Despite the repeated cold fronts sweeping over Florida and NE North America, there is much of natural history interest to be found at the new Wildflower Preserve in Charlotte County, FL. Here are a few examples of the many exciting sights to be seen in the Englewood area if one is watchful and patient while hiking the new trail system.
One of my favorite lizards is the gecko, which is famous for selling insurance! I have found that the common species in our area is actually an exotic from Africa, the tropical house gecko, which is found both in human structures and in natural surroundings near houses. A close-up of the eye (see photo) shows the remarkable iris and strange slit pupil with multiple openings which are thought to focus images in very dim light better than our single pupil. A look at the entire body of the gecko in my hand illustrates the broad toe pads which allow them to hold onto vertical surfaces by the power of additive tiny atomic bonds between the multitude of tiny bristles in the pads and any surface. They lay a miniature rounded egg with a hard shell which can hatch in a couple of months, even in air- an unusual trait for a reptile and an obvious adaptation for an arboreal existence.
The freshwater ponds are a never-ending source of interesting observations. In a random scoop with a dip net I caught one of the tiny predators which is a fearsome stalker of the miniature aquatic jungle- the water scorpion (see photo). Of course this is not a real scorpion, but a true bug. It creeps through the submerged weeds and grabs its prey with the front legs, and then kills and eats it with a tubular proboscis. At the rear of the body is a long tube which has no sinister purpose to sting, but is only a method of obtaining air from the surface to breathe. The water scorpion can fly between ponds and seems especially well adapted for a life in isolated oxygen-poor ponds which lack fish, or at least fish large enough to eat it.
I was very excited to find a scrub jay on the southern side of Wildflower Preserve for the first time, near the boundary with Amberjack Preserve, which has had some scrub jay families in the past. They have been in decline and have mainly been seen near the condos that lie between Wildflower and Amberjack. Wildflower does not have any of their typical scrub habitat, but may serve as an occasional source of cover, food and water. It is intriguing how rigid most scrub jays are in their preference for scrub habitat, and this may prove to be their undoing as this habitat is lost to human development.
Just prior to the recent freezes I came across several patches of the exotic/invasive vine balsam pear. Sometimes it is called skunk vine because of the very strong, musty odor of the leaves. However it is the orange fruits which are of the most interest; when they ripen and break open (see photo) the seeds are found to be enveloped in a sticky red material which is edible and sweet. However the seeds themselves cause vomiting as do the raw fruits. A cultivated version of this plant yields edible green fruits and leaves after various treatments. The remarkable color of the arils enclosing the seeds seems to be an obvious advertisement for birds to gobble up the sweet parts along with the seeds which are consequently defecated at distant locations, resulting in wide dispersal of the seeds.
A fortune cookie I opened this week provided the following sage advice:
“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”
So go forth and find some happiness in contemplation of the variety and splendor of nature.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA