Mid Winter Nature Treats

January 15, 2018

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

As naturalists in SW Florida we are fortunate to be able to enjoy seeing flowers, butterflies and birds active for most of the winter despite occasional cold fronts that can deliver temperatures close to freezing even along the coast.
It is always a shock to see willows blooming in January! But it is interesting that these blooms were in Amberjack Preserve warmed by the nearby Gulf, whereas willows further inland at Deep Creek Preserve were leafless and without blooms. So unlike willows that bloom in early May in northern Ohio at Magee Marsh where they attract migrating warblers, these blooms are far too early for that result. But even here we can start to think of spring when the willows bloom and wintering birds can forage in the flowers for insects.

One butterfly that is active on warm days is the white peacock, a brushfoot family relative of the buckeye and red admiral. Typically the under surface of butterfly wings will be camouflaged and the top surfaces brighter. That is generally true of the white peacock which is often seen in flight and commonly alights on the ground. It has six spots on the topsides of the wings, possibly to deflect bird strikes away from the more vulnerable body. The undersides of the wings are camouflaged although quite beautiful and also have three eye spots on each side.

A wonderful and remarkable sight during winter is large flocks of tree swallows that come down and feed on wax myrtle fruits while still flapping their wings. For a bird that feeds mostly on insects during summer, it is very significant that they depend on such fruits during the winter, which allows them to spend the winter further north and at greater densities than other swallows. The yellow-rumped warbler and other birds such as catbirds and red-bellied woodpecker also eat wax myrtle fruits during the winter.

A striking warbler that winters in S Florida, the yellow-throated, probably feeds more on a mixed diet of insects and spiders. This individual has apparently been in our yard for months. They tend to be found in cabbage palms as winter habitat. It comes to our water drip daily.

A characteristic bird of coastal salt waters in winter is the red-breasted merganser. This is a female. Flocks of these ducks feed along the beaches where they corner small fish up against the shoreline. Egrets often join in as a mixed species flock that attacks the hapless fish from both sides. The red-breasted, in contrast with the hooded merganser, is more characteristic of salt water in winter, but breeds mainly in freshwater areas of Canada and Alaska.

So despite the lower temperatures and periodic cold fronts, let us enjoy the marvelous opportunities for nature study that continue in SW Florida during winter.

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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