Wild Side: On the road

Florida and Martha’s Vineyard, the habitats are different but some familiar species reside in both.

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Breaking a decades-old tradition of wallowing in seasonal affective disorder and grumbling about late-winter weather on the Vineyard, your intrepid Wild Side columnist and his better half spent the first week of March in Sarasota, Fla. As billed, Florida delivered temperatures in the low 80s. And thanks to fortuitous timing, we made it home before the nation’s air transportation system imploded.

We enjoyed the conventional rounds of water sports, beaches, cultural experiences, and overpriced dinners. But for me at least, the best parts of the trip were visits to two of Florida’s uniformly excellent state parks: Myakka River and Oscar Scherer, both an easy drive from our Airbnb near downtown.

As a naturalist, I find travel incredibly stimulating. Visiting an unfamiliar region creates an exhilarating learning curve as I use the framework of what I already know to help me get a handle on the unfamiliar habitats and wildlife. Even though I’ve been to Florida several times before, this trip was no exception. Working new habitats gives me a euphoric feeling of my mind and senses doing precisely what they evolved to do.

Part of the pleasure of travel is always finding familiar old friends in new settings. For instance, the most common butterfly among the scrubby oaks at Oscar Scherer State Park was sleepy duskywing, a medium-sized, nearly black butterfly that happens also to be common on the Vineyard’s sandplain. While the two habitats look rather different, there are close parallels between New England coastal sandplain (think of Correllus State Forest) and analogous habitats in Florida. The soils in both are meager and well-drained — sand basically, although Florida sand is generally much whiter and finer than the granular mix found on the Vineyard. A long history of fire is another commonality, as is extensive coverage by scrub oaks (Quercus ilicifolia in our case, any of several shrub species on Florida’s peninsula).

The key here is those oaks. Wherever they occur, sleepy duskywings associate closely with whatever shrub oak species are available, laying eggs on those plants and relying on them as food for their caterpillars. Shrub oaks, as a group, are among the most fire-adapted plants to be found and grow happily in lean soils. So they — along with this butterfly that loves them — often flourish where mineral soils support a fire-prone ecosystem.

Another old friend was the seaside grasshopper, Trimerotropis maritima. This species is locally abundant on the Vineyard, found among beach grass on dunes and upper beaches, where the grasshopper’s pale, speckly coloration has evolved to closely match the local substrate. While not as strictly coastal as its name suggests (it’s found across much of the United States east of the Rockies), this grasshopper does specialize in beach-like settings: Sand with sparse, grassy vegetation, preferably near water.

In Florida, I found it on a swimming beach at Oscar Scherer, a strip of powdery white sand adjacent to a small pond. The Florida version of this grasshopper was a bit more strongly patterned than what I’m used to. But the ones I saw registered instantly and correctly as this species, even down to their pale-yellow wings, their reddish hind tibias, and the particular sound of their wings beating in flight (called “crepitation”).

The other great pleasure of traveling as a naturalist is seeing stuff that’s totally new. And here, as well, Florida delivered. Of the 15 grasshopper species I was able to identify, 10 were wholly new to me. And some of these struck my Yankee sensibility as utterly bizarre, stretching the bounds of what I had imagined grasshoppers could look like.

For instance, the glassy-winged grasshopper (Stenacris vitripennis) is, in its anatomical details, unambiguously in the grasshopper camp. But it has evolved a form (elongated and green) and habits (perching vertically along grass stems) that make it look much more like a small katydid. Indeed, as I was photographing the one individual I found, I was pondering why it looked almost but not quite right for any of the katydid genera I’m familiar with. It was only on reviewing my photos that I noticed that the insect had short antennae, ruling out a katydid of any sort.

Or there’s Aptenopedes sphaeroides. Called the linear-winged grasshopper, this species features wings reduced to tiny, nonfunctional ribbons. Though it’s boldly striped, this species blends in well with the coarse grasses of Florida flatwoods, and like many well-camouflaged insects, its faith in its own protective coloration makes it relatively easy to approach. Or Achurum carinatum, another master of camouflage. This elongated brown “toothpick grasshopper” blends almost invisibly with the bunch grass stems that furnish its preferred habitat.

As much as I enjoyed the trip, though, it was good to get back to my home turf on Martha’s Vineyard, where my long history makes every sighting a meaningful piece of an ever-developing pattern. Travel is fun. But there’s no place like home.