DEATH AND LIFE IN AN EMERALDA SUMMER

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The feel of Emeralda in the summer is entirely different from a few weeks earlier.  Though it's not yet summer according to the calendar as I write this (June 9), it is as judged by biological events, and by me. I don't even know exactly what languid means, but somehow it fits my take on the marsh at this time of year.  Most mornings, it's baking by 9:00, so early rising becomes a necessity.  Foggy mornings (left and center below) are a treat.  That's water hemlock in bloom in the center shot.  On the right are a pair of wood ducks (the tiny specks) enjoying the early morning sun in an old dead cedar that sits in the midst of one of the rather thickly vegetated areas of marsh.   Since I've been doing these censuses, that cedar has been the perch of a rich variety of birds, including a Cooper's hawk, Osprey, many flickers, blackbirds, herons, Pileated woodpeckers, and several others I'm certainly forgetting (not to mention the wood ducks).

Vegetation in the marshes is tremendously variable, depending
on the water level, and I presume, on recent history.   It appears to be in a process of succession or transition,
as suggested by the vigorous clump
of pickerel weed on the left growing
out of the old dead stems of last year's pigweed.   Boundaries  between one vegetative association and another
can be abrupt (right). Here,
Alternanthera philoxeroides
gives
way to a mixture of pickerel-weed and cattails.

                           

The death of large animals always comes as something of a shock, even though you know it must happen with regularity.  I knew one morning when I saw a flock of black vultures concentrated along one area of the dike that something unusual was up.  They were feasting on this big dead gator in one of the canals connected to Lake Griffin.  He's been painted red on the abdomen by Freshwater Fish and Game personnel to indicate he's been accounted for.   Apparently, a number of dead gators show up in Lake Griffin every spring; the suspected culprit is a toxic algae called Cylindrospermopsis that supposedly increases when phosphate levels go up in the lake.  It's probably a significant observation that these dead gators appear in the lake, not in the flow-way.

     

Balancing the occasional glimpses of mortality in marsh inhabitants are the occasions when you get to see animals acutely involved in self-preservation. One of my most amusing observations on the flow-way occurred in the third week of May, and involved the raccoon above.  I see raccoons occasionally on my censuses, but they usually bolt into the thick cover along the sides of the dikes as soon as they see me.  I spotted this little guy ambling down one of the dikes towards what looked from a distance like a big black Hefty bag full of garbage,  but what in fact was a 9 or 10 foot  gator.  The raccoon stopped short when he got to about 30 feet from the big gator, which was watching the little coon carefully as well.  The raccoon studied the situation for about 2-3 minutes, and first started to skirt the gator to his left (he had about 25 feet of open grassy dike available to him in which to pass by the gator).  He chose not to pursue that option, though, and then turned to move back to his right, never taking his eye off the big crocodilian, but never getting any closer to it than about 25 feet.  Apparently, the little raccoon decided that he a) didn't want to leave the grassy dike and enter the thicker grass and brush along the edge, and b) didn't want to risk going around the gator to his left.  Instead, he turned around and came loping back up the dike straight towards where I was watching from my car.  He eventually passed me about 15 feet away, still avoiding entering the thicker cover.  Apparently a stationary teal green Honda Civic is less intimidating to a young raccoon than is a large male gator, which is, I suppose, as it should be. 

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