Tortoise Troubles

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Gopher Tortoise Enjoying Dinner
Stuart, Florida

Warning!   I brake for gopher tortoises!   I probably should have that bumper sticker on my car.   I also brake for scrub jays, quaker parrots, bald eagles, sandhill cranes, crested caracaras, Key Deer…you get the idea.   I try to check my rearview mirror before braking.   The driver behind me may not be as interested in the wildlife as I am, and I don’t want to meet by accident.

With the exception of the sandhill cranes, the birds are usually safe above the traffic on wires or trees.   But I worry about our gopher tortoises.   Seemingly unaware of the dangers they face, they slowly make their way across the road.   It’s a death wish in high traffic areas.   Usually you can see them far enough away to slow down in time.   They resemble a flattened World War 2 German army helmet moving at glacial speed.   But I cringe when I see drivers too preoccupied to notice them.   Many tortoises are struck and killed.

While vehicles kill the reptiles, their actual homes face destruction too.   In our part of Florida they like to dig their burrows on dry sandy soil.   Unfortunately for them, we humans want to place our homes and businesses on the same kind of real estate.   Since much of Florida is a swamp, dry land is desirable.   In a contest between humans and tortoises, you can imagine who will win.   In Florida they are considered a threatened species, and regulations require removing and relocating tortoises before land can be developed.   But this practice was not always followed.   Rather than waste time and incur costs, some landowners bulldozed over the burrows and buried the tortoises alive.   These poor creatures faced a prolonged death of dehydration and starvation.   Shockingly, this horror was legal at one time, but thankfully the state now forbids this action.   But some people ignore the law and continue this cruelty.    We can help by staying vigilant.    If you see a parcel of land being cleared and know the tortoises have burrows on it, check out the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s website–myFWC.com–to see if the proper permit has been granted to relocate the animals.    If not, report it to the Commission so they can investigate.

The gopher tortoises battle other factors in addition to manmade hazards.   Respiratory disease has spread throughout their range, sickening and killing many.   Exotic species of plants and animals have also created problems.   Non-native plants crowd out the natural habitat, limiting their burrowing options and food supply, and invasive animal species eat them and their eggs.

If you are wondering why we should care about some ancient reptiles, consider this:  gopher tortoises are a keystone species.   Many animals depend on their burrows to survive.   Rabbits, mice, lizards, burrowing owls, snakes, foxes, and skunks are among almost 350 species who depend on these burrows for shelter.   If the tortoises die off so will these other creatures.   The result would be disastrous to the critter community.   A deadly domino effect will occur, drastically damaging our ecosystems.   And eventually, that will affect even us humans.

So join me.   Brake for gopher tortoises!   And scrub jays, squirrels, cranes, deer, snakes, opossums, owls, foxes…you get the idea.

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Gopher Tortoise at Entrance of Burrow

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Gopher Tortoise
Stuart, Florida

I Miss the Mist

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Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

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Minard Castle, Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

Summer is only a month old, and I’m sick of it already.   Well, technically it’s only a month old.   Here in Florida summer starts in April and lasts until December, so basically by mid-July we’ve had three months of heat already.   Additionally we’ve had mosquitoes, humidity, and thunderstorms.   Thankfully the tropics have been somewhat quiet, so we haven’t had to endure the ritual hurricane hysteria that grips the populace and newscasters when a storm draws near.

As much as I love my native Florida, I’ve come to believe that my Celtic blood was never meant to live in this tropical paradise.   Luckily I am one of the dark Irish, so I’m not as sensitive to the sun as my fair-haired, light-eyed family.   I also have the sense to stay inside during the worst part of the day or cover up and smear myself with sunscreen if I do venture out.   But I’ve always hated the heat.   Even as a child, my favorite days were when cold fronts blasted down the peninsula.   Puppy-like, I would play outside, running in the refreshing dry air.   Many of my friends shiver when the thermometer dips below 70 degrees, whereas I eagerly look forward to outdoor adventures if 60 is the forecast high.

Flying to Ireland in May 2009, we descended into Dublin as the misty morning fog rose to greet us.   It was so thick you couldn’t see the airport, but the pilot skillfully landed.   We passengers disembarked from the plane on the tarmac and walked into the terminal.   The cool mist that surrounded me as I stepped onto Irish soil was like an embrace welcoming me home.   For two weeks we roamed the Irish countryside.   Some days were sunny, but others were what the Irish called “soft”—cool and drizzling.   Friends traveling with me were chilled, but I was in heaven.   Exploring ancient sites in a misty shroud, you are transported through time.   The present fades away while you imagine all those who stood in those very places eons ago.

I imagine if it was cool, wet, and cloudy most of the time I might get tired of that.   It’s nice to see the sunshine.   But I checked today’s weather report for the beautiful Dingle Peninsula on the west coast of Ireland.   The high temperature was 66 degrees.   South Florida was close to 95 degrees with 60% humidity and a heat index over 100.   Walking outside felt like swimming through a sauna.   It makes me long for those days in Ireland.   I miss the mist.

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Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

Gallarus Oratory on Dingle Peninsula

Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

Killarney National Park

Killarney National Park, Ireland

Near Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland

Near Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

Manatee Madness

Manatee at Conch Key Note Scars and Tail Notch

Manatee at Conch Key, FL.
Note Scars and Tail Notch

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Manatee cruising by the dock.
Conch Key, FL

 

Well, they are at it again.  Another attempt is being made to take the manatee off the Endangered Species’ List.  Apparently all those darn regulations have actually been working, and the number of manatees has increased.  So if something is working, then we must change it.

As ridiculous as that sounds, that is exactly what some residents wish to do.  Never mind that according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission we had a record 830 manatee deaths last year.  Previous estimates of manatee numbers was around 4800, so if 830 died, they lost about 17 percent of their population.

There are plenty of reasons that some people want to throw the manatee under the bus…er, boat.  The chief complaint is that boaters don’t want speed restrictions to ruin their fun on the water.  No wake zones feel tedious and boring.   What’s the point of having a powerboat or personal watercraft if you can’t run full throttle wherever you feel like it?

I enjoy motor boating.  I was born south of Miami, and I’ve been boating since I was a toddler.  So I understand the thrill and desire for speed when cruising our waterways.  But I have more sympathy for the manatees.  I’ve spent many hours in a canoe and seen first hand these docile creatures who want nothing more than a safe warm harbor and some tasty grass to chew on.  Most of the manatees I’ve come across bear the scars of multiple propeller injuries.  They just can’t get out of the way of a speeding boat fast enough.

Manatees continue to face many threats.  While we can’t do anything about cold weather, a leading cause of death to them, we can lessen the dangers created by humans.  Boat collisions and propeller trauma are drastically reduced in the no wake zones—the residential areas of the manatee world.  There is a reason we don’t speed in neighborhoods.   Children, pets, and others are in close proximity to the road, so we slow down to avoid injury.  We should give the same courtesy to a mammal who has inhabited Florida’s waterways since long before humans dramatically altered the landscape with development.

So let’s hope the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service carefully considers this latest attempt to change the manatees’ status.  Without protections the manatees never would have made their meager strides so far.  They still face an uncertain future.  Removing them from the Endangered Species’ List would be profoundly wrong at this time.

 

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Manatee surfacing for air.
Conch Key, FL.

 

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Snorting Manatee at Conch Key, FL.

 

 

 

 

Nest Box Notes

 

Nest box with baby Great Crested Flycatcher.   Photo by Tara Powers

Nest box with baby flycatcher.
Photo by Tara Powers

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Baby Great Crested Flycatcher.
Photo by Tara Powers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baby Great Crested Flycatcher.  Photo by Tara Powers

Baby Great Crested Flycatcher.
Photo by Tara Powers

 

 

 

 

 

 

Late spring is baby season for our birds in Florida. This year we had baby cardinals, red bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, doves, and crows all competing for food at our feeder in the backyard. The most demanding by far were the three woodpecker babies. They whined and cried for Mom and Dad to fill their little bellies from dawn to dusk.

But my favorite to watch this year was the Great Crested Flycatcher family, who took up residence in the nest box in our front yard.  Mom and Dad courted for weeks with their distinctive whistles.  I would catch a flash of gold fly through the trees as they pursued insects.  Finally I heard the sweet little peeps coming from the box.  I warned people to keep their distance so they wouldn’t be stressed while caring for their little ones.

Late one afternoon, I watched one of the parents return to the box with a large dragonfly in its beak.  One tiny head, mouth wide open, was peering out of the box hole.  The dragonfly was quickly stuffed into that little mouth.  I was astounded.  The insect was almost the size of the baby bird, but it gulped the bug right down!

The next morning I heard a bang on the front window.  It was fledge day!  Clinging to the screen, the little guy looked around at the big world outside the box.  He then fluttered to the ground as his parents nervously flitted from tree to tree.  Two more little faces appeared at the hole in the box while they waited for their turn.

Fledge day is a dangerous time for the little ones.  They leave the security of the nest, and there are many predators waiting for the opportunity to pounce.  The babies can’t fly well, and the parents have to get them tucked away in the safety of the bushes.  Across the street I spied the neighbor’s huge orange tabby cat, licking his paw and eyeing me.  He’s always on the prowl, and I’ve found piles of feathers in my yard that I believe are his handiwork.  Risking the neighbor’s ire, I politely asked if he could keep the cat inside for the day to give the fledglings a fighting chance of surviving the day.  Thankfully he agreed.

By day’s end all three babies had left the nest.  The front yard feels sadly empty and quiet again.  If I’m lucky, a pair will return next spring, and I’ll have the privilege to watch another family grow.  But for now…I miss them.

The Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys

The Turtle Hospital Marathon, FL

The Turtle Hospital
Marathon, FL

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I love sea turtles. Growing up in Florida, I’ve seen them all my life. I love the way they glide over reefs or swim in the open sea. They usually dive for cover when a boat approaches, but occasionally you can get a good look at one lazing around the warm waters in the Keys. But these gentle giants were almost hunted to extinction for food and their beautiful shells. The remaining ones face an uncertain future. Now federally protected against harvesting, they still are in danger from pollution, poaching, habitat loss, and accidents.

My daughter and I visited the Turtle Hospital in Marathon in the Florida Keys last week. While I loved seeing all the turtles up close, my heart broke at the reason they were there. These graceful creatures have been brought to the hospital for injuries mostly caused by man’s carelessness. Some have been hit by boat propellers, their shells split open and filled with air, leaving them unable to dive for food. Others have become entangled in fishing line, cutting off the circulation to a flipper. A few have swallowed fishing hooks so they cannot eat. Many have consumed trash that humans have negligently tossed in the ocean. Plastic bags are especially a danger as underwater they resemble jellyfish to a hungry turtle. This garbage becomes impacted in their intestines and unless it is removed they will slowly die. On top of all these issues, many of the turtles are suffering from fibropapilloma, a virus causing tumors to grow on their soft tissues.

During our tour we learned how the Turtle Hospital rescues, rehabilitates, and releases its patients. Sadly, some must become permanent residents if their injuries will not allow them to be placed back in the ocean. They have a large enclosure to spend the rest of their days swimming about. The staff and volunteers at the Turtle Hospital are dedicated to caring for their charges, and it is obvious they are passionate about preventing further suffering. They strive to educate the public about how each one of us can help, especially by cleaning up our oceans. They stressed the importance of keeping trash out of the water and picking up any that you find while at the beach or boating.

The very next day we were boating off of nearby Grassy Key. My daughter and I found numerous pieces of plastic bags and other trash floating all around. By the end of the day we alone had filled a small bucket with manmade debris. It disgusted us to see the callous disregard which allows this trash to be tossed in our waters.

So if you are lucky enough to spend time at the beach or boating this summer, look around you. If you see trash out there, pick it up. More importantly, don’t be part of the problem. Clean up your own garbage and dispose of it accordingly. The dedicated people at the Turtle Hospital and all similar rescues will thank you for preventing another tragedy.

Conch Key Musings

     I’m looking out my window at the bayside of Conch Key.  Clouds are on the horizon, but we’re hoping to get out in the boats and explore before the rains set in.  Yesterday the fishermen were cleaning their catch and tossing the remains to the fish and birds at the dock.  Three nurse sharks, two small tarpon, a stingray, jacks, needle fish, parrot fish, and a cute little barracuda snacked on the leftovers.  I’m constantly amazed at the diversity of life here just feet from the door.  A huge manatee visited in the morning, and the stately great egrets amble over each day in hopes of a tasty morsel.  I hope these creatures will be here for years to come so our grandchildren’s grandchildren can wonder at them also.