We hope you enjoy browsing through some of the information linked below relating to our wild inhabitants of the CREW Lands. Remember that the balance we strike with these preserved lands guarantees not only our access to land and water resources, but theirs too!
By Allison Vincent – May 6, 2022 – CREW Land & Water Trust
The walk leading up to the pine flatwoods at CREW Flint Pen Strand on the Billy G. Cobb Memorial Trail – commonly known as the Red Trail – at first glance appears unchanged after the March wildfire. That is, until you reach the fire breaks laid down by the Florida Forest Service (Forestry).
Winding through the first half mile of this popular trail, with its verdant evergreen canopy, makes you almost forget a wildfire occurred or that even more changes are imminent as the seasons change. In just a few short months these trails undergo a dramatic transformation as the CREW watershed goes from dry to wet with the onset of the rainy season. That’s why many scientists say our region has two seasons – wet and dry – plus a fire season mixed into the later end of the dry season.
Fire ecologists, like those with Forestry – or in-house at CREW with the South Florida Water Management District (the District) – anticipate the fire season considering many factors including seasonal water levels, wind measurements and relative humidity conditions.
Ecosystems across the state reap diverse benefits from the touch of fire, which is why land managers utilize prescribed fire, previously known as “controlled fire”, year round. These burn prescriptions strategically revitalize fire dependent ecosystems and help to lower the intensity of future wildfires by focusing on heavy “fuel loads”, or areas with a layered understory of plant vegetation.
As visitors, what we see after the impactful touch of fire is a stark change with ample opportunity for observation. Before the rain really gets started, take the gentle powder-sand path of the Red Trail, freckled with yellow tickseed flowers, and observe this easy-going path break up like a scar at each intersecting fire-break line.
As the fire-affected areas regrow and we work to restore the natural ecological flow, much of the burned area will remain wide open to better observe wildlife like low-flying birds, teal-striped lizards and foraging white-tailed deer.
The blazing wings of a male red cardinal stands out even more starkly as he seeks out the cooked seeds and roasted tidbits among the contrast of the blackened pine woods on one side of the fire break with the thick undergrowth of vegetation on the other.
Strange sounds, like the crackling reverberations from the pine trees, may surprise visitors not used to walking among the charred aftermath of a burn. In fact the wind blowing through the dry trees can evoke the experience of underwater fish gnawing on their favorite coral treat. However, here the sound comes from the pine tree trunks and limbs stretching from under their alligator-textured bark, growing back and expanding underneath the tightness of the char.
The openness of the understory makes it easy to spot other wildlife, such as the outlines of white-tailed deer in the distance and white zephyr lilies peaking starkly upward against a black earth. As if waiting for the water that winds down the fire season and fills the CREW trails, these rain and fire loving lilies are delicious to sniff, but take nothing but photos as you tour this eclectic sensory experience.
Under the spiky neon-green of the saw palmettos – the first plants to return as one of the only ground cover hold-outs – the equally bright colors of the six-lined racerunner streaks meticulously across the open understory. Their blue cheeks and yellow racing lines are a rare sight on these usually vegetative trails.
Ultimately, it’s not a question of if a fire will affect this region, but when, which is why we encourage you to learn about the strategies used to enhance the resilience of the land, water and surrounding inhabited areas. With its rare sights and sounds, fire reveals so much life that would normally be hidden and allows us, along with the wildlife, the ability to truly explore this newly exposed landscape.
If you’ve hung around any tall pine trees lately, there’s a chance – even if you didn’t notice – that you’ve been within view of one of southwest Florida’s most social flying raptors, the swallow-tailed kite (STKI). Returning from South America in mid-February every year like a romantic poem written especially for a birder just in time for Valentine’s Day, they almost immediately start circling the tall tree tops in search of their favorite nesting spot. We have a lot of unanswered questions regarding these world travelers, but there is plenty that we do know! This article will be a refresher course covering some of the top questions we hear from you about our black and white aerial artists at the CREW Trails.
STKIs Journey to Nest
When we begin to spot STKIs in Florida in mid-February, they must be tired from their long journey because they’ve just flown in from South America, a journey of up to 6,000 miles. Some of them make it as far as seven of the southernmost states in the U.S. but Florida is their preferred destination and we see them in the greatest numbers here. We’re fortunate at CREW because they have a few favorite nesting areas within the CREW Project and between February and August we have the privilege of seeing them circle and soar over the treetops.
On arrival they begin looking for suitable nesting sites. There are two essentials for nesting, which they do in loose communities. They need tall trees (preferably pines, occasionally cypress and other tall trees) in open woodland where they can hunt abundant prey by sight, and they prefer to be near a source of water – a swamp, river, marsh or a slough – because they also capture and consume creatures living next to or in the water. Most STKIs return to the same nesting sites every year, often fixing up an old nest. In the early part of their stay in Florida, you’ll see them circling high overhead inspecting the territory.
Relationships of Swallow-tailed Kites
STKIs are believed to be monogamous. They may continue a relationship from the previous year, or they may find a mate during migration. Once the colony has chosen a good nesting site, they establish small territories around and above the nests and they guard their territories (or neighborhoods) by flying in small circles above the nest tree. Intruders are repelled with dive bombs and scolding cries sometimes described as loud, squeaky whistles.
Both males and females bring nest materials to the site. They can build the nest quickly, in only one day, or more slowly, up to two weeks. They begin by making a platform of small, loosely woven sticks and then line it with soft materials such as lichen or Spanish moss, creating either a flat surface or a shallow cup. Most STKI nests are situated at least 60 feet above the ground.
Each pair of STKIs produces a clutch of one to three eggs which incubate for 27 to 33 days. After the eggs hatch, the parents feed them frequently. The male STKI catches and carries prey in his talons to the nest, where he passes it to the female. She then tears it up and feeds it to the young.
Photos by CREW Trust Volunteer Dick Brewer illustrating STKI development stages (starts at top left).
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner – Feeding on the Wing
To catch that prey, the male hunts during the day “on the wing”, while in flight, picking prey off trees, shrubs and vegetation along rivers or other water bodies. And what are they looking for? STKIs like large insects such as dragonflies, wasps, cicadas, beetles and grasshoppers which they eat while flying. During the breeding season, adults also hunt small vertebrates, including tree frogs, lizards, nesting birds, and snakes. Occasionally STKIs devour bats, fish or fruit.
We’re fortunate in southwest Florida to welcome these magnificent birds. You can identify them, at the right time of year (between February and August), first by noticing their long, forked tails and then by observing their graceful flight. They swoop and glide high overhead, catching insects in the air or descending to the treetops to find small creatures to eat. Unlike some other birds, they rarely flap their wings, and you should count yourself lucky if you see them on the ground. An individual STKI has a shrill “pee, pee, pee” call, but when they gather in flocks you’ll hear sweet, shrill cries or soft whistles. It’s a magical experience to find yourself looking up at a circling flock and hearing those whistles.
You may have noticed that the CREW logo features the swallow-tailed kite. We don’t like to choose favorites, but it’s hard to resist these charismatic birds which are recognized by many as the most beautiful bird of prey. Just ask Brenda Brooks, CREW Trust Executive Director until 3/31/22, when she will make her own version of a migration north.
FWC is learning more about Florida panthers through their FLM focused research
As we explained in our latest blog post, a primary objective of capturing and radio collaring Florida panthers and bobcats is to identify a mysterious disease affecting our felids, feline leukomyelopathy disorder (FLM).
When a cat is captured, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologists look to obtain tissue samples to study in an effort to advance our knowledge of FLM. Combined with trail cameras illuminating documentation on panthers and bobcats, tissue samples may help to unlock the key to this devastating disease.
The most notable symptom of FLM is rear leg weakness or even paralysis. Trail cameras have captured some heartbreaking examples of cats and kittens showing difficulty walking. Severe cases of FLM can result in death. Check out the FWC website (myfwc.com) to see videos of a panther and a bobcat demonstrating that rear-leg weakness.
In Collier County, FLM was first discovered around the National Audubon lands known as Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in 2018. Since then, cases of FLM have been documented in several south Florida counties. Testing has focused on toxins such as rodenticide, infectious disease and nutritional deficiencies but the mystery hasn’t yet been solved.
Why is this investigation of the causes of FLM urgent? The Florida panther underwent a severe decline in population during the 20th century. No reliable numbers exist but it is believed that the panther population was fairly robust at the end of the 19th century, yet by the 1970s the population had almost disappeared, mainly through hunting. In 1973 the Florida panther was declared an endangered species and since then the numbers have grown slowly, reaching the current estimate of approximately 120 to 230.
FLM is only one of the contemporary threats to the panther population. Since most of the remaining panthers live south of the Caloosahatchee River, there’s a distinct geographic limit to the gene pool. With about 1,000 people moving to Florida every day, construction is destroying the panther’s essential warm climate habitats – wetlands, swamps, upland forest, and stands of saw palmetto. In addition, A male panther needs about 200 square miles to establish his own territory. The end result for panthers is increased car fatalities and intraspecies aggression due to a lack of territory. Without wildlife corridors like the CREW lands to connect large swaths of habitat, the panther is finding it more challenging to mate and breed.
Bobcats, too, are susceptible to FLM and can provide valuable data to aid both species, but their population numbers are not as dire as those of the panther for several reasons. For one thing, bobcats are not as fussy about habitat – they can adjust to an urban or suburban environment. In a wild habitat, a bobcat needs a range of five to six miles, but in an urban setting they can be satisfied with only one or two miles. Bobcats are opportunistic carnivores and survive on a wider variety of prey than the panther. They prefer rabbits and rodents but they will also eat small reptiles, birds, feral cats, carrion and eggs. While the Florida panther lives only in the southwest corner of Florida, the bobcat is present in most of the U.S. and in Florida it’s found in all counties except in the Keys.
When we protect our native Florida felids like the panther we in turn preserve their habitat, which benefits many other species – including our own – under the umbrella of their reach. Additionally, the research that the FWC panther team performs paints a broader picture of the Florida panther’s future, closely intertwined in the preservation of our limited natural resources. Panthers require our protection, so that future generations may enjoy the same diverse ecosystems, watersheds, and native environment that has attracted generations of Floridians to live and grow alongside these wild felids. FWC research is key to the survival of Florida’s state animal, the endangered Florida panther, but always remember that your input is incredibly valuable too! Please report panther sightings (and bobcats with FLM symptoms) with a video if you have the where-with-all to do so!
Staged and ready after months of planning stands a congregated group of biologists waiting for a call. They shiver outside the CREW office field station, enjoying the unusually cool temperatures and wide open view from the pole-barn near a utilitarian series of land management buildings used to manage the CREW lands. They’re waiting for word from the houndsman, still out searching for signs of Florida’s big cat, the Florida panther, and our smaller wild felid, the bobcat.
When the call comes in that a bobcat has been tracked and treed, they load up the warmed-up swamp buggies and rendezvous with the houndsman in a remote area of the CREW lands. This time, they’ve tracked another male bobcat, not a target for collaring this season, given the biologists’ interest in females who might produce a litter of kittens that could provide developmental information about the feline leukomyelopathy (FLM) affliction. If they track a panther, they plan to collar it regardless of the sex.
The dogs respond to the houndsman’s signal and regroup, alert for the next search. The houndsman Cougar McBride, contracted by the FWC, is a second generation tracker and has worked throughout the Americas as far south as Paraguay, South America capturing jaguars. Here in Florida, the aptly named houndsman works collaboratively with biologists to safely track our endangered Florida subspecies of Puma concolor to supplement biological research and improve the chances of restoring the historic population of this important endangered species.
A major component of the panther program is radio collar data which tracks the range of these native predators. Using game cameras as a preliminary step, the panther team has a general idea of capture zones. This season they chose the CREW lands because of frequent game camera footage of panthers, including one that happens to have no ears – an indication of his age and survival skills. Capture zones where panther kittens were observed on the game cameras were avoided to prevent any conflict between the hounds and kittens. Safety of these wild felids is of the utmost importance and biologists will often walk away from a capture if the conditions are not right.
