Nature’s Holiday Gifts

December 24, 2015

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

Mother Nature has given us some beautiful gifts this holiday season in conjunction with unusually warm weather. The insect world has been especially active. This spectacular mangrove skipper was attracted to a Mexican mallow in our yard. A pair of Dorantes skippers was found in love near Arcadia. The long “tails” of this relatively recent arrival in Florida may be of benefit in deflecting the attacks of birds to a non-vulnerable area. Many caterpillars are quite difficult to find due to their camouflage and these two are no exception. The remarkably colored banded sphinx is a classic example of disruptive coloration and was found on a primrose willow; surprisingly its “coat of many colors” makes it cryptic. The cloudless sulphur caterpillar has a very different type of design that mimics the color and pattern of its food plant of senna/cassia quite well.

When I found a large female softshell turtle in early December on land at Wildflower Preserve I knew that it was looking for a sandy site to lay its eggs. Aside from occasional times of basking, these highly aquatic turtles rarely leave the water. They are even able to obtain oxygen under water across their skin and the mucous membranes of the throat. They compensate for their lack of a protective bony shell by their rapid swimming speed and a snappy disposition.

Winter is the time for eagles to breed despite the warm weather and this impressive adult bald eagle was working on a nest along the Myakka River.

Most beach birds breed in the spring/summer, sometimes locally but often far to the north, and spend the winter feeding and resting along our beaches. Some of the best mixed flocks can be found at public parks such as Chadwick Beach on Manasota Key where they are mostly protected from people, dogs and other predators and feel safe. It is a win win situation where the birds benefit and people can enjoy them. An up close view of one of the many black skimmers is memorable and emphasizes the improbability of the bizarre bill structure. I think that if this bird were only known from fossils, we would find it difficult to believe that they could actually feed by skimming small fish from the water’s surface.

One of my most interesting beach finds was this snowy plover with holiday bling on its legs. It had yellow/yellow bands on its upper left leg and orange/black bands on its upper right leg. By contacting bandedbirds.org I was able to identify this as a male snowy plover banded on its nest area in the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola, FL, in the summer of 2014. I had photographed this very same plover on Dec. 25, 2014, in almost the same spot on Palm Island just south of Stump Pass. I found it again a year later on Dec. 10, 2015, a remarkable illustration of the site fidelity of birds which tend to move to the same places year after year to breed and during migration.

So let us all be eternally thankful for nature’s fantastic bounty of wild creatures and work to protect them and their habitats.

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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