As a famous philosopher (Forrest Gump) once said that his mother told him about choosing from a box of chocolates, “You never know what you’re going to get.” This expresses precisely the possibilities that face us when we take a walk on the wild side and watch for interesting things in nature. Indeed I find the uncertainty and unpredictability of the study of natural history one of its most appealing aspects. So see what I happened to find this week during my peregrinations on the less traveled paths of nature.
While walking on the beach it is of course common to find seashells of many types. One of my favorites is this one, the sunray venus clam. It lives in shallow sandy bottoms and is sometimes washed up on beaches for us to admire. It is an unusually beautiful shell and this might lead you to ponder why a clam that remains buried in sand its entire life and has no eyes would be so well marked? It is often assumed that all things in nature have a reason, if we only knew what it was. This seems to be one of those “unknown causes” so far although I remain open to suggestions.
As I was returning from the beach I noticed this sphinx moth on the trunk of a palm tree. It appears to be a streaked sphinx or hawk moth and is quite impressive. They are sometimes called hummingbird moths since some of them can hover while they feed on the nectar of flowers. Their caterpillars are more familiar than the adults as “hornworms” that are occasionally seen feeding on tomatoes or catalpa. The adults may have a very long proboscis or tongue that is rolled up when not in use, and this allows them to feed on flowers with quite long corolla tubes which restrict the access of other insects and birds.
The eastern pondhawk is one of the more common dragonflies, but I found a particular life stage at Wildflower Preserve that I had not noticed before- namely a juvenile male. As is often the case, adult males and females are quite different in coloration- the male being blue and the female an attractive mixture of green, white and brown. The juvenile male strongly resembles the female but has a blue abdomen that resembles the adult male into which it will be soon be changing. This phenomenon, the strong resemblance of young males to females is something we do not often ponder, but it is rather interesting. What does this tell us about the complex interactions of genetics and hormones that yield the two sexes that are so important in the lives of most animals?
While at Wildflower I was checking out the tidal lagoons and found two interesting fish behaviors. A small group of mullet were in the northern end of Lemon Creek where water conditions are suitable for air-breathing baby tarpon but not for most gill-breathing fish. In fact the mullet were gasping at the surface trying to get some water of a higher oxygen concentration but did not seem to be very successful. This illustrates very well how young tarpon have found a refuge to escape from most competition and predation from other fish. Another type of fish, the sailfin molly, was nibbling on a mat of floating blue green bacteria and algae. They are able to survive in such oxygen poor waters since the flattened shape of the top of their head allows them to skim an oxygen enriched layer into their gill chambers.
Screech owls are quite common around human habitations but are not often seen or heard. But if you put up an owl box you will often attract a pair of owls. This individual is peering out of its box that is placed right over a driveway and is contemplating coming out at dusk to go hunting. Another means of attracting interesting birds is to put up a water bath with a continual drip. This is much more effective than a still pan of water and in our area is far more attractive to birds than food. We have had several painted buntings this winter in our yard coming to a drip bath and this photo shows a male taking a bath.
So sally forth and seek the uncertainty of nature’s delights and be ready to be amazed by the unexpected.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA