My resolution for the new year is to ramble more and sit less.
So to satisfy this goal I spent a great deal of time just off Gasparilla Island exploring the beaches and bays of Palm/Knight and Don Pedro islands, and the nearby Wildflower Preserve.
I am never bored on such excursions and always find something of interest.
One of the most delectable delicacies: a blue crab.
The "beautiful swimmer" blue crab is a characteristic estuarine predator of wide distribution but only along a narrow coastal zone. The larger males with blue claws contrast with the female whose claws have bright red tips, which exerts a powerful attraction on the male like human "lipstick."
Another creature nearby in some shallow coastal bays is the cryptic ragged sea hare, a shell-less snail that can react to a threat by releasing a dark blue dye. My grandson finds it amusing to squeeze them to elicit this reaction.
A distantly related mollusk was the source of royal purple used to dye the robes of emperors. This "ink" is used as a defense and might be toxic.
William Dunson, Ph.d., professor emeritus of biology at Penn State University, splits time between Southwest Florida and his farm in Connecticut. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The fresh water ponds at Wildflower Preserve just down the road from Gasparilla Island have an abundance of large hard-shelled freshwater turtles, primarily the peninsula cooter.
Their enormous egg-shaped shells reflect the evolutionary arms race with alligators in which they try to avoid being crushed for dinner.
This time of year the females are laying eggs, many of which are excavated and eaten by the exotic armadillo. The top of the head has two hairpin-shaped loops, which are distinctive in peninsula cooter turtles.
The females are much larger than the males, the better to produce more eggs. In some species where male combat is part of their behavior, males can be larger than females (snapping turtles).
One of the best bird shows is found on and near the beach just before and after sunset when large flocks of black skimmers resting on the beach fly up into the setting sun. It is comforting to see so many despite the numerous dangers they face.
One way ospreys protect their nests is to build on the top of Norfolk Island pines. This reveals a major advantage of planting and retaining such exotic trees since otherwise there are few elevated nesting platforms for these remarkable raptors in the human-dominated landscape.
Mixed in among a large flock of terns, skimmers and gulls I noticed a few large terns. We rarely see Caspian terns rarely on the beach since they prefer inland freshwater habitats except during migration. This illustrates a common dichotomy among birds - a division by habitat salinity.
Another example would be the yellow-crowned night heron, which is mainly found in saline habitats whereas the black-crowned night heron is mainly a fresh-water inhabitant.
The most exciting bird on the beach mixed in among a large flock of red knots was an individual with a band on its leg. The code (7CT) indicated this bird was banded Sept. 2, 2009, at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts during migration.
The incredible nature of long-distance bird migrations becomes more real when a birds winters in Southwest Florida and flies north along the east coast of North America to breeding ground in the Arctic.
For such a tiny animal this is an amazing feat and should inspire us to protect their places of breeding and migration. This shorebird depends heavily on the abundance of horseshoe crab eggs in the Delaware Bay for renewal of their energy stores during migration.
So join me and get out there, ramble, and enjoy the natural world that is such a source of wonder and beauty.