Spring Break 2018: The Wood Stork

Mycteria americana, the Wood stork;
Monroe county, Florida (14 March 2018).
Series: Spring Break 2018.

The Wood stork, Mycteria americana, is a fascinating and unconventionally beautiful bird. This isn’t a bright and colorful bird. It’s not particularly sleek or elegant. In fact, its plumage is usually a bit frazzled, and its head it covered in rough skin — not feathers. Like me, this species is bald. Also like me, the Wood stork is large, a bit awkward, and doesn’t really have a beautiful singing voice. It does, however, make strange hissing sounds from time to time. Yeah, this isn’t your typical bird, and that may precisely be why I love Wood storks so much.

In Florida, the Wood stork is listed as threatened. You’d never know that where I live, however. I routinely come across Wood storks when I’m off stomping about for watersnakes. This makes a lot of sense when you realize that Wood storks eat fish, amphibians, and even reptiles — especially those in the water. They tend to prefer dark bodies of water such as cypress swamps and mangroves. Funny enough, the same applies to me. I share a lot in common with the Wood stork, it seems.

Spring Break 2018: The Green Iguana

Iguana iguana, the Green iguana;
Miami-Dade county, Florida (18 March 2018).
Series: Spring Break 2018.

How about a little appreciation of the greenish glory of a wild and young Green iguana hanging out in your hands…? Yeah, Green iguanas (young and old alike) are not easy to catch by hand, but my heavens… they sure are worth the effort. I get lost in those greens… And this one had some excellent brown markings. A non-native species, the Green iguana now ranges throughout much of south Florida. Adult males can reach lengths of up to five feet or so. This little camper wasn’t quite that big… yet.

Spring Break 2018: The Cardinal Airplant

Tillandsia fasciculata, the Cardinal airplant;
Monroe county, Florida (15 March 2018).
Series: Spring Break 2018.

For a slight change of pace, let’s check out the Cardinal airplant, Tillandsia fasciculata, the largest bromeliad airplant to grow natively in Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida. Airplants are epiphytic plants — meaning they grow upon other plants in a non-parasitic fashion. Rather than rooting in and being dependent on the soil, airplants simply soak up most of what they need directly from the air and rain above. It’s a low impact existence for the host plant and a beneficial service for frogs, lizards, and insects that use the Cardinal airplant for water acquisition and sheltering. The Cardinal airplant is also a gift for photographers lumbering about cypress swamps in search of flashy plays of light. Seriously, this is one awesome epiphyte.

Tillandsia fasciculata, 15 March 2018

Spring Break 2018: The Adorably Not Too Bright Watersnake

Nerodia fasciata pictiventris, the Florida banded watersnake;
Collier county, Florida (15 March 2018).
Series: Spring Break 2018.

A couple of posts back, we checked out a difficult-to-see Florida banded watersnake, Nerodia fasciata pictiventris, photographed along a canal-line parallel to U.S. Highway 29. Now, let’s take a closer look at another such Florida banded watersnake from our wee Spring Break sojourn to South Florida.

Abundant throughout pretty much all of peninsular Florida, the Florida banded watersnake, also referred to simply as the Florida watersnake, is a non-venomous species averaging upwards to three feet or so in length. It can be quite variable in appearance, though it usually maintains the band-like stripe behind the eye as seen in the pictures below.

This is one of Florida’s three “big” freshwater watersnakes, alongside the Brown watersnake (Nerodia taxispilota) and the Florida green watersnake (Nerodia floridana) — all non-venomous. The Banded watersnake is also very closely related to the slightly smaller coastal species, Nerodia clarkii, the Salt marsh snake. Hybrids between N. fasciata and N. clarkii seem to be quite common where I live in Volusia county. As far as diet and habitat, the Florida banded watersnake is less than picky compared to its “big” freshwater compatriots. It’ll eat fish and frogs, living or dead, and may be found basking on shore, in water-strewn reeds, or in branches hanging over the water. You can find them around ponds, creeks, lakes, and streams — and even on the edge of parking lots near ornamental ponds. Really, if there’s fish and/or frogs, there’s a decent chance the Bandeds will give it a shot. I’ve seen plenty around artificial, urban water structures, stuff like apartment ponds, water fountains, and the like. They’re just not too picky.

And if we’re being completely honest, Florida banded watersnakes aren’t too bright, either — relatively speaking… Whereas brown watersnakes are pretty damn good at hiding in branches off the ground and over the water and Florida green watersnakes often bask offshore atop soft, grassy reeds, Bandeds often bask in plain sight… and they’re not always the fastest to react to would-be predators. It’s sort of embarrassing to think about how many Florida banded watersnakes I’ve been able to catch and photograph with relative ease. They just don’t make it that hard, bless their hearts. On the flip side, however, Bandeds will sometimes readily and eagerly strike in self-defense when caught by hand. They’re also quick to smear their musk and feces on perceived threats. It’s a… pungent kind of odor. I guess it’s an odor I’m pretty used to by now.

Anyhow, Florida banded watersnakes really don’t pose any measurable or realistic risk to people if left to their own devices. They’re not aggressive, and they’ll try to escape if you give them a few seconds to figure it out. Heh. Just give them some space and time… and they’ll figure it out. If I had to name a favorite snake species, this would probably be it. I find Florida banded watersnakes to be immeasurably adorable and not-too-bright snakes.

Spring Break 2018: In Search of Gray-Dewlap Green Anoles (Part I)

Anolis carolinensis, the Carolina green anole;
Collier county, Florida (15 March 2018).
Series: Spring Break 2018.

The Grande Glory and Manic Mayhem of Spring Break 2018 continues, only this time we’re skipping forward a click to Thursday 15 May and leaving snakes behind for a moment. Remember, this particular trip to South Florida was half Nerodia watersnake and half Anolis lizard themed, but we still managed to pull in some lizards during the first snake-half of the trip. Indeed, we had a side-mission in Collier county, and that side-mission was to track down some of the “Gray Dewlap” Carolina green anoles, Anolis carolinensis, of south Florida — something we don’t really see in my home territory of Volusia county.

First, a little backstory/context from a generalized perspective:

Anolis carolinensis is generally considered to be Florida’s sole native species of Anolis lizard. At this time, there are somewhere around 400 recognized species within genus Anolis; that’s a lot by any vertebrate measure. Anoles are wickedly adaptable organisms and natively range throughout much of the western Hemisphere — the Caribbean, Central America, and parts of northern South America. Though we do have a number of non-native species in Florida, the Carolina green anole remains our only native species.

Now, one of the fascinating aspects of Anolis lizards (and other species of lizards in fact) is the presence and use of a dewlap — a typically-bright, colorful fold of skin under the chin and along the neckline. Males will often flex the dewlap out (with an accompanying “push up” dance of sorts) to signify territory and/or to impress nearby lady anoles. It’s quite a sight to behold, the male anole macho dance. Further, different species of anoles sport distinctive and relatively specific dewlap designs. A typical Carolina green anole dewlap generally looks like this:

Anolis carolinensis, 08 May 2012.jpg
Anolis carolinensis; Lowndes county, Georgia (08 May 2012). The contrast is a bit high in this photograph; the dewlap naturally appeared a bit lighter and not as bold.

As noted in the caption, that image is a wee bit too contrasty. In natural light, the Carolina green anole’s dewlap is a bit more pinkish and lighter than it looks here (a’la deep red). Regardless, that’s the general gist of the Carolina green anole’s dewlap design. Nothing too fancy; nothing too ornate.

