April 13, 2014

Sampling the Florida Keys

In recent years we have kind of avoided going the Keys when we are in Florida. The road is long and frankly rather depressing with seemingly non-stop gas stations, surf shops, fast food places and other establishments that have little to do with the beautiful scenery and wildlife habitat that is the "real" Florida Keys. This winter, though, we heard about some specific places to visit that harbor rare butterflies; it seemed to be worth the effort so off we went.

One of our main stops was Bahia Honda State Park. This relatively unspoiled area is what the Keys are all about: turquoise water,

uncrowded beaches,

coconut palms,

and interesting flora and fauna. As we approached the beach, we saw this yellow-crowned night heron poking along the shore. Not the usual type of place that we see this bird!

We were hoping to find a very tiny butterfly that has a very limited range, the martial scrub-hairstreak. We knew that its caterpillar food plant is bay cedar and that it tends to frequent that plant even as an adult. Fortunately, the state park has a nice nature trail and butterfly garden so we were able to learn to recognize the bay cedar so we'd know where to look for the butterfly! Here is a bay cedar shrub, with a martial scrub-hairstreak:

It often is seen upside down like this, likely in order to fool predators into thinking that its antenna-like rear end is its head. If a predator takes a bite out of the hindwing, the butterfly is not really much worse for wear.

Soon we saw another tiny butterfly, the mallow scrub-hairstreak. Like the one above, it was flaunting its false antennae:

The park hosted numerous stunning gulf fritillaries:

Even the bay beach at the state park wasn't too crowded:

From Bahia Honda we headed on down the road to Big Pine Key. Here we got a quick look at the key deer, a small, endangered subspecies of the white-tailed deer that we see in Ohio:

Another butterfly that we looked for in the keys was the mangrove skipper. We had heard about a site for it on Big Pine Key that involved a hike across a salt pan that had eastern pygmy blue butterflies, and then a walk along a tidal area that reminded me of Robinson Crusoe stories:

Red mangroves, with their stilt-like prop-roots line the shore and help stabilize the land:

On top of a big sea lavender shrub we found the mangrove skipper--what an unusual looking butterfly!

One of my absolute favorite things about our latest trip to the Keys was seeing magnificent frigatebirds. Wow--these huge birds are so well adapted to their life on the ocean, with their hooked bill for catching fish and their narrow wings and forked tail for flying in the wind and over rough seas. They just really conjure up the Caribbean for me, and I can picture them winging their way over pirate ships way back when. That's possibly because these birds are, in a way, pirates themselves; they get much of their food by attacking other seabirds and making them disgorge their food! Interestingly, they never land on the water, spending both days and nights on the wing. Here is the best we could do for a photo; unfortunately you can just barely see that the tail is forked:

We have really enjoyed our recent Keys adventures and hope that we have the opportunity to visit again next winter!


  1. So glad you got to the areas of the Keys that are away from the tourist traps. What amazing adaptations you noted in the butterflies (heads or tails?) and the frigate birds. Do they actually sleep while flying?

  2. Thanks for your note! Yes, apparently they do sleep in flight--speculation is that one hemisphere of the brain sleeps at a time. They can forage for days without landing on the water--in fact they don't have waterproof feathers and their feet are too small to provide adequate propulsion to take off. Therefore, they eat mostly flying fish, fish that they rob from other birds, and fish that are chased to the surface by things like tuna and dolphins--just eating on the wing. Pretty amazing!