Last Saturday, we were out on turtle patrol at the Cape Romano Complex. While our turtle intern, Tyler, and volunteer, Bob H., were walking the beach in search of sea turtle crawls, I was driving the boat parallel to them. I saw something out of the corner of my eye and turned the boat around and saw something small and brown in the water. From a distance, it did not look like the usual creature that you would expect to see out on the water. Once I got closer, I realized it was some sort of tiny song bird.
Well, nature just pulled a Haydn on us this weekend. Franz Joseph wrote the “Farewell” symphony (45th) where the musicians individually leave the stage. This past weekend, most of our “musicians” left our local stage.
Last week was a feeding and calling frenzy for migrating birds around our headquarters and parking lots. Little warblers were falling from the trees pouncing on any tiny insect they saw, some were feasting on fig fruit, others were scavenging underbrush – all in the quest to top off their “gas tanks” before they continued their journey up north. The waxwings have been ransacking our strangler figs for weeks. Their high-pitched vocalizations were a welcome sound each morning as I arrived to work. It is a sound that always brings a smile to my face. Their frenetic flights en masse from one fig tree to another were a sight to see.
Over the past few weeks I found a couple of unusual animals in my education trawls. Both of my new friends were caught in the same net pull. One was something that, while rare, I’ve encountered a handful of times. The second critter is something that I’ve seen before, but never caught alive in any of the hundreds of trawls I’ve done.
The first animal is a common or brown spiny sea star. What makes this one uncommon, however, is the fact that it has six arms rather than five! Also, close examination of the photograph revealed that the sea star appears to have multiple madreporites, which is the organ that they use to control the amount of water in their bodies. They usually only have one. It seems the extra leg may have emerged after the body got damaged, but this is just a guess. One other thing that is exciting about this sea star is that it is the first one that I’ve encountered in the backwaters following hurricane Irma!
Nesting season is in full swing for the burrowing owls here in southwest Florida. I recently joined Alli Smith, a graduate student from the University of Florida, to assist with owl monitoring efforts taking place on Marco Island. Alli is the research manager for Audubon of the Western Everglades, and heads up the volunteer-run program OWL WATCH. Alli worked at Rookery Bay Research Reserve last year as an avian intern with Audubon.
Things outside are starting to change! Have you started to notice? It’s a slight change every day, but our days are getting longer and our nights are getting shorter. This does not just affect us humans either. The equinoxes are one of the many signals flora and fauna around the world use to time their annual cycles.
I have been monitoring shorebirds using the many different habitats within Rookery Bay Reserve this winter. For the most part, I have been counting similar breakdowns of diversity (number of different species) and abundance (number of individuals) over the whole season. These last few weeks though, I have begun to see some shifts in my survey data as well as in the birds themselves!
This is exciting! Our avian team (Kim and Anne) found a red knot with leg bands on Kice Island. With a high-powered spotting scope they were able to make out the code PJM. They learned that it was banded in Seabrook Island, SC on 4/29/2017. This was the first time anyone has seen it since it was banded. It’s always exciting to learn which individuals have made it through the winter!
Learn more about our shore birds and monotoring programs here
Check out this amazing natural phenomenon on Marco Island’s “Residents Beach!” Millions of young sand dollars can be seen in the surf. These sand dollars are actually keyhole urchins (named for their keyhole-shaped openings), and are related to sea urchins and sea stars. When alive, sand dollars are covered with a brown fuzzy covering but after the animal dies, the fuzz falls off and the skeleton turns white, bleached by the sun.
Spring has sprung here in southwest Florida although recently it has begun to feel more like summer. Wildlife is noticing the changes too, but slightly longer daylight hours are likely providing more cues than the unseasonably warm temperatures. Eastern screech owls seem to be paying close attention to changing seasons and are flying into nesting season in high gear. “Screechers” nest in cavities of hollowed out trees but they also will readily move into a human provided nest box if better options aren’t available.