Observing Small Species at GTM Reserve

In Northeast Florida, the summers are hot and extremely humid. But this week, it was slightly cooler. The early morning temperatures were in the mid-70s (low-20s C), and it didn’t approach 90 (32 C) until 11:00. No rain was expected, so I decided to head out to Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM) to do some birding.

I arrived at 7:40. Sometimes the gate to the trailhead parking-lot is locked until 8:15 or so, but today it stood open. So things were off to a good start.

As I crossed onto the path leading to the trailhead, I spotted several Red-eyed Vireos, a new-to-me species.

Red-eyed Vireo

Further down the path, a doe crossed the road with her yearling fawn.

I stood at the trailhead, and considered the map. I like the Orange Trail, but today I opted for the shadier Purple loop.

The birds seemed unusually skittish. With visitor numbers reduced due to Covid-19 and high temperatures, perhaps they’ve become less accustomed to people. The birds also stayed in the upper stories, where it was breezier and possibly cooler. I could see them flutter silently from tree to tree, but they were out of range or backlit against the sky.

So I turned my attention to smaller creatures. I noticed a Golden Silk Orb Weaver (Nephila clavipes), which had spun its web between two towering trees. It appeared suspended in the sky. Backlighting prevented photography, but no worries. I came across at least ten of these massive spiders. The spider below had stretched its web directly across the path.

Golden Silk Orb Weaver (Nephila clavipes). This spider has lost a leg, but it will be regenerated with the next molt.

For more information about this placid giant, check out this video by Corey Wild. (Warning: The intro is loud, so turn down the volume until the content begins.)

I noticed a small tiny web on the frond of a Saw Palmetto. The red markings on its 4-mm owner made me suspect a venomous Widow species. I later learned that I’d seen a harmless Orchard Spider (Leucauge venusta).

Orchard Spider (Leucauge venusta)

I passed through an area swarming with flies and mosquitoes. I’d worn long hiking pants, and had secured them around the ankles with rubber bands. I secured the top button of my shirt and draped a mosquito net over my hat. Covering my binocular lenses, I sprayed insect repellent over my hat, across my back and chest, and then down my arms and legs. A few flies persisted and landed on the netting. Any insects landing on my arms were easily shaken off.

As the temperature rose and the sun became more intense, the flies and mosquitoes dissipated.

I spotted a Horned Passalus Beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus) crossing the path. This large beetle (30-40 mm; 1.2-1.6 inches) feeds on fallen logs. The larvae are raised within such logs by both parents. For more information about the Horned Passalus, visit the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology web site.

Horned Passalus Beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus)

After walking a couple of miles, I stopped at a bench to peek at a small web nestled in a crevice beneath the seat. I was unable to spot the occupant, and sat down to enjoy some nuts and a swallow of water. There was a quick movement, and I noticed I was being watched. A tiny Regal Jumping Spider (Phidippus regius) was observing me from the end of the bench. I attempted to photograph it, but it disappeared between the boards, only to reappear on the bench’s opposite end.

Regal Jumping Spider (Phidippus regius)

A short distance away, I noticed a type of mushroom I’d never seen before. They projected upward like large fingers. These were Stinkhorn Mushrooms (Phallus impudicus), which emit a smell similar to a rotting carcass.

Stinkhorn Mushroom (Phallus impudicus)

Across from these were more mushrooms I’ve never before noticed. These furry specimens are Lentinus crinitus. I’ve read that they are edible and saw two that appeared to have been sampled, possibly by a deer.

Lentinus crinitus

Throughout my walk, I saw Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio polyxenes asterius), which are large and black with bright yellow bands across the base of the tail. But then I noticed another large, black butterfly. It’s wings were iridescent blue toward the base, and the underside had large, orange spots. These, I learned, are also Eastern Black Swallowtails. The males have the yellow striping; the females iridescent blue.

Eastern Black Swallowtail male (Papilio polyxenes asterius)

At a stagnant pond, I spotted a second new-to-me bird-species – a Waterthrush. There are two Waterthrushes in Northeast Florida that look nearly identical. How could I tell one from another?

I noticed that this bird continually bobbed its tail up-and-down, and I hoped that this might prove a distinguishing feature. Indeed, it did. The Northern Waterthrush bobs its tail up and down, while the Louisiana Waterthrush wags its tail from side to side.

Northern Waterthrush

I came to the end of the Purple Trail and, on the way to the parking lot, noticed small purple flowers, about 3 cm (1.5 inches) across. These are from a vining plant called the Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum).

Spurred Butterfly Pea flower (Centrosema virginianum)

A garter snake noticed me long before I noticed it. I saw only the tail as it slithered into the grass.

I didn’t see as many birds as I’d have liked. But sometimes success comes when we redirect our goals and allow the unexpected to happen. Today I saw many new things. And once home, I used my sightings to learn more about my environment. Aside from the mosquitoes, all creatures and plants encountered were completely harmless. As usual, I learned that nature is to be enjoyed rather than feared.

Photo Credits:
Red-eyed Vireo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren
Orchard Spider by Gail Hampshire
Regal Jumping Spider by David Hill
Eastern Black Swallowtail by Bernell
Northern Waterthrush by dfaulder
Spurred Butterfly Pea flower by Hans Hillewaert
All other photos (c) Carol Fullerton-Samsel 2020

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Published by cafsamsel

Carol Fullerton-Samsel is a nearly-native Floridian who lives with her husband of 25 years and three rescue animals. She has a passion for day-hiking and nature, and also enjoys writing. Be sure to visit the TenPaths YouTube channel, which is still in its infancy.

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