Some of the Natural Beauties of Winter in SW Florida

January 25, 2017

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson


Although SW Florida has much better winter weather than most places in the US, it still has some windy and cooler days along with occasional bouts of red tide at the coast. But on the whole the climate is fabulous and offers the opportunity to pursue an interest in natural history all year.

One of the greatest if ephemeral natural wonders is the brief period of sunrise and sunset. I tend to focus on sunrise, because I am an early riser, we live on Lemon Bay facing the east, and I view sunrise as a new beginning instead of an end to the day and thus more attractive to the spirit. Every sunrise is as different as each snow flake and thus warrants a look.

One insect I did find out catching a few sunny rays in North Port a few days ago was this male scarlet skimmer. It is actually an exotic species that invaded from the south but seems to cause few problems with native species since it is mainly found in disturbed habitats. The female is drab, making it an example of the “peacock syndrome” where the female likely chooses her mate based on bright color and behavior of the male, which in turn indicates whether he is a promising father for her progeny.

Everyone enjoys seeing sanderlings rush around on the beach at the wave line searching for mole crabs. Here is a different aspect of its personality which is revealed when a dead jack was washed up on the shore at Englewood beach. This tiny bird becomes a scavenger and pecks out the soft eyes first, then eats the flesh as it becomes exposed by decay or by feeding of larger animals.

One of the commonly seen and most beautiful birds is the snowy egret, here showing off its bright yellow feet at Port Charlotte Beach. One of the classic feeding behaviors involves the “snowy shuffle” in which the feet are moved in a circular pattern to scare up small prey, which are then grabbed with the beak. Normally the legs are all black but this maturing bird has yellow on the back of the legs and black only on the front.

The Wilson’s plovers on Knight Island (near Stump Pass) are beginning to show reproductive behavior by aggressively chasing each other to establish dominance over a breeding territory. They are one of the few shorebirds that will remain here to breed, while many others migrate far to the north in Canada. Their large bill is distinctive, the better to crush small crabs caught on the beach.

While leading a walk at Myakka Island Point in North Port I photographed this black vulture spreading its wings and facing into the morning sun. This behavior is usually explained as a means of drying off the feathers wet by dew. However biologist Tom Poulson at Loxahatchee has come up with a hypothesis that in anhingas this could be a means of warming up on cool mornings, so this explanation could apply also to vultures. Of course cool mornings sometimes are accompanied by heavy dew, so both explanations may be true.

This time of year our marvelous bald eagles are nesting and some have young already. This nest at Myakka Island Point is not placed in the largest tree available, so we can hope that the heavy nest does not break the branches or get blown down by high winds. Our beautiful national symbol is a “kleptoparasite” which steals fish from ospreys, but can also make a living on its own and feed on carrion or catch fish, coots and ducks.

So enjoy our beautiful Florida winters as we look forward to signs of spring with the approach of February.

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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