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Dr. Jerry Jackson

  • As their names imply, Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are creatures of the darkness – but they can often be seen hunting for food during the day in early spring as they begin to nest and later in summer as their young leave the nest to strike out on their own. These species are similar in size and shape: short, stocky birds with a pointed bill, short neck and legs, and extra-large red eyes. Black-crowned Night-Herons do indeed have a black crown – as adults. And Yellow-crowned Night-Herons have a white to yellow (or dirty white) crown. The Black-crowned Night-Heron is a generalist -- it eats whatever fish or other small animal it can capture. It is also fairly cosmopolitan, found in wetland areas on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is more selective in its food, much preferring crabs and crayfish. It is primarily a bird of coastal areas and dense vegetation of wooded wetlands. Local places where both might be seen are Six-mile Cypress Slough and Corkscrew Sanctuary.
  • River Otters are social animals that seem to enjoy life – as evidenced by three recently independent young otters that I observed for several days in June 2021. They traveled, hunted, and seemed to “play” together. They created (and used repeatedly) an “otter slide“ by removing vegetation from the steep slope of a canal bank. They then repeatedly slid down into the water. Repeated slides with wet fur quickly made the slide slick with mud. Their antics seemed carefree and playful, reminding us of young children. Indeed, otters have inspired children’s books with their behavior. The truth is they are members of the weasel family, are consummate predators, and much of their behavior and anatomy are clearly linked to their life style and needs. Young learn from their parents and from one another. They are hunters that often travel several miles in a day. They have jaws strong enough to crush a clam or a turtle – and all that “play” may just be honing their skills for survival.
  • Coontie is usually a 3-foot tall shrub that looks somewhat like a miniature palm. But it’s not a palm – it’s a cycad – distantly- but most-closely related to the exotic gingko tree of China. It is also distantly related to pines. Coontie is a plant that almost disappeared by the late 1800s as a result of habitat destruction and losses due to its use in producing a starchy product called “Florida Arrowroot”. As Coontie disappeared, so too did the tiny black, orange, and blue Atala Butterfly and its orange-red caterpillar with two rows of yellow spots along its back and scattered short black hairs covering its body. Atala Butterfly caterpillars adapted to feed on the stiff Coontie leaves and store the toxins from the plant in its body.
  • The American Bittern is known to science as Botaurus lentiginosus – a name that tells us a bit about it. Botaurus is derived from an old English word that refers to a bull – because this bird’s unique deep-throated call reminded people of the bellowing of a bull. The species name “lentiginosus” means freckled – a reference to the tiny black spots on this bittern’s back.
  • Armadillos are mammals with no close relatives and a fossil record that dates back millions of years. All are well-protected above by stout plates and scale-like structures but with narrow bands on the back that allow them to quickly curl up to protect their underside. They have many peg-like teeth that are continuously growing, and no teeth at the front of the mouth. Thus you don’t need to worry about being bitten. An armadillo’s legs are very strong and they are master diggers -- especially in sandy soils. They dig to find food and also to make shallow burrows where they shelter during hot days. They are somewhat gregarious and active mostly at night. Yes, they may dig holes in your yard, but the holes tend to be shallow and a cheap price to pay for an evening of watching them greatly reduce harmful insect populations -- and then they are likely to move on.
  • Spring is a busy time for both birds and humans. The cycle of life begins anew for both. Birds begin nest-building, then lay eggs in their nest, and tend to hatchlings; humans plant gardens, flowers, and begin the annual routine of yard care. When young birds leave the nest, their parents still must tend to the young – either providing them with food or leading them to good foraging areas and protecting them from potential predators. To birds, humans are potential predators. Birds scold, dive at, and sometimes even strike humans that come close to their nest or young. Such attacks can be indication that a nest or young is near – and attacks are a good cue to not prune a nest tree or shrub or to not mow over a ground nest. Attacks are also an opportunity to show youngsters the adults, their nest, eggs, and young… but from a distance.
  • The White Ibis is a resident wading bird in Florida whose populations swell in winter with arrival of migrants from farther north. At one time it was a popular game bird, but it is now protected. Its populations have declined greatly as a result of losses of wetland habitats.
  • The Monarch Butterfly with its orange and black wings, and look-alike mimic the Viceroy Butterfly are well entrenched in our educational system from grade school through graduate school. But details of the Monarch’s life and its mimic relationship with the Viceroy Butterfly are not so well known. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed and caterpillars that emerge feed on milkweed leaves. These leaves often provide toxins that protect the butterfly – often, not always. That protective toxin – gained during the caterpillar stage -- can disappear from the butterfly over time because the adult butterfly feeds on the nectar of many different flowers. Milkweeds are popular plants as ornamentals that attract Monarchs. One most prominently for sale is Tropical Milkweed, an exotic species with beautiful red and orange flowers. Tropical Milkweed has become an invasive and lives through Florida winters, building up populations of a parasite of Monarchs that can impair the butterflies. Unlike Tropical Milkweed, most of our native milkweeds die in winter and the monarch parasites die with them.
  • Spanish Moss is familiar to anyone who has visited Florida. It can appear anywhere as a result of the wind dispersing its seeds as it does the seeds of dandelions. But development of the draping clusters of Spanish Moss depends on the seed landing in the right place – on a horizontal limb of a rough-barked tree near water or in a very humid environment. Most Spanish Moss plants only grow to a bit over a foot long, but as they reproduce, one plant becomes many plants linked together by their limb-like scaly-surfaced leaves. There is safety and a future for the plants in such a mass. The cluster of plants holds moisture in – allowing them to survive dry times and also facilitating pollination as insects move from a flower on one plant to a flower on another in the cluster. A mass of Spanish Moss plants appears gray during dry times as the plant shrinks, but is green in appearance as rains allow the plant to swell with water and expose bare areas between the scales.
  • The Florida Soft-shelled Turtle is found throughout Florida in calm or relatively calm ponds, lakes, and canals that have a relatively sandy bottom. A male is much smaller than a female -- thus allowing him to be more maneuverable. A females is much larger thus allowing her to accommodate the many large eggs that she lays. With strong hind legs she digs a nesting hole, lays her eggs, and fills it in – without ever looking back. A broad band of tubercles -- scale-like structures -- occurs along the front edge of the Florida Soft-shelled Turtle’s carapace, distinguishing it from other soft-shelled turtles. Fish Crows and other predators often follow the slow-moving female as she seeks and digs a nest site. Sometimes predators take her eggs as she lays them.