Wildflower Ramble 04-07-2011

In SW Florida we start having some very warm weather in late March and early April, but there is still very little rain. Bird migration is in its early stages and we are eagerly anticipating the arrival of neotropical migrants such as warblers and orioles. While on one of my numerous walks at Wildflower Preserve, I enjoy the changing of the seasons and the ever-changing panorama of life in all its forms. These photos provide a snapshot of some of the beauties to be seen.

While the common moorhen might be considered a “trash bird” to some, I treasure its presence since it has become much rarer in recent years due to severe competition for food with the now widespread introduced exotic African fish, the blue tilapia. Both feed on floating vegetation and the fish seems to win out except when there are so many nutrients in enriched circumstances that there is enough food for both birds and fish. A pair of moorhens at Wildflower has now produced a beautiful family of five black fluffy chicks. An adult is shown here feeding one of the babies.

In the same pond with the moorhens we have both adult little blue herons (which are blue all over), immature birds (which are all white), and today I came across a juvenile in transition to adulthood which was speckled with blue over the white background (see photo). These “half-way birds” always excite questions from visitors as to what they are and they certainly look strange. But few wonder about the even stranger issue of why the young birds are white and the adults blue. The standard explanation is that this allows for less competition for food between younger and older birds of the same species. This presumably is the result of differences in the success rate of predation by birds of different colors on specific prey items.

In the strange category one can certainly point to the leaf-footed bug, an imposing presence among the tiny world of insects. The flanges on its legs are peculiar and it is uncertain what purpose they serve. The tips of its antennae are bright red and also raise questions about the hidden life of this interesting creature.

Dragonflies are numerous now and some are relatively easy to identify and others not so obvious. I am trying to learn the most common species but am constantly confused by the variation in color and pattern between the sexes. For example this handsome dragonfly (see photo) is apparently a female roseate skimmer, a tropical species that has moved north in the last half century. The males may be either pink or red and are very striking. For what seems to be a primitive insect we can only marvel at the complex mating behaviors that have evolved so that males protect territories and compete for females. So much seems to be going on in such a tiny brain!

Another insect that attracted my attention lately is the great southern white butterfly, now present in numbers. We tend to ignore white butterflies, assuming they are cabbage whites- an exotic pest of gardens. But these native butterflies feed mainly on saltwort as caterpillars in our area and lack the black spots of the cabbage pests. They also have very distinctive bright blue tips to their antennae (see photo on flower of Spanish needles- a weedy species but extremely important as a source of nectar).

Finally in raking up some pine needles our volunteers found an interesting island glass lizard. Few people have seen these and realized that they are not snakes but lizards- look at the eyelids, external ears, and distinctive lizard tongue. Their tail is also exceptionally long. Indeed the tail is much longer than the body as seen in the photo illustrating where the cloacal opening occurs (seen here between the third and fourth fingers of my hand). The purpose of this long tail is associated with the ability of this “glass lizard” to break off its tail when threatened by a predator. The long tail will move for some time and presumably attract the attention of the predator away from the smaller body, which will then make good its escape.

In observing the natural miracles around us every day, how can we escape the conclusion that life in all of its manifestations is so remarkable that its deserves our utmost respect and protection?

Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA
wdunson@comcast.net

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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