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Welcome to my Website and Blog Our Wetlands in Florida. This site is meant to inform readers about the importance of wetlands or land that is partially or fully submerged in water for most of the year. Florida was once mostly a wetland consisting of swamps, marshes, estuaries  and shallow bodies of water south of Orlando that flowed south towards the Everglades.  Wetlands in Florida and in other states filter and clean the water we drink, and provides a healthy habitat for wildlife. Included in this blog/website are photos of parks, preserves and wildlife that depend on healthy wetlands.  Browse around to the different posts and pictures by clicking on one of the recent posts, categories or the archives. I have included many links to other websites if you want to learn more about a specific topic.   The pictures are originals that I took with my digital camera unless otherwise noted. Click on pictures for larger images.  Comment are appreciated and make a blog more interesting to readers.   Thanks for visiting.   – Dave Zuhusky

 

 

Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey in Florida include several different species  of raptors as they are called who feed upon various kinds of wildlife. They are usually large birds with impressive wingspans and can fly and swoop down quickly to grab their prey. They are often seen perched on branches in trees or other sturdy objects looking for their next meal. They feed upon fish, small mammals, reptiles and invertebrates such as crabs.

Other birds of prey include owls, falcons, red shouldered hawks and kites. The ones I have seen live near large bodies of water where fish are plentiful and where they can use their keen eyes, and strong and sharp talons or sharp feet to grab their prey and bring their catch back to its nest or feeding ground. Their sharp bills are well adapted for tearing apart the flesh of their catch.

Birds of Prey such as the American Bald Eagle were almost hunted to extinction because of their feathers but bans on hunting and the new laws against the  pesticide spray DDT helped them to rebound in numbers. There is a center in Maitland Florida run by Audubon Florida which helps people to learn more about Birds of Prey and their lifestyles. I also like the Cornell Univ. School of Ornithology All About Birds website which has an excellent website about birds.

The American Bald Eagle and Ospey shown in the pictures above were photographed in Estero Bay this past summer while I was with a  group of naturalists taking a boat ride out of the Fish Tale Marina located on Ft Myers Beach. Click on the pictures for a larger view of the birds.

 

 

 

 

 

American Alligator

Young Alligator

American  Alligator

 

 

 

 

 

I photographed this small alligator at the Otter Pond at the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Ft. Myers. The American Alligator is the largest reptile in North America according to the defenders.org website. The alligator can be confused with the crocodile which is a much more aggressive and dangerous animal. They both can be found in Florida but the more friendly alligator is a much more common sight.

Alligators are generally slow moving creatures and hunt by laying in wait for its prey to move by them and then snapping its large jaws on its prey which consists of small mammals, other reptiles, birds and animals inhabiting swamps, marshes and wetlands areas where they live. Adult males are usually seen by themselves in the wild. They build their nests in ponds, swamps and other wetlands areas by moving their large tails back and forth creating a depression in the underwater mud. The holes they create sometimes becomes homes to other types of wildlife living in swamps and wetlands. They are considered a keystone species for this reason and are considered essential for the health of a wetland ecosystem.

The lifespan of these large reptiles can be 35-50 years in the wild and longer when kept in captivity. There are many wildlife refuges where you can see alligators in their natural habitat in South Florida. They also live in Southeastern states such as Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Texas and the Carolinas. They were once hunted for their hides to use as clothing and accessories but that is no longer legal.  It is also illegal to feed alligators and by doing so they lose their fear of humans making them more dangerous. Adult alligators can grow as big as 18 feet long and weigh over 500 lbs.

 

 

 

 

 

Algae Closes Beach in South Florida

“Reeking Algae Closes South Florida Beaches” was the title to an article written in the New York Times newspaper on Sat. July 2, 2016, regarding the green and blue algae that is covering the waters surface near houses in Stuart, Florida. The algae which also has a very bad smell to nearby homeowners is created by discharges of water from lake Okeechobee which is located 35 miles inland near Clewiston. Scientists and citizens blame the environmental hazard on the lack of action by state and federal leaders to find a way to send Lake Okeechobee’s rising water levels south towards Everglades National Park where it historically went.

Persons interviewed for this article say Big Agriculture in Florida is largely to blame for the algae build up in the lake because of the fertilizers and chemicals spayed on their crops which eventually find their way in the states lakes and rivers.  The watershed surrounding the lake and the Kissimmee River which brings much of the nutrient laden water from farms brings excess nitrogen, phosphorous and other chemicals which cause the algae growth. Billions of gallons of water from the lake are discharged every year to the east via the St. Lucie River and west through the Caloosahatchee River.  Beaches, rivers and canals on both coasts have been adversely affected by these water releases especially this year since Florida received abnormally high levels of rain in the winter months. City leaders, homeowners, businesses and environmentalists have been crying foul for much of the year as our waterways have become unusable due to the algae growth and slime. They also blame state and federal leaders for not doing enough to prevent this environmental disaster by refusing to purchase land south of the lake from U.S. Sugar when they had the chance so it could be used as a reservoir for some of these water discharges.

The National Park Service has a website which explains the cleanup efforts of the Everglades and nearby areas which is costing over $10 Billion dollars. Critics say the restoration of areas around lake Okeechobee is going too slow and is not effective in stopping the pollution of the St Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers and the towns and beaches they impact. The South Florida Water Management District which is also responsible for water resources and for flood protection also has some good information about the current wetland restoration strategies they are implementing.

 

 

Apple Snail

There are 4 species of Apple Snails found in Florida of which the only native species is the Florida Apple Snail. The other three species are the Titan Apple Snail, Spike Topped Apple Snail and Island Apple Snail.  The species that I photographed and posted above is I believe the Spiked Topped Apple Snail. I saw many of these snails during my walk through the Platts Creek Mitigation Project in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The 100 acre mitigation project has many fresh water marshes and ponds throughout where these snails live and reproduce and are used as the main food source for Snail Kites. Snail Kites are also an interesting species of bird in Florida because they are only found near the Everglades in South Florida and feed exclusively on Apple Snails. They are raptors with sharp bills which are suited to carve out the snails from their shells.

Most of the Apple Snails were brought to the United States for the pet trade. They are popular  with aquarium owners because they add an interesting life form to the fish tanks and they also help clean the glass by eating away the dead and dying vegetation in the water. The Island Apple Snail and native Florida Apple Snail perform important economic and environmental functions for the aquatic ecosystems and wetlands in Florida. They eat and feed on the invasive weeds and vegetation which cover the surfaces of rivers and swamps  which creates oxygen depletion  and dead zones in wetlands. To learn more about Apple Snails I found the Univ. of Florida Featured Creatures website to be helpful. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website provides excellent pictures and information about the Snail Kite.

 

 

 

 

 

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egrets which are smaller than their cousins the Great White Egrets are birds that migrated over to the Americas in the late 1800’s from Africa.  They are often seen in agricultural areas with large animals that are foraging for food. They follow cattle or other large animals and wait for their hooves kick up the dirt which dislodges small insects which then become food for the Cattle Egrets. Their diet is very diverse including grasshoppers, crickets, earth worms and ticks as well as fish and frogs when they are near wetlands.

They are much smaller than Great White Egrets with short stout bodies, yellow bills and yellow legs. Their dagger like bill is uniquely adapted to grabbing small insects and invertebrates while walking along the ground or on the backs of cattle. I took the pictures of the Cattle Egrets shown above in the Ft. Myers area of Florida. There is some good information about these birds on the All About Birds website or on Audubons Bird website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Platts Creek Mitigation Project

Platts Creek Mitigation Project is an environmental restoration project in Port St. Lucie, Florida. This 102 acre piece of land once served as an orange grove and has been restored into its original shape as a wetland and dry prairie. I took the Conservation Science class offered through the Florida Master Naturalist Program at the Oxbow Eco Center where most of the indoor classes were held. Expert instructors led the classroom lectures and took us on field trips to nearby restoration preserves.

The highlight of the course I thought was the trip to the Platts Creek Mitigation project which was few miles away from OxBow. The orange grove was given back to the city and county of Port St Lucie for mitigation purposes when a land bridge was built across town connecting the beach to the mainland. Platts Creek has been re-established as a wetland and prairie which now helps to move water through various rivers and watersheds. It also acts as storm water management area when flooding occurs. Environmental land managers have planted native shrubs and trees that are native to Florida, giving the tract of land a more natural look and purpose and giving needed habitat to wildlife. We saw marshes and ponds that help to filter polluted water from the nearby St. Lucie River. There were many apple snail shells on the ground which were probably put there by Snail Kites which are unique birds to South Florida and The Everglades.

 I wasn’t able to finish all 4 days of the course which included a trip to the restored portion of the Kissimmee River which feeds Lake Okeechobee with most of its fresh water. The Kissimmee River Restoration Project  is one of the biggest land and environmental restoration projects occurring in the state and nation. I hope to go back and see the Kissimmee River as it is being restored to its natural state.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pop Ash Creek Preserve

click on any picture to enlarge

Pop Ash Creek Preserve is a 307 acre piece of land in northeast Lee County that is part of the Conservation 20/20  Program. Voters passed a referendum in 1996 which taxed property owners to purchase environmentally sensitive land for conservation and ecosystem protection. Since its inception, Lee County through the Conservation 20/20 program has acquired 123 properties and created 44 preserves which consists of over 24,000 acres.

Pop Ash Creek Preserve was purchased in 2003 for $1.5 million dollars. The land was heavily used for purposes such as soil and rock mining, agriculture and roads for moving cars through neighborhoods. Lee County and the Dept. of Natural Resources worked to reshape the land surfaces to make it look more natural as a wetland and dry prairie.  The preserve is located in a watershed consisting of other preserves and large tracts of land which help to move rain and slow moving water in a natural direction, southward. There are dry areas (mesic) and wet areas (hydric) that make up the Pop Ash Creek Preserve.

During my walk through the preserve which was led by an experienced  naturalist and guide we encountered a horse back rider who uses the trails for riding. It was nice to see the land used for purposes other than cars. The benefit of buying and preserving lands like Pop Ash is to re-establish land to its natural shape, allow ground water recharge, provide wildlife habitat and recreational uses for people.  The 1.5 mile walk through the preserve also allowed us to see filter marshes which helps to clean water which runs across the land and picks up fertilizers and other pollutants which would otherwise end up in our larger lakes and rivers.

 

 

 

White Pelicans

White Pelicans

White Pelicans – click on picture to enlarge

 

 

 

 

 

 

White pelicans spend part of the year in Florida and then migrate back to the interior part of the continent during the spring and summer. The picture shown above is of White Pelicans congregating in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida. Ding Darling gets a lot of migrating birds during winter season and it’s a popular place for bird watchers.

White pelicans are different than Brown Pelicans by the way they hunt and search for food. They usually gather and create a circle among themselves and then herd small fish in shallow waters where they can then dip their orange bills into the water and snatch their catch. Brown Pelicans soar over the waters looking for fish and then dive and splash into the water, first stunning their prey and then grabbing them with their long bills and swallowing them whole.

White Pelicans are among the largest birds in North America and have long broad wings that are black tipped at the end. They are an interesting sight at the Ding Darling Refuge among all the other birds which include White Egrets, Herons of all colors, and White Ibis to name a few. White Pelicans breed on islands in fresh water areas in northern states. They then spend their lives  along fresh waters lakes and estuaries in northern states and Canada or coastlines and bays in southern salt water areas like Florida and states along the Gulf of Mexico. I like to learn more about the birds of North America by going to the All About Birds Website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sanibel Island Bridge

The Sanibel Island Bridge was built and opened in 1963 which allowed traffic to freely move between the mainland of Ft. Myers and Lee County to Sanibel Island. Access to Sanibel Island use to be available only by ferry boat. Commercial traffic and businesses sprouted up on the island after the bridge was built but residents have saved the quaint and  small island feel of Sanibel by not allowing high rise Condo’s or fast food restaurants.

The Sanibel Island bridge is actually 3 bridges which reach across two man made islands which together make up the Sanibel Island Causeway. The causeway is 3 miles long and consists of several areas where people spend the day to fish, play water sports, picnic or spend time with family and friends. Since the new bridge was repaired and re-opened in 2007 which replaced the old draw bridge, bicyclists can now use a bicycle lane to trek across the causeway and 3 bridges. Caution should be taken however as there is no barrier between cars and bicycles other than a white line.

The main span of the new bridge is 17 ft 6 inches high and allows yachts and most kinds of boats to travel under who are making their way up the Caloosahatchee River or out to the San Carlos Bay or Gulf of Mexico. It’s fun to watch the boat traffic pass under and by the bridge. There are also several kinds of birds especially Pelicans who use the wind drafts along the bridge to glide  and look for fish to eat.

On windy days there are many wind surfers who use the wide open Pine Island Sound to race across the water. There are also kayakers, paddle boarders and people using jet ski’s who travel across the bridge and use the causeway islands to launch their craft. The toll to pass over the bridge is still a hefty $6 per car.

Click on any picture to enlarge

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cane Toads harmful to animals and SW Florida

Cane Toad

Cane Toad – click on picture to enlarge

 

 

 

 

 

Cane Toads are among the invasive and non-native species of animals that are destroying the native species in Florida. Cane Toads were imported here believe it or not to control the bug problem in the Sugar Cane fields in South Florida over 60 years ago. Unfortunately the toads multiplied in numbers and spread to all parts of South Florida including our neighborhoods in Ft. Myers.

I took a picture of the Cane Toad in the picture above at the Calusa Nature Center in Ft. Myers which has impressive displays and many exhibits of the native and non-native animals living in South Florida. This toad is mostly brown in color, large in size with darks spots and warty bumps on its skin. The Cane toad produces a toxic milky substance on its back and when ingested by dogs or other pets who night bite into them, poisons them and often kills them. The Fort Myers Weekly newspaper published an article titled “Killer Toads” on May11-17 2016 in which residents of the town patrol their neighborhoods at night and try to catch and rid themselves of this harmful amphibian.

The Cane Toads’ diet consists of insects, frogs, small snakes, lizards, mice and just about anything they can fit into their mouths. They are tough to kill and some people catch them by pinning them down with bricks, crushing them and then disposing of them with animal waste scoopers.

I found some helpful information about Cane Toad on the Univ. of Florida Dept. of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation website. It has a good description of the Cane Toad but may be outdated because of the information it supplies about it’s spread throughout S. Florida which now consists of Lee County and other nearby arras.