Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Southern Stingrays

Southern Stingray

Remember how I went to Lowry Park Zoo a while ago and saw cownose rays? I also saw southern stingrays. There were two gigantic ones, and they had friendly personalities. One was flopping around and ready to play. The other one rocked back and forth in one place and liked being touched. They seemed to like being patted by people, even if we weren't feeding them. After I met them, I read all about southern stingrays.

Southern stingrays are bigger than cownose rays, and have a longer, thicker tail. They have a sharp barb on their tail covered with mild venom. (Don't worry, the ones in the tank didn't have any barbs. They said it doesn't hurt them to have the barb removed.)

Here you can see the difference between southern stingrays and cownose rays.

You're more likely to get stung by a southern sting ray than a cownose ray, because southern stingrays hang out at the bottom of the water, on or under the sand – right where your feet hang out. Sometimes they bury themselves so just their eyes are poking out.

So when you go to the beach, you better do the Stringray Shuffle. Don't pick your feet up, but slide them along the sand. The rays will either hear you coming and scoot, or you'll nudge them on the bottom, out of the way of the tail.

They can get huge – more than five feet across! Girl southern stingrays are bigger than boys. They are also ovoviviparous. (Remember that cool word?)

Next time I'll tell you about my favorite ray – a yellow stingray named spot!


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Winter Snakes

I love living in Florida! I can go to the beach in January, and see snakes in the middle of winter. I found this young diamondback rattlesnake at Walsingham Park recently. Isn't he beautiful?

A young diamondback rattler at Walsingham Park. These are easily identified
by the dark eye bar, the distinct neck, the lovely diamond pattern...
and of course the rattles!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Brooker Creek Nature Preserve

By Lu and B

Let us begin by saying that we have only just begun to scratch the surface of the Brooker Creek Preserve. As wild areas in Pinellas County go, it is HUGE – about 8,500 acres (some sources say 8,700 acres) and seven miles long. It is the biggest natural area in the county, an oasis in the densely populated East Lake area. We hiked maybe a mile of the trails that loop through a variety of environments. There are five miles of hiking trails and nine miles of horse trails in the preserve.
There might not be mountains in Florida, but at Brooker Creek Preserve you can clearly see how even a few feet of elevation can make a big change in the ecosystem. Where the many-channeled Brooker Creek flows there are impressive cypresses, and in other lowlands are wet grassy prairies and marshes.

But hike a barely perceptible grade and you'll reach the saw palmetto thickets that mark the boundary between wet and dry. Another foot or two of elevation and you'll get to a mixed pine habitat, and finally the “mountains” – oak hammocks.

Some cypress trees have knees.
These have toes.

The trails are perfect for a amateurs and families. The first stretch, from the parking lot, past the nature center, to the trail-head proper, is a boardwalk. The preserve offers detailed maps, and the trails are well-marked. B and I had the feeling that we were deep in the wilderness, but never worried about getting lost. Families with strollers and little kids can have a beautiful short hike in this first stretch.

A gopher tortoise.

Next week I'll be exploring the other trails, by myself first and then later with B. These are the wet trails, or at least the trails that aren't guaranteed to be dry. We'll let you know how they go. There's also a short dedicated bird trail that ends in a viewing blind for better spotting opportunities.

Check out their trail maps here, and see my information about free guided hikes on this blog's sidebar. The preserve also has lectures just about every week.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cownose Rays

By B
Last weekend I went to Lowry Park Zoo. I loved it! My favorite part was the ray tank. They were very friendly rays. I spent hours there and named most of them. Today I will tell you about cownose rays.

Cownose rays at Lowry Park Zoo

They are smaller than southern stingrays and have shorter, skinnier tails. They have barbs, but you probably won't step on a cownose ray because they usually swim in the middle of the water, and don't sit on the bottom.

They like to eat oysters and crabs and small fish, and other things that burrow in the sand. They can flap the sand with their wings and then suck up the food like a vacuum cleaner. They have crushing plates in their mouths instead of regular teeth.

I named this cownose ray Albus. Can you guess what movies I'm watching?
Cownose rays have one baby at a time. They don't lay an egg – the baby is born alive. They are big when they are born, about a foot across. (Lu notes: The babies actually develop in an egg within the mother's body, then hatch inside her, and are born later. So they are ovoviviparous, which is a great word to toss out now and then.)

The cownose rays at Lowry Park Zoo were very gentle and friendly. I loved to touch them. They are sleek and soft. I can't wait to go back!

Next time I'll tell you about southern stingrays!

Bye bye until next time!

Lu's Note:
Cownose ray numbers have increased lately, but they are still classified as threatened, or more specifically, vulnerable, mainly because they take a long time to mature, and then usually only have one baby at a time. They are probably increasing because their main predators – sharks – have been overfished. Some people are worried about the cownose ray population because they feed extensively on oysters, a commercial shellfish whose populations are already in decline because of pollution, disease and habitat loss. So do we get rid of cownose rays? Of course not, silly! We stop catching and killing sharks!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Toothpetal Orchid – The Punch-Buggy of the Plant World

Toothpetal Orchid at Walsingham Park

By Lu
The signs of winter in Florida: my huge, sweet Ponderosa lemons are ripe, the robins, hawks and buzzards have returned, and the terrestrial orchids are blooming. At least, the only terrestrial orchid B and I can easily find and identify, so far – the toothpetal orchid (Habenaria odontopetala).

Before I go any further, I want to mention something (and I'll probably mention it again a hundred times.) We are amateurs. We know a few things, but not as much as a lot of people, and though we try hard to be accurate, we might easily be wrong. Sometimes I'm even wrong on purpose, like when I call the spiny orb spider a crab spider. (Can't help it – it looks too much like a crab not to be called a crab spider.) And B's excuse is that he's six. Anyway, please correct us (gently, we're sensitive) if we get anything wrong. And always check another source before you take anything you find in this blog as absolute fact.

Toothpetal Orchid Flowers, Walsingham Park

Toothpetal orchids are common as far as orchids go, but still infrequent enough that discovering one is always a joy. In December and January we have contests to find them – they are the punch-buggies of the plant world. Punch-plant!

Most of the literature says they prefer moist soils, but I usually see them in drier piney areas with a smattering of oaks and a light understory. Toothpetal orchids have a distinct smell which some people describe as unpleasant, but which I think is lovely, spicy-sweet. They are said to smell even stronger at night – they are pollinated by moths. I'll have to try a night hike soon.

Toothpetal Orchid, Lake Seminole Park

According to Florida Ethnobotany (Austin and Honychurch) toothpetal orchids were used by the Seminoles in funerary rites, and also to fortify the powers of shamans. Remember, the Seminoles weren't originally from Florida, so when they arrived they had to learn a whole new assortment of plant lore. I wonder if they once used a similar plant – there are other species of Habenaria in their original range – and then adapted to the toothpetal when they settled here?

You can see much better pictures at the Florida Native Orchid blog,

Can you suggest another rare-but-not-impossible-to-find warm weather plant to keep our punch-plant game going once the toothpetal orchids are gone?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


By B

Hello! I'm going to share a big idea today that my mom and I are going to do. We were planning to go to every single park in Pinellas County. But my mom looked it up, and there were more than 400 parks in Pinellas County! That includes playing parks and sports parks as well as nature parks. We could never see all those in a year unless I quit school! (And I can't do that – I love school.)

So we decided to only go to all of the NATURE PARKS. There are still plenty of those in Pinellas. Our resolution is to visit every single nature park, preserve (and even regular parks with a lot of trees) and then tell you about them. We'll have pictures, and my mom and I will tell you our favorite parts.

You can do it too! Next week we'll talk about Brooker Creek Park. You can go there, and tell us what you think about it. You can send email to LuAndBTwoWithNature <at> gmail (dot) com.

Bye-bye! I'll see you next week!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sphinx Moth Caterpillar

By Lu
I'm the vulture of nature photographers. I seem to get my best shots of nature that is dead, injured, displaced or in distress. This is some sort of sphinx moth caterpillar, I'm pretty sure. Most sphinx moth caterpillars have a spike at their tail end, making the family easy to identify. This one was on the pedestrian trail at Walsingham Park, looking very miserable to be exposed. He appeared to have a minor injury near his eyespots.

A sphinx moth caterpillar at Walsingham Park.
Someone just mentioned hummingbird moths, and I said I wasn't sure if they had them in Florida. Well, this guy is in the same family as hummingbird and hawk moths. He might even be one. I'll try to narrow down his exact species. Doesn't he look like an elephant seal here?

The front end of a sphinx moth caterpillar. (But those aren't his eyes.)

I moved him off the path and he toddled away. I think he'll be okay.

Safe off the path and in the woods.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hey, Where's the Rest of that Horseshoe Crab?

By B

Hi friends, are you ready to talk about horseshoe crabs? Good!

Horseshoe Crab Molt
Found in Bonner Park, Largo, FL

Lately I've been finding lots of what I thought were small dead horseshoe crabs. I wondered what was killing them. Then I noticed these horseshoe crabs don't weigh very much. I did a little reading (and asked my mom) and found out that these aren't really horseshoe crabs – they are just their exoskeletons!

