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Stepping Stones

It’s Gator Hatchin’ Time in the Glades

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Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist A few weeks ago I took a walk through several different areas of the Everglades, and there was a very distinct and serene quiet, a sound of silence that was not there in early summer. During the months of May thru July, I could hear the unmistakeable bellowing of male alligators trying to entice the females. Some of these boys have traveled great distances to find a mate. Now, all is calm. Courtship rituals are complete, and females are tending to their nests, waiting for the young to hatch. The males have moved on, ... Read More »

Time to Welcome Marco Island’s Baby Dolphins

You can see the body creases or "fetal folds" on this newborn dolphin. It is less than 2 weeks old. Photos by Kent You can see the body creases or and Meredith of the Dolphin Explorer

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist This is the first of three articles this fall about dolphin births, with updates on the new moms and calves. SEPTEMBER, 2014: Within the next few weeks a naturalist on board the Dolphin Explorer will exclaim to passengers, “Here’s one of the first of this season, a newborn bottlenose dolphin!” It is birthing season for the bottlenose dolphins in our area. The 10,000 Island Dolphin Survey Team, on board the Dolphin Explorer, will be keeping a sharp lookout for newborns this season and has already made a list of adult females that could possibly ... Read More »

What Birds Eat… The Beak Can Tell the Tale

Wood storks use “tactolocation” to find food
and can close their beak in 1/20th of a second!

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist Have you ever seen a reddish egret dance along the shoreline to snag a meal? How about a great blue heron sitting trance-like on a mangrove branch just one foot above the water to catch a fish? Or an osprey swooping into the water feet first to grasp its prey? There is such a variety of bird life in the Marco area, and they capture their next meals in several different manners. One physical feature can tell you something very unique about their diets. Take a look at the shape of the bird’s beak. ... Read More »

The Horses are Off — Seahorses, That Is

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Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist “Mama, come quick!” a young girl cries. “There’s a tiny horse on the beach!” As mama and others run to the scene, sure enough there is a horse in the Marco Island sand. It is only a few inches long and sure looks like our equine friends but without legs. It is a seahorse. Seahorses are very small marine fish. Like other fish they breathe through gills. They float in an upright position and have pectoral fins to maneuver and dorsal fins to maintain balance. Most importantly, they are masters of camouflage. Just like ... Read More »

Florida Bird Migration: It’s All About the Tilt

White Pelicans migrate form north to south when temperatures become cooler. They are in our area during our winter. Below: Swallow Tailed Kites migrate from South America when that continent becomes cooler. They are in our area now until the fall. PHOTOS BY BOB MCCONVILLE

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist Swallow Tailed Kites are here in South Florida right now, but the White Pelicans and other migratory bird species are not. Hmmm….it seems odd that they all do not frequent our area at the same time. Why would that happen? Don’t they all come from the north to winter in our area? Don’t they all come at the same time? The answer is a resounding NO, and it revolves primarily around one factor: the tilt of the earth. Let’s refresh with some basic science classes to figure this out. The earth is in an ... Read More »

Caves of the Yucatan Peninsula and Florida

Bob and Cathy explore an underground  cavern in Mexico. SUBMITTED PHOTO

STEPPING STONES  Bob McConville  Master Naturalist In early June of this year, my wife, Cathy, and I took the opportunity to visit the Yucatan Peninsula area of Mexico. The marine life and geology of this region are positively fascinating. In addition to snorkeling with whale sharks — the largest fish on the planet — we ventured inland to Mexico’s jungles to learn more about the ecology. What we found was absolutely surprising. This portion of the peninsula sits right where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea. The closest land mass is Cuba, and just north of that is ... Read More »

Swimming with the Largest Fish on Earth

The mouth of this whale shark is nearly 4 feet wide. It filters plankton and small fish from the sea water to obtain protein. SUBMITTED PHOTOS

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist This column is dedicated to Marine Biologist James Livacarri, whose passion, knowledge and smile deeply in spire tens of thousands of visitors to Marco Island. May your seas always be calm, and may the road rise up to meet you. May all of your journeys be pleasant, and may you and your family remain continually blessed. Thank you, my friend! I couldn’t believe my eyes! Our boat was right along side the largest fish in the world. The captain cautiously edged the vessel forward until we were about 30 feet in front of the ... Read More »

Snakes of Big Cypress Swamp

Young Cottonmouth, Big Cypress Swamp

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist When I am not at work on Marco Island, I absolutely love giving tours of the Big Cypress Swamp. I mean I really LOVE it!!!! There are several diverse habitats in that area, and they support a wide variety of wildlife. People are positively fascinated to hear the facts about ‘gators, ‘crocs, hawks, eagles, owls…..and snakes. I try to emphasize in my columns that there is an order to things on this planet, all the way down to the smallest ecosystems. Every plant, tree and animal serves a purpose, even the creepy, crawly things. ... Read More »

The Gulf Stream: A Migratory Highway

A newborn loggerhead, less than 2-inches long, gets ahead start towards the Gulf Stream current that will take it thousands of miles before returning to Marco Island 20-plus years from now. PHOTO BY BOB MCCONVILLE

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist Over the next few months, there will be a lot of attention given to the loggerhead turtles that nest on our local beaches. Not so much fuss will be made once the eggs have hatched, but many people are very aware of the absolutely magnificent, nearly impossible journey that these youngsters take. It is nothing short of a miracle. Some of them will catch the Gulf Stream current just off our shoreline, grab a transfer into the Atlantic Ocean and continue up the coastline until they turn east toward Europe and Africa. But they ... Read More »

Dolphin Explorer: 8 Years of Research

PHOTO BY Kirk Gardner

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist Over here is Halfway, an adult female bottlenose dolphin and mom to at least four calves. Over there is one of our dominant male pair bonds, Hatchet and Capri.” These are common refrains by naturalist Kent Morse and marine biologist James Liviccari on board the Dolphin Explorer. With 16 years of experience between them studying the bottlenose dolphins in and around Marco Island, these two professionals not only identify the area mammals but they recognize certain behaviors and traits of many individuals. With eight complete years of survey data in their hands, some amazing ... Read More »

On the Road Less Traveled With the Swallow-tailed Kite

A Swallow-tailed Kite seen near Shell Island Road. PHOTO BY BOB MCCONVILLE

It was a typical drive home from work on April 22 when I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a bird flying. Its movement was a bit different than other area birds, and then I saw its tail. I smiled, and said to myself, “They’re back.” I am, by no means, a professional birder, but seeing certain species at specific times of the year helps me understand that there is an order on this earth — a system that has been in place for thousands of years. This was my third such sighting of this particular bird this ... Read More »

Before the Calusa, Who Was Here?

Calusa Fishing People. COURTESY OF FLORIDA MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist Just about everyone who visits this area is aware of some of the recent native American inhabitants of South Florida. The Calusa indians controlled the waterways from the Florida Keys as far north as Tampa Bay. The Seminole and Miccosukee roamed the inland areas and the Everglades while even more tribes settled other regions of the state. In fact, when Christopher Columbus first came to this part of the world, it is estimated that there were more than 300,000 natives in Florida. Many of these Indian nations did not have a written history, and ... Read More »

Crocs ‘N’ Gators…They’re Here!

You can clearly see the 4th tooth on the lower jaw. This is an easy way to tell a croc from a gator. Photo taken at Wooten’s Nature Preserve.

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist Crocodiles and alligators….we’ve got both species on, or very near to, Marco Island. Although they look a lot alike, they are very, very different. Alligators are found primarily in freshwater habitats, and crocodiles are found primarily in saltwater habitats. The key word here is “primarily” because we do find both types of reptile in both types of water. Crocs and gators belong to a group of reptiles called crocodilians, which are the largest of all living reptiles. There are 23 species native to the U.S., and the only place where both species coexist is South ... Read More »

Wood Storks of the Everglades

This feeding Wood Stork uses “tactolocation,” sweeping its bill from side to side until touching prey and closing its bill in 1/40th of a second!

