Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Grass Is Everything

Yesterday, I dusted off the Pure Florida kayak and slipped out to the Shell Mound boat launch, just north of Cedar Key.

I had not kayaked for months, nor had I been to Shell Mound for a while.

Shell Mound is ... well, a mound of shells. It's a First Floridian midden, at first glance an "Indian Landfill", but it was likely much more than that.

In our flat coastal marsh topography, building mounds of shell offered both symbolic and strategic uses. Florida tribes warred with each other on a regular basis and building a hill out in the marsh offered lookout views not possible otherwise.

The large mound at "Shell Mound" sits next to a formerly mud boat launch site that has been improved just enough by one of my favorite guv'mint agencies, the USFWS.

It's all part of the Lower Suwannee NWR and the refuge folks did a great job of rocking it with gravel so it's less quagmirey, but not all fancy, dancy boat rampy.

Don't bring a deep draft boat to this launch and don't expect to get in or out at low tide, unless you can pick up your boat, drag your boat, or own an airboat.

The collage above shows the way in to the shell mound site, the gravelled ramp, and a few kayakish views soon after launching.

I launched with a high tide falling. I love falling with the tide and watching the seafloor emerge ... just never get tired of it.

The top of the avian food chain was well represented by a pair of ospreys lounging in a pine tree.

(Yes, the other one flew away before I could slow the kayak and shoot)

Some midlevel munchers were also in the area. There's no shortage of fiddler crabs here so the ibis are fat and happy.

(In a fit of honesty, I have returned to this post to delete my misidentification of these plovers. Thanks Myamuh and Tai for the gentle correctnifitinousity. Now back to our regularly scheduled post ...)

It amazes me how magically these shorebirds can disappear amongst the usual mix of sand and shell here. They are plenty obvious in this pic, but I walked right up on them on some oystery islands, before I realized they were there.

If you go solo, and your ego says it wants to be in at least one picture, be sure and pack your tripod or in this case, a monopod.

... or you could just leave your ego at home ... as if ...

To document that I was there, I leaned the camera/monopod against a big cedar, set the timer, and ran down the hill.

These pics are not of THE shell mound by the boat ramp. This is on an outer island. I followed the tide out, then paddled along the outside Gulf shore of the island until I came to an incredibly inviting landing site.

The islands out here are covered in a forest known as coastal maritime. It's a mix of the same species you might find back on the peninsula, but conditions out here on these tiny specks of land are so much tougher than inland.

For instance, this island is essentially one long skinny shell mound, another midden site built by the First Floridians.

What this means is ... there's really no "soil" to speak of. all of these plants are growing out of many feet of ancient oyster, clam, and conch shells.

Along with the whole, "no soil" challenge, the islands are small enough that they are inundated with saltwater by hurricanes and so porous that any rainwater quickly flows away through the shell.

Toss in prevailing winds that beat you with salt spray and you can see why it takes extreme woody determination to grow here.

Some don't make it.

They become monuments to those who do.

Here's the seaward view from atop the island of shell. You can see how building a shell platform out here could have great defensive possibilities.

When I left this island, I paddled out to the distant islands you can see in the above photo, but none of them were quite as appealing as this one.

I spent a lot of time here, poking around that bar you see in the foreground and wading a sandy flat to a tiny nearby islet.

Here's the Cedar tree that held my stuff for me. It's not dead, although what you see in this photo might make you think that ... same tree as the in the photo above this one. In this photo you can really see the shell matrix that all of these plants are growing out of.

No shortage of calcium in that "soil".

Litter left behind about 7 centuries ago ... maybe longer.
What a harmless bit of trash ... I left it there by the way.

In the mud around the island, there was an occasional beer can, a chip bag, and the stray bottle or two.

Remember when we used to get upset over litter? Litter that is often nothing,but an eyesore, although some, like plastics and fishing line can have real impacts on turtles and birds.

I'd trade a litter spill out there in the Gulf over an oil spill any day ... although OSHA would probably still require space suits and training before anyone could pick it up. Sheesh.

If the oil is swept this way, we will be horribly impacted ... more so than the sandy beach coasts that are being hit now.

Cleaning oil off sandy beaches is relatively uncomplicated (until the government gets involved).

Look at the picture above.

This part of Florida, the Big Bend region, has few sandy beaches. We have much more in common with the Mississippii River Delta, thousands of estuarine creeks and vast, I mean truly vast expanses of emergent spartina marsh grass.

On top of that, or maybe under that would be more correct, we have the largest, most pristine submerged seagrass beds in the country.

Barnacle babies crowd a spartina leaf.

Every single blade, above and below the surface is habitat, vital habitat for too many organisms to list.

The grass is food, shelter, fertilizer, nanny, solar collector, erosion fighter, water purifier ... the grass is everything.

We have everything to lose if the oil gets here.


Floridagirl said...

Beautiful place, Florida Cracker! Enjoyed the scenery and wildlife photos as well as the history/science lesson. :-> Hopefully, I'll get up to the Big Bend area someday.

edifice rex said...

Yes, thanks for the lesson! That was a wonderful, educational post and of course, the little pottery shard (I guess) thingy was way cool! Love the texture on it.

The Florida Blogger said...

Hey FC, I've been kicking around the idea of getting a jeep and am wondering how you carry the yak around. This would be big for me as I have two yaks. Love that Big Bend area of Florida. You would love Sanders Creek on the Dixie Mainline Road near Suwannee. It is fed by a spring in the California Swamp.

Sandcastle Momma said...

Stunning pictures! That osprey is beautiful. We have great beaches but I have to say the Big Bend area is the heart of the real Florida. You do such a good job of showing Florida's true beauty.

Your comment about OSHA requiring space suits to clean up litter gave me a much needed laugh today. Thanks.

I'm praying hard for your neck of the woods - as heartbreaking as the oil is here I can't even imagine what will happen if it reaches you.

Kimberly said...

Hi, FC! What a wonderful way to spend the day! And you've provided history as well as nature and envirionmental lessons. NICE!!

I do pray the oil does not come to Florida, poisoning our wildlife and ecosystems.

Thank you for sharing your day!

Lynn said...

LOVE the gorgeous pics. I worry how soon it will get there.

myamuhnative said...

FC do you have a Sibleys yet?
If the answer is no I'm sending one your way ;-)
Everyone needs a Sibley's guide!
BTW I thought of you (and Fl Blogger might be interested in this too) when I saw a gorgeous black Jeep down by Flamingo that had a roof rack over the soft top!
It mounted along the A post (windshield frame on a Jeep?) and I guess the C post , but don't really remember that part too well.Looked quite sturdy tho probably expensive too...

tai haku said...

cool post - we had a couple of big conch middens down my way but they were more recent in origin alas.

Also (as I think myamuhnatuve may have been hinting) your ruddy turnstones are actually some sort of plover - perhaps semipalmated?

Floridacracker said...

Thanks!The bigbend is a very special place,hope you see it unoiled.

Thanks! Thought you might focus on that pic!

Yes, I would get a jungle cargo rack like Myamuh was describing. Go to
They are pricey, but probably worth it. Presently, I have a small trailer so it's more economical to use that. The rack is on my wish list though.
Thanks for the creek tip. I know that road.

Can you imagine wiping down every spartina blade and oyster bed between here and Appalach.
Glad I made ya chuckle.

Thanks! Hard to separate those things and still talk about Florida. Glad you enjoyed it.

Thanks, me too.
All it would take is a tropical storm to blow it right on in here. Scary stuff.

You crack me up! You're too kind. If I misidentify a bird (or a seaturtle LOL!) just TELL me.
I am not a birder so I screw them up all the time... no excuse on that green seaturtle though.
Too funny.
You are spot on about the Jeep racks. They are the best way to go.
Kinda pricey right now and I already own a trailer... dang it!

I was semi right then right... at least in the plover group? Throw me a line here dude, I'm sinking!
Yes, Myamuh was trying to get my attention I think.

SophieMae said...

Gorgeous! That's one of my favourite west coast spots. And it's been WAY too long since I was there. Reckon I'd better get out pretty quick before the mow-rons let the oil get any closer. >:\

Thunder Dave said...

Amen brother, but I'll sum it up in a bad parody of "Field of Dreams": If they spill it, it will come!

threecollie said...

What a delightful tour. I could almost smell the breeze. I hope it somehow stays as pure and beautiful as it is today.

Miz S said...

I learned so much from this one post. When you retire from teaching are you going to run a kayaking tour business? I'd pay good money to paddle along and listen to you.

Jacob said...

I moved from Cedar Key (specifically the area around Shell Mound) back in 03 after living there through my teens, but your blogs sure help the homesickness FC.

Floridacracker said...

It's a gem for sure.

I hope not.

A "Bama Breeze"?
Me too.

Miz S,
You are free.

Glad to help! Welcome to PF!

robin andrea said...

Such beautiful photos, FC, of a truly beautiful place. Yes, there is so much to lose.

Floridacracker said...

Too much.