Florida Extra – American No Net Loss Policy

I have referred to the American No Net Loss Policy when describing the Disney Wildlife Preserve, but I didn’t go into much detail on the subject.

So this short post will hopefully give you a better understanding of the policy.

President Jimmy Carter gave the first legal protection to wetlands in 1977, however in this bill government agencies only had to try and take steps to avoid damage and minimise impacts on wetlands.

However by 1989 it was established that greater protection was required to halt the fast increasing loss of american wetlands to agriculture and development for settlements. By 1984 half of all of America’s wetlands had been drained or filled totalling a loss of 117 million acres.

This led to George H.W. Bush signing into legislation the American No Net Loss Policy as part of the Clean Water Act. This carries the legal requirement that:

“wetland losses must be offset by wetland gains in terms of actual acreage and, to the extent possible, ecosystem function.”

US Fish and Wildlife Service

The scheme continued to grow under new presidents, with Bill Clinton pledging in 1998, as part of the updated Clean Water Act, that there would be a net gain of 100,000 acres of wetlands annually.

A cheerful George Bush on Earth Day 2004 ready to announce the success of the policy his father implemented.

A cheerful George Bush on Earth Day 2004 ready to announce the success of the policy his father implemented.

And there was some success with the scheme, between 1998 following Clinton’s pledge and 2004 250,000 acres of forested wetland had been created. This was one of the causes for George W. Bush on Earth Day 2004 to claim that the No Net Loss Policy had been successful and that there was a net gain of wetlands for the first time. Unfortunately this trend didn’t continue.

Wetland losses are decreasing, but it is evident they were decreasing long before the No Net Loss Policy was implemented. Despite one period of net gain it soon returned to a net loss unfortunately.

Wetland losses are decreasing, but it is evident they were decreasing long before the No Net Loss Policy was implemented. Despite one period of net gain it soon returned to a net loss unfortunately.

Having declared the scheme a success George W. Bush then went on to announce a new policy to create an additional three million acres beyond those that are being lost.

This scheme sounds excellent and it would seem that before long the No Net Loss Policy will soon have created more wetlands than America knows what to do with.

However the scheme has a shadier site, it does not prevent the destruction of wetlands it just forces people to replace them. But there is no real legislation surrounding what you have to replace them with, it may not be a like for like replacement. The wetlands you create might not even be in the same state as the wetlands being destroyed. This mitigation is what led to the existence of the Disney Wildlife Preserve.

The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) that oversees the No Net Loss Policy is still issuing 90,000 permits a year for wetland use or change of use.

There is vocal opposition to the policy, and I found one particular case study particularly interesting. In 1997 a development company fronted by two brothers proposed a $250 million project to build a luxury condominium complex on Pensacola beach in Florida.

Within the proposed site were 11 acres of saltmarsh that had been designated as important to the functioning of the Santa Rosa Sound. For their scheme the brothers applied for a permit to fill 6.5 acres of the saltmarsh.

Several federal organisations such as the USFWS opposed the project as did a committed group of local activists. What happened next has the whiff of conspiracy theory and paranoia on behalf of the opposition. Rumours suggest that the two wealthy brothers used their contacts to override the USACE engineer assigned to the project in order to get permission, whether this happened or not I have absolutely no idea.

Anyway the long and short of it is that they received permission for the project, on the proviso they created two new marsh habitats on the site which they did. Once again the opposition claimed that these were nowhere near the original marshes with regard to functioning.

Next comes the part of the story I enjoy the most, shortly after the completion of the project in 2004 hurricane Ivan swept through the area. By doing so Ivan deposited a large amount of sand not only within the lobbies of the condos themselves but also in the constructed marshes. Here comes the real gem in this story, as USACE deems hurricanes an act of God there was no requirement for the filled in marshes to be restored! So in the history books of USACE there was no net loss of wetlands associated with the project although you’ll be hard pushed to see any there now. Information on this project was taken from the following book chapter, make of it what you will its very one-sided.

Here we see one of the Condominium blocks that forms part of the Portofino development.

Here we see one of the Condominium blocks that forms part of the Portofino development. Photo taken from Floridacondonews.com

Now make of the story and the various scandals what you will it does seem to highlight some issues surrounding the efficiency of the No Net Loss Policy. Scientific research has also shown that it can take between 13 and 33 years for a constructed wetland to reach the equivalent functioning of the natural system it replaced.

