Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Holidays and Happy New Year from the Back Woods

DSCN0884_stitch The boardwalk is looking more real by the day! The contractor estimates completion by mid next week. It already looks terrific and is going to be such a nice new addition to the Back Woods.

DSCN0873 DSCN0875 One last ‘possum rescue for the year…this itty bitty hisser was buried deep in the delectables.

DSCN0635  Your forest keeper in her favorite spot in the Back Woods beneath the “magic tupelo” on the edge of the wetlands. One more year has past and we are so looking forward to the New Year and the many changes to come for the Back Woods. Many thanks to all those who have volunteered the past year to help in our restoration efforts. We will be taking a short break until the beginning of the New Year so… From all the forest critters and the keeper of the Back Woods, we wish you very Merry Holidays and Happy New Year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Volunteers Tackle Trail Demo With Teamwork

Wow! We had one fabulous assemblage of volunteers this past Saturday to help pull up the old trail underlayment in preparation for a new shell path. Two of our weekly volunteer staff Catlin and George were joined by Michael, Erin, and Brian, Richard, Jeanne, David, Judy, and myself for some seriously dirty and back challenging work.  The first couple of volunteers to arrive (Jeanne and David) dove into the work right away. The rest of the mornings introductions were done on the fly…”good morning, gloves are over there, hop right in and just follow the lead” :-)!!

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The volunteers cleared 2/3 of the trail or just over 900 linear feet of Geoblock 4-5 ft wide. That’s over 4000 sq ft of material lifted from the ground. That was 4ooo sq ft of plastic grid full of gravel, wet sand, anchored to the ground with weed and tree roots! And, all of this was accomplished in just 4 hours. I was truly impressed by the tenacity with which the team tackled the project. And, I am truly grateful for all the help!

Much thanks again to members of the Jose Gaspar Toastmasters of Tampa; Richard, Jeanne, David, and Judy (the Toastmasters public speaking group meets at MOSI and volunteers for the museum and the Back Woods), extra thanks to Jeanne and David for the field ‘power station’ to keep the drills recharged, Catlin and George for putting in an extra day (you guys are the best), Brian (nice to see you again), Erin (Gator Gal extraordinaire), and husband Michael (thanks honey!)…an additional note of thanks goes to ‘Super Amazing Steve’ from our facilities staff for the last minute manufacture of specialty tool for the job; the volunteers send their thanks!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Barred Owls and Boardwalks

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Construction of the new boardwalk got underway this week just in time for all the stormy weather. Posts from the previous boardwalk had to be removed before construction of the new walk could begin. The crew from Golf Construction seem to be having plenty of fun slogging about in the thick of it to get the job done.

DSCN0801 Rumbling through the Back Woods on the GATOR utility vehicle is not always the best way to catch sight of wildlife. Unless you are satisfied with glimpse of their rear ends dashing away from the awful rattle the gator makes. I startled this beautiful Barred Owl out of a tree as I rumbled under its perch along the trail. Fortunately for me, after swooping right over my head, this owl took a moment to catch a glimpse of me before silently flying off to some other spot in the canopy. What a cutie!! The Barred Owl should be right at home in our little forest, preferring a mature canopy and tolerant of urban areas. The habitat improvements we are making, including opening up the understory, should improve the habitat even more for the  Barred Owls.

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Oh boy, this Saturday December 19th is going to be some down and dirty fun. About a dozen intrepid volunteers have signed up to help us pull up the old plastic Geoblock underlayment from the nature trail. Fortunately for us, it looks like the rain will let up just in time for the work to start tomorrow morning. The chilly temperatures expected might just be perfect for the heavy load of the day, pulling up nearly a 1/3 mile of plastic panels all screwed together and full of  rock.   I am excited to see the trail with out the Geoblock which has been exposed and damaged for a number of years. The short experimental stretch that volunteer Shayna and I pulled up yesterday looks really good. If you are free we could always use a couple of extra hands. Volunteers are meeting in the far southeast parking lot of the museum at 7:45 am, see ya there!! :-)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Back Woods Happenings and Such

I am remiss in yet lauding the activities of our two new repeat volunteers. College students Shayna and Catlin joined us in October. Since that time, they have made a serious impact on invasive species with their weekly volunteer activities. The gals took the lead in clearing air potato by hand out of the bottoms west of the Buttonbush Pond. From there, they have been tackling the Caesar weed (Urena lobata) that sprang up en masse in the plow line cut to control the brush fire last spring. I can not thank these women enough for their dedicated efforts in the Back Woods.

