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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

email alert! Whimbrel at Palm Isl‏and

Whimbrel at Palm Island/ photo by Margaret Dunson

Margaret sighted presumably the same whimbrel from Cedar Pt on Palm/Knight Island beach last night at sunset.  This is about 3/4 mile south of Stump Pass, just north of the beach entry 1 which is at the southern border of the resort. Although the lighting is poor at sunset you can certainly see the characteristic bill shape in this iphone photo.  

There is a willet just to the left for a size comparison.

I remember having seen a couple of whimbrels just north of Ski Alley many years ago but they are rarely seen around here in my experience.

Cheers- Bill

A Fall Nature Ramble in Florida

Black racerhead snake
I have for some time been dissatisfied with being primarily interested in one aspect of natural history such as birds or plants. The variety of fascinating creatures I have encountered this week illustrates the difficulty of restricting your scope of curiosity. I admit the problems of identifying some of the critters and plants can be daunting, but the advent of internet interest groups and simplified identification manuals makes this manageable.     

Horseshoe crabs in tandem at Little Gasparilla Pass
My son, who was visiting from Utah, found this pair of horseshoe crabs (Limulus) in tandem near the southern tip of Little Gasparilla Island.  Of course these are not crabs at all but harmless relatives of the spiders/arachnids which are very ancient marine inhabitants.  The smaller male has two appendages to hold on to the female until she crawls up on the beach to lay her eggs.  The bluish blood has special clotting properties which are quite valuable in medicine, and the eggs are invaluable also in feeding migrating shorebirds.  The shed exoskeletons are seen more often than the live animals so it was a special treat to find this pair.

Common green darner on Palm Island
I never cease being amazed by dragonflies and was fascinated by this immature common green darner.  This is a very old lineage of insects which is predatory both as aquatic larvae and as the aerial adult.  Their behavior is highly visually oriented and the enormous compound eyes made up of 30,000 individual ommatidia are remarkable.  The legs are covered with spines which help in holding prey caught and often consumed in flight.  Green darners migrate long distances and are capable of complex social interactions.  They have become popular objects of observation by those who have mastered birds and want to find new intellectual fields to conquer.

Walking stick on Don Pedro Island
One of the insects most opposite to dragonflies in terms of mobility is the walking stick which is slow moving and camouflaged.  You may often find these as mating pairs in Florida and they are sometimes called devil-riders, possibly due to the ability of the large female to squirt toxic terpenes into the eyes of an attacker.  So be careful when you examine them!

Greenhouse frog
I spend a lot of time working in our yard and often find interesting critters such as this small greenhouse frog introduced from the Caribbean.  It likely immigrated in the root balls of plants brought in by nurseries along with the worm-like Brahminy blind snake.  It is quite unusual among amphibians since it lays terrestrial eggs that hatch directly into tiny frogs without an aquatic tadpole stage.  The advantage of this in habitats with damp soil but which lack fresh water pools is obvious and allows them to colonize areas unavailable to other frogs.  

Corn snake hatchling
Two snakes turned up in our yard, a very young corn snake, one of the rat snakes, and a black racer.  The corn snake has a series of dark lines on the head, one of which passes through and obscures the dark pupil of the eye.  The black racer has a dark area on the upper part of the head, including the dark pupil and a reddish iris.  Both of these patterns must make it harder for prey or predators to detect the snake when it is motionless.  The corn snake is much more arboreal than the racer and this likely provides some habitat separation which limits competition for food between them.  

Box turtle
I was excited to find an adult male Florida box turtle on Palm Island.  Although males often have a reddish iris at least some of the year, the reliable way to sex them is by the concave shape of the bottom shell or plastron.  The purpose of this obviously is to facilitate mating which must be quite difficult given the rigid shells.  Indeed poet Ogden Nash penned the famous lines, 

Box turtle
THE TURTLE by Ogden Nash

The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks 
Which practically conceal its sex. 
I think it clever of the turtle 
In such a fix to be so fertile.

Bald eagles in osprey nest
While sitting at the computer recently I heard a familiar sound which I knew to be the call of a bald eagle.  I rushed outside and looked up at the osprey nest which sits immediately over our house in a tall Norfolk Island pine.  There were two eagles sitting in the nest engaged in some bill fencing which soon led to mating. The eagles then left and did not seem interested in taking over the osprey nest which they occasionally try to do.  The relationship between these two predators, which compete for fish as food and sometimes for nest sites, reminds me of the uneasy relations between lions and hyenas - in other words not friendly!

So try expanding your horizons and learn a new animal or plant from a taxonomic group with which you are not familiar.  It is not as hard as you might think and it will be very rewarding.

Bill Dunson
Englewood, Fl & Galax, VA

Friday, November 14, 2014

Fishing photos‏

Ladyfish caught at Stump Pass 11.9.14 by Bill Dunson Jr.

Shark caught at Stump Pass 11.9.14 by Bill Dunson Jr.

Snook caught at Stump Pass 11.9.14 by Bill Dunson Jr.
My son Bill Dunson Jr is visiting us in FL from Salt Lake City and while staying on Palm Island decided to fish at Stump Pass on Nov. 9 despite the intermittent rain and the fierce no see ems.  Perhaps rain from the passing front was good for fishing or maybe it was just luck but he caught and released a nice selection of fish: ladyfish, snook, flounder and an 83 inch long shark (maybe sandbar ?).

Bill Dunson Sr

A Naturalist Returns to Florida

Viceroy on Bronco Road
I would have to say that I have never seen a natural area, in contrast to most urban landscapes, that I did not find interesting.  But as frost rapidly envelops our Virginia Blue Ridge farm, my thoughts turn to warmer climates where there will still be flowers and more active animals.  So it is a joyous occasion for our fall migration to our winter domicile in SW FL.  These photos record some of the things I have seen during our first two weeks near Englewood, FL.

Rhinoceros beetle, male
Beetles (Coleoptera) are the most abundant animal group in terms of species.  One of my favorites is a dung, scarab, or rhinoceros beetle that is found around mammalian poop.   If you want to find them, visit a farm as I did recently and I was amazed to see a number of rainbow scarabs floundering in a sheep drinking water tank.  The male has a long horn and is iridescent in a remarkable panoply of colors.  Such a prismatic sheen can be found in some burrowing species and is apparently due to micro-striations of the integument which decrease the sticking of soil or dung.  Such structural colors (as in the throat of hummingbirds) as distinct from hues due to pigments vary due to the direction of light and are thus very difficult to photograph.  
Bill Dunson photographing dung beetle
The beetles also fly readily and this may explain my intense concentration while I hold one on my hand. These beetles roll up balls of dung, bury them and lay eggs on them.  Certainly it is ironic that such an amazing animal is associated with such a peculiar food source; the disgust factor did not prevent the ancient Egyptians from worshiping them.  

Little metalmark butterfly
Butterflies of a variety of colors have been numerous and I show four different species that illustrate the wide variety of leps that are flying in this area.  The little metalmark is small but striking and is shown here nectaring on a hemp plant, Mikania, in a ditch along the road.  The Dorantes long-tailed skipper has distinctive extensions of the hindwings and is here shown nectaring on Jamaican porterweed, one of the most attractive exotic flowers for butterflies.  

Whirlabout skipper butterfly
The whirlabout skipper is tiny and is here sipping nectar from a native cow pea. This viceroy butterfly is perched on a willow tree which is its larval food plant; as a result its caterpillars and adults are toxic and are involved in a Muellerian mimicry complex with two other kinds of toxic leps  the milkweed specialists (monarch, queen and soldier) and the passionvine specialist, the Gulf fritillary.
Softshell Florida turtle basking in Vernas Pond 
I was checking on happenings at Wildflower Preserve and found this female Florida softshell turtle basking on one of the rafts constructed by volunteers. Since constructed ponds tend to be deep and lack basking logs, such rafts can provide great habitat for reptiles and birds.

As we passed Celery Fields in Sarasota we stopped briefly and I was pleased to see a young purple gallinule feeding on flowers and seeds of alligator flag (Thalia) that was planted in created wetlands.  This success is something we hope to repeat at Wildflower when the wetlands are restored.

Juvenile purple gallinule at Celery Fields
Finally I visited the Spit which is a beach extension on northern Palm/Knight Island and was rewarded  by close views of a male osprey (note all white chest) standing precariously on a stake put up to separate shorebird nesting areas.   Note the huge talons on this bird, the better to catch and hold slippery fish.  

Male osprey on a stick at the Spit
So wherever you find yourself this fall, enjoy the natural world !

Bill Dunson

Dorantes longtail on porterweed

Monday, November 3, 2014

Upcoming season at Lemon Bay Conservancy

Here is the current outings list for the Lemon Bay Conservancy for the upcoming season FYI.  You will note that we are adding a number of nature walks and paddles outside of Wildflower Preserve as part of our mission to contribute to environmental education in the region.

High winds created interesting patterns at Stump Pass [11/1/14]