My family had the opportunity to get away for spring break to the Florida Gulf Coast, where we enjoyed great company, perfect camping weather and time on the beach. Of course, I also took advantage of the opportunity to do some wildlife photography — and to follow up on my curiosity about some of the critters we saw.
Hiking alone one afternoon on a sandy trail through pine scrub, I spied something brown moving in the vegetation ahead. My first hopeful thought was, "bobcat!" because park personnel said visitors had seen one recently. Alas, as I got closer I could see my animal was too small to be a bobcat, and it was shambling along with its nose in the sand.
Just an armadillo. Armadillos are something of a nuisance at the campground where we stay because of the way they root around at night, but I've never seen one out during the daytime before.
To my great fortune, the one I came upon turned and crossed the path in front of me, and I had my camera completely ready.
Why are there armadillos in Florida?
Up until the mid-19th century, when they began an expansion of their range that continues to the present, armadillos were not found north of the Rio Grande. That expansion would have gotten them to Florida on their own by now, but they got a jump-start in the state when some were released from a small zoo in the 1920s. Armadillos now occupy all suitable habitat in the Sunshine State.
On a different walk in the same area, our group came across a box turtle in the open. The subspecies found there, the Gulf Coast box turtle, is the largest among North American box turtles, and its shell tends to be dark. The turtle we found was blackened, though.
Prescribed burns are used to manage sand pine scrub in Florida, for the same reasons they're used to manage natural areas in the Midwest. They keep invasive plants in check and promote ecosystem health in various other ways.
To judge by the marks on its shell, our turtle had not only traveled through a recently burned area, it had survived being caught in the fire.
According to John Roe, a professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke who studies the impact of prescribed burns on box turtles, they can grow new tissue to replace shell that's damaged by fire or other mishaps. But scientists still have much to learn how well individual turtles survive prescribed burns and how burns affect turtle populations.
Among the animals I most enjoy seeing in Florida are the birds, especially herons and egrets. They're big, they're beautiful and they stand stock still for long periods of time—what more could a photographer ask for?
My favorites are snowy egrets, which are more compact than great blue herons and great egrets. In addition to their small size and all-white plumage, snowies are distinguished by their yellow feet, "golden slippers" in the phrasing of some guidebooks.
For me, snowy egrets represent hope. Their numbers were reduced to dangerous lows by the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to demand for their feathers to decorate hats. It would have been awful to lose them, and it could have happened.
But some people called attention to the stupidity of that path. And they organized. And in response to the pressure they brought to bear, Congress enacted legislation to protect the entire gamut of migratory birds in the U.S.
Sometimes, when we really need to, we do get things right.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.