Wild And Scenic: A Day in the Life of a Biologist on the Myakka River Part 2

Myakka River State Park, formally established and opened to visitors in 1941, is one of Sarasota County’s unique and precious treasures. In late January, I had the opportunity to join a Florida Department of Environmental Protection biologist at Myakka River State Park to survey 14 miles of the Myakka River by kayak, to better understand the state of the river and the wildlife it supports, as well as some of the conservation issues this spectacular ecosystem faces.

In the blog series “Wild and Scenic”, you can experience a day in the life of a biologist on the Myakka River and get an inside perspective on what’s going on “beneath the surface”. Read part 1 of the “Wild and Scenic” blog series to learn more about the history of Myakka River State Park and the river’s Wild and Scenic state designation.

An image of a man in a Kayak, with an alligator laying on the bank of the river on his right side.
Looks like that alligator wanted to be in the photo too! Photo: Zahir Ringgold Cordes.

Meet Chris

An image of a medium-sized wading bird with a long, skinny, patterned neck, and a long, spear like beak, as it wades through the water and hunts.
A tricolored heron looks for its next meal. Photo: Zahir Ringgold Cordes.

This is Chris Oliver, Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Myakka Wild and Scenic River Biologist. After years of kayaking a 14-mile stretch of the Myakka River each month, he manages to paddle swiftly down the river, maneuvering with the current, and avoiding the submerged trunks of cabbage palms. He steers clear of overhanging thickets of branches and leaves, and does this, all while capturing numbers of each bird species, alligator, turtle, and snake seen and heard along the way, in a small waterproof notebook.

Sound impossible? With practice, repetition, an observant eye, and of course, years of expertise, carefully camouflaged creatures reveal themselves, birdsong that drifts in on a warm breeze gives away the location and identity of its vocalist, and just a fleeting glimpse of a feathered body as its wings carry it away is enough to know- tricolored heron or little blue?

Biologists systematically and routinely survey sections of an ecosystem to look not only for the presence of wildlife, but also to document plant diversity and growth, evidence of damage, disruption, and pollution, the presence of invasive species, and much more. Chris’ role as Myakka’s Wild and Scenic River biologist is to monitor the ecosystem’s health, as well as the impacts of human use and activity in the ecosystem to inform the Myakka River Management Coordinating Council’s management and conservation decisions.

A “River’s-eye View”

An image of three kayaks resting on the shore of a dark-colored river in a sunny, bright environment with many trees and greenery.
Photo: Zahir Ringgold Cordes.

I arrived at the South entrance to Myakka River State Park at 8:00am on a pleasant and calm Tuesday in January. The morning’s clear skies and dry weather were welcome conditions amidst a very wet dry season. Chris and Ben, a Myakka River State Park volunteer who often accompanies Chris on his surveys, were waiting for me with three kayaks at the river’s muddy edge. After a short safety briefing, we pushed off and let the slow-moving current carry us as a black vulture flew overhead.

Despite having spent the past few months educating 4th and 5th grade students from Sarasota County public schools at Myakka River State Park through our LIFE program, and visiting the park sometimes 4 times a week, experiencing the landscape from a “river’s-eye view” opened up a whole new world for me. Each bend and section of the river offered something beautiful, intriguing, and novel.

An image of a cabbage palm that has fallen into the water, with a small alligator resting atop its trunk.
Can you spot the gator? Photo: Zahir Ringgold Cordes.

Spectacular Sights

The water itself, with its rich, deep, bronze color, sparkled and glistened in the mesmerizing way that only blackwater rivers do. Golden rays of sunlight illuminated the varying shades of green in the diverse collection of plant species present along the river’s banks.

In some sections, the river narrowed and snaked forward, while in others, it opened up into a wide lake, with wind, waves, and stronger currents pushing me to paddle hard and hope that I didn’t end up in the water! At times, the sloping trunks of cabbage palms draped over the surface, creating obstacles to navigate, and resulting in a few run ins with leaves and palm fronds full of spider webs.

The Impact of Invasive Plants

Shortly into the 14-mile journey to our end point at Venice Myakka River Park, we paddled through a section of the river where tall, thick grass towered overhead and made seeing anything on either side of the river impossible. “Paragrass”, said Chris, as he detailed how this invasive species of grass takes over and alters critical habitat along the banks of the river.

An image of brown, dried and dead grass along the river.
Paragrass after being treated with herbicide. Notice how it had taken over the bank of the river in this area. Photo: Zahir Ringgold Cordes.

Invasive species create complex issues for Florida’s ecosystems and removing them is costly and labor intensive. In fact, Florida spends approximately 45 million dollars annually to manage invasive plants alone (Wells, 2023).

Chris explained the tactics used in partnership with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to try to control paragrass’ spread and chokehold in the Myakka River’s floodplain- a combination of careful chemical application followed by prescribed fire.

A photo of small, deep orange flames amongst blades of green grass on the ground.
Photo: Zahir Ringgold Cordes.

More on Managing Invasive Plants

While herbicides, especially when misused, can have damaging consequences to an ecosystem, they are often the only feasible option for removing equally damaging invasive plants that have completely overrun large tracts of land.

It is next to impossible to restore acres of habitat by manually removing grasses and other invasive plants. These species often have vast underground rhizomes that store energy to re-sprout and spread with renewed force when disturbed. Land and natural resource managers select appropriate herbicides for the specific plants to be targeted with the least impact on non-target species.

We soon reached another section of the river that brought hope.

Restoration Brings Hope

The impenetrable wall of tall grass began to disappear and give way to blue skies and an expansive floodplain with visibility for miles. Floodplains are flat areas of land along rivers with plants and animals that are adapted to wet soils and changing water levels. These plants also help filter and clean water and allow water to percolate and recharge ground water levels.

Far off in the distance, a herd of deer galloped wildly along the edge of the forest with a freedom that is uncommon to see in our altered landscapes. On either side of us, peculiar stalagmite-like bunches of blackened grass rose from rich, saturated soil carpeted with the electric-green new-growth of native vegetation.

A collaged image of different stages of regrowth of native plants amongst burn mounds of the invasive grass.
In October of 2023, this area was treated with herbicide, and a few months later in early December, prescribed fire was applied as an additional restoration technique. In the riparian zone, which is the area along the banks of a body of water, a diversity of native plant life is important for water quality, erosion control, and wildlife habitat. In the top left photo, you can see the remains of dense thickets of paragrass. The other photos capture the regrowth of critical native vegetation that has been given the space to re-grow after management of the paragrass. Photo: Zahir Ringgold Cordes.

A Win for Wildlife

An image of a small, brown, black, and white bird standing in the mud on long, skinny legs.
Learn more about killdeer. Photo: Mohan Nannapaneni, Pixabay.
A tall, speckled brown and white bird walks through the water with a large snail in its beak.
Limpkins love escargot! Photo: Zahir Ringgold Cordes.

As a result of the application of these management techniques, where paragrass once dominated and diminished the available habitat for several species of native wildlife, we could now delight in watching a flock of killdeer foraging in the open floodplain’s mudflats.

Chris pointed out the silhouettes of limpkins searching for snails to snack on in the distance, and enthusiastically located an American kestrel perched atop a bare tree branch, scanning the expanse for prey. Without this restoration work, these animals would not have been able to utilize the area for survival.

With so many issues threatening our natural areas, witnessing wildlife returning to use a previously inaccessible area, and listening to Chris’ approving assessment of the project’s progress brought me a sense of hope and excitement.

In fact, in my enthusiasm, I found myself being carried by the current around a bend and to my surprise, right into a bunch of vegetation where a long, dark-colored snake was casually draped and sunning itself.

A long, dark-colored snake with a whitish belly lays draped amongst dried, brown plant stalks.
Photo: Chris Oliver, Florida Department of Environmental Protection.


My eyes quickly scanned its head and body to determine whether I had just disrupted a venomous species’ R&R time. Elongated, slender body, rounded head and pupils, characteristic lines along the sides of its face and mouth- whew…not a cottonmouth.

Its patterning and coloration additionally gave its identity away, and as the current pushed me forward, I called out “water snake”. Behind me, Chris paddled over to snap some photos and identify it as a non-venomous green water snake (Nerodia floridana).

As a snake lover, this was one of the day’s highlights! Looking to improve your own snake identification skills? Visit our wildlife webpage for free webinars and a host of information.

A close up image of a snake with very round pupils and a green-ish tint to its body.
Photo: Chris Oliver, Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

What Lies Ahead

An image of a red kayak with a yellow paddle, heading down the river, with two men kayaking ahead.
Photo: Zahir Ringgold Cordes.

Our time in this spectacular section of the Myakka River was coming to a close, and ahead lay the Lower Lake and Myakka River State Park’s famed Deep Hole, a 131 ft. deep sinkhole famed for the high concentration of alligators that congregate in the deep, dark waters and along the sinkhole’s edge. Head over to part 3 of the “Wild and Scenic” blog series to read what happens next!

Find other blogs in this series here:

Wild and Scenic: A Day in the Life of a Biologist on the Myakka River Part 1

Wild and Scenic: A Day in the Life of a Biologist on the Myakka River Part 3

Wild and Scenic: A Day in the Life of a Biologist on the Myakka River Part 4


Wells, A. (2023, July 26). Action of the Week: Remove Invasive Plants. Florida Museum Thompson Earth Systems Institute. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/earth-systems/blog/action-of-the-week-remove-invasive-plants/


Zahir Ringgold Cordes, Environmental Education and Outreach Program Assistant for UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County's Ecology and Natural Resources Program
Posted: May 24, 2024

Category: Conservation, Natural Resources, Wildlife, Work & Life
Tags: Biologist, Careers, Conservation, Freshwater, Kayak, Management, Myakka River, Paddle, Pgm_EcoNR, Rivers, Wild And Scenic, Wildlife, Wildlife Survey

Leave a Reply

Subscribe For More Great Content

IFAS Blogs Categories