A March Nature Ramble in the Back Yard

  I recently re-injured an old knee problem and so have primarily been restricted to observing nature in our Florida yard.  This is not so as serious a hindrance for an avid naturalist as you might think since our tiny yard is well vegetated and sits on the southern end of Manasota Key right on Lemon Bay.  So there are a large variety of critters to be observed and this selection of photos of some of them illustrates that nicely.  Certainly if you think about observing behavior of common creatures, there is lots to be learned in your home territory.



One of the common spiders to be found in shrubs is the spiny orb weaver or Gasteracantha.  This female is very colorful and hangs downward in her web made of concentric rings of silk, some of which are tufted. These tufts or stabilimenta may be a means of warning birds not to fly into the web and destroy it.  The bright colors and spines may warn birds not to eat the spider.  Some other orb weavers which are less brightly colored only spin their webs at night perhaps to avoid predators.  

Another common arthropod in our yard is the mangrove tree crab.  It scampers around on branches and trunks and feeds primarily on red mangrove leaves.  It is the designated prey for the yellow crowned night heron and small boys with nets who enjoy chasing it on docks.

Even in the cooler weather we have had this March, butterflies have been flying and visiting flowers during sunny periods.  The gulf fritillary mimics the toxic monarch and is itself toxic from the passion vine food of its caterpillars.  Here a fritillary is drinking nectar from a penta, one of the best exotics to grow in winter to attract butterflies.  Great southern butterflies have also been common and they are often seen basking to warm up by holding the wings at an angle to deflect heat to their dark body.  Their distinctive light blue antennal tips help to distinguish them from the exotic cabbage white butterfly.

Reptiles have also been catching a few rays on cool sunny days.  This black racer found a sunny spot protected from the wind and was raising its body temperature prior to possibly finding a lizard to chase.

Birds in our yard often feed on flowers and fruits that we provide for them.   In early spring the black and red mulberries are ripening and here a cardinal is shown enjoying the fruit of a black mulberry.  They will also eat flowers of cape honeysuckles.  So a bird we think of as primarily a seed eater actually has a more generalist diet.

Late at night we often hear the rattle call but not the screech of a screech owl.  This apparently is the male advertising for a female.  This owl likes the nest box we have placed on a tree and was sticking its head out early to see what was happening in the daytime world.

My favorite dove is the ground dove, a miniature species that visits the water baths and searches for seeds on the ground.  It is far more southern and rarer than the wide spread mourning dove.

Birds associated with the bay and ocean are of course common in and around our yard.  Sometimes they can become a little too familiar as is the case with this great blue heron perching and pooping on our boat.  But I never become tired of watching the wonderful common loons in their winter plumage or of the antics of the ospreys which breed overhead in a tall Norfolk Island pine.  This male osprey has captured an unusual fish for this area, a large croaker.  

We often have a tendency to think that better things are always to be found over the horizon than at home.  So once again we learn that our own back yards can be a rich source of observations of natural history. 


Bill Dunson 
Englewood, FL, and Galax, VA