Apparently, Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a wildlife favorite: deer browse on it, birds love the fruit, while bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds savor the nectar. Swallowtail butterflies were all over the flowers of this marsh shrub the other day, though sadly, they refused to pose for me.
Archive for ‘Nature Notes’
Cartilaginous Fish Parts
Since shark skeletons are comprised of cartilage not bone, their parts aren’t that commonly found on the beach. The one exception to that rule is shark teeth, but those are made of dentin, a calcified material which is harder than bone. (Side note: The average shark goes through over 25,000 teeth in a lifetime.)
As you can see in the first photo, the cartilage is added in layers, which creates a tree-ring-like signature that can aid in assessing the shark’s age. Some researchers are even extrapolating environmental information from the isotopes captured in each ring. Nature is so cool!
Tucked among the flowers, I almost overlooked this Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor). Unlike when foraging, this bird stood stock-still during my photo session. Though I couldn’t see it, I believe this one was watching over a nearby nest. Since the clouds and late evening angle of the sun were conspiring against me, I’ll have to go back earlier in the day to try to capture the iridescent sheen of the feathers.
Since it is a barrier island, lots of interesting items wash ashore on Mustang Island. I don’t typically find many shells there but I still enjoy poking in the wrack line looking for treasures. I tend to get a bit excited when I uncover a sea bean.
I haven’t been able to identify all of the ones in the above photo but a few have amazing stories. At the top of the picture, the two ball-shaped seeds are Sea Coconuts (Manicaria saccifera) which, unsurprisingly, come from palm trees in Central America.
The two maroon, heart-shaped seeds to the left of the Sea Coconuts are known as Sea Hearts (Entada gigas). They are the seeds of the monkey ladder vine which grows in Brazil. While the whitish, brain-shaped seed to the right is known as Blister Pod (Sacoglottis amazonica) which grows along the Amazon River.
Think about that for a moment, these seeds float down the Amazon River, out into the Atlantic Ocean, before curling into the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually ending up on the beach for me to find. A journey of at least 3,600 miles. I wonder how long it takes them to make the trip?
There are a number of private fishing piers jutting out into Little Bay here in Rockport. Most of them were severely damaged by Hurricane Harvey in September 2017. Pelican Pier is one of the few to be fully rebuilt.
While the pier may have earned it’s moniker as a preferred resting spot for pelicans in the past, it certainly wasn’t true this year. Both the American White and Brown Pelicans opted to share a nearby derelict pier. More restful, I presume. While the American Whites migrated north around Easter, some of the remaining Browns still haul out there.
This is the most complete Portuguese man o’ war (Physalia physalis) I have yet encountered on the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast. While the tentacles remaining on this specimen stretched about five feet across the sand, that is minuscule compared to their average 30-foot span. Since the damn things can still sting after death, I gave this one a wide berth. Aren’t the colors of the pneumatophore, the gas-filled bladder that helps it float, phenomenal?
After the hatchling release last weekend, Lindy and I strolled down the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS). We enjoyed the cloud cover and cooler weather but we weren’t purposeless, instead we gathered trash along the beach. By the end of our three mile jaunt, we filled two twenty gallon bags and hauled off armloads of larger debris. It should come as no surprise that the majority of the items we picked up were plastic.
A survey published in 2018 found that Texas beaches have ten times the plastic trash of other gulf coast states (primarily due to the flow of currents in the Gulf of Mexico). It went on to state that Texas leads the nation in marine debris (and that’s saying something considering the waves of trash that washed ashore in the Pacific Northwest after the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami). Note: the study began with NOAA’s hands-on assessments in 2010 and ran through 2015, but it also utilized over 30 years of data accumulated by the Ocean Conservancy.
We felt good about our effort that morning, even though we knew the next high tide would deposit yet another load of trash. When I get disheartened I remind myself that every little bit helps…
A couple weeks ago I found my first few Violet Sea Snails (Janthina janthina) on the shores of Mustang Island. Just this past week I came across some that still had their bubble rafts attached. They spend their entire lives bobbing upside down on the ocean’s surface, suspended by their floats.
FYI – they can really stink up your car if you forget to remove your bag of them overnight during a humid summer in south Texas. Just sayin’…
At a distance, they may look similar. Up close the two couldn’t be more opposite. The top item is a bit of yellow plastic twine that is often found on the beaches of Mustang Island. It is immediately scooped up and placed in my trash bag.
While it looks like electrical wiring, the tangled mess at the bottom of the photo is a bundle of Colorful Sea Whip (Leptogorgia virgulata). Though there are several different hues of soft coral (including purple, red, and white), yellow is the one I most commonly see washed ashore. I leave the sea whip in place so it can cycle nutrients back to the sand.
I was fortunate to attend the first hatchling release of the summer on Friday morning. My friend, Lindy, and I drove down before dawn to Padre Island National Seashore. Shortly after sunrise, the team released 58 adorable Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles (Lepidochelys kempii). They came from a nest that was laid on April 27th. In an effort to help this critically endangered species recover, all the eggs are removed from nests as soon as they are found and relocated to a protected hatchery.
It took about an hour for all of the babies to make it into the water. There is a reason the hatchlings aren’t just tossed into the sea. It is important that the turtles crawl their way across the sand towards the sun as part of their imprinting. Breeding females will later return to their home beach to lay their eggs. The small creatures slipped into the waves while weighing less than an ounce. The ranger affectionately referred to the tiny turtles as Oreos with flippers. It is estimated that only 1 in 1,000 will reach maturity. Best of luck little ones!