Friday, February 12, 2016

What a snout- the rare Surf Scoter visits from the Arctic

This male surf scoter has been seen on a regular basis hanging out with lesser scaup ducks in a salt water pond on Gasparilla Island.  Surf scoters are a sea duck which breeds in boreal forests and the arctic tundra near freshwater lakes, but spends the winters mainly along the east and west coasts of N America.  They are rarely seen in Charlotte County, FL, so this male is causing some excitement among the local birders.  The bizarre bill is much more colorful in the male and its strange shape seems designed to assist in eating hard shelled prey such as mussels, clams and crustaceans.  As their name indicates, surf scoters often dive for food in the zone of crashing waves along the shore.

Bill Dunson

This osprey nests in a crowd‏

On the SW end of Gasparilla Island there are a series of concrete pilings that are the remnants of a former pier.  These are quite popular among the local sea birds and strangely enough an osprey has chosen to nest in the middle of a large group of terns, gulls, cormorants and pelicans.  Clearly they get along well together and possibly the osprey pair have found this to be a more stable and safer area to nest than in nearby trees.   Perhaps birds were the first to discover the joys of condo life? 

Bill Dunson

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Tarpon gulper sighted in Lemon Lake‏

Adult male inhinga at Wildflower pond

Baby tarpon

Adult male inhinga eating baby tarpon

It is now well known that some areas of Lemon Creek within Wildflower Preserve, Charlotte County, FL (owned by the Lemon Bay Conservancy) are filled with juvenile tarpon that thrive in its lowest oxygen waters which provide significant protection from predatory fish such as snappers, snook and jacks.  There are however other predators such as otters and diving birds which are not deterred by the toxic creek waters.  While watching from the lower boardwalk in Lemon Lake (fed by the tidal Lemon Creek but inside Amberjack Preserve) I noticed that an anhinga had caught a young tarpon about eight inches long and manipulated and then swallowed it.  My photo shows the final process with the tarpon's tail just protruding from the anhinga's mouth.

This illustrates that in a healthy ecosystem, natural predation can impact species of special interest such as tarpon.  While some would advocate killing or removing such predators, other would advise that this is part of the natural evolutionary process.  Lemon Lake has not yet been studied as tarpon habitat and it would useful to initiate some fish surveys in this lake that undergoes large fluctuation in depth from dry to full when heavy rains fall and add to the tidal waters that enter via Lemon Creek.  Bird predation on fish in Lemon Lake is a major feature that periodically draws wonderful flocks of aquatic birds, especially during dry-downs, so more information on the dynamics of this process would be helpful in managing the Lemon Creek ecosystem.

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Different Strokes for Different Folks‏

During a recent period of very strong cold winds and choking red tide on the Palm Island beach, this couple showed a very different tolerance for the bizarre beach conditions.  The man was wearing a bikini and his female companion was in a winter parka!  Different strokes for different folks definitely applies to this duo.

Bill Dunson

Winter Gets Serious But Life Persists‏

Don Pedro Island beach during red tide 1.31.16
After a prolonged warm fall and winter, the cold fronts began to arrive in SW Florida and the animals had to cope with much cooler weather and periodic strong winds and heavy rains.  Despite these somewhat harsh conditions, a diverse and beautiful display of life continued in between the bouts of cold weather.  An additional factor was the occurrence of red tide that killed some fish and cleared the beaches of tourists.   A photo I took Jan. 31 on Don Pedro Island beach shows a deserted stretch of beach during a bout of aerosol red tide whipped up by strong NW winds.  If you can tolerate the almost unbreathable air during an episode of red tide, it is refreshing to be able to walk the beaches with few or no human companions. 
Zebra butterfly on Spanish needle flower

Zebra butterfly on tassel flower
Once cold fronts have passed, the winds decline, the sun is out, and there can be times of intense insect activity.  For example I photographed a zebra butterfly, a species requiring passionvine for its caterpillars, drinking nectar from Spanish needles and tassel flower in our yard.  These "weeds" are both beneficial exotics that offer wonderful winter flowers for native butterflies without being cultivated.  You just have to tolerate them in your yard and not pull them up or mow them!  

Bird winged grasshopper
I also came across a large bird winged grasshopper on a mulberry plant seemingly basking in the sun.  They have catholic tastes and represent a genus (Schistocerca) that can occur in plague proportions. 

Brown anole
The very common brown or Cuban anole is an iguanid lizard that is an exotic but has become a major food staple for other reptiles and birds.  It continues to hold territories during the winter and woo females, as shown here by a male that is extending its colorful dewlap in a sunny spot along a tree trunk.   It could easily become food for predatory birds such as the loggerhead shrike which is known to pierce its prey and hang them on barbed wire fences.

During a strong wind storm I found a number of meadowlarks in breeding condition singing and showing off their extraordinary yellow breasts.  These birds require grasslands such as are found in cow pastures and thus can thrive on ranches.  

Aquatic birds seek out protected locations during storms and continue their specialized feeding.  The oystercatcher has a spectacularly colored chisel like bill, the better to pry open bivalve molluscs.  Since the male and female look the same, the purpose of the bright bill color is a mystery.  

Lesser scaup
The pair of lesser scaup shown here is a duck that feeds on invertebrates such as  molluscs and seeds by diving down and gathering them on the bottom in shallow water.  Some winter along our coasts and rivers in tidal waters, but breed along inland waters in the NW US, Canada and Alaska.

Loggerhead Shrike
We are fortunate in Florida to continue to have active populations of animals during the winter.  Thus we snowbirds can enjoy the interesting behaviors of species that either have migrated, hibernated or become mostly inactive in northern climes.

Bill Dunson 
Englewood, FL and Galax, VA