There are many ways to enjoy nature. You might be simply awed by the beauty of scenery or the colors, shapes, interactions or behaviors of plants and animals. Or you might choose to take a more analytical look at natural events. These photos represent a variety of situations I have recently encountered in my daily enjoyment of nature in Charlotte and Sarasota Counties.
It is common to see cormorants and anhingas standing with their wings outstretched apparently drying their feathers. The assumption is that their aquatic feeding habits chasing fish while swimming make their feathers so wet that they must dry off before flying. Allowing the feathers to become wet is not a deficiency of their oil glands but apparently a strategy to diminish buoyancy underwater. Yet most birds that feed underwater, especially in northern climates, keep their feathers dry.and have to expend much more energy to stay underwater. So it seems likely that basking in cormorants may serve to dry the feathers and to warm up the body which can be cooled rapidly in water.
The limpkin is an aquatic bird that wades in water and is primarily specialized to catch apple snails to eat. Yet you can see them eat mussels in Myakka River State Park. I was surprised to see a limpkin at Pennington Park catching terrestrial slugs (which after all are molluscs but without shells), manipulating them possibly to reduce the mucus, and then eating them. This degree of flexibility in feeding is quite interesting and bodes well for the future survival of limpkins in a rapidly changing environment.
I watched a limpkin in Babcock Webb WMA picking up a large exotic yellow banded millipede. Millipedes are poisonous so I was amazed to observe the limpkin wipe its wings and feathers with the toxic invertebrate! This behavior has been seen before in grackles and monkeys ( https://trec.ifas.ufl.edu/mannion/pdfs/Yellow-bandedMillipede.pdf ) and might possibly be similar to the “anting” behavior of some birds that coat their feathers with formic acid from angry ants. So maybe the cyanide rich defensive secretion of the millipede may benefit the limpkin in repelling insects or external parasites? But how did the limpkin learn to do this?
Feral hogs are quite versatile in their feeding habits yet I was amazed to find a group feeding in water at Myakka State Forest. I cannot be sure exactly what they were eating since the recent drought has caused ponds to decrease considerably and concentrate aquatic animals. But whether or not they were eating plants or stranded fish it seems likely that they may be utilizing a strategy known for northern moose that derive important elements, especially sodium, from feeding in lakes. Herbivores are often starved for sodium salts and thus you can attract deer by putting out a salt block. Even butterflies are attracted to animal feces by the need for sodium.
One bird that we see often is the cardinal and we are likely so used to the bright red colors of cardinals that we pay them no special attention. Yet when my relatives visit from Utah the kids are amazed by the bright red male cardinals! So we could ask why is this color so bright given the likely attention that predators may pay to this easy prey? The answer seems to be SEX! Female cardinals have preferred brighter red males for many years and evolution selects the reddest ones which produce more offspring. The usual explanation for this is that only the fittest and most healthy males can be so red so it is in the interest of the females to “go red.”
We have four water baths in our Manasota Key yard since we have found nothing attracts birds more than water, especially when dripping. But sometimes you have to wonder why some birds are attracted to water. For example this white ibis came to a bath and seemed to be uncertain what to do. Its long curved probing bill is very effective in finding small prey in mud or grass, but not so efficient in drinking from shallow water.
We see beautiful butterflies every day but rarely think about why they have such distinctive colors. Two of the most important aspects of the life of a butterfly are probably attracting a mate and avoiding predation. This striking viceroy butterfly has a strong resemblance to the more common monarch (but note the black band on the hind wing), which is poisonous due to the caterpillar feeding on milkweed. The bright colors warn birds not to eat them. The viceroy is similar enough to the monarch to benefit from this circumstance by mimicry, but also is itself toxic due to the caterpillar feeding on willows. Two other bright butterflies, the queen and the gulf fritillary are also part of this Muellerian mimicry complex.
One of the most striking flowers in damp meadows is the meadow beauty (Rhexia) seen here in Amberjack Preserve. It is quite unusual in that it is in a tropical family (Melastomataceae) and it is only fertilized by “buzz pollination” as are rabbit eye blueberries and some native roses. The flowers have no nectar and offer pollen only to bees that vibrate their bodies to release the pollen through holes in the anthers. In this case there is a striking green bee (possibly a mason bee) approaching the flower. Various types of bees and wasps have this metallic green color and I am not aware of any adequate explanation for this.
So go out into nature daily and enjoy it for its beauty and be awed by the simply astonishing miracle of the complexity and mystery of it all.