Every Gasparilla Island season features unique qualities of natural beauty.
Although the hot and humid weather of August would seem a poor time to observe the natural wonders of a Southwest Florida beach, it is so - especially at dawn and dusk. While enjoying the sun, sand and water watch out for some unusual organisms that call our beaches home.
One of the most characteristic plants of the dune area is the railroad vine, a morning glory with beautiful pinkish flowers. It sends long runners across the sand and produces floating box-like seeds to be dispersed by waves to another location.
A mother skink hovers over her eggs on Manasota Key.
In the same location you will find burrows of the famous ghost crab, which runs rapidly across the beach searching for anything that can be scavenged as food. This amphibious crab lives on land most of the time but must return to sea water to breed. It provides a good illustration of a specialist that is so well adapted to beach life that it cannot live anywhere else.
One of the true miracles of life was unfolding during our recent week on the beach - the hatching of loggerhead sea turtles. It takes about two months for the eggs to hatch and the deeper eggs tend to hatch a bit later and to have more difficulty escaping from their sand incubator and potential tomb.
Some tiny loggerhead babies were rescued by the turtle patrol from a nest after most of their siblings had left. They were placed in a bucket until they were released at night. It is remarkable how tiny they are and the obstacles they face in surviving and reaching maturity. It is clear to see why sea turtles inspire so many to help them in their quest for survival.
William Dunson, Ph.d., professor emeritus of biology at Penn State University, usually winters in Southwest Florida although he was here in June and July to help observe and suggest improvements to the tarpon fishery around Boca Grande. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another turtle encountered on the beach was unexpected - a large gopher tortoise. Gopher tortoises make burrows behind the beach dune and feed on plants there. But occasionally they are seen on the beach and even in the water. This behavior is unexplained - could they be eating seaweed or using sea water in some way?
Birds that use the beach for nesting have generally finished by mid-August, but a family of black skimmers was still tending to juveniles.
Skimmer beaks offer a bizarre case of feeding specialization. An adult with its beak open shows an upper bill shorter than the lower, which allows them to skim the water surface and catch small fish. A juvenile skimmer is capable of flight and skimming for fish without the adult bill shape. So it is apparent the strange bill of the skimmer requires time to develop and presumably the young birds need to be fed by its parents during this period.
The coloration of skimmers is also remarkable - the eye is hidden in the black back pattern while the belly is bright white. Could this be useful in approaching fish prey?
Just behind a beach dune I lifted a piece of plywood and found an unexpected wonder - a female skink incubating a nest of eggs. This attendance by the female does not involve any warming of the eggs by internal heat, but more likely protection against predators. It is surprising one female could have laid so many eggs - an estimated 12 total.
These southeastern five-lined skinks have a juvenile phase with a bright blue tail that directs attack to the disposable tail and warns predators of their toxicity.
So much of natural interest is occurring all around us at the beach, and yet we often know little about the details of the lives of these remarkable beach inhabitants.