Now, here’s the interesting angle and the subject of this post: In southwest Florida, such as in Collier county, a decent number of A. carolinensis have a slightly different dewlap design. Rather than a light pink base tone, the A. carolinensis dewlaps of southwest Florida can appear slightly greenish or grayish. Though we’ve been to Collier county more than a few times, this was the first time we were able to track down and photograph this distinctive and different pattern:

As it turned out, we were ultimately able to snag and photograph five separate individuals sporting the less-pinkish dewlap. This was the only one still wearing its “green coat,” however, so I’m starting with this one (I’ll talk about the Carolina green anole’s ability to change colors in a forthcoming post). Some of the other gray dewlap anoles we photographed were strikingly different, but more on that later…

Now, I have to address the inevitable taxonomy/classification issue that arises because of this… Some folks consider the “gray dewlap” green anoles of south Florida to be a distinctive subspecies: Anolis carolinensis seminolus, the “Southern green anole.” The typical pink-dewlapped green anoles would then be the nominate subspecies, Anolis carolinensis carolinensis, aka the Carolina green anole or, alternatively, the Northern green anole. At this time, I haven’t really read enough convincing research to justify subspecies designations between the pink- and gray-dewlapped anoles of the United States. In fact, I’ve seen plenty of pink-dewlapped green anoles in the same location where we found our five gray-dewlapped green anoles on this trip. From my (albeit limited) perspective, then, the gray dewlap seems to be a phenotypic trait simply more common in some parts of south Florida than it is elsewhere. Regional variance of phenotypic traits is not uncommon in lizards and in snakes, and I’m not sure we need new subspecies designations for every little phenotypic variance out there… but, then again, I’m not exactly an expert on the genomics of All Things Anolis. I’ll stay tuned in for updates, but for now I treat both pink- and gray-dewlap anoles as simply Anolis carolinensis.

To learn more about Green anoles and their legion of anole species, be sure to check out Anole Annals! For a more specific connection, check out this post responding to another gray dewlap A. carolinensis observation from Collier county. I have four additional not-too-pinkish A. carolinensis individuals lined up and ready to post, some with rather striking dewlaps, all in good time and each with its own angle.

We’ll close with two more profiles of our first “not-too-pinkish” individual:

Spring Break 2018: The First Florida Cottonmouth (of this trip, at least)

Agkistrodon conanti (Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti),
the Florida cottonmouth;
Collier county, Florida (14 March 2018).
Series: Spring Break 2018.

While some snakes may be rather elusive and difficult to spot, others can be… a bit more obvious. The latter was certainly the case with this beefy and robust Florida cottonmouth, Agkistrodon conanti. This venomous viper was half-on/half-off US Highway 29 — naked, exposed, and flirting with the inertial impact of oncoming vehicles.

Cottonmouths certainly pick up a lot of slack from people. I’ve heard all the stories time and time again. They’re aggressive. They’ll chase you. They’re downright mean. Yatta yatta yatta, and on and on and on. The truth is cottonmouths aren’t any of those things. Yes, they can certainly be stubborn or determined, but cottonmouths simply aren’t aggressive or mean, and they sure as hell don’t waste energy aimlessly chasing people around (or cars for that matter).

When threatened, the cottonmouth will typically try to do one of two things. First, they’ll flee to the water or some other form of cover if that’s available. If a cottonmouth doesn’t think it can do that, it’ll coil up and perhaps take a defensive posture — which is what you see in some of the images on this post. The cottonmouth earns its common name due to this defensive posture. It’ll coil up and gape its white, cottony mouth — presumably to intimidate would-be predators. Being a venomous snake, I know I always feel a wee bit intimidated when I see that mouth (not to mention all that mass, all that muscle). I’m not afraid of cottonmouths, but I certainly treat them with all due caution and respect.

As is always the case, this cottonmouth simply didn’t chase after us. It didn’t even strike at us. It just displayed for a while and then, with a bit of gentle encouragement, made its way into the adjacent canal line next to the road. Nothing to be afraid of, but certainly something to respect.

It was, of course, fantastic finding a healthy, beefy cottonmouth at the beginning of our Spring Break Nerodia/Anolis sojourn — and I’m glad this one dodged the much more menacing threat posed by people driving heavy machinery while facebooking at 70 miles per hour. I guess if you want to be afraid of snakes, that’s your prerogative, but personally…? for myself? Yeah, people ‘driving’ is a hell of a lot scarier to me… When cottonmouths start tweeting while driving cars, that’s when I’ll start being afraid of them. Until that day arises, I’ll give my respect to the cottonmouths and save my fear for the distracted hominids barreling down US Highway 29.


