Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

Strange Fruit

Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, St. Petersburg, Florida September 2020

This caught my eye across the boardwalk so, of course, I made a beeline for it. Turns out this strange fruit is the nonnative Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia).

While it originated in India, this edible fruit is now grown throughout the tropics. Though this is the showy stage, according to my research, the fruit is actually best consumed when green. With a texture like a chayote the flesh has a slightly bitter taste, hence the common name.

What I found most interesting is the medical potential of the plant. It is being studied for its hypoglycemic effect as well as possible cancer prevention and even infection fighting. Not just another attractive face!

Still Impressive

Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, St. Petersburg, Florida September 2020

I was pleasantly surprised to encounter this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) last week. It was truly only a matter of time since there are over 1500 nesting pairs of them in Florida (the highest number outside of Alaska).

This eagle’s imposing presence explained why the south side of Lake Maggiore was so quiet that day – all the Ospreys were giving the area a wide berth!

After spending time in the Pacific Northwest (mostly recently on the Central Oregon Coast and years earlier, the Alaskan Coast) I can see that there is a sizable difference between the birds of these discrete locations. This biological phenomenon is known as Bergmann’s rule; members of a species increase in size when living further from the Equator.

Mainly observable in birds and mammals (and also a few plants), it is related to the surface area to volume ratio. In warmer climates, body heat needs to be released rapidly while in colder climates it behooves the animal to store the heat (perhaps counterintuitively, larger animals emit less body heat).

In this case, Florida Baldies average just over nine pounds, while in Alaska they top the scales at fifteen. No matter what the size, Bald Eagles are still majestic!

Unfortunately, it was not that impressed with me…

Upended Pulchritude

Honeymoon Island State Park, Dunedin, Florida September 2020

The large, lavender bloom (1.5 inches) was the first thing that drew my attention to this Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum). On closer inspection, I found the growth at the top of the flower to be most curious.

After a bit of research I learned the “spur” is a uniquely formed sepal that is actually the lower lobe (but the flower opens upside down). Presumably, this distinctive twist assists with pollination, as the white line in the middle is a nectar guide (a sort of directional arrow for pollinators, “Good food here”).

Spinner of Golden Threads

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Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, St. Petersburg, Florida July 2020

Measuring over three inches long, I couldn’t help but notice this attractive, female Golden Silk Orb-weaver (Trichonephila clavipes). The genus name describes this spider quite well; in Ancient Greek nephila means “fond of spinning”.

She builds and maintains a web that stretches for about a yard, anchored between trees up to ten feet away. Not only is that impressive but as the common name mentions, some of the threads are yellow in color (hard to photograph but you can see a few in the photo below).

I included the photo below even though it is relatively poor quality for a few reasons. One, it shows the diminutive male hanging out behind her (far away from her mouth). Two, she was in the process of wrapping up a meal. And third, part of her food cache is visible behind her back legs. There was really a lot going on in that shot, I do wish it had come out better!

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Sawgrass Lake Park, St. Petersburg, Florida August 2020

Pretty Petiole

I viewed this colorful insect with a wary eye since red and black tend to be warning signs in nature. Turns out that Common Thread-waisted Wasps (Ammophila procera) are relatively harmless as the adults mainly feed on nectar. Vocab word of the day: petiole is the narrow waist in between the abdomen and thorax.

Unlike the male, the female has an ovipositor, which is used for egg-laying (and stinging, when necessary). She does all her parenting upfront: paralyzing a caterpillar, dragging it into a sandy burrow, inserting a single egg, and sealing the burrow, before flying away.

When the larva hatches, it consumes the (immobile but still alive) caterpillar from the inside out. Makes me glad I’m not a caterpillar!

Black Beauty

This carpenter bee’s large size caught my attention as she* whizzed by my head on the way to a flower. If I was an entomologist, I would be able to tell you which of the two species of Xylocopa (that reside in Florida) it was, but it’s a bit tricky to discern the difference.

One would have to determine the distance between the eyes, the number of antenna segments, types of submarginal cells in wings, and abdomen and thorax color and pubescence. Fascinating details, I’m sure but I was too enthralled with her colorful, diaphanous wings and the way they resembled a stained glass window. Just stunning!

*I am fairly certain this was a female since the males tend to sport a bit of yellow on their thorax.

Bottoms Up!

Though the brunt of the storm was 300 miles away, Hurricane Laura churned up the water along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Scattered along my beach are brown clumps mixed with shells. Though they look like rocks, the brown lumps are actually soft and squishy tunicates.

Affectionately called Sea Squirts, tunicates are colonial bottom dwellers that attach to hard surfaces (including abandoned shells). The wave action also tossed up a bunch of sea urchins (and by now you should know how I feel about them).

We’ve received a sneak peek at life from the benthic level of the sublittoral zone. Since they were deposited above the normal high tideline we will get to enjoy the delightful aroma as they decay in the sand.

Tip-tail

Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)

Spotted Sandpiper, Fort DeSoto Park, Mullet Key, Florida August 2020

I spent time with this Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) yesterday afternoon. It kept a wary eye on me as it forged along the shoreline for insects and small crustaceans. Contrary to the name, the juvenile of the species lacks spots and instead has brownish breasts with a plain, white belly.

The Ancient Greek basis for the binomial is very descriptive; aktites = coast-dweller, macula = spot. Though, in my opinion, the key identifying feature is the bird’s constant body-bobbing, whether walking or standing still. This behavior led to the appropriate moniker, tip-tail.

Coin Vine

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While technically considered a shrub, Coin Vine (Dalbergia ecastaphyllum), earned its common moniker from the shape of its flat, round seed pods and its long, lanky branches that help it climb nearby trees. The pods I found today were fresh and green but I hear they dry to a coppery brown, which would certainly be reminiscent of a penny.

Native to Florida, the plant provides a crucial service along the coast by helping to stabilize the shoreline. The early indigenous peoples of the area utilized the bark and leaves of the plant to stun fish, leading to its other common name, Fish Poison Vine.

Long Beak Problems

I spent a decent part of a morning watching this American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) preen. While the feathers from the neck down looked well-cared for, the ones above appeared a little disheveled. Clearly, there are a few disadvantages to having such an extended mandible!

I read a study from Florida that determined an adult ibis spends well over half the day roosting during nesting season. The birds occupied a good portion of that time with their personal hygiene.

I was surprised to learn that, though they nest in large colonies, they do not practice allopreening (except during courtship). I had presumed they would help each other reach their inaccessible areas but apparently, they just go around half-bathed.