This beautiful male Boat-tailed Grackle is on lookout at the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive. He is a permanent resident of Florida. The bright sun makes the beautiful iridescence of his feathers glow for all to enjoy. Females have a brownish coloration and a smaller tail. Boat-tailed Grackles breed abundantly in salt and freshwater marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. These birds forage on the ground, in shallow water, or in shrubs. They eat arthropods, crustaceans, mollusks, frogs, turtles, lizards, grain, seeds, fruit, and tubers. At times they have been known to steal food from other birds, animals and humans. They overturn shells and stones with their beaks, dunk their heads in water to catch their prey and pry open mussel shells. Just like us, they will dunk food like rice, dogfood or bread before eating it.
What could be nicer than a native pollinator and a native flower. This southern carpenter bee, Xylocopa micans, is stopping by a flowering pennyroyal, Piloblephis rigida. The carpenter bee is a solitary bee that lives for one year. They nest in the wood of dead trees. Like other pollinators, carpenter bees are important to the survival of many species of plants. Pennyroyal is a member of the mint family and can be found in sunny areas of sandy soil along forest edges. It can be brewed into a tea as well.
Get ready for spring. The woods are beginning their transformation now and in a few weeks should be all dressed up in the spring attire!
Did you know that the Pileated Woodpecker, aka Dryocopus pileatus, is one of the largest woodpeckers in North America? With a black body, a red crest, white stripes on its neck, and black and white stripes on its face it is hard to miss. Pileated Woodpeckers love to eat insects, fruits, and nuts. A large part of their diet is made up of carpenter ants and beetle larvae. This is why they are always knocking on trees and wood sensing a ‘hollow area’ where the insects may be. Once they have located their dinner, they use their bill to drill into the wood and use their long sticky tongues to drag out the insects. Sometimes they will expand the holes that they create looking for food and make a roost inside the tree to lay their eggs. Tended by both mom and dad, the little hatchlings will be ready to fledge within 1 month. Males and females are similar, but males have a red forehead, and females have a gray to a yellowish brown forehead. If you hear knocking outside, be sure to look up and see if you can spot a stunning Pileated Woodpecker.
The most common mosquito in Florida is the Aedes aegypti. The females are carriers of West Nile Virus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Dengue fever, Chikungunya, and Zika virus. Female mosquitos need blood to produce eggs, therefore they love to live where people and pets are abundant.
What can you do to stop mosquito breeding in your yard?
Mosquitos only need 1-2 centimeters of stagnant water to breed.
1. Change water in birdbaths 2x/week.
2. Be sure flower pots and the dish underneath does not contain standing water.
3. Be sure gutters are debris free so water will not collect in a leaf “dam.”
4. Bromeliads are a perfect habitat for mosquitos to develop. Flush bromeliads with a garden hose 2x/week.
5. Check yard toys and yard ornaments for standing water.
6. Check for leaks from outdoor faucets and around your air conditioner.
7. Is there standing water in your boat or any other vehicle stored outdoors?
8. Look for standing water near your swimming pool, pool equipment and pool toys.
9. Check for standing water in holes in trees and bamboo.
10. Walk around and look for water in things like trash cans, trash can lids and any container or object where water can accumulate.
—— Install a Bat House ——–
Bats can eat up to 600 mosquitos in an hour!!
Alligators get a bad reputation but as long as we respect them from a distance we have no reason to fear them. Alligators have ears directly behind their eyes. Do you see that part that looks like this alligator’s eyes are smiling? That’s its ear. The structure of the ear is designed to pinpoint sound rather than hear a vast amount of sound.
Female alligators can lay between 35-50 eggs. If these eggs are hatched in the wild, and not a hatchery, there is a chance that only a few eggs will survive. Predators such as birds, snakes, racoons, otters, bobcats, bass, and other alligators can eat their eggs. According to FWC an average of 25 eggs will hatch but only about 10 alligators will survive their first year. These eggs and small gators become food so that another species can survive. In turn, large alligators may eat these same animals to ensure their survival. It’s all about balancing out populations.
If you see an alligator, don’t touch it. Take a few pictures and observe from a distance. In most cases if you get too close an alligator maybe become afraid and swim away. Alligators wait patiently for animals to come near and then use all their energy at once to take down their prey. This is one way they conserve energy.
This is an Eastern Spadefoot Toad, Scaphiopus holbrookii. This little guy has recently cast off his tail and emerged as a little toad. Now, it will spend most of its life burrowed underground, primarily emerging only after explosive, heavy rains.
When Hurricane Irma passed through Florida, many saw only destruction. For many species, the hurricane was the perfect setting for reproduction. These toads emerge by the thousands and breed in the temporary pools of water that form in the forests after such weather events. These pools have no fish in them to prey on eggs and tadpoles. The rainfall associated with hurricanes can result in millions of tiny spadefoot toads coating the forest floor before they find their way into the forest and burrow down into the sandy soil.
What have you seen this week as you saunter through Florida?
Hanging Thieves robber fly, Diogmites salutans. This large fly hangs from leaves and branches waiting for its favorite food, bees, dragonflies, and biting flies like horse flies to pass by. It then takes chase and captures its prey in flight. It takes its prey to a branch or leaf where it pierces it victim with its mouth parts and drinks its fluids.
In this photo, you can see the behavior that earned this fly its common name of Hanging Thieves.
The genus Diogmites consists of 26 species in the United States, with 12 of those species living east of the Mississippi river. This species is best found in damp, sandy areas that are more open with tall grasses. This photo was taken in just such a spot on the edge of a pine forest.
This little guy is a Shield-backed Bug, Orsilochides guttata. The shield-backed bugs are related to the stink bugs and are true bugs, unlike the beetles they closely resemble. Like other true bugs, shield-backed bugs go through several stages of development (instars) of nymphs until they reach adulthood.
They feed on plants, including many commercial crops.
There are hundreds of species of shield-backed bugs ranging in color from rather drab to bright metallic greens and reds. Like stink bugs, when disturbed, shield-backed bugs will emit an odor to deter predators.
This little bug is perched on a goldenrod flower in late September in the Lower Wekiva Preserve State Park in Seminole County, Florida
The Eastern Fence Lizard, Sceloporus undulatus, occupies a large range in the eastern part of the United States, including much of Florida. They are masters of camouflage. If you are paying attention while sauntering around the woods, you will see these lizards basking on the trunks of trees, most notably pine and oak. This one is sitting on the side of a turkey oak. They will remain motionless in hopes of going unseen. Only when they are approached to closely will they flee.
The mature males have an amazing, bright blue belly unlike the females white belly. Females lay 3-16 eggs in late spring and babies hatch in late summer.
They grow to about 7 inches and feed on small insects. They occupy a variety of habitats over their range but in Florida, they are most often seen in pine forests and scrub habitat.
Here, this mature male shows off his beautiful, metallic blue belly as he suns himself on a cool fall morning.
This guy, relying on his camouflage, allowed me to get quite close to him without so much as him flinching. He lives in a pine, upland forest with a wiregrass understory that sees an occasional fire. In fact, he is perched on the charred remains of a pine tree. The presence of fire is critical for the health of this type of ecosystem as well as the species that depend upon it, such as this fence lizard.
Keep your eyes open for these amazing residents!
The Black Racer is the most common snake found in Florida. It adapts easily to any habitat and therefore, is commonly found in low shrubs in urban areas.
Black Racers are not poisonous although they will bite when cornered. These snakes would prefer to race away through the grass, into a shrub, up a tree or into a hole. They are great swimmers too.
Their diet consists of whatever is available: Insects, frogs, toads, salamanders, lizards, snakes, birds and bird eggs, moles, mice, rats. Black Racers are not constrictors as their scientific name suggests. The Racer simply captures its prey and holds it tightly against the ground until the prey succumbs.
Young Black Racers have obvious blotches that gradually fade to solid gray-black by adulthood. Body of juveniles (< 2 ft.) is gray with irregular reddish-brown blotches that fade with age. Body of adults is solid black; chin and throat are white. South of Lake Okeechobee, body of adults may be bluish, greenish, or gray. In the Apalachicola River Basin, the chin and throat of adults may be tan. -UF Wildlife – Johnson Lab
The American White Ibis is a very common bird. You may have seen a group of them passing through your yard using their beak to probe for insects. The males tend to be larger with longer beaks. They breed along the Gulf Coast and when not breeding they drift further inland and to the Caribbean. These birds are monogamous and both parents help to take care of the young. Aside from garbage the larges threat to these birds is methylmercury that leaks into the environment. This alters the hormones in the birds and interferes with their reproduction and breeding. Methylmercury concentrations are increased when waste and fossil fuels are burned. Resevoir flooding can also cause in increase. This chemical is a neurotoxic and also inhibits part of the endocrine system. It prevents males from producing sex hormones that would lead to courtship behaviors. Courtship behaviors are very important in most birds. Without these behaviors the females will not find an interest in the males and reproduction will not occur. It can also lead to females abandoning their nests and reduced foraging.
Other threats include harvesting of their food source such as crayfish, hunting, degradation of habitat, and other chemical uses. If you see these birds passing through, know that they will help your yard by removing pest insects. If you see smaller brown ibis, those are juveniles. Have you seen Ibis around your house?
These fascinating little birds were observed playing a game of hide and seek in an area around Defuniak Springs, Florida. They are sexually dimorphic, which means males and females have different appearances. The female is a plain brown and grey color while the male is a vibrant black, white, and red. They feed on a variety of insects and tree nuts and will often hide their snacks for later. I’m sure some humans can relate. They are monogamous and will stay together for years. Both will take part in creating the nest. Although most of the handwork is done by the male. They build nests in dead trees and prefer open areas including recently burned sites. Sadly, these birds have experienced over a 70% decline in population since the 1960’s. With tree removal becoming a more common practice in both urban areas and forest management these birds are left with few places to raise their young. If you have a dead tree in your yard that isn’t causing a safety problem you may consider leaving it be and perhaps you will get some lovely new neighbors who will entertain you for hours.
Hurricane Irma surely displaced many animals including this baby Florida Softshell turtle (Apalone ferox). These turtles use their long worm-like nose to lure prey close enough to catch them. They have flat shells that are easily concealed in mud. This little guy was found uninjured near a warehouse but was relocated to a safe area nearby. Did you encounter any displaced wildlife after the Hurricane?
Florida has many migratory birds. This Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) is one of them. The Palm Warbler is a fast little bird and getting a picture can be quite a challenge. Luckily, this beauty allowed us to snap a shot before darting off into the Everglades National Park last winter.
Palm Warblers breed throughout much of the boreal forests of Canada during the summer and migrate to the Southeastern U.S., Caribbean, and central America for the winter. These songbirds are quite talented and their songs can be heard throughout the day.
This bird can be seen constantly wagging it’s tail.They are mostly ground feeders and will feed off berries, seeds, and insects including aphids, mosquitoes, beetles, grasshoppers, and spiders. Planting native plants in your yard helps provide these birds with lots of healthy food during their migration.
These little beetles undergo metamorphosis. They start as a segmented cluster of eggs that look like a tangled mess. They then enter the larval stage, progress to a pupal stage, and then become adults. During the pupal stage they create an umbrella out of dead cells and feces. It’s held on by what is called anal forks. These beetles also create an oil that helps them suction to leaves with a force up to 60 times it’s own weight. This prevents most predators except the wheel bug from eating them.
Florida Box Turtle, Terrapene Carolina Bauri. This cute little girl is a great example of what Florida box turtle looks like. Florida box turtles are a terrestrial species which typically inhabit damp forests and marshes. They can be found from the Keys north to the very southern portion of Georga. Their shell is dark brown to black with yellow radiating stripes.
The males have a concave plastron and both male and female have a hinged shell, which allows them to fully close up in their shell.
They are omnivores, feeding on fruits, mushrooms, and various bugs and other small creatures. They are a protected species in Florida. The selling of them is prohibited in the state and you may not be in possession of more than two box turtles. Habitat loss and road mortality are two major causes of their decline in population.
Did you know dragonflies inhabited earth before dinosaurs? These amazing arthropods can be found near lakes, ponds, rivers, swamps and marshes. After hatching from eggs, dragonflies spend much of their life as nymphs. In this stage, they breathe through gills located in their anus and feast on tadpoles, worms and small fish. After shedding their skin, the adults crawl onto land. Dragonflies must warm up before setting off to do important work in our ecosystem. You will find them soaking up the sun early in the morning before spending the rest of their day on a search for food. Dragonflies control populations of many insects including those pesky mosquitoes. Known as nature’s helicopter, the wings of a dragonfly work both together and independently. This is why we see incredible aerial feats such as hovering, turns and backward flying. The next time you see a dragonfly, spend a few minutes watching one of nature’s wonderful gifts.
