March Marvels at Wildflower Preserve


Florida certainly has its changing seasons although they may be more subtle than the more northern variety. This week at Wildflower Preserve certainly provided ample evidence of the arrival of spring. A flowering spiderwort in the butterfly habitat was not only beautiful, it attracted interesting insects, in this case a brilliant green bee. This is likely a so-called “sweat bee” which may alight on your arm to sip a bit of sweat containing sodium, a needed element generally lacking in plant-based diets. The purpose of the remarkable green color of this and some other bees is a mystery to me although I feel sure that there is a logical explanation.

I encountered a number of mature salt marsh caterpillars feeding on dog fennel and Spanish needles. These are the larva of a tiger moth and are reminiscent of the woolly bear caterpillars so beloved of children. It is nice to be able to pick up a fuzzy caterpillar without being stung. Just do not eat them! Apparently they contain toxins picked up in their food and this may protect them as they tend to wander around quite a bit and are conspicuous to predators.

As I was admiring the flowers of an exotic milkweed I noticed a strange-looking insect on the leaf. This is a nymph of a katydid, possibly the Scudder’s bush katydid. The bright colors indicate some form of chemical protection. This is a rarely seen variety compared to the more familiar all-green katydids that sing on summer nights.

One of the most valuable butterfly nectar plants is the weedy Spanish needles, which attracted a small hairstreak butterfly. On examining the photo I realized that this is a fulvous hairstreak, a southern Florida specialty that feeds on the widely despised exotic Brazilian pepper. So in addition to providing berries for many birds, the invasive pepper at least offers food for this beautiful little butterfly.

After the passage of the typical late winter cold fronts, it is common to see reptiles out sunning to raise their body temperatures since they are “ectothermic” and depend on the environment to behaviorally regulate their temperature. This was one of three black racers I noticed recently; they are the most common ophidian predator on the ground and in low bushes. Undoubtedly their black color makes it easier for them to warm up in the sun, and to escape predation when they are inactive due to cool temperatures.

There has been a flurry of activity of birds around Verna’s Pond next to the parking lot at Wildflower Preserve, all connected to the breeding season. Sandhill cranes are nesting at nearby Lemon Lake but it is salty, so the birds fly daily to drink fresh water. Cranes do not have a salt gland and cannot drink sea water as can marine birds. An anhinga that fishes in Verna’s Pond was holding a bit of nesting material in its beak- I have not discovered the nest site yet but am looking. A cormorant resting on a floating log (placed in the pond as a basking site for turtles) reveals the bright orange color of its throat that is a mark of breeding condition. A martin house that was just erected next to the pond received a visit from five purple martins, two of which are shown here. We are very hopeful that they will stay and breed providing us with a daily show of their activity and insect-catching behavior.

So watch for these and numerous other signs of spring in your area. It is a wonderful time of biological renewal that lifts the spirits of all.

Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA

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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