Here in SW FL we are deep in the grip of what we call winter, and the first photo proves that we actually have had one light frost already on Jan. 2. The general weather pattern is an irregular arrival of cold fronts with quite warm and pleasant weather in between. So we really have nothing to complain about in comparison with the rest of N. America. But certainly the local plants and animals have to cope with these periodic colder temperatures. The first photo shows the brown leaves on grape vines, grasses and some other tender leaves resulting from a recent cold snap, whereas neighboring palm trees are unaffected.
Although sea water temperatures have dropped into the upper 60’s F, this seems to have had minimal effects on the shallow water invertebrates. In a recent outing to Stump Pass I noticed this red hermit crab actively looking for a a meal. It is particularly interesting since much of its adopted tulip shell home is covered by two large anemones which are commonly found with this crab in a symbiotic relationship. The stinging coelenterates can provide some protection for the crab, while they benefits from food scraps. Another rarely seen invertebrate was a number of tiny young horse conchs in a lagoon. This is the official state shell of Florida and the predaceous adults grow to a huge size with a startling red flesh.
I find that one of the greatest pleasures of watching my grandsons fishing is observing the wide variation in colors of the species that can be caught in local waters. Just to give two examples, here are photos of a sheepshead and a sand perch. The sheepshead is a type of porgy which has distinctive vertical dark bands which presumably break up its outline and help to camouflage it against predators. Its teeth are remarkably flat to enable it to grind small shellfish and barnacles. The sand perch, actually a dwarf sea bass, has a beautiful pattern of blue lines that seem to advertise the presence of this small predator with a large mouth, possibly for territorial or breeding purposes.
Birds are always entertaining to watch and none more so than the white ibis flocks that sweep across the yard probing for hidden goodies in the grass and leaves. This species is one of the few that has profited by human modification of the landscape since it is able to change its feeding habits to encompass a wide variety of new opportunities. So I can sit on our back porch and watch the ibis as well as a pair of ospreys that are nesting directly over our house in a tall Norfolk Island pine. This photo shows the female osprey surveying her domain from a nearby tree; this pair benefits a great deal from the fact that many decades ago a previous owner planted this tall exotic tree, since otherwise there would be very limited nesting sites for these spectacular raptors.
Down on the beach in winter time a large shorebird, the willet, is common and quite vocal. You might assume these are the same birds that will later breed here and on the east coast. However you would be wrong since these are in fact migrants from the west which will later leave and be replaced by the breeders which have been wintering in S. America. The complexity and variation among birds in their migration strategies are quite remarkable. Great egrets here in the winter are actually coming into breeding condition and this is quite evident by the color of the skin just behind the beak which is a bright green color (see photo). Many birds completely change the color or pattern of their plumage when breeding, but the all-white great egret signifies its urge to breed by this slight but very noticeable change in color of the area called the lores.
So despite the lack of snow and ice, we notice sharp changes in the weather during the Florida winter, with consequent effects on some vegetation and the behavior of animals. These are welcome reminders of the passing of the seasons and provide new inspiration for our observations of the spectacles of nature. How dull would life be if everything remained the same?
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA