Growing up in Ft. Lauderdale, I knew Florida was a magical place, even before there was a Magic Kingdom. Florida was quirky and original, had an abundance of wildlife on land or offshore and was full of attractions you could find no where else in the world.
The undersea world of the Florida Keys and the Bahamas was introduced to those not from here via cutting edge 1960’s technology involving underwater motion picture cameras, which made possible the popular movie and TV series “Flipper.” Each 30 minute episode would present a predicament, such as injured divers, or shark attacks, or finding buried treasure, and each time the clever bottlenose dolphin Flipper would come to the rescue. The big ideas of marine preservation and doing what is right would always ring true. There was always a happy ending, it’s no wonder at the end of the show you would find yourself singing “Flipper, Flipper… faster than lightning; No-one you see, is smarter than he…” Sorry about that… I have you baby boomers singing now!
Just as people nowadays, want to see their favorite movie stars, kids would want to go see Flipper, the bottle nosed Dolphin (Tursiops Truncatus) so they visited the marine parks, which were plentiful at the time. They watched dolphins tail walk, jump 30 ft. in the air to catch a fish from the trainer’s mouth, or jump through a flaming ring. Because of their ability to adapt to human care, as well as learn new behaviors, they are the most studied of all dolphin species. These dolphins performed at 10 - 2 - and 4 - pm and earned their meals for the day. Unlike wild dolphins, who feed on a variety of sea life including: fish, shrimp, and squid, these captive porpoises, having been in the performing business all their lives, many born in captivity, would not understand how to catch a live fish. They only ate cut up dead fish which had added vitamins and fluids necessary for their good health.
One of my early childhood memories was of a souvenir I got while visiting “Flipper” at the 38 acre Miami Seaquarium on Key Biscayne, which was opened in 1955. It was an all day round trip, traveling down US-1. After seeing the show, and visiting all the seals, manatees, turtles and fishtanks, I put a quarter in the Mold-A-Rama machine and watched as hot wax was molded into a dolphin figurine. So cool.
Tike Miller, the Chicago inventor of the Mold-A-Rama machine, never set out to make one of the most popular vending machines in history, he just wanted to replace a broken figurine for his holiday nativity set. He experimented with a new plastic injection process, and made thousands of wax dinosaurs, space invaders and jungle animals before he sold the business in the late 1950’s.
Well you ask, why is this so important? The history of the “state of the art” then vs now is what makes this interesting. What happens when the show is over, literally? With attendance down, and protests up, the number of marine parks has declined steadily. Many of these facilities are desperately searching for homes for their retired dolphins.
And the wide eyed children, they’ve moved on. The attentions of todays generation of children are fixed on 21st Century innovations. not the engineering technology of the 20th Century which made possible the Overseas Highway connecting the mainland to Key West.
The new generation’s role models are from the Avatar series. With human-like animation, it’s theme is centered around the conflict between indigenous populations, and their deep will to survive, versus their oppressors’ intentions, which would cause environmental destruction of their world. The undersea creatures of Pandora in The Way of the Water were filmed using high fidelity motion capture, known as performance capture, which uses multiple cameras and sensors to capture facial expressions, and impart real-life mannerisms onto a human-like animation. From an efficiency perspective, it is far easier to teach a human to act, hold their breath, to swim, jump or dive than to train a real animal. With advances in microchips and processors and the speed of computing, finer more precise movements are possible. One day humans will not be able to recognize the difference between real and unreal reality.
And perhaps we will never have to go outdoors ever again.
A VR headset may work for me as far as going in the ocean is concerned. I made a pact with the fish long ago: you don’t come on my land and I won’t go into your water.
The Keys are a sub-tropical mecca, for those seeking a life that is easy and breezy. At least that is the Tourist Development Council vision. In reality, competition for increasingly scarce resources, including housing, is a reality in the Keys… for humans and for the critters that live amongst us.
It’s a dog-eat dog world out there, and you better not be wearing milk bone shorts.
Not long ago the Green anoles were the majority of lizards found in my yard. Some had tails, and others not, thanks to my cats, but they were plentiful. They were great with camouflage, it’s body green when perched on a leaf, or turning brown when resting on a tree trunk. They did their job taking care of bugs in the yard, and provided a good source of entertainment. But then came the Cuban brown anole, a slightly larger lizard, easily identified by the mating male’s conspicuous bright orange dew-lap, and push-up behavior. They eat bugs and spiders… and other lizards. These Cuban cousins have more offspring than the Green anole; outcompeted and displaced, our native Green anole had to retreat to high in the tree canopy.
Head for the hills, my Green anole buddy! See you on the ground someday.
While cruising the islands of the Bahamas, I was introduced to lizards that had curly tails. I’d lived my entire life in Florida, but the Bahamas were the only place I’d seen these curious creatures. As it turns out, the Northern curly-tailed lizard was brought to Florida both as pets, and in the 1940’s sugar cane growers released them in their fields to control the insect population. These lizards can reach 11 inches, though most are around 7 inches in total length; they eat bugs and flowers, especially railroad vine, but also other lizards, particularly Cuban brown anoles.
Hold your position in the trees, my Green anole buddy! I’ve got your six.
