Early April is an exciting time of natural changes due to the almost daily arrivals and departures in Southwest Florida of migrant birds, the initiation of singing in many species and greater reptile activity.
The six-lined racerunner, an unusual lizard seldom seen except when it is quite hot, is a relative of the tegu lizard of the western deserts. It moves quickly, living up to its name.
I spotted one at Wildflower Preserve as it retreated under vegetation. It is one of a number of animals that originated out west but migrated to Florida and stayed. Other examples are rattlesnakes, the scrub jay and the giant whip scorpion.
A 7-foot gator sunning at Wildflower Preserve while showing its impressive set of teeth.
The display of animal behaviors at small ponds and Verna's Pond at Wildflower Preserve just off Gasparilla Island is captivating. After anchoring three floating palm trunks to attract reptiles and birds it was exciting to see a large female peninsula cooter turtle basking on one.
Female cooter turtles are much larger than males. Larger females can lay more eggs and also have a greater chance of not being crushed by gator jaws.
While watching the turtle, a 7-foot gator was sunning nearby while showing its impressive set of teeth. The egg-shaped shell of large herbivorous turtles evolved to thwart the impressive power of those jaws.
Anhingas often sit on the bank or on trees drying their wings after swimming in the pond to catch fish. Their body feathers are fur-like and absorb a lot of water, which enables this superb underwater forager to manage its buoyancy. How they manage to escape rival alligators is a mystery.
A different method of reptilian eating is employed by a yellow rat snake, which is found in flatwoods. When offered a mouse it rapidly swallowed it whole with only the tail protruding from its mouth. Snakes evolved from lizard-like ancestors, which originally had legs but lost them during an extended period as burrowers. They re-emerged later successfully on the surface without appendages.
One of the most astonishing sights of spring migration is watching the northern gannets heading back to Nova Scotia. They winter in the Gulf of Mexico and, unwilling to cross over land, follow Florida's coastline in returning to Canada for breeding.
If you are lucky, just as a storm front is passing, you may witness long lines of gannets flying low to the water heading south along the Southwest Florida coastline. Since they will not leave the sea, they go south around the Florida peninsula before heading north. Hundreds of gannets made the move Sunday morning March 25 and I was lucky to have noticed it.
Another bird at the Gasparilla Island beach lately is the red-breasted merganser. They feed on fish with a thin beak and have a method of trapping fish up against the beach while feeding in the surf zone.
A pair of ospreys nest near our house and their daily activities are a source of delight. However, my wife was not so pleased when their daily collection of debris for the nest included one of her flip-flops.
This particular nest is built precariously in an Australian pine and it has already blown down once in a strong wind that deposited a beautifully camouflaged egg on the ground.
The adults steadfastly rebuilt the nest and presumably laid more eggs. Why they persist in choosing this site over others available in neighboring trees is a mystery. It does illustrate how raptors such as ospreys benefit from this exotic invasive tree.
William Dunson, Ph.d., professor emeritus of biology at Penn State University, splits time between Southwest Florida and his farm in Galax, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.