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Gentle Giants

We have seen them at Sea World and at Disney and even in zoological parks and they are impressive animals, but it is thrilling to see the West Indian manatees in the wild here in Florida. Manatees thrive in freshwater springs, salty bays, and river systems throughout Florida eating plants including sea grasses and freshwater vegetation.

An aquatic relative of the elephant, these animals weigh upwards of 1,500 to 1,800 pounds and grow up to twelve feet long. Despite their small eyes and lack of outer ears, they see and hear quite well. Manatees propel themselves with their large flat tails and steer with their front flippers.

As of early 2018, there were estimated to be about 6,100 manatees in Florida although, at the writing of this article, hundreds of manatees have died due to a cold snap at the beginning of the year and due to the red tide on the west coast of Florida. Since they are slow moving creatures, some are injured from boat traffic when propellers strike their tough gray skin.

The West Indian manatee is federally threatened which us an upgrade from its endangered status a few years ago. In the 1990’s there were only about 1,200 manatees, but with protections in place for the animal and its habitats, they have rebounded. Close monitoring of the population and continued protections will help it live for future generations to see.

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The Terrestrial Duck

Unlike other ducks that keep to the water, the black-bellied whistling duck prefers to roam the edges of lakes and ponds and in fields where it forages for plants and seeds. While vegetation is the main diet of this bird, it will also eat snails, insects and other small life. It often perches on tree branches and logs over water.

This duck nests in tree cavities and nesting boxes where it will lay eggs without making a nest. In some areas it will create a shallow depression in the ground tucked in dense vegetation.

This goose-like duck with its long neck and long legs is expanding its range in the southern U.S. from Central America and Mexico. Its population is increasing, partly because of nesting boxes installed for them.

I came across a pair this summer perched on the railings of a floating dock on Lake Tsala Apopka, Florida. They have been here most of the summer hanging out along the edge of the lake and in nearby trees.

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The Falcon That Eats Carrion

Though the crested caracara hunts for reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and small mammals, its primary diet is dead animals. You can often find them foraging for food on the ground and can be seen eating carrion with vultures.

These raptors live in open savannah areas in northern South America, Central America, Mexico, Cuba and in south central Florida. (The pictures posted here were taken at a local nature center rehabilitation center.)

This species is threatened due to development of open areas into farmlands and urban sprawl.

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Delightful Backyard Butterflies

I planted fire-bush shrubs in our backyard to attract butterflies and hummingbirds with great success. The flowers are a good source of nectar for these creatures. cloudless sulphur butterflies and zebra long-wings are two of the butterflies that frequent these bushes. We see Ruby-throated Hummingbirds too in the early morning and at dusk flying from one flower to another sipping its sweet energy. Other butterfly species come and go bringing enjoyment with each visit.

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Cultivating a Future Naturalist

“Hi! Hi!”, I hear my 16-month-old granddaughter say excitedly in our Florida room. Wondering who she was talking to, I look into the room to see her face to face with a young eastern gray squirrel that climbed on the window ledge to peer into our house.

The squirrel seemed as enchanted to see my little girl as she was to see the squirrel. The squirrel returned every morning peering in and my granddaughter was always delighted to interact with it.

It is these interactions along with harboring an interest in nature that nurtures respect for God’s creatures. By helping children appreciate nature and to recognize the importance of our natural world in our lives, we culture our future custodians and defenders for the natural environment.

I took the time to take little Fiona by the hand and go outside to check out the Sand Hill Cranes, birds taller than her walking in our yard, to see the monarch caterpillars munching milkweed leaves and to watch the anole lizards dart out of our way as we walked on the sidewalk. I am hoping that taking the time to foster these connections with nature that I will nurture life-long responsibility for all living things and our natural world.

 

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How Milkweed Helped the Tiger Swallowtail!

Monarch butterflies continue to find the milkweed plants in our garden to lay eggs. Soon, there are only green sticks left to our milkweed plants dotted with hungry caterpillars. Anne counts 15 monarch caterpillars of various sizes. We find a small one crawling on our hot concrete driveway looking for more milkweed plants to eat.

It is an easy decision to head back to the nursery to buy more milkweed plants. To my delight, while looking for the nursery’s milkweed plants, I see several tiger swallowtail butterflies sipping the nectar of other nursery plants. These are large, yellow and black butterflies in the swallowtail family. Anne calls me to come over and help her pick the healthiest of the nursery’s milkweeds, but first I grab a few of the plants the swallowtails are attracted to plant in my garden.

With another $35.00 worth of monarch caterpillar food in our car we head home to feed our wild insects. It is part of a nearly hundred-dollar investment we have made buying milkweed plants for our caterpillars and well worth the expense.

Anne looks forward to watching her monarch caterpillars to change into beautiful butterflies and I look forward to seeing eastern tiger swallowtail and other butterflies enjoying the fruits of my labor.

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The Amazing Bug!

As Anne and I enjoy watching butterflies sipping nectar from our milkweed flowers and monarch caterpillars devouring milkweed leaves, we see small orange and black colored insects on the plant’s seed pods.

These insects are large milkweed bugs that eat milkweed seeds. This bug has a long proboscis that pierces the seed pods and injects digestive enzymes that liquify the seeds. The insect sucks the life sustaining liquified nutrients through its straw-like proboscis to nourish this insect.

Toxic compounds, not harmful to the milkweed bug, is also absorbed making bug distasteful and poisonous to any bird that may try to eat it. The vivid patterns of orange and black, the same seen on monarch butterflies, warn potential predators not to eat it.

Like monarchs and dragonflies, the large milkweed bug also migrates south to avoid the bitter winter and returns each spring and can be found as far north as Canada.

Some people may think of these insects as infestations and damaging to plants, but it only lives on milkweed and we have never seen damage to our plants because of them.

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