We welcome back our volunteer George. Down for the winter, George brings his trail maintenance experience from working on access trails to the AT at his summer home. He is currently helping me break down all the cherries we are thinning out of the forest. George also volunteers for us on a weekly basis, we are very happy to have him back.

DSCN0716 Bones from above…last week while pulling air potato vines from the tree canopy, one of the volunteers was rewarded with bone dropped on her head. The bone looks like a large bird tibia. First thought was maybe it was from a bird that died in the tree top and the carcass never made it to the ground because of all the vines. A closer look at the bone shows it to be thoroughly gnawed on all over (nom, nom, nom as our Butterfly Guru would say.) It is possible a squirrel brought the bone up into the canopy to gnaw on for tooth maintenance or calcium.

DSCN0753 The western sandhill is home to at least 1 large adult and a couple juvenile gopher tortoises. The big guy ( I call him Fred) has nice burrow with a huge apron of sand right near the trail. This location is great for the education staff to show students the characteristics of a burrow fairly up close. This location also puts the tortoise at a little greater risk from visitors who are not familiar with the sensitive nature of the burrows or the threatened status of the tortoises. Recently, it appears a regular visitor likes to inspect the burrow up close and with a canine companion. We have now posted a sign asking visitors to maintain their distance. In the near future, we will have kiosks with rules for the Back Woods posted. One of those will be pets must be leashed and picked up after. Until that time, I guess we’ll have to rely on our resident pooper scoopers like this rainbow scarab (along with at least one other variety of dung beetle) made quick work of a pile o’ dog doo left in the sandhill.

DSCN0729 Awww! I am a serious sucker for ‘possums. Fortunately for me, they frequently find themselves trapped in the bottom of a trash can on the MOSI grounds. The staff must have me on speed dial for this situation because, I always get the call to help resolve the problem. My solution: Trek the can, possum in tow, to a spot off trail in the Back Woods. Most of the time the possum is in such a defensive stupor they won’t even make a run for it when I lay the can over. This little lady however skipped right out of the can the moment I laid it down and quite calmly sauntered off into the brush. Take a close look at the pickin’s in that trash can. What respectable Opossum could pass that up? Find one in your can at home? Just lay the can over and leave it be for awhile and the possum will find its way out on its own. Secure your can lids to prevent the problem in the future. :-)

Possibly to become a weekly tradition is a post featuring the the endless supply of air potatoes and more unusual or interesting trash collected during our work in the Back Woods. I humbly bring you this week’s Taters and Trash.

DSCN0795 DSCN0797Out of a pile of air potatoes picked up up while clearing Caesar weed, this one was definitely worth highlighting. With a little imagination it definitely looks cartoonish even reminiscent of a Bill Plympton caricature. The trash seems to be everywhere you look some days. A closer inspection finds all kinds of household garbage and construction debris as well as automotive junk. The plastic horse head, slightly surreal without its stick, is our find of the week. DSCN0799

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tale of Two Cherries

As you may have seen me post most gleefully on our Facebook page, I have been happily chain-sawing away at the numerous cherry trees in the understory of our forest communities. But what kind of cherries do we have in the Back Woods you might ask? They are two species of cherry both native and common to Florida: Prunus serotina; the black cherry, and Prunus caroliniana; the Carolina laurel cherry. They are in the rose family, Rosaceae, same as roses, plums, and table cherries and yes they too produce an edible cherry. The fruit are produced early to mid spring much to the delight of any fruit eating bird or mammal that comes across them. One of the best sites you will ever see is flock of Cedar Waxwings on their way back north making a stop to strip a Carolina laurel cherry of every last fruit on the tree.

