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Posts tagged ‘habitat’

Happy Earth Day — Love Your Mother

This April 22nd, help celebrate and remember that Earth has always been, and will always be our Mother — and we’re all here together, sharing her valuable and limited resources. Visit the Earth Day Network to learn more of their goal “to broaden, diversify, and activate the environmental community and make Earth Day a powerful moment for all citizens of the world to drive the movement.” Love and protect your Mother, every day.

Photo by Cherrylynx, courtesy of the “Digital Earth” series via

Earth Photo Manipulation by Cherrylynx

Reaching for the Azure

A stricken tree, a living thing, so beautiful, so dignified, so admirable in its potential longevity, is, next to man, perhaps the most touching of wounded objects. —Edna Ferber

Scorched — but not necessarily dead — slash pines are profiled against their more lively brethren at the Bluefield Ranch Natural Area. Their tenacity is inspiring and a not-so-gentle reminder as I observe them throughout our hikes, standing tall with new growth peeping through burned limbs. Controlled, or prescribed burns are an integral part to sustaining Florida’s natural habitats.  Such burns mimic natural fire cycles to restore healthy natural communities, thus reducing the undergrowth that accumulates over time — a contributing factor in severe wildfires. An increase in native plants, birds, and wildlife is witnessed at these burned lands.

Protecting Florida’s Gentle Gopher Tortoises & Restoring Their Habitat

We often encounter gopher tortoises on our hikes in Florida’s natural spaces; not just in the far reaches — and there have been times when they’ve needed some help with humans’ encroachment into their land. This poor guy was trapped behind acres of personal enclosure, and had been trying to burrow in the mulch; there were dozens of failed holes to attest to his failed attempts. We stayed awhile, to see if he could manage an escape on his own (or if he was simply choosing that location), but then saw how the fence was buried, impeding his escape. Between the buried fencing, his constant dodging at the barrier, and the myriad failed burrows, it was easy to understand his dilemma. We quickly relocated him to a perfect burrow-able location nearby — literally five feet from his manic failed and impossible attempts behind the fencing, where his natural habitat awaited him. NOTE: With turtles and tortoises (of the water and land varieties), help them safely in the direction they’re heading. It would have been nice for the actual property owners to have accomplished this tiny feat, of course — it wasn’t difficult to witness the poor guy’s quandary (or his efforts); these aren’t small tortoises.

One of the oldest living species, the burrowing tortoise is found throughout Florida and southern Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and eastern Louisiana. They dig and live in long burrows in pine savannas, thus protected from summer heat, winter cold, fire, and predators. Gopher tortoises are essential to the local ecology — their burrows also provide homes for other animals, including indigo snakes, gopher frogs, mice, foxes, skunks, opossums, rabbits, quail, armadillos, burrowing owls, snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, and other invertebrates. Their burrows — abandoned or shared — may be the homes to more than 300 species of animals at one time or another. Pretty amazing; and it’s easy to see how destroying the habitat of the gopher tortoise greatly alters the already fragile ecosystem.

Federally protected as a threatened species (FINALLY in Florida, where the status was “under review” for years), the tortoise’s main threat remains: Habitat loss and destruction. For instance, it wasn’t until 2007 in Florida, that developers were forced *by law* to relocate burrowing tortoises — until then, development could shockingly occur with no thought to the safety of the animals and the destruction of their habitat. It was only then that the Gopher Tortoise Management Plan was implemented.

But the wonderful news is that with the 2007 Gopher Tortoise Management Plan, 36,000 acres of gopher tortoise habitat have been restored and managed, and the protected tortoise habitat continues to expand. More than 4,000 gopher tortoises have been humanely relocated from development sites, as well. A recent post on Southwest Florida Online elaborates on the plan:

Like a baseball player stretching muscles and practicing skills during spring training, the gopher tortoise is emerging from winter dormancy and moving slowly and steadily through the landscape in search of greenery to eat and a new place to dig its burrow.

Look for gopher tortoises’ distinctive domed brown shells and stumpy legs, as these land-dwellers make their way through Florida’s open canopy forests and sandy areas. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asks people to remember that gopher tortoises are good neighbors, and can live from 40 to 60 years, so leave them and their burrows alone.

“The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission works with, and is grateful to, the homeowners, landowners, businesses and public agencies willing to share their lands with gopher tortoises and their burrows,” said Deborah Burr, the FWC’s gopher tortoise plan coordinator…

For the rest of this blog post and more on the Gopher Tortoise Management Plan, visit Florida Restores 36,000 Acres For Tortoise Habitat.

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Endangered Native Florida Ecosystems at the Hypoluxo Scrub Natural Area

Aerial View

Palm Beach County has managed to preserve several swaths of pristine Florida land, and the Hypoluxo Scrub Natural Area is one such example. This land was never developed, and saw minimal agricultural use throughout the years. Purchased in 1999 in a growing effort to protect and maintain threatened and endangered biological communities in the county, we’re thankful for their efforts, and to be afforded this glimpse of native Florida. Located on a sand ridge that was once an ancient shoreline, 97 acres of Florida scrub and scrubby flatwoods communities have been incorporated and are now protected at the Hypoluxo Scrub Natural Area, as are the threatened Florida scrub-jay and gopher tortoise, both victims of over-development and lack of protection. Scrub and scrubby flatwoods habitats are two of the rarest natural communities in Florida, with less than 2 percent remaining in Palm Beach County.


Entering the trail area from the parking lot are two observation towers; the vantage point overlooking the natural area from the towers allows visitors to view the land as it would have appeared pre-development. Educational plaques around the towers explain the region’s history (as well as that of the Town of Hypoluxo), beginning with the early settlers in 1873 to the 1960s. Standing guard in front of the observation tower is the looming Barefoot Mailman statue, in honor of the 19th-century men who delivered mail on treacherous routes — 3-days each way, and involving nearly 100 miles of unpaved roads and alligator- and shark-infested waters. As the plaques state, the land that is now the Hypoluxo Scrub Natural Area was once owned by Andrew Garnett, James Edward Hamilton, and James Porter; Garnett and Hamilton eventually won contracts to deliver mail from Jupiter to Miami. (Remnants of Porter’s homesite are still visible at the location.) The northernmost portion of the “Sand Road,” built in 1892, signaled the end of the barefoot mailmen and is located within the park (and is the only section of the road that’s actually still sand). An additional sweet smaller sculpture greets visitors to the natural area, one by Chrisanthy Vargo depicting a scrub jay, a fox, bromeliad, and a tortoise — life of the scrub.

Trails, Flora & Fauna

Paved Cottonweed Nature Trail

The .2-mile paved Cottonweed Nature Trail trail leads from the observation towers, and is lined with gopher tortoise burrows. While there are definitely areas within Hypoluxo Scrub that are shaded, much is exposed to the open sun — so an early morning or late afternoon/early evening hike are usually ideal, at least from our experiences. It’s a beautiful casual venture, and a great opportunity to explore this endangered ecosystem. Our preferred hike is the 1.5-mile natural Eastern Pondhawk Trail loop, which provides a lovely view of pine and scrubby flatwoods. Several other paths loop off the main trail as well, but be aware of crushing any fragile tortoise burrows and delicate and vital scrub plants.

Even on the sandy scrub trail, bright flowers spot the landscape: Cottonweed, Prickly pear, Netted pawpaw, Gopher apple, and Honeycombhead flash all shades of yellows, whites, and reds across the sand. The area is great for birdwatching, although during our last visit the impending rain seemed to quiet the wildlife. However, on a previous walk towards the back of the park, we saw a large flash of tan… Of deer? Or of leaping fox?

Hours & Location:

150 Hypoluxo Road, Lantana, FL (just west of Federal Highway)
Open sunrise to sunset, seven days a week
Admission: Free

For More Information:

Observation Tower from the scrub

Netted Pawpaw

On the trail

Slash pines against the sky

Scrub environment leading to flatwoods

Slash pines

Scrub environment

Gopher tortoise burrow

Air, Water + Earth: The Savannas

Despite our fanatical hiking throughout South Florida, we had never investigated the Savannas — and within the space of one week, it came up in conversation no less than three times (once from a fellow blogger). Obviously a sign! We were insanely lucky to visit on a cool, cloudy, and windy day after an unseasonably warm (read: HOT) spell. We investigated a few trails from the Education Center, as well as further within the park. Afterwards, we drove towards Jensen Beach to check out Hawk’s Bluff, also part of the park and an extension of the Florida Trail. Located along the eastern edge of the Savannas, Hawk’s Bluff is a lovely 1-mile loop trail, marked by sand dunes and oak hammocks, leading to the water’s edge overlooking the Savannas. If anyone has suggestions for other trails and access points, please give a shout!

Managing nearly 6,000 acres, the preserve represents the largest and most ecologically intact swath of freshwater marshes, or “savannas,” that once extended along Florida’s entire southeast coast. Looking across their lovely vastness today, it’s downright depressing to picture the hotels that currently reside in their place. The open wetlands filter rainwater and runoff from the surrounding dunes and pine flatwoods, creating a unique biological community — an endangered landscape — as they continue to preserve and feed vital waterways and ecosystems, including the Atlantic scrub ridge, freshwater marshes, and the estuaries of the St. Lucie Inlet. The preserve is comprised of six natural communities: pine flatwoods, wet prairie, basin marsh, marsh lake, sand pine scrub, and scrubby flatwoods. While each community is home to its own fauna and flora populations, the sand pine scrub habitat represents an increasingly imperiled ecosystem, and shelters several of Florida’s most threatened and endangered animal and plant species. The Savannas’ many wildlife species include the threatened Florida scrub jays, gopher tortoises, alligators, deer, and sandhill cranes. American bald eagles have recently made their homes in the preserve, as well — the nests of several pairs are located in the more isolated areas. The park is also one of the few remaining natural habitats in the U.S. for the endangered (and inedible) prickly apple cactus (Harrisia fragrans), which grows along the Atlantic Ridge in the scrub regions.

Being a chilly and windy day, we didn’t run into too many critters, but I did manage to spot a few (with some trees thrown in for good measure):

Green-on-Green Dragonfly

Water Flower

Rat Snake Catching Some Sun

Palm and Savannas

Live Oak on the Hawk’s Bluff Trail

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