Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don't claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent. ~ Rumi

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Small Wonder

A small but intriguing spider called the Spiny orb-weaver or Gasteracantha cancriformis has woven her orb web between my bougainvillea and firebush in the pathway of what seems to me to be an insect highway complete with steady breeze. The dorsum of this spider’s abdomen is white with black spots that resemble a smiling face and large red spines on the margin. She is about 5mm long and 10mm wide. The males are smaller and tend to hang below off of the females web but I see no sign of the male. Perhaps they have already mated and he has died as is typical for this species.

How did she figure out that this would be the best place to weave her web? She seems to catch mostly small insects like gnats and mosquitoes of which I am very grateful. I have been watching her for three days now, waiting for bigger events to photograph but the larger insects have been able to avoid her snare so far. I think it is worthy to note, that a bumblebee hovered in front of her for a few seconds before buzzing off and even the monarchs seemingly preoccupied with their mating either went under or over her web. The same was true for the peacock, sulphur and red admiral butterflies.  I did notice thicker places in the web with white tufts of silk close to the center but the rest of the web is practically invisible. It’s a narrow chute three feet across that she has chose to set up camp, with her orb web no more than one foot in diameter and right at my eye level. In the past I have seen them as a nuisance but now I am intrigued at their ability to meet their needs. Her spiny protrusions on her abdomen have always fascinated my young nephews and they don’t think twice about picking them up by their spines to get a closer look. Could this be her protection from predators?  They don’t seem to have a bad bite and they help keep our pesky insects at bay. On the fourth day she is mysteriously gone. The web which is usually rebuilt at night was in pieces. Did she move on? Was she eaten by the mockingbird that patrols this area?  Did she create an egg sac when I wasn’t looking and go off to die? I need to pay closer attention.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Morning Stroll

I took a stroll last week past an oak hammock, down towards the edge where the willows meet the pond cypress swamp near my home in SW Florida. While the lone wood stork flew overhead and turkey vultures rode the thermals, I walked through the still bare leafed cypresses laden with their catkins full of pollen and their smaller female cones ready to receive. The pollen fluff from the willows greeted me first while warblers flitted and called, eating as they jumped, flew or crawled from branch to branch. I stood among stands of tall coastal plain willows mixed with red maples, dahoon holly and wax myrtle, the result of a wet prairie evolving into woodland after years of no fire.

There were more than enough clouds of gnats, swarms of flies and assorted larvae to feed this hungry flock of mixed song birds. Finding my spot and being careful to avoid the fire ant piles, I sat and watched the Black-and-white Warbler work the willows. This bird appears to be very successful at finding food between the furrows of the bark, along stems, and under leaves with ceaseless movement. Just as quickly as he appears into my view in front of the willow trunk, he disappears behind. And for just a moment I have an opportunity to look at him straight on. I waited patiently for him to reappear but this time it was near the base of the small shrub. Now, this bird was hammering into the bark. For a fleeting second I wondered if he had learned this skill from the woodpeckers he hung out with and then of course I realized this was the woodpecker he was hanging out with, a Downy Woodpecker to be precise. Often when I am birding I only have a chance to glance at the head , back or wing, so I have learned to catch on to some identifiable characteristics. Both are bark foragers but in this instance the giveaway was the behavior. The warbler is more like a vacuum cleaner, hopping and creeping with his tail held up; the downy is more like a pneumatic drill sitting back on his tail. But they look so similar with their small size and their black and white coloring! Both of their heads are striped but there is a white stripe on the Downy’s back and the belly is white not striped. The absence of a red patch on the head identifies it as a female. The warbler’s strong contrasting black and white stripes with the white eye stripe and white wing bars identify it as a male. And as I looked closely at their beaks, the Warbler’s was thinner when compared to the chiseled beak of the woodpecker. Although identifying them at last gave me satisfaction; their behavior was far more interesting to observe.

When I first arrived 12 years ago this land was still a wet prairie and the wading birds were the ones to see here with flocks of roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons and ibis. But for the time being, the songbirds and woodpeckers are the stars of the show filling their bellies and of course, the hawks and eagles are close behind waiting to fill theirs.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Limpkin's Prize


This is the time of our dry down with little or no rain occurring during the winter months. Some of the water from the sheet flow settles deeper into the pools found in the lowest sections of the cypress swamp. It was here that I was able to witness the bird behavior that keeps me coming back for more. This late winter landscape was a calm scene. Afternoon sunlight lit up the water through the still leafless cypress and the ponds were abundant with aquatic life. Wading birds close by included a great egret, White Ibis, Little Blue Heron, and Great Blue Heron. Anhingas were courting with the males bringing one token branch after another to a female who wanted nothing to do with their offerings. A Black-crowned Night Heron perched on a branch farther out across the pond preening and waking up. Barred Owls called to each other in the distance.

But this late afternoon the star of the show was a limpkin wading in the dark clean water with a tip on the end of his bill that curved slightly to the right, meant for only one thing. This individual was particularly vocal and excited as it continued to find and remove one apple snail after another from their right-handed shell. After retrieving what was perhaps the largest one in this body of water, the great blue heron, the master it seems at wading through these waters with patience and grace, slowly tuned his focus toward the Limpkin. The Limpkin headed toward the shallow end, using some floating vegetation to support his prize. His struggle to retrieve his prey pulled not only me in for a closer look, but the patient and graceful Great Blue Heron as well, a bird that appears to have elevated standing meditation to an art form in the bird world. At the point where the meat dangled from the shell and his satisfaction was imminent, this swamp story unfolded with an unexpected ending. The patient and graceful Great Blue Heron made his move, pouncing from behind with his bill aimed at the apple snail. But the Limpkin was keen to his sneaky ways and slipped out with the expertise of a martial artist, devouring his meal in a less crowded area of the pond. The heron would have to be patient a little longer.