ecology

Swamp ladder, or step stool?
From highest to lowest

Big Cypress National Preserve is considered to be part of the greater Everglades ecosystem, but is also recognized as a distinct physiographic province even if the terms used to describe it — such as Western Everglades and swamp — fall short.

From highest (top) to lowest (bottom): mesic pines, marl prairie, outer edge of a cypress dome, interior pond apple center of a cypress dome,

What we do know is that you know it when you’re in it. In contrast to the Water Conservation Areas and Everglades National Park to the east which are dominated by the vast and perennially-flooded plain of peat-underlain ridges and sloughs (and dotted with tree islands), the Big Cypress consists of an interwoven mosaic of shorter hydroperiod wetlands. The Big Cypress also includes peat marshes, but is made visually distinct by its cypress forests – called domes and strands – which beneath their vertical apogee give way to orchid-hiding swamp forests and which at their fringes recede into a combination of open vistas of herbaceous marl prairies, fire-swept pinelands and scattered upland islands of hard-wood hammocks.

Its pattern of vegetation is commonly referred to as a mosaic and is a reflection of liliputian valleys and hills of the preserve’s flat and expansive wetland terrain. The difference between the preserve’s low-lying swamp and pineland high ground is only 3 feet.

I like to call it the swamp ladder. But maybe stepstool is more accurate.

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Safety Tip: Be careful on ladders of all sizes!

Crayfish carapace
And why the live ones are underground

Usually when I find them …

They are dead.

Fish, wading birds, otters and alligators eat crayfish

Crayfish enjoy algae, aquatic bugs and small fish

Crayfish holes can extend 3 feet deep (so I’ve read)

But wherever I find them there is usually also ample evidence that they are alive, in the form of tiny tunnels that wormhole out of sight into the marl where often but not always the water table can still be seen. It sort of reminds me of how alligators wallow out water holes, but on a smaller scale.

That brings me back to finding them dead. I’ve never been pinched by a crayfish, but I have been pinched by a blue crab, and yes that hurt. But who could blame the crab: Being a Marylander, I’ve eaten dozens of them in a single sitting, and probably over a thousand my entire life. Or in other words, I deserved to get pinched.

Crayfish are the base of the food chain

Meanwhile in another part of the glades, there’s a patch of peat that is completely bereft of crayfish holes. The reason? The amplitude between summer wet season water depths and the spring dive of the water table below the ground is too great. The culprit is a nearby canal and levee called the L-28 Interceptor. The good news is that there’s a plan to fill the canal in and take the levee out. The result? While the future is always uncertain and there are no guarantees, my hope is more crayfish holes, even if when I find them they are always dead.

A carapace in the hand is worth two underground. (Not sure if the final catch line works … but you know what I mean.)

Dual Calendar?
Julian vs Water Year

A year older, a year wetter

Normal people turn the calendar to a new year on January 1st. Not hydrologists — not even close. And rightly so. January falls in the middle of south Florida’s winter dry season. Starting the year anew in January splits the dry season in half — a big no-no if you’re trying to tabulate dry season rainfall and full year water amounts. The solution? Enter the water year. Up north on the continent the water year starts on October 1st (long story). The short story is that south Florida’s water starts anew May 1st each year on May 1st. Don’t expect a big parade or a big summer storms to magically start on cue on the first of the month. And to be certain, the first few weeks of May are usually dry. But make no mistake: It’s also the month that the humidity hammer drops and summer rain clouds start to emerge, even if it’s sporadic at first and usually doesn’t start in earnest towards the latter Memorial Day half.

The upside, and why hydrologists like me are adamant on this point: Starting the water year on May 1st allows us to split the year into two equal 6-month wet and dry seasons.

Flood and fire friendly
A swamp love affair

The swamp is more than …

Just a watershed or just fire adapted:

FloodFire2

Report on the history of flood and fire in the swamp

It’s more properly understood as being a “flood and fire adapted” ecosystem. Every square inch of flora and fauna depends on some goldilocks dosage and return interval of flood and fire. Or in other words, so goes flood and fire, so goes the swamp. Well, easier said than done. The truth is that both are blunt tool instruments that have a time lag of ecological responses, some of which we see happening in months or years, and others that take decades to unfold. The thing about the swamp: It’s malleable, too. Destroyers in other landscapes, flood and fire are a swamp’s best friend. This report discusses the history of water and fire management in Big Cypress National Preserve, how it’s changed over time and other factors that weave into the fire-water mix.

More about the report: I tried to make it coffee table friendly. I always say, “there’s nothing more complicated than water in the swamp, with the exception of fire. But somehow by combining the two we simplify the math.”

Gator water

April in the swamp …

Means everything is dry.

Video of an Glades gator

Except for gator holes, for now. Actually, I would be surprised to see this one go dry. It’s located in the southeastern corner of Big Cypress National Preserve which is better understood as the Everglades, and more specifically Lostmans Slough. Unlike Shark River Slough farther to the east, Lostmans is dry … except for this gator hole. As for the gator, he’s in their somewhere. My guess is under the willows.

The Everglades Handbook
And why it's the Everglades best book

There’s other books out there …

But for me Tom Lodge’s book is the best.

Buy The Everglades Handbook, by Thomas E Lodge

Why? For one, it passes my number one test: It’s highly rereadable. By rereadable, I mean that I read it over and over again. Partly because the material is so good, and rather technical in nature — thus it takes multiple reads to fully digest, but Tom also knows how to turn a sentence. More than just a scholarly accomplishment — and that it very much is, this book is a literary masterpiece. The sentences and the words he uses are just fun, and thought-provoking, to read. The introductory section to the Big Cypress alone is chock full of little anecdotes and diatribes on how the region got its name. Another reason I love it is that he chronicles how the book evolved with each new edition, including his sessions with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas. This book brings the Everglades to life, both the ecosystem and the scope of what it takes for a person to understand the place. Spoiler alert: I am a bit partial because I have a signed copy. But the truth is I actually have two copies of his book: One at work and one at home. Whenever I get a spare fifteen minutes, I love picking it up and digging in. I find something new each time. This books a rereadable and a “must have” for any book shelf. Notice in the video how I prominently feature it on the middle shelf.

Swamp or glades gator?
And how to tell the difference

To the undiscerning eye …

This probably looks like a glades gator.

As seen in the southeast corner of Big Cypress Nat’l Preserve

The dead giveaway is the open river of grass and the tree islands in distance (looking south), right? And for anyone who lives in the swamp (not many), they know that Big Cypress gators typically make their home a circular-shaped cypress dome or a linear swale of cypress called a strand. However, on technicality, the gator shown in the photo above is officially ruled a swamp gator for the reason its alligator hole is located in the southeast corner of Big Cypress National Preserve. That being said, I wouldn’t rule out him having cousins on the glades sides of the dotted line.