The black cherry is listed as a facultative upland species and you will find it throughout central and northern Florida upland hardwood and pine systems. The Carolina laurel cherry was once popularly cultivated as a common landscape plant and  is now so ubiquitous that whatever natural range it may have had in Florida is no longer known. You will find it in most any condition from wet communities to dry and happy in urban climes. Both species are commonly found along fence rows and in lines under utility lines. Can you you think why?

In the growing season many people find it hard to tell these two trees apart without a closer look. Although the Carolina laurel cherry is a smaller tree and evergreen it can be easily confused with small black cherry in the understory. As the winter approaches and the deciduous black cherry begins to lose their leaves, it is a little easier to tell the two apart with a cursory glance.  Below are a few key field characteristics you can use to tell them apart in the field any time of year.

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Strong transverse lenticels (lenticels are corky tissues that grow around pore like structures allowing for the exchange of air through the bark) mark the bark of the black cherry while the Carolina laurel cherry's bark appears smoother until greater maturity (but there are lenticels there too.)

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A cursory glance at the leaves  in the growing season and the two cherries can be easily confused. A closer look reveals some easily distinguishable differences. The first thing I usually do is pluck a leaf off and crush it thoroughly in my fingers and smell the remains. The Carolina laurel cherry typically has a distinct strong scent of almonds (think taking a big sniff of a jar of maraschino cherries and you have got it) from the release of (yes) cyanide in the plant tissues. The black cherry has a more non descript maybe burnt green, if there is such a thing, smell to the foliage but, is also supposed to have a cherry like smell to the twigs and wood. A closer look at the leaves reveals fairly widely spaced sharp pointed teeth along the margin of the Carolina laurel cherry whereas the the black cherry has many smaller appressed teeth along the margin.

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Black cherries have, in comparison, longer petioles than Carolina laurel cherry and are notably grooved down the center. The Carolina laurel cherry petiole is most often blush in color like the photo above. A key distinction between the two are the little knobby glands found on the petiole near the base of the leaf blade on the black cherry. But as with most physiological identifying characteristics, there is always variability. Note the photo below of three black cherry leaves. The first doesn’t have any notable glands, the second is adorned with two perfectly placed glands, and the third has a potential little knobby projection in one spot at the base of the leaf. Look at several leaves and go with the general trend to make your decision which plant is which.


And to answer the question of why we would be removing these trees from the forest… Both species make up a shade tolerant sub canopy under the oak and pine in our  fire suppressed plant communities. We are removing this secondary canopy of trees and some of the oak over story to restructure the forest back to an open longleaf pine canopy forest. The classic longleaf pine flatwoods and sandhills have a sparse canopy of towering longleaf pines with a mixture of shrub or grasses as an understory depending on how frequently the community is subjected to fire. Both cherries, which are important to wildlife, will still be contributing species to the composition of the plant communities but will no longer dominate the under story. This will allow for a more diverse suite of plants and animals to inhabit the Back Woods.

Check the Virginia Tech Tree ID site or the Duke University site on Trees Shrubs and Vines of North Carolina for some nice additional id  sheets on our two cherries with nice pictures of the flowers and fruit and more great bark examples.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Happening where its Wet in the Back Woods

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Design and permitting of the new boardwalk is moving right along. Once complete, the boardwalk will be part of a new main entrance to the Back Woods trails. It is planned to be 6ft wide with rails and a nice 10x16 observation deck about in the center where visitors can take a moment to view the plants and critters that make our wetlands home.  We anticipate the boardwalk will be completed by the end of December and of course we’ll keep you updated as the project progresses. In the meantime, there is much work to be done clearing invasive vines and overgrown hardwoods around the new proposed main entry and boardwalk entrance. Contact me directly if you are interested in volunteering to help us in the clearing!

