Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

Catch of the Day

This evening on my beach walk, I borrowed a gull’s dinner so I could take a few photographs.* I was enthralled by the fish’s striking appearance.

The first part of the common name, Honeycomb Cowfish (Acanthostracion polygonius), derives from the unique hexagonal plates of the fish’s carapace (yes, this slow moving species sports armor). Each plate has a dark ring, creating a honeycomb pattern. While cowfish, comes from the spines (that look like horns) over the prominent eyes and sloped forehead.

Measuring about 8 inches long this was an average size specimen. While the bright coloration suggests it was a juvenile. This species is somewhat uncommon in the Gulf of Mexico though there is a known population that hangs out along the coast of Florida.

*After a quick rinse and snapping a few shots I returned the fish to the impatient gull. Bon appétit!

Beach Hair, Don’t Care

This Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) wasn’t the least bit perturbed by the breeze. I placed these two photos next to each other so you could note the wind-revealed ear hole and the clear nictating membrane (halfway across the eye) in the second photo. The “third eyelid” was helping protect the eyeball during the gusts.

Usually so reserved and well-groomed, it was humorous to see this one a bit ruffled. But no, I wasn’t making fun, I promise!

Are You Mocking Me?!

Dinnertime!

Tuesday afternoon, I chased the last light of day around J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. It was a wonderful “golden hour” as there were plenty of animals out and about. Most (like the invasive Green Iguana, the native Marsh Rabbit, and the colorful Roseate Spoonbill) were seeking out their last bites before heading to bed. While the Yellow-crowned Night Heron was out early, presumably hungry after a day of fasting.

The most charismatic diner of the evening was this massive alligator. A fellow photographer and I estimated it was close to ten feet long. Thankfully, it was so engrossed in its crab dinner that it ignored our presence (though I did not turn my back on it, I know how wicked fast they can be).

Chomp, chomp! That’s one happy gator!

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