Posts Tagged ‘Ten Thousand Islands’

Panthers and airboats

May 27th, 2009

I’m standing in a marsh surrounded by frost-blasted mangrove shrubs, their foliage dead and chocolate-brown. Layne Hamilton, project leader of the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, is pleased about this. Since freshwater flow was channeled and diverted by developers (see yesterday’s post), the salinity of the marsh has been increasing, and as a result mangroves have been creeping inland, altering the nature of the place.

Which way now? Joyce, Andy and Layne ponder the best route to the next sampling station.

KENNEDY WARNE
Which way now? Joyce, Andy and Layne ponder the best route to the next sampling station.


In the 1920s there were about 4000 ha of mangroves in the refuge area; now there are more than 7000 ha. The plan to restore the marsh includes restricting the mangrove invasion and burning off some that have already encroached. Frost is helping keep down the mangroves’ prolific regeneration.

While Andy From and Joyce Mazourek go about their data capture, Layne tells me about the history of the marsh, known as the Picayune Strand. It was developed for real estate in the 1960s as the Southern Golden Gates Estate, but it never took off, and by the 1980s had become a haven for outlaws, poachers and drug runners. The Fish and Wildlife Service bought out the property owners in the 1990s, and the area was turned into a state forest.

Salt crystals on a mangrove leaf attest to the ability of many mangrove species to exude excess salt from their tissues.

KENNEDY WARNE
Salt crystals on a mangrove leaf attest to the ability of many mangrove species to exude excess salt from their tissues.


“It was seen as a great restoration opportunity for the western Everglades,” says Layne, who has been managing the project for the past seven years. As well as providing an ecological asset, there’s the thought that a restored wetland could help mitigate sea level rise. Mapping the vegetation and researching the hydrology are part of the baseline study being done before freshwater flows are restored.

Thunderheads are moving in our direction, blackening the sky. Andy is ready to pull the plug on the trip if they get any nearer. For someone from a country where electrical storms aren’t a major threat, the prospect of lightning strike is new to me, but it’s a daily reality in Florida as the hurricane season draws close. No one on the boat is taking the billowing clouds lightly. “An airboat on a marsh is a lightning rod,” says Andy.

Skimming across the marsh.

KENNEDY WARNE
Skimming across the marsh.


But the clouds come no closer, and we continue crisscrossing the marsh, occasionally getting stuck in the mud. When that happens, we all get off the airboat while Andy guns the big prop, waggling the rudders left and right, trying to move the machine into deeper water. In fact, we’re lucky to have been able to use the airboat at all. South-west Florida has had a drought this year, and a week ago the marsh was almost dry.

Late in the day, Layne finds panther footprints in the mud. As it happens, she also leads the Florida panther recovery programme, and tells me about the big cats. There are only about 100 of them left, she says—though that’s three times the number there were in the mid-1990s.

A big problem has been inbreeding. When a species hits a population bottleneck like the panther has, all kinds of debilitating diseases and deformities crop up, jeopardising recovery. “As a subspecies, they were just about to blink out,” says Layne.

The heart of the recovery programme has been to introduce the panther’s close relative, the western cougar, from which it is physically indistinguishable. “We brought in eight females from Texas, and they are helping fill in the holes in the genome of the panther.”

Further obstacles in the way of recovery are a disease called feline leukaemia, which jumps from domestic cats to panthers, and pseudorabies, which panthers pick up by eating feral hogs, and which kills them almost immediately. But Layne says the top cause of mortality is intraspecific aggression. Male panthers need about 200 square miles of range, and if they don’t get it they attack and kill females and kittens.

Andy sees the panther; I see the sign :(

KENNEDY WARNE
Andy sees the panther; I see the sign 🙁


The public hasn’t exactly embraced panther recovery with open arms. It’s a fearsome predator, and seeing road signs advising motorists to watch out for panthers no doubt causes unease among some Floridians. “It will take a lot of outreach and persuasion to get communities to be comfortable with a larger panther population,” Layne says.

That night, driving back to the house where we’re staying, Andy suddenly shouts, “Look! Panther!” Of course, I am looking in the other direction, and by the time I look where he is pointing the cat has slunk into the shadows. It’s the first time Andy has seen one in all the years he’s been coming here, and I don’t begrudge him the sighting for one minute, but I can’t help thinking that it follows the well-known Law of Journalistic Avoidance that is part of the wildlife creed. I have to make do with photographing the sign.

(Don’t) have a banana

May 26th, 2009

We are barely out of the marina, heading into the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge for a day of research in the mangroves, when Joyce Mazourek, the refuge manager, gets a “rescue-me” call from one of her staff. Her outboard has died. Can we give her a tow? We motor over to the boat, listen while the motor is fruitlessly cranked, agree sagely that it is definitely not starting and tow it back to the boat ramp.

We set out a second time, idling through the manatee protection zone (boat propellers are one of the chief causes of manatee injury and death), then Joyce pushes the throttle down for a high-speed slalom ride through the mangrove-fringed islands that make up the refuge. Ten Thousand Islands, adjoining Everglades National Park, has some of the best preserved mangrove habitat in the US.

Ten thousand islands? Well, no. More like a few hundred, but who’s counting? I first came across this island maze off Florida’s south-west coast while scouting for mangrove sites on Google Earth. From the air, the islands looked like cells under a microscope.

Andy From changes batteries in one of his water-level recorders.

KENNEDY WARNE
Andy From changes batteries in one of his water-level recorders.


Then I found out that Andy From, a GIS (geographic information systems) guy with the Fish and Wildlife Service, would be spending two days in the refuge downloading data from his water level monitoring sites. He invited me along.

This first day is devoted to checking the island sites; tomorrow we will go into the marshes by airboat. Andy occasionally consults a satellite map, but mostly navigates by memory—this is his 17th trip to collect data. His monitoring equipment consists of a PVC pipe sunk into the mud, with mesh-covered holes near the surface so that water can flow into them, and an ultrasound distance recorder in the top of the pipe.

Sunglint creates this optical illusion in a satellite image of part of the Ten Thousand Islands wildlife refuge.

GOOGLE EARTH
Sunglint creates this optical illusion in a satellite image of part of the Ten Thousand Islands wildlife refuge.


While Andy downloads the sea level data to a handheld device, Joyce sucks up groundwater from three different depths to measure temperature, salinity and electrical conductivity. All this data provides baseline information for a coming restoration project. Decades ago, canals were dug in the watershed north of the refuge as part of a massive real-estate development that never got off the ground. Those canals deprived the marshes of fresh water, disrupting the natural hydrology and changing the flora and fauna. The plan is to restore sheet flow of fresh water across the refuge, and Andy’s data will allow environment managers to measure the effects.

I busy myself with the mangroves themselves. It’s high tide, and tree-climbing crabs have clustered around the trunks of the trees, some of them several metres up. I try to photograph them, but as soon as I get within range they sidle to the opposite side of the trunk. When I move around that side they scuttle back to their starting point. I keep up this game of hide and seek for a while, then give up. They are too nimble for me.

As the day proceeds we have some lucky critter sightings. We startle a spotted ray, jet black polka-dotted with white, and watch it wing away through the murky water. Crossing a shallow area, we see horseshoe crabs, those ancient armoured arthropods which have changed very little in 400 million years. The air temperature is in the 90s Fahrenheit, and I’m eyeing the water for a dip, but change my mind when a two-metre bull shark swirls around the boat. The area is known for them. They are an unpredictable species, and the turbid water pretty much rules out swimming with them. I don’t want to end up a case of mistaken prey identity. Bulls don’t have the megadentition of great whites, but no way would you want to have their pearly whites sunk into your leg.

Joyce Mazourek, a victim of Cumulative Banana Syndrome.

KENNEDY WARNE
Joyce Mazourek, a victim of Cumulative Banana Syndrome.


We stop for lunch. Andy has made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for him and me, and is alarmed to see Joyce eating a fruit salad with banana. Like many fishermen, he considers bananas to be bad juju on boats. “Oh, oh,” he says. “We’re in trouble now.” Joyce says she’s been eating bananas on trips into the refuge ever since she started as manager a few months earlier, and has never had boat trouble. “But maybe it’s a case of CBS—Cumulative Banana Syndrome,” I suggest. “All that pent-up banana karma is about to be unleashed.”

I spoke truer than I knew. As we started for the last site of the day the motor started making a gnashing noise, and eventually cut out completely. Something had seized in its innards. We ended up paddling the last mile to the marina, past the mansions of the Port of the Islands resort, watching for manatees and listening to the chattering call of a bald eagle.

It was a pleasant way to end the day, but we agreed that, tomorrow, no bananas!