Although the first day of Winter is not until Dec. 21, we have had some very warm and some very cool days and nights in November. This must be a shock to our local plants and animals although it is fairly normal for this time of year. It may explain why so few native plants bloom in the Fall since attracting pollinators will be difficult until days and nights are warm. One bonus of the periodic cold fronts is that accompanying clouds yield some spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The back of our house faces east across Lemon Bay so we have a front row seat for every sunrise. The example shown from 11.28.23 was quite beautiful but entirely unique. There is a nautical saying “red in the morning means sailors take warning, red at night means sailors delight.” I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this concept since I have never noticed any such relationship here on Manasota Key. Our weather this time of year is primarily driven by periodic cold fronts approaching from the north.
The long term patterns of weather can be derived to some degree by the growth rings of trees. This slash pine which was cut down at Cedar Pt shows a large number of rings (90-100). Growth was much faster (wider rings) in early life than later when the rings are very narrow. The slow growth in later life is likely primarily driven by the very small amounts of nutrients available to plants in the sterile silica sand “soil.” This sand is the product of millions of years of erosion in the Appalachian Mountains to the north. So I would have to say that there is no possibility for “sustainable forestry” in this area due to such slow growth unless very expensive fertilizer were applied.
During a walk at Deer Prairie Creek Preserve-South I did find a few flowers in bloom. The very specialized meadow beauty is indeed pretty but even more interesting is that it is an example of “buzz pollination.” This requires a pollinator to vibrate its body rapidly to release the pollen. The flowers do not have nectar but attract primarily bumblebees as pollinators. The very different blue lobelia grows in nutrient poor soils and is very attractive to bumblebees which do not see red colors. Since bumblebees are endothermic they can forage at much cooler temperatures than other insects. The common yellow goldenrods as generalists are quite different in that they attract a wide variety of pollinators such as this wasp, plus beetles, and butterflies.
One of the strangest plant structures you will notice on members of the heath family such as Lyonia is a variably colored gall. This is caused by a fungus Exobasidium Azaleas in the same family are also infected by this genus. I have heard from some people that they call them apple galls and find them edible. I do not recommend that but they are an interesting parasite on heaths.
Some fruits that are forming this time of year are interesting in how variably colored they are. Snowberries are white and seem to be relatively unattractive to birds as food. Birds are said to feed based mainly on color and are especially attracted to red. So some plants that lack red berries have leaves that turn red in Fall, such as this Virginia creeper whose berries are dark. This process is called “fruit flagging” and is found in other plants such as poison ivy (white fruits) and black gum (dark fruits).
A common toad in scrubby flatwoods is the oak toad, a very tiny amphibian that requires ephemeral ponds to breed in. The breeding chorus sounds like a flock of baby chicks with piercing peeping cries. The tiny body size of this toad is perplexing but presumably it has available a group of small prey which would be hardly noticeable by the larger toads.
A very large gopher tortoise which I encountered at Deer Prairie Creek Preserve was interesting in that it was feeding on grasses in the roadway/path. Tortoises find very little food in palmetto thickets where their burrows are sometimes placed so the road actually provides important habitat for feeding.
Those of us who are not fishermen rarely get to appreciate the beauty and variety of fish. I do not fish but have some relatives who are avid fishermen. Here are two examples of the many fish that they catch. This small gag grouper has a very interesting life cycle as a female to male protogynous hermaphrodite (https://www.louisianasportsman.com/fishing/who-named-the-gag/). This young female will soon be heading out to the deeper water reefs. Once it gets large enough it will change into a male. I hesitate to bring up politics in this nature -oriented piece but find it amusing that in this state where some politicians are removing books from libraries so that students will not read about human sexual variation, that there are numbers of local fish and reptiles that are sexually unusual. In addition to gags a local mangrove Rivulus fish is a self-fertilizing hermaphrodite. The Amazon molly is a clonal unisexual fish which utilizes males of closely related species to stimulate reproduction. The sex of many turtles is determined by temperature. Evolution/the Creator have obviously experimented a lot with sexual matters.
The redfish is quite beautiful and highly sought after for eating (blackened redfish). It is quite interesting that they are managed using a “slot” limit allowing you to keep medium sized fish but not small or large ones which are mostly reproductive females.
A very common mid-sized buteo hawk in this area is the red shouldered hawk. It is often seen sitting on any elevated object watching for small prey. It is quite interesting that they are relatively tame compared to most other species of raptors at least in areas where shooting at birds is frowned upon. One bird that is very tame in our yards is the white ibis which has adapted so well to human modification of the landscape. I recently noticed “Stumpy the white ibis” in our yard foraging in our grass by probing with its long bill. This ibis lacks a right foot which you will see if you look carefully at the photo. It seemed to be amazingly capable of keeping up with another ibis and healthy despite this horrible wound.
One aspect of bird watching in this area is the number of soaring birds to be seen overhead. This time of year I am always watching for white pelicans migrating in from the western US. They soar with hardly a flap in large groups and generally reach Florida in early to middle November. Another soaring bird that comes in on southerly winds from the Caribbean is the frigate bird. When northern weather fronts are approaching the winds are from the south, changing to the west, northwest and finally northeast. Frigates are masters of the air able to cover long distances with hardly a flap. About 50 frigates overhead were mostly males with the deflated red throat pouch used in courtly rituals. It is interesting to compare their wing and body shape with a black vulture, a local soaring bird. Frigates are designed to be marvelous “fighter planes” that attack other seabirds and steal their food. Black vultures are just long distance soaring machines that find their dead prey on the ground.
Every day is an opportunity to go outside and enjoy nature at its finest.