It really does freeze in Florida sometimes

Frost on turkey oak leaves.
Frost on turkey oak leaves

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “(Extra)ordinary,” here are some leaves from an extremely ordinary tree. Turkey oaks are all over Florida. They’re so common you kind of stop seeing them after a while. They are scrubby, brittle trees that fall over if you look at them wrong. But that’s fine, because a hundred little saplings will sprout from the roots.

I took this on a cold morning a few years ago, when I was helping with a bobwhite quail survey in the Florida panhandle. I arrived at dawn, took up my post on a specific point at the edge of a field. It was a very cold morning for the area, and there was still frost on the leaves and grass as the sun rose. It made even the ordinary, scrubby, weed-like turkey oaks beautiful.

I took a couple of pictures and then stood there, shivering, and listened very hard. After a while, I almost started to hallucinate possible quail calls. Then I heard some real ones that reminded me of what they really sound like. You can hear it, too.

Guest Post: Northern Red-Bellied Snake

In spite of being originally from Appalachia, I have been neglecting it here, due to lack of photos. This week, Sara Bean has stepped in to help fill that gap with a species from her backyard. Sara is a fantasy, nature, and fantastical-nature artist from West Virginia. Along with her photography, she creates whimsical sculptures and paintings that are a mix of surreal and adorable. Her monsterized paintings are a creepy delight to behold. You can find her work at The Attic Studio.   — Bethany

Whether grubbing around in my flowerbeds or wandering through the woods, the snake I encounter most often is the Northern Red-Bellied Snake.

Northern Red-Bellied Snakes. Photo by Sara Bean
Northern Red-Bellied Snakes. Photos by Sara Bean

Although my trusty Audubon guide states that these snakes range from 8 to 16 inches in length, most of those that I find are on the smaller end of that range. When born (via live birth), these little critters measure just 3 to 4 inches long.

Red-Bellied Snake. Photo by Sara Bean
Baby Northern Red-Bellied Snake. Photo by Sara Bean

As the name suggests, Northern Red-Bellies (henceforth referred to as NRBs) typically have vivid red bellies — with an occasional yellow or grey-bellied snake thrown into the mix to confuse matters. The dorsal side of their bodies can range widely in color from red-brown to dark grey, either plain or with one to five dark stripes. Their heads are typically dark, with three pale yellow-brown spots on the back of the neck. Sometimes the spots fuse to form a collar or ring, causing some amateur herpetologists confuse NRBs with the more common Ringneck snake.

Red-Bellied Snake and Ringneck Snake. Photo by Sara Bean
Northern Red-Bellied Snake and Ringneck Snake Comparison. Photos by Sara Bean

NRBs prey on garden pests like slugs (gardeners rejoice!) as well as earthworms and other small invertebrates. They are benign and easily handled, seldom displaying any signs of alarm or distress when picked up. If they do feel threatened they’ll curl their upper lip in what looks suspiciously like a sneer of disdain, or assume a pose that makes them look like a very tiny adder. As they’re so tiny and cute, this display is not very convincing to snake enthusiasts. Luckily it does work on some predators, as a wide variety of wildlife from shrews to raccoons to birds of prey find NRBs quite tasty.

Northern Ringneck Snake. Photo by Sara Bean
Northern Red-Bellied Snake. Photo by Sara Bean

Post by Sara Bean.

Guest Post: Tulsi

In spite of its focus on a single region of a single country, Overlooked Nature has a surprisingly international readership. So, to take advantage of my viewers’ wide-ranging knowledge, I’m introducing a new monthly-ish feature: International Featured Creatures! My first guest blogger is Anand from blabberwockying!, one of the most prolific, upbeat, and friendly bloggers I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with. — Bethany


Ocimum tenuiflorum, also known as Ocimum sanctumholy basil, or Tulsi, is an aromatic plant in the family Lamiaceae which is native to the Indian subcontinent and widespread as a cultivated plant throughout the Southeast Asian tropics. It is an erect, many branched subshrub, with tall and hairy stems and simple green or purple leaves that are strongly scented.

The word Tulsi literally means “The Incomparable One.” Tulsi is one of the most used plants in Hindu Indian families. Hinduism has a great respect for this plant and it has been revered in scriptures and mythologies for at least last 5000 years. The leaves of this plant are used to worship deities.The stalks and branches of this plant are used in sacrificial fire rituals called Homams which purify the environment. They are also used to prepare beads of rosaries which are used to wear around the necks and also for chanting by devotees.

In Ayurveda, Tulsi is known as elixir of life, as it promotes longevity. It’s an adaptogen and it balances various processes in body. It’s consumed in various forms such as dried leaves, green leaves, powder, in herbal tea and in many cuisines. Thai cuisine uses it under name Thai Holy Basil. Some researchers have claimed that Tulsi has the capacity to help patients fighting with cancer.

It’s also a deity called Vrinda, Vaishnavi, Haripriya, Rama and by many other names in Indian mythology. Vrindavan is a place of pilgrimage in North India which was named so because it had a lot of Tulsi groves in ancient times. The word Vrinda is for Tulsi and Van is for Woods–so this place got its name from the groves of Tulsi it had.

The two varieties of Tulsi leaves grown in Indian subcontinent have green and purple leaves. It has an astringent taste and a distinct aroma which is sweet. This plant is kept in almost every house and serving it is considered very auspicious in Indian tradition. Every worship and ritual among Hindus is incomplete without Tulsi, especially amongst Vaishnavites.

Some rights reserved. Photographer: Vinayaraj
Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 (CC BY-SA 3.0) Some rights reserved. Photographer: Vinayaraj

Anand is a retired blogger who likes to write on mysticism, astrology, films and life.

Fireline

No Featured Creature post today. School has taken over my life for the next few weeks. I’ll have some guest posts to fill in the gap. In the meantime, here’s my submission for The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Boundaries.”

It would be hard to think of a situation where boundaries are more important than in prescribed fire! Here’s one of my professors making sure a fire in the North Carolina sandhills doesn’t cross the road and re-ignite all those fallen needles on the other side.

Fireline
Click for bigger.

Red Spotted Newt

Newts are familiar to most people, or at least the word “newt” is, whether as the name of one of the US’s more infamous politicians or as the thing you get turned into when you annoy a witch. But what is a newt, exactly?

It’s a type of salamander. There are many species of newts, but the only one in my area is the red spotted newt, or Eastern newt, which lives throughout most of eastern North America.

Like the mole salamander, the newt has a complicated life cycle. It, too, hatches from eggs laid in ponds, and its larval form is aquatic. So is its adult form. But it has another, in-between stage in which it lives on land. Newts in this stage are called “efts.” They are the form most commonly seen — not only because they live on land instead of in ponds, but also because efts are red. (They’re also poisonous. Their color acts as a warning.)

Red Spotted Newt (Eft)
Eft from western North Carolina

 

After a couple years of this carefree land-roaming lifestyle, the newt returns to the water to reproduce. Its red color fades to olive green, keeping only the red dots on its back. It grows a fin-like ridge on its tail, which helps it swim. The newt lives mostly in water for the rest of its life. That can be a long time — newts can live 15 years or more!

Red Spotted Newt (Adult)
Red Spotted Newt (Adult) from northwest FL

Cottonmouth

The cottonmouth, also known as the water moccasin, may be the most feared animal in the eastern United States. People panic about cottonmouths in areas where cottonmouths don’t even live. Growing up in West Virginia, which is decidedly outside the cottonmouth’s range, I was told by several people that they had killed or been chased by “moccasins” in the creeks. This was highly unlikely.

Some of the fear is justified: cottonmouths are venomous, and they’re more common than the larger diamondback and timber rattlesnakes, with more venom than the smaller pigmy rattlesnakes and copperheads. Either way you’re ranking threat level — number of bites or seriousness of bites — the cottonmouth falls somewhere in the middle.

So, why do they have such a bad reputation? One possibility is mistaken identity. The Nerodia genus of non-venomous water snakes can be found pretty much anywhere with fresh water, and they are often misidentified as cottonmouths. They’re both fairly large, heavy-bodied, dark-colored snakes usually found near water; it’s an understandable mistake. After all, who wants to get up close and check the shape of the pupil or the color of the inside of the mouth?

Continue reading Cottonmouth

Color me green, or gray, or brown…

Last month, in a post about the green anole, I mentioned that it was able to change color. Anoles and chameleons are not the only color-changing animals. If you’ve ever caught a frog outdoors in cold weather and it seemed to get lighter as it warmed up in your hands, that wasn’t your imagination.

Backyard Biology has a fantastic explanation of frog skin colors and how they can change.

Back Yard Biology

Gray Treefrog, Hyla versicolor The ever-changeable, Gray Treefrog.  How does it do it?

Green is a popular color for frogs, and birds too, but that lovely green color doesn’t come from a green pigment as you might expect, but from the interaction of multiple layers of specialized color and light-reflecting cells in the upper layers of their skin.

Frogs have three layers of chromatophores (color-producing cells) in their skin. The deepest layer are melanophores that produce melanin pigment giving skin a brown to black color. The middle layer are iridiphores which contain no pigment but instead have mirror like plates capable of producing iridescence, or when viewed from a certain angle, reflect blue light. The most superficial layer of chromatophores are xanthophores that contain a yellow pigment.  When the middle layer of iridophores interact with the top layer of yellow-pigment containing xanthophores, you get what elementary school students have learned:  yellow paint + blue paint…

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Yellow on Yellow

The Daily Post’s writing prompt this week was “Monochromatic.” Well, this isn’t perfect — there’s some green in there along with all that yellow, but I figured it was close enough.

This is a Pennsylvania leatherwing beetle, hunting for aphids among goldenrod flowers.

Common Nighthawk

The common nighthawk is a swift, graceful flyer capable of catching and eating insects on the wing. Its territorial “call” isn’t really a call; it’s a loud whirring buzz made by its wings as it dives. You’d think such a bird would nest high in a tree, as close to the sky as possible, right?

Nope. The nighthawk doesn’t build a nest at all. It just lays its eggs right on the ground, where their speckled pattern blends in with the dirt and leaves.

Common Nighthawk
Those huge eyes help it find flying insects at dusk.

Continue reading Common Nighthawk