It was a grey day - damp and drizzly - and a brisk wind rustled the grasses over the white sand of Santa Rosa Island, just past 7am. Lately, I haven't made it out for my usual galavantings in nature. However, today was a pleasant exception. I found a bit of time in the middle of the week for a quick walk across Santa Rosa Island. I started trecking towards the Sound over the dunes and enjoying the plant life - especially tallgrasses and wildflowers. A couple coastal, sand-dune specialists - Spanish bayonette (Yucca aloifolia) and seaside goldenrod (Solidego stricta) - are natives to the barrier islands of Florida.
As usual, I gravitated towards the wetlands. A small, marshy depression between the dunes flushed up a Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata), which took off over the dunes to put some distance between itself and the tall, bearded intruder in its habitat. It got me looking downwards, searching for sign and scanning for tracks. I found little sign of the snipe - just a few holes in the silt and some tracks - but I noticed fresh coyote tracks that had just passed through. It had recently rained - sometime around dawn - so the coyote tracks couldn't have been more than an hour old. My adventurous spirit kicked in and I committed myself to following the tracks to their end.
As I followed the coyote tracks, I made some observations on the plant life from the dunes and wetlands. Water-loving plants - like the appropriately named October flower (Polygonum polygamum), the regal bulltongue arrowhead (Sagittaria lancifolia), and the pricly needlepod rush (Juncus scirpoides) - are always a pleasure for a wetlands ecologist like myself. I also enjoyed finding some leaves of the bogbutton (Lachnocaulon engleri), looking fresh and green far benieth the brown stems of last years growth. Between the stems were fresh winding clubmoss (Lycopodiella) and tiny buttons of pink sundew (Drosera capillaris). The microcosmos of small wetland plants is worth a second look for any self-respecting naturalist. A few dune-loving species stood out to me, like rabbit tobaco (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) and dune-stabilizing grasses (e.g. Uniola paniculata and Panicum amarum). One interesting wildflower growing in the dunes appears to be some species of Helenium, possibly H. amarum, the bitter sneezeweed. The shifting sands seem to have changed its growth pattern - causing it to look something like a skinny mupet with a big, broom-like head! Other wildflowers included Canadian horseweed (Erigeron canadensis), pinewoods milkweed (Asclepias humistrata), the wonderfully parasitic dodder (Cuscuta), and berries from dune greenbrier (Smilax auriculata).
I never did find my coyotes. I followed their tracks over a couple large dunes, to a discarded pumpkin, and around a wooded area before they disolved into thick shrubbery and shallow wetlands. Alas! The most interesting wildlife I beheld were the ever present mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos), an offended kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), several palm warblers (Setophaga palmarum), and a lovely (rather curious) yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus). But I'm not disapointed. The most enjoyable aspect of all of this is the exploration - the engagement with active curiosity. So I happily follow sidetrails to wildflowers and insects.
As I made my way back toward the Gulf, I stopped to appreciate a native pollinator - the small carpenter bee Ceratina cockerelli. I simply adore native bees and their ingenious diversity. It got me looking for other pollinators and I wasn't dissapointed. A common buckeye (Junonia coenia), made slightly drowsy by the cool morning, was resting at the base of the dune grasses. I took two close shots; one of the wings open from above, and other one from the side. I felt that the side view was particularly aesthetic - and it showcased the subtle beauty of this butterfly's camouflage.
The waves were roaring lowdly when I arrived back on the Gulf side of the island. I watched the breakers send crests gusting back over their heads as they rolled in against the wind. I wasn't the only one resting on the sand. A hodgepodge of birds from herons (Ardea herodias), to terns (Thalasseus maximus and Sterna forsteri) and gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla), to diminutive sanderlings (Calidris alba). The sanderlings are particularly interesting. They hunch their backs and run angrily at any other small birds that infringe upon their personal space.