27 Jan 2014

Tall Timbers Reality Check

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

A female red cockaded woodpecker flees after her session inside Joel's photo tent.  It was interesting to watch this bird escape by running up the trunk, rather than immediately flying away.  Within 10 seconds she was in the tree canopy, and the rest of her family had flown in to join, calling furiously and upsetting what had been until that point a quiet morning.

A female red cockaded woodpecker flees after her session inside Joel’s photo tent. It was interesting to watch this bird escape by running up the trunk, rather than immediately flying away. Within 10 seconds she was in the tree canopy, and the rest of her family had flown in to join, calling furiously and upsetting what had been until that point a quiet morning.

Every now and then I am reminded that field biology is really the only thing. Last week I was in the Red Hills, north of Tallahassee. Carlton and I were there initially to hunt quail on a friend’s plantation. After our day of wing-shooting, we moved ourselves to a nice lodge at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. Tall Timbers is much like my South Central Florida hangout, Archbold Biological Station; a place where ecologists study the dynamics of a geography found no where else in the world. Archbold is focused on the Lake Wales Ridge and the endemic organisms that populate the islands of old scrub that are still left. Tall Timbers is focused on the longleaf pine forest and bobwhite quail management. As at Archbold, life at Tall Timbers begins and ends with fire and the study of fire.

Ecologist Jim Cox works carefully to untangle the feet of a caught sparrow.  Mist netting is one method he uses to catch and band the multiple species he monitors at Tall Timbers Research Station.  I recently spent a week at Tall Timbers, working and trying to absorb as much about the longleaf pine ecosystem and the Red Hills region as could be had in five days in the field. Fanning out through the forest early in the morning, we'd rush toward the mist net through a tangle of blackberry and greenbriar, driving a flock of ground-foraging birds, one of which was this Henslow's sparrow.

Ecologist Jim Cox works carefully to untangle the feet of a caught sparrow. Mist netting is one method he uses to catch and band the multiple species he monitors at Tall Timbers Research Station. I recently spent a week at Tall Timbers, working and trying to absorb as much about the longleaf pine ecosystem and the Red Hills region as could be had in five days in the field. Fanning out through the forest early in the morning, we’d rush toward the mist net through a tangle of blackberry and greenbriar, driving a flock of ground-foraging birds, one of which was this Henslow’s sparrow.

Midway through our week, as Carlton was sinking into a nasty bout with a sinus infection, we were joined by photographer Joel Sartore. It was totally fortuitous, and an absurdly good opportunity for a novice photographer like me. Poor Carlton was worsening by the hour and had to curtail his trips to the field so he could heal. Meanwhile I was able to follow along and soak up some of Joel’s mentoring. Joel publishes regularly in National Geographic magazine, shooting for stories on animal migration, the Gulf of Mexico, and many more over the years.

National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore poses in front of his field studio at Tall Timbers Research Station.

National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore poses in front of his field studio at Tall Timbers Research Station.

It was his personal project, the Photo Ark, that brought him to Tall Timbers last week. The Photo Ark is his mission to photograph every captive species in the world. There are roughly 6000 such species today. Over the past seven years Joel has captured nearly 2000 species in his unique studio setups.

Jim Cox slips a captured rufous-sided towhee into a photo light box.  To the right is Joel Sartore, National Geographic photographer. Joel is working on a long-term project called The Photo Ark, documenting every captive species on Earth, which numbers about 6000.  He's almost to 1800, now seven years into the project.

Jim Cox slips a captured rufous-sided towhee into a photo light box. To the right is Joel Sartore, National Geographic photographer. Joel is working on a long-term project called The Photo Ark, documenting every captive species on Earth, which numbers about 6000. He’s almost to 1800, now seven years into the project.

This week he’d come to Tall Timbers to photograph some of the rare and endangered bird species that populate the Red Hills region. The longleaf pine ecosystem has been drastically reduced from it’s former range, which included a vast area of the Southeastern U.S., covering roughly 90 million acres from Virginia, south to Florida and west to Texas. Post settlement, it is roughly 5% of what it was prior to European settlement. The Red Hills of Florida and Georgia maintain some of the largest remaining stands of old growth longleaf.

This frame shows Joel's studio setup for small subjects, like red cockaded woodpeckers and the numerous other birds he photographed while at Tall Timbers. Those black bags are softboxes for his strobe lights.  The strobes are powered by a generator. Jim Cox has just caught and placed inside the white photo tent a rufous-sided towhee. Joel's photos are studio images, with the subjects on a simple black or white background.

This frame shows Joel’s studio setup for small subjects, like red cockaded woodpeckers and the numerous other birds he photographed while at Tall Timbers. Those black bags are softboxes for his strobe lights. The strobes are powered by a generator. Jim Cox has just caught and placed inside the white photo tent a rufous-sided towhee. Joel’s photos are really portraits, with the subjects on a simple black or white background.

So for three days we ran from daylight to dusk, moving the mist net from one spot to the next, spreading ourselves out through the brushy undergrowth, and driving forward toward the net. Then on reaching the nets, if nothing was caught we’d do a flanking move and sweep around in the opposite direction. Ecologist Jim Cox was our guide and principal bird handler. Jim’s work goes back several decades now. His 1994 paper called “Closing the Gaps in Florida’s Wildlife Habitat Conservation System” was an early foundation in the building of the Florida Wildlife Corridor concept.

A Henslow's sparrow on the hand of Tall Timbers Research Station vertebrate ecologist Jim Cox, as he prepares to release it.  The Henslow's is a critter of weedy grasslands. Like many grassland species, its range has contracted as the largest North American grasslands have been developed.

A Henslow’s sparrow on the hand of Tall Timbers Research Station vertebrate ecologist Jim Cox, as he prepares to release it. The Henslow’s is a critter of weedy grasslands. Like many grassland species, its range has contracted as the largest North American grasslands have been developed.

Jim handled each animal we caught with a confidence and skill that made me long for field work of my own as part of the daily routine. There is a grounding that working in the field gives a biologist. These animals may be telling us so much about the world, and seeking out what they say begins, for me at least, with tracking and finding them where they live. The field is where it’s all real.

Links:

Joel Sartore’s website and galleries:  http://www.joelsartore.com/galleries/

Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy:  http://talltimbers.org/

Jim Cox et al. 1994 paper “Closing the Gaps in Florida’s Wildlife Habitat Conservation System:”  http://research.myfwc.com/publications/publication_info.asp?id=48583

13 Sep 2013

Excerpts from my field notes: F011 Capture, 16 December 2005

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

Image

F011 is a study animal on the University of Kentucky’s South Central Florida black bear research project. Here she’s framed in a distinctive Florida ‘bayhead,’ where she will den and eventually raise a litter of cubs. Photo by Carlton Ward Photography

On an overcast December afternoon, I drove a creaking swamp buggy into an oak hammock in southern Highlands County, Florida and stopped.  The team of four of us disembarked, sorted and distributed gear among the group, and began walking in single file towards the edge of a large hardwood swamp to our north.  Two of us in the front carried rifles, each loaded with an aluminum tranquilizer dart.  A third man, Wade Ulrey, carried an antenna and a small receiver, which he periodically held to his ear as he stopped, lifting the antenna and waving it slowly in a semi-circle toward the horizon.

As we entered the edge of the swamp our pace slowed, and our conversations stopped.  Even then, well into the dry season, the ground oozed and sucked beneath our feet.  Black water lay in pockets, pooled around large clumps of earth where the roots of toppled trees were upheaved and protruding.  I leapt from hummock to hummock, staying dry.  We used the downed trunks as platforms to walk, carrying us above a green tangle of ferns and vines crowding the forest floor.  Red maple and sweetbay trees, smooth-barked and grey, rose out of the peat, shallow roots coiling out of black soil, carpeted with moss and newly fallen leaves.  The day was nearing dusk.

A half-mile in, in the quickly-fading light the group stopped.  Wade had paused again, and with the antenna aloft, he was pointing at a tangle of foliage to the right of our path.  Following the line of his gaze, I took a cautious step forward, trying to see around a screen of ferns.  Something shifted heavily deep down in the shadowed fronds, and the whole vast, breathing swamp condensed abruptly to a single point of vibration 15 yards in front of me.  A still moment passed and my pulse pounded in my ears.  Then rising out of the jungle came the black head and shoulders of a bear, standing upright on hind legs.  As it rose the rifle came to my shoulder and I leveled it at the dark torso.  At that proximity, the rifle scope was filled with a black mass, body parts indiscernible until I found the tan radiocollar around the neck.  The screen of ferns blocked the shoulder that I wanted.  Approximating the location of the sweet spot of thick muscle, I squeezed the trigger as the bear began to lower itself.  A small oval of orange light flashed in the shadows, indicating that the tiny dart had found its target.  The animal disappeared and tore off through the undergrowth, blasting through a tangle of vines, feet splashing in the shallow water.  In seconds the noise evaporated, and we were left shaking and silent.

After waiting 5 minutes to let the drug take affect, Wade led us off in the new direction of the radio’s pulse.  In short order we found the trail, marked by splashed ferns.  Then we hurried, picking our way over and under downed trees and through dense stands of sapling sweetbay.  In a worst-case scenario, the drugged animal could’ve collapsed unconscious in a pool of water and drowned.  Though the odds of such a fatal occurrence are very small, we surged forward as the radio pulse grew louder in our ears.

In an opening we found the female bear, named F011, resting on her side, head propped on a deadfall tree.  We milled around her under the light of our headlamps, measuring the head and body, lengths and girths, inspecting tooth wear and making note of distinguishing marks and scars.  We replaced the dying radiocollar with a fresh unit, set to collect location data via GPS every hour for 18 months.  We spoke sparingly in murmurs and gestures, and the barred owls called back and forth across the swamp.

When the workup was finished we stood back and waited, crouching on the edge of the trampled ferns, the steam from our breathing drifting up around us.  An hour had passed.  F011 had added 70 pounds since her last capture during the previous summer.  Her glossy black coat rose and fell with steady breathing, and as the sedatives wore off her head began to bob up and down and she pawed clumsily at the ground.  When we were satisfied with her recovery, the four of us shouldered our gear and slipped away, using a compass to guide us back to our buggy under the moonlight.

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Excerpts from my field notes: F011 Capture

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

Image

F011 is a study animal on the University of Kentucky’s South Central Florida black bear research project. Here she’s framed in a distinctive Florida ‘bayhead,’ where she will den and eventually raise a litter of cubs. Photo by Carlton Ward Photography

On an overcast December afternoon, I drove a creaking swamp buggy into an oak hammock in southern Highlands County, Florida and stopped.  The team of four of us disembarked, sorted and distributed gear among the group, and began walking in single file towards the edge of a large hardwood swamp to our north.  Two of us in the front carried rifles, each loaded with an aluminum tranquilizer dart.  A third man, Wade Ulrey, carried an antenna and a small receiver, which he periodically held to his ear as he stopped, lifting the antenna and waving it slowly in a semi-circle toward the horizon.

As we entered the edge of the swamp our pace slowed, and our conversations stopped.  Even then, well into the dry season, the ground oozed and sucked beneath our feet.  Black water lay in pockets, pooled around large clumps of earth where the roots of toppled trees were upheaved and protruding.  I leapt from hummock to hummock, staying dry.  We used the downed trunks as platforms to walk, carrying us above a green tangle of ferns and vines crowding the forest floor.  Red maple and sweetbay trees, smooth-barked and grey, rose out of the peat, shallow roots coiling out of black soil, carpeted with moss and newly fallen leaves.  The day was nearing dusk.

A half-mile in, in the quickly-fading light the group stopped.  Wade had paused again, and with the antenna aloft, he was pointing at a tangle of foliage to the right of our path.  Following the line of his gaze, I took a cautious step forward, trying to see around a screen of ferns.  Something shifted heavily deep down in the shadowed fronds, and the whole vast, breathing swamp condensed abruptly to a single point of vibration 15 yards in front of me.  A still moment passed and my pulse pounded in my ears.  Then rising out of the jungle came the black head and shoulders of a bear, standing upright on hind legs.  As it rose the rifle came to my shoulder and I leveled it at the dark torso.  At that proximity, the rifle scope was filled with a black mass, body parts indiscernible until I found the tan radiocollar around the neck.  The screen of ferns blocked the shoulder that I wanted.  Approximating the location of the sweet spot of thick muscle, I squeezed the trigger as the bear began to lower itself.  A small oval of orange light flashed in the shadows, indicating that the tiny dart had found its target.  The animal disappeared and tore off through the undergrowth, blasting through a tangle of vines, feet splashing in the shallow water.  In seconds the noise evaporated, and we were left shaking and silent.

After waiting 5 minutes to let the drug take affect, Wade led us off in the new direction of the radio’s pulse.  In short order we found the trail, marked by splashed ferns.  Then we hurried, picking our way over and under downed trees and through dense stands of sapling sweetbay.  In a worst-case scenario, the drugged animal could’ve collapsed unconscious in a pool of water and drowned.  Though the odds of such a fatal occurrence are very small, we surged forward as the radio pulse grew louder in our ears.

In an opening we found the female bear, named F011, resting on her side, head propped on a deadfall tree.  We milled around her under the light of our headlamps, measuring the head and body, lengths and girths, inspecting tooth wear and making note of distinguishing marks and scars.  We replaced the dying radiocollar with a fresh unit, set to collect location data via GPS every hour for 18 months.  We spoke sparingly in murmurs and gestures, and the barred owls called back and forth across the swamp.

When the workup was finished we stood back and waited, crouching on the edge of the trampled ferns, the steam from our breathing drifting up around us.  An hour had passed.  F011 had added 70 pounds since her last capture during the previous summer.  Her glossy black coat rose and fell with steady breathing, and as the sedatives wore off her head began to bob up and down and she pawed clumsily at the ground.  When we were satisfied with her recovery, the four of us shouldered our gear and slipped away, using a compass to guide us back to our buggy under the moonlight.

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The Marsh in August

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

Two awesome summer spectacles have haunted my nights during the last month: the full moon, and huge lightning storms. I was in bed late one night in August when this approaching thunderstorm woke me. With the moon out, the marsh looked too good to not get up and go try to take a picture.

Lightning curls through a thunderhead billowing over Buck Island Ranch in Highlands County, Florida.  Photo by Joe Guthrie

Lightning curls through a thunderhead billowing over Buck Island Ranch in Highlands County, Florida. Photo by Joe Guthrie

At night in the Florida swamps may seem like the last place many people would like to find themselves. I have learned to love it. I love the night sounds more than perhaps anything else about the summer; the shrieking frogs, the croaks of the night herons, throbbing insects. Here it adds a primordial feel to the darkness. And the darkness is deeper here, far from the cities and freeways. With long exposures, the lights from even small towns like Lake Placid can add a haunting, almost hellish loom to the darkness.

The lights of Lake Placid glow on the western horizon from Buck Island Ranch. Photo by Joe Guthrie

The lights of Lake Placid glow on the western horizon from Buck Island Ranch. Photo by Joe Guthrie

I’ve been toying with nighttime photography all summer. It was one of the motivations for keeping my cottage out at Buck Island Ranch. I envisioned the marsh in August, and the dramatic nighttime sky reflecting off the standing water that accumulates in the wetlands here in the rainy season. I have yet to really capture what’s in my mind, which is great because I feel a need to keep chasing that shot.

An inundated flag pond is cast in the light of passing cars on SR 70 near Arcadia, Florida.  Photo by Joe Guthrie

An inundated flag pond is cast in the light of passing cars on SR 70 near Arcadia, Florida. Photo by Joe Guthrie

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26 Jan 2013

Canepatch Camp to the River of Grass

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

I worried about Day 4 for the previous three months.
From our camp at Canepatch on Avocado Creek we were to head east through a maze of creeks and small channels that drain from the river of grass into the mangrove Everglades. We’d carefully drawn the route line, following Avocado Creek upstream as far as we could see it from Google Earth. In the planning phase, how we were to get from the open channel to the open sawgrass was just pure guesswork. Even after we flew over the route in December, from a scant 100 feet off the deck, we could not see through the canopy of mangroves, concealing a vital bridge between the sawgrass and the sea.
Two important elements of our first week would be departing today: Travis and his pack mule (Action Craft) and Mallory, who had to return to Colorado and her work with the Nature Conservancy. From this point on Elam, Carlton and I would be alone (mostly).
On the campsite picnic table, Mallory and I laid out the menu for the next four days, dividing food into sleeping back stuff sacks, one for each meal. Zatarain’s black beans and rice. Quinoa with onion. Summer sausage with crackers and cheddar cheese. Pita bread and Nutella. We each compiled a massive bag of snacks for ourselves. Apples, oranges, bags after bag of mixed nuts and dried fruit. This bag would live in the center console of my kayak, a hatch between my knees, where I kept camera, binoculars, and fishing tackle.

There was definite nervous excitement among the three of us as we set off from our Canepatch, listening to the noise of Travis’ engine fading away, headed back to Flamingo.
We were saved from having to do guesswork by a pair of benevolent park rangers. During our crossing of Oyster Bay on the first full day, a couple carrying two canoes in the bow of their powerboat had intercepted us. Their names were John and Donna Buckley, and they were longtime residents of the Everglades backcountry. They’d been sent by the Park Superintendent, Dan Kimball, to make sure that we made safe passage through the watery maze.
“Be careful out there. I don’t want have to do any paperwork,” the superintendent said as we departed.
When I’d arrived at Canepatch campsite the night prior, John and Donna were there, speaking with Travis. We made plans to meet up near the mouth of Avocado Creek at midday. I got the feeling that for the most part, they knew where every paddler on the Wilderness Waterway at any given moment was heading for the night.
They were waiting when we arrived at the designated meet up at 11, guiding their covered Mad River canoes with short, powerful paddles. The five of us chatted leisurely as we moved into the narrows of Avocado Creek. John and Donna were expeditioners in their own right. John told us about paddling across huge expanses of the midwest to raise awareness for the Great Lakes during the 1970s. He and Donna understood precisely what we were attempting to do. Still, they had not run into too many groups doing it in the direction we had picked.
John and Donna Buckley knew Canepatch to get regular patrons, and every other year a group or two would travel from U.S. 41 to Canepatch and out into the mangrove Everglades. They’d never seen anyone traveling from Florida Bay and attempt to escape up the Shark River Slough. Were we really the first? Probably not, I thought to myself.
Carlton stole a glance at me and gave me the wide-mouthed, eyes bugged out look that says “THIS IS CRAZY AND I LOVE IT.” I shot it right back.
Gradually the canopy of black mangroves closed over our heads. The channel serpentined around banks of trees and deadfall. I could sense the open sawgrass just beyond the tree-lined banks. I longed to see it. Twice, while at the head of the caravan, I turned toward the sunlit channel. Wrong way. John Buckley called me back. Before long I was back near the front. The second time I was lured by an alligator bed in the sawgrass.
This time I heard someone say “Do we have Joe?”
“Joe’s turned the wrong way again, he’s in his own world over there.”
Ouch. I decided it was time to bring up the rear and to listen to more experienced hands. Anyone could get lost here, and often do. Our guides had probably rescued hundreds of overly-enthusiastic or unlucky paddlers over their quarter century of living in this backcountry.

Everglades National Park backcountry ranger John Buckley

After 2 hours, the trees overhead began to thin out. The channel deepened, the banks lined with sawgrass. I paused to let the boat ahead of me navigate a narrow turn. I bird rocketed down the length of my kayak, a foot under the surface of the water. Horned grebe. Nothing else is that sneaky or fast under water.
The way forward became too thick for us to pass. John backtracked and turned south, out into the open, searching. We were very near our destination for the day, but there seemed to be no path to connect us to the airboat trail that would lead us northeast. I struggled so see the screen of my GPS, with the sun directly overhead. After a few minutes, we followed John’s path. Donna turned back to head home.

Everglades National Park backcountry ranger Donna Buckley

Out in the open we could see a long way. Far off on the horizon the figure of a man stood above the grass, watching us, higher than anything else around. I was tired of the kayak paddle in my hands, and my hips were sore from sitting for so long.
I pulled the heavy aluminum push pole from its hold and extended it to its full length. Using it as a brace, I stood, my joints creaking in protest. The kayak wobbled, uncertain of the change in weight distribution. I steadied and pushed off a clump of bulrush, the duck-foot end piece expanding against the vegetation and contracting as I moved forward. The boat moved straight ahead, gliding between the grasses and lotusflowers. I could see all around.
We pushed our way through a thick patch of grass and vegetation, watching the figure on the horizon, still unidentified. Finally we came out into a channel, about three feet across. A white PVC pipe stood off to the side. These were the markers of the airboat trail we’d seen during the fly over. Every quarter of a mile from here on we’d have these trail markers. In front of me there were large, dark fish laying in the channel. My mouth gaped. Largemouth bass, and Florida gar were everywhere. Foolishly, I’d let Travis take my fishing gear with him this morning.
John Buckley stood on the rickety wooden structure as I slid up. There was a walkway built of 2×6 boards leading over to a large scientific collecting device, mounted on a platform built 5 feet in the air. A sticker on the side read U.S. Geological Survey. Walkways led off into the sawgrass in three directions around the platform. It was 3:30 pm. It was too late to go on into the wilderness, hoping for something more sturdy on which to make camp. This was where we’d spend our night. John wished us well and shoved off for his houseboat back to the west.
We went about setting our camp. Elam staked out the platform, saying that he’d be comfortable up there with just his sleeping back and bedroll. I scavenged loose lumber, 2x8s and 2x12s from the sawgrass growing up around the gauging station, aligning the boards like slats over two sections of the walkway. I pulled a blow up mattress out of the hold of my kayak, inflated it and put it atop the slats. On top of this I put up the tent.
Carlton’s strategy was even more adventurous. He picked an area of especially thick sawgrass and mashed it down so as to support his mattress and hold it in place. On top of this he constructed his tent. He fretted about the sawgrass, and his weight pushing the mattress under water. He milled around his area, pushing the grass around, shifting his tent a little here, a little there. Finally he crawled inside, and it appeared to work. His vision was realized. He would sleep, afloat in the River of Grass.

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Day 3: Oyster Bay to Avocado Creek

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

On the third day we awoke at Oyster Bay chickee. Our chickee was positioned on the east side of a small island, protecting us from the open bay to the west. A heavy fog blanketed our little inlet.

View from Oyster Bay chickee
Photo by Carlton Ward Jr./Carlton Ward Photography/CarltonWard.com

I rolled out of my tent and pulled my neck gaiter over my face to ward off the mosquitoes still lingering. From the stern of Travis’ boat I cast a topwater plug down the bank of mangroves. The sun was not up yet. In 15 minutes I caught 4 speckled trout. The biggest among them was about 15 inches.

Spotted trout
Photo by Carlton Ward Jr./Carlton Ward Photography/CarltonWard.com

We had a long paddle. From Oyster Bay we continued on our northwest tack for the first 2.5 miles, until we reached an intersection with the Shark River. The tide was ebbing that morning, and as we entered the channel that lead us to the Shark there was a considerable current with which to contend. It pulled at the mangrove roots, and in the turns our long, bulky kayaks would be swept to the opposite side of the stream before they could be muscled back straight. Upon reaching the Shark we turned east, upstream.
The first half of the day was overcast and gray, and a blustery wind occasionally whipped down the river. I hugged the mangrove-lined banks in long stretches, trying to stay out of the headwind. Our caravan, four paddlers and Travis in his Action Craft, stretched out over a mile or so. Mallory cruised serenely along in her touring kayak. Whenever she wanted to she could easily distance from us with a combination of superior carbon fiber engineering and paddling experience.

Mallory shows us all how it’s supposed to be done.
Photo by Carlton Ward Jr./Carlton Ward Photography/CarltonWard.com

I paused often to fish or to take pictures. I saw a manatee in the first quarter mile once I turned up the river, a shapeless gray body drifting just below the surface, then sinking from sight. Carlton cruised ahead. Elam chugged along, a mounting platform for his camera attached to the deck of his boat. His stroke was an unorthodox churning, a perpetual movement of his arms only, elbows fixed at a 90 degree angle and not extending past the trunk of his body on the downstroke. Mallory called it the Go-Go-Gadget stroke. Upon trying Elamstroke later we noticed that it made the kayak move with somewhat less vibration, something a good videographer would quickly discern and put into practice.
We paused at the Little Shark River chickee. Travis opened cans of tuna with a broken-tipped, battered fillet knife. I’d noticed him using this blade for everything from chumming to engine repair to meal prep. It looked distinctly like an implement you’d see presented as evidence in a murder trial, the inside of the clear ziplock smeared brown with dried blood.

The fillet knife, occasional can-opener, possible murder weapon belonging to one Travis Ward, Clearwater. Photo by Joe Guthrie

His first round of sandwich rounds he prepared were acceptably utilitarian. Shredded string cheese and tuna on mayo, a little hot sauce. The next morsel he handed me was arguably utilitarian, totally unacceptable in most cases. Tuna, full tablespoon of hot sauce, honey.
“What the hell, it’s an expedition.” I ate.
After lunch and a slight detour up the Little Shark River, we re-entered the Shark River and continued northeast. I watched a common loon working the roots of the mangrove trees at the water’s edge, catching tiny crabs. The bird was dressed in a drab gray winter plumage, but it’s large size and approachability caused me to abandon thoughts of keeping up with everyone. The bird paid me no mind, letting me drift to within ten yards.
The day warmed. I navigated by following the red route line I had loaded onto my iPhone’s Trimble GPS application, making sure that I, represented by a tiny blue dot, stayed close to the line. There are thousands of possible wrong turns in the Everglades, especially in the sawgrass. I was thankful that I’d spent the desperate last hours at the Homestead Starbucks the night before we left, loading the satellite imagery onto the device. With unreliable cell signal, the image tiles wouldn’t load, unless they were already cached on the device. It was one of the critically important tasks that had inexplicably been left until the last minute.
Carlton and Elam paused to ponder a swamp lilly bursting out of a clump of mangroves.

Swamp lilly and mangroves
Photo by Carlton Ward Jr./Carlton Ward Photography/CarltonWard.com

We were within two miles of the Avocado Creek campsite, hidden away up in the labyrinth of ever-smaller finger creeks that fall out of Shark River Slough. I moved ahead. Mallory was well ahead, out of sight. My iPhone seemed to be struggling to understand that I had already loaded the sat imagery into it. I could see nothing on the screen other than my route line, in red.
In no time, my blue dot of digital self had drifted away from the route line on the screen.
Dammit.
I was facing an island, and three possible ways to turn.
Which way around?
Still no Mallory.
No Carlton or Elam.
Good. Can’t be seen looking lost. Expedition co-leader? I think not, they’ll say.
Mentally I remembered the map. All those weeks we’d spent pecking away in Carlton’s studio, drawing our line over 1100 miles. I imagined the scene before me from above.
“I think I should go to the other side of you and look north,” I said to the island.
I circled the island, looking for a shortcut though the mangroves to the north. I tried the first I came to. The trees were dense and tall, and I ducked beneath them. My fishing rod, stowed upright in its holder, had to be rescued as it was about to be snapped by overhanging limbs.
“Does this go?”
It did. I swung into the channel of Avocado Creek, and an earthen campsite where my friends would gather in the twilight waited a mile upstream.

Camp Blanding

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

The expedition spent yesterday, April 9th, at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center near Middleburg, Florida. Yesterday our team met with Land Component Commander Brigadier General Richard Gallant to discuss Camp Blanding and its approach to conservation. FFWCC Director Nick Wiley came from Tallahassee to meet with us, as did FFWCC research biologists Walt McCown and Brian Scheick.
Our conversations with Brig. General Gallant and Director Wiley focused on the cooperative relationship between the military and natural resource conservation agencies. We discussed the habitat on the facility, and how the base fits into a regional conservation corridor known as the Ocala to Osceola Corridor, or the “0-2-0.” This project is designed to connect Ocala National Forest with the Osceola National Forest. The 73,000 acres of Camp Blanding is the largest block of conservation land in the 0-2-0. Paul Catlett, the land manager at Blanding, discussed the military’s vested interest in managing habitat for wildlife. The same habitat ensures the quality of military and first responder training, and so serves both an environmental interest and a domestic interest.
Species of note on Camp Blanding include the red-cockaded woodpecker and the Florida black bear. Paul Catlett and Jim Garrison, FFWCC’s biologist on Blanding, have overseen a dramatic improvement in the number of red cockaded woodpecker clusters. The project has been such a success that Camp Blanding is now a donor site in the Southern Range Translocation Cooperative (SRTC) that began in 1998.

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06 Dec 2012

Ocala Timberlands

This post was written by Carlton Ward Jr

In late October, I had the chance to photographs some beautiful timberlands owned and managed by Rayonier. We had visited the same location near Ocala National Forest back in March during the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. To capture the textures of the pine and hardwood forests, I shot several composite panoramic images. Check out the low resolution samples below.

You can click either of the three horizontal images to open a high resolution view. Be sure to zoom in to see all the detail.

25 Apr 2012

Friday April 20, 2012 – Day 95

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

The Expedition is in its final days. We are camping now on the Suwannee River, ten miles north of the town of Fargo, Georgia. This is the fourth of six days on this water. It is an unplanned for treat at the end of a long journey.
Back in the first week of April we got a call from our friend, David Dorman, wildlife biologist for Osceola National Forest, called us to inform us that a wildfire had sprung up in the Pinhook Swamp. The Pinhook is a vast wetland that butts up against the Georgia/Florida state line. Our original route took us northeast through the Pinhook to Bethea State Forest, then across the state line into the Okefenokee Swamp. Hot, dry weather and steady winds fed the fire over the intervening days. The County Line fire (straddling the Baker/Columbia County line) spread and quickly east, growing to over 35,000 by the middle of last week. The Pinhook and Bethea became non-starters for getting us to Georgia.
Dorman visited us at our campsite on Ocean Pond, just within the national forest boundary. We studied maps and talked options late into the night. Dorman sported a three day old stubble, and his soot-covered clothes and weather broken fire boots were testaments to the long hours he’d been working since the fire popped up. We’d reached Ocean Pond by rejoining the Florida National Scenic Trail near Palestine Lake. We decided to adjust our route by continuing west on the Florida Trail until we reached the Suwannee, which we would paddle 47 miles to Stephen Foster State Park in Georgia.
So here we are, 35 miles in. We began paddling at Turner Bridge boat ramp, six miles or so south of the state line. The stretch of river we are paddling is famous for massive Ogeechee tupelo (Nyssa ogeche) trees. The trees here are bizarre and beautiful at once. The tupelos and pond cypress seem to compete for which can place the most attention grabbing form along these sandy bluffs. The tupelo trunks twist and bulge and fold over themselves in bizarre, buddha-like shapes. Their roots spill out from the trunk and fall toward the inky blackwater in disorganized cascades. The cypress are anchored to the bank by massive, furrowed and bulbous bases, suddenly tapering to a small bole, usually less than 50′ tall. The cypress needles appear almost fluorescent green at this time of year. Pileated woodpeckers work along the stubby tops, and brown water snakes gather among the knees. The knees sometimes take odd shapes, arching horizontally 20 feet from the tree before twisting down to form a clutch, as if to claim the territory. Today Joe Davenport said, “This river is endlessly beautiful. I could devote a whole day to photographing each one of these trees.” It seems to get ever more alluring the further upstream we paddle.

The end is too near.

Okefenokee Lilly

This post was written by Carlton Ward Jr

Okefenokee by Carlton Ward Photography
Okefenokee, a photo by Carlton Ward Photography on Flickr.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, Day 99
A water lilly catches evening twilight as dusk settles over the Okefenokee. Transitioning sunset to new moon darkness while paddling through Chase Prairie, a sea of grass reminiscent of the Everglades, provided perfect passage toward our final campsite in 100 days.