Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

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.

Busy Boy

According to the All About Birds website the Blue Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) “makes itself known by its soft but insistent calls and its constant motion”. Now add in the fact that it prefers dense foliage and you’ll begin to understand why I am delighted to have captured a decent shot of this energetic bundle.

If you look closely you can see the hint of a dark eyebrow, meaning this little male is preparing for mating season.

In case you were wondering, this is what most of my photos of him from that day looked like:

Buh Bye!

Second Chance

This past Saturday I checked out a nearby park, recommended by a friend from work. The place was small but it was quite birdy. While trying to capture a decent shot of a busy Blue Gray Gnatcatcher (more about him tomorrow) this Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) popped into view.

Since it was a bit chilly out, he was far more interested in foraging for insects in the old wooden fence than worrying about me. Which meant that I finally caught a few decent photos of this very busy, wren-like bird. My first set of photos last February were quite awful (much like the year, now that I think about it).

True snow birds, this species migrates down to the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean for the winter. If I wanted to see this male in his dapper breeding plumage, I’d have to head up to the far northeast or Canada in a couple months. Even without his rufous cap and belly streaks he is still a handsome avian!

Birds Do It, Bees Do It, Even Termites?

I’m referring to crap, of course. While I was rearranging my laundry room this weekend I came across debris on the top shelf. This sh*t is never a good sign, since it means there are termites nearby chewing away on the wooden parts of my house.

Thankfully, the damage is relegated to a small area and I have a termite contract with a pest control company. The main reason I wanted to share this with you is because termite feces has the cutest term: frass. It’s just a darn fun word to say. Try it, I’ll wait.

As a self-professed scatologist, I spend a lot of time looking at and pondering wildlife doo-doo. Poop is fascinating because it holds clues that can help you piece together an animal’s behavior. Dung can tell you how recently an animal passed by, what animal deposited it, and what the animal last ate. Like I said, fascinating.

While there are many terms for excrement, frass is my all-time favorite. My only complaint is that the word is wasted on termites (and other wood-boring insects). Of all the creatures in the animal kingdom, shouldn’t otters be the ones who get a cute name for their manure?


While out exploring a nearby park today I was captivated by these bright blossoms. Closer inspection of them had me perplexed, they looked like hibiscus flowers but they were attached to a large tree.

A quick internet search cleared up my confusion, it was a Sea Hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus), the only member of the hibiscus family that reaches tree status. This one, was close to thirty feet high and equally wide (and I wish I had taken a photo of it).

Introduced from the Old World, this year-round bloomer has naturalized in Florida. The flowers open yellow with a red center but change to orange and then red before dropping off the limb. I wonder if I could plant one in my yard…