I “ramble” a lot at the new Wildflower Preserve in Charlotte County, FL, while I am building new trails through the tangle of Brazilian pepper and salt bush that covers much of the old golf course that was abandoned about 5 years ago. Every time I go there something different sparks my curiosity. Despite the damage done to the natural ecology of the area there is a considerable amount of wildlife left and much can be learned by observing the process of succession that occurs when land is cleared and then allowed to return to a semi-natural state. Indeed it is remarkable how quickly most superficial traces of the golf course simply disappeared.
The predominant thing you would notice at Wildflower now is that there are millions of tiny white seeds blowing in the wind, to the consternation of many who live nearby with screened porches. These seeds are “Florida snow,” the wind-blown seeds of the salt bush (see photo). Only the female plants produce seeds but it seems that the entire horizon is filled with white parachutes of seeds seeking their fortune in other places. The success of this strategy is shown by the huge number of tall salt bushes that colonized the golf course fairways once the mowers ceased their activities. This weedy shrub is an interesting, early successional species that will give way gradually to trees which will shade it out. Both the male and female flowers are avidly visited by butterflies.
One of the most common herons here is the little blue (see photos of juvenile and adult). It is a remarkable and confusing fact that we have a number of small to medium-sized mostly white egrets (such as snowy, great egret, cattle, and young little blue). What is most interesting is that only the little blue is white as a juvenile and becomes bluish-gray on maturing. Two questions suggest themselves: why is white such a common color for wading birds, and why does the little blue have one color as a juvenile and another as an adult? A much less common species, the reddish egret has both white and bluish-reddish morphs as an adult. Another species, the tri-colored heron, is white on the belly and darker on the back. The most logical explanation, but one very difficult to test, is that these different colors favor the ability of these birds to capture different types of prey under the same and different conditions. For example, note that the juvenile little blue is walking on vegetation rather than in water which is where one normally sees the snowy and great egrets. This pond covered with green floating plants (mostly duckweed and tiny floating ferns) is probably unnaturally enriched in nutrients. Some adjacent ponds are clear and lack such floating plants.
The mangrove creeks and sloughs in Wildflower (see photo of mangrove pool) are exceptionally good habitat for juvenile tarpon. Indeed these very low oxygen waters that are high in hydrogen sulfide are likely the only places where juvenile tarpon can survive without being outcompeted by other predaceous fish such as snappers. I have attached a photo of the open mouth of a small tarpon held in my hand- note the huge mouth which presumably is designed for eating anything small enough to fit inside. One such small tidbit would be the most common fish in these waters, the mosquitofish (see photo). The tarpon has an air-breathing “lung” to permit it to live in such hypoxic waters. The mosquitofish is equisitely designed to skim just below the water surface (note the flat head and upward-turned mouth) where it can flush its gills with oxygen replenished by the adjacent air.
The profusion of life in the regenerating habitats at Wildflower is amazing and a constant source of wonder and inspiration. Life is harder to extirpate than one might think, which is good news for the future of the planet.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA