Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

Western Palm Warbler

 

I encountered a few birds during my recent foray to an inland park. I first spotted this one hopping on the ground but missed a shot at it when a some kids ran by and flushed it. Disappointed, I turned away and was distracted by a nosy squirrel.

(By now everyone should hear the word “squirrel” in Dug’s voice from the movie Up.)

But I digress. I was given another go at this bird when it flew up into a nearby tree. I didn’t get great shots and from this one I would’ve had difficulty identifying the little bugger.

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Thankfully, the ensuing shot caught a different angle which simplified it for me, as the yellow undertail coverts are distinctive on a Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum). One of the many reasons I take so many photos when I’m out and about, I just never know which snap is going to give me what I need.

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Palm Warbler, St. Petersburg, Florida February 2020

Turkey Wing Shell

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Turkey Wing, Treasure Island, Florida February 2020

Commonly found on my beach, the Turkey Wing Ark Clam (Arca zebra) averages about 2 inches long and was named for its resemblance for a couple objects. The first part of the name I understand, with the brown and white stripes it does somewhat resemble an outstretched turkey wing.

The ark part is more of a reach for me. Apparently, the long flat section near the hinge reminded people of the deck of an old wooden boat, like Noah’s ark. Umm, yeah, I’ll have one of whatever those people were drinking!

Rosary Pea

A bright flash of red caught my eye as I wandered a nearby park this afternoon. Upon closer inspection, the hard, cardinal-colored seeds reminded me of those from a plant I grew up with in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona; Coral Bean (Erythrina flabelliformis).

The Rosary Pea (Abrus precatorius) and Coral Bean do have a couple similarities;  both are legumes and the interior of both their seeds is highly toxic. A major difference is that the Rosary Pea is not native to the states and the level of toxicity far surpasses that of the Coral Bean.

In fact, the abrin contained within is twice as potent as ricin (the chemical weapon of choice for assassinating people critical of the Russian government). As such, abrin is listed as a controlled substance under the Terrorism Act.

This should come as no surprise, but in 2014 a Florida man was arrested for selling abrin on an underground, terrorist website. It makes me wonder, do Florida men take an oath or something? “If it ain’t insanely stupid it ain’t worth doing!”

Now, how does something so dangerous get an innocuous sounding name like Rosary Pea? Well, it is quite attractive and the seeds have long been used for human ornamentation, including rosaries. In the West Indies the seeds are still worn to ward off evil spirits. Another, more utilitarian usage has been as a standard weight measurement since the seeds are so consistently sized.

As you can see, I collected a few (for decorative purposes only, I promise).

 

Noisy Buggers

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Nanday Parakeets, Treasure Island, Florida February 2020

I heard these two Nanday Parakeets (Aratinga nenday) before I saw them while walking to the beach this afternoon. Please excuse the grainy photo, I only had my mobile with me. Their perching talk is aptly described as grating chatter. The two mockingbirds on the wire below them (not pictured) were decidedly unimpressed with their vocalizations.

Native to South America there is a breeding population here in the St. Petersburg area, resulting from either intentional or accidental releases as part of the pet trade. The first wild sightings were recorded back in 1969, so they’ve been around for quite some time.

For obvious reasons, it also goes by the common name Black-hooded Parakeet. Now, those of you who know me, can you figure out what’s bothering me about the common name and Latin binomial? I can’t find an answer and it’s driving me nuts!

Beach Bling

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Jingle Shells, Treasure Island, Florida February 2020

I am fortunate that the northern portion of beach near me is littered with shells (there are very few shells if I choose to walk south). I have to control my urge to collect all of them but I can’t seem to resist these sparkly, lustrous ones.

Jingle shells (Anomia simplex) come in various colors; milky white, shades of yellow and gold, coppery orange, and even silvery black. Lucky for them they are too small (averaging 1-2″) and bitter tasting for humans, so they are not threatened or endangered, unlike many of their bivalve kin.

The shiny, thin shells are often used decoratively and make a pleasant tinkling sound when strung together (hence the common name).

Beyond Breezy

Today’s afternoon beach stroll was more of a forced march into the wind. West central Florida is under a Wind Advisory through tomorrow morning. The high winds (20-25 mph with gusts up to 45 mph) even prompted the closure of the iconic Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which will snarl commuter traffic for anyone heading south from the St. Petersburg/Tampa area. Thank goodness I live and work locally!

On the plus side, I had the beach to myself. Though in places it was hard to recognize my beach under the coating of foam. Some of the foam had a sticky enough composition that it actually picked up sand particles as it rolled along, forming weird, lumpy sand sculptures.

Now I must hit the shower in order to get the sand out of my hair and ears and every other exposed body part!

 

 

Scute

I found this turtle scute on the beach after one of the recent storms. Fear not, my finding of this scute does not imply that a sea turtle died. Aquatic turtles can shed their individual scutes, unlike their terrestrial relatives.

If I was a better researcher I could not only pinpoint the species this scute came from (as each species has uniquely shaped ones) but also its exact position on the carapace. Suffice it to say, it came from one of these three species that frequent Florida’s Gulf Coast: Loggerhead, Green, or Kemp’s Ridley. I omitted the Leatherback as it does not have scutes and also the Hawksbill as it would be recognizable since it is so decorative (items labeled tortoiseshell are derived from this species).

The barnacle cones on both sides of this scute mean that it has been detached for quite some time. I’m surprised that this keratinous structure could survive so long.

Chromatic

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Shell Interior, Myakka River State Park, Sarasota, Florida December 2019

Over 300 native species of freshwater mussels and clams have been documented in the US. Of those, 200 are now either endangered or extinct. All of Florida’s 60 native species are protected to a degree; some are completely off-limits while others have harvest limits of 10 per person per day. The Florida Shiny Spike Mussel (Elliptio buckleyi) falls in the latter category.

There were many of these shells scattered along the banks of the Myakka River during my visit last month. Apparently, the park’s Limpkins find them quite tasty (and more prevalent) than their usual snail fare. I was particularly enamored with the rich, coppery iridescence on the interior of the shells. In case you were wondering, the elliptical shape of the shell is reflected in the Genus name, Elliptio.

Shell No!

Since moving to the Gulf Coast of Florida I’ve been out on the beach every day. My flips come off as soon as I hit the sand and I enjoy meandering along the wrack line, looking for whatever treasures the ocean may have left for me.

I am seldom disappointed, there seems to be no end to the fun discoveries. This recent find, made quite an impression (literally – on the bottom of my foot).  The Florida Spiny Jewelbox (Arcinella cornuta) is an aptly named mollusk, at least as far as the spines go (as for the part about it resembling a jewelry box – I don’t see it, but whatever).

Thankfully, they don’t get much larger than 1 1/2 inches but still, stepping on one is definitely an eye-opening experience!

Crooked One-eye

Came across these Atlantic Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus) exuviae (exoskeletal molts) after a big storm two weeks ago. Contrary to what the common name would have you believe, they are not crustaceans. They are more closely related to spiders than crabs.

In a great example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” horseshoe crabs haven’t changed much in the past 450 million years. Often referred to as a living fossil, the casual observer wouldn’t notice any difference between a modern one and it’s ancient relative.

Not surprisingly for a species with such a long record, they are key elements of their ecosystem: they are known as “walking museums” since their carapaces can host a range of organisms (algae, mollusks, barnacles, etc), their multitudes of eggs feed hordes of birds during spring migration, and the adults are a favored food of the threatened Loggerhead Sea Turtle.

Lastly, a bit about the scientific name (because I’m geeky like that – you’re welcome). Limulus is Latin for askew (though I can’t determine how it describes them) while Polyphemus is one of the Greek Cyclopes in Homer’s Odyssey (based on a mistaken belief that they only had on eye).