Nature Runs Riot in April


Despite the fact that we have received little rain during this springtime period in SW FL, many flowers are blooming. This meadow beauty (Rhexia) is one of many that prefers wet meadows. It has unusually showy yellow anthers. Fertilization occurs primarily by buzz pollination when bumblebees vibrate their thoracic muscles rapidly, causing pollen to come out of pores. It is interesting to contemplate how such a specialized method of pollination came about and how the bees know which flowers are designed for different types of pollen collection..

One of my favorite seaside halophytic plants is the seagrape, a small tree in the buckwheat family. It has huge beautiful green leaves with reddish veins and the long sprays of small white flowers are the precursors to an edible fruit. Some homeowners despise it because the large leaves all drop in late winter, so it is considered a “messy” plant. Since I use the leaves as a natural mulch to encourage the animal community of the litter layer, I find this complaint a very minor argument against a stalwart member of the back dune community which provides shade and food for wildlife.

The warm weather has spawned large numbers of dragonflies which whirl around the edges of ponds in a confusing mass of color and movement. Occasionally when they stop on a twig you have the opportunity to make certain of their identity. This odd couple of males was an adjacent roseate skimmer and blue dasher. Male dragonflies tend to be gaudy in color, the better to compete for territory and females. The roseate skimmer is one of the more spectacular and proves the point that virile males can wear pink ! For such primitive insects, dragonflies certainly have a complex social structure.

Another thing that is brought out by warm weather is spiders and in particular a large exotic tropical wall spider called the huntsman. We are used to these in southern Florida and rather than getting freaked out by their large size and creepy way of running around on the walls, I have learned to appreciate them as a means of biological control of roaches. But it is wise on entering a bathroom at night to watch where you step!

The brown or Cuban anole, an exotic lizard, is extremely common in Florida and is the basis of an important food chain to predatory reptiles and birds. A down side of their abundance is that they have apparently out-competed the native green anole, which is now very rarely seen. I did see one recently at Urfer Park in Sarasota and counted this a special day as a result. Although they are commonly called chameleons since they can change from green to brown, they are of course not related to these Old World lizards but instead to iguanas. In this photo of the head you can see the external ear and the movable eyelid, neither of which occur in their close relatives the snakes, which lost these when they became burrowers.

Another rarely seen reptile is this red morph mangrove snake which I found in a salt marsh on Palm Island. You should be able to see that there is no external ear and the eye is covered by an transparent piece of keratin/skin. This snake is related to typical colubrids and not to the true sea snakes which are mostly venomous. Its closest relative is the freshwater banded water snake but it differs in being both slow to dehydrate and able to resist the urge to drink sea water (and die) when it becomes dehydrated.

The mottled duck is closely related to mallards and black ducks and is often seen in fresh water or salt water marshes. However we have several mottled ducks which spend time on the beach at Palm island which is somewhat of a mystery to me. What are they doing there and what are they feeding on? Unlike the mallard, the male and female mottled duck are almost identical. Like the mallard, wood ducks have a gaudy male and a drab female, and they are limited to fresh water and nest in cavities in trees. I was intrigued by the preening behavior of this male wood duck and how the female extended her head forward to be caressed by the male, a very touching part of courtship behavior.

A bird that the ducks would not like to encounter was this juvenile bald eagle which landed on an oyster bar on Palm Island. Eagles may forage for dead fish along shores and they are fond of catching ducks for food. This young bird, which may be only a few months old, has another four years to mature before it gains the iconic white head and tail. It will likely fly up the eastern part of N America while maturing and while it searches for an open territory.

Spring is a fantastic time of mass breeding and migration and is a most exciting time of year for the naturalist. It is also mind boggling and challenging to remember and learn old and new names of plants and animals, some of which may not have been seen for a year.

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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