Panther Island Adventures!

Panther Island is 2,800 acres of restored wetland and upland habitats situated in the northwest corner of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary's 13,000 acres. It is home to numerous plants and animals including the Florida panther and the iconic wood stork.
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Monday, October 31, 2011

Critter of the Week: Coyote (Canis latrans)

Photo taken in Yellowstone National Park a few years ago.

Coyotes have an interesting history. Once a species found only in the western portion of the United States, it can now be found throughout the eastern United States, including Florida, reaching the northwestern region of the state in the 1970s. While this range expansion is a natural phenomenon, it was also aided by human trafficking. People would capture the animals in the western US and ship them to be released in Florida. Their scientific name, Canis latrans, actually means "barking dog" while the common name is derived from coyotl which is the name used by Mexico's Nahuatl Indians.

Photo above was taken at Babcock-Webb WMA, Florida

A member of the dog family, coyotes range from 20 and 30 pounds, and are considered the best runners of the canids, cruising along at a clip of 25-30 mph and can get up to speeds of 40 mph for short sprints. They can also make leaps of 14 ft.! One way to distinguish them from other canids is the way they hold their tail when running. Domestic dogs hold their tails up and wolves hold theirs straight.

Mating occurs in late winter when the females are in heat, and this is the only time in the year they will breed b/c the males sperm is only active this time of year (unlike domestic dogs whose is active year-round). Gestation lasts for 63 days and then an average of 6 pups per litter is born. Both parents and sometimes offspring from the previous year will rear the young. Dens, often in brush piles, hollow logs and burrows, are used until pups are about 8-10 weeks old. Pups will start exploring the world outside the den when about 3 weeks old. Around 9 months old the parental care ends and the pups begin to disperse to set up their own territories; however some pups will stay within the parents territory and assist with the next years litter. Pairing between parents may last for several years or even a lifetime. It may seem coyotes are extremely social like wolves, but in reality the basic social structure consist of just the breeding pair and their offspring with the strongest bonding occurring during breeding. Coyotes do have territories and their are resident (having established territories shared by family) and transient animals (typically younger animals living on the fringe of resident territories). The home ranges vary greatly in size (1,500 to 12,000 acres) depending on the population size and resources available (water, food, den sites, etc).

Photo above taken in Yellowstone National Park

Coyotes are highly adaptable and will forage on numerous different critters (an opportunist). They eat rabbits, mice, rats, fruits, birds, snakes, insects, and carrion. They usually hunt alone but will work together sometimes. I have seen them on Panther Island before, but the frequency of sitings is few and far, far between.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Critter of the Week: Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

As the weather starts to turn cooler, I start to see fewer and fewer butterflies. The one seen here is a black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) which is easily confused with a spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus)...and I hope I got this right after staring at numerous photos of both species and mine! Their vibrant colors can be seen as they flit across marshes, open areas, fields, meadows and gardens. This species exhibits sexual dimorphism (males and females vary in appearance). Adults feed on nectar of numerous plants including (but not limited to) thistles, milkweed, and red clover. Males will actually mix perching and patrolling for receptive females.

So once mating has occurred, females will lay eggs singly on host plants which are then consumed by the larvae. What plants are caterpillar hosts you ask? Well members of the parsley family (Apiaceae) which includes: dill, celery, carrots, and Queen Anne's lace. In some regions plants from the citrus famila (Rutaceae) are used...which is quite likely down here.

This is a relatively common butterfly and thus far there are no conservation concerns associated with them. However, things can change so lets keep protecting a wide variety of habitat!

Please click the link above for more information about the black swallowtail life cycle!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Plant of the Week: Saltmwarsh Mallow (Kosteltzkya pentacarpos)

The saltmarsh mallow (Kosteltzkya pentacarpos) is actually a member of the hibiscus (Malvaceae) family . Commonly found in Florida in saltmarshes and freshwater wetlands, it often goes unnoticed. And then one day the beautiful flowers draw your eye. This perennial plant is hermaphroditic (having both male and female reproductive organs). It can bloom anytime from the spring into the fall. It grows to 4-6 ft. tall and only lives about 5 years. This native plant is available commercially, and it would be a great addition to any hummingbird or butterfly gardens since it does attract these lovely critters (as a nectar source).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Critter of the Week Oct. 10: Black-bellied Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis )

During the summer months, I must admit I sometimes get down and out while working because of the heat and bugs. But the wildlife keeps me smiling...especially our year-round resident black-bellied whistling ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis). These medium-sized ducks have long necks and long, pink legs, and imagine this...a black belly. I readily identify them in my area from their red bills. In flight, one can see a large white patch their wings. Their call is a wheezy and musical whistling, quite distinctive!
These ducks nest in tree cavities or boxes near water. Often one sees them in large flocks. I typically see them along the edge of the flow-way in flocks ranging from 2-10. The largest flock I have counted on Panther Island is 32! They are, in fact, breeding on Panther Island as I have seen ducklings on occasion.
Black-bellied whistling ducks forage on grass, grain, insects, mollusks, and aquatic plants. Behaviorally, they actually resemble swans and geese in that they lack sexual dimorphism (visual difference between males and females of the same species), form pretty long pair-bonds, and have relatively simple pair-forming behavior.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Plant of the Week: Sugarcane Plume Grass (Saccharum giganteum)

Field of sugarcane plume down at Corkscrew

Fall has to be one of my favorite times of year out on Panther Island. People talk about the brilliant colors of the trees up north, but we have our own special colors down here! And one plant that always impresses me with its coloring is sugarcane plume grass (Saccharum giganteum). This lovely plant is commonly found growing in a variety of habitats including: marshes, wetter pine flatwoods, lakes shores, and more. I typically have this growing in wet prairies at Panther Island.

This native was once a dominant grassland plant throughout the southeastern United States; however as has happened in numerous places it has been extirpated in lots of areas since humans arrived here. There are approximately ten species of plume grasses in the United States. I am also happy to say that this plant is increasing and spreading on Panther Island as we manage to knock back invasives even farther on the restored land.