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Wild Cats in Florida

Rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, opossums and birds beware. There is a predator on the loose in Florida. It is a large cat with a short tail and dark spots. It is a skillful and stealthy hunter; it has keen eyesight, razor-sharp claws and sharp teeth. If it catches you, you will be dinner.

The Florida bobcat is ubiquitous in Florida. It lives in woodlands, wetlands and suburban yards. Many people are alarmed when they see bobcats in their neighborhoods, but this feline is a secretive, shy creature and tries to remain hidden from humans.

Bobcats are often mistaken for the Florida panther, a much larger cat that lives in Florida. Bobcat populations are secure in Florida although as suburbia infringes on natural areas, there is likely to be some conflicts between these wild cats and people and their pets.

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The Florida Peninsula Cooter Turtle

This freshwater turtle is common in the coastal plain of southeast of U.S. and is found in just about any pond in Florida. A larger turtle than the red-eared slider, it grows on the average of 9 – 15 inches. This cooter is primarily a herbivore eating aquatic plants including algae and underwater herbs. It digs a three-chambered nest on the lake shore where it lays most of its eggs in the center cavity with one egg in the two side holes. Although habitat destruction has affected this species, its population still remains stable.

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The Red-eared Slider: A Southern U.S. Native and an Invasive Species Elsewhere

A native of Mexico and the southern U.S. the red-eared slider can be found in just about any lake. They are easily identified with a distinct red strip on both sides of their head. When young, these turtles eat insects and other aquatic organisms, but as an adult the red-eared slider becomes a herbivore (vegetarian).

Sliders are often sold in pet shops as hatchlings and if cared for properly, they will grow and grow and grow. And as they grow they need bigger and bigger and bigger tanks requiring lots of cleaning and care. Oftentimes, people grow weary of the upkeep and will release their pet turtle into a local pond.

When these turtles are released in waterways outside of their home range, red-eared sliders can wreak havoc on native turtles. Studies have shown that red-eared sliders negatively impact the growth of native turtle species. They often out-compete native turtles for food, nesting locations and basking places.

Having a red-eared slider as a pet is a 20-year commitment. They might be cute as babies, but sliders require a lot of care as they get older. Some places have banned the sale of red-eared sliders due to their invasiveness. If you have one that you no longer want seek assistance with local wildlife centers to find a home for your pet. Above all, think before you buy!

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Wintering Chipping Sparrows

One of my favorite winter birds is the chipping sparrow. These petite sparrows are easily identified by a rusty-brown cap on an otherwise dull underbelly with brown striped wings and back. A black stripe through the eye is another identifying feature of this bird. Chipping sparrows migrate south for the winter and each year they visit our backyard feeders.

If you look closely at its bill, you will see it is not as pointed as a warbler’s bill; its beak is broader (see “Florida’s Winter Warbler”). This is typical of seed eating birds. In the wild, these sparrows seek out seeds from grasses, sedges and other herbaceous plants.

Towards the end of the winter, chipping sparrows will head north to their breeding grounds where they will build a small flimsy nest to lay their eggs and raise their young. When I lived in New York, the chipping sparrows seemed to gravitate around the evergreen trees where I occasionally found a nest in branches that were under ten feet off the ground.

Although the chipping sparrow population has declined in recent years, it is still healthy. It would not feel like winter in Florida if I did not see these pretty birds at my feeder.

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Florida’s Winter Warbler

Each winter yellow-rumped warblers flood into Florida to escape the wintry weather of northern U.S. and Canada. In Florida these warblers are ubiquitous; I almost always see them when I hike in the woodlands here.

If you look closely at the bird’s bill, you will see that it is pointed. This is indicative of insect-eating birds. Although its primary diet is bugs, it visits my bird feeders to eat seeds.

When I lived in New York, yellow-rumped warblers went no further south than Long Island’s seashores. These birds are well adapted at eating and digesting the waxy seeds of bayberry that is abundant in the interdunal swales of the seashore.

During the winter, these warblers have a subdued plumage that helps them blend in with the winter woodlands. As spring approaches, this plumage will turn into beautiful yellow markings and I hope they will come to the feeders once last time before returning north to their breeding grounds.

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Hooded Mergansers in Winter

When I worked at Connetquot River State Park Preserve on New York’s Long Island, I looked forward to seeing the many species of ducks that came from the freezing lakes and rivers of the north. The Island, being surrounded by water and  bordering the Atlantic Ocean, usually had a moderate winter making it an ideal place for large flocks of canvasback ducks, scaup, red heads, shovelors and ring-necked ducks to spend winter eating plants, insects and fish in its unfrozen lakes, streams and estuaries. If the Island experienced an unusually cold winter and its waterways froze, these birds would travel further south seeking open waters.

One of my favorite ducks that arrived each winter is the eye-catching hooded merganser. It is easily identified by its black and white body markings and chestnut flanks. The male’s head is a crest of white and black feathers. Each year a small flock of 15 to 20 birds settled in on the Connetquot River to snatch fish with their serrated bills.

In the spring these ducks return north to breeding grounds where they nest in tree cavities. Sometimes the merganser will lay her eggs in other female merganser nests. Within a day of hatching the ducklings climb out of the nest and fall to the ground where they follow the mom duck to the local waters.

The winter of 2017/18 is a particularly cold one, but I have not seen any mergansers here in Florida on the lakes near me. They certainly would be a welcomed sight.


What do Squirrels do in Winter?

If you are an eastern gray squirrel you bulk up in the fall by eating acorns, seeds and nuts. This results in increased fat reserves to insulate you from the cold and acts as energy reservoirs during long, harsh winters.

These squirrels also cache acorns and other nuts by burying them in the ground. They may not remember where they bury every acorn; those forgotten acorns sprout into trees in the spring.

Eastern gray squirrels seek shelter during winter snow storms and for the coldest winter days. Tree cavities make the ideal shelter, but I have seen them chew bird nesting box openings wide enough to squeeze in for shelter.

When winter temperatures moderate, these rodents come out during the warmer part of the day and forage for those buried acorns. If they are lucky enough to live near bird feeding stations, squirrels use their ingenuity to raid those feeders of sunflower seeds often to the chagrin of its owners.

Although it might seem like a pretty good life, there are many perils even in the winter when raptors are hunting for squirrel for lunch. Foxes are also active at this time of year and if lucky will pounce on squirrels. Despite this, eastern gray squirrels have been successful at adapting not only to the cold weather, but to the suburban environment created by people.

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