Monthly Archives: April 2017

A Great Day at the Southside Community Resource Expo

Tallahassee CARES Community Resource Expo, South City

Saturday, March 27, 2017

By Elizabeth Platt

The day was sparkling as we arrived at 8:30 to set up the Audubon display tables along Polk Street in front of the I-Grow Community Garden which faces Orange Avenue to the south.  Devoted largely to the growing of vegetables by the Tallahassee Food Network, the garden is also the site of a 120 square foot pollinator garden planted by owners and staff of Native Nurseries, and funded by Apalachee Audubon.  This garden, maintained by the garden team and a few neighbors, has been the learning focus of a small number of children from the neighborhood; each of the 20 native plants in the garden will attract the specific insect with which it has co-evolved, and will in turn begin bringing birds to feed on the insects.

Peter Kleinhenz helps kids play the migration game.
Photo by Elizabeth Platt

There were two sites for the Audubon display, the first of which was at the garden where creative, fun, and educational hands-on activities were supervised by Betsy Sullivan, Laurie Jones, Dee Wilder, and Peter Kleinhenz.  Betsy had created a matching game with eight pictures of birds, each of which had a different kind of beak, eight tools each corresponding to the function of one of the beaks, and eight representations of food that would be eaten by one of the eight birds.  For example, the hummingbird’s beak performs the function of a straw, and the straw would be used to take nectar from a flower.  Environmental educator and board member, Peter Kleinhenz had brought a migration game, consisting of a map of North America with migratory flyways indicated, several colored rings that each represented a wildlife refuge, and bean bags representing birds that would be migrating along one of the NA flyways.  The object was for a child to toss a bean bag into a ring.  The learning objective was for kids to understand that the location of the refuges with respect to each other is crucial to the survival of the birds during migration.

Pat and Carol educate kids and adults about Apalachee Audubon activities.

Laurie, a science teacher like Betsy, and Dee Wilder, grant writer who helped conceptualize the multi-faceted project that led to the Expo, assisted Betsy and Peter, and helped visitors when they arrived at their station.  Norma Woodcock, supervisor of the I-Grow garden and steward of the pollinator garden as well, was with us all day, giving tours of the I-Grow garden and talking to visitors.  Later in the day Judy Goldman came to help, and Lily Anderson from Native Nurseries, also an AAS board member, arrived with a small display of plants and helpful literature.  She and Peter later erected a bird box and baffle at the east end of the larger garden.  During the digging Peter encountered an eastern spadefoot toad, an unusual animal that emerges from deep underground only once a year to  breed.  It was quite an exciting moment!

Elizabeth, Peter, and Norma work on installing a bluebird box in the garden.

The other Audubon area consisted of two tables down Polk Street closer to the other exhibits.  There Pat Press and Carol Franchi, AAS board and education committee members, established their display of books, the most popular of which is one that shows a picture of a bird associated with its call or song.  They, too, had a number of brochures and bookmarks with the AAS web address to distribute as they chatted with visitors.  AAS President Budd Titlow, Elizabeth Platt, expo event coordinator for AAS, and Christina Mbuya, FAMU environmental studies graduate student, assisted, engaging visitors in conversations about birds seen in their neighborhood.  At that location were two posters that had been made by youngsters in the neighborhood shortly before the Expo, one illustrating the native plant, insect, bird connection, and the other displaying several common birds they might see in South City.

What we learned during the expo is that South City people are indeed interested in the natural world around them, are often dedicated gardeners, and openly welcomed AAS to their neighborhood.  I believe participants thought the day was well-spent, and that the neighborhood should remain a focus of AAS.  There are willing ears and hearts interested in the message of good stewardship of our precious environment and the creatures who inhabit it with us.

Elusive To Impossible: The Future of the Black Rail

Few birds in the United States raise eyebrows like the black rail. In birding circles, mentioning a sighting of a black rail is akin to mentioning a successful summit of Mt. Everest in a climbing circle. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s certainly not something that typically occurs without an incredible amount of effort.

Black rails, a dimunitive species reaching only 6 inches high and possessing terrifying red eyes, don’t have the visual attraction of, say, an oriole. But what they lack in beauty they make up for in habit. Most of their lives consist of squeezing through dense, grassy vegetation (ever heard “skinny as a rail”?) in the salt marshes or isolated inland marshes they call home. Almost strictly nocturnal, their behavior is the opposite of what makes a bird easy to find.

A black rail skulks through the marsh.
Photo by USFWS

When birders seek these birds out, nothing is guaranteed. Most people visit known locales and play calls in the hopes of summoning the “Ki Ki Krr” response. For many, this is the only interaction with these species they ever have. Actually seeing one requires incredible luck. But even that slim opportunity may become much slimmer.

A recent report by the Center for Conservation Biology, and an article summarizing this research, suggests that black rails are disappearing…fast. The usual suspects of habitat loss, unbalanced ecosystems, and habits conducive to scarcity have limited the numbers of this species. But it’s climate change that’s pushing it over the edge.

Salt marsh habitat of the black rail in Florida

Most black rails in the United States live out their lives in coastal salt marshes, such as those existing within St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Big Bend Wildlife Management Area. These habitats will be the first to go as the sea level continues to rise. And, when it does, the black rail will vanish.

All hope is not lost, however. The black rail currently sits in the company of the wolverine and Louisiana pine snake as a species very likely to be listed under the Endangered Species Act within the next few years. Of course, this is not assured. However, the attention even a proposed listing garners may alert the birding community that more land needs to be protected, more studies need to be completed, and more people need to become aware of this secretive species. Such efforts matter, whether any of us ever see one or not.

The Real Florida Belongs to You

Have you ever wondered what Florida’s landscape looked like in 1539 when Desoto’s expedition traveled up the peninsula from Bradenton to Tallahassee?  I used to think that he had to hack his way through a jungle of dense thickets.  Not so.  Florida’s upland landscape was open.  One could see a half mile across the pinelands and grasslands.  No trails were needed.  It was open country because of frequent fires caused by lightning and by Native Americans.  Fires created an abundant and diverse wildflower garden causing Ponce de Leon to name this paradise “Florida” after Spain’s Feast of the Flowers festival.  It was the land of flowers because it was the land of fire.

Desoto wouldn’t recognize the formerly open landscape today because, that which remains undeveloped, is choked with underbrush and other vegetation that has invaded the uplands.  Natural fires can no longer manage the pinelands and prairies as before.   Fortunately, government land management agencies and some private land owners are now managing their land with fire.

Wet Flatwoods, Jonathon Dickinson State Park Photo by Jim Stevenson

Thanks to the wisdom of Florida’s leaders in the 1940s, the Florida Park Service was directed to “acquire typical portions of the original domain of such character as to emblemize the state’s natural values and to conserve these values for all time.”  The park service is actively restoring park lands to their original condition, to the extent possible.  Trees can live to old age without being felled by chain saws and converted to board feet.  Our parks are the best opportunities to easily observe and photograph wildlife inhabiting vast prairies, swamps, pinelands and marshes.  This is possible because parks don’t tame wildlife, they tame people.

Today you can enjoy the largest springs and the four top beaches in the U.S., ornate cave formations, the largest sinkhole, diverse and abundant wildlife, and coral reefs in the world’s first underwater park.   We can enjoy recreation, and observing and photographing these outstanding natural values in our state parks—The Real Florida.

We trust our leaders will demonstrate such wisdom for the health of the state parks and enjoyment of the people of Florida and tourists.

Jim A. Stevenson
Former Chief Naturalist
Florida State Parks