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist Let’s step back to the Everglades of the 1900s. This pristine area is virtually untouched, and for nearly 5,000 years, a sheet of water from the overflow of Lake Okeechobee has developed this region into a haven for a large variety of reptiles and other animals, including many bird species. One of those bird species — the wood stork. Let’s fast forward to the 1930s. Development south of Lake O is taking place in the form of farms and ranches. Even further south, the logging industry has increased substantially. Efforts to drain the Everglades are ... Read More »

A Beginner’s Guide to (GULP) Pythons: Part 2

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Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist In the last edition of Coastal Breeze News, I gave you a brief introduction to Burmese pythons. These animals are an invasive species (not native to Florida), and they are now firmly established not only in the Everglades but as far west as Collier County. Their numbers have been estimated to be from 15,000 to 150,000 or more throughout the lower portion of the state. They inhabit areas that are both tropical and subtropical, much like that in our region. I recently had a very enlightening conversation with a man who studies Burmese pythons. He ... Read More »

A Beginner’s Guide to (Gulp) Pythons – Part 1

This tricolored heron is feeding in ideal python habitat. PHOTO BY BOB MCCONVILLE

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Master Naturalist “I’ve got a snake over here!” “Okay, can you describe it?” “Yes. It looks to be about 6-feet-long, dark brown with black spots and about 3 inches thick.” “Do the spots connect? Do they touch each other? Tell me about the markings on the head.” “The spots a giraffe-like. They do not touch. The head markings look like a dark arrowhead with a lighter line in the center.” “Sounds like you’ve got a Burmese python! Get on the phone and dial 1-888-IVE-GOT1. Give them your GPS coordinates, the closest street intersection or a mile ... Read More »

How Did We Get Here?

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Stepping Stones Bob McConville Over the past few months I’ve had the honor to tell you about a variety of habitats and wildlife that thrive throughout our magnificent state. Florida has such a unique and varied ecosystem that supports our plants and animals, and with the exception of our northern border, we are completely surrounded by water. Whether it be freshwater from our rivers, lakes and aquifers, or the saltwater from the gulf, bays or ocean, water seems to be the key to life here. However, it is not the only key. Florida’s environment spans temperature zones ranging from the cooler, ... Read More »

Marco Island: Our Coastal Friends

Halfway, an adult female bottle-nosed dolphin, catches a wave. She has four known offspring: Seymour, Simon, Kaya and 4-month-old Skipper. PHOTO BY MARINE BIOLOGIST JAMES LIVICCARI

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Eagles and ospreys and skimmers..oh my! Book upon book could be written about the animal and plant life here on Marco Island. Mother Nature has truly worked her magic regarding the variety of inhabitants and vegetation found here. As previously discussed the red mangrove forest has set the stage — and the table — for a food chain that starts with micro-organisms and ends with the area’s apex predators. Let’s meet a few more locals and some migrating species in our area now. Dolphins A cry goes out, “There’s two over here! Dolphins at 9:00!” James and ... Read More »

Florida’s Coastal Friends

A tri-colored heron enjoys the hunt along a grassy shoreline. PHOTOS BY BOB MCCONVILLE

Stepping Stones Bob McConville Hello, Mother Nature, and thank you”! This is the anthem I sing when visiting any portion of the state’s coastline. From the panhandle beaches on around to Marco Island to the northernmost points of our ocean areas, there is an abundance of plant and animal life to be appreciated. It would be easy to write several books about this topic and cover the entire coastal region. Because I get writer’s cramp very quickly, this brief space will be dedicated to the live treasures found on Marco Island. It is appropriate to start with the plant life ... Read More »

Water, water everywhere!

Everglades National Park. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Stepping Stones Bob McConville From the freshwater rivers of Alabama and Georgia that flow into our state to the rain produced sheetflow of central Florida and the showers The Everglades send to our local area, there is a consistent supply of clean water for us to enjoy and utilize. More than 100 rivers crisscross our state; many of which are protected and preserved. These tributaries nourish the surroundings and give us the beautiful and diverse landscape we enjoy today. The panhandle region and extreme northern border boast lush forests that provide a home for deer, bear, turkey and a variety ... Read More »