DSCN0639 Couldn’t resist dropping in this shot of my favorite tree in the Back Woods. This plump bottle  bottom shaped tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica biflora) with its mossy base is such a stand out. This shot was from last week during our brief dry down otherwise this spot is definite waders or galoshes territory! One of our challenges is making some of these very interesting but frequently wet areas accessible without damage to the wetland and without muddying up the visitors. Not worried about getting your feet wet? Let me know and I’ll clue you in on the cool things to check out where it is wet in the Back Woods!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fall Harvest of Plenty

…still left in bloom and showing off seed in the Back Woods


Beautiful patches of snowy hammock snakeroot (Ageratina jucunda) are popping up through out the Back Woods right now. The hammock snakeroot is sweetly fragrant and reminiscent of the fragrance dog fennel flowers (genus Ageratina was once Eupatorium the genus of dog fennel.)

Dainty sprays of pink not quite purple climbing aster (Symphiotrichum carolinianum) are sprawling out of the wetlands here and there. There is a lovely patch of of this growing over one of the waterfalls in the Bioworks Butterfly enclosure if you are not quite up to slogging through Back Woods wetlands.

Pink and fragrant climbing hempvine (Mikania scandens) are finishing up their show on the edges of all places moist.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Paw Paw Petals


Missing from our suite of species in the Back Woods is the Florida native dwarf paw paw, Asimina pygmea. Fortunately, they are found nearby on the westernmost undeveloped portion of the museum’s property. I captured a nice cluster of plants in bloom last week to share with our readers.

The flowers start out white then develop into a beautiful deep maroon color and are sometimes candy striped in between. The flowers are pendant along the stems developing at the leaf axis. The flowers are followed by an oblong edible yellowy green berry. Another common name for this species, gopher berry, may indicate that gopher tortoise make these an addition to their grassy diet. The larvae of Zebra Swallowtail butterfly feed on the foliage of many Asimina spp. as well.

Plans are to capture the fruit and seed of these plants to cultivate and transplant them to the flatwoods areas of the Back Woods. That is if the Med Flys don’t beat us to them ;-)


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Flora Bunda Indeed

Habenaria floribunda

The Habenaria floribunda are blooming up a storm in the Back Woods. We are seeing these lovelies in more locations than in previous years possibly due to some of the mechanical thinning (more light reaching the forest floor) we have done to control native and non native vines .

MapPic_Species799 Also known as the toothpetal false reinorchid or mignonette orchid (etymology: dainty and green), this Habenaria sp. is common throughout much of Florida.

Natives for Your Neighborhood has a nice description of the growing requirements of this native terrestrial orchid.

There are a few more photos from our highlight of this species last December

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blazing Star




Family: Asteraceae

Genus: Liatris

Species: tenuifolia Nutt.

Common: blazing star, gayfeather


Like lavender rockets erupting from the white sands of the sandhill, the lovely blazing star (Liatris tenuifolia) are putting on a serious show this fall. There are many species of Liatris in Florida that are found in many ecosystems from sandhill to wetland.  For now we have decided that our most common Liatris sp. in the Back Woods, those that are in the sandhill, are Liatris tenuifolia. This species reach heights of 3 feet or more with vivid pink to purple spikes with many flower heads made up of four or more florets (note the clusters of florets in the picture above). Bees, moths, and butterflies delight in the nectar and pollen of these flowers. You will often see blazing star nodding on breezeless days as hefty pollen laden bumble bees bend the slender spikes toward the ground as they nectar from flower to flower. Of little other wildlife value, the blazing star is a very popular wildflower with the evolved primate crowd and is easily sown from seed.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Narrowleaf Silkgrass


Family: Asteraceae

Genus: Pityopsis

Species: graminifolia (Michx.) Nutt.

