The Health of Stations
Archbold Biological Station, Lake Wales Ridge, south-central Florida, February 18
photos by Phil Lacinak
America’s true wealth is extolled and enhanced by its biological field stations; and Archbold Biological Station near Venus, Florida, is among the best. Biology teachers, researchers, and students there are doing important, potentially life-saving research on topics as diverse as the effects of roads on insect movements, scrub jay society, diatom diversity in natural water bodies, endemic plants of the Lake Wales Ridge, fire ecology, and ecosystem change in the face of climate change. The place is fairly brimming with fit young and handsome older students and teachers of the natural world, figuring out how life works and how to keep it working.
When I emerged from the guest cottage at Archbold, early the morning after a long hot ride, I found students and faculty already busily preparing for the day’s field work. Ornithologist Reed Bowman, long-time friend of Wildlands Network’s executive director Margo McKnight (who did scrub jay research at Archbold some years back), had kindly offered to let me tag along on his day’s biological forays.
Reed Bowman is one of those great teachers who not only masters a few topics thoroughly (in his case, birds of central and southern Florida’s scrublands, pine flatlands, and prairies) but also has a broad and deep understanding of the ecology and threats thereto of his region of study. The insights and information Reed shared with me that day could fill a book, and he’ll be the one to write that; I can only mention a few highlights that I managed to commit to memory or notes. (As I’ll talk about in my next dispatch from the field, Reed Bowman’s insights were reinforced by our mutual friend Reed Noss.
Visit www.archbold-station.org for summaries of research there; see Reed Noss’s blog on our Kissimmee Prairie excursion by visiting www.islandpress.org, and anxiously await Reed N’s upcoming book with Island Press on Southeastern Grasslands. )
Lake Wales Ridge, a series of old sand dunes running north-south in central Florida and dating back to when sea levels were higher (as industrial civilization is pushing them unnaturally now), is a hot-spot of endemicity. In addition to the well-known Florida scrub jay, there are mints and other plants unique to this relatively small landscape. Archbold Biological Station and the larger Lakes Wales Ridge include pine flatlands, oak-palmetto scrub, freshwater lakes, grasslands, and (most elfishly) rosemary balds – charming open sandy uplands decorated by rosemary shrubs (similar in appearance but not closely related to the rosemary you know from herb gardens) and many herbs, wherein a keen observer might find the predatory Archbold wolf spider.
Archbold Biological Station owes its success in large part to a very generous family. Archbolds past and present have given extremely generously to support long-term biological research and protect the lands upon which such study is done. Archbold Biological Station now includes or manages more than 10,000 acres, some of them preserve, some restoration zone, and some part of a ranch where researchers are studying how to make livestock production compatible with wildlife protection.
Restoration here, as in much of Florida, is largely a matter of returning natural fire to the land. Scrub jays and other scrubland and grassland birds tend to suffer lower foraging success and/or higher mortality when vegetation becomes unnaturally thick, after years of fire suppression. However, too much fire can be as bad as too little, Archbold botanists have warned, and a natural landscape will have variable fire return intervals across time and space – pryo-diversity is needed.
Connected habitat does survive from Archbold Station and elsewhere in the Lake Wales Ridge both southward and northward, but development threatens the connections. The economic recession has given inland Florida a reprieve, but that may not last long. Central and southern Florida have tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of acres already approved for subdivision, platted and just waiting for enough buyers to make profitable the infrastructure for the new suburbs. Relatively sturdy connections seem to be south from Archbold on the west side of Route 29, largely through ranch lands – only some of which are protected by conservation easement, and northeast from Archbold to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve (don’t take my word for this, though; extensive research has been done by Reed Noss, Tom Hoctor, and others with the Florida Wildlfe Corridors and complementary conservation initiatives at www.floridawildlifecorridor.org. Rt. 27 is a worsening barrier to wildlife movement east-west on and over the ridge, as development increases traffic. Interstate 4 is a barrier to northward movement. Taking the toll off the Florida Turnpike could reduce traffic on Rt. 27 and make it less of a barrier.
As I strolled around with them, Archbold researchers made this clear: Florida scrub jays, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and many other species in central and southern Florida have been harmed by habitat fragmentation. As scientists, though, some are cautious in advocating for any particular habitat linkage. So I puzzled again over how best to make the case for connectivity: Maybe it’s easier to make the case conversely. That is, proving the need for any particular wildlife corridor is tough, as it’s hard to show who will use it. Actually, smart animals like bears and wolves and cougars usually do learn where the corridors and crossings are, but that may take generations. Clearly, though, habitat fragmentation harms many native species.
Perhaps a point to stress as we work to persuade other Americans of the need for Eastern, Rocky Mountain, Pacific, and Boreal Wildways is that continuous habitat is the natural state of things and when that is broken, many native species, especially the wide-ranging ones, have trouble surviving. The burden of proof should fall not on those who advocate for habitat connectivity but instead on those who would sever the connections.
But I ramble, as usual. Back to the Archbold Station ground, Reed Bowman and his students introduced photographer Phil Lacinak and me and reintroduced Margo to Florida scrub jays, whose colonial nesting and cooperative hunting habits are fascinating but beyond my ken. They also produced for us, during the one, long, field day, a winsome little box turtle, butterflies lovely but unfamiliar to me, and especially exciting, the first red-cockaded woodpeckers I’ve ever seen. The latter, “RCWs,” are of course famously dependent on old-growth longleaf pine forests, and thus greatly diminished, since most of that once vast habitat has been cleared.
Archbold’s GIS specialist, Roberta Pickert, showed us a telemetered route taken by a young dispersing male black bear. This brave bruin basically followed the wildlife corridors identified by conservation biologists but was turned back by deadly I-4, which from the standpoint of wildlife is a wall of pain from Tampa to Orlando.
Lunch at the Archbold cafeteria did not slow the flow of wildlife discourse. While others talked birds, pines, and the like, one student proudly displayed the eastern indigo snake he had recently captured and fitted with a radio transmitter. The visceral fun was holding this long cool reptile with the black sheen; but intellectually, it was good to hear confirmed that the eastern indigo is another wide-ranging species (and another animal that inhabits gopher tortoise burrows) that will benefit from restored wildlife habitat connectivity.
I’ve barely begun to describe this great place, rich in biology and people of diverse backgrounds and ages all curious about what’s out there in the wilds and how we might make sure it will still be there a century from now.
Special thanks go to Hillary Swain, Reed Bowman, Lauren Gilson, and the students who are extending their good work for scrub jays and woodpeckers and tortoises and mints and bears.
For the Wild,
Show Us Your Wild Winners
The winner: John (Will) Leonard
The Konza Prairie is located in the Flint Hills region of Kansas and is home to native tallgrass and switchgrasses on its 50,000 square kilometer area. It is home to more than 600 species of fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds. It is a lively, beautiful, and calming environment located just outside of Manhattan, KS.
The runner-up: Kristin Williams
Located at the headwaters of the Peace River in Polk County, Florida, this ecosystem is home to many native fauna and flora. Circle B Reserve is an excellent green space for a family picnic, bike ride, or leisurely stroll. Birds are plentiful, you might also encounter river otters, alligators, snakes, butterflies and so much more.
John Davis on KVNF, NPR CO
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