Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

My Secret Garden

I arrived early for work this past Saturday (it was a new location for me and I’ve learned to allow extra time because of this insane Florida traffic). Since I had some time to kill, I wandered behind the shopping plaza toward a little drainage in the hopes of spotting some interesting birds.

As I slipped through a break in the shrubs, I found myself in a forgotten orchard. Three large mango trees towered overhead and a spindly avocado was bearing fruit but they were all overshadowed by the flowering citrus trees.

Citrus blossoms are my all time favorite scent! I wasn’t alone in my appreciation for them, there were a number of pollinators busily flitting from bloom to bloom. As I stood there savoring the scent I tried to imagine the old home that once existed on that land.

The roar of traffic from the busy road nearby interrupted my daydreaming. I gathered a couple treats to take with me, some fragrant blossoms and a couple ripe citrus fruits. It was bittersweet to say goodbye to that little corner of disappearing Florida.

Passion Butterfly

I was pleasantly surprised to discover this Gulf Fritillary caterpillar (Dione vanillae) in my front yard last week. As their other common name denotes, they use passion vines (of the genus Passiflora) as their host plants.

I converted my front lawn into a pollinator garden last Spring and have added more plants over time. My sister brought me two passion vines when she visited back in October (cuttings from her vines in Tucson).

Thankfully, the vines survived the frost in January and they are now supporting the next generation of flutterbies (my preferred word for lepidoptera). I’m a happy girl!

Sea Greatest

I came upon this Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) one sunny afternoon. It didn’t seem too concerned about my presence as the ablutions continued unabated for at least another ten minutes.

This is one of the largest tern species in my area. Easily differentiated from the similar Caspian Tern by the bright white forehead which is visible outside of breeding season.

The Latin binomial translates as sea greatest (though personally, it’d make more sense as great of the sea).

Sea Pie

I snapped these photos of an American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) last January. Sadly, they were lost in the shuffle until now (in my defense, I have over 3,000 photos from last year Рand those are just the ones I deemed worthy of keeping).

As their common name implies, they munch on oysters as well as other bivalves. The key to success is to stab into a partially open mollusk and detach the muscle. A mistake could cost the bird its life if the shell closes around the bill and holds the bird under water.

The historic name of Sea Pie comes from their coastal residencies and piebald coloring. They are decidedly more colorful than their cousin, the Black Oystercatcher (found along the Pacific coast of North America).

Wherever It’s Warm

During January, the water temperature along the Gulf Coast dropped to a cool 60 degrees. Like me, our local sea cows (officially known as West Indian Manatees (Trichechus manatus)), aren’t fond of cold water. Though they appear quite blubbery, manatees do not have a thick layer of fat, most of their chest cavity contains their massive lungs.

Therefore, these floating potatoes migrate seasonally to warmer waters, often up rivers to one of Florida’s over 700 springs. I don’t blame them, those natural upwellings average 72 degrees year round.

Fortunately for the manatees residing in the Tampa Bay area, Tampa Electric’s Big Bend power generating station releases warm water every day. Even better, this output raises the local water temperature to a balmy 78 degrees.

I finally had a chance to visit the adjacent manatee viewing center this past weekend. Considering it was a chilly and breezy day, the manatees certainly were more comfortable than I was! While I’ve encountered manatees before this was my first time with such a large number of them.

As you might imagine, it wasn’t the most action-packed morning. Manatees can rest up to 12 hours a day. The highlights of the visit were watching Sheepshead fish eat algae off the backs of manatees and giggling over the constant stream of bubbles from manatee farts. Riveting, let me tell you!

Smart Bird

Note the use of the foot to stir up potential small fish or other edibles.

After visiting with the swamp puppy at Walsingham Park a couple days ago, I spotted a Wood Stork (Mycteria americana). Since I’m fascinated by these stocky, prehistoric looking, bald-headed birds I wandered over for a closer look.

I’ve had limited success photographing them in the past so I was thrilled that this mature, adult bird was intently feeding and completely ignored me. This single-mindedness was probably due to the fact that nesting season has begun and, if this bird is lucky, it will soon be feeding several hungry hatchlings.

While reading up on the species I learned that these intelligent avians carefully select their nest trees, preferring ones in alligator occupied territory. Apparently, gators are very good at keeping egg-stealing raccoons away. As they say, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Hatchling success is important since this bird was recently on the Endangered Species List. Thankfully, they have rebounded and Florida has the largest population. In 2019, 1,000 nesting pairs were documented here in the Tampa Bay area, the densest in the state. I don’t blame them, this is a beautiful place. Like I said, smart birds!

Soon to be Momma?

I most often see American Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) resting, either in the water or sunbathing on land. They aren’t the most active of creatures, though they can be surprisingly quick when the mood strikes (ie- feeding or protecting their young).

I watched this alligator meander through Walsingham Lake before it turned and swam toward me. Don’t worry, I was using the zoom on my camera, I was a safe distance away at all times.

My first thought was that perhaps the gator was used to being fed. But really, would anyone be that stupid? I know, I know, sadly the answer is probably yes. However, after spending more time with the gator I am now thinking she has staked out a nesting site.

There was a low, shrubby palm near her pullout which would be a protected location for her eggs. After all, Spring is just around the corner. It is an educated guess, for the only way to truly determine the sex of a gator is to turn it over and insert one’s finger into the genital slit and probe for a certain structure (there are videos online, feel free to search for them). Trust me, I don’t think either of us would enjoy that experience!

I’ll check back in a couple weeks and see if I can confirm my guess.

Morning Discovery

I found this female* Lined Seahorse (Hippocampus Erectus) during my beach walk this morning. Relatively poor swimmers, this specialized species of fish is usually attached to seagrass or soft coral.

However, the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico was recently churned up by passing storms, so the sand was littered with detritus. Sadly, this girl was one of the casualties.

Thankfully, this species has a wide distribution, from Nova Scotia to Brazil, so one local disturbance shouldn’t negatively impact the population. Well-camouflaged, predation is not a major worry (also they are quite bony and therefore, not a favored food). The main threats to the species are bottom trawling, seagrass bed destruction, and usage in Chinese medicine.

My walk coincided with slack water so the serene gulf belied the previous tumult…

*Male seahorses have a brood pouch which extends past the lower dorsal fin.

Odd Bird

During the regular afternoon frenzy at my front bird feeder yesterday I noticed a rather unusual sight. There were a dozen parakeets perched on the top power line above the feeder, that part is not the least bit unusual.

One, however, was hanging upside down on the bottom line. The birds above seemed to be chattering quietly about the weirdo below them. To quote a fun little ditty from Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the others…”

Curiosity piqued, I snapped a few quick pictures with my phone before the flock flew away. Good thing I did because they were an entirely new species of bird for me! Meet the Blue-crowned Parakeet (Thectocercus acuticaudatus), another naturalized avian here in Florida.

While these small green parrots are known to be good “talkers” they are nowhere near as loud as the Nanday Parakeets that typically frequent my yard. I do hope these handsome birds return, I’d love to get some better photos of them!

Ssssupervisor…

I was a bit startled yesterday afternoon while puttering out in my front yard. Not sure what gave it away but something made me look up towards the top of my hedges.

I have seen this Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) a couple times in my yard before (but on the ground). In a manner befitting its name, each time it zipped into the thick tangle of this hedge. Though I know most snakes can climb trees I was a bit taken aback to see this one at eye level.

Basking in the warm sunshine, the snake allowed me a couple photos before it disappeared into the foliage. I’m delighted that this nonvenomous snake resides in my yard, as the species excels at gobbling insects and small creatures (like lizards and mice).