Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

Gray Nickerbean

I will admit that as much as I love the beautiful, white sandy beaches and the sparkling, clear blue-green water of this part of the Gulf of Mexico, I do lament the dearth of beachcombing.

While the amount of trash strewn along the shores of the Texas Gulf Coast is sickening, the potential for fun finds was off the charts! Many of my faves were in the magical sea bean category.

The largest and most exciting were the Sea Hearts; seeds that originated in the Amazon jungle (floating down the Amazon River, out into the Atlantic Ocean, getting swept up into the Gulf before finally landing on a Texas beach (a journey of a paltry 3,500+ miles).

Even though there were others more eye catching, the little Gray Nickerbean (Caesalpinia bonduc) was my second most favorite find. Perhaps because they were so smooth and tiny?

Their large and spiky seed pods recently caught my eye and sent me on a voyage of discovery. There’s always something new and interesting for me to learn!

Curious Catbird

This is one of those species where birding by ear really comes in handy. The Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) prefers to hide deep inside thick brush (which is duly noted in the name, dumetella derives from Latin for thorn thicket).

I stalked this character for at least 30 minutes and this was the best shot I could get. Lucky for me, it was a bit curious about me or I would have never had a chance.

Helpfully, they have a distinctive mewing call that led to their common name. When the mood strikes, the males of the species can outperform a mockingbird in a singing contest.

Flying Solo

I recently met this adult, non-breeding Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) on the beach near my house. The big bill is a standout feature on this, the largest member of the plover family.

The other key identifier is that they do not flock together. Unlike other plovers, this species was practicing social distancing before it was cool.

Talk about racking up frequent flier miles, these plovers winter along all the US coastlines but their summer breeding range is way up north of the Arctic Circle.

Dotted Beebalm

Fridays are usually a half day of work for me. I was especially happy to get out early yesterday since it was warm and sunny (after a week of gray, chilly weather).

I finally made it over to Weedon Island Preserve. The state bought the island in 1974, to protect the remnants of what was once a thriving Manasota village. Now managed by Pinellas County, wildlife abounds in the preserve which I was excited to explore.

As so often happens, I came across something new for me to learn about. Dotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata), also known as Horsemint, is a fragrant and showy member of the mint family.

The lavender-pink bracts are the visual highlight but the small, yellow tubular flowers are the main draw for pollinators. Thriving in salty, sandy soil this native plant attracts wasp species that prey on harmful caterpillars and insects.

All that and it smells good, too (reminiscent of thyme). I can’t wait to plant some, it will be a great addition to my yard!

Pretty Little Weed

Considered an invasive species here in Florida, Ceasar Weed (Urena lobata) is highly prized in other parts of the world. A member of the hibiscus family (along with cotton), Ceasar Weed’s long fibers make great cordage.

A good substitute for flax and jute, it is widely grown in Africa giving rise to its other common name, Congo Jute. According to one source, the cordage industry brought this plant to the state in the 1880s for cultivation. A program that never panned out.

A hundred and forty years later this shrub, with the attractive red stems and dainty pink flowers, is here to stay. The seed casings are covered in stiff hairs that attach easily to any soft object (like my socks or deer fur) which enables them to hitchhike across the landscape with ease.

It’s not all bad news though, the plant has known antibacterial properties as well as other possible medicinal uses.

Meet Shaggy

While lounging in my hammock yesterday afternoon a small, round blob in the water caught my eye. Thinking it was some kind of plastic debris, I hopped up to grab it.

Upon close inspection, however, I realized the blob was most definitely not trash. In fact, it was alive and changing shape! I took a few photos but then realized that it probably needed to be immersed.

Since I wasn’t sure about the creature’s defense mechanisms, I used a leaf to gently move it into a nearby coconut shell. After I filled the shell with water, I felt better about stealing a few more moments of the shape-shifting blob’s time.

My homework last night was to identify my gooey little friend. With a bit of searching, I stumbled across the helpful sea slug forum (yes, folks, there is a sea slug forum).

Turns out it was a Shaggy Sea Hare (Bursatella leachii), a marine gastropod known to hang out in shallow seagrass beds. I see something new every time I’m by the sea!

Jump for Joy?

Mullet jumping may sound like an event from the redneck games involving beer, bad haircuts, and 4wheelers. It’s actually far more interesting (though just as poorly understood by science).

The main theories are that mullets jump to avoid predation, to remove parasites, or to break open their egg sacs during spawning season. Much less popular among researchers is the idea that mullets throw themselves out of the water because it’s just plain fun.

In my, albeit limited, experience these past couple years living along the Gulf of Mexico, I noted the mass jumping events during December and January. This lends merit to the sac breaking theory since it happens to correspond with the mullet spawning season (November-January).

No matter why they do it, it does look like they’re having fun!

Jagged Tooth*

There seems to be an uptick in shark activity in the waters off the Florida coast. There’s a video of a Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) biting a boat that circulated last Friday.

Just a couple days earlier an eleven-foot female pinged in the Florida Keys. Affectionately called Acadia by the OCEARCH research team, she was tagged this past September off the coast of Nova Scotia. (When they say everybody heads to Florida for the winter, they mean everybody!)

She has now rounded the corner and entered the Gulf of Mexico. Just this morning she pinged down near Cape Coral (about 120 miles south of me). It will be interesting to follow her progress!

Much closer to home I came across this small, deceased Great White on the beach at Sand Key. Such fascinating creatures!

*Derived from Ancient Greek, carcharodon, means jagged tooth.

Super Star

The recent riptides and swirling currents along our coast stirred up a bunch of debris from the shallow sea floor and tossed it up on the shore. While some visitors were disturbed by the mess, to me it was a beachcomber’s paradise.

The most exciting find of my day was this small brittle star. Does that central disc remind you of something? A sand dollar, perhaps? You’re on to something!

Brittle stars, sea stars, sea cucumbers, and sand dollars are all members of the same phylum, Echinoderm (Greek for spiny skin).

Like their multi-armed counterparts, brittle stars can also regrow their limbs. In fact, they earned the moniker brittle star because they shed their arms so easily (as a mechanism to avoid predation).

But brittle stars take regeneration to the next level with their ability to completely separate from their central disc and organs: a single arm can produce an entirely new brittle star. That’s so amazing that it is almost creepy.