Saving the Endangered Species Act

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Trio of Brown Pelicans
Photo ©Beverly Hill

I remember, as a young girl, riding in the car along Hwy 90 in Biloxi, Mississippi and looking out the window across the beach and watching a large, lone bird glide just inches above the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I asked my mom, “What kind of bird is that?” She replied, “That’s a Brown Pelican. Take a good look, because you might not see many more of those in your lifetime.” What followed next was a discussion about how the Brown Pelicans were dying off from the effects of a pesticide called DDT. The pelicans would eat fish contaminated with DDT, which in turn caused the shells of their eggs to become increasingly brittle, resulting in egg breakage during the incubation period.

Brown Pelican
Photo © Beverly Hill

By 1960 there were almost no Brown Pelican left along the Gulf Coast. In 1970 under a new law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Brown Pelican as endangered. In 1972 the The Environmental Proction Agency finally banned the use of DDT. From 1968 to 1980 the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries began a program to reintroduce the Brown Pelican, and finally in 2009 the Brown Pelican population had recovered successfully and was removed from the Endangerd and Threatened Species Act, although in California they are still at risk.

Stellar Sea Lions
Photo © Beverly Hill

On a recent trip to Alaska I encountered more examples of success stories. On a whale-watching trip in Sitka, not only did I get to see a Humpback Whale bubble-net fishing just yards from our boat, but while circling a buoy, we spotted a couple of Stellar Sea Lions. And although I’m finally starting to spot the occasional Bald Eagle here in the Florida panhandle, in Alaska I was able to spot our nation’s symbol, delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2007, almost everywhere I went.

Bald Eagle in Flight
Photo © Beverly Hill

Another species poised to make a comeback is the Gopher Tortoise. Although not out of the woods yet in Alabama, Mississippi and eastern Louisiana, great strides are being made with the eastern population of Gopher Tortoises. This keystone species, meaning that other animals depend on it to survive, requires large tracts of undevloped land such as Longleaf pine-flatwoods in order to survive. These same endangered Longleaf pines provide habitat for the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. As many as 360 species, including some endangered and threatened species, also utilize Gopher Tortoise burrows. Everything is connected.

Gopher Tortoise
Photo used with permission © Glenn Phillips

Right now there is a concerted effort by the House GOP to remove the Endangered Species Act and dismantle the Environmental Protection Act, undoing all of the progress that has been made over the last 44 years. The underlying political agenda behind this is to free up National and Federal lands for logging, mining and drilling for the sole purpose of lining the pockets of Big Corporations. Destroying endangered animals, plants and the ecosystems they inhabit on the whim of corporate greed cannot be allowed to happen. Saving nature and the environment should be among our top priorities and is a reflection of good stewardship and a statement of what we can achieve. Corporations and politics be damned! I’ll take an endangered species over a corrupt politician any day.

How can you help? Write or call your politicians. Donate to organizations that actively fight legislation like Earthjustice.org and Nature.org. Educate your friends and family about the importance of protecting endangered species. One voice can make a difference.

Citations:

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Delisted Endangered Species

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Magical Manatee Madness

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Manatee taking a breath of air. Photo © Beverly Hill

Manatee taking a breath of air. Photo © Beverly Hill

At the time of writing this article, the West Indian Manatee, and its two subspecies, the Antillean and Florida Manatee, is still listed on the Endangered Species List. There is a current proposal before the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to change their classification from Endangered to Protected, which could potentially impact their continued recovery.

It’s been a few years since I traveled down to Crystal River, Florida, for the yearly migration of manatees moving inland to overwinter in the warm springs that they depend on during the winter months, only this time as my friend and I glided in on kayaks, I noticed another migration – an over-abundance of tourists.

Crowd of visitors

Crowd of visitors

Manatees are a big draw, monetarily speaking, and Crystal River is one of the most easily accessible destinations that allows tourists to get up close and personal with these gentle giants. On the down-side, it has humans and manatees competing within the same finite resources – Florida’s crystal clear springs.

In an effort to strike a balance between the needs of the manatees and the wants of the humans, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge has begun a monitoring program that ensures that during periods of extreme cold, the sanctuary at Three Sisters Spring will close to human intrusion so that the manatees can rest undisturbed. Naturally, the winter months experience the most closures to human access. There are still areas within Kings Bay that will allow humans to view and swim alongside of manatees outside of sanctuary boundaries, as well as Homosassa River just a few miles away.

Manatee and snorkeler

Manatee and snorkeler

There is a boardwalk/viewing area at Three Sisters Springs Visitor Center, however, there is no parking available and visitors must purchase tickets and take a trolley that runs every half hour from the Visitor Center to the Springs. Budget-minded visitors may want to consider Ellie Schiller Homossassa State Park instead, because it also hosts a manatee viewing platform on the river, included with the cost of admission into the wildlife park, and has more things to see and do.

Manatee closeup

Manatee closeup

Fortunately, for now, we were still able to enjoy our kayaking/snorkel trip with the manatees. Being able to swim with these big curious creatures is both a joy and an educational opportunity. One can float quietly just outside of the sanctuaries and inquisitive manatees will approach at their leisure to have a look at their human visitors. Its magical moments like these that continue to inspire people to learn more about these amazing animals and educate others about them.

Algae

Algae

I understand the need to protect the manatee, and it is my fervent hope that further restrictions will not take this amazing opportunity away. Currently, the biggest threat to the manatee is the removal of “No Wake Zones” within Kings Bay and surrounding waterways, and the continued pollution by nitrates into the aquifer that feeds the springs. Nitrate laden water feeds the algae that chokes out the plants that the manatees need to feed on.

Manatee

Manatee

So if you’re planning on visiting the manatees, do your research ahead of time to see if the rapidly evolving protections will impact your trip. You can do that by visiting the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission websites for more information.

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Dispelling the Reptile Myths

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Eastern Box Turtle

Eastern Box Turtle

I often encounter people on my adventures that aren’t quite as informed as they could be about the environment that that are exploring. It could be that they are unfamiliar with the area and it’s wildlife, or, as in many cases, they have gained their knowledge through tall-tales passed on from others.

On a recent camping trip to Torreya State Park, I met a young man of about 12 years old who had a deep fear of lizards. It quickly became apparent that his experiences were colored by his kindly old grandpa who had been spinning him stories of poisonous lizards clouded with a generous dose of venom spitting dinosaurs borrowed from the most recent Jurassic Park movie. I spent a good part of my weekend trying to dispel all of the misinformation that he had been given.

Skink

Five-lined Skink

 

The poor boy had been told that the “striped lizards with blue tails” around our campground were deathly poisonous. First, an animal may be “venomous” but it is never considered poisonous. Poisonous refers to toxins that must be ingested, inhaled or touched (such as in Poison Dart frogs.) Venom is a toxin that is injected into something either through a bite, sting or stab. Secondly, the bright blue tails of many Racerunners and skinks (which is what the striped ‘lizard’ was) is a common trait of juveniles. These bright colors give a predator something to focus on allowing the juvenile lizard or skink the chance to break off its tail and flee.

Fact: The ONLY venomous lizard in the United States is the Gila Monster located in the southwestern U.S.

Another misconception that surfaced was that the native Florida King snake (non-venomous) reaches lengths of up to 9′ long and that the Burmese Pythons that have infiltrated the Everglades are over 33′ long. The record length for a Florida King Snake is 69.5 inches, or 5.7′ feet long, and Burmese Pythons can grow as large as 18-20′ feet in length.

More facts vs fiction:

  • Coachwhips do not whip their victims to death with their tails.
  • The “Hoopsnake” (actually a misidentified Mud Snake) does not take it’s “poisonous” tail into it’s mouth and roll downhill to attack and sting it’s victims. Not only is the Mud Snake non-venomous, but snakes do not have stingers.
  • A snake cannot sting you with its tongue.
  • Cottonmouths and water moccasins are the same snake, and although they can be aggressive, they do not chase their victims. The only way it might appear that way is if they are traveling in the same general direction as the offender. They can bite underwater.
  • Mother snakes do not defend their young, nor do they gather them into their mouth to protect them.
  • Toads will not give you warts. Warts are caused by a virus that has nothing to do with toads.
  • Myth: A Snapping turtle will not let go until it thunders. Snapping turtles have very powerful jaws and they are incredibly tenacious at holding on. It has nothing to do with the Sky Gods.
  • Snakes do not travel in pairs. The only time you might find them together is during breeding season or if there is a good food supply available.
  • Snakes do not drink milk, nor do they suck milk from cows. Their mouths aren’t designed for it.
  • Snakes are not slimy. Their skin actually feels more like a soft, mostly smooth leather.
  • Rattlesnakes do not add a button rattle every year. In fact, they can add a button every time they shed, which can be several times a year.
  • Myth: A decapitated snake won’t die until after sundown. Nerves in the snake’s body can twitch for hours after it’s death.
  • A dead snake can still bite you. Keep your fingers away from its mouth.
  • Turtles cannot crawl out of their shells. It is a permanent part of the structure and they will die without it.
Southern Copperhhead (venomous)

Southern Copperhhead (venomous)

I spent a considerable amount of time that weekend explaining things to the boy and his grandfather, and I also suggested that they both invest in a reputable reptile and amphibian guide. For all of my efforts over that weekend I earned the title of Snake Girl. I suppose that’s okay. I do tend to like most reptiles over humans. Moral of the story: if you’re not certain about something, do some research on the topic. You may walk away learning something amazing!

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The Magic of the Hidden in Florida’s State Parks

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Many people visit state parks for access to amenities such as beaches, boating, fishing, sunbathing, hiking and camping, but within a state park one can find so much more if they seek it out.

Fiddler Crabs

Fiddler crabs on the salt marsh

Fiddler crabs on the salt marsh

Fiddler crabs are an amazing spectacle most easily found on mud flats during the falling tide. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of these tiny creatures can be seen moving in mass before a visitor’s approach as they attempt to flee back into their tiny burrows or into the grass line. If one stands still, they will hesitantly reemerge and go about their business of feeding on the detritus lining the flats. Closer observation may reveal tiny clicking noises, and sometimes they can be seen waving their over-sized dominant claw in challenge of, or in courtship with, other crabs.

These small crabs perform a valuable service by aerating the soil and shuffling organic substances to the surface. They are also a valuable food source to a variety of birds and coastal mammals that hunt the shoreline looking for sustenance of their own. If you happen to find yourself in the presence of these small but mighty crabs, take a moment to acknowledge and observe them as they go about their day on the marsh.

Ghost Crabs

Ghost crab in the surf zone

Ghost crabs are another fascinating crab found more often on the ocean or gulf side of the coastal habitat. These light colored, nearly translucent crabs are more easily found at night, coming out of the golf ball-sized openings of their burrows and scurrying off at speeds up to 10 mph to hunt. With their coloration and speed, it’s easy to see why they are called ghosts. These crabs have 360º vision and are nearly impossible to catch. These special characteristics also help them when hunting their prey which ranges from other crabs, clams, stranded fish, baby sea turtles and even vegetation.

Ghost crab and burrow

They prefer to build their burrows above the high water line, sometimes up to ¼ mile from the shoreline, tunneling out a chamber that can be as much as 4′ deep ending in a widened chamber with a small pool of water inside. Although they are very poor swimmers and can drown, they do have to wet their gills and eggs frequently.

 

White Squirrels and White Deer of Ochlockonee River State Park

White Squirrel at Ochlockonee

White Squirrel at Ochlockonee

These amazing squirrels are actually a color variant of the gray squirrels that also share the park. There are many stories about their origins, but most likely they are simply the result of recessive genes coming to the forefront in a particular squirrel cluster. Nevertheless, they relish being the stars of Ochlockonee and can often be seen approaching campers and picnickers begging for a handout. On my most recent camping trip I even had to shoo one out of the camper after he’d come inside to help himself.

Piebald Whitetail deer at Ochlockonee River State Park

Piebald Whitetail deer at Ochlockonee River State Park

White squirrels aren’t the only white resident at Ochlockonee. There is a small herd of piebald, whitetail deer that includes at least one doe that is almost completely white. These deer are most easily seen in the early morning hours and near dusk, but I also had luck finding them while hiking a nature trail and stopping frequently just to observe and listen. They are masters at concealing themselves among the abundant Saw palmettos in the park.

 

Southern Flying Squirrels

Benji the Southern Flying Squirrel enjoys a snack.

Benji the Southern Flying Squirrel enjoys a snack.

These tiny nocturnal squirrels are seldom seen, instead preferring to glide quietly from treetop to treetop, mainly in hardwood forests in the night. If one listens carefully you can sometimes hear their chirps and clicks from high up in the canopy. These tiny squirrels also have a secret language to themselves inaudible to the human ear. A researcher, Michelle Gillie at Auburn University, discovered that Flying squirrels are able to communicate in the sonic and ultrasonic range, thereby making these gliding mammals even more amazing.

My first encounter with a Southern Flying squirrel was at Torreya State Park and I’ve been fascinated by them ever since. If you’re ever at Torreya State Park, take a stroll up to the old Gregory House after dark and have a seat on the porch and listen to the sounds of the night.

Snakes

Gray Rat Snake

Gray Rat Snake

Although not everyone’s favorite, I enjoy finding snakes. Sometimes I’ll get lucky enough to find a seldom seen species such as the Marsh snake at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, but usually during my travels it’s something more common like a Black racer, Rat snake or even a venomous Cottonmouth. Snakes aren’t evil as some would have you think. Most actually perform a valuable service in keeping rodent populations in check. There are those that eat birds and their eggs, other snakes, lizards, and various small animals, but overall I consider snakes a positive resource. They, in turn, provide food for other animals such as birds, raccoons, fox, coyote and other predators. If you’re nervous around snakes, simply give them their space.

So the next time you’re at a Florida State Park, try to appreciate it from a new perspective. Slow down and look around more carefully. You may be pleasantly surprised with what you find.

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Kayaking With Dolphins Along the Emerald Coast

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Fishing at Sunrise

Fishing at Sunrise

 

Recently I went kayak fishing with a buddy out of Henderson Beach State Park in Destin, FL and although I didn’t catch any fish, I did get my very own private dolphin show that more than made up for the lack of fish.

I’ve gone out in the kayak and been treated to dolphin encounters before, but never one as long-lasting and as enjoyable as this one. In fact, it was the dolphins in Choctawhatchee Bay that inspired the purchase my first kayak even though I don’t do a lot of off-shore paddling. Today, however, was one of the rare times that I ventured out. The waves were less than 1′ and the winds were forecast to be less than 5 mph; about as close to perfect conditions as I could hope for.

My fishing partner hooked into a big one.

My fishing partner hooked into a big one.

In my experience, dolphins tend to be more active early in the morning as they patrol the waters just past the second sand bar on their quest for breakfast. There’s no trick to knowing where they’ll be, it’s more a matter of knowing their habits, and then putting yourself in the right place at the right time. And then you wait. That’s where trying your hand at fishing can help you pass the time until a pod shows up.

 

Dolphins have arrived.

Dolphins have arrived.

The first pod of dolphins that we spotted were hunting quite a distance away and we wisely chose not to try and paddle out to them. It’s very easy to get farther away from shore than you realize and then spend the better part of a day trying to get back, especially if an offshore wind picks up. It’s better to stay within a half-mile of shore, and if fishing, no farther than 2-3 miles.

 

Dolphins next to my kayak.

Dolphins next to my kayak.

So after waiting another half hour our first dolphin arrived with a clearing of its blowhole and then two more dolphins glided eagerly beneath my kayak, rolling onto their sides to make eye contact with me as they came out on the other side. In another moment the entire pod of 8-10 dolphins were circling and playing all around my kayak and putting on quite the show. Staying cautiously a bit farther away was a mother dolphin with her calf.

Dolphin precision

Dolphin precision

I watched entranced as the dolphins frolicked sometimes right next to my kayak. Four dolphins formed into a precision acrobatic team and did an underwater flyby next to my kayak that would have even the Blue Angels jealous. Over and over again they would swim underneath my kayak and pop up a few feet away almost as if inviting me to join them, however, I prudently stayed in my seat and just enjoyed the show.

Mother and calf.

Mother and calf.

After about 10-15 minutes they bid farewell and moved off to continue their morning hunt and perhaps to find something more interesting to investigate. Since this encounter happened toward the end of our fishing trip, we turned and began our (very) long paddle back to shore with a promise to return.

Slipping Under the Kayak

Slipping Under the Kayak

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