Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Some Signs of Spring As We Head North

In middle April a sizeable proportion of the human population of the Englewood, FL,  area either have left for their northern summer homes or soon will do so.  We got a preview of what is in store for us with a quick trip to the coastal plain of NC the first week of April.  It was still cool at night but warm in the afternoon and a wonderful springtime was in full swing.  We spent one night in Greenville, NC (home to East Carolina University), and I was very impressed by the Greenway along the Tar River which flows right through town. 

Plants are the typical harbingers of spring and nothing reveals this more than the emergence of the intensely green leaves of bald cypress.  Large cypress are many hundreds of years old and very impressive monarchs of the swamp.  But the wildflowers on the forest floor reveal spring in all its beauty.  The coral honeysuckle is a classic hummingbird nectar source with a long corolla tube and bright red color. 

The dogwood illustrates how a white flower can be beautiful.  Actually the multiple tiny flowers pollinated by bees are clustered in the middle with showy white bracts around them.  It is a classic example of fruit abortion whereby only a few of the fertilized flowers produce fruit.

The may apple is toxic but produces an edible fruit when ripe if it has two leaf stems. 

The yellow buckeye is also toxic and has become quite common in eastern forests where deer have eaten most of the rest of the understory plants.   The flowers are pollinated by bees and the nuts can be eaten after roasting to detoxify them.

One of the beautiful butterflies that become common in spring is the tiger swallowtail, here shown "puddling" in a group while drinking salt rich fluid from animal feces.  The nectar diet of butterflies is quite deficient in salts so they seek out sources of minerals such as sodium wherever they can find them, and obviously they are not too particular!

The cool nights and warm sunny days encourage basking behavior in reptiles such as these yellowbelly sliders.  Since their body temperature can only be raised and their bodily processes accelerated by external sources of heat, they actively seek out basking sites.

Both American and southern toads tend to breed early in spring in shallow fishless ponds, and lay long strings of eggs, that hatch rapidly into small black tadpoles.  These gather together in groups of siblings and are thought to be toxic to predators.  The trilling calls of toads are one of the true signs of spring.

One of the many signs of spring are birds migrating and beginning to breed.  I happened to find this yellow throated warbler picking up nesting material along a river.  Since this species spends the winter in our FL yard, it was exciting to see one breeding in NC.

So enjoy this most marvelous time of year, since nothing in the natural world quite compares with the excitement of the spring season.

Bill Dunson


Monday, April 4, 2016

Spiny Puffer 1: Snook 0 !

While exploring the shallows of Gasparilla Sound a group of us came across a small snook in shallow water that was near death.  When we examined it closely we found an inflated spiny puffer or burrfish in the snook's mouth/throat that appeared to have prevented the snook from respiring properly.  Since the snook was essentially dead we removed the puffer from its throat and released the puffer which was weak but alive.

This illustrates two things, the effectiveness of the protection afforded by the spines and inflation strategy used by puffers (which are also quite poisonous due to tetrodotoxin in their tissues), and the foolishness of a snook which ate a puffer which then killed it.  It is interesting that this snook did not recognize the danger posed by this very well protected prey.

Bill Dunson

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Pipevine swallowtail on Mexican clover

I almost never see what I would consider to be a pipevine swallowtail in the Charlotte/Sarasota County FL area.  But yesterday I found this apparent female pipevine nectaring on Mexican clover aka large flower pusley (Richardia grandiflora) in the Tangerine Woods community in Englewood.

It had the same behavior of pipevines which are common on our VA farm, namely that it fluttered constantly, making photography quite difficult.

Have others encountered pipevines along the coasts of SW FL and if so where?

Another good reason to encourage the growth of this exotic but butterfly friendly plant in your lawn!

Bill Dunson