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Key West: Land of Palm Warblers and Pelicans (and many more)

Hello! I'm back after more than a month of inactivity--- it's been quite hectic! Instead of doing a Biocap, I'll be recounting the trip I took during Thanksgiving to Florida, in a biological sense. I visited the Florida Keys and Miami (though I'll be focusing on the Keys). Since it's so close to the equator (no kidding, it's the southernmost point of the continental U.S), I got to see a lot of tropical species that I don't see most of the time! I also saw many seabirds and shorebirds because I was so close to the ocean. And on that note, there were some pretty cool shells.

One of the first birds I remember seeing in abundance was the palm warbler. It is one of the most common birds found in the Keys. I encountered a huge flock right outside Crane Point Hammock, a nature trail and museum center. Despite being called a warbler, they do not really act like one, always bold and wagging their tail. They often forage on the ground alongside other ground foragers, such as sparrows. It was a treat to see so many, as where I live, they only pass by during migration season. Fun fact: they have one of the northernmost breeding grounds, all the way up in Canada. Impressive, as they have to migrate all the way back down to overwinter in some of the southernmost states!

Crane Point Hammock is also a neat place itself. A "hammock" is a forest habitat that is higher in elevation than the surrounding land, usually containing many hardwoods and broad-leafed evergreens. Crane Point houses a magnificent variety of species on its 63 acres of land. I got to see many of the native trees of southern Florida, such as the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), a spiky-leaved plant with many medicinal benefits. Or the gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba), also called the "tourist tree" because it has a reddish bark that characteristically peels, like the skin of a sunburnt tourist (ouch, that name just hurts). The gumbo limbo is also the host plant for the larvae of the dingy purplewing (Eunica monima), an elusive and rare species of butterfly. I also saw a white stopper (Eugenia axillaris), poisonwood (Metopium toxiferum), sweet acacia (Acacia farnesiana), and a huge mahogany tree! It was interesting to see how many benefits these plants had for humans, such as how white stopper leaves can be used to stop diarrhea, hence their name.

Crane Point also had a rehabilitation center for birds, the Marathon Wild Bird Center. Volunteers work to rescue, rehabilitate, and release the sick and injured birds that people find. There were a large number of aquatic birds, such as brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants. There were also many birds of prey: two American kestrels, a merlin, a red-shouldered hawk, and an osprey affectionately known as Oliver. I'm not sure of the status of all of the birds, but I do know that the red-shouldered hawk and Oliver the osprey have been deemed unreleasable. Oliver has actually been at the center for 19 years, having an injury to his wing due to a plane collision.

There was also a green heron, several laughing gulls, royal terns, a great egret (they apparently call them "great white herons" in Florida?), several white ibises, and a couple of cattle egrets. All are prevalent species, except maybe the cattle egrets, since I hadn't seen many on my trip. I even got to witness the release of a bird: a juvenile brown pelican that had been injured by fishing nets. Funnily, it wasn't the release that most would expect, with the bird taking flight and spreading its wings and everything. This pelican kind of just plopped into the water and swam away, comedically enough.

Speaking of pelicans, they were another one of the birds I saw in abundance. Diving, swimming, perching on the wooden poles of docks, brown pelicans were everywhere. Watching them hunt by diving into the water was incredibly fascinating. Brown pelicans are the only species of pelican to forage using plunge-diving, aside from their close cousin, the Peruvian pelican. They use the impact of hitting the water to stun fish, making it easy to scoop up and eat. These pelicans have several anatomical adaptations to even survive these dives: they have a hydrodynamic and aerodynamic figure that helps them dive straight into the water without any air hindrance or buoyancy and air sacs on the sides of their necks that help cushion their airway against the impact. They also tuck their necks in and tilt their body slightly to the left to cushion their esophagus and trachea. I was glad to see so many of them--- they were once on the brink of extinction due to DDT.

After my visit to the Wild Bird Center, it seemed that I was seeing even more species. Frigatebirds were flying high in the cloudless sky. I saw many cardinals and Northern mockingbirds, which were all very tame in my presence. I'm not lying when I say I got within two feet of the birds. I wonder why they were so tame. I also spotted a more exciting species: the yellow-throated warbler. This warbler is a gorgeous bird, sporting a lemon-yellow throat outlined with a black face mask and black streaking. The colors are so vivid, you can see the plumage of it from many feet away. The yellow-throated warbler, like the palm warbler, also overwinters in the Keys. Unlike the palm warbler, though, their breeding range is much less north, breeding mostly in the southeast of the United States. They are quite common in Florida during the winter.

Asides from birds, I also saw a lot of butterflies. Exciting, since all the butterflies have died off where I live. One of the species I distinctly remember was the zebra longwing butterfly (Heliconia charithonia), a butterfly with long, black wings with yellow stripes. It was one of the 12,000 species that Linnaeus first assigned a scientific name. Something unusual about the zebra longwing is that the adults feed on both pollen and nectar, while most butterfly species would only feed on nectar. The additional nutrients that they receive from the pollen make them live way longer than most butterfly species, surviving for up to several months. They also roost together, like birds! Up to 60 individuals can perch together on the same branch, and they often return to the same place each night.

And we can't forget reptiles--- there were so many iguanas. All the iguanas I saw were green iguanas, a non-native species and invasive to Florida. They were everywhere, just like the pelican. However, unlike the pelican, its presence is much less wanted. This invasive multiplied fast in the humid and lush environment of Florida, and it has given wildlife management quite the headache. At Crane Hammock, I spotted a coal skink, and many brown anoles, another introduced species from Cuba. The brown anole is in direct competition with the green anole, a native lizard to Florida. I'm not sure I saw any.

I also got to see sea turtles! Not in the wild, unfortunately, but I visited a rehabilitation center in Marathon that houses many turtles that suffer from injury and illness. Most of these turtles were green sea turtles, but there were also some Kemp's Ridley and loggerhead sea turtles. There were no leatherbacks, the largest sea turtle species, as this center's only leatherback arrived in 2020 and was released. I got to learn about the different risks that impacted sea turtles: fishing lines, impaction from debris, shell deformities caused by ship collisions (this conditioned is called "bubble butt") and fibropapillomatosis (FP), a mysterious, herpes-like virus that causes strange tumor-like growths to occur on the turtle. I think it's great that there are centers like this to help species as vulnerable as sea turtles.

On the drive back from Key West, I got to see a myriad of sandpiper species, but there are so many that I will cover them in a separate post. Key West is truly a magnificent environment, never underestimate the beauty and curiosity of the typical white-sand beach! Signing off, Amber.

P.S. Here are some of the shells that I collected from Hollywood Beach in Miami, alongside seeing a bunch of sanderlings and royal terns.


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