(I love the word exoskeleton. We used to find lots of cicada exoskeletons when we lived in Kentucky.)

Things with hard shells can't grow as long as that shell is there. So they have to molt, or get rid of their shell for a while so they can get bigger. What a relief! I'm glad they weren't all dead. Plus the shed shells smell much better than dead crabs when you save them for your collection.

I hope you enjoyed this story about horseshoe crabs. Bye until next time!

Horseshoe Crab Facts from Lu:

*Horseshoe crabs are arthropods, a group that includes insects, spiders and crabs.
*They aren't really crabs – they're more closely related to spiders and scorpions.
*When horseshoe crabs are in love, they pair up and go to very shallow water (the intertidal region, between high and low tide) and the female lays up to 120,000 eggs. It is thought that, like sea turtles, they return to the same beach where they were born to lay their eggs.
*Horseshoe crabs have blue blood!
*Young horseshoe crabs molt several times a year, while older ones usually molt only once each year, usually in summer. (Which is probably why B was finding smaller molts this winter... though since this is Florida, some seasonal things are skewed, and I'd guess you can find adult sheds year-round.)

Save a Horseshoe Crab!

Horseshoe crab numbers are declining, for several reasons. Habitat loss is a biggie. They are also used as bait for whelk and eel traps, and their unique blood is harvested for medical use. (They are usually released after blood draw, but the mortality rate is still as high as 15% in some cases.)

Many will also die during mating season when they are flipped on their backs as the tide is going out. In the water they can usually right themselves, but on land they'll die of exposure unless you help. Save a horseshoe crab's life by simply flipping her (or him) back over. They are absolutely harmless – they don't bite or pinch. Don't pick them up by their tail, which is deceptively fragile. Just grasp them by the side of the shell, turn them over and help save the species.

You can also help by reporting signs of spawning to the Florida Horseshoe Crab Survey of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. If you see two horseshoe crabs in love (as B and I put it) let them know!
(Florida horseshoe crabs can mate year-round, but mostly in spring. I'll try to remind you again around then.)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Wood Storks Kicked Off The Endangered List

Photo courtesy of Daniel Prentice,
our beloved nephew/cousin.
 The girl in the photo has been made rather awkwardly anonymous
 because we don't know who she is.

Apparently, once a bird starts behaving like a seagull, it is no longer endangered. B and I spotted this wood stork in Lake Seminole Park, lurking near picnickers like an angelic buzzard, an elegant harpy. One little boy told me it stole his hamburger. (Though I think he might have been complicit.) Another girl, left alone at the picnic table, engaged in a staring match with the stork as it edged closer and closer. The bird was about as tall as she was. At last she bribed it with some lettuce, which it nosed through in a disappointed way before begging for better fare. It harassed the picnickers – in a very mild mannered, patient, lugubrious sort of way – for the whole hour I was at the park.

(A lecture about how very, very wrong it is to feed most wildlife will follow in some future blog.)

Despite their bald heads and necks (or maybe because of it – I'm very fond of vultures too) wood storks are beautiful birds. They are one of the species success stories I've been able to witness in my lifetime. When I was a little girl, wood storks were rare and wondrous things. I might see a couple every year. Now, in Pinellas County, I can see dozens in a day, wading in parks or soaring overhead on rising air currents.

By my own observations, they seem to have made a remarkable comeback. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently recommended that the wood stork be removed from the endangered species list. I wonder if this is a good idea, though. Because even though I've seen a lot of wood storks, not very many actually nest in Florida, particularly compared with the hundred thousand or so that used to nest here. Their colonies have rebounded in Georgia and the Carolinas, but here in Florida they just don't breed like they used to. If a species is expanding other places, but not breeding as well in its historic range, isn't there still a problem?

It probably doesn't matter in actual practice – the species is still considered threatened, and most regulations should still be in effect. Where it matters is in people's mindsets. They are endangered because their habitat is in danger, and we need that big, scary word – ENDANGERED – as a tool to help people remember how important it is to preserve wood storks and save wetlands.

Wetland restoration and species preservation have come a long way in the last several decades. And I know FWS must want the sense of victory that comes with declaring that a species is no longer endangered. It shows they are doing their job. But I think it is a little too soon to strip wood storks of their endangered status. Even if they are acting like seagulls.

You can voice your opinion at –!documentDetail;D=FWS-R4-ES-2012-0020-0001 through February 25, 2013.The site also has some of the data that led to the decision, as well as interesting information on wood storks in general.