Why do we all want to be part of Team OCEAN? Is it because we feel the urge to be environmentally conscious and pick up beach trash? Maybe it calms us to know that teaching people to keep their dogs on a leash is helpful for everyone's health in public spaces. Possibly we yearn to talk to children out of chasing shore birds or tormenting them with bags of potato chips. Whatever your reason, Team OCEAN is unanimously voted the best gig at Rookery Bay Reserve.
Getting on a Team OCEAN crew is a coveted position. There is the cool hat and t-shirt, a proud uniform even if it is a rather sickly shade of pale yellow. No matter, our beach tan more than makes up for the pallor of palette in the attire. We wait by our computers and tablets each week to receive our notice of dock time with joy and anticipation. Will I be able to reply quickly enough to get a seat on the boat this week? Does the captain like my anchor toss enough to ask me back? We know there are dozens waiting to take our place should we mess up. Our only hope is to tote that bale and scrub the poop better than that other guy so we are irreplaceable. Showing up with fresh baked muffins helps too.
It would be nice if there were more boats, creating more spots for more volunteers but then the exclusivity might be watered down. If everyone can afford the Ferrari does it lose its mystique? Then again, if we made the beaches too clean and completely run out of people to talk to about good stewardship in the reserve, would we put ourselves out of a job? That may be the goal, but it is comforting to know that human nature, and our slovenly behavior on this planet, are probably not going to change in the near future. Not to mention that there are new visitors on our waters, most from far away, every time we go. I think it is safe to say the Team OCEAN gig will be a prime volunteer spot for a long while to come.
It was a beautiful January afternoon as I happily headed down to the Port of the Islands marina where I would witness and photograph the release of two manatees by the FWC's Fish & Wildlife Research Institute in Rookery Bay Reserve. I was extremely excited to say the least, as I never dreamed I would be this up close and personal to my beloved manatee.
The small caravan, two box trucks and a Lowry Park Zoo van, arrived as scheduled. The box trucks simultaneously backed down the boat ramp as the professionals began the seemingly well-rehearsed release process. The first manatee to be released was an adult, pregnant female, who was rescued from Charlotte County and rehabilitated at Lowry Park Zoo following a watercraft-related injury. She was an amazing sight, weighing in at 1,600 pounds. It took sixteen people to slowly and carefully hoist her off the truck and then into the water. From the lift platform, she was placed on a padded mat. Before the final stretch down to the water, she was allowed to rest as water was poured on her back. This is when a few of us were allowed to take some photographs. I was pleasantly surprised to see how calm she remained during the entire process. After a few minutes of rest, the group gently lifted her and walked her down the boat ramp and into the water. The small crowd that had gathered to watch the release, clapped and cheered as she finally swam off and away from the boat ramp.
This past Tuesday Dave, Jeannine and I went out trawling to try and find some new critters for the fish tanks. Our mission was to find a mantis shrimp, an elongated crustacean named for its praying mantis-like striking claws.
We conducted two three-minute trawls and while we found no mantis shrimp, we did get some other very interesting critters! The first is a tongue fish, which is a flatfish like the flounder, but in a different family. While it was a first for me, we saw a few of them in each trawl. We also had two types of flounder, the oscellated and small fringed flounder.
We also found a male lined sea horse with eggs! We were very careful with him as we did not want him to release his young too soon. As with most seahorses, the female transfers her eggs into the male's brood match shortly after fertilization, where the eggs hatch and develop before being released.
Another animal we got was a sea star. It was a lined sea star, which I have never seen before, and I have to say I learned that the spines on its arms are sharp!
While we saw many interesting critters, all were returned to the estuary.
Dita O'Boyle, Education Specialist
Team OCEAN volunteers Don Drake, Sandy Carinci, and Deborah Woods spent the morning collecting trash from mangroves around Rookery Bay and Hall Bay. They also had the opportunity to briefly explain to fishermen in the area, both on boats and kayaks, what the team was doing. After learning how dangerous fishing line can be to wildlife, they seemed enthusiastic about doing their part to help preserve our priceless environment.
It was a brisk Monday morning at the Shell Island Road field station where Rookery Bay Reserve's education team met 20 students with Mr. Humphrey's science class from Barron Collier High School. The kids were barely awake, some dressed in shorts and t-shirts (didn't they know it was only 55 degrees?) but all were full of enthusiasm for learning about the amazing processes that take place within the National Estuarine Research Reserve's coastal lands and waters.
Humphrey's marine science students, enrolled in Barron Collier's AICE program (the Cambridge – Advanced International Certificate of Education), were split into four teams each tasked with researching a different aspect of barrier island ecology. Their assignment was to compare findings on both sides of Hurricane Pass near the south tip of Keewaydin Island.
Upon landing on the west bank of Sea Oat Island, a property not managed by the Reserve, the "seine" group reluctantly entered the chilly waters, pulled their 20 foot net and documented their catch, which included a baby bighead sea robin, a baby southern puffer, which puffed up to about the size of a pea when threatened, and a mojarra (a common baitfish.)
Meanwhile, the "vegetation" group was onshore with their tape measure, ½ square meter PVC quadrats, and data sheets, under the canopy created by the highly invasive Australian pines. Five random distances along a 30 meter transect were selected. They placed their quadrats at the determined locations and investigated these areas. They counted a total of one palm sprout, two unidentified plants (one grass and one vine), one mangrove, and a non-native inkberry (Scaevola) pushing up through roughly eight inches of "pine needles" (not a true pine and not actual needles despite their common name).
The "water quality" group took readings of water chemistry including salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen. They also measured the speed of the current and turbidity (a measurement to evaluate how clear or cloudy the water is).
The "fauna" group scoured the shoreline for evidence of animal life (living, dead, or excreted), but were far busier attempting to track the abundant action overhead. Crisp blue skies were filled with circling bald eagles, turkey and black vultures, northern harriers or marsh hawks, and many other species, all soaring like kites on the winds that likely brought them south for winter.
Once the data were collected they repeated the steps on the Keewaydin side of the waterway. The water quality readings were almost identical in both locations. The seine net collected more fish than could be quickly and safely counted representing four species. But the most obvious difference was the diversity of plant life on the Keewaydin side, where Australian pines had been removed 15 years prior. The quadrats encompassed more than 20 plants representing nine different native species and one non-native.
Following a morning practicing and conducting research techniques, the students reported out on their findings to the rest of the group, ate a picnic lunch, and enjoyed a short beach walk before returning to the field station. By then the wind had tapered off and the dropping tide rewarded the group with a great view of American oystercatchers on the oyster bar near the mouth of Henderson Creek.
Black Witch Moths on the ELC?! Maybe we should call this place "Spookery" Bay!
"Bat"fish aren't the only Halloween-themed critters that can be found within the 110,000 acre Reserve. While we catch batfish in nearly every educational trawl we pull, black witch moths are only occasionally encountered at the Environmental Learning Center. One was discovered the other day resting on a wall, but a handful of them have been spotted here over the past few years.
These moths can have a wingspan of 7 inches which makes them the moth with the widest wingspan in North America. The cecropia moth is larger overall, but black witches can be wider-winged.
Last week, several members of the Rookery Bay Reserve education team and I took a trip to Keewaydin Island to collect specimens for the Environmental Learning Center aquaria. Our focus this trip was to catch a specific kind of fish called a lookdown. The team took turns with the seine net, rounding up fish, and not finding lookdowns, but did come up with 6 different species of young fish. One fish that was particularly interesting was a young spadefish, camouflaged to look like floating debris. When spadefish are adults, they look completely different; they are silver with vertical black bars. Also found in the seine net, a juvenile pompano, which I thought was an exciting find.
Click here to see what an adult spadefish looks like...
Dita O'Boyle, Education Specialist
The poos continue, and so do the bone-studded fur wads. Not long ago our perpetrator was even kind enough to leave another kind of clue beneath its new favorite haunt: this feather. The mystery has been solved! Sort of... it is a bird, but what bird is it? A bird that hunts at night?
We had a few ideas, however, we now know for sure thanks to a website called The Feather Atlas. See if you can sleuth it out.
If all goes as planned, for our fourth and final issue of this mystery, we hope to share a photo of our mystery pooper, in the flesh (or feathers). Stay tuned!