It’s still early in this year’s capture season and it’s an ongoing saga that we’ll report back on in future blogs. The research and understanding these seasons bring to our collective understanding of this elusive animal cannot be overstated. Their status as an endangered species serves as an umbrella to protect other wildlife and wildlife corridors throughout their range. In the years to come, the story that emerges from our understanding of their expanding range and recovering numbers will affect all Floridians.
With the long end-of-year holidays, kids need healthy and fun activities, things they can do with their families and friends. If they’re visiting Florida in December, this is the perfect time of the year to introduce them to the world of nature. The weather is fine for all kinds of outdoor activities. And the four different CREW trail systems offer a variety of sights, sounds and experiences.
But some kids have little experience with the great outdoors. Worms, spiders and other creepy-crawly things may intimidate them. They may resist getting wet or muddy. And they might find trees, trails and rocks uninteresting. Given a choice between playing outdoors or playing a video game, some kids would opt for the indoor game.
Some kids just need an introduction to nature. They need exposure to the physical world in order to learn to be comfortable in it. The adults in their lives can show them how to love nature and be safe in it. Nature promotes healthy growth by encouraging kids to be active. It’s also good for their imaginations, stimulating curiosity by introducing them to new and different experiences. Just being outside in our gorgeous Florida winter weather makes everyone, kids included, feel better.
So how can you persuade your kids to come outside with you? We have some suggestions.
Prepare before you load up to hit the trail. Before you take the kids on a CREW hiking trail, share your own enthusiasm about what they might see, hear and experience in the woods. Keep your research simple, and note anything that seems to capture their interests. If they express an interest in spiders, help them do a little research to figure out where and when they might see a spider in the woods. Early morning sun at any of our CREW trails illuminates spider webs and makes them look like jewels adorning the bushes. Choose one particular web and study its construction with your kid, explaining how the spider builds its webs to capture its prey. The Green Lynx spider is a bright shade of green and can be found on many trails.
Tell your kid what he or she is likely to see in the woods. Here in Florida’s forests there are Florida panthers, black bears, bobcats and other mammals, as well as too many birds and insects to name. Address any fears they may express. You can explain, for instance, that Florida’s panthers and bears are shy and can smell you from a long way away, so it’s easy for them to avoid us. If your child is fascinated by panthers, bears and bobcats, show them how to look for the tracks of these animals on a muddy or sandy trail. We have a dazzling array of butterflies in Florida. The beautiful white peacock tends to fly low to the ground so they’re easy to spot. You may also be lucky enough to spot the striking zebra longwing, the Florida state butterfly. Show your kids the photos here and help them look for these colorful treasures in the woods.
Devise a simple game or set a few easy goals for your time outdoors. If your kid is reluctant to touch things in the woods, you can create a simple scavenger hunt that they can complete through observation. Give them a checklist to allow them to check off each item as they spot it. Keep it simple; don’t name a specific bird. Just list “bird” as one of the things they can look for. Other things you can put on the list: worm, bird’s nest, flower, animal track, and big tree. Or you could announce that whoever spots the first bird or butterfly during your outing gets a special prize.
Parents, prepare for your kids to play in the mud. Bring clean clothes, extra shoes and water to wash their feet.
Model good behavior for your kids. Explain the “Leave No Trace” principles to them and make sure you take any trash home with you. It’s important that kids learn to respect nature, so explain to them why we don’t feed animals in the wild. This is especially important in Florida where every pond or lake is likely to house an alligator or two. Feeding them destroys their natural fear of humans and encourages them to approach people. Alligators are fascinating to watch but teach your kids to do so from a distance. In Florida’s public parks and nature preserves, it’s illegal to pick plants or to remove anything, so encourage your kids to take photos instead of collecting wildflowers. Take the things you need for safety (bug spray, hat, sunscreen, lots of water) and explain why you’re putting them in your backpack. Let the kids choose a snack.
Before you go, take a look at the CREW website (CREWtrust.org) and decide which of our four trail systems would provide a good introduction to nature for your kids. The rainy season has ended and most of our trails are now dry. If you want to experience the magic of walking through a cypress forest on a boardwalk, consider Bird Rookery Swamp. The red trail at Flint Pen Strand offers easy hiking through pine flatwoods and a prairie where you may spot some deer or even a red-headed woodpecker.