However even with its pitfalls, it would appear that the policy is slowing the rate of wetland loss and given time may even reach net gains. And any scheme aimed at protecting these ecosystems and the valuable services they provide can only be a good thing.

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Florida Day Eight – Corkscrew Swamp

Weather: Hot and  humid, occasional cloud cover. 30°C.

Our final full day in Florida, was spent in the incredible Corkscrew Swamp. It is a 13,000 acre site in the western Everglades, most of which is wetlands.

One of the site’s claims to fame is that it possess the world’s largest remaining virgin bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) forests in the world which covers 700 acres of the site. The bald cypress forest is the site of the largest wood stork rookery in the US.

The site was previously a famed site in Florida for its heron and egret populations that were heavily hunted for there head plumage as previously mentioned in my article on the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

One of the greatest threats to Corkscrew was from logging, the bald cypress trees were seen as excellent timber sources for rebuilding after the second world war. The bald cypress trees were very large, some over 500 years old, and due to their existence in wet areas they are rot resistant making them great for building.

Nowadays Corkscrew is managed and owned by The National Audobon Society and has been since the mid 1950s. It doesn’t just support important bird life like the wood storks but also important plant species. On our walk round James and Christian set themselves the challenge of finding all the fern species listed in the guide book.

Here we see one of the many Fern species unfurling its leaf in its characteristic manner.

Here we see one of the many Fern species unfurling its leaf in its characteristic manner.

In the area of slash pine that appeared to have been recently burnt we heard Red Cardinals calling, and we would later see our first Red Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) of the trip just in time too!

But by far the best part of the day was spent walking the board-walk through the Bald Cypress forest, the sheer size of the trees and variety of life at all levels they supported was at times beyond words.

I know some people will think its counter intuitive to have a wooden board-walk through a site that was threatened by logging, but the timber is a sustainably harvested tropical hardwood that needs no treatment.

The Bald Cypress knees were clear for all to see, these knees that have baffled scientists for many years and still do to this day. They seem to serve no purpose other than merely existing, but they are strangely attractive especially set amongst the labyrinth of plants and animals found on the forest floor. So does it matter that they at present seem to have no purpose, I would say no not in the slightest.

This cypress knee sits in a small open pool.

This cypress knee sits in a small open pool.

There was a return for the Strangler Fig we had documented early on in the week at Lovers Key, however due to the size of the trees these examples were far superior. They encased the cypress trees in a cage that bound the tree from base to the canopy.

A Strangler Fig grows round a Bald Cypress tree in an unrelenting lattice structure.

A Strangler Fig grows round a Bald Cypress tree in an unrelenting lattice structure.

Animal wise we were equally blessed, alongside the Red Cardinals we did see a painted bunting but the opportunity for a picture quickly passed when James dropped something onto the boardwalk and the birds fled. We soon followed the birds in fleeing when the other very serious looking bird watchers established it was our fault the birds had left.

Here we see a Giant Airplant, that grows as an epiphyte on a host tree. Airplants are renowned for the fact they do not require soil.

Here we see a Giant Airplant, that grows as an epiphyte on a host tree. Airplants are renowned for the fact they do not require soil.

Lizards were also a common site along the boardwalk, they were most probably basking in patches of sun that broke through the canopy.

A lizard, most likely a brown anole (Anolis sagrei), basks on the boardwalk.

A lizard, most likely a brown anole (Anolis sagrei), basks on the boardwalk.

I think it was generally the consensus of the group that Corkscrew Swamp was one of the highlights of the trip and I would have to say personally it is one of the best natural habitats I have ever seen. A truly incredible place that was saved through sheer determination and a true love for the area, the last words I will write about Corkscrew are those of legendary warden Rhett Green who was the embodiment of this spirit speaking of the plume hunters:

“Those ‘long whites’ are never off my mind for a minute…… pass the word that I would shoot on sight any man with a gun who attempted to enter the Corkscrew. I would do it, too.”

Rhett Green

Florida Day Seven – Invasive Species and Bill Mitsch Talk

Weather: Bright sun with occasional cloud cover and light breeze at times. 30°C

Invasive species were the order of the morning on our seventh day in Florida. Having got lost in a rather remote area of the Everglades, we did in the end make it to our first stop of the day The Daniel Beard Centre.

Once at the centre we met Brian Falk, who works for the US Geological Survey (USGS), and is currently working with the invasive Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) that are causing big problems in the Everglades. Since 2002 officials have removed over 2000 Burmese pythons form the Everglades, but they fear that this may only be scratching the surface of the actual population. Any invasive python caught is legally required to be euthanised with a bolt gun.

Burmese pythons are sit and wait predators, meaning as the name suggests they don’t go looking for food they just wait for it to pass by and then grab it. They cause issues in the Everglades as they have a propensity to eat endemic species and apparently a large Burmese Python can actually eat an alligator! I for one do not ever want to meet that snake, Brian’s small pet Burmese python was more than enough for me.

Here is me nervously holding Brian's pet Burmese Python, while desperately pretending that it doesn't bother me.

Here is me nervously holding Brian’s pet Burmese Python, while desperately pretending that it doesn’t bother me.

Due to their feeding habitats they are incredibly hard to find, Brian spent 40 hours searching in March and found just one python. The record apparently belongs to one of the licensed agents who in 120 hours of voluntary searching caught 100 pythons. Brian described them as having less than 1% touchability.

The pythons don’t really have any natural predators, in fact Brian said their greatest predators are car tyres but even then a large python can withstand being run over by a truck!

There are 50 invasive reptiles in total in the Everglades, including the Cuban Tree Frog (Osteopilus septentrionalis) . If you see a frog at night in the Everglades it is most likely a Cuban Tree frog.

Brian Falk shows us a rather large Burmese Python that had recently been caught nearby. Photo courtesy of James Stops.

Inavsive Fish

Having thoroughly washed my hands after holding the snake, we met with Jeff Klein from the USGS who spoke to us about fish ecology and the problem of invasives in the Everglades. Jeff took us to the Anhinga Trail, part of an old state park and part of the far larger Taylor Slough. The site acts as a giant alligator hole, the chance of more alligators always brightened my day.

Jeff explained there are 17 invasive fish species, such as oscars (Astronotus ocellatus), mayan cichlids (Cichlasoma urophthalmus) and walking catfish (Clarias batrachus). We did see native fish like the Florida Garr (Lepisosteus platyrhincus) as well during our time on the Anhinga Trail.

Jeff Klein, on the right not wearing the cowboy hat, points out native and non-native fish in the waters of The Anhinga Trail.

Jeff Klein, on the right wearing the lighter hat and sunglasses, points out native and non-native fish in the waters of The Anhinga Trail.

I must admit personally I spent more time looking at the bird life and the massive alligators than I did at the fish. But Jeff’s explanation of the hydrology of the Everglades and how human changes have facilitated the invasive species was very interesting.

Here is one of the large American Alligators we saw during the day, I dread to think of the Burmese Python capable of eating one of these!

Here is one of the large American Alligators we saw during the day, I dread to think of the Burmese Python capable of eating one of these!

Here we have the bird after which the trail was named, the Anhinga.

Here we have the bird after which the trail was named, the Anhinga.

Once we had finished talking to Jeff it was back to the vans for the short journey for our final stop of the day, and its fair to say it was one I was rather excited about. We were going to the Krome Centre in Homestead to hear Prof. Bill Mitsch give a talk on the use of wetlands to prevent nutrient pollution in downstream water bodies. That’s the shortened title, the actual one is much longer but the shortened one works just as well.

Once again as with Jan Vymazal’s lecture I won’t transcribe the whole talk but instead give you the key points I took from the talk.

Prof. Mitsch started by highlighting the existence of the Everglades Foundation Grand Challenge, where there is a $10 million prize fund for anyone who can work out a way to remove phosphorous from waterways and reuse it. So put your thinking caps on.

Prof. Mitsch’s talk focussed on Phosphorous and Nitrogen that are probably the greatest threats to waterways, he stated that:

“excess nitrogen and phosphorous are causing changes to aquatic ecosystems far in excess of anything caused by climate.”

The use of wetlands to ameliorate pollution has been known for a long time but Prof. Mitsch and his colleagues are proposing wetlands on a scale that has not been seen before. For example a two million hectare area of wetlands will reduce hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico by half. Prof. Mitsch has written a scientific paper on the subject which those of you who want to know more may find interesting.

He also highlighted the stringent and it would seem unrealistic, according to some members of the audience, limits for phosphorous set by the state government. The state limit is 10 parts per billion (ppb) of phosphorous to put that in perspective the EU limit is around 40ppb.

Five happy wetland science students meet a legend in the world of wetland science Prof. Bill Mitsch, who is holding the latest copy of his new book.

Five happy wetland science students meet a legend in the world of wetland science Prof. Bill Mitsch, who is holding the latest copy of his new book.

Florida Day Six – Florida Gulf Coast University

Weather: Clear skies and bright sunshine. 30°C

An early start led to lots of half asleep students on the vans as we headed to Florida Gulf Coast University, but eyes were wider when there was talk of meeting “Doctor Danger” in the afternoon.

But the reason for our early start was that we were meeting FGCU legend Prof. Jerry (Jerome) Jackson and his wife Bette, for some mist netting.

“My life is hopelessly linked with nature — and I love it.”

Jerry Jackson

Jerry explained to us that to catch birds in a mist net, you need to set the nets early before the wind builds. By 10 am in Florida the wind is at a level where it causes the nets to flap and the birds can then see them and avoid them.

Mist nets are generally made of a black nylon micro-filament, the nets shouldn’t be pulled tight but left loose.

Jerry holds permits to catch and ring birds in countries all over the world including the US, Peruvian Amazon and Jerry was the first American to receive a permit for Cuba.

Birds must be removed from the mist net within 15-20 minutes of being caught, this is just one of the strict regulations surrounding mist netting.

Jerry Jackson holds a Yellow Rumped Warbler, that was caught using a mist net.

Jerry Jackson holds a Yellow Rumped Warbler, that was caught using a mist net.

Once caught the birds needed to be ringed, so they can be identified if they are ever recaptured. If you ever recapture a bird with a ring you should send the ring information, date you caught it and where, to the US government. Interestingly the address you send it to is shorter than any other US address and is entirely wrong. The postal address is Bird Band, Washington DC. That’s it the entire address in four words, and the your letter is actually sent to Laurel, Maryland!

John James Audobon is seen as the father of ringing, he attached small pieces of silver wire to birds legs so he could see if they returned to nesting sites the next year.

Modern day banding started in Denmark in 1890 when Hans Christian Mortensen started banding birds, but his original bands were too heavy for the birds who struggled to fly.

Ringing didn’t take off (excuse the pun) until 1906, nowadays bird rings are made of aluminium and differ in size depending on the bird.

I found it interesting that bird legs are at their biggest whilst in the nest, as they age the diameter of the leg decreases.

When ringing a bird there are lots of details that you need to take and submit with the ring code. Here are the details of one of the Yellow Rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) we caught that morning:

  • ID: 156075086
  • Weight: 11.9 g
  • Tail: 55.5 mm
  • Wing Length: 73 mm

For anyone who wants to hear more about the Yellow Rumped Warbler, Jerry describes them on his radio show “The Wild Things“. Jerry also discusses Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on his radio show which is worth listening to.

Jerry Jackson in the process of ringing a Yellow Rumped Warbler.

Jerry Jackson in the process of ringing a Yellow Rumped Warbler.

Finally Jerry had a special treat for us that none of us were expecting. After spending the morning discussing and ringing birds, he then produced two plastic boxes from which he pulled out an albino and a two headed red eared slider turtle brilliantly named Pete and Repeat. Jerry has had the turtles for 25 years despite being originally told that they never normally survive more than a few days. Jerry attributed Pete and Repeat’s survival to his credit card, not because of the money but because it was the only way he could feed them without them fighting each other!

Pete and Repeat the two headed turtle.

Pete and Repeat the two headed turtle.

Jerry holds his albino Red Eared Slider Turtle.

Jerry holds his albino Red Eared Slider Turtle.

In the afternoon it was time for us to meet “Dr. Danger”, otherwise known as Win (Edwin) Everham, the man responsible for the only two evacuations of the campus. Win’s research specialises in the area of disturbance science, such as the effect of burning on forest ecosystems. Win talked with great enthusiasm and excitement that was truly infectious.

Win gave us a guided tour around the campus, half of which is set aside as a preserve, explaining all the measures that had been taken to prevent disturbance to the environment and in some cases how they have failed. There are constructed wetland areas on site that were designed to hold water for one to three months, yet they very rarely hold water for a month each year. Perhaps more interestingly was learning about how animals have adapted to human development, such as the frogs and snakes that use the electric boxes by the side of the road to shelter from the sun.

Win talks to the group about the Cypress dome on the FGCU campus. He eloquently described them as a

Win talks to the group about the Cypress dome on the FGCU campus. He eloquently described them as a “Cathedral of trees”.

Winn pointed out that due to the flat topography, a change in height of just 20-30 cm can have a drastic change in the vegetation. This is evident in the ecotone habitat between the pine and cypress forests.

Student James Stops investigates the local flora camera in hand.

Student James Stops investigates the local flora camera in hand.

Dr Christian Dunn is rescued from the Cypress swamp after taking a soil sample, which he would later give to us MSc students to carry home in our luggage.

Dr Christian Dunn is rescued from the Cypress swamp after taking a soil sample, which he would later give to us MSc students to carry home in our luggage.

Florida Day Five – Wetland Lecture and Ten Thousand Islands

Weather: Clear skies, bright sunshine. Slight breeze in the afternoon. 31°C.

We started our day by doing what we all thought we had escaped from heading off to university for lectures, however this wasn’t just any lecture. We were going to meet a slight hero of mine and many wetland scientists, Professor Bill Mitsch the man who actually wrote the book on Wetlands. On top of that we were going to have a lecture from another world leading wetland scientist Prof. Jan Vymazal, who was coincidentally visiting the US at the same time as us.

Professor Bill Mitsch, leading wetland scientist, author and director of Everglades Wetland Research Park.

Professor Bill Mitsch, leading wetland scientist, author and director of Everglades Wetland Research Park.

Professor Jan Vymazal, expert on the role of plants in constructed wetland plants.

Professor Jan Vymazal, expert on the role of plants in constructed wetland plants.

For this event we had gone to the Everglades Wetland Research Facility, a state of the art centre owned by Florida Gulf Coast University. Before Prof. Vymazal gave us his talk we had a tour around the centre from Prof. Mitsch. During the tour we saw the labs which were similar to ours in the Wolfson Carbon Capture Lab in Bangor, except that it was far less busy and probably a bit tidier.

Jan Vymazal gave us a great talk that covered all aspects of plant roles and functions in wetlands. I’m not going to try and transcribe the whole lecture in this blog otherwise it’ll take you ages to read and won’t do the talk justice. So I’m going to briefly cover the key points made, if you want more information feel free to ask.

Key Points:

There are four wetland plant groups:

  1. Free Floating Macrophytes
  2. Rooted Floating Macrophytes
  3. Submerged Macrophytes
  4. Emergent Macrophytes

Roles of wetland plants:

Arial Plant Tissue

  • Light Attenuation
  • Reducing Wind Velocity
  • Nutrient Storage
  • Aesthetics
  • Microclimate creation

Submerged Plant Tissue

  • Filtering Effect
  • Reduce Water Flow Velocity
  • Excrete Photosynthetic Oxygen
  • Nutrient Uptake

Roots/Rhizomes

  • Sediment Stabilisation
  • Clogging Prevention
  • Surface for Bacterial Growth
  • Release of Oxygen
  • Antibiotic Release (Phytometallophores)

Constructed wetland plants should:

  • Tolerate High Anaerobiosis
  • Possess High Above and Below Ground Biomass
  • Allow Multiple Harvests

Ten Thousand Islands

Gregory Evans and Dr. Christian Dunn, look out for dolphins on the starboard site.

Gregory Evans and Dr. Christian Dunn, look out for dolphins on the starboard site.

We spent our afternoon living it up on a boat. More precisely we took a guided boat tour around the 35,000 acre Ten Thousand Island National Wildlife Refuge, part of the largest expanse of mangrove forest in North America. There are 200 fish species and 189 species of birds that live and use the site. And of course everyone’s favourite water dwelling mammal, the dolphin can be found in the waters.

We came across a couple of bottlenose dolphins during our boat trip. I wasn't sure about some of the methods we used to get the dolphins to follow the boat, but everyone loves a dolphin.

We came across a couple of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) during our boat trip. I wasn’t sure about some of the methods we used to get the dolphins to follow the boat, but everyone loves a dolphin.

One of the best things we saw was an Osprey and chick, nesting on top of one of the channel marker posts. It led to perhaps my favourite photo of the trip.

An Osprey mother and her chick in their nest atop one of the channel markers.

An Osprey mother and her chick in their nest atop one of the channel markers.

Florida Day Four – Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Weather: Clear skies again with an occasional light breeze. 30˚C.

Ding Darling has to be one of the best names for any form of national park or wildlife refuge I have ever heard. The refuge was named after a famous american cartoonist and conservationist Jay Norwood Darling.

J.N. Darling was known as Ding, a shortening of his surname, as this is the name he used to sign off his cartoons. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice during his career.

However he is equally if not more famous in the US for his conservation work. Ding was an avid hunter and fisherman, which some may find ironic for a conservationist. But it was through this love of hunting that he became increasingly concerned about the loss of wildlife habitat.

In 1934 he became Director of the US Biological Survey, and during his 18 months at the helm he implemented one of the biggest conservation schemes America has ever seen and what has now become an american institution, the Duck Stamp.

The Duck Stamp is a legal permit that all hunters must possess if they wish to shoot waterfowl. Ding himself designed the first stamp, and since its inception it has raised $750 million allowing for the purchase of 5.3 million acres of land to be purchased for wildlife habitat.

Ding Darling founder of the Duck Stamp and prominent American conservationist.

Ding Darling founder of the Duck Stamp and prominent American conservationist.

The Refuge

Situated on Sanibel, a barrier island formed from a sand bar the refuge covers 6,400 acres and is home to 245 bird species.

It is made up of a variety of different habitat types: mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes and West Indian hardwood hammocks.

Located in an estuary the site is nutrient rich and thus supports a wide variety of plants and animals, including the birds for which it is most famous.

We were lucky enough to have Judy Davis as our guide for the day, she was like an encyclopaedia of the site and its birds. As it turns out there is strict testing before anyone is allowed to become a volunteer guide at the site including written tests, so get studying if you fancy it!

The main way through the site is via “Wildlife Drive”, so we once again set off on a drive-through safari.

I must admit I was blown away when Judy showed us the first pool, the sheer quantity of birds within it was staggering. The pool was rife with herons, egrets, pelicans and ibis.

A white Ibis wades in the shallow water looking for food. Interestingly the white ibis is brown in colour when it is born.

A White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) wades in the shallow water looking for food. Interestingly the white ibis is brown in colour when it is born.

We saw three different heron species alone during the day, the Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerula), Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) and Yellow Crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea). Similarly to the white ibis the little blue heron is born a different colour, being born white. The yellow crowned night heron was widely persecuted and hunted as its head feathers were in great demand for hats. They were also hunted for meat by Cajun communities for whom the night heron was a traditional food source.

Despite generally feeding at night, the Night Heron is often viewable during the day.

Despite generally feeding at night, the Night Heron is often viewable during the day.

This little blue heron was wading in the shallow water beside

This little blue heron was wading in the shallow water beside “Wildlife Drive”.

The largest of the heron species found on the site. It has a distinctive black stripe above its eye.

The largest of the heron species found on the site. The Great Blue heron has a distinctive black stripe above its eye.

We were also lucky enough towards to the end of the day, to see an immature yellow crowned night heron perching in a tree. Judy introduced us to one of the refuge “Rovers”, these people move through the refuge throughout the day many of whom take photos that are a valuable resource for publicity but also for recording the species seen in the refuge. However one of their most important roles is speaking to the public about what they might be seeing but also on the ethics of wildlife photography. We were told the story of when a screech owl was roosting on the site and there was great excitement surrounding this, however the screech owl was scared away by an over enthusiastic amateur photographer. The excited amateur had mounted his GoPro to a stick and rammed it right in the owl roost, the owl took exception to this invasion, as we all would and left.

Judy also dispelled some myths for us about some of the famous Floridian birds. The first being that the Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) gets its colour from its food, as is the case with the similarly coloured flamingo. It is actually just a genetic trait that is not in anyway effected by their diet.

The second QI like myth that Judy shattered was that Anhingas do actually possess oil glands. Anhingas are renowned for spreading their wings in the sunshine which people originally thought was so they could dry their wings after diving due to a lack of oil glands. It is instead now believed that the Anhingas bask in this way to warm themselves up.

A Roseate Spoonbill feeding in the estuary, their colouring is now known to be genetic and not as a consequence of diet.

A Roseate Spoonbill feeding in the estuary, their colouring is now known to be genetic and not as a consequence of diet.

Florida Day Three – Lovers Key State Park

Weather: Clear skies and bright sunshine throughout the day. 29˚C.

Day three took us to Lovers Key a 1,616 acre park operated by the Florida Park Service. The park is made up of four barrier islands: Lovers Key, Inner Key, Black Island and Long Key.

It is said that due to the fact that Lovers Key used to only be accessible by boat, it was only young lovers who would be willing to make the trip to the peaceful island.

Unfortunately for young lovers, in 1996 a road was built to connect Lovers Key to the main land.

Another tale from Florida folklore, suggests that Black Island is named after Black Augustus a pirate who escaped from the authorities and spent the rest of his life hiding on the subsequently named Black Island.

In the 1960s and 70s, the islands were marked for development and in preparation a channel was dredged through the centre of Black Island, which damaged the mangrove stands amongst the islands.

The site was acquired by the State of Florida in 1983, and subsequently merged with the Carl E. Johnson park in 1996 creating the Lovers Key Carl E. Johnson State Park.

The Lovers Key butterfly garden possesses a rather attractive sign.

The Lovers Key butterfly garden possesses a rather attractive sign.

We spent the morning walking round the park, which allowed us to see all of the different habitats on display and also the plethora of plants and animals.

We spent a lot of time stood on the bridge over one of the canals, desperately looking for manatees. For anyone who ever goes out looking for manatees, the thing to look for is something that resembles a floating coconut. The manatees head apparently looks remarkably like a coconut when it bobs above the surface. They are also referred to as sea cows and when I saw one later in the trip I could see the resemblance!

The first members of the group start the manatee stakeout.

The first members of the group start the manatee stakeout.

When we eventually gave up looking for manatees and started our walk. One of the first things that we came across was a strangler fig (Ficus aurea), the seed of the strangler fig germinates in the canopy of the host tree. It then lives as an epiphyte on the host tree, until its roots make contact with the ground at which point it establishes as a tree in its own right. The strangler fig then as its name suggests then strangles the host tree.

Here we can see a fully established strangler fig, if you look in the left of the photo you can see dead wood which is likely the remnants of the original host tree.

Here we can see a fully established strangler fig, if you look in the centre of the photo you can see dead wood which is likely the remnants of the original host tree.

Whilst we are on the topic of trees, Lovers Key also supports a thriving mangrove population which is clear to see. The first mangrove type we saw was red mangrove, which you can easily identify due to its prop roots which its why it is sometimes referred to as the walking mangrove. The red mangrove is found closer to the coast and water’s edge, which explains why we saw so much red mangrove at the park due to its coastal location.

Another noticeable tree species is the brilliantly named Gumbo limbo tree, it is known locally by perhaps an even better name the “tourist tree”. This becomes more amusing as the tree has a red bark which peels off in strips, reminding the Florida natives of the easily spotted sunburnt tourists!

Here we can see a montage of mangroves seen at Lovers Key.

Here we can see a montage of red mangroves seen at Lovers Key.

There was much excitement when we found a small pool, which after some careful observation we discovered was full of wild alligators! They weren’t the giant man-killer size I imagined but none the less it was an alligator (Alligator mississippiensis).

Further to the alligators, we saw our first gopher tortoise, I’ll admit that before going to Florida I had never heard of a gopher tortoise. However they became a common sighting and nobody can dislike a tortoise. Handy tip if you do visit Lovers Key or other parks always check under your car tyres before driving as gopher tortoises often sit under cars in the shade and unfortunately sometimes they get crushed as people drive away.

Gopher tortoises are a keystone species because of the burrows they dig, the burrows can be up to six metres deep dependent on the depth of the water table. In my opinion that is an impressive feat given their size, they reach a maximum shell size of about 40cm.

The burrows also provide a habitat for lots of other animals such as snakes, mice, rabbits and lizards and during wildfires the deep burrows offer an escape for animals.

A small alligator we saw in a small pool, there were several but they were well disguised in the murky waters. And a Gopher Tortoise heading back down his burrow.

A small alligator we saw in a small pool, there were several but they were well disguised in the murky waters. And a Gopher Tortoise heading back down his burrow.

Other notable species recorded:

  1. Osprey (P. h. carolinensis)
  2. Grape tree (Coccoloba uvifera)
  3. Cabbage Palmetto (Sabal palmetto)
  4. Eastern Screecher Owl (Megascops asio)
  5. Spiny orb weaver spider (Gasteracantha cancriformis)
  6. Zebra Long wing butterfly (Heliconius charithonia)

We then spent the afternoon enjoying some down time on the beach at Lovers Key, where interestingly there was large-scale planting at the top of the beach potentially to boost the dune communities and stabilise the sand.