Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

Social Distancing Fail

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I stumbled across these Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera) nymphs yesterday while wandering a local park. The adults measure about three inches long, making this one of the largest species of grasshopper in North America.

As for this horde, females lay hundreds of eggs in clusters in the soil. After hatching the nymphs huddle together as they are a desired food source for spiders, other insects, and birds (who have ravenous youngsters to feed this time of year).

Since the species is unable to fly (would be defying the laws of physics at their adult size) they have devised some creative mechanisms of self-defense: they dine on toxic vegetation which provides them a venom they can spit, they also hiss, and assume an attack position when threatened. Yeah, I’d leave them the heck alone!

As a result, the adults are very rarely predated upon. Excepting the Loggerhead Shrike, which is just a badass bird in every way – we should all be glad they aren’t any bigger than they are or we’d all be in trouble!

By the way, lubber derives from old English which means lazy or slow moving. They are fascinating creatures which have mastered some excellent techniques for survival. However, at social distancing? Epic. Fail.

 

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Snakebird

Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) earned its nickname Snakebird for swimming with its entire body submerged, with only its sinuous neck and head showing. Like cormorants, they do not have waterproof feathers which is a boon for diving and swimming (waterproofing captures little air bubbles which make a bird more buoyant). However, it means a lot of time drying out in the sun since if they get too waterlogged, they can drown. A delicate balance, to be sure.

Oddly, the Anhinga is a waterbird with a penchant for heights. It often catches afternoon thermals and soars high in the sky in a distinctive cross shape. The name Anhinga comes from the Tupi language in Brazil and translates as “devil bird” – though I don’t know how it earned that moniker.

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Heart-shaped Anhinga Wing, St. Petersburg, Florida March 2020

The Cuban Invasion

The Cuban or Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei) is, as the name implies, native to that Caribbean island. This highly invasive lizard was first reported in the Keys in 1887. It remained largely relegated to southern Florida, until 2004 when it was documented all the way up in the Panhandle. It is now one of the most commonly seen lizards throughout the state.

The secret to their success? They reproduce rapidly and, as I read, they’ll eat “nearly anything that will fit in their mouths” (insects, fish, eggs, and even other lizards). Sadly, for the slightly smaller, native Carolina Anole (Anolis carolinensis) that means they’re on the menu, too.

The relatively recent arrival of the Cubans in central and northern Florida has forced the natives to quickly adapt. Carolina Anoles have moved further up into the canopy and in just 15 years their footpads have increased in size to help them with their new, predominately arboreal lifestyle. Hopefully, this separation of territory will lead to a détente that will allow them to coexist.

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Look At That Spiral!

Different Spatula

This Blue-winged Teal pair (Spatula discors) was so busy dabbling that they decided to tolerate my presence. Like our other two teal species, these small ducks have a low profile in the water.

While the female Cinnamon, Blue-winged, and Green-winged can be challenging to differentiate, the half-moon face on the male BWTE makes him easily identifiable. Thankfully, they are often found in mated pairs, which is helpful for the casual birder.

These resourceful birds inhabit all of North America except far northwestern Canada and Alaska. They are the first ducks to migrate south in the fall and the last to return in the spring. Their binomial is Latin for spoon (or spatula) and different (though I’m unclear as to what about them is so different).

Swamp Chickens

I spent a while watching this Common Gallinule (Gallinula chloropus) family at a nearby park earlier this week. I was hoping they’d swim closer but the parents were careful to keep their brood away from the shore where potential predators might lurk.

Formerly known as the Common Moorhen, this bird can walk atop water plants, climb into trees, and, despite lacking webbed toes, it is a good swimmer. But it is a lousy flyer (hey, it can’t be good at everything).

Compared to its close relative, the American Coot, the Common Gallinule sports a jaunty splash of color; from its yellow feet (the second part of its binomial translates from Greek as yellow foot) to the bright red shield and bill on the adult birds.

Note the small spur on the outstretched wing of the chick in the second photo. It is used to help the young climb through vegetation.

Black Creeper

Though this bird was rather shy (and I failed to get a decent photo) I was fortunate to see the namesake coloration on the underside of this Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). According to the Audubon website this species is well-adjusted to city living, taking special advantage of public parks, which is where I found this one.

The generic name, melanerpes, was derived from ancient Greek and translates as black creeper. An apt description, as all 24 members of this group have black and white markings and they “creep” along tree trunks foraging for insects and other tasty morsels.

 

Alone Again

Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius)

This Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius alticola) is the larger of the two subspecies. The smaller one, Vireo solitarius solitarius, migrates down to Mexico for the winter before returning to breeding grounds in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Canada.

As you can guess from my photo, the former chooses to overwinter along the Gulf Coast, a super long commute from their home territory in Georgia. Why go the extra distance if you don’t need to?!

As the binomial suggests, these birds do not flock together. At least not with their own kind (though they can occasionally be seen hanging out with sparrows).

 

 

 

Western Palm Warbler

 

I encountered a few birds during my recent foray to an inland park. I first spotted this one hopping on the ground but missed a shot at it when a some kids ran by and flushed it. Disappointed, I turned away and was distracted by a nosy squirrel.

(By now everyone should hear the word “squirrel” in Dug’s voice from the movie Up.)

But I digress. I was given another go at this bird when it flew up into a nearby tree. I didn’t get great shots and from this one I would’ve had difficulty identifying the little bugger.

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Thankfully, the ensuing shot caught a different angle which simplified it for me, as the yellow undertail coverts are distinctive on a Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum). One of the many reasons I take so many photos when I’m out and about, I just never know which snap is going to give me what I need.

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Palm Warbler, St. Petersburg, Florida February 2020