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Florida’s Coastal Friends
A tri-colored heron enjoys the hunt along a grassy shoreline. PHOTOS BY BOB MCCONVILLE

Florida’s Coastal Friends

Stepping Stones
Bob McConville

Is it a snowy egret? No, it doesn’t have a black beak or black legs. Is it a great egret? No, it doesn’t have a yellow beak. It does have green legs, though, a dead giveaway that it is an immature little blue heron. It will turn very dark blue in a few seasons.

Is it a snowy egret? No, it doesn’t have a black beak or black legs. Is it a great egret? No, it doesn’t have a yellow beak. It does have green legs, though, a dead giveaway that it is an immature little blue heron. It will turn very dark blue in a few seasons.

Hello, Mother Nature, and thank you”! This is the anthem I sing when visiting any portion of the state’s coastline. From the panhandle beaches on around to Marco Island to the northernmost points of our ocean areas, there is an abundance of plant and animal life to be appreciated. It would be easy to write several books about this topic and cover the entire coastal region. Because I get writer’s cramp very quickly, this brief space will be dedicated to the live treasures found on Marco Island.

It is appropriate to start with the plant life since the type of plants and trees in any region usually determine the marine and land animals found there. The most important of these area trees is the red mangrove. Without them our entire ecosystem would be completely changed.

Most trees would not last a week in the salt and brackish waters around our island. Not so with the red mangrove. Their unique root system props the base of the tree above the water line. At high tide, the tangled roots can block out the salt from the water and still provide nourishment. At lower tides, the roots can open their pores and allow oxygen to enter. The seed, known as a propagule, is germinated while still on the parent. When it falls, it will stick like a dart in the mud, ready to put forth leaves and roots immediately. Other seeds will be carried by area waters until they find a mudbank or oyster bed and eventually form a new island or join an existing one. These propagules can float for more than a year in salt water without rooting.

Leaves will fall all year long and decompose. Bacteria will colonize here, and break down the chemical nature until it can be absorbed by many clams, snails and crabs that depend wholly on this substance for their diet. More than 200 fish species utilize this nursery area. The littlest guy is eaten by the bigger guy or birds. The bigger guy is eaten by even bigger guys or bigger birds and so the chain continues. The bird population here consists mainly of herons, egrets, pelicans and a variety of “seagulls”. The seagulls are not all technically gulls. Many are terns, willets, plovers, sanderlings and others. A guide book to Florida shorebirds will help you learn the difference.

While taking a walk on South Beach New Year’s Day, I noticed about 100 black “seagulls” with peculiar beaks. The top of the bill, or upper mandible, was noticeably an inch or so shorter than the bottom mandible. These gulls are actually black skimmers. This tern-like bird drags the lower bill through the water as it flies along, hoping to catch small fish. When the lower bill touches a fish, the upper bill snaps down instantly to grasp it.

We can’t forget the two main raptors in the area: the osprey and the bald eagle. I saw four different eagles recently in the same day. When fully fledged, the white head, white tail and yellow beak make this national symbol easy to spot. They have an acute sense of sight, and attack their prey by swooping down on them at speeds approaching 160 miles per hour. It is not unusual for them to climb to heights of 10,000 feet, nearly two miles high. Although they sometimes appear gigantic, they normally weigh about 12-15 pounds. Their 7,000 feathers make them look so large.

My favorite bird — and very common around Marco — is the osprey. This time of year, you will see pairs on many of the channel markers in our waters. It is mating season, and eggs are being laid at this time. Here in this area, there is little migration by these birds of prey, although many ospreys worldwide may log up to 160,000 miles during a 15-20 year lifespan. One bird with a tracking device flew from Martha’s Vineyard, MA, to French Guiana, South America, in 13 days. That’s 2,700 miles in less than 2 weeks! Here, they have everything they need and no need to go anywhere.

Thanks again, Mother Nature, for just a few of these area gifts. From the formation of a resilient tree to the other plants and animals that call Marco Island home, thank you for creating such a diverse playground. It is here for us to enjoy, to appreciate and to respect. It is here for us to understand.

Learn more. Go buy a book. Go take a tour. Embrace Marco.

 

Bob is a Florida Master Naturalist and a member of The Dolphin Explorer’s 10,000 Island dolphin survey team. He is a member of Florida SEE (Society for Ethical Ecotourism) and a certified python spotter. Bob loves his wife very much!


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