Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lower Suwannee Waterfowl, Part 1

Years ago, when boning up for my new job as Staff Specialist for Migratory Bird Research in the Fish and Wildlife Service, I quickly learned that Florida is not a hotspot for wintering ducks, geese, or swans. 

Now that we live in north Florida, we occasionally see wood ducks and mottled ducks, both year-round residents. The only snowbirds we have routinely noted are small rafts of lesser scaup, seen near Cedar Key, and frequent and abundant hooded mergansers on freshwater ponds around Gainesville.

An exception was our sighting on a freshwater pond on the Lower Suwannee NWR of what in the distance appeared to be pintails. They stayed far enough away to make identification difficult. One did come close enough for us to take a fuzzy photo, which appeared to confirm the identification. Still other photos kindly provided by Tom Liebert revealed at least two additional species. I will post information about them later, when identifications have been confirmed. Meanwhile, I hope that others will add their observations.

Freshwaer pond on the refuge; zoom in to see what we believe is a pintail
A glance at the FWS graphics below offers clues why Florida is not more important for wintering waterfowl. The species breeding abundantly in the Prairie Pothole region--the continent's "duck factory"--winter in the lower Mississippi region. Lesser numbers breed in the northeast, and most winter along the mid-Atlantic coast.

Mississippi Flyway
Atlantic Flyway

Monday, January 24, 2011

What to do with Whey?

whey remaining from cheese curds recipe
In our last two cheese making adventures we tried to save all the whey when draining and pressing curds. We lost some, but in the end had 10+ quarts of the stuff. We found few recipes, but learned from Ricki the Cheese Queen that whey is a good substitute for broth in soups. So we tried several soups, substituting whey for the usual broth. Attempts and results are as follow: 1) cabbage soup (A winner and almost free, we made this with a half-head of leftover cabbage); 2)  mushroom soup (We loved it, but who could go wrong with any dish containing a half-pound of Grade A shiitakes?); 3) fusion gumbo (Our own creation, this was delicious as always and even better with whey); 4) split pea soup with ham (This was also good, the only difference noted was a bit more foaming in the initial cooking than with chicken broth or water); 5) pozole (This was a real challenge because we had trouble imagining how pozole made with whey would taste. It tasted pretty good, but fans of real pozole might think this one lacked authenticity).

pozole sint├ętico con suero de la leche
I looked up Calories in whey, wondering how the caloric content of whey compares with homemade chicken broth. Searching the web, I found that whey has 59 Calories per cup, whereas the homemade "chicken stock" we normally use is credibly listed at 97 Calories per cup. This is in contrast to the canned or boxed "chicken broth" found in grocery stores, most kinds of which have about 20 Calories per cup. So whether using whey saves Calories depends on whether you normally use homemade chicken stock or store-bought chicken broth.

The recipes linked above are not meant to be prescriptive; we seldom follow them to the letter, and aren't afraid to get creative.

Friday, January 21, 2011

More on Longleaf Pine

Reproductive Stages of Longleaf
I finished Lawrence Earley's book and made some additional windshield surveys for longleaf pines, seeking to explain their apparent absence as one approaches the Gulf Coast.

One bit of good news: they aren’t completely absent from the areas where I had failed to notice them earlier. Searching more intently, I spotted a few along State Highway 24 between Bronson and Cedar Key. Indeed, they were not infrequent in the Cedar Key Scrub State Preserve, sharing a scattered overstory with sand and slash pines. They even appeared to be reproducing in a few locations. They were rare in the Devil’s Hammock, an area obviously intensively managed for slash pines. This area is quite wet, as is much of the land between Otter Creek and Rosewood, and slash pines might dominate wet sites even in the absence of management.

Information gleaned from the book led to some insights concerning otherwise suitable places where longleaf pines are rare or absent. These pines take many decades to reach maturity and once cut over, there is little incentive for commercial foresters to replant them or encourage their regrowth. Loblolly and slash pines, on the other hand, grow much more rapidly and can be harvested after only a few decades. And pines grown for pulpwood are best for paper production if harvested at 20 years or less. The economic advantages of quick rotation have caused commercial forest management to favor these fast-growing species to the exclusion of longleaf, and many public forests have also been managed for maximum timber harvests. It should be of little surprise that the longer and more intensively an area has been managed, the less likely one is to find longleaf. Conversely, occasional specimens are often encountered on suitable lands that were never subjected to intensive forest management.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Amazing Cheese Story, Day 1

Last night was our first class in The Amazing Cheese Story at Santa Fe College Community Education. We have a fantastic group of cheese enthusiasts in the class. We talked about the best of times and the worst of times for American cheese. We sampled two artisanal cheddars, a goat milk and a cow milk. And we tried the cheese curds that Russ and I made earlier in the day...not quite ready for prime time, but pretty good. They just didn't have the magic cheese curd squeak. We are eager to try again with better milk. We had to use homogenized because it was all we could get yesterday. Maybe the squeak was pulverized out when it was homogenized.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Longleaf Pine

Longleaf Pine (San Felasco State Preserve)
I just bought a copy of Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest by Lawrence Earley (University of North Carolina Press, 2004 ). It tells the story of a southern tree, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and the diverse ecosystems it once dominated. These trees formerly covered vast areas of the coastal plain of North America, from southern Virginia to east Texas. 

I am less than 20% through the book, but already find it both revealing and challenging. I am hoping that before reading too much farther I will get a better sense of the local distribution of longleaf pine and understand why it apparently does not now occur on the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Is past management at fault, or are more basic constraints at work? The species is regarded as the keystone of a unique and once widespread ecosystem, and losses over its once expansive distribution are decried by conservation biologists. Efforts are underway to reintroduce it on the Lower Suwannee Refuge, and any insights gained about strategies for restoration might prove useful. 

San Felasco longleaf (r) and loblolly (l)
We have longleaf pines near our home in Gainesville, in an area of pine flatwoods where we often hike, in neighborhoods and roadsides, scattered among loblololly (Pinus taeda) and slash (Pinus ellioti) pines, often rapidly being crowded out by oaks and other broad-leaf trees. They are abundant in varied habitats on the San Felasco Hammock State Preserve and are reproducing in areas subject to heavy management. Driving, as we often do, between Gainesville and Cedar Key, we see few longleaf pines until we get to Archer, whereupon they become frequent, being among the most abundant trees seen along the ten-mile stretch between Archer and Bronson. Thereafter, through the Devil's Hammock to Otter Creek and on to Cedar Key, scarcely a longleaf pine is to be seen. Slash pines are dominant, increasingly joined by scrubby sand pines (Pinus clausa) as we approach to coast.

We are puzzled by the apparent absence of longleaf pines on the refuge and wondering whether they were ever a dominant species there. Stay tuned. Reading Easley's book is like following a mystery story, wondering what clues may appear to reveal where the story is going. Follow us as the mystery unfolds.

Good Bacteria versus Bad

Last week at our Local Cheeses, Dairy Farms, and Cheese Lovers presentation at Gainesville’s The Atrium senior community, I was asked a question to which I responded inadequately. It was a very good question, but I had not anticipated it and was unable to give it the full explanation it deserved. So I’ll use this blog post as an opportunity to try to do it right.
The question went something like this: “You said that the good bacteria used in cheesemaking overwhelm and outcompete the bad bacteria. My question is how do they do that?”

So here is what I hope will be a better answer.

1)    Oxygen is in short supply in milk. Bacteria in the starter culture (Lactococcus lactis or similar) thrive in the absence of oxygen, a condition that many other bacteria can't tolerate.
2)    Starter bacteria are added in overwhelming numbers so they will be far more abundant than other bacteria in the milk.
3)    The milk is at a temperature favorable for growth and reproduction of the starter bacteria, but less so for some less desirable bacteria.
4)    In growing and reproducing explosively, the huge numbers of starter bacteria rapidly deplete the supply of the sugar lactose, the most available food, converting it to lactic acid.
5)    The accumulation of lactic acid makes the milk more acidic, increasing its acidity as much as 100 fold, and  making conditions unsuitable for many other bacteria.
6)    The good bacteria are helped in their competition by cheesemakers who alter the selective environment by adding salt to the curd, creating conditions that inhibit many bacteria.

There may be even more to it if one were to delve more fully into the microbial environment, but if I could have given the above answer to the questioner, I would have felt much better about having provided a worthy response.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Getting Ready

The first session of our community education short course The Amazing Cheese Story is scheduled for next Tuesday. We are having a grand time getting ready for it. Participants will be learning about cheese, sampling cheeses, and making simple cheeses. We hope and trust they will be having as much fun as we expect to have.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Turned that Milk into Cheese

We spent a whole day this week playing in the kitchen and making our first farmhouse cheddar in months. We used the non homogenized milk that we describe in the previous post. The pictures tell the story.
Preparing the thermometer
Used a hot plate to avoid having the old canner on the glass-topped range.
Setting up the camcorder. Never know when a video might came in handy.
Used butter muslin, cheese cloth, rennet, and a mesophilic bacteria culture. all purchased from New England Cheesemaking Supply.
Heated the milk. Added the bacteria and rennet. Heating again.
Waiting and waiting. Twiddling our thumbs.
At last.  We cut the curds and separated the whey.

