Monday, June 28, 2010

Bike preparation

And the adventure begins!

View Road Trip Route in a larger map

Today I am leaving for Key Largo, FL where I will begin a 100 mile bicycle ride through the Florida Keys, landing in Key West, FL by Friday. I'm really excited and pretty anxious too. This is something unlike anything I've ever done before. Along the way I will be checking out some of the largest trees in the Keys. This area has a ton of champion trees simply because it's the southernmost part of the United States, plus the semi-tropical habitat allows many different species to thrive here.

I have rigged up my Trek bike and I will be back in touch with you all next week, as I won't be dragging my laptop on the ride.

Cheers and Happy 4th of July to all of you!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lesson from a Tudor

More baby burrowing owl pictures I took at FAU. Click on the photo for a better view.

Now that I'm in the process of moving again, I've come across some of my old contacts, including the contact for the amazing photographer that I mentioned I had seen speaking about burrowing owls at the Audubon Society meeting years ago. His name is Dan Tudor. He photographs many amazing species of wildlife in Florida, but definitely focuses on burrowing owls and documenting their behavior patterns. He lives in southwestern Florida and has done a lot of work for the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife. He has documented an astounding 1100 pairs of owls in the Cape Coral area with a Nikon F5 and a Nikon D200 using manual focus lenses. On occasion he also uses a Canon Powershot G9. I'm sure he has upgraded since I saw him...which must have been sometime in 2007.

His presentation to the Audubon Society was really moving and somehow hit me at a time when I really needed some inspiration. He said that he learned almost all of his amazing photography skills by reading. Non-stop reading. Of all the other nature photography greats. He especially recommended Art Wolfe and Niall Benvie. If you get a chance check out Niall Benvie's, I could spend hours there!

Even though I was out of my element, in a small high school media room, with about 3 dozen Audubon Society members over the age of 70 (this is Florida remember?), and probably the only blonde, I was really engrossed in this talk. I even wrote down a quote that particularly spoke to me:

"Go to your roots. It will change your life."

Mr. Tudor was referring to heritage and how important it is. Well...I agree with that statement. I know that graduate school in Switzerland, near my family and roots, will certainly change my life. Only time will show how this change will materialize.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Since when do birds live underground?

This spring I have had the pleasure of working in a building on the FAU (Florida Atlantic University) campus very close to a small population of burrowing owls. What?? Yes, I said BURROWING owls. I know...strange. Several years ago, while living in Tampa, I had seen a really great presentation at an Audobon Society meeting focused on burrowing owls, a Florida species of special concern. These birds look like very small (about 6 inch) owls with very long chicken legs attached to the bottom of their stumpy bodies. Why the funny looking legs? For burrowing of course. Burrowing owls will create burrows (or use old burrows from other animals) in dry, sandy open areas which are often highly developed areas such as golf courses, airports, and university campuses. They nest in their burrows and will often have 2 to 12 young. I was lucky enough to observe three breeding pairs of burrowing owls at the university. Each of these pairs had about 4-8 young!! I was surprised to see, however, that the young were often of different ages and sizes. It makes me wonder if they lay several clutches in the springtime.

When they are very very young, the baby burrowing owls look like tiny puff balls on a stick. Their legs are so long and gangly that their clumsiness is comical. Here are some photos I've taken of them over the spring. A lot of these photos are poor quality because I wanted to maintain a safe distance from the young.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Rolling Seas

What is this a photograph of? Can you guess? It's a close up...

Today was a gorgeous fishing day out in the Atlantic Ocean, 10 miles offshore from Jupiter, Florida. Yes, it's Wednesday, but I got a pass from work. Well, actually, even better. My boss took my coworkers and I out fishing on his 21' Sailfish center console boat!! Woohoo! It's the end of the season and apparently it's a tradition. I say, cheers to tradition!

The only glitch was that what was supposed to be a day with wind blowing at 6-9 knots with seas of 2-4 feet tall, we ended up with 6-8 foot tall swells tossing the boat around, rolling us this way and that as we fished the "mixing zone". Unfortunately for my coworkers, they both got badly seasick and were "chumming the water" for most of the afternoon and generally miserable. I was lucky enough to avoid the seasickness and continue fishing! All in all, we ended up getting a meager helping of bait fish (sardines and cigar minnows) that helped us land 3 nice dauphin (aka Mahi Mahi).
We caught a bunch of schoolies that we sent back to the sea for fattening, but these three were keepers, especially the big bull that was about 3 to 3.5 feet long. He was a fun fighter. We certainly earned our dinner.
I'm only 5'3", so even though we didn't officially measure the big bull, I'm pretty sure he's about 3.5 feet.

Then our boss commenced to help us clean these beautiful fish:

Our Mahi Mahi rations....yummy!! Come and get it! Here's the amazing recipe that I cooked these up with. Finger licking good fresh catch.

Even the dog got some!!

That's the tail end of today's fish tale.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

New Life

Florida spiderlily (Hymenocallis tridentata) in bloom

Although our sampling season at FAU has been a bit different then I expected, leaving us in the laboratory for 2 months with no way to complete our field sampling, I have been fortunate enough to be in the field for two weeks at the end of May!! Woohoo! We finally got all the stars aligned...funding, weather conditions, and field sampling conditions. So for two weeks I was back on the helicopter flying into the far reaching parts of the Everglades, picking fish and shrimp out of a small mesh seine, marching through muck that is now thigh deep, and generally enjoying myself.
Seining for fish, shrimp, crayfish, insects, etc...the muck in the southern Everglades is much thicker. It looks messy, but it feels like the finest silk oozing through your fingers.

Since it's been such a long time since we've been out, I observed all kinds of new and exciting growth in the swamp.
Native Apple Snail eggs on the stalks of Sagittaria spp.

A dwarf bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) tree that has finally leafed out and now has a luscious green top.

Cypress seed/cone!

A fuzzy airplant inconspicuously growing in the boughs of the cypress.

Sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense) inflorescence.
Sawgrass is extremely abundant throughout the Everglades. It has evolved to include saw tooth edges on three sides of it's leaves, making it a virtual paper-cut machine. It can be extremely painful if not handled gently. Some sections of sawgrass are well over my head, and walking through these areas typically involves me launching my entire body up against the wall of sawgrass, matting it down, walking over the matted area, then launching myself at the next wall, rinse and repeat. It's amazing how prolific this plant is! I have a lot of respect for it.

Measuring Up

If you've been following me, you know that I have been working for about 6 months for Florida Atlantic University. I have been a biological research technician as part of a three person field crew that is conducting research in the Everglades ecosystem of Florida. Specifically, we are collecting samples that will be used to assess wading bird prey concentrations during this season. What are wading bird prey concentrations, you ask? Well, when we talk about wading birds we are referring to birds that feed by wading into deep pools of water including: white ibis, glossy ibis, great egret, snowy egret, great blue heron, little blue heron, and roseate spoonbill in the Everglades. And the prey concentrations just refers to all the little things that these birds eat such as shrimp, crayfish, fish, macroinvertebrates, amphibians, insects, snails, etc. We sample for these prey species throughout the Everglades once the ecosystem has dried down to capture a representative sample of what prey species are available during the dry season. The idea is that as the ecosystem dries down each dry season (October through May) prey species get concentrated in small pools of water. This makes fishing for prey easier for the birds...kind of a "shooting fish in a barrel" concept. And this research is an attempt to correlate prey species concentrations with wading bird nesting efforts. The general question is: Do birds nest more when the Everglades ecosystem dries down, thereby making prey more available during nesting season? The work I'm doing is on the ground level of the prey concentration side of the project. There are others looking at the bird nesting efforts too. It's a very complex and extremely fascinating project.

Since I have been a bit lax on providing info about my amazing field job at FAU, I will try to post more now. Now that the rainy season has begun, our field sampling season is over and we are back in the laboratory for now. So I will start a series of posts that are a look back at this field season.

That square black thing is our "trap" that we use to catch fish, shrimp, crayfish, amphibians, insects, and any other thing that wading birds would eat.

Do you ever feel like you're being put to a test? Are you worried that you're not measuring up?

Maybe that's how these little squirrel treefrogs feel. As we extract fauna from our throw trap we measure most amphibians and re-release them into the wild. This 3cm squirrel treefrog (Hyla squirella) held still long enough to be photographed and well documented. This particular individual is a dark green color, but this species can change colors like a chameleon. It was noted that in the previous year, these same frogs were especially dark brown. This year, the majority of the frogs we found were a very light green color, some almost yellow green to match much of the dead sawgrass and eleocharis.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Still Measuring Up??

Some other things we measure and record as prey for wading birds:

This is a big lively Southern leopard frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus).

And here is another leopard frog we caught on another day.

We also measure and record tadpoles. I'm not sure what kind of tadpole this is, but we can be sure that wading birds would eat this if they were given the chance.

This little guy looks totally unassuming from the top, but flip him over and you've got this beautiful golden speckled soft underbelly:

I'm not sure what species he is, but I'm guessing young Pig Frog.

This is an apple snail. The Florida Apple Snail (Pomacea paludosa) is a very important part of the Everglades ecosystem. This large freshwater snail is the principal food source of the endangered Everglades kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis plumbeus), a really beautiful and magestic raptor native to the region. Unfortunately, the Florida Apple Snail is under a lot of pressure. First, is it now in direct competition with 4 introduced species of apple snails that are bigger and more aggressive than it is. Studies are currently under way to see if the Everglades kite will eat the invasive species of snail as well and if it contains the same nutrients it obtains from the native species. Second, artificially controlled water levels in the Everglades ecosystem by the South Florida Water Management District have negatively affected the abundance and distribution of native apple snails in its home habitat. Read more about how apple snails are important to the Everglades Ecosystem Restoration Plan here.

To see the fish and other prey species that we collect and analyze back in the lab, check out this posting.

Petroleum Pelican

(taken by MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

As mentioned before, the far-reaching effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has not been realized yet. So far, over 65 miles of shoreline have been coated by oil. The containment dome failed. The next idea was to create a containment plug of heavy mud and cement over the leaks in the oil rig. BP aptly named this method "top kill" and this is how it was supposed to work (BP has created a really beautiful website on how their solutions should theory and design). Sadly it also failed. The next hope is that the relief well will help to slow the leak, however the relief well will not be completed for months.

Along the 65 miles of shoreline and the many more that will probably be effected, we are seeing impacts on the brown pelican (like above) which was JUST taken off the endangered list 6 months ago, herons, egrets, and many other seabirds, crabs, shrimp, fish, sea turtles (including the Kemps Ridley sea turtle, the most endangered sea turtle in the world that feeds on the exact spot that the Deepwater Horizons Oil Rig exploded...go figure), dolphins, whales and more. Take a look at this comprehensive list of marine species that the oil spill will effect that was put together by NOAA. The fact that this oil spill will speed the extinction of several endangered species and severely damage populations of thriving species is truly heartbreaking.

Check out more shocking images from the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It is such a tragedy. President Obama has just opened a criminal investigation on the oil spill. Safety violations such as this should be punished appropriately. The massive loss of jobs, wildlife, natural areas, and other natural resources will hopefully be addressed by the US.