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



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