Spring Break 2018: The Tortuous Art of Looking UP and Looking DOWN

Highway 29, 14 March 2018
Highway 29; Collier county, Florida (14 March 2018). Series: Spring Break 2018.

I’ll photograph and appreciate damn near any organism I can manage to come across, but there are two genera that clearly captivate most of my attention: Nerodia watersnakes and Anolis lizards. There’s a cost, however, of loving these two taxa to the point of near-inappropriateness — namely having to spend so much time either looking up or looking down… without falling down.

Though some anoles (such as the Cuban brown anole, Anolis sagrei) spend much of their time scampering about on the ground, many of my favorite species are typically found a bit higher — either at eye level or much, much higher. Thus, the fine art of looking for anoles often entails walking around with your head tilted back, your gaze aimed upwards towards the canopy and foliage above. The grace comes, I suppose, when you get better at not falling down after tripping on something obviously on the ground. Tripping is to be expected. Tripping is inevitable. It’s a part of the game when you’re looking up, up, up. The game is not falling down when you trip…

Watersnakes, on the other hand, tend to loiter about by the water’s edge, and if you’re looking for them from land, that means you’re probably walking around with your head aimed down near the shoreline off to your side — not on the ground before your feet. Sure, some species will climb a bit into the surrounding foliage (especially the Brown watersnake, Nerodia taxispilota), but much of the time you’ll find them right at or adjacent to the shoreline. Once again, the grace comes in learning how to not fall down when you inevitably trip on something any reasonable human being should have noticed in the first place.

And so this spring break trip was going to be the ultimate mega-challenge for my middle-aged sense of balance: Two and a half days looking down for watersnakes followed by two and a half days looking up for anoles. Down, down, down, up, up, up. Bada bah bah.

Our trip officially began when we hit U.S. 29 heading south through Collier county, As nearly any Florida herp fan should already know, this stretch of road can be particularly active with snakes and gators. A long canal line parallels the eastern edge of the highway,  and much of the surrounding land/water is protected. Because of this, watersnakes and cottonmouths can be somewhat abundant along Highway 29 from time to time. Sometimes the snakes are easy to spot; other times they’re more hidden. As an example, take a moment and check out this hastily composed iPhone picture. Can you see the snake while looking down from the edge of the canal line?

Nerodia fasciata pictiventris, 14 March 2018 (1).jpg

The snake is there — hidden in plain sight. Zoom in on the crumbled, drying palm in the middle. Can you see it now?

Nerodia fasciata pictiventris, 14 March 2018.jpg

Ah, yes, there it is. This a young Florida banded watersnake, Nerodia fasciata pictiventris, biding its time along the Highway 29 canal line of Collier county, Florida. This snake served as the first of approximately 53 snakes Eric and I would come across in the first 48 hours of our trip. It also served as a lovely reminder that you’ve got to focus in and look closely to find the wee critters hidden in plain sight. Focusing in can have its costs, though…

Of note, and I’ll spare you bloody pictures, I crashed and burned soon after this inaugural snake spotting. Tracing the canal line on foot, I —of course— tripped and wiped out spectacularly, landing on and mangling (yet again) my right knee. I even managed to take off some toe skin. Good god. The subsequent bleeding was extraordinarily impressive (I’m easily impressed), but it was to be expected, I suppose. Indeed, when I’m hunting for snakes or lizards, I don’t worry so much about the organisms themselves. I worry more about myself crashing headfirst into a gravity-and-inertial double-play. I don’t worry about animals. I worry about basic physics.

Needless to say, as I write this, the trip is officially over, but I’m still very much feeling it. My knee is still quite sore, and so too is my neck. Down, down, down, up, up, up. Fortunately, however, though I tripped at least three other times during this particular, um, trip, I managed to keep myself upright the rest of the weekend. At least when I was out looking for wildlife. I’m not sure I can say the same for Saturday night in a South Miami bar… but that’s another story for another time.

In our next post, we’ll check out another Highway 29 snake — only this one will be a slightly easier one to spot.