Signs of Winter in SW Florida

January 15, 2017

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

If Indian Summer is a warm period during fall season, what should we call a warm period during winter time- Indian Winter? Here in SW Florida it is so unseasonably warm that the willow and mango trees are starting to bloom already! Such a shift in flowering time or phenology is more than a peculiarity to animals that depend on the flowers for food. But do not expect it to be warm the rest of the winter !

Indeed we had a violent wind storm accompanying a cold front recently with mid-40 degree temperatures on our back porch. As the winds shift around the compass and hit SW, some local birders flock to the shore to watch for Caribbean visitors such as frigate birds, and rarities such as jaegers. We had an adult northern gannet sitting on the wind-swept beach Jan. 7 in distress; this is a very rare event and allows a close look at this spectacular bird. Gannets are most unusual in that they winter in the Gulf, but return to Atlantic Canada to breed by flying along the entire coast line of Florida, refusing to cross land as a short cut.

A familiar face was seen Jan. 12, 2017, on Knight/Palm Island, a banded snowy plover that I first observed Dec. 3, 2015. It was banded as an adult male July 31, 2014 at St Joseph State Park in the Florida panhandle, where it was probably breeding and to which it likely returns to breed yearly. I also photographed it on Dec. 4, 2016. It has quite a string of bling on its legs: silver/yellow/green on the right and blue on the left. Isn’t it amazing how this tiny bird can survive so long and how much of a homebody it is to spend winters at this same spot every year?

Mary species of ducks as well as perching birds spend the winter in Florida and migrate north to breed in spring. I found a pair of hooded mergansers in a pond at Kiwanis Park in Port Charlotte. The breeding plumage of the male is a knockout, the better to convince the female that he is a strong father to be. The female is a beautiful but drab camouflage color, so that she can sit on the nest without attracting attention. It is an example of how the choices made by females in selecting a mate in some cases drive the plumage of the male to become ever more spectacular.

In mid-winter we have come to expect a no holds barred battle between our resident pair of yard ospreys and a pair of great horned owls. They are currently in the midst of this fracas. The female osprey is shown here sitting on one tip of the Norfolk Island pine looking over at the nest. One year the owls decapitated the male but she persevered and found another mate and was able to nest. The current outcome is still in doubt.

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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