In this area of SW Florida we are lucky to have adjacent terrestrial, fresh water and marine habitats to explore for natural wonders. While on a walk at Wildflower Preserve I found two insects that specialize on feeding on the poisonous milkweed. The queen butterfly is a southern cousin of the monarch and both of their caterpillars feed on milkweed, which makes them toxic to predators. This adult queen is getting nectar from the flower of Spanish needles, a weedy member of the aster family that is extremely attractive to butterflies of all types. A nearby milk vine hosts a milkweed bug which feeds on the sap and seeds and thereby gains protection from its predators; toxicity is advertised by a red/orange coloration. Isn’t it interesting that birds are attracted to fruit by their red color, but repelled by this same color in insects?
In adjacent Lemon Bay we can find some aquatic marvels by scooping with a dip net along the bottom. This photo of a bucket with the results of this sampling shows some remarkable critters- can you spot the pipefish, grass shrimp, small blue crabs, and the unusual black and white tunicates (sea squirts) encrusting the turtle grass? Sea urchins are also common in shallow water and this one has covered its shell with a number of bits of clam shells and other marine debris. What could be the purpose of this peculiar behavior? It would seem to be a form of camouflage but it actually seems to make the urchin more conspicuous to humans, at least on this background. This amphibious ghost crab seen at night roaming the beach looking for a snack blends in well against a sandy background; these voracious small predators and scavengers rarely come out in the daytime to avoid the numerous birds that could eat them. An aquatic blue crab solves the problem of predators by being well protected by large claws, a nasty “crabby” disposition, and the ability to swim sideways very fast. This view shows the bottom of a male crab- note the blue claws (females are red) and the narrow shape of the abdomen (Washington Monument vs wide apron of the female). Note how you should hold a blue crab to avoid the vicious claws- very carefully by the hind flippers!
The birds at Wildflower Preserve are beginning to get used to curious but non-threatening visitors and this green heron has caught a sunfish with a jab of its beak which it will swallow whole. The osprey is a great fisherman using its massive talons and it is here shown snacking on some morning sushi. Some of the most impressive bird shows are seen at local rookeries where the water birds are breeding in massed aggregations. At the Myakka River rookery the wood storks are doing well this year, likely due to the prolonged drought which has concentrated their prey in pools of dwindling water levels. There is a lot of work involved in finding sufficient material to build a nest and this wood stork has broken off a twig from a bottle brush tree. The results of this hard work are shown by the presence of fluffy babies in many nests. This pair certainly bears a strong family resemblance!
So get outside, and hike, bike, wade or kayak and enjoy the spring time and the opportunities it offers to observe the feeding and breeding activities of our wonderful wildlife.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA