The newly restored Lemon Creek Wildflower Preserve (LCWP) is 80 acres of three major habitat types, upland, freshwater marsh/ponds and tidal creeks and lagoons. Indeed the wide variety of such habitats is very unusual and perhaps even unique in such a relatively small area.
A major feature of the restoration was creation of two tidal lagoons. The eastern lagoon is filled by the tides coming up Lemon Creek, passing through the western lagoon and under a boardwalk/bridge. The tidal waters originate in Lemon Bay but must pass through a narrow but dense mangrove maze between route 775 (Placida Rd) before entering or leaving the preserve. This mangrove gauntlet is believed to be important in restricting large predatory fish from entering the preserve. This area of Lemon Creek is famous as a nursery for juvenile tarpon and one purpose of the restoration is to greatly increase the amount of habitat suitable for young tarpon. The natural growth of mangroves along the newly created lagoons will be critical for providing cover for the young tarpon.
There are four species of salt water trees that grow along Lemon Creek and will vigorously colonize the entire tidal shoreline. I have arranged the leaves of these species that fall into three separate families next to one another for comparison of the tops and bottoms. From left to right there are the white mangrove and buttonwood which are closely related. Next there are the black mangrove and the red mangrove which are unrelated. The differences in leaf and bark color and bark and root structure are considerable; this reflects the diverse evolutionary pathways by which these plants adapted to different areas of the salty environment. These trees and allied plants that occupy the creek and lagoon habitats are crucial for all animal life here and their removal by human activity is a deadly blow to the environment. I show a photo of an adult black mangrove tree which has dark bark and is surrounded by strange upward root projections called pneumatophores. A myriad of animals depend on this tree for their lives. For example crabs feed on the leaves and seedlings. The caterpillars of the beautiful mangrove buckeye feed on the leaves and numerous birds and insects feed on the flowers. Debris from the fallen leaves feed many aquatic animals.
One of the most remarkable and perhaps least appreciated aspects of the ecology of plants is the process of succession. This is the stepwise replacement of one set of plants by another as time progresses since the last previous disturbance of the soil. Since restoration has involved removal of most of the plants left after the golf course was abandoned, we have a front row seat in observing how succession works. For example the bare shores of the lagoons will be rapidly colonized by mangrove seedlings, initially primarily by white mangroves as shown here. They will dominate for some years with gradual colonization by red and black mangroves over time. Various other halophytes (salt loving) will be present as long as sunlight is available- for example I show a succulent sea blite plant. On the areas of bare ground just above the reach of the tides there will be a profusion of “weeds” including such beauties as this evening primrose.
Many animals will utilize these tidal lagoons of which the wading birds will be the most obvious. For example we are in a dry period in late February/early March and a small pool has attracted four avian species (wood stork, great and snowy egrets and tri-colored heron) to feed cooperatively on the trapped fish. Such a “mixed species flock” is an effective behavior since each species has a somewhat different method of capturing prey and they generally do not compete with one another.
There are several small ponds which are not in obvious direct contact with the tides but must have some underground piped connection. This one called crab pond has occasionally had blue crabs present which are less common in the creek. Blue crabs are interesting for many reasons; strangely their sex lives are driven by color differences. The male has blue on its claws and legs. In stark contrast the female has red on her claws; this might have been the origin of “lipstick” long before female humans discovered the value of such adornment !