Flying Solo

I recently met this adult, non-breeding Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) on the beach near my house. The big bill is a standout feature on this, the largest member of the plover family.

The other key identifier is that they do not flock together. Unlike other plovers, this species was practicing social distancing before it was cool.

Talk about racking up frequent flier miles, these plovers winter along all the US coastlines but their summer breeding range is way up north of the Arctic Circle.

Dotted Beebalm

Fridays are usually a half day of work for me. I was especially happy to get out early yesterday since it was warm and sunny (after a week of gray, chilly weather).

I finally made it over to Weedon Island Preserve. The state bought the island in 1974, to protect the remnants of what was once a thriving Manasota village. Now managed by Pinellas County, wildlife abounds in the preserve which I was excited to explore.

As so often happens, I came across something new for me to learn about. Dotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata), also known as Horsemint, is a fragrant and showy member of the mint family.

The lavender-pink bracts are the visual highlight but the small, yellow tubular flowers are the main draw for pollinators. Thriving in salty, sandy soil this native plant attracts wasp species that prey on harmful caterpillars and insects.

All that and it smells good, too (reminiscent of thyme). I can’t wait to plant some, it will be a great addition to my yard!

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!

Kayak to Shell Key

Thanks to a birthday gift from my thoughtful cousin, Shane, I finally made it out to Shell Key. Since we were heading west you would think having the wind out of the east would make paddling to the island a breeze.

Except for the minor detail that it was low tide and the wind was pushing the remaining water away. Our shallow crossing became more of a wet slog as kayaks ran aground and some folks had to get out and pull their way across the bay.

The water was chilly but not unbearable and our guide Chris had everyone laughing about the situation. At least we knew nobody was gonna drown!

After reaching the small sand bar we had about an hour to wander and explore. The beach lived up to its name as the sand was covered with shells and sand dollars. Since I already have quite a collection I happily shared my finds with a nice lady vacationing from Indiana.

On our return trip we were accompanied by a small pod of dolphins. Couldn’t have asked for a better morning!

Six Degrees (Or Fewer)

At work we receive random donations of food, hygiene products, and other items from the public everyday. We weigh the incoming items and then sort them into the proper areas for distribution to our clients.

During sorting duty this week I came across this vanity pack with a logo that I recognized instantly. The Arizona Inn is a small, cozy, long-time Tucson institution that I had the pleasure of working at not once, but twice. Odd that something from over 2,000 miles away ended up in here in St. Petersburg!

I showed it to my coworker, Andrew, and explained why I was taking a photo of it. He looked surprised for a second and then said that he lived in Tucson in the early 2000s. That started a fun conversation about some of the great places we both used to visit.

Just this evening as we were all leaving work, I mentioned this little place that served the best milkshakes, right outside Glacier National Park. My coworker Ben exclaimed, “Wait, don’t tell me. Park Cafe, right?” Turns out his brother worked at the cafe the same summer that I worked at the park.

What a small, interconnected world this is. Move over Kevin Bacon, I’m working on fewer than six degrees!

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!