Saturday, October 29, 2011

AIRIE Residency: Update #5

This update is associated with my 2-week-long Artists In Residence In the Everglades (AIRIE) writing and art residency.

AIRIE Housing; Everglades National Park; October 2011

Notes from Days 12, 13, & 14:
- I had the privilege of joining Florida International University Honors College professors Peter Machonis and Devon Graham as they led their "Everglades: From beginning to end?" seminar class on a slough slog. Before we waded into the river of grass, I presented a short lecture on my artwork, the importance of biodiversity, and the Endangered Species Print Project (ESPP).

I wrapped up the talk by highlighting the Endangered Species Condom project, an ESPP collaboration with the Center for Biological Diversity that aims to raise public awareness of the environmental impact of a burgeoning human population on natural resources, habitats, and thousands of critically endangered species around the world...and, of course, I distributed the Endangered Species Condoms to all in attendance.

The real fun started about an hour later, when we stepped into the water. As regular readers of HH know, I've seen plenty of flora and fauna from the roads and trails in my two weeks in Everglades National Park, but sloshing through sawgrass marshes and into two bald cypress stands provided another, more sensual prespective. We met countless spiders (all species unidentified, unfortunately), diminutive American green tree frogs, and Halloween pennant dragonflies (as well as other, unidentified dragonfly species) on our way to the cypress dome.

Once inside the dome's shaded, cooler, and humid environment, most of the students found seats on a hurricane-felled tree and the rest of us took up positions nearby. We ate lunch while the class described some of what they'd seen during our slog to the cypress stand. Afterwards, Peter led a discussion of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the novel by Zora Neale Hurston, which the class recently read. As students offered their insights, a curious, juvenile American alligator swam close to our group, provoking some "ooo"s and "aww"s (admittedly, tyke gators are cute).

I kept my eyes peeled for the flow of a Burmese python through the water. The python population in the Everglades is one of the most celebrated invasive species concerns in the United States. The week before I arrived, rangers caught a python crossing Anhinga Trail, a popular park destination. The rangers killed and dissected the large reptile to learn what it had been preying on. The pythons aren't picky eaters and they grow to nearly 20 feet in length; the recent capture had only birds and water rats in its belly, but these invaders have been known to feed on fish, raccoons, river otters, bobcats, deer, and even the occasional alligator. One ranger remarked to me that he rarely sees small mammals in the park anymore. A decade ago, he told me, visitors were guaranteed to see marsh rabbits, Eastern cottontail rabbits, Eastern grey squirrels, and nine-banded armadillos along the park's roads, but I haven't seen even one of these animals during my two weeks here.

"Do you think the pythons are responsible?," I asked the ranger. He shrugged and said, "Well, it could be a coincidence. Rabbits have population boom-and-bust cycles." "What about the armadillos?," I asked. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. "I'm not really sure about their populations. We can't prove anything yet." Some researchers now estimate that the established, breeding population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades is in the thousands.

Highlights of the slog (besides talking with some of the students and the professors) included seeing 2 American bitterns, a bird that I'm particularly fond of, and watching (and feeling) the mandibles of a grasshopper (unidentified as of yet) work on the the upper layer of my index finger's skin, scraping away little flecks of it, which the insect appeared to eat. It didn't hurt; it felt like a cross between being tickled and rubbed with a small piece of sandpaper. Had it been a larger grasshopper, I may not have been so obliging, but I enjoyed watching the insect at work.

Finally, I tip my hat to the aims of Peter and Devon. Their class curriculum is designed to introduce students to Everglades' natural history and "the political nature of local and regional environmental issues," but also to "read critically, to understand the interconnectedness of art, literature, and other disciplines." Amen! Its exactly the sort of generalist class I'd like to take....and the type of class I hope to one day teach. I hope that most of the students realize how fortunate they are to be a part of it.

- During the early days of my stay in the park, I didn't hear any cicadas. Now that the rain has become infrequent, however, I hear their clicking whine all day long. It reminds me of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, my home ground.

Tricolored Heron and Anhinga; Anhinga Trail; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- While I watched, a male anhinga caught a bluegill in the flooded borrow pit by Anhinga Trail. The fish was at least 3 inches in length, and the anhinga decided that he'd better not attempt to eat the fish while still in the water. Unlike most fish-eating birds, anhingas have to throw the fish they catch up into the air, open their beak wide, and swallow the fish as it descends. It's quite a trick to see, especially when the fish, as in the case of this bluegill, is of a fair size. The anhinga waddled (like penguins, anhingas are evolved for diving and swimming, and they're graceless on land) up the grass slope at the borrow pit's edge, his catch held tight in his bill. He moved onto the paved trail and, surrounded by a small group of excited German tourists (and me), pulled off the fish tossing feat with aplomb.

Common Snapping Turtle; Main Road; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- I stopped for 2 more common snapping turtles crossing park roads. One of these was an especially fine model. I also rescued a Florida box turtle from harassment by two American crows. Whether the crows would have eventually gotten past the turtle's shell defense, I don't know, but corvids are clever birds and, though I'm very fond of them, I opted to spoil their fun and potential meal by moving the turtle off the road and into the undergrowth at the forest's edge. The crows clucked and rattled at me in disapproval.

Florida Box Turtle with American Crows; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- I had an on-the-move photo shoot with another road-crosser, an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. As it continued to move across the road and through the grass on the far side, it kept its head and one s-curve of its body angled toward me, prepared to strike were I to molest it. The encounter was a treat; I've long wanted to meet an Eastern diamondback outside of an enclosure and now I have! Like the cottonmouth I met earlier in my visit, this is a snake that I have no inclination to handle and examine more closely, so I don't know it's gender.

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- Sadly, not far from where I came upon the rattler, I found a dead, partially crushed and ant-consumed rough green snake, a beautiful species that, when alive, is a radiant emerald; even dead, they are pretty snakes. Not counting insects or the dead dog wasting away on the roadside outside of park land (there are many dogs with apparently negligent owners living near the park), this is the 3rd dead-on-road (DOR) critter I've found. A red-shouldered hawk and a great blue heron also lost their lives to cars during my time here. There are almost certainly others that I didn't happen to discover.

DOR Rough Green Snake; Everglades National Park; October 2011

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena (Christopher Reiger), 2011

Related post: "ESPP and an Everglades Slough Slog," at The Endangered Species Print Project Blog


Dief said...

Bummer about the red-shouldered hawk and heron. Unfortunately we are hearing about panthers being killed by vehicles on a weekly basis. Love the blog by the way :-)

Hungry Hyaena said...

Hey, Dief.


And, yeah, the Florida panther roadkill issue is one of the sad challenges I plan to work into the longer essay that develops as I think about the AIRIE experience. I read somewhere -- I should fact check this, but don't have the file with me now -- that almost 20 cats have lost their lives on the Tamiami Trail in 2011, on pace to break a(n unfortunate) record.

I suppose developers can try to spin that as a sign of rebounding populations, so the rising death toll doesn't necessarily make stricter speed limits more or less likely to be instituted....and, practically speaking, it would be hard to expect drivers to cruise across the state at 40 mph! Highway underpasses (i.e., raising sections of the TT) seem like the best bet, and there seems to be growing consensus. Fingers crossed.