Dec. 17 was the designated day for the Venice Audubon Christmas Bird Count in 2017 and my territory was the Myakka State Forest, an 8592 acre piece of old Florida made up of hydric flatwoods, unusually pure freshwater ponds, and tidal wetlands along the estuarine Myakka River. I treasure this opportunity to enjoy nature in a place which is a remnant of what much of Florida may have looked like in this area before the modern era of development.
Few flowers bloom in late fall but I found a few meadow beauties (in the mainly tropical melastome family), a vibrant violet-colored single flower with four petals and eight strange looking yellow anthers that release pollen when bumblebees vibrate their bodies in a peculiar phenomenon called “buzz pollination,” ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhexia ). The flowers have no nectar and are presumably rewarding the bees with pollen which encourages them to visit many flowers and thus accomplish pollination in a very specialized manner. The unrelated native wetland hibiscus (mallows) have a somewhat similar system in which there is no nectar and bumblebees manually collect pollen which they feed to their young.
I encountered one late blooming vanilla plant or deer tongue which is similarly colored to the meadow beauty. But the flowers of this aster family representative are quite different in structure. The small violet/purple disc flowers only (no ray flowers) are grouped together into a “collective flower.” As is the case for many asters, pollination is likely accomplished by a wide variety of insects. It has always interested me that quite a few flowers in pine flatwoods are colored similarly and this convergence may facilitate the ability of insects to find these flowers.
Few visitors to Myakka State Forest are able to appreciate the beautiful views which are available from the remote river campground dock. Here my companions on the bird count, Jean Leavitt and Rett Oren, are using their scopes to look for birds on this wide area of the tidal river. The Sarasota County Myakka Island Point Preserve is directly across the river (I lead several walks there each year) as is the Myakkahatchee Portion of the forest. We were most interested in large groups of lesser scaup or bluebills (we counted 362), a diving duck that winters in this area and feeds on shellfish. They breed in NW N America all the way up to the Arctic. Males are more colorful (indicating that female choice of gaudy males is involved) and the females are relatively camouflaged to avoid predators while they sit on the eggs. It appears that most of the scaup in this area are lesser not greater, but birders often disagree on exactly how to separate these two very similar sibling species.