Natural Delights of Winter in our Forida Yard

January 3, 2018

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

During some winter cold waves I find myself hunkering down in our house and yard and not venturing out to local natural areas as much as usual. This provides an opportunity to more closely observe natural events in our little bit of the biosphere. Since we have a tiny but verdant slice of a gulf coast barrier island (Manasota Key), it can be a hot spot for animal activity despite the intense human development along the beach.

The daily light shows we get at sunrise and sunset can be spectacular. But of course just as snow flakes and fingerprints, no two are alike. On Dec. 31 there was an especially brilliant sunrise; the photo I took looking eastward from our dock reveals how beautiful this quite ephemeral physical aspect of nature can be.

From the dock looking westward into our yard, I see an amazing display of reddish flowers including the exotic Turk’s cap, Cape honeysuckle, hummingbird flower, fire spike, glory bower, shrimp plant, Madagascar periwinkle, Panama rose, powder-puff and jatropha, plus the native coral honeysuckle, salvia and firebush. You will note that to have so many nectar-bearing flowers in winter it is necessary to use non-native (but non-invasive) exotics. The payoff is that butterflies and birds are attracted to these flowers. The most astonishing bird attracted this year has been an orange crowned warbler which has been enjoying our yard for the past two months. I noticed in mid-December that it was not only especially attracted to the powder-puff and Cape honeysuckle flowers but also to the fire spike. It seems to feed on nectar in the flowers with long corollas primarily by piercing the base. This is behavior I am more familiar with in orioles, especially the orchard oriole But the ability of the orange crowned to feed in many different ways on insects, fruit, sap, and nectar allows it to spend the winter in the southern US far north of most warblers.

The other exciting development in our yard recently is the return of a pair of ospreys to nest in the top of a huge Norfolk Island pine directly over our house. Their nest was destroyed by hurricane Irma but the pair has rebuilt and seems dedicated to nesting despite occasional marauding bald eagles and great horned owls. Owls have been calling at night but none have attempted to drive the ospreys away as they did several years ago when they decapitated the male. Eventually they were driven away by the female and her new mate. Ospreys have a strong attraction to this site and the exotic tree that is so useful as a nest site in coastal areas.

So we are enjoying observing winter flowers and the initiation of osprey breeding at the start of a new year in SW Florida.

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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