As winter tightens her grip on the natural world, the main effect we notice in Florida is less rainfall and periodic cool fronts. Since Wildflower Preserve contains many wetlands, the effect of winter drought is not immediately noticeable. Indeed a characteristic ground fungus has appeared that I associate with mulch placed on damp trails- the stinkhorn. It is bright orange and attracts flies due to the stench it exudes- facilitating the spread of spores.
Dragonflies have been very active on warm mornings and this male roseate skimmer is one of my favorites as it advertises its vigor to prospective mates. The disadvantage of such a bright color in increasing predation must be worth the advantage it confers in mating. The female is a dull color, the better to escape notice and predation by birds.
Our primary nectar-producing flowers at this time are cowpeas, Spanish needles, tassel flower and primrose willow. White peacock butterflies are quite common at the moment and here one is collecting nectar from a yellow cowpea flower. A long-tailed skipper is attracted to this yellow primrose willow flower, a relative of evening primrose which is a common wetlands plant in nutrient-rich waters.
A careful examination of the tips of dog fennels will sometimes reveal a female green lynx spider with her brood of babies. Butterflies would do well to avoid this hungry and protective mother.
I happened to notice some bugs on a nightshade plant which were unusual and found an aggregation of giant sweet potato bugs, a recent exotic arrival in Florida. The older female is quite different from the remarkably bright orange nymph. These bugs must be advertising their toxicity to birds by color and with a strong odor.
A seine sample of one of the freshwater ponds revealed that there were only a few native species present, including this warmouth sunfish. The name refers to the large mouth which is used to swallow a wide range of small prey. This species is quite tolerant of low oxygen and thrives best when such conditions limit competition and predation by other fish.
A hawk on a pine snag surveys its domain for small prey. It is an immature red shouldered hawk which is one of the most common buteo hawks in Florida and can be recognized by a light-colored streak in each wing.
So despite the onset of “winter weather” we continue to enjoy a wide variety of wildlife at Wildflower Preserve. But we did experience some freezing conditions briefly last winter and expect more this year to impact some of our winter-blooming butterfly flowers and possibly nip the tips of the especially frost sensitive white mangroves.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA