Sunday, October 24, 2010

Destination: Honeymoon Island Florida

Honeymoon Island State Park, Florida (Photo by David W. Peterson)

You need not be a newlywed to enjoy the natural features offered at Honeymoon Island State Park in Florida.  The island got its name in the 1940’s when it was promoted as a vacation spot for lovers, not to mention diminutive actors, as the Lollipop Guild from The Wizard of Oz were some of the original guests.  There’s still a beautiful sand beach full of bikini-clad tourists and locals, a restaurant, and a bar, but that’s just the southern end of the island.  I’d call the rest of it, if it were up to me, Osprey Island.
Osprey on Honeymoon Island
Osprey nest on the aptly-named Osprey Trail

Honeymoon has to be one of the best destinations in North America for osprey (Pandion haliaetus) watching.  The northern part of the island is absolutely littered with osprey nests.  If you walk the osprey trail, you’re bound to see a dozen or more of the birds, perhaps even catching a glimpse of one returning from the Gulf of Mexico with a meal.  Nearing the northern tip, you’ll run into the nest of another famous piscivorous bird, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).  A pair of eagles built the nest in 2008, and have returned every year since.  The public is kept about a hundred meters (330 ft.) away from the nest, but it’s great viewing with binoculars or a scope.  If that’s still not enough birds of prey for you, there’s an easily viewed Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) nest along the same trail.  Osprey, bald eagles, and great horned owls are some of the most widely distributed birds of prey on the continent, but it’s still quite a treat to see all three nesting on a short trail on a tiny island.

Great Horned Owl near nest at dusk. (Photo by David W. Peterson)

 On the ground you may hear, then see, a nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) rummaging through the brush.  Another great find would be a gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus).  Honeymoon Island is vital habitat for this keystone species.  (A keystone species is one that has an effect on its ecosystem that is disproportionate to its biomass.)  Gopher tortoises dig burrows that are used for various purposes by as many as 400 other species.  Habitat loss has been devastating to the tortoise populations throughout the southeast, but the development craze in Florida has been particularly hurtful.  Until recently, developers were not even required to relocate tortoises that were nesting in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They were just bulldozed under.  Luckily things are changing (slowly) in Florida, and at Honeymoon Island you can see the gopher tortoise in pristine habitat.

Gopher tortoise on Honeymoon Island (Photo by David W. Peterson)
 Honeymoon Island boasts some of the last remaining virgin slash pine forest in southern Florida.  Slash pine (Pinus elliottii)is a conifer that lives hard and dies young, rarely making it past 200 years.  Slash pine plantations are numerous in the south, and when managed well these can be healthy, diverse ecosystems.  Nothing compares, however, to a truly natural system like what you get on Honeymoon Island.

Needless to say, the shores of Honeymoon have the usual assortment of seabirds, waders, and shorebirds.  If you’re in Tampa, make some time to visit Honeymoon Island.  Caladesi Island is also worth a look, but that’s another story!  

A Willet (Catroptrophorus semipalmatus) walks through a tidal lagoon on Honeymoon Island.

Royal Terns (Sterna maxima) on the lookout

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Corals in the North Woods?

If you've been diving or snorkeling on a coral reef, you'd be forgiven for doing a double-take when prancing through the woods of Wisconsin and stumbling upon some live coral or sponge.  What you'd actually be seeing, of course, are coral fungi.  These "mimics" of sessile sea animals are collectively known as the clavarioid fungi, though they aren't all closely related to each other and don't represent any kind of unified taxon or clade.  We can't even call them mimics (thus the quotes I used earlier), since there is no evolutionary advantage to terrestrial fungus looking like corals or vice versa.  These are just fungi that happen to look a lot like corals.  (I think the appearance of most of them is more reminiscent of sponges, but that's another story.)

Clavicorona pyxidata in Sleepy Hollow State Park, Michigan.

Clavicorona pyxidata again.  You'll find this species always on wood, usually willow, birch, or aspen.  These two were on an aspen log.

Not certain what this is.  Leaning toward Ramaria sp.  Found on the ground under conifers in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Clavulinopsis fusiformis on Stockton Island, Wisconsin.  (Apostle Islands National Lakeshore)

Clavulina amethystina on Stockton Island, Wisconsin.  (Apostle Islands National Lakeshore)

Again, thinking this is Ramaria sp.  Ground dweller spotted in Copper Falls State Park, Wisconsin.  (Along the North Country Trail)

Clavicorona sp. (pyxidata?) on an old log in Copper Falls State Park, Wisconsin.  (Along the North Country Trail.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

See the king(let) with his golden crown!*

I’m developing quite a love/hate relationship with the adorable golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa). I love the birds and they’re rapidly becoming one of my favorites. On the other hand, I absolutely detest trying to take pictures of the little energy balls with wings. Below you can see one of my best attempts:

Guess what this bird is, provided, that is, that you can actually SEE the bird.

Impressive, huh? There’s this guy named Corey who blogs at 10,000 Birds who apparently has a bird-immobilization ray gun. There’s no other explanation for the pictures of kinglets he gets. (I’ve considered the possibility that he has more skill and better equipment than me, as well. The ray gun theory may not conform to Occam’s Razor, but my ego still prefers that explanation.) You’ll find some of his pictures here and here.

I think my attraction to these birds is the continuity they’ve provided to our very eventful year. We last watched these birds in a boreal forest in Terra Nova National Park on the east coast of Newfoundland in June. They were cavorting with boreal chickadees (Poecile hudsonica) as we passed by. Returning to Michigan, I quit thinking about kinglets until a couple weeks ago when one jumped out in front of me at a local nature park. Lovers of chilly weather, they don’t tend to hang around here in the summer. Today I saw more than a dozen of them, selecting black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapilla) as their partners in crime here. I wonder if the kinglets that head to the far south hang out with Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis)? They certainly seem to have a fondness for the Poecile.

Obviously the birds in Newfoundland don’t use a migration flyway that would bring them through Michigan. The kinglets of Newfoundland tend to stay year-round anyway. But still, I like to muse that I’m seeing the same birds I saw on the solstice in those boreal stands, just stopping by to say hello once again. Or perhaps to keep me company for the winter? The golden-crowned kinglet is considered the smallest bird (a fifth of an ounce!) to maintain normal body temperature (105F, 40C) routinely during freezing weather. Rather than entering a state of torpor, they huddle together in squirrel nests. The next time I fall asleep on a freezing winter night you know I’ll be picturing a tree cavity stuffed with toasty-warm kinglets.

*The title of this post is a reference to a song called "Donkey Riding" as performed by the Newfoundland band Great Big Sea. Get used to obscure references if you read this blog.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Old Growth with Sugar

I think when the term “old growth” is cast about, most people picture an ancient conifer forest.  I know I do.  The forests of the Cascades and Olympic Peninsula are what immediately come to my mind.  Others may see the true boreal forests of the far north or perhaps the tropical rainforests.  I’m confident most folks don’t think of Sugar Maples.  So, while old growth always gets my spirit moving, it was with added fascination that Sarah and I found ourselves in a virgin forest dominated by sugar maple (Acer saccharum).
Old growth sugar maple forest in the Grande Anse Valley.

We were in Nova Scotia.  Cape Breton Highlands National Park, to be a bit more specific.  The Grande Anse Valley was our precise location.

The northern peninsula of Cape Breton Island is mostly a high plateau surrounded by the North Atlantic Ocean.  Carving into this table-like terrain are numerous steep valleys carrying streams and rivers from the interior of the island to the sea.  The top of the “table” is uninterrupted boreal forest.  The valleys are often filled with hardwood communities and the transition is abrupt as you drop from atop the plateau into a valley like the Grande Anse.

Notice the abrupt color change from the dark boreal forest of the uplands to the hardwoods of the valley. 
© Cape Breton Highlands National Park / J. Pleau

The forest floor here is entirely covered with tiny maple saplings.
The forest we explored in the Grande Anse was 97% comprised of sugar maple.  Most interesting was the presence of trees in every stage of life.  Some were 350 years old, others were only a few decades, and the forest floor was blanketed with the spring’s saplings.  All sugar maples!  
Sadly, there is very little of this old growth Acadian forest left.  Cape Breton Highlands National Park protects most of the old growth deciduous forest in Nova Scotia, with 80% of it being in the Grande Anse Valley and  surely the best virgin sugar maple stand you’ll see anywhere.