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Wildlife Blitz in West Central Florida Yields Rare Surprise
Here’s what happened when a major state wildlife agency celebrated a milestone anniversary on April Fools’ Day: the wildlife itself played its own April Fools joke. And it was a great one.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation’ Commission’s wildlife management area program — a network of some six million acres of state lands set aside for conservation and recreation. To honor the occasion, the agency conducted its first-ever BioBlitz–a day-long citizen science program of observing and recording reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects at west-central Florida’s Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area near Brooksville.
About 20 of us aged nine and up showed up at the WMA headquarters early that morning ready to canvas the sand hill pine forest and log our observations on the iNaturalist app– a Nature Tracker program whose data is available to both scientists and the public. We were divided into smaller groups led by a dozen local birding, reptile, and butterfly experts.
The herpetologists were chomping at the bit to try out FWC biologist Gina Philhower’s nifty tool– a small camera with bright LED lights attached to a long snaking cable that could be deployed way back inside the burrow of the gopher tortoise– a threatened species that digs an underground home in the sandy scrub that can extend 30 feet from the entrance.
The reptile enthusiasts scampered enthusiastically about the pines, locating burrows and summoning FWC employee Peter Kleinhenz who carried the camera kit.
The first few holes they investigated were empty, but several more turned out to be active burrows with tortoises inside. The camera recorded clear, well-lit images of the animals on a video screen above ground.
Gopher tortoises have many frequent guests and semi-permanent residents in their burrows: over 350 species– rattlesnakes, mice and lizards, among others–have been documented sharing space. Burrows also frequently yield prehistoric artifacts, so enthusiastic are their diggers. One of the BioBlitzers found what appeared to be a pottery shard near the entrance to one hole.
Around lunchtime, the herpetology group was poking around a burrow when they noticed that a lizard dashed all the way up to the entrance but refused to go inside.
Intrigued, Kleinhenz, University of Florida biologist Nick Scobel, and several others gathered around and deployed the snaking camera.
The cable went in about five feet– and then stopped.
They jiggled the cable, retracted it, then sent it back inside and that is when they got a big surprise: lighting up the video screen were the unmistakable, open, toothy jaws of an American alligator.
“Don’t push it in any farther or he’ll bite it,” someone warned.
Was there a gopher tortoise inside, someone else asked.
“Don’t know,” Philhower replied. “We can’t get it past the alligator.”
Word of the highly unusual find spread quickly among the Blitzers and we all insisted upon having a look– taking turns peering at the video screen bearing the image of the gator’s menacing grin. Philhower warned everyone to avoid blocking the burrow entrance –in case the gator decided to make a run for it.
What was it doing in the burrow?
Scobel said the herpetologists had seen a small water hole not far away, and the gator probably was using the tortoise’s digs as a temporary daytime stopover before locating another water source. While rare, the gator’s habitation was not unheard of, Scobel said. He estimated its size at about five feet.
Still, it seemed like nature’s perfect April Fool joke. What fun.
By the end of the day, we had recorded 30 species of birds; 25 invertebrates; and five reptiles in the Chassahowitzka.
If you would like to join a BioBlitz, the FWC will hold another one on May 6 at Aucilla Wildlife Management Area southeast of Tallahassee. Visit www.outreach.myfwc.com for more information.