Welcome to Florida in Late October, 2017

November 2, 2017

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

We arrived back in Florida the last week of October after establishing a new summer base in Boone, NC. It is interesting to look for natural clues to the time of year in a place such as Florida which is green all year.

Some of the pine flatwoods have beautiful displays of pink/purple flowers- rose rush, paintbrush and blazing star. I have wondered about the similarity in flower color of these late fall-blooming flowers and have thought that this may assist them in attracting common pollinators. The rose rush is in the aster family although it does not look like a typical one. This is due to the presence of only one type of flower/floret, instead of the two (disc and ray) most commonly found in asters or composites. A large female green lynx spider was found on the tall flower head of another aster, the paintbrush- she may have been waiting to capture a pollinating insect. These spectacular spiders also lay their eggs on the tops of tall herbs so she may have been preparing to spin a nursery web and remain for a long period without feeding while protecting her precious brood. The paintbrush is another aster that has only disc flowers.

Butterflies are still commonly seen feeding on flowers and laying eggs on their food plants. This male fiery skipper was finding nectar on an invasive exotic balsam pear from Africa at Wildflower Preserve, which is in the process of restoration. This stinky plant can be considered beneficial in highly disturbed areas as a temporary source of food for insects. It is also a source of human food and some interesting drugs ( http://www.eattheweeds.com/bitter-gourd-balsam-pear-pharmacy-on-a-fence/ ). A monarch in our yard (likely from the non-migratory Florida population) found a beautiful native fire bush in bloom and was drinking the nectar. Fire bush is my favorite native shrub for wildlife gardening since it supplies cover, beautiful flowers with nectar for hummingbirds and long-tongued butterflies, and fruit for birds. I just watched a migrating black-throated blue warbler eating the fruit. A recently emerged male gulf fritillary opened its wings wide to warm up on a cool morning at Wildflower Preserve; you may see a series of six strange barred lines across the fore wing for which I have not yet discovered a function. The bright colors are likely an advertisement of toxicity due to the caterpillars feeding on passion vines. They also are possibly a Muellerian mimic (all similarly colored members toxic) with monarchs and queens.

Signs of the season were well evident at Englewood beach. The birds are in their non-breeding plumages- the sandwich tern has lost its black cap. A great egret is less obviously a non-breeder but if you look at the area just in front of the eye (the lores) you will notice it is not a bright green, which is the color while breeding; the breeding plumes are also missing.

In our yard the resident osprey pair are beginning their breeding activities- calling a lot and establishing their territorial rights. They had to recently fend off a passing bald eagle and will soon face the fearsome pair of neighborhood great horned owls that often challenge them for their choice nest site in the top of a Norfolk Island pine. These ospreys are however very tenacious and managed to breed in a previous year even when the male was killed by the owls, and quickly replaced by a new male.

So wherever you are geographically, enjoy the natural signs of fall that provide clues to the status of the life cycles of the marvelous creatures we share our planet with.

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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