While continuing to cut trails at the new 78 acre Wildflower Preserve south of Englewood, FL (owned by Lemon Bay Conservancy) I am always aware of any interesting features of the natural history of this area that was a golf course only about five years ago. It will be instructive to follow the rapid changes occurring as succession takes place and how this influences the presence and abundance of the flora and fauna, both native and exotic.
I found an anhinga resting on a branch in white mangroves along the edge of the north fork of tidal Lemon Creek. The way its wings were spread illustrates how it dries its plumage after a period of feeding underwater. It is a bit unusual to find an anhinga in a salt water area since they are normally found only in fresh water habitat. However this portion of the creek is likely quite low in salinity after rainfall. A close relative of the anhinga, the double crested cormorant, is found in both marine and freshwater areas. The fact that this creek is often low in salinity is also confirmed by the common presence of black-crowned night herons.
I noticed a beetle on some pig dung along a pathway and it was the famous scarab dung beetle which makes balls out of dung which it rolls away and buries with an egg placed inside. Supposedly the Egyptians worshipped such scarabs due to their unusual reproductive habits. This species is extremely beautiful with areas of iridescent green and red (photos do not do it justice- perhaps because of the changing nature of the structural colors due to the angle of light). I have read that the iridescence is due to very fine striations on the exoskeleton which are characteristic of burrowing species, and appear to diminish the resistance to movement through soil. I have seen it in various other places in southern Florida, and always on pig dung. Thus it appears to be one species that benefits from the presence of feral pigs. Another example would be red root, a wetland species that thrives on the disturbance caused by pig rooting.
A butterfly that I have seen often in open grassy areas of the old golf course is the Ceraunus blue. It could in some ways be considered to be favored by some human disturbance, especially if the grass and “weeds” are not cut very often, but allowed to grow and provide habitat for its larval food plant of yellow beach pea and other legumes. The presence of larval food is of course crucial for the occurrence of butterflies and this is very clear for the beautiful viceroy which I photographed just next door in Amberjack Preserve. It lays its eggs there on willows which are common around some fresh water swamps. When we are able to remove much of the invasive Brazilian pepper from the freshwater ponds and marshes at Wildlfower, I expect to see willows return with their herbivore the viceroy. Along with our local milkweed butterflies (queens, soldiers, and an occasional monarch), and Gulf fritillaries whose caterpillars feed on passionvines, they form a mimicry complex of five species that are all poisonous, but from three different types of plants. Clearly it is a major evolutionary advantage to simultaneously teach potential bird predators of all five species that an orange and black butterfly is not good to eat.
I have been very pleased to find some relatively undisturbed areas of moist ground under tall slash pines which contain dense growths of swamp fern. This bioindicator of short hydroperiod fresh water wetlands (it is a facultative wetland species and is thus found in fresh water wetlands 67-99% of the time) is easily identified when it has spores on the back of the fronds (see photo) since the spores are arranged in two parallel lines that are not found in other ferns. This particular plant was found within 20 feet of a tidal mangrove-lined creek, illustrating how distinct biotic communities can be adjacent if abiotic conditions (salinity in this case) change rapidly over a short distance.
So it should come as no surprise that we can enjoy the pure beauty of animals and plants at one level of comprehension, while considering the deeper ecological meaning of their presence. I agree with Aldo Leopold (read his classic “A Sand County Almanac”) that it is only when we begin to grasp the essentials of the functioning of the entire ecosystem that the most incredible wonders are fully revealed.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA