surprisingly, two of them had the right answer. 

Sandhill cranes fly over Kanapaha Prairie - Gainesville, FL -  Photo ©Mac Stone

The sandhill cranes' arrival in Florida is the sure sign of winter. They come in with the staccato trumpet calls that pierce the morning air and echo through the prairie's live oak rim. Their migratory populations have ebbed and flowed over the years on the prairie, some years with over 1,500 individuals and other years only a few dozen. There doesn't seem to be a solid explanation for this, but some believe its due to the amount of dog fennel that grows up to 6 feet high and gives the cranes a natural barrier from potential predators like coyotes and bobcats. Without the vegetation, they simply pass over the prairie and onto greener pastures. 

Sandhill cranes at sunrise on Kanapaha Prairie - Photo ©Mac Stone

One of my favorite things in the winter is to go out and photograph the sandhills at sunrise. When polar fog exhales from the wetlands, their silhouettes dot the horizon and make for some great images. On these mornings though, I'm not the only one stalking birds. If sandhills usher in the day with their calls, then coyotes are the denizens of the night. Their mad cackling can be heard from a mile away and I can't help but wonder while I'm sitting around the backyard fire, what they're howling about. No matter how close they sound, every time I go looking for them they're nowhere to be found. After their raucous nights, though, I'm always certain to find the remains of their prey in a cloud of feathers on the cold prairie floor. 

A lone coyote stalks a flock of sandhill cranes on Kanahapa Prairie - Photo ©Mac Stone

So it was curious to me, the morning I stumbled upon the dead sandhill, left untouched. Then I started replaying the previous day's events and images, and I knew the answer immediately. Out of the flock of cranes I had been photographing the day before, when all others flew away as I approached, there was one crane who stuck around. At first it looked like it had an injured wing as it fumbled about,  hopelessly attempting to fly. 

Sandhill crane infected by mycotoxin, fusariotoxin - Kanahapa Prairie - Photo ©Mac Stone

Not wanting to stress the bird or cause it any more pain if its wing really was injured, I stayed back and watched it for a while. It was really sad to watch. The crane would call out to its flock in a broken shrill and the others didn't respond. It's limp neck eventually lost all mobility and hung low as if paralyzed. In the deeper water, it could barely keep its beak high enough to breathe. I apologize for the graphic photos.

Sandhill crane infected by mycotoxin, fusariotoxin - Kanahapa Prairie - Photo ©Mac Stone
Finally, I wrote it off as a strange injury and went home knowing it would soon turn into food for the prairie. The next morning when I saw the sandhill laying dead in the water where I saw it yesterday, I wondered how long through the night it suffered, as this was almost certainly the same bird. The images of its broken body were hauntingly fresh in my mind, so I did some research to see if anyone else had documented this behavior. What I found was alarming. 

According to the National Wildlife Heath Center, this paralysis and eventual death is caused by a toxin produced by a fungus found in corn and peanuts, called mycotoxin, or more specifically, fusariotoxin. Fusariotoxin will cause a flaccid paralyses of the neck and wing muscles as well as neurological damange. Wild migratory waterfowl like cranes poisoned by this fungus have thus far only been documented in Texas and New Mexico from contaminated grain fields. Cranes can ingest the fungus while foraging during low temperatures when other food sources are unavailable. Who's to say where the bad corn or peanuts were eaten; it could have been in Georgia a few weeks prior. According to biologists, there are about 300 cases in Florida each year, but this series of photos is the only ones I could find in Florida, although I've seen this condition twice on Kanapaha Prairie alone (if there are other accounts of this in Florida, please let me know in the comment section below). 

Thanks for reading. If you'd like to read up a little more on this strange condition, click here, or here. Also, as a side note, I did not do an autopsy on the bird, so for scientific purposes I have to say that based on my field observations alone, I put mycotoxins as the probable cause of death. 

Sandhill crane, probable cause of death: mycotoxins from molded grains - Kanahapa Prairie - Photo ©Mac Stone

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Shadow of Superman

Larry Heaton conquers Savage Mountain in Orlando, Florida - August 2011
As long as I can remember, every year my family traveled up to Virginia for Thanksgiving to visit our cousins, uncles, and grandparents. It was always a big celebration lasting 4 or 5 days, with no one wanting to go home at the end. Our family is tight. From the oldest cousin to the youngest, we are a band of brothers. When all the ten male cousins were younger we would play a big game of tackle football which we called the Gravy Bowl. It was the highlight of the year. I dreaded the plays where Larry, my uncle, got the ball. His 6'7'' 245lb frame would barrel down the field and my only hope to stop the touchdown was to jump on his back and dangle from his neck until the ground rumbled with his fall. Sure, he could have carried me with his free arm while hurdling the other eager cousins if he wanted to, but he played along and gifted me the glory instead.

Larry always did that. He loved letting other people shine and even when he wasn't extending any uncommon courtesies, it just felt good to be around him. I looked forward to our fireside chats every year. He would recount his latest adventure in humble tones, passing off such mountainous hurdles like summiting Mt Rainier or whittling away at the Appalachien Trail while carrying large rocks in his pack, as if they were mere tasks on a to-do list. There's a wall in the Heaton house that is littered with medals and artifacts of his adventures and when old enough, his sons, Daniel and Matt came with him.

At 55 years old, this past November, my uncle Larry had just completed an ultramarathon. He ran 55 miles from 8:00 in the morning until 1:30 the next morning, only resting for twenty minutes. When I asked him what kept him going, he said that for each mile, he recalled each year of his life and relived the miles of memories with his high school sweetheart Betty, his sons, work, and friends. His commanding presence and brick build were secondary only to his fortitude as a person.

Larry's motto in both personal and business life was simple: "Leave on a good one." Don't walk out of the room, come off the mountain, or turn the light off before knowing you had given the day your best.

Only two weeks after we all held hands and said a blessing for the future of family over Thanksgiving, Larry died in a car accident. Hundreds attended his funeral; so many that they had to set up televisions in the basement of the church he helped build so other friends could watch the service. People traveled from all over the country to pay their respects.

I realize now, that as I grew up, my childish adoration and reverence for Larry never really matured. I always felt physically and emotionally adolescent next to him, but in a way that made me want to push harder, so I too would have something to talk about when we sat by the fire.

I will forever remember him as the mountain who conquered mountains and the Superman who proved to the world that a body is merely a vehicle for great things.

Larry with family Daniel, Betty, and Matt Heaton at Thanksgiving in Collinsville, VA - November 2012