There is nothing more therapeutic to the mind and body than a walk among nature’s glories. Since my jogging days are in the past due to unforgiving knees, I find that a quiet walk in a natural setting to contemplate whatever chance offers the inquiring mind is among the greatest pleasures that life can offer.
Although I was never much a fan of beaches because there was too much disturbance by humans, it is ironic that some beaches now offer a wonderful place to observe birds which have become so familiar with people that they show little fear. Of course this is only true if dogs are excluded in compliance with state law. So I walk regularly on the beach along northern Palm Island where I watch for flocks of the rare shorebird that breeds in the Arctic, the red knot. This small bird winters in Florida and then flies up the eastern coast of N. America, stopping in Delaware Bay to recharge on a diet of eggs of the horseshoe crab, before flying to the Arctic coast to breed. I found a flock of about 55 red knots on Feb. 2 of which three were banded. It is not that easy to figure out the band numbers but I was able to get a photo (see attached) which clearly identifies light green flag # TU3. I entered this information into a web site ( http://report.bandedbirds.org/Search.aspx ) which told me that this red knot was banded on Jan. 1, 2007 on Sanibel Island, and subsequently re-sighted in the general area plus in Clearwater, FL. Isn’t it interesting how knowing the identity of an individual bird now allows us to vicariously think about the amazing migratory path of this tiny bird?
Beaches are a harsh place with a highly variable environment for plants to live and thus there are few species of them growing there, making it easier to learn their names. One of my favorites is the sea rocket (see photo of seed capsule). It is a tasty relative of the cabbage and has a remarkable strategy for dispersal of its seeds. The pointed seed capsule is divided into two sections made up of two seeds. The top seed breaks off from its Mom and seeks its fortune at sea, eventually perhaps being washed up on another new beach habitat or not. The bottom seed remains with Mom and will germinate subsequently along with many of its siblings in the home site. This is a exceptional example of a “bet hedging” strategy in which a plant allocates its progeny into two distinct groups with very different chances of survival.
I never cease to be excited by a close encounter with the most beautiful of dragonflies, the exotic male scarlet skimmer. This one was sitting on a twig at Wildflower Preserve to warm up on a relatively cool day when it was overcast. This suggests a method which can be productive in observing dragonflies which can be very active and difficult to watch- go on a cool day in the morning as the dragonflies are warming up. Such a brilliantly colored male must be designed to flaunt its virility to the world to attract females and deter rival males.
As a long term ophidiophile (snake lover) I rarely get a chance to indulge in my passion to enjoy the sight of a wild snake. This is amusing in Florida where most people would assume there is a snake under every bush. This yellow rat snake I found in a pine flatwoods is a fine example of many variations on a theme of the rat snake which seems to be able to exploit arboreal and terrestrial habitats. They are also remarkably beautiful if you can bring yourself to examine the head in detail. The lack of external ears and the spectacle covering the eye are remnants of the subterranean existence led by primitive snakes.
If snakes are the most despised reptiles, turtles surely must be the most beloved. Why is this? They are no threat to humans and they are thus considered the “meek of the earth.” They are the most ancient of living reptiles and thus have shown an amazing persistence throughout the history of vertebrate life on earth. They can exist in close quarters with humans in Florida (see the photo of a burrow in my front yard) as the lovable gopher tortoise (see photo). The fact that these strangely shelled creatures can be both slow growing and long-lived, adds to their pleasing persona. Look at the annual growth lines on the scutes of this tortoise and see if you can count the years. This was a half-sized tortoise much smaller than its giant neighbor which was startled by the close approach of some people and attempted to enter the far too small burrow of its smaller neighbor (see photo). This is very amusing and reminiscent of the mythical tale of the ostrich which buries its head in the sand to escape danger.
So get outside and walk every day. Contemplate and be awed by the mysteries and wonders of nature.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA