Spring Has Sprung: A Nature Ramble in SW Florida

 Some may argue that Florida does not have the distinct seasons that people are used to up north, but seasonal changes are quite distinct even if somewhat subtle. If you observe the behavior and appearance of animals, the arrival of spring will become very obvious. 


One group of animals that does not migrate is the spiders, but they become more active as nights warm up. One of the best times to observe the web spinners is on a cool morning in which dew coats the webs a glistening sliver. Indeed it can be a bit scary to suddenly realize how many spiders are actually out there. One of the common types which excites wonder is this "bowl and doily" spider web which has a many tiered structure. Unlike the orb weavers, these sheet web spinners protect themselves from predators and from prey by hiding just below the main web which is cup shaped. If prey is caught in the sticky silk, they rush forward, bite through the web and pull the prey through it. 

Butterflies become more active in spring with a greater selection of flowers to visit. A Gulf fritillary is seen here obtaining nectar from a Drummond's phlox planted in the Wildflower Preserve meadow habitat. A black swallowtail is pictured while engaged in the endless search for nectar on lantana blossoms in our yard. 

Reptiles become more active and this glass lizard was found basking on a trail at Wildflower Preserve. Would you recognize that this is a legless lizard and not a snake? It has eyelids and external ears, is distinctively colored, is more rigid than a snake and is of course harmless. This illustrates how snakes likely originated from early carnivorous burrowing lizards and that loss of limbs is a common consequence of the burrowing lifestyle. 

We have planted exotic black and white and native red mulberries in our yard to attract birds; this time of year the birds love to eat the luscious fruit. Here you can see a yellow bellied sapsucker and a catbird feasting on black mulberries. The end of winter can be a difficult time for birds to obtain food and flexibility in diet can be important. At Wildflower Preserve this pine warbler was eating seeds, a great illustration of how this normally insectivorous bird can vary its diet. 

One bird that is an intense predator on small creatures with no desire to become vegetarian is the screech owl. We are fortunate to have several that visit our yard- a gray morph sometimes lives in an owl box and a beautiful red morph has been roosting in two pygmy date palms that provide cover with an ouch since they are covered with spines. This tiny but ferocious predator is quite tolerant of our activity and is often observed. I had previously been contemplating cutting down these two exotic palms which seemed to serve no function for wildlife, but then suddenly here is this amazing creature using them for cover. 

I walk regularly at Wildflower Preserve to enjoy its beauty and watch for interesting animals and plants. Recently I observed this yellow crowned night heron foraging along Lemon Creek while a huge alligator floated nearby. Yellow crowns are considered to be a feeding specialist on crabs and thus have a thick beak to crack them. This generally restricts them to coastal and estuarine areas but they have successfully colonized inland freshwater wetlands where there are crayfish to eat. Males and females look identical. One of the most engaging birds at Wildflower is found near the parking lot where there is a colony of purple martins. This year these very social birds have been busy, we hope, making love and babies and here you can see one of the happy couples resting briefly from their labors. .The male on the right is an intense bluish purple while the female on the left is less brightly colored. Why do some birds have sexual dimorphism and some not? One explanation is that female choice of mates can lead to males developing bright colors and behaviors that enable females to select better partners. 

The natural world provides a remarkable variation in animal form, color and behavior that excites our imaginations and minds and there is no better time to observe this than in spring when most species are breeding. 

Bill Dunson 
Englewood, FL, and Galax, VA