Farewell to the Farm

October 8, 2016

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

We are leaving shortly for our winter home in SW FL and are reluctantly saying goodbye to our beloved Blue Ridge mountain wildlife farm. As you can see from a photo of the house and immediate surroundings (we own 107 acres) taken on Oct. 3, the prevailing colors are tending towards brownish grasses and sedges, yellow goldenrods, and white and purplish asters. There are many signs of the approaching frosty weather.

We have a very beautiful water lily that has bloomed prolifically all summer, but is now almost finished. One of the last of the flowers on Oct. 2 was still a magnificent example of floral art and of a relatively primitive floral type which is usually pollinated by beetles. You might wonder why beetle pollination would have led to development of a flower deemed exceptionally beautiful by humans.

Some butterflies remain active almost to the time of frost. This female fiery skipper has been attracted to a striking everlasting pea flower. Orange sulphur butterflies are common and engaged in searching for flower nectar and salty fluids in mud or feces.

I was amazed to find huge aggregations of whirligig beetles on the New River. A closer view shows that the strangely hydro-dynamically shaped beetles gather tightly together, perhaps in response to fish predation. On some of our fishless ponds they skate around singly or in small groups, so apparently must recognize the presence or absence of fish from chemical cues.

Some animals are engaged in reproduction just prior to frost. This pair of great spreadwing damselflies are in a tandem position that is in preparation for transfer of sperm and egg laying. The male will hold the female by her head while she deposits the eggs, to prevent another male from interfering. The species will survive the winter as nymphs. Spiders, such as this golden garden orb weaver, are also quite active just before frost as the large females lay eggs that will survive the winter while the adults die.

Amphibians generally over-winter in springs or pond bottoms. This Fowler’s toad is unusual since we mainly see American toads (note the characteristic presence of two or more warts per dark dorsal spot). The spectacular northern red salamander I found in our drinking water spring is an amphibious species; its striking red coloration is believed to be the result of mimicry of the highly toxic red eft stage of the red spotted newt. Note that the tip of the tail is regenerating, perhaps after the attack of a crayfish or other predator?
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Appearance of the palm warbler in our yard is a sure sign of the fall season. This species breeds in the great northern boreal forest of Canada and migrates south to winter in Florida (including our yard there) and the Caribbean.

So although we leave our mountain summer home with some reluctance, the coming of cold weather that signals the end of flowers and most insect life, and the migration of many birds urges us to become snowbirds ourselves and migrate to FL for the winter. We can continue to garden there all winter and enjoy the activity of many animals and the blooming of some flowers.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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