Florida or Bust

October 26, 2016

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

We have just completed our annual “snowbird migration” from our farm in VA to our home on Manasota Key, FL. Of course the purpose of this trip is to escape the frosty clutches of winter up north and continue to enjoy flowers, birds and insects in a spring-like realm. The trade-off is that FL also attracts a lot of other folks from up north and is thus more crowded than we would prefer. Our first stop in Tampa to visit relatives illustrated this very well. From beautiful Ballast Point Park there is a marvelous view across the bay of downtown skyscrapers, with an anhinga drying its wings in the foreground. But how many will realize that there is something peculiar about this photo- namely that the anhinga is primarily a freshwater species and is only rarely seen in salt water? Marine birds must have a nasal salt gland to assist the kidney in removing salts obtained from marine foods and in drinking, and the anhinga lacks this. Some typical marine birds seen nearby were the oystercatcher (with its bizarre bill for opening oysters), a sandwich tern (which has a pale tip to its bill but has lost its black breeding cap) and some short billed dowitchers (recently back from breeding in northern Canada).

Once we arrived in Englewood I noticed that some trees had a very abundant crop of fruit- for example dahoon hollies at Amberjack Preserve were loaded with bright red berries. Something about the weather perhaps may have caused this, although some plants set heavy fruit or mast crops only every several years.

There were plenty of butterflies present and I noticed the tiny but spectacular Cassius blues on our overgrown tangles of cow peas with their yellow flowers so attractive to small butterflies. Eye spots on the rear of the wings provide a false head which can distract predators such as birds and jumping spiders. Monarch butterflies visit many types of flowers but especially prefer milkweeds which provide both nectar from flowers and leaves for their caterpillars. An ominous sign for our prized caterpillars was not only the presence of many paper wasps but a new type of caterpillar killer, the bizarre thread-waisted wasp which stings and paralyzes caterpillars and buries them in a tunnel with an egg laid on them. The anatomy of these wasps is remarkable with such a thin connection between the thorax and abdomen that only fluids can pass through. The evolutionary reason for this seems inexplicable, but there it is!

Terrestrial birds do not spend much time in our yard until we set up water drips, but shortly after this was done, a white eyed vireo and a painted bunting (either an adult female or immature male) appeared to bathe and drink.

Our yard gardens were very overgrown and will require a lot of weeding and trimming to return to their former glory, but the exuberance of growth in our plants over the past six months is impressive and exciting. How better to spend a winter than to work in your garden and enjoy the critters?

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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