Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Christmas Nature Ramble‏

No matter where you find yourself at Christmas you can enjoy the natural world in all its splendor.  In Florida we can be raking leaves instead of shoveling snow and working at attracting birds and butterflies to our yards.  One of the most useful devices for attracting birds is the drip water bath which is effective due to the sound and sight of water ripples.  

Drip bath in FL yard
So many people have asked me about this that I have attached a photo of one of my two baths.  A dripper ( ) is attached to the nearest outside faucet via an irrigation water tube and placed on a suitably shallow pan (I have used a glazed pan obtained from a garden shop placed on top of a water bath pedestal since most bird baths are too deep or steep sided).  A bucket of water next to the bath discourages mammals from tipping the bath over. Birds drink from the drip and bathe in the bath and provide quite a parade at certain times of the day. Some vegetative cover nearby is advantageous for many species.  

Female painted bunting
One of our most exciting visitors to the drip this week has been a FOS (first of the season) female painted bunting.  We hope her male companions are not far behind.  This species provides one of the most spectacular examples of a very gaudy male and an inconspicuous female; but the male does not lose his bright colors during the winter as does the male indigo bunting  

Spotted  oleander caterpillar moth
A recent interesting insect visitor to our yard has been a spotted oleander caterpillar moth.  This fairly recent immigrant to the US (about 1978) feeds on poisonous oleander as a caterpillar and the adult moth retains toxic chemicals and thus can fly freely during the day, protected from predators.  However it also appears to be a wasp mimic and thus has double protection.
Peninsula cooter turtles basking on raft

The appearance of periodic cold fronts is common in Florida during the winter and these provide some of the most beautiful clear and sunny but cool days.  This stimulates reptiles into basking behavior which is highly developed in turtles.  The very large peninsula cooter turtles are herbivorous and seem to need a lot of sunning to aid digestion.   
Green heron on raft at Wildflower Preserve
At Wildflower Preserve we have provided some rafts for this purpose.  The adult females are huge with conical shells designed to defeat the crushing jaws of alligators.  They often extend their legs and open their webbed feet to catch all the rays and perhaps to clean their skin of parasites or algal growth.  These rafts have become so popular that there are traffic jams with turtles bumper to bumper with no room to spare. Other species such as birds also use the rafts for resting, such as this green heron which seems to possess all colors other than green!  

Osprey eating a fish
Our local ospreys are willing to use all sorts of supports for nest building if they are near their favorite fishing spots.  This pair built on top of an electric pole which had pointed spikes placed to discourage such nesting.  While the ouch factor might seem a problem, the birds have worked around this issue and indeed  the nest is probably much more resistant to wind damage than normal nests.  Ospreys are unusual in that they are fish specialists which apparently never eat anything else.  I came across this female feeding on what seems to be a sheepshead and starting to eat it at the head.

One of our most spectacular birds is the roseate spoonbill, which feeds on a wide variety of small aquatic prey that are trapped in its flattened bill.  It never sees its prey and likely avoids competition with similarly sized wading birds by eating such small prey.  The adults become more pink with age but why are they so pink?  

Spoonbill at Myakka River State Park
One answer is that they are what they eat!  The small crustaceans they feed on supply carotene pigments which are deposited into the feathers.  Since males and females look the same, the evolutionary purpose of the coloration may just be species identification and possibly recognition of individual vigor for mating selection.   Despite the biological reasons we may simply enjoy their breathtaking beauty.

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL and Galax, VA

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Fish head for breakfast?‏

If you eat a raw fish head for breakfast, as this osprey is doing on Boca Grande, nothing else in your day will be as bad!  Ospreys are very specialized and eat only fresh fish they catch by swooping and grasping them in their huge talons. This female is dining on what appears to be a sheepshead; you can tell her from the white breasted male by her slightly "dirty" breast.

Bill Dunson

No more room!‏

These large female peninsula cooter turtles are so anxious to sun bathe at Wildflower Preserve that they pack all available space on the floating raft built by Charles Kozora for the Lemon Bay Conservancy.  Maybe it is time to add another wing to the floating hotel?

Bill Dunson

Butterfly News from SW FL

FYI and in case you want to join us in SW FL to enjoy winter butterflies


Saturday, December 13, 2014


The power company has tried to discourage birds from using the tops of its poles by placing large spikes on them.  Undaunted, this family of ospreys on southern Manasota Key has somehow worked around this difficulty!  Indeed one perk of this arrangement is that the nest is much less likely to blow away in strong winds.   Kudos to osprey ingenuity. But the birds have to be careful where they sit !

Bill Dunson

Nothing like a raft for sunbathing‏

Female peninsula cooters sunning on a raft

Turtles love to sunbathe but often have trouble finding a good spot to safely catch a few rays on a cool winter day.  These large female peninsula cooters are enjoying their ride on a raft built by Charles Kozora for Wildflower Preserve.  

Bill Dunson

Monday, December 8, 2014

Birds, Butterflies and a Snake in the Grass‏

Male queen butterfly on milkweed
Monarch butterfly on milkweed

I am writing this in early December in Florida after a period of rains and some cool fronts.  To attract butterflies you must provide flowers for nectar and larval food plants. No sooner had we planted a Mexican milkweed than a queen and three monarchs showed up.  This was a good chance to compare the colors and patterns of these two toxic Muellerian mimics.  
Orange barred sulphur butterfly
Black and yellow Zebra butterflies were also flying nearby; their toxicity comes from consumption of poisonous passionvines by the caterpillars.  The evolutionary warfare between predator and prey has certainly given us some beautiful butterflies!

Cloudless sulpur caterpillar on senna
The best way to attract the spectacular and rapidly flying sulphur butterflies is to plant the larval food plant, sennas/cassias.  At Wildflower Preserve there was one senna with a considerable number of large cloudless sulphur caterpillars on the flowers.  
Note how well they are camouflaged when they are in the flowers;  the bands are disruptive of their body shape and the yellow blends with the background.  We had recently planted a senna in our yard which attracted a female orange barred sulphur which appeared to be laying eggs.  So we are hoping for a crop of little ones soon.  

Ringneck snake
While walking at South Venice Lemon Bay Preserve with a native plant group, one sharp eyed member sighted a real snake in the grass.  It was a tiny ringneck snake with its namesake necklace and a beautiful reddish abdomen.  It coiled its tail and displayed the red underneath in an apparent defensive display. I am not aware of these tiny snakes being distasteful to predatory birds but this behavior certainly suggests that they are.

Anhinga at salt water dock
Our yard is quite a haven for birds due to our extensive plantings and a prime location on Manasota Key with the Gulf of Mexico to the west and Lemon Bay to the east.  I sighted an anhinga near our dock which is an unusual occurrence since they are primarily a freshwater bird.  They apparently lack the nasal salt gland that allows marine birds to drink sea water; in salt water their ecological niche (a diver that swims after fish underwater) is occupied by the cormorant.   Another example of this phenomenon is the yellow crowned night heron in salt water and the black crowned in fresh water along this coast.   Royal terns in salt water and Caspian terns in fresh water also generally fit this model.

Blue headed vireo
Avian winter residents/migrants are starting to become more evident in our yard, especially if you provide a water drip to attract them.  Thus we were excited to observe blue headed vireos, yellow throated warblers and house finches coming to drink and bathe this week.  Close-up views of these birds can reveal amazing details which are not usually visible through binoculars.  The white eye ring of the blue headed vireo is especially striking since many animals have dark eye lines that camouflage the eye itself.  
We see male house finches that are reddish or yellowish (supposedly a SW US trait) but this individual had a mixture of both colors.  
Yellow throated warbler
The striking yellow throated warbler is somewhat unusual in that the males and females have very similar plumages and are very partial to feeding in palm trees in Florida or in evergreen trees or trees along rivers up north.  But they are often so high in the trees that our views at ground level are wonderful.

Male house finch in birdbath, FL yard
So wherever your home range is you will now be experiencing some major changes in the fauna of your area.  Enjoy the challenges and rewards of identifying and studying the critters under fall and winter conditions.

Bill Dunson

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Drum circle draws large crowds‏

The drum circle at Englewood Beach on Sunday evening draws large crowds for both the hypnotic lure of the drum sounds and the beauty of the beach at sunset  The attraction of this wonderful society of nature worshipers reminds me of the sunset crowds at Mallory Square in Key West.  It is interesting that some of the most inspirational and fascinating events in this area are created by the people without any government grants or committees!

Bill Dunson

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Florida Thanksgiving Nature Ramble‏

Dunlin at Cedar Point
While many people celebrate Thanksgiving with football, shopping, and food, I continue to find my greatest pleasures in the natural wonders which surround us every day.  Indeed some of the most overlooked aspects of nature can be the most intriguing.  

Bay bean flower
For example while walking at Stump Pass Beach State Park I noticed that a bay bean vine had a few flowers on it.  On closer inspection this flower is seen to be of great beauty and is the precursor to a familiar bean pod. The beans can be toxic due to the amino acid canavanine which substitutes for arginine in protein synthesis and disrupts metabolism.     

Christmas Berry
This time of year the Christmas berries are striking but will not last long since the birds eat them quickly.  Since this is a member of the often poisonous nightshade family, it might be wise to avoid eating them although the famous Chinese "goji" berries are widely eaten and are in the same genus, Lycium.  

Bumblebee on Mexican sunflower
We have planted the Mexican sunflower in our yard and the flowers are very attractive to bumblebees and sweat bees. The sunflower is a classic aster or composite flower made up of many individual disc and ray flowers. This bumblebee has a fuzzy thorax to maintain a warmer body temperature to allow foraging during cooler parts of the day.  I found from personal experience that they will fiercely protect their hive and attack anyone who disturbs it.

Zebra butterfly sleeping in yard
One cool morning I noticed this zebra butterfly in a resting pose on a sea grape. It is not common to find butterflies while they are "sleeping," likely because they hide themselves from predators.  Of course the slow flying zebra is protected by toxic chemicals retained by the caterpillar which feeds on passionvines.  But note also that the outer wing surfaces are camouflaged, unlike the brighter inner surfaces which may be a warning to potential predators. 

Cassiopeia jellyfish_marina at Leverock's
We live on Lemon Bay and I spend a lot of time along the water, yet have not seen the "upside down jellyfish" Cassiopeia for several years.  They are a tropical species that occasionally comes this far north and are a distinctive presence lying on their backs on the bottom and pulsating.  They are unusual in that they contain symbiotic algae in their tissues which photosynthesize and share carbon compounds with their host.  Yet to my surprise in one particular local marina I found a number of jellyfish on the bottom.  Some were unusually large for this northerly location and  it is a mystery to me how they happen to be here.  Could they have come in originally in ballast water from one of the boats or have they simply survived longer here due to warmer waters?

Whimbrel bill at Cedar Point
An unusual avian visitor to this area, the whimbrel, illustrates one of the more bizarre bills designed for probing in sandy and muddy substrates.  This long curved shape is shared with curlews and ibises. Some smaller dunlins sitting nearby have only a slight downward slant to their bills and they use them to probe in the mud.  

Yellow rumped warber in FL yard
A very common winter resident on land, the yellow rumped warbler illustrates a very different bill shape designed for picking up small insects and fruits such as wax myrtle.  These wide varieties in bill shapes are a wonderful example of evolution for specialized means of food gathering.  However it is interesting that white ibis are now using their down-curved bill designed for aquatic probing in capturing small prey in lawns.

Sunset over Lemon Bay
One of the most beautiful aspects of nature is simply the views in various habitats.  Among the most spectacular are sunrises and sunsets and I show a sunset I captured on Thanksgiving eve over Lemon Bay behind our house.

Bill Dunson
Galax, VA and Englewood, FL

Thanksgiving eve sunset- the greatest show on earth

As the cold front passed over us and Thanksgiving eve descended we were treated to a gorgeous sunset over southern Lemon Bay near the Tom Adams bridge.  As is the case with snowflakes and fingerprints, no sunset is the same as another.  This allows us to watch every night in anticipation of "the greatest show on earth." 

Bill Dunson

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The "Puffin" runs aground‏

Whoops!  The strong and shifting winds in recent days may have caused a sailboat to be stranded on a sand bar in Lemon Bay just south of the Tom Adams Bridge on the western side of the channel.

The name of the sailboat, the Puffin, is appropriate since that is a northern seabird that spends all its time at sea, only returning to land to breed.  Maybe an especially high tide will enable the mariner to get back into deep water.

Another reminder that all that water out there in the bay is not always navigable and windy days make it harder to see the bottom.

Bill Dunson

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Beauty of Fishing at Stump Pass‏

When you are fishing you may catch fish some days and catch nothing at other times. However there is another aspect to fishing along the Charlotte County coast that compensates the fisherman for the days that are fish-less.  That is the tremendous natural beauty of the area along the water.  This shows some views at Stump Pass at sunset when fishing may sometimes be spectacular or not, but the views are always magnificent!

Bill Dunson

Rare bird sighted in area

An unusual avian visitor to Charlotte County is a large shorebird called the whimbrel.  This is a very large shorebird with a long down-curved bill for picking and probing in the mud for invertebrate prey.  It has been sighted at Cedar Pt, and nearby Palm/Knight Island and Stump Pass by Jeff Bouton, Tom Duch, and Margaret and Bill Dunson.    

Bill Dunson

Local Sunset

Three different views of the same recent sunset at Stump Pass illustrate the natural beauty of the area and the stump from an Australian pine for which the pass is named.

Bill Dunson