For those who are interested in nature study, it’s intriguing to consider what areas are the “hottest” in terms of biodiversity. You might think it would be the official nature preserves, but this is often not the case. Sometimes it is land preserved for other purposes as forest, recreational, or even hunting lands such as Babcock Webb Wildlife Management Area (http://bit.ly/2Kof3Aw).
On a recent visit to the Webb with the Peace River Butterfly Society I was reminded of how wonderful this place is — not just for hunters, but also those who enjoy the “real Florida” prior to development.
You get the first indication that this is a great natural area in the parking lot, since a loggerhead shrike greets you. This tiny but fierce predatory bird is famous for impaling its prey on thorns or barbed wire fences. I am always impressed by the black mask which appears to be a device to camouflage the dark predatory eye from prey. This is an increasingly rare species, so it’s a treat to see it so easily.
There are numerous ponds and canals with water birds, and a short distance away along the roadside there is an area with blooming wild coco orchids. Trip leader Steve Scott’s wife Olivia had noticed the leaves of this rarely seen plant earlier before it was in bloom and made a note to check on them in October. Orchids usually have tiny seeds which require a symbiotic association with mycorrhizal fungi to survive. This area for some unknown reason is very suitable and the plant flourishes.
As we drove and walked the back roads, we watched for interesting natural events. For example, there was a turtle in one of the wheel ruts. I didn’t think too much about it, since it’s a common occurrence to see softshells and peninsula cooters making nests.
Yet as we approached, this turned out to be a rarely seen chicken turtle. We felt badly to disturb her but were impressed by her beautiful shell. I could feel the eggs in her abdomen and am sure she will make another nest for her precious eggs. Many if not most turtle eggs are eaten by predators, but the long lives of adult turtles compensate for these early losses.
There were a great variety of butterflies seen, including a mature black swallowtail caterpillar we almost stepped on. For such a brightly colored caterpillar, it’s camouflaged amazingly well in its habitat. This young swallowtail was feeding on a water dropwort, a plant in the carrot family (Apiaceae, or umbellifers). The adult is a mimic of the poisonous pipevine swallowtail.
A common buckeye was seen basking in the roadway. This butterfly incorporates a number of eye spots in its wing coloration to scare away birds. Some blue pickerelweed blooming in a wetland attracted a palmetto skipper. Some other rarely seen butterflies we observed were tiny but attractive little metalmarks and a mallow scrub hairstreak. Hairstreaks are interesting since their pattern incorporates an eye spot and the rear wings have false antennae — an apparent attempt to divert the strike of predators, including jumping spiders, away from the vulnerable head.
If you want to venture out into the wilderness of southern Charlotte County looking for real nature, ignore the sounds of guns firing at the rifle range at Webb WMA and enjoy one of the few spots left where you may find a vibrant remnant of original natural Florida.