The Florida horse conch (Triplofusus giganteus) shell is the state shell. It’s easily identified by the bright orange body. Many people think it’s a type of shellfish but it’s actually a type of marine snail. These snails consume algae and detritus (poop and parts of dead organic matter.) The horse conchs are predatory and will eat bivalves and sometimes other horse conchs. This photograph shows how the horse conchs make little horse conchs.
Commercial harvesting requires a permit and there are limits. In some areas, it’s illegal to collect them. Lee county does not allow their harvest and Manatee county does not allow more than two per day. Keep in mind that while it may be tempting to collect large numbers of shells, other organisms rely on their shells for a safe living space after the conch dies. Sometimes it’s best to admire it for a brief time and leave it for someone else to appreciate.
The Giant Manta Ray (Manta birostris) is the largest of several species of manta ray throughout the world. They can occasionally be seen here in Florida. The most common place to see these elegant swimmers are around coral reefs where smaller fish clean parasites collected on the rays from open waters.
Recently, an endangered species petition was proposed for three species of manta ray including the Giant Manta Ray. Threats from illegal fishing in several countries have caused their populations to decline rapidly. They also have low reproductive rates at one pup every two years. They give live birth but once the pup is born there is no parental care which reduces survival rates.
Their diet consists of plankton and very small fish. As they swim, food and oxygen from the water are filtered continuously. There is no umbilical chord so the pups have to rely on another way of getting oxygen before they enter open waters where they can swim. They do this the same way some sharks do when they rest. It’s called buccal pumping. A small part inside their mouth pushes fluid into the mouth and past the gills. Think of it like a person gulping. Once they are born they use a process called ram ventilation. This just means as they swim the water passes through their gills.
Manta ray mating is really weird. It usually occurs at the reef cleaning stations. Females will release a sex hormone when they want to mate and several males will line up to mate with her. This is referred to as “train mating” and increases the odds of fertilization.
Many places have already implemented protection for Manta Rays. Here in Florida it is illegal to kill them under FL Administrative Code 68B-44.008. This protection has not only benefited the rays themselves but also the economy of many regions. The top 10 hot spots for giant manta rays bring in an average of $73 million in direct funds and $173 million in indirect funds. However, many areas have had such a high interest in manta rays that regulations had to be put in place so not to disturb them.
If you are lucky enough to see one of these graceful giants here in Florida please, respect their space, don’t try to pet them, and keep your distance. If you witness anyone poaching a manta ray you can report it to your local law enforcement or through the FWC Wildlife Alert Reward hotline; 888-404-FWCC (3922).
This Ruddy Turnstone was spotted eating a shrimp at our winter Gandy Beach Clean-up in St. Petersburg, FL. These rock dwelling birds spend the winter months in warmer climates, such as Florida, and migrate back to the Arctic Circle in Alaska in central Canada to breed during summer months. These birds are protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBCA). Despite protection, these birds face numerous threats from deteriorating habitat along coasts to contaminated waters which directly threaten their health but also the health of their food source. Climate change is another risk factor. These birds rely on predictable climate patterns for food and breeding. Like many migratory animals if the climate is offset it could throw off their migration patterns. This means they may have a shorter time to raise their babies or their food sources may not be available when they previously had in the past. One study even estimated that migratory bird populations are likely to decline 66-83% in the next 70 years. (Wouchope et al 2016) These migratory animals are another reason Global warming should be a concern for Floridians.
The Florida Marsh Rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris paludicola, is a cousin of the cottontail rabbit. However, unlike the cottontail, the marsh rabbit has a brown tail and is an excellent swimmer. They are found in brackish and fresh water marshes, in flooded agricultural areas, and in swamps. They are never found far from water. Females can produce 6 litters a year of up to 4 babies. They are most active at night or in the early morning hours. Birds of prey, alligators and fox all are common predators of the marsh rabbit.