Friday, December 2, 2016

A Homeless Vagabond Returns To Florida

For those of you in SW FL here are some upcoming walks that I am leading:

Dec. 8: 9-11 am, Kiwanis Park Port Charlotte, 501 Donora St accessed via Midway Blvd

Dec. 13 & 27:  9-11:30 am, Stump Pass State Park, Englewood, 900 Gulf Blvd 

We had been thinking a bit recently that as our retirement years tick on, we would some day need to downsize by selling our 107 acre Blueridge Mt. Virginia farm.  Thus when a VA neighbor who was looking at an adjacent farm for sale offered to buy ours, we made the difficult decision!  The closing happened almost immediately and we loaded up a 26 foot U Haul truck and drove to FL on Nov. 19.  The photo shows the truck parked in front of the 120 year old farmhouse.  This whirlwind change in our affairs has perhaps not sunk in yet.  We have had 14 glorious years managing the land and waters and enjoyed every minute.  The chance to play god on this scale is a dream come true and we were able to make some changes that greatly improved the habitats for wildlife.  Next summer we plan to explore options to rent closer to our three kids in NC and UT and travel. 

As we arrived in FL after selling the farm, we enjoyed the warmer weather and the natural beauties that are the hallmark of this spectacular peninsula.  A recent sunrise in our backyard was amazing and a great blue heron seemed to be enjoying it too.  The annual battle in our yard between the nesting ospreys and a pair of trespassing great horned owls continues at a fierce pace.  This photo shows the female osprey taking a break from the fracas.  Last year owls killed the male osprey, but the female quickly found another mate and was able to drive the owls away.  This year the outcome is still in doubt.

 The relatively warm weather has allowed some insects to continue breeding.  This pair of purple bluet damselflies at Joshua Creek near Nocatee, FL, illustrates a behavior named "contact guarding," whereby the male holds the female by the head while she lays eggs, thereby avoiding the interference of other males.  Such complex behavior among primitive insects always amazes me.

On warmer days the cicadas have been calling but you rarely have the opportunity to see the interesting bug that makes the buzzing call.  This is an annual cicada from our yard, not the remarkable periodical cicadas that emerge every 13-17 years in prodigious numbers further north.

Butterflies have been very abundant in our yard.  A gulf fritillary is shown here on a S African Cape honeysuckle flower.  Monarchs are attracted to our tall Mexican sunflowers along with many bees.  We have grown several monarch caterpillars on Mexican milkweed and were amazed to observe that the caterpillar partially cuts the base of the leaf before eating it.  This supposedly prevents too much toxic fluid from entering the leaf while the caterpillar feeds.  There is thus a limit to their tolerance to the toxins in milkweed, which protect them from their predators.  Gulf fritillaries (cats eat toxic passion vines) and viceroys (cats eat toxic willows) mimic the orange and black colors of the monarch to gain mutual protection (Muellerian mimicry) from bird predators.

The natural beauties of the fall season in Florida provide a wide range of opportunities to enjoy the wonders of plants and animals, and the seasonal changes that occur in fall and winter.

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Some Signs of Spring As We Head North

In middle April a sizeable proportion of the human population of the Englewood, FL,  area either have left for their northern summer homes or soon will do so.  We got a preview of what is in store for us with a quick trip to the coastal plain of NC the first week of April.  It was still cool at night but warm in the afternoon and a wonderful springtime was in full swing.  We spent one night in Greenville, NC (home to East Carolina University), and I was very impressed by the Greenway along the Tar River which flows right through town. 

Plants are the typical harbingers of spring and nothing reveals this more than the emergence of the intensely green leaves of bald cypress.  Large cypress are many hundreds of years old and very impressive monarchs of the swamp.  But the wildflowers on the forest floor reveal spring in all its beauty.  The coral honeysuckle is a classic hummingbird nectar source with a long corolla tube and bright red color. 

The dogwood illustrates how a white flower can be beautiful.  Actually the multiple tiny flowers pollinated by bees are clustered in the middle with showy white bracts around them.  It is a classic example of fruit abortion whereby only a few of the fertilized flowers produce fruit.

The may apple is toxic but produces an edible fruit when ripe if it has two leaf stems. 

The yellow buckeye is also toxic and has become quite common in eastern forests where deer have eaten most of the rest of the understory plants.   The flowers are pollinated by bees and the nuts can be eaten after roasting to detoxify them.

One of the beautiful butterflies that become common in spring is the tiger swallowtail, here shown "puddling" in a group while drinking salt rich fluid from animal feces.  The nectar diet of butterflies is quite deficient in salts so they seek out sources of minerals such as sodium wherever they can find them, and obviously they are not too particular!

The cool nights and warm sunny days encourage basking behavior in reptiles such as these yellowbelly sliders.  Since their body temperature can only be raised and their bodily processes accelerated by external sources of heat, they actively seek out basking sites.

Both American and southern toads tend to breed early in spring in shallow fishless ponds, and lay long strings of eggs, that hatch rapidly into small black tadpoles.  These gather together in groups of siblings and are thought to be toxic to predators.  The trilling calls of toads are one of the true signs of spring.

One of the many signs of spring are birds migrating and beginning to breed.  I happened to find this yellow throated warbler picking up nesting material along a river.  Since this species spends the winter in our FL yard, it was exciting to see one breeding in NC.

So enjoy this most marvelous time of year, since nothing in the natural world quite compares with the excitement of the spring season.

Bill Dunson


Monday, April 4, 2016

Spiny Puffer 1: Snook 0 !

While exploring the shallows of Gasparilla Sound a group of us came across a small snook in shallow water that was near death.  When we examined it closely we found an inflated spiny puffer or burrfish in the snook's mouth/throat that appeared to have prevented the snook from respiring properly.  Since the snook was essentially dead we removed the puffer from its throat and released the puffer which was weak but alive.

This illustrates two things, the effectiveness of the protection afforded by the spines and inflation strategy used by puffers (which are also quite poisonous due to tetrodotoxin in their tissues), and the foolishness of a snook which ate a puffer which then killed it.  It is interesting that this snook did not recognize the danger posed by this very well protected prey.

Bill Dunson

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Pipevine swallowtail on Mexican clover

I almost never see what I would consider to be a pipevine swallowtail in the Charlotte/Sarasota County FL area.  But yesterday I found this apparent female pipevine nectaring on Mexican clover aka large flower pusley (Richardia grandiflora) in the Tangerine Woods community in Englewood.

It had the same behavior of pipevines which are common on our VA farm, namely that it fluttered constantly, making photography quite difficult.

Have others encountered pipevines along the coasts of SW FL and if so where?

Another good reason to encourage the growth of this exotic but butterfly friendly plant in your lawn!

Bill Dunson

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Spring Reveals Some Surprises

As we progress into early Spring (late March in SW FL) we find new flowers and birds as well as some avian species that are not yet migrating north.  Two of my favorite flowers are now in bloom, the large flowered Sabatia (a beautiful pink) and the spiderwort (a piercing blue color).  Now it is generally true that large blue flowers should attract large bees, but in local gardens the carpenter bees are primarily interested in the scarlet sage.  But the corolla tube of this Salvia is too small for their mouthparts, so they bite the base of the flower and steal the nectar.

An intimidating wasp, the giant paper wasp (Polistes major), is now being seen with more frequency as the weather warms up and this is not a good thing for your butterfly garden.  This wasp, which makes paper nests under the eves of houses and under cabbage palm leaves, is relatively peaceful to humans but certain death to caterpillars.  I see it carefully searching our milkweed plants for caterpillars which are cut into pieces to feed its babies.  So to protect your monarch caterpillars you may want to rear them indoors or take measures to reduce the numbers of this voracious insect carnivore.   

If you are walking along lake shores you may notice groups of pretty pink eggs attached to plant stalks.  These are the eggs of the exotic island apple snail which has become quite numerous in constructed impoundments.  Opinions differ on whether this is an entirely bad thing or somewhat beneficial to snail kites and limpkins.  I do know that there were groups of intact but empty shells all along the shore of the lake in Charlotte Flatwoods, indicating that some predator is eating these large snails.

Our wintering birds are leaving now for their northern breeding grounds.  Our young male painted bunting (which is a camouflaged yellowish green color in complete contrast to the adult male) has been with us all winter but will soon head north for the coastal plain of N FL or GA and SC.  Another well camouflaged bird, the barred owl, is busy raising a baby at Kiwanis Park in Pt Charlotte.  A winter resident male lesser scaup duck, which is soon to depart for the far north, was showing off his striking breeding plumage at Pt Charlotte beach. 

An exciting show is being put on by at least four swallow tailed kites which have been seen flying around Kiwanis Park, possibly in preparation for breeding.  They have recently returned from their winter stay in S America.  A surprising winter visitor to SW FL has been a western kingbird near the Zemel Rd dump;  It will presumably soon be heading back to its breeding range in Texas or further west.

We are still awaiting the most exciting event of Spring, when neotropical bird migrants heading north from Yucatan to the US get blown to the east and land on our FL shores.  Such "fall outs" are highly anticipated but difficult to predict, so keep your eyes to the sky when westerly rains blow in overnight.

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL and Galax, VA

Friday, March 18, 2016

Stumpy Lives

The minds of animals are generally an enigma to us and we wonder what they think about.  Occasionally we experience a powerful lesson from the "lower" animals that inspires us.  This white ibis, which I have named "Stumpy," has a compound fracture of its right leg so severe that it cannot walk on it.  So it hops around doing what ibises do, probing for food in the ground.  It is truly remarkable that this bird tolerates the pain and perseveres in the face of such a handicap and seems to be healthy otherwise.  It was in the company of another ibis at Wildflower Preserve.

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Life Flourishes in the Transition from Winter to Spring in Florida

It has been an unusual winter weather-wise in SW FL although I sometimes wonder if the weather is ever "normal." It was unusually wet and warm earlier but has become a bit cooler with less rain. Natural events illustrate both the persistence of winter and the approach of spring. For example tar flowers were blooming at Amberjack Preserve on Feb. 27, earlier than anyone remembers. There were yellow butterworts blooming in greater numbers on Mar.5 at Myakka State Forest than we have seen previously. Butterworts are an especially interesting carnivorous plant that traps insects on their sticky leaves. Their common occurrence along with sundews and bladderworts in some local hydric pine flatwoods reminds us that the silica sand soils are extremely poor in nutrients and this favors plants with alternate means of obtaining NPK ( nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) .

Butterflies are not yet present in the numbers that will come later but they are increasing. In our yard I photographed this spectacular mangrove skipper sipping nectar from a Mexican flame vine. Nearby a monarch was also obtaining nectar from a Mexican milkweed. Planting of selected exotic plants will allow you to offer nectar to butterflies during the winter when few nectar-rich native flowers are blooming.

While leading a nature walk at Thornton Key on March 1, this large Cuban tree frog was found in a damp area along the trail. It is a most unwelcome exotic invader which will both eat and compete with native species. Another unusual find during another nature walk was this FL striped mud turtle. It has a moveable lower shell or plastron and spends time both on land and in shallow freshwater ponds.

One sure sign of spring is a gradual increase in the movements and singing of warblers. Our first of season prairie and northern parula warblers were heard singing in our yard on Feb. 23 and this beautiful parula came to our water drip March 11. It may have wintered in southern FL or may be migrating north from Mexico or Cuba.

Yet some winter resident birds are still here. I found a Bonaparte's gull along the shoreline of Stump Pass Beach State Park Feb. 27; it will soon be flying north to Canada to breed. There were also two young lesser black backed gulls hanging out at Englewood beach on March 10. These are unusual winter visitors which actually breed in Europe. Our wintering black and white and yellow-throated warblers were still here as of March 11.

So even without knowing the actual date, observations of nature tell us that the seasonal change from winter to spring is definitely in progress. Spring is one of the most exciting times of the year for naturalists, so get ready for some fun!

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL and Galax, VA