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Ten Thousand Islands

IMG_1728An often-overlooked aspect of Everglades National Park is that about 50% of it is covered with water… but only a few feet.  The Ten Thousand Islands is so-called because of the many mangrove islets that dot the tidal flats for over a hundred square miles before giving way to the open Gulf of Mexico.  This is an estuary: a place where fresh water from the rivers meets salt water from the ocean.  This brackish water that results in estuaries forms the basis for the most productive and diverse ecosystems on earth – and the 10,000 Islands are no exception!

This particular estuary is a result of both a submerged coastal plain (basically a continuation of the very gradual slope of land in south Florida) and the development of shoals from oyster bars.  Oysters are one of the unique organisms that not only survive but thrive in brackish water and tidal flats, and it’s only a little exaggeration to say that this area is one huge oyster bed!  The pelicans in the photo above are standing on one

Sunset boat trip (7)

These pelicans are standing on an oyster bar, a few hours before low tide.

such oyster reef.  Oysters, and other estuarine species, make up the plentiful bottom of a food chain that feeds local and migratory animals of all sorts – but especially birds and fish!  These reefs/bars/shoals also protect the mainland from storm surges and hurricanes, breaking up the force of waves before they hit shore.  When these shoals get filled in with a little sediment coming down the rivers, the mangroves are able to get a toehold, and eventually they grow to form the islets, with some higher, drier ground at the center.  For the most part, only mangroves grow there, though as debris gets caught in

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Rabbit Key, a barrier island at the edge of the Gulf

the mangrove roots, some other plants are able to gain a footing themselves.  The outermost islands in the Ten Thousand Islands are true barrier islands, made of sand and shells and supporting a variety of hardy plants that grow above the high-tide line.

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A Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, and Royal Tern stake out posts on a shoal as they wait for a meal to swim by.

Some visitors spend their entire vacation in the Ten Thousand Islands – paddling or boating, fishing, birding, camping.  We had other stops to make, and only spent an afternoon here.  We took a private boat tour out among the islands and saw an abundance of wildlife, both mangrove and barrier islands, and capped it off with a sunset over the ocean.

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Our tour was operated by the Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island, which has an interesting history itself.  These tours came well-recommended, and I had hoped to get a smattering of local island lore from someone who had spent their lives in the islands, but unfortunately out guide had only been there for a few months and was about to leave for his next job elsewhere.  He enjoyed talking about the wildlife and the Islands, but not all

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All of the boat operators know how to find dolphins for the tourists! It was admittedly fun to watch them play in the wake of the boat.

of his ecological facts turned out to be true (I don’t blame him – I think he thought he was giving us accurate information!).  This was a pattern I noticed while we were down there, that most tour guides (both park staff and private companies) had memorized a little bit of information but couldn’t really extrapolate from that, and sometimes mixed up what they had learned.  This is a very heavily-visited area, and most people don’t wonder about the things I’m interested in… but if you do, I suggest reading up before you go, rather than relying on guides or interpreters to inform you!

Final note: last fall I read a novel called Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which takes place in a fictionalized version of the Ten Thousand Islands and southwest Florida.  If you’re looking for something less science-y to read, I highly recommend it!

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Everglades

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Everglades vista – the “River of Grass” dotted with Dwarf Cypress trees

I finally made it to the southernmost end of Florida and the greater Everglades ecoregion – I spent a week in and around Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, adventuring by foot, boat, and bicycle and getting wet, muddy, and mosquito-bitten in the process!  It was different from what I had expected, and I discovered some fascinating facts to pass on!  Fresh water flowing slowly but steadily towards the ocean, over surface bedrock, has created five distinct ecosystems within those 4,000 square miles.  The next few posts will go into more depth on what I learned and experienced, and provide some recommendations for exploring this area in even greater depth!  Enjoy!

Pot of Gold

Sandhill Crane soaring over Crex Meadows Wildlife Area

Sandhill Crane soaring over Crex Meadows Wildlife Area

While I’m waiting for spring to arrive this year, I’ll recount an experience from last spring that has stuck with me, and of which I’m reminded with every new hint that the change of seasons is really underway.  This morning (April 6th), I heard the first Red-winged Blackbirds outside my window, and yesterday my first Sandhill Cranes trumpeted in the distance, probably looking for open water.  Every day there is less snow and ice – except for today, when two inches fell overnight, but it may yet melt before the sun sets.  What a difference from last year’s record warmth in March, when I was startled to hear Spring Peepers on March 20th, and found myself witnessing the sights below.

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A dried stalk of Round-headed Bush Clover towers over the first wildflowers of spring

A dried stalk of Round-headed Bush Clover towers over the first wildflowers of spring

Pasque Flower in full bloom

Pasque Flower in full bloom

Crex Meadows Wildlife Area is owned and managed by the State of Wisconsin, Department of Natural Resources.  Most of the management of the 30,000 acre site is paid for indirectly by hunters, through a combination of license sales and a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition.  However, the Friends of Crex Meadows is a very active group that funds management and interpretive programs for birdwatchers, botanists, and other nature enthusiasts, in addition to waterfowl hunters who have traditionally used the area.  On this day, I was a birdwatcher, and I made good use of the road network on dikes between the flowages, as well as a permanent blind that was set up on the Phantom Flowage.

Sandhill Cranes blend in on a portion of the Wildlife Area that is closed to hunting

Sandhill Cranes blend in on a portion of the Wildlife Area that is closed to hunting

A pair of swans prepare to nest

A pair of swans prepare to nest

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The birds didn’t actually seem to mind when I was sitting outside of the blind, but as the cold rain got heavier, I did, and went into the roofed structure.  IMG_4742Swans, geese, and any number of ducks swam, foraged, fluffed their feathers, and occasionally squabbled with their neighbors.  Occasionally, without warning, a flock would fly up, make a few circles, and land again.  As the evening wore on, more and more waterfowl flew in for the night.

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They say that pictures are worth a thousand words, and that’s probably true, but what these pictures don’t show you is the way that evening felt and sounded.  At times, the noise of so many birds of so many species arriving and greeting each other would be overwhelming; at times they would quiet down and I would only hear muffled honks, quacks, and ruffles as they fed, dove, preened, and settled in with their mates.  The rain pattered on the roof of the blind, but when I stepped out, there was barely a sound, and the rain was warm for the season.  As I noticed the light on the water turn pink (and the swans turn into flamingos!), I got out to look around… and saw one of the most beautiful sunsets of the year, complete with a double rainbow!

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Paddling

Yesterday  I had a few hours to kill and decided to do some exploration.  I had my kayak on my car, and thought it would be nice to put it in the water, so I set off so find a small lake to paddle around… somewhere between Sagola and Iron Mountain, Michigan.  Knowing me, it wouldn’t be any fun unless I drove my car a few miles down a road that isn’t really meant for anything without high clearance… even though there was an easier way to access the same body of water!  I found myself at one of the Groveland Mine Ponds, within the Copper Country State Forest, in Dickinson County, in the western Upper Peninsula.  The crumbling iron ore processing plant itself was visible at a distance, out of operation since the 1980’s.  The ponds used to be used as reservoirs to hold water for use at the plant, but they, and thousands of acres around them, were given to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources after the mind permanently closed.

At first glance it didn’t seem like much, and the 5 boat trailers in the parking lot made me wonder if I’d be able to get any peaceful paddling in with all the fishermen around.  A flooded forest made up much of the lake, and provided obstacles to dodge – sometimes a veritable field of small stems, other times widely-spaced larger pines, birch, etc, recognizable by the forms, wood, or scraps of bark hanging on. By the time I’d gotten around most of it, though, I was pretty happy with my new find.  In fact, I wished I had my camera to get photographs of some awesome events, like an osprey buzzing my boat, so close that I could see every feather in its breast and tail!  Or the deer that waded out nearly to meet me, deciding that my drifting boat wasn’t a threat, and idly using its white tail to shoo away flies, rather than raise the alarm.  So… even as all the other boats were pulling out in the face of an impending storm, I went back to the boat landing and grabbed my phone, so I could take a few shots of the wonders of the Pond.

View from the boat landing as I headed back out into the lake. The storm to the west and south made for some impressive scenery, but never actually hit the pond.

Choppy “seas”

There were 3 or 4 gulls that flew around the lake, sometimes being chased by tenacious swallows a fraction of their size, but they came back to roost in this grove of stumps, trading position on the prize – a comfortable seat 8 feet above the water.

Can you see the loon? It’s that tiny dot at the center, near the tree line! This bird swam around this sections of the lake the whole time I was out there, but any time a boat got much closer than this, it dove under and, second later, came up several hundred yards away.

Grove of stumps

The trees above the water are bleached by the sun. Below, they are stained by the accumulated tannins from decomposing vegetation. The water in this lake is so clear in part because of the presence of Zebra Mussels, an invasive species that eat many of the plants that otherwise provide cover, food, and oxygen to the fish and native invertebrates that live in aquatic ecosystems.

Some of the neat rocks cliffs that rise out of the water – these would have been the tops of hills before the land was flooded.

After the storm passed, the water was like glass, and I could hear some of the quieter songbirds that had been drowned out by the wind. In this bay, the Hermit Thrush, one of my favorites, was able to make himself heard over the crying Red-winged Blackbirds and warbling White-throated Sparrows.

One More Mystery

Today I’m looking for assistance from nature enthusiasts out there – what species is this??

I’ve decided that it’s time to give up the “Monday Mystery,” at least for a while.  In case you haven’t noticed, I rarely get it published on Monday, and I even more rarely deliver the answer on Friday!  It turns out that summer evenings and weekends are pretty full of outdoor adventure, and I don’t have much patience for sitting indoors plugged into the computer.  Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I’ve noticed that some of the other blogs out there that I’ve found most interesting have slacked on recent postings as well – perhaps we’re too busy enjoying the flora, fauna, and recreational potential of our various lands to spend much time writing about it.  So – I’ll keep writing, but won’t promise to adhere to any deadlines!

That said, I have one more mystery – and this one I need help solving, myself!  That’s right, I don’t have the answer, and I’m hoping that some of my naturalist readers out there will be able to provide some insight.

I saw hundreds of these tiny frogs – or toads? – last weekend in northern Wisconsin.  They were as small as my little pinkie nail – 1/4 of an inch or so. It was in a dry oak-pine woods, with rather sandy soil, next to a small, shallow lake.

Anyone??  I have some more photos, but I think this is the best array.

Look how small it is next to an average-sized red oak leaf!

Here it is on my tackle box… next to some red pine needles!

Here’s one on my rear windshield (I put it on the trunk to try to get a photo, but it quickly hopped off and away.

Mergansers

Thanks to all who voted in my first multiple-choice style “mystery” post.

The correct answer, garnering 71% of the votes, was a Hooded Merganser!

I spotted these birds on a peaceful early-morning kayak down the Pine River, in Florence, Wisconsin.  I was on the relatively wide and slow-moving stretch just below the popular “Oxbow,” taking in the sights and sounds of nature on this undeveloped Wild River, when a bird flew out on front of my boat, splashing back and forth across the river.  Between the speed and all the spraying water, I couldn’t clearly see what it was, or why it was doing what it was doing… until I looked over and saw these cute little guys pulling away from the shoreline behind me.  I got several (mostly blurry) photos in before Mamma spotted her ducklings and got even more excited!  I could almost translate her squawking word for word: “What are you guys doing?!  I told you to stay put!  You never listen!  Get back in the bushes!  No, wait, come up here!  But hurry, as fast as you can!”  And the little ducklings did as she commanded, all four of them getting back to their mother’s safety before the menacing kayaker could cause them any harm.

Female Hooded Merganser flying in feigned distress

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uh-oh! Is this little guy going to catch up?

 

Phew, he made it!

 

It’s experiences like these that make every journey down one of our Wild Rivers exciting, even in a year like this one with low water levels.  Although I greatly enjoyed watching the fascinating behavior of this Hooded Merganser family without ever seeing another human on my trip, I could have done without the extremely slow-moving water and constant scraping along the bottom.  I probably won’t paddle the Pine again until we get some significant rain fall, but I may pull the fishing pole out for some stretched of rapids farther upstream.

Luckily, though, we have more rivers in our small county, and later on the very same day that I saw these ducklings, I found myself on the Brule River, which forms the border between Wisconsin and Michigan.  The flows there are much more consistent and paddle-able pretty much all summer long.  It is a wider river than the Pine, though, at least below where the Paint and Michigamme flow into it, and just before it becomes the Menominee, which forms the rest of the border down to Lake Michigan.   There is one nice little rapids that you can either go around (as my friend did) or through (as I did,

Common Mergansers on the Brule

with a little trepidation).  If you’re in a canoe or kayak, I would use some caution and planning even on those rapids, but if you’re in a tube, just go for it – it’s a lot of fun! We saw several cool things on our trip that afternoon, despite the fact that it is more developed and we were greeted by homeowners and boaters frequently along the way.  One of the neatest was several Common Mergansers along the way – I’ve never seen both the Common and the Hooded practically next to each other like that, and I was surprised at how big the Common Mergansers were, close up  – from a distance, I thought they were geese!