We human snowbirds are rapidly deserting Florida to return to northern retreats to escape the summer heat. Our 107 acre farm near Galax, VA, in the Blue Ridge mountains serves this purpose well but also allows us to engage in wildlife gardening on a personal scale not available to us elsewhere. To be “master of some of what you survey” is a heady feeling until you figure out how much work it is to manage land!
Our final week in Florida this Spring has revealed a cornucopia of natural goodies that make it clear why it would be fun to remain in Florida even during the hot season. Despite the very dry conditions (see the dried up wetland with a gator track in the mud at Wildflower Preserve), there are many flowers and critters to be seen. One of the native flowers that is very beautiful is the meadow beauty, which is peculiarly designed for “buzz-pollination” primarily by bumblebees; rapid vibrations of the bee release pollen from pores. A totally different kind of flower is the exotic African tulip tree in my neighbor’s yard which is brilliant red in color and shaped like a vase. Apparently it is pollinated primarily by birds, but the shape of the flower is quite unusual; one suggestion is that it was formerly a bat flower which is now in evolutionary transition.
A tulip-shaped organism of a very different sort is the tulip shell. It is a large mollusc/snail with a purple foot that cruises around in shallow water looking for other molluscs to eat. It will not likely however bother one marine invertebrate found here at our dock in shallow water, the stone crab. One of the two claws has a very large “crusher” pincer which is used to break the shells of prey and as protection. This is of course the source of crab claws eaten by humans, which under proper conditions re-grow after they are removed for harvest.
Butterflies have been abundant recently and this male queen butterfly is drinking nectar from a milkweed, which just happens to also be a larval food plant. The queen is the southern equivalent of the generally more northern monarch and similarly becomes toxic from the larval diet of milkweed. A butterfly with the opposite color scheme is the great southern white which is white and light yellow. Its most remarkable and distinctive characteristic is the presence of light blue tips on the antennae. It is here shown sitting on a sea oxeye daisy in the intertidal zone, which is not too surprising since the caterpillars feed on saltwort. This is our native “white” butterfly- the cabbage white is a European invader.
I pride myself on avoiding chemical toxins as much as practical and this impressive spider is one part of my bio-control scheme. This is an exotic huntsman or great crab spider from Australasia which is often found around homes. I call them wall spiders since they run quickly sideways on walls chasing their prey of insects, including cockroaches. So if you can tolerate having spiders, which may be creepy but do not eat your food or carry diseases, think about letting these share your home along with the geckos to keep your noxious insects in check.
The spring northward migration of warblers from Central and South America is underway but we do not always get enough to satisfy avid birders. It generally takes westerly winds to bring the birds in our direction and these have been lacking lately. However we have had a few warblers along with some tanagers and orioles; the most spectacular of which was this rare Kentucky warbler which came to our dripping water bath. This species breeds on our VA farm but they can be very difficult to see in the thick woods they inhabit- we hear them singing all the time. So it is ironic that my best view of the Kentucky warbler has been from our back porch in FL.
Wherever you plan to spend the summer- in the north, south, east or west, I know there will be numerous opportunities to enjoy the natural wonders that surround you. So walk, jog, bike, kayak or use whatever means of conveyance you have available and make that special contact with the natural world of which we are an integral part, both physically and emotionally.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA