Sunday, April 26, 2015

Screech owl BABY

Screech owl DAD

Screech owl MOM

One of the remarkable things you can do to encourage bird life in your yard is to put up a screech owl box.  This often results in a female taking over the box and a male will usually roost nearby in some bushes.  This has been going on for many years in our yard. But this year the results of this happy union first became obvious when a baby owl appeared in our yard.  It had jumped out of the box and taken up residence in a dense bush.  Since Mom is a gray morph owl and Dad is a red morph, we are wondering what color Junior will be.  There seems to be a slight hint of reddish color under Junior's down feathers but we will have to wait and see.

Bill Dunson

The Private Life of a Sanderling, an Arctic Snowbird in Florida‏

Sanderling V4Y at Palm Island

We are surrounded by a profusion of amazing animal life of many types, yet the birds especially appeal to the human mind as expressions of beauty and mystery.  How many times have you gone to the beach and seen tiny birds running rapidly in the surf zone picking up food?  These sanderlings are common almost everywhere, yet how much do we know about them?  One way to study them is to band their legs so that they can be tracked visually.  So researchers have come up with a system of colored and/or marked bands which can be identified from a distance.  When I go to the beach I watch for banded birds and get a photograph of the band(s) if possible.  The markings can usually be identified on  and a history of the previous capture and re-sightings found.  

While at Palm Island, SW FL, I photographed a sanderling with a light green leg flag engraved with black ink as "V4Y."  This bird was first marked May 10, 2014, at Mispillion Harbor, Delaware, and subsequently re-sighted there four times between May 11-27.  The next sighting was mine 11 months later on April 26, 2015, so it is possible to recreate some of the remarkable migration pattern of this individual sanderling.  It seems to spend the winter in the Gulf of Mexico, probably most of the time on Palm Island and nearby Manasota Key.  In early May it migrates to Delaware Bay and eats as much as it can of horseshoe crab eggs and invertebrates to fuel its flight to the Arctic shores of Canada's Northwestern Territories where it will breed.  

The mere thought of such a tiny two ounce bird making this long journey is hard to fathom.  But even harder to understand is why.  What is the purpose of such a long and perilous migration?  It would appear that the advantages of breeding in an Arctic habitat that is suitable for only a very short time in summer, outweighs the dangers of the long migration.  Such a life strategy is subject to the impacts of changes in habitat or climate or food all along the migratory pathway.  But over long periods of time it has been successful and we hope it may continue to be so in the future.  Human help to protect  the links in the migratory chain will likely be necessary for future survival of such vulnerable species.  So next time you are at the beach and see those tiny birds running in the surf, give them some respect, and marvel at their life story.

Bill Dunson

Nature Runs Riot in April‏

Despite the fact that we have received little rain during this springtime period in SW FL, many flowers are blooming.  This meadow beauty (Rhexia) is one of many that prefers wet meadows.  It has unusually showy yellow anthers. Fertilization occurs primarily by buzz pollination when bumblebees vibrate their thoracic muscles rapidly, causing pollen to come out of pores.  It is interesting to contemplate how such a specialized method of pollination came about and how the bees know which flowers are designed for different types of pollen collection..

Sea grape flower
One of my favorite seaside halophytic plants is the seagrape, a small tree in the buckwheat family.  It  has huge beautiful green leaves with reddish veins and the long sprays of small white flowers are the precursors to an edible fruit. Some homeowners despise it because the large leaves all drop in late winter, so it is considered a "messy" plant.  Since I use the leaves as a natural mulch to encourage the animal community of the litter layer, I find this complaint a very minor argument against a stalwart member of the back dune community which provides shade and food for wildlife.

Male roseate skimmer and male blue dasher
The warm weather has spawned large numbers of dragonflies which whirl around the edges of ponds in a confusing mass of color and movement.  Occasionally when they stop on a twig you have the opportunity to make certain of their identity.  This odd couple of males was an adjacent roseate skimmer and blue dasher.  Male dragonflies tend to be gaudy in color, the better to compete for territory and females.  The roseate skimmer is one of the more spectacular and proves the point that virile males can wear pink !  For such primitive insects, dragonflies certainly have a complex social structure.

Hunstman spider
Another thing that is brought out by warm weather is spiders and in particular a large exotic tropical wall spider called the huntsman.  We are used to these in southern Florida and rather than getting freaked out by their large size and creepy way of running around on the walls, I have learned to appreciate them as a means of biological control of roaches.  But it is wise on entering a bathroom at night to watch where you step!

Green anole
The brown or Cuban anole, an exotic lizard, is extremely common in Florida and is the basis of an important food chain to predatory reptiles and birds.  A down side of their abundance is that they have apparently out-competed the native green anole, which is now very rarely seen.  I did see one recently at Urfer Park in Sarasota and counted this a special day as a result.  Although they are commonly called chameleons since they can change from green to brown, they are of course not related to these Old World lizards but instead to iguanas. In this photo of the head you can see the external ear and the movable eyelid, neither of which occur in their close relatives the snakes, which lost these when they became burrowers.

Mangrove snake
Another rarely seen reptile is this red morph mangrove snake which I found in a salt marsh on Palm Island.  You should be able to see that there is no external ear and the eye is covered by an transparent piece of keratin/skin.  This snake is related to typical colubrids and not to the true sea snakes which are mostly venomous.  Its closest relative is the freshwater banded water snake but it differs in being both slow to dehydrate and able to resist the urge to drink sea water (and die) when it becomes dehydrated.  

Mottled duck on Palm Island Beach
The mottled duck is closely related to mallards and black ducks and is often seen in fresh water or salt water marshes.  However we have several mottled ducks which spend time on the beach at Palm island which is somewhat of a mystery to me.  What are they doing there and what are they feeding on?  Unlike the mallard, the male and female mottled duck are almost identical.  

Wood duck pair
Like the mallard, wood ducks have a gaudy male and a drab female, and they are limited to fresh water and nest in cavities in trees.  I was intrigued by the preening behavior of this male wood duck and how the female extended her head forward to be caressed by the male, a very touching part of courtship behavior.   

Bald eagle juvenile on oyster bar
A bird that the ducks would not like to encounter was this juvenile bald eagle which landed on an oyster bar on Palm Island.  Eagles may forage for dead fish along shores and they are fond of catching ducks for food.  This young bird, which may be only a few months old, has another four years to mature before it gains the iconic white head and tail.  It will likely fly up the eastern part of N America while maturing and while it searches for an open territory.

Spring is a fantastic time of mass breeding and migration and is a most exciting time of year for the naturalist.  It is also mind boggling and challenging to remember and learn old and new names of plants and animals, some of which may not have been seen for a year.

Bill Dunson
Englewood, Fl and Galax, VA

Thursday, April 23, 2015

You scratch my neck and I will . . . .‏

Wood ducks are pairing up in preparation for breeding. The gorgeous male of this pair at Urfer Park in Sarasota, FL, was preening the drab female by tickling her neck.  He just might expect something in return !  Wood ducks nest in tree cavities so the female is not visible to predators but her camouflaged pattern could help if she is hiding the babies after they hatch.

Bill Dunson

Males Can Wear Pink !‏

Who says males cannot wear pink?  This virile male roseate skimmer dragonfly is strutting his stuff at a pond in Urfer Park, FL, to intimidate other males and attract females for mating.  It is a classic example of the "gaudy male" syndrome, in which the females are drab and the males are showy.  

Bill Dunson

Feed me !‏

This baby loggerhead shrike at the Celery Fields, Sarasota, FL, is begging its mother to feed it despite the fact that it is as big as Mom and can fly by itself. Does this remind you of certain human children?

Bill Dunson

Monday, April 20, 2015

Watching a Lemon Bay sunrise- the best way to start your day‏

There is no better way to start your morning than by biking, jogging or walking down to the S. Manasota Key causeway or the eastern side of any of the islands to watch the sunrise over Lemon Bay.  No problem finding parking, it is wonderfully cool, and you only have the egrets fishing in the shallows or a few like-minded early risers to share the enjoyment of the moment.

Bill Dunson

Life on the Edge‏

This happy osprey family (Mom and baby) is not only living life dangerously on top of a power pole on S Manasota Key, but they have managed to build above the spikes which FPL places there to discourage bird nesting.  But they have persevered in part by building a thick nest and in part by being careful where they sit !

Bill Dunson

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sandpipers on beach‏

I thought you might enjoy this shot I took recently on Palm Island beach of two western sandpipers early one morning.  The birds and the shells make for an interesting composition.  They were mixed in with the far more numerous sanderlings which are the predominant small sandpiper which runs around on the lower beach.

Bill Dunson

Beauty Among the Thorns‏

Opuntia flower
The lowly prickly pear cactus or opuntia thrives in dry places and surprises us this time of year with huge, gorgeous yellow flowers.  The cactus pads and fruits can be eaten, with some care taken to avoid the large and small thorns, but the flowers can be enjoyed from a safe distance.  

Bill Dunson

High value of cattails as wildlife habitat

Least bittern

North pond, Ann Dever Park

An experience last night reminded me of the high value of cattail marsh as wetland bird habitat.  There was a report on eBird of a least bittern at Ann Dever Park on San Casa in Englewood.  Margaret and I went by just before sunset and examined the four constructed ponds and a ditch.  The large northern pond just south of the dog park had a least bittern foraging in the cattails (see photos) and one additional least bittern was found in the ditch that parallels San Casa.  There were three marsh wrens singing in the cattails of the northern pond.  It is likely that these two species are breeding here.

The northern pond is about one half open water (and thus likely deeper than three feet) and one half dense cattails in shallower water.  This type of habitat is normally considered poor and often is sprayed to kill the cattails.  However it is apparent that the large dense patch of cattails is in fact excellent habitat for least bitterns and marsh wrens, both highly desirable species.  Many other wetland birds such as little blue and green herons and moorhens were feeding along the shorelines.

Thus despite the dogmatic view that cattails are undesirable, it is obvious that this is not always the case and that constructed wetlands containing such dense cattail stands can be very productive wetlands indeed for birds.

Retaining cattails as wildlife habitat would be very beneficial in saving the considerable funds needed to kill (by spraying toxic herbicides or by hand cutting/pulling) and remove this native but invasive species, and to plant other wetland vegetation.  

Bill Dunson

Too Old ?‏

You know that you are getting uncomfortably old when something is written about you and people say how nice that would be to post at your funeral !


Friday, April 10, 2015

Spring Marches On‏

Adult male redwing, Celery Fields
As animal activities increase and migratory patterns continue to accelerate, a few species still remain in their winter haunts despite the fact that spring has officially come and gone. It is like an Easter egg hunt to sort through the critters to see what is new since yesterday.

Orchard spider Kiwanis Park
One scary arachnid I watch out for while roaming through the woods is the common orchard spider, a small but distinctive orb weaver with bright red patches.  Such brilliant markings could mean that this species is venomous and is warning birds to stay away. It does somewhat resemble the black widow, which however has quite different cryptic habits.  So although it is considered harmless, perhaps due to very small fangs, I prefer to keep it off my face, a difficult task which is not always successful.  

Softshell turtle Kiwanis Park
Reptilian activities have picked up a lot with warmer weather and many turtles are laying eggs.  I noticed a Florida softshell turtle which is extremely aquatic, and has a flattened shell which allows it to swim very fast to escape predators such as alligators, and burrow in sediments.  It also can respire underwater by circulating water over its pharyngeal lining.  
Peninsula cotter hairpins, Kiwanis Park

A peninsula cooter turtle seen next to it is the other extreme in predator protection since it has a very heavy, egg-shaped protective shell that resists even the attacks of alligators.  It is definitively identified by the two hairpin-like yellow loops on the top of its head, not an easy field mark to see.

Loon, Lemon Bay
Common loons are still present on Lemon Bay and in their winter plumage.  They breed in fresh waters of northern latitudes and seem reluctant to leave the warm, fish-filled salt waters of Florida.  In contrast we are seeing some avian neo-tropical migrants although not as many as we would like.  For the marvelous warblers to appear here in any numbers we must have westerly winds to push the birds easterly from their flight paths from the Yucatan across the northern Gulf of Mexico.  Hooded warblers have been present in some numbers and this male enjoyed a nice soak in our backyard water bath.  A northern water thrush was also attracted to our dripping water baths and remained for several days.
Hooded warbler in Florida yard

Another recent migrant getting a lot of attention at the Celery Fields in Sarasota is the least bittern.  A bird in the constructed marshes that is one of the most common and least desired "trash birds" is actually one of the most beautiful, namely the adult male red-winged blackbird.    The males have brilliant red epaulets on their shoulders and display them to intimidate other males and attract females.  Some classic studies have shown that if the red shoulder is blacked out, the males cannot maintain their breeding territories.  

Barred owl, Kiwanis Park
Barred owls are likely year round residents but often the only indication of their presence is their wonderful hooting call.  This individual in Kiwanis Park was as interested in we humans as we were in it.
Least bittern, Celery Fields

So enjoy this fabulous spring season in watching for exciting new arrivals of neo-tropical avian migrants and in studying the breeding patterns of critters of all kinds.

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL and Galax, VA

Northern water thrush, Florida yard

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Amazing Puffer Fish Sand Sculpture‏

My nephew, Slayton Will, visiting from GA discovered this remarkable sand sculpture of a puffer fish by an unknown artist on the beach at Palm Island.  The detail and use of different shells is amazing and shows great artistic skill.  

Bill Dunson

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Life's a Hoot‏

Barred owl in Kiwanis Park

This barred owl in Kiwanis Park certainly seems to be enjoying life and definitely liked watching the humans who were excited to see this local legend of the night.

Bill Dunson

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The eternal triangle

A classic eternal triangle = Homeowner, bird feeder and the wily squirrel !

I watched one of local bushy tailed rats make repeated attempts to defeat the baffle which I have placed beneath a bird feeder.  The squirrel was unsuccessful so far although it showed quite remarkable acrobatic abilities.

Bill Dunson

Wisconsin fans leave their mark

Obviously a Wisconsin fan has been in SW FL !  An elaborate sand writing spelled out BADGERS on the Palm Island beach, expressing pride and support for their basketball team reaching the Final Four.

Bill Dunson