SUMMER ENDS (SORT OF)

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Actually, summer never completely ends in Florida, at least as far as temperature is concerned.  Summer-like temperatures can occur in the middle of February, which is only one of the reasons any true Floridian (even a pseudo-native like me) could never consider living anywhere else.   But there are subtle changes signaling the change of seasons, and they begin as early as August.  The first undeniable sign that summer is winding down is the arrival of the first migrant birds.  I'll get back to them later, though.  Late summer is marked by distinct changes in weather, such as the more frequent appearance of thunderstorms developing early in the morning.  I experienced these morning storms several times in August and September, and though it made bird photography an order of magnitude more difficult, there was something refreshing about a somber, gray, threatening morning.

The two shots above left were taken during a mild drizzle. The small flock of wood storks, egrets, and one roseate spoonbill (mostly hidden behind one of the storks at the rear of the flock) was just hanging out, waiting for a break in the weather.  Wood storks began appearing in late summer in flocks of a couple to a couple dozen birds, but haven't spent a lot of time in the areas of the flow-way I visit.  Usually I see them flying over.  The third shot was taken during a rapidly approaching storm.  Once the wind starts whipping up to about 30 mph, clouds scudding rapidly across the sky, and lightning begins striking within a mile or two, it can get a bit spooky sitting out in the middle of a levee surrounded by nothing but marsh.  Good thing for my state of mind that I believe in a Farraday cage.   After a rain, flowers and vegetation such as this moonflower on the right (a big, nocturnally blooming morning glory - that one's for you, Gene) are all drenched and lush.

 

Sunny mornings still get a bit steamy early, yet have their own charm.  On the west side of the flow-way, where one of the levees I census parallels Haines Creek, there are a couple of miles of wonderful edge habitat between the creek on the left, the marshes on the right, and a corridor of hackberries and other trees mixed with shrubby vegetation along the dike itself.  In late summer, the number of insects, especially butterflies, along these sunlit edges are impressive.  The butterfly on the right is a tawny emperor, one of the hackberry-feeding members of the genus Asterocampa. Of course, where there are flying insects in Florida, and room to hang a web, the big golden silk spiders, Nephila clavipes, are sure to be found.

        
    Viceroys are sometimes incredibly dense along these corridors, especially in areas where willows, their larval food plant, grow nearby in the marsh.  This guy was methodically swabbing the hackberry foliage with his proboscis one morning, though I couldn't see much besides dew for him to imbibe.  The gulf fritillaries on the left were a bit more obvious (and disgusting) in their target - they were relishing this big, long bobcat turd.  Many butterflies will imbibe fluid from the scat of animals, especially carnivores.  There are probably some amino acids or other nutrients still in there that they can use.

Activity and composition of the bird fauna is in transition in late summer.  The rookeries that were filled with thousands of birds a month earlier have pretty much emptied out, and numbers of some species are showing dramatic changes.

               
The closely related anhingas and cormorants show opposite trends.  Anhingas are still present in large numbers, widespread, and obvious wherever they occur, but the total numbers have decreased from the one to two hundred birds I recorded per census in mid-summer to less than seventy-five on a typical day.  Cormorants, on the other hand, are starting to increase in numbers, though they never are quite as abundant as the anhingas.  Great blue herons and most of the other ciconiiforms are still present and generally conspicuous, but in lower numbers than a few weeks earlier for most species. 

The purple gallinules (middle, above)   took a big nose dive within a couple of weeks.  From midsummer counts of 30-40 birds per census, by mid-September counts are down to fewer than 10 birds per trip.   Whether this represents changes in behavior and habitat use, or departure of many of the birds for wintering grounds further south, I don't know.  Maybe both.  Limpkins (above right) are a bit more constant.  One to sometimes three or four birds are present on most censuses.

      One of the most remarkable natural history events I have yet witnessed at Emeralda occurred on September 16.  In one of the large pools on the south side of the flow-way, normally aerated by gushing inflow from a pump, the pump had been shut off.  This apparently lowered levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, forcing thousands (probably hundreds of thousands) of 2-4" long catfish to come to the surface and gulp air.  All of the objects that look  like little sticks on the left are fish.  Every bit of open water in the pool was packed with them.

Several species of herons and egrets, as well as several large alligators, had congregated around the pool to feed.  I saw several great egrets manipulating fish before swallowing them, and I tentatively id'ed them as small bullheads.  The big gators would charge and gape through the schools, sending them scurrying in a million directions.  This was around 8:30 in the morning; when I drove back by this pool at about 10:30, the fish had disappeared.  A brief rain shower at around 9:30 may have aerated the water enough to allow the catfish to return to their normal positions.  Truly an amazing spectacle while it lasted.   I only wish the light had allowed for better photographs of this (perhaps) once in a lifetime event.

The most exciting change signaling the end of summer, though, was the arrival of migrant birds.  They're next.

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