Synonym: Heterotheca graminifolia

Common: narrowleaf silkgrass, grassleaf golden aster

Lovely narrowleaf silkgrass (Pityopsis graminifolia) are adorned in dazzling yellow flowers this time of year for their part of the sandhill fall show. Those lovely yellow flowers about the size of a dime are visible from mid to late summer through late fall. Through out the rest of the year it often appears similar to a clump of grass but, the narrowleaf silkgrass is easily recognized by the silvery sometimes densely haired foliage for which it is named. Growing between one and three feet tall, this native Florida sandhill perennial prefers sunny open dry sites. They are often found in colonies spreading out by rhizomes and also propagate by seed. Some text note the narrowleaf silkgrass as an important food for gopher tortoise.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Song of the Cicada


The cast nymphal skeleton of a cicada clasped tightly to a branch of silkgrass (Pityopsis graminifolia). After four years underground and four molts, this was the last nymphal instar of the cicada. From this molt they emerge the winged adults that fill the summer nights with song.

If you are originally from up ‘north a ways’ you may remember the cicadas of your childhood summers varying from year to year. Northeastern populations of some cicada species are periodical and may appear in mass numbers in 13 to 17 year cycles. In Florida, populations of adults are produced every year.

Cicadas nymphs and adults both feed on plant fluids but neither is considered a serious pest in Florida. On the the other hand, adult cicada are considered good eating by numerous wildlife and are considered a notable survival food for humans as well. Hmmmm.

A nice time lapse video of a cicada molting from last instar to adult

Friday, October 9, 2009

Coastalplain Palafox


The sandhill is putting on its annual fall show. Puffs of pale pink coastalplain palafox (Palafoxia integrifolia) dot the white sands in between lavender spires of blazing star (Liatris sp.). The palafox has a sweet fragrance and beetles of all kinds just seem to love it. Somewhat non descript much of the year, this pastel beauty is common in dry pinelands throughout Florida and most obvious during the fall bloom.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Taters for Breakfast


Recently I had observed that “something” was actually eating the air potato. At first I thought it was a caterpillar of some sort but, I should have known better by the pattern of munching on the leaf surfaces. Yesterday, while in the midst of my glee (spraying air potato with herbicide); I noticed what finds our invasive pest a tasty snack. Slugs!!!!


From little itty bitty guys to this considerable slimy monster, they were everywhere I looked. I don’t know much about slugs (identification requires that you take a closer look at their underside) and these guys could even be non native but, I have a soft spot for most things that move. So, a little of my joy in the herbiciding process was sapped when it was obvious that slugs aren’t all that found of glyphosate (Roundup). There is a pretty cool page on slug id from the University of Florida. Apparently Florida is pretty depauparete in slug fauna (only three native species) and we are in a constant battle to prevent new species from being introduced and threatening our agricultural industry.

A face only a mother could love…look at those cute little retracted antennae…the top two are for the eyes and the bottom serve as the nose…looks like the radula (scraping teeth in mouth) is hidden or retracted…the ribbed tissue in the middle is the foot and the fleshy surround is known as the mantle.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Oh no, it has wings!

Should you have come across this blog before you know that I am apt to wax poetic (or should that be quixotic) about my arch nemesis the air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera). Well just to add insult to injury, the air potato’s near relative has found its way to our little Back Woods. I give you the “winged yam” Dioscorea alata!

DSCN0027DSCN0025 one little patch of D. alata in the Back Woods

And yes it has wings. They have extra tissue (wings) jutting out from the edges of their squared stems and petioles. This differs from the air potato which has smoother angled stems and petioles that are not as noticeably squared.

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The elongated bulbils of the winged yam appear in pairs at the leaf axis and whereas the air potato bulbils appear in pairs or singularly and are rounded.

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The leaves of the winged yam are heart shaped like the air potato but appear to me more elongated. The notable key difference between the species is that the winged yam leaves are opposite on the stem and the air potato leaves are alternate (appear singularly) along the stem.

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Interestingly, the winged yam twines counter clockwise around supports while the air potato twines clockwise around supports.

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Like its relative the air potato, the winged yam is a non native invasive exotic species and listed as a Category I species in Florida meaning; “These are invasive exotics which are altering native plant communities by displacing native species, changing community structures or ecological functions, or hybridizing with natives. This definition does not rely on the economic severity or geographic range of the problem, but on the documented ecological damage caused.” FLEPPC

The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (FLEPPC) has a nice id sheet on winged yams found here: