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The Venomous Caterpillar

During a recent trip to Prospect Mountain in the foothills of the Adirondacks in New York, my grandchildren found black and white fuzzy caterpillars climbing on the rocks near the top of the mountain. I cautioned them not to touch these hickory tussock moth caterpillars because its hairs can attach to your skin and inject an irritating venom that causes an allergic reaction in some people. This is an adaptation to protect them from predators.

The caterpillar eats the leaves of hickories, maples and oaks and other trees before forming a pupa which overwinters in the leaf litter of the forest floor. This caterpillar through the process of metamorphosis will transform into an adult moth.

The hickory tussock moth caterpillar is not the only venomous larva. Many of the moth species have larvae that contain stinging venomous hairs. These include the saddle-back moth, hag moth caterpillar and others. Just be careful with any hairy caterpillar and you will be fine.

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How Sheepshead Got Its Name

When I grew up on New York’s Long Island, I knew of a town called Sheepshead Bay. I incorrectly thought it was because the community raised sheep in colonial times, but the town was named for the abundance of an edible fish in the bay there called Sheepshead. The fish got its name because of its resemblance to a sheep’s mouth full of teeth. The teeth actually look like human teeth. Nowadays, this fish is rare in the waters around Brooklyn.

This North American species lives from Cape Cod through Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico to Brazil. Sheepshead habitat is rocky jetties, piers and in Florida it survives amongst mangrove roots.

On a Cocoa Beach pier, anglers drop their line around the pier’s pilings where sheepshead hang out. They are a tasty fish and must be at least 12 inches long to keep and there are limits to the numbers you can take from the fishery.

On a recent trip to Homosassa Springs State Park, I descended into the fishbowl, a metal glass tank suspended under the water in the spring. Dozens of sheepshead swam past the thick windows. An anhinga bird dove deep into the spring to snatch small fish from the water as the sheepshead darted away.

The next time you come across a road named Beaverdam Street or a town called Wolf Point, do some research into the origins of the name and you’ll uncover many interesting stories of that area.

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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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