Even in Florida it can be a challenge to find many of my favorite critters while on walks in late winter, since repeated frosts have decimated the flowers and more cold-sensitive plants. For example the wonderful beauty berries have mostly been killed to the ground, but are beginning to re-sprout from the base and even show a few flowers. However persistence definitely pays off in finding interesting wildlife under such conditions and I came across some of my favorites even in this somewhat denuded landscape.
While butterflies are having a tough time finding nectar, since flowers are few and far between (a few Spanish needles, some bottlebrush, bauhinia trees, melaleuca), I did find a few of the true beauties of the forest gaps. A spectacular male gulf fritillary was nectaring on the few remaining flowers of Spanish needles. This generally hated weed is in fact one of the most favored sources of nectar for butterflies. This butterfly feeds on poisonous passionvines as a caterpillar and retains this toxicity as an adult, and advertises this fact by bright colors as protection against attacks by birds. It appears to be part of a toxic Muellerian mimicry complex with milkweed butterflies (monarch, queen and soldier) and the viceroy (feeds on willows as a caterpillar).
The typical buckeye butterfly found in the coastal Wildflower Preserve is the rarer mangrove buckeye, but I encountered the common buckeye sunning itself with out-stretched wings just like a tourist on the beach. This would appear to make this butterfly a sitting duck for predatory birds, but it does have very prominent eyespots that must deter birds from attacking it. Nearby I found a white peacock butterfly acting similarly in this cool weather by sitting with its light-colored wings spread open to warm up its mostly dark-colored body. Now one might wonder how it avoids attack by birds; perhaps the much smaller eye-like spots on the wings might be a factor; another possibility is that the white peacock is somewhat better camouflaged once it lands on the ground.
A fourth beautiful butterfly seen was the long-tailed skipper. Many of these were sipping nectar from the spectacular bauhinia or Hong Kong orchid tree, a completely non-invasive exotic tree which is quite valuable since it provides nectar during the winter when few other flowers are available. I think that the primary means of defense these skippers have against attack by birds is their very rapid flight, and their general disinclination to remain very long in any one spot.
In stark contrast with these “flying flowers,” I came across some reptilian beasts as well during my rambles. The two largest turtles in the numerous ponds are the peninsula cooter and the Florida softshell turtle. The female cooter can be quite large and has a domed shell that is believed to have evolved as a defense against attacks by their major predator, the alligator. We have some very large alligators in the area (see the photo of a huge individual sunning on the bank) which are catholic in their feeding- they will eat anything they can crush and swallow. Turtles are fair game of course and almost all large cooters show deep scratches on their shells that record their being attacked by alligators. But just as an egg-shaped object is immensely strong, the highly domed shell of these turtles is effective in resisting the considerable crushing power of the jaws of alligators. A completely opposite response to alligator predation is shown by the softshell which is flattened and would seem to be a juicy morsel, but swims very fast and hides in the bottom sediment.
So go forth and enjoy your winter hikes, but you may have to be more observant than usual to find some of the winter’s most interesting critters.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA