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



Tuesday, March 8, 2016

How Do Loons Snooze?

Loons are a northern freshwater snowbird that winter here in SW FL in bay and near-shore ocean waters.  They probably rarely set foot on land except when breeding.  Thus one wonders, how do they sleep?

We have a backyard loon that hangs out near our dock in Lemon Bay.  I have watched it take an afternoon nap while not only floating but also maintaining its position against a headwind.  Talk about rocking in the cradle of the deep!  It must keep its feet paddling while it snoozes but it is a light sleeper and quickly untucks its head at the sound of any potential danger.

Bill Dunson

Monday, March 7, 2016

Ospreys Win Battle with Great Horned Owls

A wildlife saga of heart-rending proportions has unfolded on Manasota Key, FL, within the past two months.  Ospreys have always nested in a tall Norfolk Island pine directly over our house for the 22 years we have owned it.  We have become accustomed to their loud calls and followed their antics and falling fish bones with amusement and love.  However on Jan.14 disaster struck when we found a severed osprey head on our front walkway!  It turned out that a pair of great horned owls had attacked the ospreys to take over their nest and the male osprey was killed, dismembered and subsequently eaten by the owls.  Great horns are fearsome predatory machines but they are entirely limited to nocturnal activities, whereas the ospreys are active only in daytime.  Although the owls are slightly smaller than the ospreys (weights 3.1 vs 3.5 lbs; wingspans 44 inches vs 63 inches), they would seem to have an advantage in ferocity and their ability to kill many different and quite large prey species (ospreys eat only fish).  But I have observed over the years that the ospreys nesting in our yard have shown a tenacity and fighting spirit that may be necessary for successful reproduction in a species whose nest and young are entirely exposed to the sky.  Most birds nest in obscurity and depend on camouflage to protect their young.  Once a much larger eagle tried to take the nest but it was fought off by the ospreys.

Our female osprey has also endured difficulties before.  In August of 2015 her mate was electrocuted on a nearby power pole while eating a fish.  Thus the killing of her second mate in January of 2016 was the second recent loss of her breeding partner.  Yet within four days after the owl attack, she had attracted a third male which has apparently  remained with her and successfully defended the nest site.  I have concluded this since as of March 2, 2016, the pair have resumed normal breeding activities and the owls are rarely heard.

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL and Galax, VA

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Close Encounter with Early Spring in NC

I am a huge advocate for enjoying and studying nature wherever you find yourself.  So when you make trips to visit family, it is a great opportunity to expand your horizons in understanding of natural history.  While watching our grandson in NC in middle February we encountered some very frigid and icy weather but then a touch of spring appeared that lifted our spirits and I am sure those of our wild animal friends.  Indeed there is nothing so thrilling as the first arrival of spring in a cold climate.

When we arrived in the Piedmont region of NC in Chapel Hill, the frozen bird bath told it all.  The area was in the icy grip of a cold front from Canada and  the prospects of local birds seemed grim.  We enjoyed watching backyard bird feeders which were thronged by hungry patrons.  A robin pecked at the suet.  Pine siskins from more northerly climes were especially interested in the thistle seeds.  There were even two warblers, yellow rumps and this pine warbler that were feeding on suet, fruit and seeds and not on their usual insect prey.

Some behavioral signs of spring among the birds were a pair of brown headed nuthatches that were working on a nest cavity in a dead pine tree.  Two mallard ducks were paired up in preparation for breeding and the male seemed especially brightly colored and thus sexually attractive to the female.

But the most distinctive signs of spring were the calling of chorus frogs from marshy areas and the appearance of egg masses of spotted salamanders in fishless pools.  You will not see the adult salamanders unless you go out at night when it is initially thawing and raining.  I found an adult male under a log after he had bred.  There were many egg masses in a shallow marshy area which would dry up later.  In a close up view you can see the individual embryos inside a gelatinous mass.  They are in early stages of development so had likely been laid about one week before.  The adults are brightly colored with large yellow spots, likely as an advertisement of their toxic skin secretions.  They are "mole" salamanders and spend most of their lives burrowing in the forest soil litter. 

So take whatever opportunities that come your way to travel, but do not forget to study and appreciate the amazing natural world that is so different in various locations. 

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL and Galax, VA

Attracting Screech Owls To Your Yard

If you put up a nest box for screech owls in a tree in your yard with some shrubbery nearby, you are very likely to attract a nesting pair, since such holes are uncommon in nature.  While the female is in the box, the male will usually roost nearby and it can be a scavenger hunt to find him since he is so well camouflaged. 

We enjoy watching the owls and occasionally finding the young ones when they jump from the nest.  It is pleasant to hear the call of the owls late at night through an open window and think about their nightly predatory forays to capture small prey. 

Bill Dunson
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