Another lizard, the Peter’s Rock agama, began showing up in my yard around the end of 2020. Though first introduced by the pet trade in 1976, this lizard’s population really took off in the Keys, coincidentally during the pandemic, when the Keys were also “discovered” by an influx of new human residents, whose demand for second homes sent prices up, and the local workforce out. During mating season, Peter’s Rock agamas are pretty boys with boldly colored red heads, a black body, with more orange and ending with a black tip. Shy, they quickly retreat from humans, seeking cover under rocks or into the foliage. Both the agama and the curly-tail are sit-and-wait predators, who watch for crawling insects and butterflies. It’s no coincidence their favorite hangout in my yard is a coral rock covered by Corky-stemmed passion flower, the larval host plant for a variety of butterflies, including Gulf Fritillary, Julia Heliconian and Zebra Heliconian butterflies. The Peter’s Rock agama also preys on the Cuban brown anole.
Whisky Tango Foxtrot! Take cover, my Green anole buddy. There is a large predator heading your way. It’s an invasion!
The Green iguana was introduced to Florida via the pet trade; somehow they got loose and now are found in the Keys, to as far north as Tampa Bay, and all parts in-between. They feed on foliage, flowers and fruit, and will eat insects, lizards, small animals, nesting birds and eggs. The males grow to six foot long including the tail, that can whip you and transmit salmonella; alligators, dogs and raccoons are their only natural predators. They dig nesting burrows that contain an average of 40 eggs. These destructive burrows cause erosion and undermine seawalls, and can cause you to twist an ankle while walking near one.
It is hard to calculate how many iguanas there are. A friend hunkered down in his home during hurricane Irma was amazed at how many iguanas were in the trees; as the storm raged on, soon revealed were dozens of iguanas, clinging to the defoliated branches. Cold blooded, they fall from the trees when temperatures go below 45 degrees, an opportune time to reduce their population. Green iguanas are here through no fault of their own, but I’m all for the death penalty due to their destructive behavior; call a Nuisance and Wildlife Management Pro, to do it humanely.
There is one reptile in my yard, who can be heard during May at dawn and at dusk, but rarely seen. It’s diet includes insects, baby birds, and small mammals such as nesting mice. It lives in tree crevices, and even inside structures, behind suspended ceilings or within walls. A native of Southeast Asia, the Tokay gecko’s call is described as “tuck-too”, too-kay; it was this sound that prompted U.S. troops in Vietnam to informally dub it the "F*ck You Lizard…” an informal “reception committee,” and the only ones there telling you the truth.
My favorite times of day are near dusk and dawn. The time of day, when the shadows get longer and you can sit outside without a hat on, with coffee or cold drink in hand, and contemplate the wonders of nature.
It’s the time of day full of chirping and songs, and the emergence of the critters. It’s the time before the sounds of daily human activities; the din of lawn mowers and leaf blowers, the constant chatter of workmen nearby.
Think of how your morning walk would change if you pulled out the headphone plugs, and simply listened to the sounds of nature. Tune in not out. I will use my iPhone on nature walks; it has an app called “Merlin” that listens to and records bird sounds, and in real time suggests a possible identification. For me, a nature lover who basically knows nothing, it has opened up a world of knowledge, and has brought me even closer to nature. As the names of birds are popping up on the screen, you get an idea of what may be making the sound, and aiding you in visually identifying it. The app can also be used by someone with a hearing loss, someone who can hear, but the sounds may not be crisp enough.
As areas are developed, and natural land is changed, birds lose their favorite trees and water sources. Several of my friends have installed screech owl nesting boxes, in their yards, within view of their windows or porches. In the wild, screech owls nest in abandoned holes created by woodpeckers for example. Before I get a nesting box, I need to use “Merlin” to see if I already have owls in my yard, or vicinity. There might just be a natural "house" in my wooded acreage.
“Birders” are a pretty great bunch of people. A friend was invited for a cocktail at the home of a neighbor who had a “screech owl” nesting box in a palm tree outside the porch. Yes, lively Key Largo nightlife…sipping on a drink while listing to the “HOO”. She later found an appropriate spot in her own yard, where she could enjoy the owls, who came year after year thereafter, until hurricane Irma tore the house down.
Have you ever heard someone say they never see any birds in their yards? Or maybe they do not know where to start looking for birds. The answer is, look in your backyard.
Ask yourself, what does a migrating bird or even a local bird, have to eat in your yard? Do you have any native plants? With development and habitat loss, there are increasing pressures on wildlife. If everybody just planted one native plant, that's a start. In a suburban jungle one native tree may be fruiting, while in another there is pollen and nectar attracting bugs and caterpillars. That is what they need to eat. It's like you going to the store and there is only cat food there. What are you going to eat? Birds need fresh water, and cover too, so they may hide from predators.
Owls can be a great source for natural pest control and it is free. No pesticide service or poison filled plastic boxes needed! Screech owls feed on all sorts of bugs, cockroaches, lizards, beetles, moths and rodents. Whatever they can see, catch in the air or pounce on is fair game. Spraying for bugs eliminates a food source. Owls can also be threatened by pest control of the another kind… rat traps containing poison are a huge problem. The rat entering the box does not just eat the poison and die there, they eat the poison, then leave the trap, to slowly die from the effects wherever they wander off to. Unfortunately for the birds of prey such as the owl, or the hawk, that same poison does not discriminate between the rat, and the bird that just ate the rat.
For all of us, birds alert us to seasonal shifts like migration, teach us about communication, and the cycle of life through behaviors like predation, mating and nesting. Screech owls mate in late fall, and you can hear their noises. The baby owlets emerge from the nesting boxes in April or early May.
Nature is the Law. It makes me want to get up early in the morning and keep going. The ecosystem is provided free of charge, no accessories required. And the benefits are lower rates of anxiety, depression and stress.
This photographic website provides me the opportunity for self-expression, for sharing