Winter definitely slows down nature watching in terms of total species to be seen, but there is still a good variety of exotic and native kinds of fauna and flora to be enjoyed. One of the very best times to observe is during the sunny days just after a winter cold front. We can only fantasize about the wonderful avian migrants to come in April and May, but the slim pickings in January-February can still fill our need to commune with nature.
Given that it does not rain much in winter you might be surprised to find that two very different types of fungi are visible above their underground mycelia. The so-called earth star is an interesting symbiotic type that is the reproducing part of an underground network of mycelia that attach to roots of trees such as oak and pine. They provide mycorrhizal nutrition crucial in these soils which are so low in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. In contrast the shelf fungus Ganoderma growing on the cut stumps of cabbage palm is a type of butt rot that can kill a tree; it is thus a parasite but seems in our yard to primarily grow after a tree is cut and not to infect healthy living trees.
A fantastic late winter fast growing invasive exotic flowering shrub is starburst in the genus Clerodendron. I have violated my premise to plant only flowers useful to insects in this case since the species is so spectacular and blooms when few natives do so. It comes from the western Pacific region and has a very long and narrow corolla tube which would require an extremely long tongue to access the nectar. So I have never seen seeds which is fortunate since it is enough work to kill the numerous suckers that grow from the plant.
Another invasive exotic that produces fantastic flowers in winter and year around is Mexican flame vine in the genus Senecio.or Pseudogynoxys. It has an aster type flat or open flower accessible to all insects and is thus very often visited by bees and butterflies. On this particular cool day only honeybees were in evidence – a much beloved but exotic bee (Europe and Africa) that steals nectar and pollen from native insects. .
A fabulous winter blooming tree that is a completely non-invasive sterile hybrid is the Hong Kong orchid tree (Bauhinia x blakeana). It is covered in large pink flowers that attract nectar loving insects and birds. In this case an exotic green orchid bee is approaching a flower; males collect fragrance chemicals that are used in breeding displays.
Although few native plants flower in winter, one exception is the privet which is here shown attracting a monarch butterfly. FL monarchs do not migrate to Mexico but remain in FL and indeed in our backyards for long periods.
In our yard I try to mimic natural communities such as are found in leaf litter. You might think I am just being lazy not to rake up my leaves and you might be right. But there are substantial advantages in attracting birds (migrating thrushes specifically) and other animals that live and forage in litter. One of the most spectacular of the invertebrates is the scary looking but harmless whip scorpion or vinegaroon. This native arachnid originally derived from the American southwest, is nearly blind and forages for and catches small prey with two large pincers.
An exotic species that has become universally hated is the Mexican spiny tailed iguana. I have only seen two of these in our yard on Manasota Key and find it interesting and certainly no more damaging to natural ecology than feral and pet cats.
White ibis have adapted well to human civilization and are commonly seen foraging in yards. This flexibility in foraging habits is very important for its future survival in an increasingly human dominated environment. On Manasota Key there is very little fresh water available and so this basically salt water bird is here seen taking a drink (with some difficulty given its long beak) in our bird water bath. Although it presumably has a nasal salt gland to excrete NaCl, a drink of fresh water seems to be an uncommon pleasure.
Our terrestrial birds depend heavily on fruits to eat during winter. We grow firebush, strangler figs, yaupon hollies, privets, beach creeper, white indigo berry, snow berry, Christmas berry, button sage/lantana, and firethorn to satisfy their hunger. This photo shows a cardinal eating the red fruit of an exotic firethorn/pyracantha. This wintering yellow bellied sapsucker has a more unusual way of finding food when insects are scarce- it drills holes in the trunks of our large sea grapes and eats the sap and any insects present.
On one sunny but cool day I noticed a kettle of turkey vultures swirling above our yard as hot air rose from the ground and water. When I looked more closely I saw that a bald eagle was also present in the midst of the swarm- can you see it? Such thermals are a valuable means of gaining altitude and thus allowing for gliding long distances with minimal flight energy expended. One regular avian/raptor inhabitant of our yard that has not been seen soaring is a female Cooper’s hawk. Her persistent calling leads me to believe that she may have a nest in the dense Australian pines next door. Some other regular avian visitors are the red breasted mergansers that swim by in the bay occasionally diving to catch fish.
We have two rabbits in our yard that come out at dusk to eat weeds. They are small, dark with short ears, no white tail
and thus appear to be marsh rabbits not cotton tails. Unlike the squirrels and black rats which can quite be a nuisance, we welcome these bunnies to our local menagerie.
There is much of interest to see in our winter time nature, so do not be deterred by the occasional cold winter winds.