Monday, February 22, 2016

The New Tram Ridge Trail at the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge

Staff of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge have recently completed a new trail in the refuge headquarters area near Fowler's Bluff, Florida. It is an unusually appealing trail, and anyone completing the 2.8 mile loop can get a better understanding of the past, present, and desired future of the refuge.

Forking to the right at the beginning of the loop and going in a counterclockwise direction, visitors first pass through an area with widely spaced pine trees and extensive low vegetation.

Former Pine Plantation Undergoing Restoration
Once a tree farm densely planted with slash pines (Pinus elliotii), restoration efforts have included removal of many of the pines, opening the canopy and permitting light penetration to the ground to promote the growth of a diverse community of low-growing plants. Regular controlled burns prevent the invasion of hardwood trees. The natural vegetation of the area would have included widely-spaced longleaf pines (Pinus palustris), and management here has sought to functionally recreate this landscape--a savanna--that historically covered much of Florida and the southeastern coastal plain. Longleaf pines are being reestablished in parts of the refuge, but this restoration strategy is costly, laborious, and mostly undertaken on relatively small sites. Large scale thinning planted stands of slash pines is feasible and believed to be an efficient substitute.

Interspersed with the pine savanna are occasional wetlands dominated by pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) and mesic hardwoods such as red maple (Acer rubrum).

Slash pines like moist soil, but another species, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) occurs on even wetter sites normally on the edges of wetlands.

Loblolly pine on the edge of a wetland.
Loblolly pines are relatively rare on the refuge. They can be distinguished from slash pines by shorter needles, smaller cones, darker bark with reddish, rather than brownish plates, and upward branching rather than dome-like crowns.

Even rarer are longleaf pines. Those in the photo below were found in a small patch where the trail comes close to County Road 347. Very long needles, large cones, bark that is scaly rather than broken into regular plates, and more open crowns distinguish these pines from the others. I saw no sign of reproduction of longleaf here, although these trees may not yet be old enough to produce fertile cones.

Longleaf pine.
Growth of pine trees is not the ultimate goal of habitat restoration. That goal instead is to promote the growth of the rich understory that is the repository of much of the region's biological diversity. Low woody vegetation, includes saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), gallberry (Ilex spp.), fetterbush and staggerbush (Lyonia spp), and other hardwood shrubs. These do not normally completely cover the ground, and are kept in check by fires. Resultant openings leave room for diverse grasses and forbs, and provide favored habitat for species like the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) and the constellation of species that its presence promotes.

The trail crosses a small hardwood hammock and soon enters an area of scrub forest.

This dry area is shaded by a thin canopy of scrub oaks, prominently
including sand live oak (Quercus geminata) and myrtle oak (Quercus myrifolia). This area is probably too dry for growth of pines, and its trees have little or no economic value. Loggers did put the ridge to use, however. It proved to be an ideal place to build a tram trail--a light railway used for getting lumber on its way to markets. As can be seen in the photo below, very little effort was needed to build a roadbed here.

Tram trail

A flat, straight trail could be constructed with little need to move significant quantities of earth. Unfortunately, the ridge gave out before its builders had achieved the desired distance, and as the landscape became wetter, it became necessary to construct a more substantial embankment.


Not only did continuation of the tramway require more work, but it caused more serious and longer lasting damage to the environment. Acting like a dam, the half mile long embankment interrupted the normal flow of surface and ground water, making some places wetter, and others drier than before. In places ponds were formed where they would not otherwise have occurred.

Pond vegetation in a ditch created by construction of the tramway embankment

Changes caused by construction of logging roads are a problem throughout the refuge, and they are unlikely to be reversed, owing to the level of effort required and the difficulty of recreating drainage patterns that were disrupted long ago. The problem of hydrological change is particularly severe in the refuge's lowland swamps where ditches interrupt sheet flow of water. Some uplands have been further damaged by "windrowing," in which deep furrows were dug in order to create artificial "slashes" --depressions that would collect moisture and favor the growth of slash pines. 

Despite various habitat alterations, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge is a rich repository of biological diversity. In the first mile of the Tram Ridge Trail one encounters a restored pine savanna, and large and small patches of different communities, including forested wetlands, palmettos and hardwood shrubs, grasslands, a hardwood hammock, and xeric scrub. Each of these habitats has its own assemblage of plant and animal species, and the mosaic they form accommodates a diverse mixture of species favoring not only each different habitat, but also those favoring their borders and the transition areas between them. 

By the end of the trail visitors will have gotten a better understanding of damages done to the natural environment by industrial timber production. These include more or less reversible damage being addressed by ongoing restoration activities, and the less reversible changes resulting for road construction and other landscape alterations. The restored pine plantations provide a glimpse of what the natural savanna vegetation of the region might have looked like. They also provide hope for the future in the eventual restoration of their diverse plant and animal communities.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


  Residents and longtime visitors to Cedar Key are aware that much of the land- and seascape in the area has changed in recent years. With the help of global warming, black mangrove (Avicenna germinans) trees have invaded salt marsh, become established along shorelines, and have grown up on low islands and oyster bars. Sensitive to cold, these mostly tropical trees are "pruned" when upper branches suffer from frostbite, or are even killed outright by freezing temperatures. Lacking serious freezes for a number of years the trees have grown both in size and coverage locally.

Black mangroves dominate scenes in Cedar Key's backwater areas.

Mangroves reproduce prodigiously, and over time tend to form dense canopies that shade out salt marsh plants and other shoreline vegetation.

Reproduction of black mangroves under the Cemetery Point boardwalk. Young plants with leaves, interspersed in this image with the leafless pneumatophorees extending from the roots of larger trees.
Red mangroves (Riphora mangle) are even less tolerant of cold than the unrelated black mangroves, and in the past they have been relatively rare in the Cedar Key area. They seem to be increasing, however, and can be seen at a number of places around the islands. Several small plants can be seen from the boardwalk and observation deck in Cemetery Point Park.

Red mangrove seen from the observation deck at Cemetery Point.

Small red mangrove seen from the Cemetery Point boardwalk.

Red mangroves can be distinguished from black mangroves by four different characteristics. The most striking difference is in their distinctive prop roots, which grow out from their trunks and curve down into the moist soil. Their leaves are broader than black mangrove leaves, and they are a more vibrant green than the grayish green leaves of black mangroves. Finally, they tend to have trunks that grow straight upward, rather than branching near the base, as do many black mangroves.

A single hard freeze could kill most of our red mangroves, but even then a few are likely to persist. And, if our climate continues to warm as is predicted, our wetlands are in for continued change.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fee-fi-fo-fum: Chiggers in the Adirondacks

I remember as a child sometime back in the early 1950s coming back from an outing at Lake Bonaparte covered with mysterious bites. I was miserable, and my mother and the neighbors had no idea what had afflicted me. The best they could come up with was "it must be sand-fleas."

Flash ahead to 1962, and I'm in graduate school in Kansas. I've been hired by my major professor to help him by catching glass lizards, a species he has been studying. I'm a miserable failure because at the end of the day my body is covered with welts. I couldn't sleep for the itching. Poison ivy, I guessed, but when I went to the campus medical center, they immediately diagnosed my problem as aggravated chigger bites.

Flash ahead again to 2006, and we're staying in Wanakena. I spent several hours walking along the "back" road from the Oswegatchie River bridge toward the junction of County Route 61, photographing wildflowers and butterflies along the roadside. Later I was covered with chigger bites and, having encountered the critters throughout the midwest and south, I had no doubts what they were. 

I recalled my late father-in-law telling me there indeed are chiggers in the Adirondacks, but until my own experience, I had remained skeptical.

Adirondack chiggers may be less hungry or, more likely restricted to a brief limited feeding cycle in the northern part of their range, but I've become a believer.

Interestingly, only "yankees" seem to be susceptible to chiggers. Maybe having lived in the south for so long, I've developed a sort of immunity. 

Any other experiences with chiggers in the North Country?


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Wood is Good

If it weren't for The Summer of a Thousand Cheeses, I might not know how important this issue is to the American artisan cheese world. Wish I could be in Vermont for the "Wood Is Good" meeting tomorrow afternoon.

Here are a couple of links to catch you up on the story if you haven't been following it.


Monday, January 27, 2014

A Striped Mud Turtle

A striped mud turtle (Kinosternon baurii), pictured above, seen crossing through our back yard this afternoon. This species, restricted to the southeast, wanders farther from water than most mud turtles. By the way, our back yard is muddy after heavy rains, but is normally quite dry, as it was today. Temperatures were in the seventies, but may get near freezing overnight tomorrow.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Palm Tree

I've been watching what I believed was a dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) that came in as a volunteer near the corner of our house. It seemed to be getting larger and larger, and for a while I wondered whether it might be a real palm tree--a cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto). Then I thought it was probably just a large specimen of the dwarf species, and dismissed the idea that it might be a cabbage palm--until a few days ago. We're planning some major re-landscaping in the front yard, and the landscaper suggested that he plant native needle palms (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) in this area. "Why not leave the dwarf palmetto where it is, and surround it with needle palms?" I said."That's no dwarf palmetto," he said, "it's a cabbage palm."

"Then we should probably transplant it," I said. "No," he replied (and here's a factoid!). "Palms don't transplant when they're small. That's why you see large trees planted, often propped up with boards; they need to have enough stored energy in their trunks to replace the roots damaged in transplanting."

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A New Oak

The vegetation of Cedar Key and nearby areas that were once sand dunes is called "scrub," with scrubby oaks and occasional pines being the most common kinds of trees. Sand live oak and myrtle oak are the two most frequent species, but a third one, Chapman's oak, is said to be commonly present also. For the past few years I've been trying to learn this one, but haven't been able to convince myself that I had seen one.

In the past couple of days it appeared that I might have to lead a nature walk in the Cedar Key Scrub state reserve as part of the Nature Coast Paddling Festival (the nature walk won't be happening, at least not soon). Looking at a species list, Chapman's oak is reported to be present on the property. I decided to look up photos, so I would know one if I encountered it. When I saw the photos, the plants looked very familiar--so familiar, in fact, that I realized one is growing right here in our one-tenth acre lot.
Chapman's Oak (Quercus chapmanii)

Why had this one given me so much trouble? Part of the problem had to do with myrtle oak (Quercus myrtifolia), and the variations it shows in leaf form.

Myrtle oak leaves on mature branches

Myrtle oak leaves as they often appear on sprouts

I had been thinking that the leaves of what turned out to be Chapman's oak were a third, possibly stressed, form of myrtle oak. Also, this unimposing and apparently obscure tree wasn't recognized as a separate species until A.W. Chapman, M.D. first described it in 1860.  

Now I know the third member of the trio, and have the further satisfaction of having all three kinds of scrub oaks right here in our yard.