Drained most of the whey into the bowl and hung the curds to finish the draining.
A wider view of the sophisticated draining apparatus.
Cheese is in the cheese press, wrapped in cheese cloth.
Twelve houses later the cheese is out of the press being bandaged in cheese cloth for drying.
Neatness counts.
We'll age this one until the last day of our cheese course at local Santa Fe College. We hope it is good enough to bring to the Tasting on the final day of class. Need to turn it over everyday to keep it lovely shape.
We substituted whey for broth in a recipe for cabbage soup. Yummy!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Why Buttressed Trunks on Wetland Trees?

OK, no comments on the blog, but here is one answer that nature offered to me while I was conducting a study many years ago (in 1995, in fact). I was doing a followup survey of a population of box turtles that had been marked 50 years earlier. The questions were: how many turtles were still alive five decades later, and what was the current status of the population? The site was a floodplain forest of Maryland's Patuxent River in the current Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge.

While searching for turtles, I snapped the accompanying photo of beaver damage to a beech (I think) tree. Note where the beavers have (and have not) chewed, and envision the impossibility that they could proceed around the entire circumference, thereby girdling, and ultimately killing the tree. The grooves or creases between the buttresses seem to be inaccessible to beaver teeth, and the animals had to make do with the convex surfaces on the buttresses.

But there are no (or at least very few) beavers in Florida, you might say. I would counter that fossil beavers were common here, perhaps 20,000 years ago. But really, beavers are unnecessary, and the trees are probably older than beavers anyway. Picture the damage that might occur to the lower bark of trees in swamps during raging floods that carried tree trunks and other heavy debris downstream. Like the Maryland beavers, the flood-borne materials could surely abrade bark from tree trunks, threatening their survival. However, with buttressed trees, the exposed buttresses of flooded trees might be abraded, but the bark in the concave surfaces between buttresses would be relatively safe. So protected, the trees could live to endure many more floods.

P.S. Re: the box turtle study. A few turtles first marked in 1945 remained in 1995. And the population, although apparently devastated by severe flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1973, appeared to be on the road to recovery. Regrettably, although we published our results, no subsequent publications have documented the later status of the population.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Cheese Milk

Each time we make cheese at home we manage to do some things a bit better. The things we don't improve we vow we will work on the next time. In this January's cheesemaking, we are for the first time using very good milk for cheeses. When we began a few years ago, we used standard grocery store whole milk. Later we tried organic milk. Learning that non-homogenized milk is essential if one wants to make really good cheese, we sought it out. When we couldn't find it, we followed the advice of a cheesemaker we know. He had been making his own non-homogenized milk by mixing grocery store-bought skim milk with heavy cream. We aren't sure we noticed any differences in our results with different milks, but wanting to remove all possible obstacles to success, we kept looking.

This year we made major progress when we discovered that the Wainwright Dairy of nearby Live Oak, Florida provides pasteurized, non-homogenized milk at our local Ward's Supermarket. So we bought two gallons and used it in making a farmhouse cheddar. The cheesemaking seemed to go very well, but we won't be able to tell you about the final product for a month or more.

Before beginning to make cheese, we poured some of our milk into a clear glass container so we could see the layer of cream at the top. We include a photo here, although the cream line shows up poorly. Also, we should have used a vessel shaped like one of those old-fashioned milk bottles with tapered necks to better show off the cream.

Why do trunks of wetland trees often have buttressed bases? Looking for Ideas...

Scene from the Lower Suwannee NWR - click to enlarge

The photo above, made in the floodplain forest of the lower Suwannee River National Wildlife Refuge, shows the trunks of what appear to be at least three kinds of trees. The one in the mid-distance at the center left is clearly a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). I would need to return to the site to know for sure, but suspect the one only partially shown in the near left is a water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) and the leaning one in the right foreground is a water hickory (Carya aquatica). What they have in common and with several other kinds of wetland trees is the way the fluted bases of their trunks differ from the mostly circular bases of their upland relatives. Even when the same species may thrive in both wet and dry sites, they may have trunks with mostly round bases in the dry sites and extensive buttressing in wet sites. 

Swollen trunks in wetland trees are believed to develop when flooding causes hormones and nutrients to accumulate near the water line, promoting more rapid growth in that part of the trunk. The fascinating question is not how buttresses are formed, but why they are formed. Nature is rarely wasteful, and unless the energy invested in buttresses produces some advantages for their trees, they likely would disappear.

Any ideas about the significance of these formations--what they do for the trees? I have one, but am interested in what others may think about the value of buttressed trunks. I'll reveal mine in a later post.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Kudos to the Smallest Hospital in New York State

Clifton-Fine Hospital 2003
In Gem of the Adirondacks I wrote of the smallest hospital in New York State and my experiences there. Not quite out of my teens, I had taken many spills while water skiing on Star Lake with friends. Two days later I was admitted to our local Clifton-Fine Hospital with double pneumonia. I nearly died, but thanks to the people at the hospital my demise was postponed, so far by 48 mostly interesting years.

A few years ago we were again in Star Lake when one of us had an unexpected and disturbing vision problem. At the hospital's clinic we learned that there is no ophthalmologist on staff, but they could give us contact information for several in towns an hour or so away. That's fine, we said, but our cottage doesn't have a telephone (everyone knows that cell phones don't work there). No problem the receptionist said, and she promptly made the call herself and got us an appointment for us that very day.

New Construction and New Facade 2010
Visiting the community last year, we noticed construction underway on a significant new addition. And late in the year we received a solicitation for a donation to help pay for the new facilities. The new wing will support consulting and out-patient care. We gladly responded and we commend others to support the organization also. It is one of the community's most valuable assets.

Decades after the water skiing mishap, we now live in a community of perhaps a quarter of a million people with a major university and at least three very large hospitals. Indeed, health-care is the largest employer in Gainesville, Florida. Nevertheless, if I were to experience chest pains, for example, I would not know where best to go or what to do to receive the most timely and appropriate care. Like my neighbor with signs of suffering a stroke, would I find myself sitting for hours in a hospital emergency room? He had waited with dozens of other sufferers, next to an unfortunate and moaning youth who casting poorly, had lodged a fishing hook in his ear lobe.

People who have never been seriously ill or who are lucky enough not to have had any friend or family member needing health care have claimed that we in America have "the best health care system in the world." One wonders what planet they inhabit, but perhaps they are not as disconnected from reality as the mass of our citizens believe them to be. Instead they may have had the good fortune to live in a backwater place like Clifton-Fine, on the ragged and almost forgotten western edge of the great Adirondack wilderness. Maybe this tiny part of America's personal and non-industrial  approach to health care can really stake a claim to being the best. We don't know, but we want to help keep this slim glimmer of hope and promise alive.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

How Many Kinds of Palms in North Florida?

Cabbage Palm
Saw Palmetto
If asked a month ago how many kinds of palms occur naturally in Florida's Big Bend region, I would have replied "two"; they are the cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto -- Florida's state tree), and saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), the shrub-like plant with recumbent trunks forming a dense understory that covers large parts of the state. I had learned to distinguish the two by the way the leaflets attach to the petiole (=leaf stem). Cabbage palm leaflets attach to an arrowhead-like triangular extension of the petiole, whereas in saw palmetto their attachment is truly fan-like, arising from the blunt end of the petiole. 

Dwarf Palmetto
All was fine until near my house in Gainesville I began noticing what I had thought were saw palmettos. However, they lacked the characteristic saw-like teeth that arm the petioles of saw palmettos, they were small, had underground stems, and cabbage palm-like leaf attachments. They  showed no sign of becoming palm trees, so I got out my books. I discovered that they are a third species, the dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor), a fairly common plant of moist hammocks.

Scrub Palmetto (or young cabbage palm?)
I had seen similar plants on Cedar Key also, but was a bit puzzled. The dry scrub habitat there little resembles what anyone would describe as a moist hammock. Cabbage palms are abundant, but more research revealed a fourth species, the scrub palmetto (Sabal etonia). This small, stemless shrub also has cabbage palm-like leaves, but the attachment is much less acute than in its dwarf relative. More observation will be needed before I'm sure I can distinguish this species from very young cabbage palms.

We are now up to four kinds of palms that likely inhabit the region. A fifth kind, the needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) is characteristic of rich woods. It has saw palmetto-like attachment of leaflets, but no sawtooth projections on its petioles. This palm has been recorded from the Waccassasa Bay State Preserve.

So, if you find yourself prowling the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge or other nearby Florida jewels, keep an eye out for all five kinds of palms.