Mid to late March is an exciting time of natural changes due to the almost daily arrivals and departures of migrant birds, the initiation of singing in many species, and the greater activity of reptiles.
An unusual lizard that is seldom seen except when it is quite hot is the six-lined racerunner, a relative of the tegu lizard that originated in the western deserts. It can move very quickly, living up to its name. This individual, which was the first I have seen at Wildflower Preserve, retreated under some vegetation on my approach. It is one example of a number of animals that originated out west but migrated to Florida and stayed; other examples are rattlesnakes, the scrub jay, and the giant whip scorpion.
I enjoy watching the display of animal behaviors shown at small ponds and Verna’s Pond at Wildflower Preserve is one of my favorites. I anchored three floating palm trunks to attract the resident reptiles and birds and was excited to see a large female peninsula cooter turtle basking on one. Females are much larger than males who are better at making love than war, thus their small size. Larger females can lay more eggs and also have a greater chance of not being crushed by the jaws of their gator neighbors. Indeed on the nearby bank a seven foot gator was sunning and showing its impressive set of teeth. The egg-shaped shell of these large herbivorous turtles is believed to have evolved to thwart the impressive power of those jaws. Anhingas often sit on the bank or on trees drying their wings after swimming in the pond to catch fish. This is necessary since their body feathers are fur-like and absorb a lot of water which enables this superb underwater forager to manage its buoyancy. How they manage to escape the jaws of the gator is a mystery to me.
A very different method of reptilian eating is shown by a yellow rat snake which I found in a flatwoods and took home briefly. I offered it a mouse which it rapidly accepted and swallowed whole, leaving only the tail protruding from its mouth. The ability of snakes which lack limbs to forage and be so successful is amazing. Of course they evolved from lizard-like ancestors which originally had legs but lost them during an extended period as burrowers. Subsequently when they re-emerged on the surface they were able to be successful without appendages.
One of the most astonishing sights of spring migration is watching the passage of northern gannets heading back to Nova Scotia. They winter in the Gulf and since they are unwilling to cross over land, they follow the entire coastline of Florida in returning to Canada for breeding. So if you are lucky, just as a storm front is passing you may witness long lines of gannets flying low to the water heading south along Florida’s gulf coast. Now you may wonder why this bird is heading south instead of north, but remember that since they will not leave the sea, they must go south to get around the Florida peninsula before heading north. I witnessed just such a movement of hundreds of gannets on Sunday morning March 25 and was very lucky to have noticed it.
Another bird at the beach lately has been the red breasted merganser- in this case a male not yet in breeding plumage. They are specialized to feed on fish (note the thin beak) and have a method of trapping fish up against the beach while feeding in the surf zone. This male seems to have had his crest styled in a punk fashion but the female accompanying him was apparently suitably impressed.
We have a pair of ospreys nesting near our house and their daily activities are a source of delight. However my wife was not so pleased when their daily collection of debris for the nest included one of her flip flops! But this particular nest is built in a very precarious position in an Australian pine and we constantly fear that it may be blown down. M uch of the nest was destroyed recently in a strong wind and I found this beautifully camouflaged egg on the ground. But the adults steadfastly rebuilt the nest and presumably laid more eggs. Why are they so persistent in choosing this site which seems poorer than those available in neighboring trees? It does illustrate how raptors such as ospreys benefit from the presence of this exotic invasive tree.
So go forth on your daily sojourns and listen carefully to the sounds of spring which are wonderful harbingers of the changing season and the massive migratory movements of animals that can be overlooked unless we are vigilant in our observations of nature.