If you must be in the city of Sarasota for some reason and need to find an escape from the traffic and the built environment, try stopping at a park named Red Bug Slough which is on Beneva between Clark and Proctor Roads. This urban park is remarkable for the number of wild creatures you may encounter in the midst of highly manipulated habitats and many dog walkers. The county has done well in planting many native aquatic plants and in making efforts to remove some of the more obnoxious exotics such as air potato. It illustrates how nature will persist if you just give it a chance.
I was especially impressed by a ditch that runs along the southern boundary of the park and carries runoff from the adjacent neighborhoods into the slough. At the time I was there in early/mid April there was limited water and many dragonflies. Since among the odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) the males are “pretty boys,” the better to attract mates, I will focus here on males. The females are more drab in color. It is interesting that among a very primitive line of insects there is such a complex and well developed social system. Males strut their stuff, patrol and defend their territories against rivals, court and mate with females and defend them while they oviposit. In one short stretch of this watery ditch I counted nine species of odonates within an hour- quite amazing! In addition there were many wasps collecting mud, sand wasps constructing burrows, and various butterflies active on native and exotic flowers. Quite a remarkable sight for the middle of a city!
The male roseate skimmer is “pretty in pink” and very impressive as a rather large dragonfly. A smaller but very brilliant scarlet skimmer male is an exotic species from Asia that is now well established in FL. The usual evolutionary argument for the presence of such bright colors in males is that they are advertising their virility, strength and good genes to prospective females. Of course they are also more obvious to predators. There are many species that are less bright such as the blue dasher with green eyes, a striped thorax and a mostly metallic blue abdomen with a dark tip. It is interesting that the much smaller blue dragonlet has a similar color pattern.
One of the most bizarre dragonflies is the pin-tailed pondhawk which has an outrageously slender abdomen. There is no obvious reason for this strange anatomy; the coloration of the male is predominantly dark with some bands on the abdomen. Another less brightly colored species is the four spotted pennant male which has a dark body, dark patches on the wings and, unique among FL odonates, four bright white stigmata at the far corners of the wings.
Damselflies are related to dragonflies but generally smaller and fold their wings when at rest. The male of one species I noticed at Red Bug, the blue ringed dancer, was tiny but a spectacular blue color. Indeed similar species in this group are called bluets because of the amazing coloration of the males. Their small size means they are overlooked by most observers but they richly repay close attention to their tiny but fascinating lives.
Although the odonates were the stars of the wetland ditch, there were other fascinating creatures nearby in the inter-connected larger wetlands. Among the turtles I saw, this FL softshell was the most interesting. It has a cartilaginous flat shell that allows it to move very fast and to burrow to escape predators. There was a single spoonbill in the lower ditch with outrageously pink wings that originate in pigments obtained from its crustacean food. Wood ducks were breeding in the lake; there were the truly amazingly colored males and a female with seven newly hatched babies in tow.
Red Bug Slough shows how a little bit of nature in the city can be both amazing and inspirational. Thanks to Sarasota County for protecting this small parcel of land and wetlands and for continuing to improve the degraded habitat for the benefit of a remarkable variety of wildlife.