Spring Marches On

As animal activities increase and migratory patterns continue to accelerate, a few species still remain in their winter haunts despite the fact that spring has officially come and gone. It is like an Easter egg hunt to sort through the critters to see what is new since yesterday.

One scary arachnid I watch out for while roaming through the woods is the common orchard spider, a small but distinctive orb weaver with bright red patches. Such brilliant markings could mean that this species is venomous and is warning birds to stay away. It does somewhat resemble the black widow, which however has quite different cryptic habits. So although it is considered harmless, perhaps due to very small fangs, I prefer to keep it off my face, a difficult task which is not always successful.

Reptilian activities have picked up a lot with warmer weather and many turtles are laying eggs. I noticed a Florida softshell turtle which is extremely aquatic, and has a flattened shell which allows it to swim very fast to escape predators such as alligators, and burrow in sediments. It also can respire underwater by circulating water over its pharyngeal lining. A peninsula cooter turtle seen next to it is the other extreme in predator protection since it has a very heavy, egg-shaped protective shell that resists even the attacks of alligators. It is definitively identified by the two hairpin-like yellow loops on the top of its head, not an easy field mark to see.

Common loons are still present on Lemon Bay and in their winter plumage. They breed in fresh waters of northern latitudes and seem reluctant to leave the warm, fish-filled salt waters of Florida. In contrast we are seeing some avian neo-tropical migrants although not as many as we would like. For the marvelous warblers to appear here in any numbers we must have westerly winds to push the birds easterly from their flight paths from the Yucatan across the northern Gulf of Mexico. Hooded warblers have been present in some numbers and this male enjoyed a nice soak in our backyard water bath. A northern water thrush was also attracted to our dripping water baths and remained for several days.

Another recent migrant getting a lot of attention at the Celery Fields in Sarasota is the least bittern. A bird in the constructed marshes that is one of the most common and least desired “trash birds” is actually one of the most beautiful, namely the adult male red-winged blackbird. The males have brilliant red epaulets on their shoulders and display them to intimidate other males and attract females. Some classic studies have shown that if the red shoulder is blacked out, the males cannot maintain their breeding territories.

Barred owls are likely year round residents but often the only indication of their presence is their wonderful hooting call. This individual in Kiwanis Park was as interested in we humans as we were in it.

So enjoy this fabulous spring season in watching for exciting new arrivals of neo-tropical avian migrants and in studying the breeding patterns of critters of all kinds.

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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