It’s that time of the year for Manatees

It’s That Time Of The Year For Manatees

By Reinier Munguía

As temperatures drop in Florida, our beloved manatees embark on their migration towards warmer water sources. Traditionally, these sources comprised Florida springs, maintaining a consistent temperature range of 70 to 88 degrees. However, in the present era, manatees seek any available sources that offer them the desired warmth and comfort. This includes power plants and their associated warm water outfalls. Currently two-thirds of all manatees depend on these artificial warm water sources, as most of the springs have been blocked by dams, have reduced waterflows or are extensively used for recreation. This leaves the manatees with limited alternatives, and the future of these water sources may also be jeopardized with the ongoing phase-out of power plants and their replacement with solar projects. This underscores the critical need for discussion, as the well-being of manatees relies heavily on these warm water sources. Without access to these wintering sites, manatees face the potential threat of cold stress, posing a significant risk to their survival.


Over the course of two years, I had the privilege of working on a project centered around the Ocklawaha and Silver rivers, bringing me in close proximity to manatees and the challenges they confront. During an exploration of the Silver River, I encountered Millie, a renowned female manatee with a rich history. Millie was initially spotted at a power plant in Brevard County in 1980, and since then, researchers have meticulously tracked her movements along the east coast of Florida, ranging from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to the Upper St. Johns River. Notably, Millie has garnered recognition for nurturing at least nine calves, with the first born in 1985 and the most recent in 2004. In the winter of 2014-2015, she was observed nursing an orphan at Blue Spring.

On that particular day, Millie likely traversed the Buckman lock at the Rodman Dam to access the Silver River, where she could find abundant warm water and indulge in one of her favorite foods, eelgrass. However, navigating through the lock system poses potential challenges and dangers, as there is a risk of being trapped inside the lock for an extended period.

Recently, during a visit to the South Bay Boat Ramp in Lake Okeechobee, I was surprised to encounter a manatee feeding on water lettuce. This raises questions about whether the manatee would successfully make its way out of the lake in time to locate a warm water refuge. Such scenarios prompt reflection on the impact of human activities on other species as we strive to enhance our own lifestyles.

Over the past few years, various initiatives have been undertaken to enhance access to warm water. These include the dredging of the Fanning Springs run in the Suwanee River and the replanting of seagrasses in the Weeki Wachee Springs, aiming to offer a vital food source for manatees during the winter. If you’re interested in supporting manatees, here are a few things you can do:

 

Minimize fertilizer usage: Runoffs from fertilizers are associated with algae blooms that contribute to red tide and large-scale mortality of marine life, such as fish, sea turtles, dolphins, and manatees.

Exercise caution and reduce speed: When operating a boat, adhere to designated no-wake zones and lower your speed when manatees are present.

Protect sea grass beds: Avoid shallow waters to prevent harm to sea grass beds from boat propellers.

Give them space: When snorkeling or diving near manatees, always maintain a safe distance, allowing them ample room to move, and refrain from approaching or touching them.

You might be wondering about the connection between the residents of Polk County and manatees. Well, the explanation is both straightforward and intricate. Although situated far from the ocean and the rivers frequented by manatees, Polk County holds the origin of five crucial rivers that eventually flow into manatee habitats.

For instance, the Peace River serves as a vital water source for the Charlotte Harbor Estuary, where numerous manatees rely on seagrass for sustenance. Unfortunately, these seagrasses are negatively affected by an excess of nutrients in the water, stemming from practices such as over-fertilizing lawns, septic tank leaks, and various pollutants entering the water. What occurs upstream has repercussions for all the organisms downstream.

Take the Hillsborough River as another example, originating in Polk and concluding in Tampa Bay, another highly significant Manatee Area. It’s essential to recognize that our actions, even though we reside far from the ocean, have a substantial impact on it.

 

Want to see some manatees? Here are some places you may want to visit.

Manatee Vieweing Center
6990 Dickman Rd, Apollo Beach, FL 33572

Three Sisters Springs
601 Three Sisters Springs Trail, Crystal River, FL 34429

Blue Spring State Park
2100 W. French Ave. Orange City FL 32763

Crooked Lake Prairie Preserve

Crooked Lake Prairie

Nestled on the eastern shores of Crooked Lake in Babson Park, the Crooked Lake Prairie Preserve spans 525 acres and features four diverse natural environments: scrub, wet prairie, scrubby flatwoods, and depression marsh. Explore the diverse ecosystems by following two sets of trails that traverse these natural communities, providing opportunities to observe numerous native plants and animals. The trail facing north leads to a viewing area with a scenic vantage point overlooking Crooked Lake. Meanwhile, the other trail winds through scrub to the south and a prairie wetland on the west side of the property.

Throughout the summer, the wet receive enough rain to create a perfect breeding ground for various amphibian species such as oak toads, leopard frogs, and cricket frogs. This environment also serves as an attractive habitat for sandhill cranes and egrets, which forage for small fish in the shallows. Additionally, the wet prairie is adorned with wildflowers like the largeflower rose gentian and pine lily. Along the lake shores, one may encounter pickerel weed, American white waterlily, and buttonbush. Wet areas may host carnivorous plants such as the pink sundew. In the scrub community, Florida scrub oaks and saw palmettos dominate the landscape, accompanied by scattered prickly pear. Three species of pines are found on this preserve: the longleaf, slash and sand pine.

The preserve boasts a diverse array of wildlife, with a particular emphasis on birds, with almost 160 species documented. Among the commonly observed bird species in the scrubby flatwoods are bald eagles, northern bobwhite, sandhill cranes, eastern towhee, Carolina wren, pileated woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, and red-bellied woodpeckers. While mammals are rarely spotted during the day, occasional sightings of white-tailed deer or cottontail rabbits occur. However, the nighttime unveils a different narrative, evidenced by numerous tracks on the sandy trails. Nocturnal visitors like opossums, raccoons, bobcats, and coyotes frequent the trails at night in search of food.

Crooked Lake Prairie is also home to a variety of reptile species, including different types of snakes like the black racer, eastern diamondback, eastern coachwhip, coral snake, and garter snake. One may come across other reptiles such as the six-lined racerunner, Florida box turtle,

For an optimal experience hiking the complete trail system, it is recommended to start either early in the morning or during the late afternoon. Ensure you have an ample supply of water and wear closed shoes, as some areas are composed of loose sand – remnants of an era when much of Florida was submerged underwater, forming a chain of islands. It is crucial to stay on the designated trails, as the soil in the scrub is predominantly cryptobiotic, preserving the delicate ecosystem.

Plants

Lakeland Highlands Scrub

Lakeland Highlands Scrub Preserve

Located in the southern region of Lakeland, the Lakeland Highlands Scrub stands as one of the few remaining undeveloped scrub habitats within the Lakeland Ridge. Similar to the Lake Wales Ridge, this ridge was created through the accumulation of sand during periods of changing sea levels millions of years ago when most of Florida was submerged in water. Today, these ridges exist as sandy islands confined by land, in contrast to their state 25 million years ago when they were surrounded by water.

This property showcases various natural communities, such as xeric hammock, scrubs, and scrubby flatwoods. As you venture into the preserve through the Shady Oak trail, you’ll notice an oak scrub characterized by the presence of highly contorted oak trees, indicating the effects of drought stress. The trail offers a wide, unobstructed path, largely devoid of vegetation because of the ample shade cast by the oak trees. In this environment, you can encounter various amphibians, such as the oak toad and the pinewood treefrog, as well as reptiles, including the yellow rat snake and the tiny ground skink. Decomposing trees offer plentiful habitat for insects and fungi to thrive, with a rapid colonization, especially following periods of rain. Additionally, you can spot Saw Palmettos, American Beautyberry, and Muscadine grapes distributed across the region.

As you reach the end of the Shady Oak trail, you’ll encounter the Lichen Loop trail, an area predominantly characterized by dwarf live oaks, sand live oaks, and Chapman oaks, with the ground adorned by an abundance of mosses and lichens. This environment provides an excellent opportunity to observe some of the common year-round birds, such as the Carolina Wren, White-eyed vireo, Northern mockingbird, and Northern Cardinal. Later in the autumn, you’ll also witness the presence of migratory species like the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black & White warbler, Eastern Phoebe and Gray Catbird.

To the west, a boardwalk extends through an ephemeral wetland, a very important water source for wildlife. These wetlands are vital breeding grounds for both insects and amphibians. Larval stages of damselflies and dragonflies, as well as frog tadpoles, rely on the presence of water free from predators to complete their journey to adulthood. If the hydroperiod, or the duration of water presence, persists for a long time, numerous water plants that had remained dormant in the dry substrate will start growing again. Throughout the year, you’ll come across common plant species like Spatterdock, Carolina Redroot, and water lilies thriving in the marsh, while seasonal plants like the Smooth Beggarticks beautify the marsh during the autumn season.

During the wet season, a variety of reptiles are drawn to the pond. You may come across Florida Red-bellied Turtles, Banded Watersnakes, and even alligators in the marsh when conditions are favorable. Additionally, several mammal species are attracted to the pond, including White-tailed Deer, Common Raccoons, Virginia Opossums, and occasionally, Bobcats. In the vicinity of the wetland, you can find amphibians such as the American Bullfrog, Leopard frog, Cricket Frog, Green treefrog, and the Little grass frog.

The boardwalk marks the beginning of the Tortoise Loop Trail, which leads you through open scrubland dominated by oaks, palmettos, grasses, and goldenrods. The terrain features open sandy patches where various species of flowering plants, many of which are unique to Central Florida Scrub, can be observed. This area is favored by reptiles like the Six-line Racerunner, Eastern Fence Lizard, and the Gopher Tortoise, which is perhaps the most iconic reptile species in the scrub. As a keystone species, the Gopher Tortoise, with its extensive burrow system, provides habitat for nearly 300 other animal species. Snakes like the Eastern Rattlesnake and the Coachwhip seek refuge in the burrows created by the Gopher Tortoise.

The Gopher Tortoise primarily feeds on a variety of plants, including the pads and fruits of the Prickly Pear Cactus. Along the trail, you’ll encounter numerous flowering plants, including the yellow blossoms of the Sandhill St. John’s-Wort, Coastal Plain Honeycombhead, and Slender Goldentop, interspersed with Shortleaf Gayfeathers and Blazing-Stars. These flowers attract various nectar-feeding insects, including several species of bees and butterflies. Predatory insects and arachnids can be observed in many of these flowering plants. Keep an eye out for Green Lynx, Jumping, and Crab Spiders within the yellow blooms. The preserve is home to over 20 species of spiders. Praying mantises can also be found, along with a variety of dragonflies.Similar to most scrub habitats, mammals are typically elusive during daylight hours, as they tend to conduct the majority of their foraging activities during the cooler nighttime hours. However, if you’re patient and observant, you can spot a wide array of other creatures that inhabit the Lakeland Highlands Scrub  during the day by paying attention to the smaller details.

Plants & Wildlife of Lakeland Highlands Scrub

Where Are the Pollinators?

Where Are The Pollinators?

By Reinier Munguia

Recent explorations of nearby natural areas have sent shivers down my spine. Although it is widely acknowledged that our world is grappling with a severe decline in pollinators, I wasn’t prepared to personally witness this phenomenon. As a nature photographer I have documented wildlife in Florida and around the world for over twenty years. Having documented nature from the smallest of insects to the largest of mammals I consider myself really lucky for each of these encounters. The time spent outdoors observing nature has provided me with information to understand the factors affecting natural process.

When I first moved to Polk County in 2003, I was surprised by the abundant insect diversity I encountered while exploring trails in places like the Green Swamp or the Lake Wales Ridge. Even urban parks were rich sources of beetles, stinkbugs, butterflies, and bees. Those were the days when daily thunderstorms were the norm after 2 pm. However, I observed a shift as time went on, marked by less predictable weather patterns. Tropical storms grew more intense, and seasonal weather exhibited fluctuations, ranging from cooler-than-normal springs to milder winters. All these weather-related factors significantly affect insect populations, their foraging capabilities, and their reproductive success. To compound matters, there was a significant decline in honey bee colonies across the country, and these bees are crucial to food production. Fortunately, the United States is home to nearly 4,000 bee species, with nearly half of them specializing in pollen or pollination tasks, although none of them produce honey or live in colonies.

This summer, I chose to carry out insect surveys in various areas that had previously teemed with insect activity. To my surprise, even some of the most commonly encountered insect species were noticeably absent. Both cotton-stainers and stinkbugs were present in diminished numbers, and various butterfly species were also scarce. Disregarding the impact of weather conditions, it becomes evident that human activities are significantly contributing to the decline of pollinators, and a multitude of interconnected factors are in play. The reduction in insect populations can primarily be attributed to habitat loss and the widespread use of pesticides. Any alteration in the utilization of natural land inevitably affects all the species reliant on that specific piece of land. The expansion of urban areas plays a major role in the loss of biodiversity, while poorly regulated large-scale farming and ranching operations exacerbate this decline. Among these factors, the use of pesticides appears to be the most harmful contributor to the decline in pollinator populations.

However, attributing the problem solely to these two factors may lack foresight. Our human lifestyle choices are jeopardizing insect populations. In Florida, homes are renowned for their luxurious lawns and elaborate landscapes featuring non-native ornamental plants that offer no support to insect populations. An increasing number of individuals are opting to remove their trees out of concern for potential damage caused by trees during storms. Insurance companies exert pressure on their policyholders to eliminate trees that could result in insurance claims. The increasing number of roads and automobiles also represents a significant risk to biodiversity, including pollinators. While many individuals can easily recognize the impact of vehicular collisions on the mortality of birds or mammals, few may have considered the extent to which insects are killed by vehicles on a daily basis. The United States Fish & Wildlife Service has estimated that between 89 and 340 million birds die annually in the U.S. due to vehicle collisions. Given these figures, one can only imagine the multitude of insects meeting their demise in your car’s radiator.

Although we have multiple choices to secure the survival of upcoming generations of pollinators, the solution begins with us, right at home, by creating the essential habitats. This can be achieved simply by reducing our lawns by planting pollinator-friendly flowering plants, establishing water features that can serve as a resource for insects, especially those with a water-dependent life stage, and minimizing the use of pesticides in our immediate surroundings. Additionally, supporting land conservation and preservation is crucial to guarantee that our pollinators and other forms of life have access to the resources they require, resources that we can also enjoy.

Pure Golden Green Sweat Bee
One of various species of pollinating bees native to the southeastern United States. 

Poey’s Furrow Bee
This bee is the workhorse of pollen transfer.

Palamedes Swallowtail
This bee is the workhorse of pollen transfer.