Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don't claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent. ~ Rumi

Friday, January 27, 2012

After the Fire Part 1

It has been almost three weeks now since this prescribed burn and as I surveyed these burnt woods in this Lee County preserve I was first impressed with the clear view I had of the scope and bones of the woods. With no brush, vines or understory plants to obscure my view I focused on the berms and mounds that seemed so prominent now. Some pines and cabbage palms had been destroyed and the forest had opened up. The beginning stages of new growth were making an appearance on the saw palmetto but the mounds and subsequent aprons of the gopher tortoise burrows drew me closer. These burrows may be as long as 20-40 ft and up to 6 ft deep, a perfect protection from fire.  Gopher tortoises can live commensally with other animals and provide habitat for the indigo snake and gopher frogs. Some 360 species of vertebrates and invertebrates have been documented using these burrows. But as I entered the hardest burned areas and examined the entrances to their homes they appeared to be abandoned with no fresh tracks from the tortoises or other animals. At the northern edge of the burn I did find signs of life as a smaller tortoise about three inches in length backed into his hole as I walked by. Determined to get this picture and sure that he would resurface to soak up the sun, I set up my tripod and waited, even though warblers’ songs beckoned me to come closer to the green edge. As I waited, varieties of butterflies flew by including Orange-barred Sulphurs, Gulf Fritillary, Common Buckeye and the Zebra Longwing, some landing on the charred ashes. With the staccato of grasshoppers’ wings and buzzing flies surrounding  me I became distracted enough from my task at hand to notice tracks, showcasing the animals that use this sandy forest floor as a pathway. These tracks included a variety of birds, a few deer, raccoons, bobcats and snakes. Cowboys in ranch land further north have reported that cattle often eat the charcoal after a fire; maybe some of these animals did as well. I felt grateful for the observations that waiting for this shy young tortoise brought me but I decided to move closer to the green edge following the pattern of gopher burrows as I stepped.

Then as I took in the larger view, I spotted the largest gopher tortoise I have ever seen. Seeing what was perhaps the oldest and youngest of this ancient species in this renovated and reinvigorated environment was reassuring to say the least. I can already imagine the bounty of food that will provide for this species now that the sunlight can reach the ground. So, goodbye dense forest and hello to an open canopy with plenty of herbaceous plants to follow!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


While the red shoulder hawks went about their courtship and nest building activities, a roseate spoonbill soared overhead on a cool January morning. I was in the hydric flatwoods in SW Florida, a moist area filled with tall pines and carpeted with saw palmettos that appeared to have just been trimmed. I was getting a glimpse into the timeline of this ecosystem’s life and into our own awakening as responsible citizen scientists.

It was now January and a fire had occurred here in August. Just before the fire, understory plants such as salt bush, wax myrtle, grape vines and blackberries were beginning to compete with the saw palmettos and dead leaves were thickening the floor. Grasses and wildflowers were being shaded out. The fire that had burned here six months before was called a prescribed burn set by the land managers from the South Florida Water Management District, the primary landowner and one of the partners participating in the Corkscrew Regional Eco-system Watershed or CREW. CREW is the largest intact watershed in SW Florida encompassing 60,000 acres, which contains a 5,000 acre sawgrass marsh, headwaters for the entire watershed, including the Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The CREW Land &Water Trust is the private, non-profit partner that helps to coordinate land acquisition, management and public education and outreach.

The people of CREW have formed a working relationship with the land, so much so, that a paradigm shift is developing. They are beginning to call themselves stewards, a term that more accurately defines their role as caretakers in relationship with the land through conservation and sustainable practices. My appreciation for the work that all members of the Trust do is immense, including their efforts to share their knowledge and recruit more citizen scientists.

We are a part of this landscape; not apart from it.  As citizen scientists, we can focus our interaction through observation and hands on learning. Through the CREW Trust’s education programs, citizens are being called to participate in these fires so that they too can witness the transformative properties of fire and learn how to conserve and sustain the Florida landscape. On this day I was reminded that this ecosystem evolved with fire and that we need to live with fire if we are to maintain healthy plant and animal life.  Fire has always been a part of this environment, having transformative powers on the local landscape. Burning allows the carbon and other nutrients bound up in the over growth and leaf litter to be released back into the soil, controls insect pests and diseases, and improves the quality and quantity of forage plants. Within this stand of pine forest, the hope was that the burn would allow grasslands to remain open at the edge of older pines perhaps creating suitable habitat for the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

Setting a burn every one - two years would also create a habitat favorable for ground foraging birds, while a three - five year burn will encourage understory plants suitable for turkey and deer. In another area the decision to allow the pines to develop into a hardwood hammock was evidenced by the emerging smaller oaks and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker sampling them all. This succession into a hardwood hammock will bring another diversity of species, contributing to the variety of habitats that evolved with this land.

I saw that this activity is both a science and an art form. Land stewardship involves reading the land and making decisions about the succession timeline. The variables for determining when and where a fire needs to be set are many. They consider the time of year, every detail about the weather, plants and animals, as well as educating partners in the burn, which can be many volunteers. Safety is always on their minds. Wait too long for a prescribed burn and the resulting wildfire could be catastrophic, burning so hot as to wipe out the forest entirely and threaten homes. The demonstration burn this day was a small one set against the oncoming wind referred to as a back burn. This patch of palmettos and cabbage palms had been overrun by the understory plants and leaf litter. Within just a few minutes after setting the fire the brush was gone and green still remained on the tips of the palms. With the passage of time, I will report on the wonders that I find there.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

True Colors

Pausing to take in the magnificence of the wet grass prairie, hoping for a glimpse of a deer, and hearing the cry of a bald eagle, I was eventually pulled in to witness the red shoulder hawk making a kill. I turned toward the stand of pond cypress and focused my gaze. I heard a scuffle and time seemed to slow down, as I sensed the stand of shedding cypress holding this hawk, struggling to gain his footing on a branch. Then, slowly and deliberately he peeled back from his talon full of leaves, his prize of a katydid. He ate it slowly and I wondered if the bird was actually tasting his morsel or being careful not to drop it. After the meal the bird flew to a nearby perch to bathe in the sun and look out with me and my companion over the wet prairie. As other visitors came and went along the boardwalk, they were oblivious to his presence just a few feet away from their footsteps.

This is what I love about being at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary here in Collier County, Florida; an opportunity to experience the daily life within this wetland wonder and use it as my own nourishment for my heart and mind. The three of us continued our meditation of sorts until my human companion and I felt the pull to enter the forest and travel down toward the bald cypress further into the swamp. Finding more moments like the one I had just had was tempting and irresistible. 

Monday, January 2, 2012


We have a bloom of red tide occurring now spreading from Sannibel down to the keys.When the wind is blowing onshore the red tide can be particularly irritating. The plant like organism is a phytoplankton called Karina brevis and produces a toxin that affects the central nervous system of fish, birds, mammals and other animals. It kills by paralyzing. For myself, my throat and eyes become irritated and I find it hard to breathe without coughing.
According to a report from PEER, red tides have grown 15 fold from the 1950's in the coastal waters of SW Florida. They go on to say that of the world wide species of algae that produce harmful blooms 70 out of 100 are indigenous to Florida; 50 marine/estuarine species and 20 freshwater. The blooms have been made worse by the excess amounts of nitrates and phosphates running off from our landscapes. Personally, I prefer the sea grass and the other organisms that thrive in our marine ecosystems without the added fertilizers.

New Beginnings

May the new year bathe us in light to illuminate our true being!