Summer has been extremely warm nationwide but the seasonal appearance of plants and animals reveals the season just as well as the calendar and thermometer.
One of the most characteristic plants this time of year is the chicory, a marvelous blue flower that appears along the sides of roads and in pastures. This European import might be considered a weed but its flowers are quite spectacular in groups. It is found almost entirely in disturbed, open habitats.
A much more rare native flower is the Canada lily, which is thought to be a hybrid with Gray's lily. The contrast between the reddish outside of the flower and the speckled inside is quite striking. Hummingbirds and large butterflies with color vision are pollinators.
The chicory is a marvelous blue European import.
During rains two types of land molluscs appear that are closely related but quite different in structure.
The land snail has a shell but the slug does not. What a contrast in design. It is as if you encountered a turtle without a shell.
The shell is not only protection from some predators but a refuge during dry conditions when the snail retreats into the shell and seals itself in.
The sliminess of these clam relatives apparently discourages many predators but some snakes and birds specialize in eating them.
Slugs can be a huge pest in wet years when they eat plants, but having eaten escargot once, I think it unlikely snails will catch on as food for many humans.
Closely related animals are obviously kin sometimes but not always.
Dragonflies, which revel in the heat, congregate near ponds such as the Wildflower Preserve just outside Gasparilla Island.
Members of the skimmer family are common and quite showy. Three close relatives in the same genus (Libellula) are easy to observe since they are distinctive and often sit on twigs.
Compare the males of the common whitetail, the widow skimmer and the 12-spotted skimmer. There are variations with similar body shape and colors but wing colors are different.
The females are quite different with duller colors. The gaudy male syndrome shows males competing for territories and females. These primitive insects have such complex and interesting life histories.
Some smaller damselflies are related to the dragonflies. The spreadwings are larger than most damsels and distinctive in that they hold their wings partially out to the side.
The male amber-winged spreadwing is colorful (blue is a common color in male damsels) and seems to be found only at a pond without fish. Many invertebrates and amphibians are unable to cope with fish predation and have sought refuge in ponds, which dry up periodically and thus often lack fish.
But why does a flying damselfly have to worry about fish in the water? Odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) all have aquatic larvae.
Enjoy the bounty of summer and take a trip to the nearest pond and watch the amazing display of dragonflies and damselflies. Learn a few of the common species and you will find your experience as an observer of nature greatly enriched as you watch the intense activity of breeding and feeding.
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 email@example.com.