Panther Island Adventures!

Panther Island is 2,800 acres of restored wetland and upland habitats situated in the northwest corner of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary's 13,000 acres. It is home to numerous plants and animals including the Florida panther and the iconic wood stork.
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Monday, September 26, 2011

Plant of the Week: Bottlebrush Threeawn (Aristida Spiciformis)

Now I know this probably sounds dorky, but I absolutely have favorite grasses! And bottlebrush threeawn (Aristida spiciformis) has to be in my top five. This native species started popping up in a pine flatwoods area after we burned it, and every fall it comes back in greater numbers (so I must be doing something right as a land manager!).

Grasses are often overlooked by people. Often one looks out and sees just one type of grass like St. Augustine or bermuda (a non-native used in sports fields that readily escapes cultivation and displaces natives). However, there are a wealth of grasses out there; it is often hard to tell two species apart and sometimes can only be done using a loop (magnifying glass) and looking at seeds! Native grasses are important for our wildlife though, and there are many beautiful grasses that can be used in landscaping (such as muhly {Muhlenbergia capillaris} and Fakahatchee {Tripsacum dactyloides}).

Monday, September 19, 2011

Critter of the Week: Black Racer Snake (Coluber constrictor)

 One of the most common snakes I see on Panther Island is the black racer (Coluber constrictor). There are numerous subspecies of this snake throughout the eastern United States. These guys can get pretty long (up to 60 in). They typically have some white under the chin and will be smooth scaled and have large eyes. There is quite a bit of variation within the species though, and they can be mistaken for other species of larger snakes in the area. Behavior is a great way to identify this snake. Most snakes will freeze, but these guys will often "race" away when they feel threatened; but don't be fooled, when cornered they will stand their ground and attempt to strike. Young racers do not look like adults; instead they are often tan or greyish with a series of brown or reddish blotches that run down the middle of their backs. And their eyes are typically larger and bodies more slender than most young snakes. Once about 12 inches they will lose their juvenile coloring.

 Black racers can be found in a variety of habitats.They are opportunistic predators; in Florida, they feed on frogs, lizards, and other snakes (along with rodents, birds, eggs, etc). I found the snake in the photo to the left by following the sound of it rapidly moving its tail in the leaf litter! I thought I was on the trail of a rattlesnake when I saw this racer consuming another snake. They are not constrictors; instead they bite their prey and hold them down against the ground until it stops moving, and then prey is consumed while alive. While primarily terrestrial, as seen in the top photo, they are quite adept at climbing vegetation. Breeding occurs from March through June. Females will lay 6-20 eggs during the summer (May through August), and the newborns are a mere 6-9 inches long.

The photo above was taken on the fringe of a cypress forest (using a telephoto lens). This black racer is getting ready to shed (a process known as ecdysis)! Note its opaque eye...sign of shedding. This milky coloring is actually the result of the eye cap (a specially adapted scale that covers the eye) being loosened up in order to be shed along with the rest of the skin.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Critter of the Week: Northern Rough-winged swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)

 One of my favorite things to watch is birds coming in to take a drink. Today was a rare treat as I was able to watch some northern rough-winged swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)! Named for the rough edges of their outermost wing feathers, these guys are summer residents of the northern United States and Canada and migrate south for the winter to Central America.
The habitat of these aerial acrobatics includes lakes, rivers, ponds, etc. They forage almost exclusively on aerial insects...usually capturing its prey close to the ground or water's surface.This species is more solitary than other swallows and doesn't nest in large colonies like those of the bank swallow. They do nest in burrows or cavities, often times made by other critters (but they can dig their own)...or in one case inside a Civil War cannon! They nest in late May and June, and their clutches are typically 4-8 eggs. Interestingly, Steglidopteryx means "scraper wing" in Greek while serripennis means "saw feather" in Latin.