Sunday, June 28, 2009

If it'd been a snake...

I like timber rattlesnakes. As a zoology grad student I had one that had been "fixed" so it couldn't inject venom, but it had its fangs, and could have certainly delivered a painful bite. But it had a nice enough personality, and you could handle it like a corn snake. I'm convinced that many timber rattlers I've encountered in the woods could be gently picked up barehanded, assuming of course that they haven't first coiled in alarm/defense. But I would never try it, of course.

This amazing video shows a young black bear nearly stepping on a very large timber rattlesnake, oblivious to the danger at its feet. Only when retracing its steps does it finally see the snake, and its reaction is much the same as mine would be! It makes me wonder how often I've come close to snakes like this one without ever knowing it. The thought might be unsettling, but on the other hand, the snakes' behavior is somewhat comforting.

The people who made this video had been watching the snake for several days. From the context of other videos, it appears to be near a corn feeder that has attracted a variety of wildlife, including rodents. Go to their website for further webcam documentation of this impressive but unlucky snake striking at and missing an adult bear (self defense) plus a gray squirrel and a chipmunk (feeding attempts).

Note: If you're ever around such a grain feeder that's in use during the warm season, watch your step--they really are snake magnets, and don't count on every rattlesnake being so magnanimous!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Florida Protects Freshwater Turtles

Kudos to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for voting today to enact the strictest ban in the country on freshwater turtle harvesting. As Asian demand for turtle meat has skyrocketed (and Asian turtle populations have crashed as a result), the industry has turned to the Southeastern US. With the market shut down in Florida, other southeastern states can expect increased pressure. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, and Tennessee continue to allow unlimited commercial take of all sizes and ages of most species of native turtles, using unlimited quantities of lethal hoopnets and box traps in public and private waters. In the Southeast, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and now Florida have prohibited commercial take of wild freshwater turtles.

In a follow-up to yesterday's Florida turtle news item, here's a screen shot from the website of Fox News' Hannity's America:

Sean says,

"But our personal favorite is the "eco-passage" being created in Florida that will allow turtles to pass under the highway safely. It will only cost you $3.4 million.

The Florida Department of Transportation defend this project on the grounds that, "A lot of turtles are quite large. They get hit by a car and they turn into flying objects."

I'm not so sure. If you live in the world of Mario Kart, maybe that's a scenario worth planning for. But I think those of us in the real world can save our money for more realistic dangers."

This is quote mining, and it's as far as you can get from fair and balanced. There is a wealth of information out there on the ecopassage, as well as documentation of accidents related to turtles (including one that flipped through a windshield), but Hannity seizes on the "flying turtle" thing and milks it for all he can.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Southeastern Turtles as Political Football

Tonight it's a safe bet Sean Hannity will utter the phrase, "Turtle Tunnel." My good friend Matt Aresco, who worked hard last year to protect endangered Alabama Red-bellied turtles on the Mobile Causeway, has suddenly found himself in the latest news cycle as a result of today's report by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla) questioning 100 projects being funded by the stimulus package. Matt's "turtle tunnel" in Florida is featured way up at #5!

For a decade, Matt and other volunteers have maintained a temporary fence along Lake Jackson that keeps thousands of turtles and other wildlife from crossing US Highway 27 near Tallahassee, directing them to large culverts that already exist beneath the road, but a permanent solution has been greatly needed, not only for the turtles but for public safety.
Last November, through Matt's tireless efforts, the local regional transportation planning agency unanimously voted to prioritize the proposed Lake Jackson Ecopassage, making it eligible for Transportation Enhancement funds. Later, funds from the stimulus package were directed toward the project.

This looked like a win-win, for turtles, conservationists, motorists, and people needing work. But because it's been re-branded by its detractors as just a "13-foot turtle tunnel," it's a perfect target for politicians who care more about votes than facts. It's all over the news today.
My Google search of "Aresco" and "Coburn" just turned up 162 news items, mostly neutral or unfavorable. But Frank Cerabino of the Palm Beach Post gets it right:

"Why did the turtle cross the road?" read the pithy report Coburn issued today. "To get to the other side of the stimulus money."

The Lake Jackson wildlife "ecopassage" got the notoriety being Item No. 5 in Coburn's list of 100 foolish uses for stimulus money.

But it's too bad nobody from his office bothered to talk to Matthew Aresco first.

"It's an easy target," Aresco said. "But when you understand the project and what's at stake, you would support it."

So true. The column goes on describe the real problems of large turtles on a heavily traveled roadway, and then says:

There's a simple and relatively cheap solution: a low wall on the side of the road that funnels the lake creatures to three culverts under the roadway for safe crossing.

Aresco's crusade for this has resulted in a not-for-profit group with a Web site (, a grant of land from a donor and widespread support from the local community and the state Department of Transportation, which has endorsed the $3.4 million project.

Yet, Coburn's report has painted the project as a fly-by-night government boondoggle, claiming that a temporary fabric fence Aresco put there adequately "saves a lot of our four-legged friends."

Aresco doesn't think so.

"They don't understand the project," he said. "They just put it down without knowing anything about it."

Hang in there, Matt.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Natural Communities Book

I'm co-editing with Debbie Folkerts and Eric Soehren a book on all the major natural community types of Alabama, from the mountains to the beach. Longleaf pine forests, isolated wetlands, granite outcrops, Red Hills ravines, pitcher plant bogs, Black Belt prairies, etc. etc. We're involving a number of state and regional experts as contributors, and we'll have roughly a 1-year turnaround on chapter completion. Watch this space for more info on this exciting and worthwhile project. We've got a Facebook group and a blog, if you want to follow more closely.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

No time to blog

Busy field season. But here's a cool graphic generated by feeding the URL of this blog into