Tag Archives: birds

The Real Snowbirds

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Photographers wait for Whooping Cranes in Saint Marks

Photographers wait for Whooping Cranes in Saint Marks.

IGOR chip- habitat 150We don’t often discuss birds here, preferring instead to discuss many of the critters they eat along our coasts. But I see the bird prints in the oyster reef mud, and kayak by the pelicans in Saint Joe Bay.  They are as much a part of those habitats as the snails and the crabs.  And every winter, just as sure as you’ll see Ohio and Michigan plates heading south on I-75, you’ll see the flocks that lend the drivers of those cars the nickname us Floridians have for them.

But what happens when the birds forget the way down?  Sometimes, a species numbers get so low that juveniles no longer have the adults who know the way to lead them.  So they need a little help in reestablishing the route.

Possibly the most famous bird of this description brought me to a large field by the St. Marks River almost two years ago.  That was the first year that whooping cranes were flying to a secluded area within the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, and I was covering the flyover for our dimensions program (it’s that video up there).  It seemed like it took forever for them to get there.  Starting from the cranes’ Wisconsin habitats, Operation Migration pilots in ultralight planes make the journey south in several short hops. For almost a month I received e-mails saying that they could arrive within a week, but unfavorable winds were keeping the birds grounded nearby in Alabama.  Finally, it was announced that they would fly in early on Saturday, January 17.

They expected it to happen between 7 and 8 AM, but advised people to get there early.  I was surprised to see the parking area half full at 6 AM.  It was 18 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and cars kept piling in.  Did I mention it was Saturday?  Over two thousand people made it out for that minute or two when seven birds and three ultralight planes flew several hundred feet over our heads and into their area of the Refuge.

Crowds wait for Whooping Cranes in Saint Marks

An enthusiastic crowd gathers to watch Wisconsinite tourists travel to their winter digs.

Yesterday, a group of five juveniles was guided in, over a month earlier than in the first year.  From the photos I saw, it was still a nice large crowd.  People love endangered birds, and the whooping crane is an impressive animal.

It’s ironic that a species whose existence as a whole seems so fragile comes in as a top predator in our local salt marsh habitats.  Its favorite food is blue crab, though it is an omnivore that eats other crustaceans, as well as clams, fish, frogs and small reptiles.  As we have seen over the last few months on this blog, they’re at a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet here.  Numbering only five, they aren’t a significant part of the coastal food web.  Yet.  But as long as we have healthy habitat to offer, and the Operation Migration folks keep teaching birds the way, they might become a more regular part of the Forgotten Coast winter.

Your comment is welcome!

The unsung heroes of the muck

Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
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photo by John Spohrer

Let’s talk about the little guys.

Think a little smaller than this pelican here.  Obviously, pelicans are a symbol of our coastal areas, flying in those long rows as they do while we’re driving down Highway 98.  Pelicans covered in oil have become the poster-species of the environmental toll of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  It’s horrifying to think of animals as evolved as dolphins washing up on the shores, and people of course are always concerned about sea turtles.  As they should be.  They are all important parts of the Gulf ecosystem.

But they are not the only important parts.  There are other creatures that probably won’t make it on to that oil spill tragedy poster because, let’s face it, they already live in muck.  Those are the species that we’ve been most concerned with on this site.  They are worth worrying about, and I’ve come to find them cute in their way.  I keep thinking I need to try to get Disney to make a movie based in a salt marsh or oyster reef, where mud crabs and periwinkle snails sing and hide from predatory blue crabs (who, like those sharks in Finding Nemo, might be sympathetic characters themselves).  When kids are carrying plush fiddler crab dolls, maybe the little guys would get some consideration.  As it turns out, however, I have no pull at Disney.  So I’ll just talk about them right here on this blog.

Like the fiddlers.  They eat sand.  They shovel it in their mouths with their smaller claws, while they do the mating dance for which they’re better known with their larger “fiddle” claws.  I see thousands of them at a time in a salt marsh, always scurrying away and making that sound, a little bit like trickling water and a little bit like tiny bubble wrap being popped.  Of what importance are these silly little guys?

Fiddler on marsh 2

Fiddler crabs are crucial to the survival of a salt marsh

Other than being food for blue crabs, their importance has to do with the muck in which they live.  They live in the sediment collected by the cordgrass root system; you can see the holes they call home throughout the marsh.  As Dr. Hughes explained in this video, these burrows provide oxygen to the soil in which the cordgrass grows.  So their presence helps the cordgrass grow, just as the cordgrass provides them shelter.

So maybe the fiddler crab hasn’t found himself at the center of any teary oil spill montage.  But he’s an animal, and a fairly popular pet.  Spartina alterniflora- aka smooth cordgrass- may never gain a foothold in the popular imagination proportionate to its ecological importance.  It is the foundation species of a Gulf salt marsh.  These marshes act as a filter for pollutants flowing into the ocean, protecting important estuaries such as those at the mouth of the Apalachicola River.  Marshes provide shelter to a number of commercially important species (shrimp, mullet, and blue crab, for instance).  And marshes also help absorb storm surges and prevent erosion.

Those are just a couple of examples.  There are, of course, more.  Tasty, tasty oysters filter water and prevent algal blooms lethal to other species.  Toadfish have faces even other toadfish may not love, but they eat animals that would decimate oyster reefs if left unchecked.  Those oyster predators are interesting as well.  Mud crabs might get as large as 4 cm and have these thick little claws which tear through oyster shells.  Oyster drills are small snails whose tongues (radula) are covered with thousands of small razor-like teeth.

As we move forward with this project, we’ll see more and more of all of these coastal denizens.  So far oil has not reached the areas Dr. Hughes and Dr. Kimbro are studying, and so there is always hope that they may be spared.  If oil does arrive, many of these species could be severely affected.  And while some of them may not look like much, the harm that would come to them would have repercussions felt beyond their own habitats.

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This snail lives on an oyster reef

Interested in seeing a fiddler crab plush toy as a WFSU-TV pledge premium?  Well, that isn’t likely to happen. But we will take comments and questions, as usual.

Conversation with nature photographer John Spohrer

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150John Spohrer is author of Forgotten Coast, which collects years of photos taken in habitats along the stretch of Florida’s Gulf coast from which the book derives its name. We wanted to talk with him to get a different perspective on the ecosystems with which we’re most concerned: those in the grass and on the reef. John, who is also a Master Naturalist, talked to us about how he photographs the smaller critters on our coasts (like fiddler crabs) and why it’s important to have wild places in Florida.

Shrimp baby

larval shrimp, such as this one photographed by John Spohrer, often reside in salt marshes

This is the first of what we hope will be many conversations with artists inspired by the richness of our coast.  There are many talented people taking photographs, writing essays, painting landscapes, and writing songs about these ecosystems and reminding us why we love these places.

The music in this piece was provided by the Mayhaws.  The song is “When I’m Dead,” an environmental ballad.  We will as much as possible feature music from local musicians, look for a musicians page on this site soon.

We want to hear from you!  We welcome any musicians, photographers, or other artists who work in salt marshes, oyster reefs, or in the Forgotten Coast in general to share your work with us.  Add your question or comment below: