Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to spend the day on the water with Sergeant Bruening from the Marine Bureau of the Collier County Sheriff's Office. First, we responded to a call of two adrift kayaks off of Key Island. We patrolled the area and talked to boaters and beach goers. Turned out the kayakers were not in distress and later returned to shore safely. Next we visited Kice Island and checked out the site of the recent mass stranding of pilot whales. The only sign of activity there were dozens of black vultures, which have been gorging on the whale remains and have done a great job of cleaning the bones. Then we proceeded along the shores of the Ten Thousand Island Aquatic Preserve and Everglades National Park to the Shark River. There seemed to be increased boat traffic, likely due to such pleasant seas and abundant sunshine.
The last leg of our journey was the trip back up the Wilderness Waterway, on the inland side of Everglades National Park. There we checked on participants and their unique variety of vessels embarking on an incredible journey called The WaterTribe Everglades Challenge. This "unsupported, expedition style adventure race" follows the SW Florida coast line approximately 300 miles from Tampa to Key Largo in 8 days or less. I can't imagine kayaking anywhere for 8 days, but at this time of year, the mosquitoes aren't so bad, and a cool breeze is around every corner. What a great way to see our amazing coastline!
Sarah Falkowski, Education Coordinator
I was excited to meet my first manatee as I made my way down the seemingly endless curves of Shell Island Road. There was already a crowd gathered in anticipation of the manatee that would soon be arriving via box truck from the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. Shortly after I parked, the truck arrived and staff from Rookery Bay, FWC, and the Lowry Park Zoo assembled to strategize the best method for transporting the 900 pound manatee from the truck to the water. The manatee was lying on a large, cushioned, part-mesh tarp with sturdy straps for carrying a heavy load.
The smell wafting from the truck wasn't the most pleasant, as the manatee was beginning to give off a musty, damp, odor that can probably only be accurately described as something similar to "wet dog smell." The crew of 12 lifted the manatee with the tarp straps to move it forward and down the ramp of the truck in small bursts. They would count to three, move a few steps, place it back on the truck floor, and then move forward again. This allowed the crew to safely move down the sides of the ramp, since the manatee took up the entire ramp.
After the crew placed the manatee on a large piece of cushion next to the water, a biologist from the Lowry Park Zoo, where the manatee was rehabilitated, began to explain to the crowd what was happening. The manatee had suffered watercraft-related injuries in the northern part of the Reserve and had been in rehab at the Zoo since September of 2013. The crowd was very attentive—and so was the manatee! It began to try to make its way to the water by moving and flopping as best as it could. Staff members quickly stopped the manatee from continuing this behavior, as it could cause an injury to the animal.
The staff members then gathered on both sides of the manatee, grabbed the straps again and slowly walked it into the water. When the crew was in about waist-deep, the manatee was able to swim away on its own, after a gentle tap on its tail reminded it of the direction it should be heading. The only thing visible after its departure were the subtle signs of a manatee in motion, manatee footprints! (Seen in the image on left) This experience made my otherwise normal day at the office an exceptionally good one!
Learn how Rookery Bay is involved in the Marine Mammal Stranding Network
Amber Nabors, Communications Specialist
The birds in the sky aren't the only things that are telling us about the change in season (nature's seasons, not tourist season). Spring time is spawning time for many of the animals in our local coastal waters including Rookery Bay. As water temperatures and day length increase, these environmental cues can trigger spawning responses in coastal denizens. Our estuarine waters are teeming with planktonic life this time of year.
Zooplankton typically is microscopic, but sometimes it is visible to the naked eye. The other week I was on a mission to round up zooplankton for our 7th grade field trips to investigate at the Environmental Learning Center when I encountered a plankter (singular version of plankton) that I'd never caught before. It was a baby seahorse that might have only been a few days old! The photo unfortunately doesn't offer a sense of scale, but this little wonder was about the same size as a larval mosquito! In case you aren't familiar with baby mosquitoes, the entire length of the sea horse from snout to tail was less than 4mm or 3/8"!
The baby sea horse was our ward for the day. We made sure it had plenty of other plankton to slurp down while it was awaiting release. We also provide gentle aeration so it would have enough oxygen in the water, and finally we also provided a small rock for it to grip onto with its tail and to hide beside for a sense of shelter. Once the field trip wrapped up and I was able to tend to our V.I.P. (Very Important Plankton, don't you know), I captured a couple of quick images of our tiny, temporary guest then sent it back with a volunteer to be released at the same spot where I caught it in the morning. With a belly full of fresh plankton and the well wishes of our education staff, it was returned to its rightful home in the estuary where it joined the other masses of springtime plankton flowing through our waters.
Dave Graff, Education Specialist
On a nice sunny day at Hideaway beach, Marco Island, we participated in Buddy Day where 163 second grade students from the Guadalupe After School Program in Immokalee pair up with 176 resident "Big Buddies" for the day to learn more about South Florida's coastal environment. Near the shore, we (the two of us and two Rookery Bay volunteers) set up some animal artifact stations to teach the buddies about our local fauna. They really enjoyed touching real shark jaws and sea turtle shells and had many questions to ask! The tide was high at the beginning of the day, but slowly it went out which gave us the chance to look on the mudflats for some critters. For most of the kids, this was their first time seeing the ocean and so you can imagine the squeals upon seeing a hermit crab or a squirting conch. Overall the day provided a great opportunity to educate both the big and little buddies about the incredible environment right outside our door.
Megan Joyce, Education Specialist (left) and Sarah Falkowski, Education Coordinator (right)
On a recent kayak tour, the group came upon a horse conch taking a lightning whelk meal. We often feed lightning whelks to the horse conch in our Environmental Learning Center aquarium, however finding one doing so in the wild is unusual, especially with two individuals so similar in size! Ron Heck was a participant on this particular guided kayak tour and he recalled to us how special this experience made his trip, “I greatly enjoyed the ecotour with Randy! I have done several of these tours and each one is a special experience of how different areas in Florida have a unique ecological history and one we need to maintain for future generations.” Photo credit for the image in this field note belongs to Ron Heck, who was gracious enough to share his photo evidence to add to the meaning of “wild life and wild places.”
What is that shrill noise coming from the tops of my oak trees? It sounds like a bunch of dog whistles up there.
If it is February in Naples and you are hearing a lot of really high pitched squeaks from the tops of your trees then you might just be getting a visit from one of my favorite birds, the cedar waxwing. Cedar waxwings are relative late-comers for "snowbirds." They typically arrive several months later than our wandering warblers and buntings, but they stick around for a while even after most of our smaller migrants have gone back north.
Cedar waxwings are extremely gregarious birds. I don't recall ever seeing a solitary one. They feed, roost, and fly in groups – all the while making those distinct high-pitch calls. It was the sound of the birds that alerted me to their presence while arriving at work the other day. But hearing them and finding them can be entirely different things. My head is often craned skyward this time of year trying to locate exactly where they are calling from. When perched in pine trees, these crested, fawn-colored birds are nearly invisible, especially if they are sitting near pine cones.
Click on an image below to expand and see entire gallery.
Waxwing in a Cedar Tree
Group of Hungry Waxwings!
Waxwing in an Oak Tree
Waxwing in Flight
When I was growing up in Ohio, after a cold snowy winter, robins were my first sign of spring. But since moving to sunny southwest Florida, childhood robins have been replaced by purple martins. Like robins, purple martins migrate south in the winter months, leaving the ice and snow behind. They travel even farther south than robins to spend their winter in South America. Purple martins return to North America in the "spring" to breed and raise their young, usually in specially designed large birdhouse apartments that people erect for them in their backyards. So each year in late January, I begin scanning the birdhouses in Goodland along the Big Marco River searching for the first returning purple martins of the "spring". This year I was rewarded on February 10th.
• At 8", the purple martin (Progne subis) is North America's largest swallow.
• It's a strong, graceful flier with a forked tail.
• Males are a glossy dark purple and females are lighter with grey under parts.
• Purple Martins perform aerial acrobatics to snap up flying insects caught on the wing.
• Putting up a Purple Martin house is like installing a miniature neighborhood in your backyard.
Beverly Anderson, Research Specialist
While family and friends were up north with their feet in the snow, (see the icy water in the photo on left) my feet were in the sand mapping the Keewaydin Island shoreline. Every year we collect GPS points along the vegetation line on Keewaydin Island to help us understand coastal dynamics. The project began in 1998 and the changes we've documented are phenomenal. The south tip of the island has grown 0.35 miles since 1998 while other areas of the island have eroded up to 130 feet! The data we collect helps us plan for bird nesting season, public access locations and educating the public on natural coastal processes.
The image above was taken by Heather Stoffel who was formerly on staff here at Rookery Bay Reserve and is currently conducting water quality research for the University of Rhode Island. One of her water quality sites is located in the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. It is great to see that after all these years and across all these miles, friends from other NERRs are still hard at work to protect our resources!
Jill Schmid, GIS Specialist