The 'Glades

I could not believe that I was seeing mangroves!  I had only seen these strangely adapted trees on TV, but now I was seeing whole islands of them was we cruised by on a tour boat through a small section of Big Cypress National Preserve.  Our main goal was to look for manatees and dolphins, but my main goal was just to experience the Everglades (and to do a little bird watching).

The reason for this weekend vacation was to visit my sister who works for North Carolina Outward Bound, which is an organization that offers outdoor adventure courses to the public.  Basically, she goes out for up to 28 days at a time with clients and lives on flotilla of canoes.  When she is not "on course" she lives "on base," which is a small community of quaint beach-house like buildings only accessible by canoe.

Now you may be wondering why North Carolina Outward Bound has a base camp in South Florida, but just like many migratory birds, the North Carolina Outward Bound Company migrates south for the winter and returns to North Carolina to run programs in the summer. Not a bad gig.  As my final semester in graduate school gears up, I would be lying if I said I was not just a little bit jealous.

Back on the tour boat, we pass by one of these island of mangroves close enough to see that the roots are covered with thousands of tiny shells.  These living creatures are a testament to the key role mangroves play in the Everglades environment. For without the mangroves, these creatures would have no place to live.  What I am looking at are mangrove barnacles, tiny creatures in the phylum Arthropoda, the same phylum as all the insects.  Although this is not what many tourists have come to see, I find myself amazed at the adaptive ability of these tiny creatures.

When they are born, barnacle larvae are planktonic, meaning they are free-floating, drifting with the tides.  As they become mature, they cement their heads to a suitable surface, like mangrove roots, and begin encasing themselves in a calcium carbonate shell.  Location is imperative to the survival of an individual barnacle!  If the barnacle decides to cement his head at too high an altitude where the high tide only sometimes reaches, then she will dry up and die.  (Barnacles need to breath oxygen dissolved in water, just like fish.)   But, if she decides to glue her head to a place that is constantly submerged, then she has to compete with other creatures trying to make a living in shallow water, not to mention increased exposure to predators.  Luckily, barnacles have adapted to live in what is known as the intertidal zone, or space between high tide and low tide.

But how can these little creatures who stay in one spot their entire adult lives be able to spend roughly have their day out of water when they require water to breathe?  The answer lies in their shell.  Not only is their shell built in such a way as to deflect wave energy as the tides move up and down, but also, their shell acts as water storage for when they exposed to air.  As the water retreats during low tide, barnacles close up their shell and hold enough water in there to breathe until the tide returns.  Thus, these little guys are able to persist in an environment that is underwater have the day, and exposed to the atmosphere half the day. In this constantly changing environment, most creatures, including us humans, would perish.

Plus, since their heads are cemented to mangrove roots, they have to reach out of their shells and grab food with their legs.  And if you are grabbing food with you legs, and your head is stuck to a mangrove root, where do you put the food you just grabbed?  That's right, in your butt!  Ha!

Oh and check out this YouTube video for the more intimate aspects of barnacle natural history.

That's probably more than anyone wants to know about barnacles.  Barnacles are cool.

The mutualism between the barnacle and the mangrove is just one of many that exists in the 'Glades, and although barnacles are by no mean endangered, the habitat they live in is. On top of the multitudes of invasive exotic plants and animals that are encroaching, the Everglades are shrinking, and this is in large part to land-use changes that have resulted in decreased flow of freshwater from the surrounding area.  In fact, the Everglades is less that 1/3 it's original size, and a plan to increase water flow to the Evergaldes has been put on hold.

Luckily, there is an organized group of concerned citizens advocating  the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program in the face of such setback.  On their website you can view the plan, and they have a bunch of ways for you to get involved.  So get out there and save the barnacles! (and the millions of other species that call the Everglades their home)


Bear Creek Reservoir

Since we knew that the rest of the weekend was going to be cold and miserable, Sarah and I decided to make a quick trip up to Bear Creek Reservoir to do a little birding.  We did not see a whole lot, but we did get a brief look at a red-breasted merganser, which is not too common, and some ruddy ducks, which are downright funny looking.  I tried to get a digiscoped shot of the merganser, but the lighting was poor, and I would always take the shot a fraction of a second too late just in time to snap a picture of nothing but water as the bird dove underwater to chase a hapless fish.  Oh well - you can't win them all.

Anyways, this was a good chance to warm up a little before I started leading the bird walks for the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society, and it was also fun to generate a list to post on eBird.  For those you who don't know, eBird is a citizen science program developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is quickly becoming one of the largest databases on bird diversity ever generated.  For me, it represents a fantastic union of the interests of scientists and citizens.  It epitomizes my general belief that people will not care about conservation unless they can become a part of the process; science must be relevant.  eBird allows a diverse group of people, in part, to be directly responsible for bird conservation by inputing data into an online database that ornithologists can use to monitor changes in bird species frequency and abundance - pretty cool.  

I know not all species can afford this luxury, but it is still unfortunate that only one taxa of organisms has such a large backing of both a large University and citizens.  Georgia did develop a herpetafauna (reptiles and amphibian) atlas, but I was not able to find out much about it, and as far as I know, there is nothing like an eBird for herpetafauna.  There is FrogWatch USA that appears similar to eBird, but there is no way for a person to directly input data online.  Just looking online now, there are many citizen science opportunities designed for short term projects throughout the United States.  So, if anyone knows of an online database system similar to eBird, but for other species,  or just cool citizen science programs in general, please let me know!     

For some reason, I have not been utilizing eBird as much as I could be.  I believe it to be a combination of laziness, and the fact that I do not derive much enjoyment from sitting in front of a computer inputing data (especially after my first shrike field season!)  Somehow, making this fun hobby of mine into a somewhat detail-oriented scientific endeavor takes some of the enjoyment out of it.  In addition, I know many ornithologists take data gathered by non-experts with a grain of salt, and I think they should be cautious as to what conclusions citizen data can yield.  But these are lame excuses.  I also believe that some of it is shortsightedness on my part, with myself thinking that one eBird report will not make a difference in bird conservation.  But isn't this the way of thinking I am trying to dissuade people from using? Not contributing to things like eBird when I have the chance makes me a hypocrite to my own personal cause, whether I can rationalize my way out of it or not.  No, one eBird report will not make a difference, but the total combined effort between citizens and scientists is awe-inspiring if you really think about it.  I know that citizen science is a major tool for conservation, and with that in the back of my head I generated this not super thrilling, but equally important list that will help a little bit in the conservation of a group of critters that I cannot imagine a world without.

Location:     Bear Creek Reservoir
Observation date:     1/29/10
Number of species:     23

Canada Goose - Branta canadensis     15
Red-breasted Merganser - Mergus serrator     1
Ruddy Duck - Oxyura jamaicensis     9
Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps     8
Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias     2
Black Vulture - Coragyps atratus     2
Turkey Vulture - Cathartes aura     20
American Coot - Fulica americana     30
Red-headed Woodpecker - Melanerpes erythrocephalus     1
Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus     1
Downy Woodpecker - Picoides pubescens     1
Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) - Colaptes auratus [auratus Group]     1
Pileated Woodpecker - Dryocopus pileatus     1
Blue Jay - Cyanocitta cristata     1
American Crow - Corvus brachyrhynchos     12
Carolina Chickadee - Poecile carolinensis     3
Tufted Titmouse - Baeolophus bicolor     3
Eastern Bluebird - Sialia sialis     3
Northern Mockingbird - Mimus polyglottos     3
Song Sparrow - Melospiza melodia     1
White-throated Sparrow - Zonotrichia albicollis     2
Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis     4
Red-winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus     5

This report was generated automatically by eBird v2(http://ebird.org)