Your child may be excited to get outdoors if you allow him or her to bring a friend. Recognize that kids usually walk at a slower pace than adults and allow them to linger over things that interest them. Most of all, enjoy yourself. Show your own curiosity about things you see. Your enthusiasm for nature in all its varied forms will be contagious.
At the CREW Project, we’ve got four different trail systems for hiking, biking, running and just enjoying the outdoors.
If you miss the change of seasons in Florida, don’t despair. You’ll find some brilliant red foliage here in November and December, red leaves that will remind you of New England in fall. Not in the New England kind of abundance, but in flashes of red amidst our lush green forests and wetlands. Look for these plants or trees and their crimson leaves in fall:
Poison ivy: as long as you don’t touch it and expose yourself to its poisonous sap, poison ivy is very attractive when its leaves turn red in autumn. A reliable identification is important, so be aware that poison ivy can take the form of a low-growing plant, a shrub or a climbing vine. Its most distinct characteristic is its green foliage – clusters of three leaves alternating on the stem. Those leaves may be smooth or serrated around the edges, and occasionally you’ll see a leaf that resembles a mitten. In fall poison ivy produces white berries that provide food for birds, deer, raccoons, bears and other wildlife at a time of year when food becomes scarce. Poison ivy is found along many CREW trails, but just remember: leaves of three, let it be.
Red maple: red maple trees are found all over the U.S. and Canada. In Florida we have our own showy variety of red maple, the Florida Flame, whose leaves turn a brilliant red in fall and then drop after just a few weeks. This variety has adapted to our environment and prefers to live in wet areas. The first part of the boardwalk at Bird Rookery Swamp is lined with red maples. Note that our red maples are not as tall as those found elsewhere in the U.S., rarely exceeding forty feet in height and showing a slim profile. When the bare trees begin to leaf out again in January or February, the new leaves are tinged with red.
Virginia creeper: sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, both plants have red leaves in fall, woody stems and compound leaves, and they can both be aggressive climbers. You can distinguish Virginia creeper by noting that its leaf clusters contain five, not three, leaves. A Virginia creeper vine can grow to 60 feet or longer. Birds, squirrels and deer eat its blue-black berries in fall, and native Americans in Florida used the red leaves to make a pink dye. Some people are sensitive to its sap but the resulting rash is not usually as irritating as that caused by poison ivy. Think twice before you plant it in your yard; it tends to take over and it clings tenaciously to walls, fences, trees, etc., with strong adhesive disks on its tendrils.
Winged sumac: winged sumac is another plant that provides us with flashes of brilliant red in the fall in Florida. A shrub or tree that grows up to fifteen feet tall, winged sumac is not poisonous even though it resembles poison sumac. It’s the larval host and an important nectar source for the red-banded hairstreak butterfly.
You may think that we have only two seasons in southwest Florida – hot and hotter, or dry and wet. But if you get out on the CREW trails in October, November and December, you’ll spot some gorgeous fall foliage that may remind you of the turning leaves found elsewhere. If you’re really lucky, you may enjoy some cool weather, too.
In Florida, 80 per cent of our food crops depend on pollination by insects, birds and bats to produce seeds and fruits as well as to promote the growth of plants and trees. In natural settings, pollinators are essential to produce the superstars of our forests and wetlands – our many eye-catching wildflowers.
Over thousands of years, plants have cleverly evolved to attract pollinators, developing bigger, showier, more colorful flowers to reel them in. The flower-to-flower visits of pollinators became the most efficient way to spread pollen, which results in seeds or fruits that enable plants and trees to reproduce.
In Florida, wildflower plants have adapted their size, shape and color to attract certain pollinators – and for that reason we have many unique wildflowers that depend on particular pollinators. Some plants have “generalist” flowers to attract any and all pollinators – opting for survival at all costs.
In the forests of the CREW Project, you can observe significant pollinator/plant relationships. To help you get started, we’ve provided some examples of common wildflowers and pollinators that are often associated with them.
Milkweed and monarchs
The magnificent monarch relies on native Florida milkweed as it goes through its annual migratory cycle. Milkweed provides returning monarchs with essential early-spring host resources and abundant, high-quality nectar. But not all milkweed is healthy for pollinators. Most of us are familiar with the showy tropical milkweed which has become a popular landscape plant. Because this version of Florida milkweed (there are 21) has adapted to our suburban settings, it remains green longer than other varieties, encouraging the monarch to linger here and breed too late in the season. It also exposes monarchs to colder temperatures and to the pesticides on lawn plants. At CREW you’ll find more congenial varieties of milkweed for the monarch to deposit its eggs and sip the nectar of the plant. Look for swamp milkweed, butterfly milkweed, or aquatic milkweed.
Hairy indigo and the ceraunus blue butterfly
Hairy indigo was introduced in Florida as a ground cover to protect against soil erosion in citrus orchards. As with so many plants brought to Florida for a specific purpose, it has escaped its boundaries and is now seen in natural habitats, where it is a favorite of the delicate ceraunus blue butterfly. Hairy indigo is a low-growing plant with hairy stems and leaves, and in summer it produces a profusion of pink or red spikes of flowers.
Saw palmetto and the great purple hairstreak butterfly
Saw palmetto is a low-growing, winding plant that looks somewhat like a sabal palm lying on its side. In the spring it produces long stalks of yellow-white, fragrant flowers. You can see plenty of saw palmetto at CREW, especially at the two trail systems on Corkscrew Road- CREW Cypress Dome and Marsh Trails. The great purple hairstreak has a few other favorites for collecting nectar, including Bidens alba (also known as Spanish needle), another common sight at CREW. Despite its name, the great purple hairstreak butterfly isn’t really purple; it’s outer wings are brown with a touch of purple, and its underside is an iridescent blue. This butterfly may have multiple sources of nectar but it has only one place to deposit its larvae: on the parasitic oak mistletoe plant.
Pipevine plant and the pipevine swallowtail butterfly
This is another pollinator/plant relationship in which the plant is the larval host for the butterfly as well as its favorite source of nectar. It’s a little unusual because the plant itself is toxic to most butterflies and caterpillars, but the pipevine swallowtail is immune. In fact, that toxicity protects the caterpillars – predators recognize the toxic poison and look for food elsewhere. Pipevine is a climbing woody vine with pipe-shaped burgundy or purple flowers that bloom in May and June.
Coontie plant and the atala butterfly
The only plant on which the atala will deposit its eggs is the coontie plant, another toxic plant. Atala larvae eat the coontie plant and render the butterfly toxic. The flamboyant red abdomen of the atala is a warning to predators that this butterfly is poisonous. The atala had almost disappeared from Florida until recent conservation efforts restored it to some habitats with abundant coontie plants.
Turkey tangle fogfruit and the white peacock butterfly
You’re almost certain to see a white peacock butterfly on CREW lands. It prefers to eat the leaves and the nectar of turkey tangle fogfruit (try saying that quickly!) but it takes advantage of just about any wildflower offering nectar. The white peacock flies low to the ground so it’s easy to spot.
The next time you check the pollen count, don’t get mad because pollen stirs up your allergies and makes you cough or sneeze. Be grateful for pollen – it is essential to the successful creation of seeds and fruits that propagate the many wildflowers and plants of CREW.
Do you know that feeling of Florida fall? When a subtle temperature change transforms the muhly grass from commonplace to extraordinary, the pine lilies are in bloom and poison ivy is tempting you to pick some classic autumn-colored leaves for your seasonal table. September passes and October slowly creaks along toward the season when we observe the shortening of days with pumpkin patches, delicious goodies and general spookiness. Somehow, the mood of the season enhances even the most commonplace hike at CREW.
Here be dragons
Early morning fog punctuates the stark blowing grasses – skillfully brushing the sky like a paintbrush – transforming it into a grey hidden world with the stroke of each breeze. Dark shadows envelope the edges of the marsh, never fully unveiling their inhabitants as animate or inanimate – where each worn water-soaked log floating half submerged could just as easily be a 7-foot alligator.
Mornings like this play tricks on the eyes, part of the fun of winding your way around the hidden corners of the trails – each turn welcoming a curious new view, usually complemented with a spider web at the level of your eyes. Near the lakes at CREW Flint Pen Strand Trails, the path opens up to a field of sawgrass and the deepest sections of the lakes’ steam in the morning sun as the insects awaken from the edge of rust-centered flowers.
Above, you feel a whoosh of small wings and discover that hovering just above your wide-brimmed hat is a swarm of dragonflies! Not just any whirling dragons either – but a spirited bunch of Halloween pennant dragonflies. Zooming in closer with a long-lens camera or binoculars, one can make out the intricate painted pattern of the aptly named Halloween pennant with its alternating stripes of burnt sienna and translucent orange hue. Their eerie witch-like hovering puts a spell on you as they patiently wait for the moment one holds still long enough for a proper seasonal photo.
Hidden in plain sight
The next time you’re out hiking the CREW Bird Rookery Swamp Trail, keep an eye out for these straight out of ghostbusters, Slimer-green, green lynx spiders. Catch how they camouflage in the verdant world that is southwest Florida and beware, because while you’re admiring a lovely flower they might be admiring you back. Many hikers have discovered a green lynx spider just inches from their nose when suddenly their eyes focus on this fuzzy movement coming from some segmented appendages that look like part of the flower and they realize it’s a spider instead.
Like a Dia de los Muertos painted skeleton, their colorful bodies craftily pieced together, for the swift purpose of keeping in check the smaller insects of the ecosystem. In fact, the aggressive attack of the green lynx, the largest North American lynx spider, is the reason many are released by agricultural pest management companies, not to mention the fact that they very seldom bite humans.
On a long winding path through Caracara Prairie Preserve accessible by the CREW Cypress Dome Trails, your boots crunching through fallen pine needles and oak leaves of early fall, you hike quickly through the Caracara Prairie Preserve path – hoping to make it back to the parking lot before night begins its shift. Steady paced and calmly watching the colors change in the sky, you peek around the corner of a particularly large oak tree, its branches haphazardly low over the trail – hovering just like a standing bear – making even darker still the fading light of time passing away.
Suddenly, there’s an unusual crunch underfoot and, hoping not to have disturbed one of the bee-hives that sometimes break away from the decaying oak branches above, you look down. What you see is quite a different thing indeed. Opaque and eggshell white with etches of brown earth worked into its crevices – these things are long, segmented and curving into brachiated points. Bones! And they look human!
Panic begins to set in as your backwoods comfort zone is suddenly put to the test. Instinct overcomes fear and you quickly excavate the area enough to find the rest of the decayed fingers and notice something distinguishable and entirely not human about them. They have claws! Skunk ape? No. Black bear!
Relief sets in as the wild ways of nature come hand-in-hand with the cycle of life. The hikers take a note of the location with their GPS and finish the trek feeling stronger and more in touch with the darker side of the CREW trails.
Survivors of the swamp, the greatest and strongest, the lubber grasshoppers inhabit all the CREW Trails, but seem to prefer the CREW Marsh and Cypress Dome Trails. They begin their lives as part of a hoard of black-bodied swarms, survivalists banding together to deter predators from eating more than one, given their pesky poisonous innards (evolution is maniacal).
Their gastrointestinal group defense expands and transforms with their exoskeleton into the adult formation, a neon-orange pumpkin color like the store’s holiday isles everywhere starting around September.
These native hoppers persevere through the devastation of their nemesis – the loggerhead shrikes, also known as butcher birds, who feast during lubber season, ready with a deadly preconceived attack. Butcher birds will in fact spear the lubber carcass on spikes, draining the poison before enjoying their meal.
Still, the lubber grasshoppers survive and by mid-October they’re at their most terrifying stage yet. The remaining can resemble the walking dead hobbling along the trails – missing limbs and sometimes whole abdomens. Yet their Frankenstein-like potential for survival, with or without their whole body – because who really needs all that poison – means they’re still out there, the zombie grasshoppers of CREW just biding their time, until the next generation returns, to strike their revenge.