While it is generally still winter-like up north in February, things are quite different in SW Florida when signs of spring occur in February. The seasons are not so much set by astronomical events as they are by biological milestones. For example when I go to the beach now I see that sea birds are starting to molt into their breeding plumage. Royal terns are beginning to show an increasing amount of black feathers on their heads. A few laughing gulls have completely black heads; it is likely that this signals to potential mates the physiological readiness to breed.
Neotropical migration has just begun as is clear from the purple martins that are thronging around the nest boxes at the Celery Fields. These amazing birds are among the first migrants to arrive from South America. They are now dependent on humans to supply nesting cavities and will return year after year to a suitable breeding location. They feed on flying insects and are thus very susceptible to cold snaps that ground their food supply.
Flowering of native plants is rather rare in December and January. Now in February we find more of these native plants starting to bloom. My photos show elderberry, swamp lily and butterwort that are three of my favorites. Elderberry has a myriad of tiny edible white blooms that will yield the dark berries that are used to make wine and pie (in contrast to most of the plant which is quite toxic).
The swamp lily is a very striking wetland and riverside flower. Its white petals shine against the dark hues of the swamp. Few realize that the structure of this flower is unusual because it has a very long corolla tube leading to the nectar reward. This means that only insects with a very long tongue can reach the nectar reward (unless they bite through the side of the flower and steal the nectar). Thus hovering night-flying sphinx moths are the most likely pollinators.
One of my other favorite wetland plants is the yellow butterwort. It has sticky leaves which trap insects to be digested. This carnivorous plant is characteristic of nutrient poor soils which are typical of many hydric pine flatwoods such as are common in Myakka State Forest. The predominant “soil” is sterile silica sand derived from millions of years of erosion of the Appalachian Mountains. The flower of this large butterwort is quite attractive and is held on the top of a long stalk, presumably to protect potential pollinators from the insect leaf trap below. The plant has a problem is that it needs to eat insects to obtain nutrients, but also requires flying insects to fertilize its flowers.
Our exotic Key lime trees are in full bloom and exude a strong scent. They are being visited primarily by exotic honey bees. Although I am generally opposed to wild hives of honeybees which originated in Europe and Africa (due to their competition with native pollinators), I must admit that I am happy to have anything pollinate these prized fruits during a time when native pollinators are still at a low ebb. Last season yielded an unusually massive crop of Key limes so I am curious to see how this season progresses.
So as you enjoy nature during our fabulously sunny and warm winter days, look for the somewhat cryptic but indisputable signs of spring all around you.