Every season and every place has its unique qualities of natural beauty. Although you would not normally think that the very hot and humid weather of August would be a good time to observe the natural wonders of a Florida beach, I have found it to be so especially at dawn and dusk. So enjoy the sun, sand and water but watch out for some unusual and very neat organisms that call the beach home.
One of the few and most characteristic plants of the fore dune area is the railroad vine, a morning glory with beautiful pinkish flowers. It sends long runners across the sand and produces floating box-like seeds that are dispersed by waves to another location. In the same location you will find burrows of the famous ghost crab, which runs rapidly across the beach searching for anything that can be scavenged as food. This amphibious crab lives on land most of the time but must return to sea water to breed. It provides a good illustration of a specialist that is so well adapted to beach life that it cannot live anywhere else.
One of the true miracles of life was unfolding during our week on the beach- the hatching of loggerhead sea turtles. It takes about two months for the eggs to hatch and the deeper eggs tend to hatch a bit later and to have more difficulty escaping from their sand incubator and potential tomb. These tiny loggerhead babies were rescued by the turtle patrol from a nest after most of their siblings had left. They were placed in a bucket until night time when they were released. It is remarkable how tiny they are and the obstacles they face in surviving and reaching maturity. It is clear to see why sea turtles inspire so many to help them in their quest for survival.
Another turtle we encountered on the beach was unexpected- a gopher tortoise. Gophers make burrows behind the beach dune and feed on plants there. But occasionally they are seen on the beach and even in the water. This behavior is unexplained- could they be eating seaweed or using sea water in some way?
Birds that use the beach for nesting have generally finished by mid August, but I observed a family of black skimmers that still were tending to juveniles. The beaks of skimmers are a bizarre case of feeding specialization. Look at the photo of an adult with its beak open illustrating how the upper bill is shorter than the lower; this allows them to skim the water surface and catch small fish. It is interesting that a juvenile that was capable of flight and was seen skimming for fish did not have the adult bill shape- the bills were shorter and the lower bill was not elongated. So it is apparent that the strange bill of the skimmer requires some time to develop and presumably the young birds need to be fed by the parents during this period. The coloration of skimmers is also remarkable- notice how the eye is hidden in the black back pattern while the belly is bright white. Could this be useful in approaching their fish prey?
Finally just behind the beach dune I lifted a piece of plywood and found an unexpected wonder- a female skink “incubating” a nest of eggs. Now this attendance by the female does not involve any warming of the eggs by internal heat, but more likely protection against predators and other sources of mortality. But isn’t it surprising that one female could have laid so many eggs- I estimated about 12 total? These southeastern five-lined skinks have a juvenile phase with a bright blue tail that directs attack to the disposable tail and warns predators of their toxicity.
So much of natural interest is occurring all around us at the beach, and yet we often know little about the details of the lives of these remarkable beach inhabitants.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA