Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 30, 2014

A Final Feature on the Fine Feathered Fauna of Florida

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:57 pm

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Yes, this is it. My last posting about Florida – at least until I go back again. I started this thing with birds and with birds it shall end (sounds rather biblical don’t it?). Fortunately I beat the Spring Break rush by a full month and avoided the youthful influx of northern turkeys and loons and could concentrate on the native fauna.

A wonderful bird is the pelican; his beak will hold two gallons more than his belly can. With apologies to Dixon Merritt who wrote about this wonderful bird “whose beak will hold more than his bellican,” I inserted the factual reality behind his famous limerick. In so doing I have ruined it, but have done so in the name of SCIENCE. These large fish-eating birds have huge expandable beak pouches (specifically called gluar pouches by the pre-spring break sober students of Yale and the U of M). According to researchers, this pouch can contain three gallons of fish-filled water while the stomach can only hold 1 gallon of the stuff. Wow you say?  So what you say? So there, I say.

Brown Pelican showing Pouch photo BrownPelican_zpsa14a8ed5.jpg

There are two different kinds of pelicans in our immediate world – the brown and the white. The white, which are ….well, white… are mostly birds of the interior and central plains while the brown, which are, as we said, brown… are coastal salt water creatures. The two rarely mix, but do overlap.  You can tell them apart because one is brown and the other is… o.k.. it’s not really necessary to repeat this. Just in case you might be thinking that a particular white pelican in the distance might be a brown pelican that suffered from a horrible bleach factory accident, just look for the prominent knob on the beak (see here) to prove it is a white white pelican and not a white brown pelican. This only works on breeding condition birds but we can’t cover every situation can we.

Brown Pelican in the water photo BrownPelican2_zps3b1ad3c2.jpg  Brown Pelican preening photo BrownPelicanPreening_zps77981c63.jpg

It was breeding time when I was in Florida and the Brown Pelicans were in full romantic form. You can tell if a Brown Pelican is in love if the top of its head and back of its neck is a rich reddish brown (first photo above). Both sexes are alike, by the way. Non-breeders, or peli-cants, sport white heads and necks and a confused look (second photo above).

Brown Pelican on Chick photo BrownPelicanonchick_zps71349763.jpg  Brown Pelican Chick photo BrownPelicanChick_zpse517cb3d.jpg

Within the confines of the Homosassa Springs zoo, a group of free-ranging wild Brown Pelicans had set up a nesting colony and a few of the birds were thawing out frozen chickens for the zoo restaurant. Actually these “chickens” were real baby pelicans, or peli-willbes. It takes around 80 days to nurture a pelican chick to full size. Once fully thawed, the young pelican will look extremely average  for several years until it too becomes brown-headed with love.

High above the nesting pelicans, a Great Blue Heron female came in to feed her chick (see here and below). Young herons certainly give the baby pelicans a run for their money in the ugly department. I suspect that their beak, however, can hold exactly as much as their belican.

Great Blue Heron feeding chick photo GreatBlueHeronandChick1_zpsf04ec7be.jpg

At least these homely little herons will grow up to be noble looking adults, but I’m not sure the same can be said for Wood Storks. I didn’t see any baby storks (I wonder who brings the baby storks to the storks anyhow?) although there were plenty of ugly adult Wood Storks flying about the Florida Gulf Coast. At the zoo, the resident storks were resting in the awkward manner rarely seen in wild birds. Appearing to sit upon bended leg, the birds were actually leaning upon their heels if you consider the actual structure of a bird leg. The leg portion from the bend to the toes represents the foot (the bones are fused together to form a single structure). At least one of the flamingoes were doing the same thing, and for the same reason, but they looked much better while doing it.

Wood Stork photo WoodStork_zps1c4f6b34.jpg

Speaking of Great Egrets – which we weren’t, but now through the magic of awkward segues are – these elegant birds were clothed in their best plumage as they slunk through the Florida landscape. They were as common as street signs in some localities and it would have been easy to ignore them. Because they are so familiar with people they allow for a close approach which is something our northern versions refuse to do. It would have been a mistake to overlook them because of their wonderful display of breeding plumes called aigrettes.

Great Egret Looking Great photo GreatEgretlookingGreat_zps7265a1a7.jpg

These tufts of delicate feathers sprout off the back of breeding egrets and quickly wear away after the season is over.  They are the reason behind the bird’s name and the very plumes once responsible for the species brush with extinction. They were sought as ornamentation for ladies hats around the turn of the last century and the birds were slaughtered for that sole purpose.

I cannot cover the subject of Floridian fauna without addressing the multiple ospreys perching, fishing, and nesting in the region around Tampa. One particular bird, recovering from a recent dowsing, dried his wings in cormorant style. Cormorants don’t have much feather oil and must dry their wings in the sun. Ospreys are suitably oily and don’t require a sun treatment. They normally shed their water weight with a vigorous shake.

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I guess this bird was posing for the camera as so many of the Florida birds are wont to do. I guess it’s a tourist related thing. One pair of ospreys, nesting on a high structure overlooking Fort DeSoto State Park, were shamelessly hawking beach towels and sandals from their lofty station. I severely doubt that they were paying state taxes.

Osprey hawking beach towels photo OspreyasBeachTowelVendor_zps26d16ac1.jpg

Anhingas do have to sun dry themselves after a dip. I spotted several of these lanky fisher birds. Due to their habit of swimming with only their long necks exposed above the surface they are also called Snake Birds. One individual, sunbathing on a sea wall along the Crystal River, clearly displayed the reason the name of Water Turkey is sometimes applied to them.

Anhinga photo Anhinga2_zpsb7891155.jpg

Not every bird displayed the dignity and elegance of the Egrets, Ospreys, and Anhingas. The Black Vultures  looked like scorched Turkey Vultures and the Laughing Gulls were laughable when yawning (see beginning photo). The Double-crested Cormorants were at least looking double-cresty (see first photo below)! For the most part, however, the feathered set offered ample reasons for a northern naturalist to return. A sleek little Red-shouldered Hawk patiently permitted a portrait (see second photo below) while a White Ibis was kind enough to remove itself from the crowd of ibises…ibisii…or whatever you call a bunch of them, for a single serene shot. There’s also the dowsing Dunlin and the drowsy Dowitcher to consider.

Double-crested Cormorant photo Double-crestedCormorant_zps8fc9bf79.jpg Red-shouldered Hawk photo Red-shoulderedHawk3_zps817fa6af.jpg

In the manner of awkward segues that have typified this piece, I will conclude with a final photo that has nothing to do with the birds of Florida what-so-ever. Because it is Floridian in content I feel justified in slipping it in before the subject vanishes altogether. Consider this a P.S. (that’s Post Script to any of you unfamiliar with the lost art of letter writing – a thought inserted after the main writing is done). I observed a Grey Squirrel sneaking about the visitor cars at the DeSoto National Memorial. The curious rodent was spending an inordinate amount of time around one of the tires and approached it several times. Before leaving the spot, it cast a longing look back at the hubcap. There is only one sub-title that I can attach to the following photo which captured this last glance: “A Grey Squirrel Contemplates whether Lug Nuts are Edible.”

Squirrel contemplating lug nuts photo SquirrelContiplatingifLugNutsareEdible_zpsedd3dada.jpg


March 23, 2014

Nickernuts and Piddocks

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:42 am

This will be – I promise – the next to last regurgitation of my trip to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Like a mother bird coughing up something for her young, I perform this task for your own good. I also perform this task because so much of what I saw there was “new” to me and tingled my naturalist senses. What comes out may not fully resemble the original product but it is nutritious and, since you have full control as to whether you read this stuff or not, I will continue until somebody stuffs a Nickernut Pod down my pants.

I am fascinated with regional names and seed pods. Tucked among the White Mangroves of the DeSoto National Memorial site at the mouth of Tampa Bay are plants which simultaneously satisfy both categories. I am referring to the Gray Nickernut vines. Draped innocently on the low mangrove branches, these woody vines are armed with thorns and double compound leaves.  They are in the pea family. Clusters of bristly dark brown (or light green immature) seed pods are suspended at regular intervals along the vines.

Like a coin purse from hell, mature pod spits open to reveal a cargo of large smooth seeds. The pods are about three inches long and just big enough to contain three one-inch diameter seeds. Because of their resemblance to clay marbles, both in color and texture, vines in this family came to be known as marble plants – using the Dutch word for marble which is “knikker.” Combine the fact that these particular “nuts” are gray and you have the species name of Gray Nickernut.  I’m not exactly sure why a Dutch term was used, but am glad for it. There are dozens of Knickernut species throughout the tropical regions of the planet and it is possible they were first named in the Dutch East Indies!  Hey, call me nuts but that might explain things (the name – not my being a nut).


Eventually the natural drying process forces the pods to peel wide open and drop their seeds to the sandy ground. Many of the seeds will be flushed away by rising tide waters and travel for thousands of miles on the open ocean currents. Because of this ability to withstand long salt water exposure Nickernut seeds are collectively called Sea Beans. The seeds wash up on distant shores and take root if not collected by human hands. The Gray Nickernuts are rather bland, but other species in the group are brightly colored and all are frequently stung together to make attractive Sea Bean necklaces.

Personally I would never be caught dead wearing a Sea Bean necklace, but might try out another popular use of Nickernut seeds (especially since I am now the proud owner of 4 gray sea beans). Apparently in some parts of the Caribbean mischievous children will briskly rub a Nickernut back and forth on their clothing in order to heat it up and then touch the scorching nut onto the flesh of an unsuspecting victim. Now that’s good old homemade fun. Imagine how unsuspecting my northern friends will be when I burn them with one of my tropical nuts. Sure those Caribbean folks are always on the watch for red-hot Nickernuts, but how many Michiganders would suspect a Nickernut attack!

As far as I know, Caribbean children do not perform nasty tricks with Piddock clams. These burrowing mussels dig tunnels into wood or rock and are near impossible to extract. One sizable tree limb lying on the ground adjacent to one of the Knickernut vines (I just had to say Nickernut once more) was riddled with clam holes. Now dried and exposed, each woody hole contained the shelly remains of the single Wedge Piddock clam that excavated it. The gapping maws of several dozen dead clams stare out at you.

When alive, the Piddock barely fits its shell. A pair of siphons sticks out the “back” end and a fleshy mantle and foot out the other. They employ a combination of methods when drilling into hard substrates (some species can actually burrow into solid rock). The leading edge of the shell has a rasp- like surface which acts to scrape away at the sides of the burrow while the mantle (the skin folds which contain the living animal within the shell) exude a digestive chemical to soften the substrate.


Their burrows are perfectly cylindrical and about one inch deep – just enough to enclose he animal and allow for it to suck in micro-contents through its siphon. The shell itself is quite thin, however, and the animal requires the protection of a burrow. Unfortunately this attraction to floating wood subjects the colony to the whims of waves and wind. Once cast up high on a beach they will wither and die in the scorching sun.

Here in the north we ask whether a tree falling in the forest makes a noise if it is not heard. I submit that Florideans can now ask if a colony of dying Piddock Clams screams if no one is there to hear them!

March 16, 2014

Habitat for Huge Manatees & Fine Little Fiddlers

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:26 pm

It would be easy to re-enact 90% of my experience with the manatees of Florida’s Gulf Coast. All I would need to do is submerge some large potatoes in a tub of water and surround it with a throng of Lego people. The Lego form to my left would be my daughter, my partner in crime on this Florida adventure, while the rest would be various refugees from Star Wars, Pirate, and other play sets.  O.K., this isn’t  -and I realize it – but because of the commercial nature of Homosassa Springs it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the manatees on “display” there are wild animals. It is the perfect Habitat for Humanity and Huge Manatees. Ignore the crowds and their comments and you will discover fascination with the potato- beasts in the water below.

The manatees of Florida need to cluster around warm springs and power plant discharges during the winter. They cannot withstand temperatures below 68 degrees F. The waters of Homosassa Spring are consistently 72 degrees F and offer a winter spa opportunity for these essentially tropical beasts. The spring waters flow into the Homosassa River and journey a short distance to the Gulf but the cold-season manatees stick tight to the sandy bottom of the outflow.

A small herd of about 12 animals was present on the day of our visit. Most of them were lying motionless and spud-like on the bottom.  One large cow and her calf ventured out into, and returned from, the open river during our time there (prompting a nearby dad to proclaim “Look there’s a calf and a baby” to his young daughter. She reminded him that he meant to say “calf and cow” and he remained silent for the next ten minute).  The only other visible action involved a bob to the surface every few minutes for a breath of fresh air through their nostrils. The nose holes are controlled by a muscle which opens then seals them shut before the creature submerges.


From above the most – in fact the only – distinctive feature of their body outline were the large flattened tails. It was surprising (to me, anyway) that very few of them displayed any large nicks or notches in these rubbery appendages and only one displayed significant boat prop scars. The eyes were visible only as small puckers located among the face folds. Because their eyelids are circular affairs this creates the delightful star eyed look so popular on the million or so figurines and manatee toys for sale at the nearby gift shop.

Manatees (West Indian Manatees to be precise) are remotely related to the elephants and because of this ancestry they can claim a source for their bulk (up to around 1,200 pounds and 12 feet long), vegetarian diet, and their tooth arrangement. Like elephants they have a procession of teeth that migrate forth like a conveyor belt. Old worn teeth are shed off the leading edge as newer teeth join the row from the back. There are never more than 6 teeth in each jaw at any time.

Wikipedia, that e-spring of flowing facts, figures, and fallacies offers the fascinating tidbit that the name Manatee originated from the Caribbean (Taiho) Indians who called them “Manati.”  According to this source the name translates simply into “breast.”  I’m not sure what to say about this.  Hopefully it means something more expansive like “Hairy fish with breasts” and acknowledges that unique mammalian trait. Perhaps it actually means “potato” – who knows?

Now, so much for the Manatees. Since I can’t add anything original to this part of the discussion I’d like to switch habitats to a mangrove swamp adjacent to the clear blue waters of the gulf. At one corner of the grove the white sands of the beach at … (I can’t remember where!)… were occupied by a herd of tiny sand crabs.  Enjoying their opportunity to feed on exposed flats they busily scuttled into and out of their burrows.

Although I can’t say which species, I can say that they were Fiddler Crabs – probably of the genus Uca. I can also say that all of the individuals in this cluster were mostly females because they lacked the large fiddle claws. I certainly don’t say these things with ultimate authority but will say it none-the-less. One character of note is the figure of a “dancing cat man” on their carapace (back) which led me to the above conclusions. Can you see it?… sure you can… It’s right there like a Rorschach ink blot. It’s amazing what the hot tropical sun can do to the thoughts of a northern naturalist.

During high water the dancing crabs retreat into J-shaped burrows. They emerge at low tide to clean out their digs and feed. The larger sand balls clustered around the burrow entrances are the result of digging while the smaller balls are the result of feeding. They roll the grains about to scour off bits of algae and diatoms from the surface.

In and out, out and in, they reacted to every movement from above – unlike the manatees who reacted to nothing from above. I must admit that the crabs were far more entertaining than the manatees but acknowledge to each its own habit and habitat.

Behold the Dancing Cat Man!

March 9, 2014

Of Killer Sparrows and Husky Doves

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:34 pm

My previous posting being of a fishy nature, I’d like to briefly turn your attention to some feathered residents of Florida. I say briefly, because I’m not going to talk about the Pelicans and Ibises (Ibisii…Ibisisis or whatever you call multiple birds of the Ibis kind) until after we look at some more obscure things. This is not a birding blog. However (he says with a furled hypocritical brow) there were a number of “lesser” birds that captured my attention.

Northern migrants such as Yellow-rumped Warblers, Phoebes, and some Red-winged Blackbirds were everywhere in the Gulf Coast area around Tampa. It was nice to see them a few months earlier in the year than I am accustomed. Somehow they looked different in that sub-tropical setting – perhaps because they were not yet engaged in the stressful job of courtship and young-rearing. I won’t go so far as to claim that they were on vacation but admit to the possibility that they were wearing sun-screen and therefore had an unfamiliar appearance. I look forward to seeing their pale, stress-filled little selves when they return to Michigan.

A Butterbutt at Homosassa Springs

Phoebe at Crystal River

The crows flying about the region looked, at first glance, to be Common Crows but upon calling they uncorked a very different sound. Rather than “Caw, caw” they uttered guttural hi-lo “Uh uh” calls (like a scornful parent catching a child reaching into the cookie jar).  These were Fish Crows.  Smaller but otherwise nearly identical to the Common sort, Fish Crows spend most of their time around wetland habitats. Like their larger cousins they cluster into large flocks and generally make their presence known wherever one traveled along the coast.

Boat-tailed Grackles were another fascinating member of the blackbird family found within the sound range of the ocean waves. These nearly crow-sized grackles put our Common Grackles to shame (an odd thing to say about an already shameful bird!). They are so called because of the tremendous keel-shaped tail found on the males. I have to say, as grand as that tail was, it was their startling coloration that impressed me the most.

At Hudson Beach the male grackles were pumping up for courtship and displaying to each other in grand fashion. Resplendent – and I mean to imply the full glory of that word- in glossy purples, blues, and blacks they faced off with bills pointing skyward (see above and here). A pair of males directly over my head, on a lamppost, took turns puffing up, vibrating their wings and blinking at each other (see video here). Each blink flashed a white membrane over the eye and conveyed part of an overall message saying something like “Oh yeah, I’m am da best boid and don’t you’se forget it!”

Mixed in with the Boat-tails at Hudson Beach, steroid-pumped Mourning Doves cooed out their mantra – or so I thought. These boids…er, birds turned out to be Eurasian Collared Doves. I won’t insult your intelligence (any more than I already have) by explaining why they are called “Collared” or “Doves.” The “Eurasian” part indicates that they are foreign imports which became established in the Bahamas and quickly spread into Florida and northwest into the plains states. Their husky calls can only be described as the type of call you’d expect from a Mourning Dove the size of a city Pigeon. It is both comforting and annoying at the same time.

Personally, the Loggerhead Shrikes provided one of the more pleasant surprises of my visit. Had I been a competent birder, I would have researched things beforehand and discovered that these birds are very common in the south. I would also have been forewarned about the Collared Doves etc… Of course, I did not and thus I was surprised by every bird that revealed itself to me (call it the Babe in the Woods syndrome or B.W.S.). When a Loggerhead Shrike boldly perched before me on a fencepost during my very first venture into the neighborhood, I was delighted. They also put in an appearance at Fort Desoto.

As members of the song bird clan they appear like under-sized Mockingbirds but are, in fact, Killer Sparrows of a very different nature. Shrikes are predators. Oddly enough, they are only partially specialized for their task. Like their predatory club-mates the hawks and owls they have stout hooked beaks. Upon closer examination it can be seen that they have a notched beak tip like that found on members of the Falcon clan. Unlike other members of the predatory union, they do not have sharp talons or robust legs. In other words they are sparrows with hawk heads.

The large head is quite obvious on these shrikes. The name Loggerhead literally means “blockhead.” They tackle small to medium sized prey such as grasshoppers, lizards, small snakes and even mice with a push-over attack and some deadly bites (on the neck of vertebrates). They then carry their vanquished prey to the nearest barb-wire fence or thorn bush and impale them on one of the handy spikes for safe keeping. Images of Vlad the Impaler come to mind. The thorn, taking the place of talons, holds the prey as it is dismantled by the Shrike’s sharp beak.

My only regret was not locating one of these impaled victims during my stay. I have seen a Deer mouse so impaled by a Northern Shrike back up in my neck of the woods, so I can’t be too picky. Overall the lesser birds of Florida, even the Glistening Grackles of Greatness and Killer Sparrows, put on a good show well worth the admission price.

March 2, 2014

Crevalle Jack and the Spanish Mackeral

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:13 pm

There is no easy way to start a Naturespeak series about my brief trip to Florida because there is too much to talk about. Putting a northern naturalist into a southern – near tropical -clime in mid-winter can create a state of over-stimulation. I suppose you could call it an overdose. In other words, I don’t know where to begin. I could start rattling off about manatees and pelicans or anoles or ibis flocks (does one say ibisii for plural on this one?). Or, how about the fiddler crabs, mangroves, alligators and cabbage palms – not to mention the Knickkernuts? See, you get my point.

So, I will begin at an arbitrary point with no rhyme or reason as to what is most or least impressive. Let’s start with a few fish just because we can and because they have some wonderful names. Florida is a place of fantastic place names such as Weeki Watchi and Chassahowitzka, which are rivers in the region north of Tampa. Being on the Gulf of Mexico, however, fish and fish names are also part of the mix. Let’s take the wonderfully named Crevalle Jacks.

The freshwater spring at Homosassa is best known for its herd of manatees. As exciting as it was to watch these huge potatoes sleep on the bottom, however, the swirling schools of fish demanded the most eye time. As viewed from the glass-enclosed observation pod their motions are mesmerizing. Watching the tornado tube column of swimming Jacks was enough to induce a hypnotic state. Because they are fast swimming marine fish they have a hard time staying still and so they do laps, as it were, around this huge natural hot tub all day long. The waters issue out of the earth at around 72 degrees F.

There are dozens of species of Jacks and the Crevalle represents a typical member of the family Carangidae.  Like all members of the tribe they have compressed silvery bodies (laterally compressed in fisheese), a series of boney scutes on the body just ahead of the tail, and deeply forked tails (lunate or crescent moon shaped). Their face is blunted and expressionless. The side fins, or pectorals if you prefer, are extremely long and taper down to a fine whisp and the matching top and bottom fins each terminate a saw-toothed row of finlets down to the base of the tail fin. A sleek racing fish if ever there was one.

The name Crevalle Jack apparently stems from a root word cavalla– the feminine form – of horse. I will not go into details because I don’t know or care. It can be said that the scientific name Caranx hippos has a very clear reference to a horse (hippos is Greek for horse). There is nothing horse-like about these fish, however. They do not graze and, in fact, are veracious predators. The origin of Jack is more nebulous. When I came upon the phrase that cavalla is another meaning of jack I prematurely decided to end this thread with the admission that “I don’t know Jack.”

I do know that Craville Jack would be a great name for a brand of rum or a horse-faced rum swiggler in some future pirate movie.

Another oddly named fish of Homosassa Spring are the Snooks. These large wall-eyelike fish hang out close to the observation glass where they display a neat racing stripe down the side. Elsewhere, large Florida Gars (lacking an unusual or even creative name) perform terrific manatee imitations by lying perfectly still on the bottom close to shore.

It was on a saunter down the fishing pier at Fort DeSoto, located in the mouth of Tampa Bay well south of Homosassa, that I (we, actually – my daughter and myself) encountered another fascinating ocean fish with yet another intriguing name. Several seasoned fishermen were plying their sport over the rail. One of them had a fish tucked into his bucket and I stopped to ask if I could take a look. His prize was a Spanish Mackeral. He simply referred to it as a Mackeral and dinner. I was unable to find out why it is considered especially Spanish but certainly understand why it is neither Dutch nor Norwegian.

Like the Carville Jacks, the Spanish mackerel is another one of those sleek oceanic speedsters. The identifying feature on this species is the galaxy of yellow spots on its flanks. The fisherman quickly offered to lay down his ruler to serve as a comparison and even thought I might want to hold it up as if I had captured the thing. Assuring him that my interest was strictly as a naturalist, I re-focused my camera on that neat little keel on the tail stem which is found on oceanic speedsters.

He pondered the feature as if he’d never seen it before and asked what it was called. Unfortunately I had no good answer other than “a neat keel-like thing.” Doubtless he was un-impressed with the Northern Naturalist. I later looked it up and found it to be called a “caudal keel”. This feature, also found on tuna and sharks, provides stability and support and is not found on any freshwater fish that I know of (note the qualifier in that statement).

Finally, I would like to mention the humble Scrawled Cowfish. Cow fish are well protected by a complete boney shell made up of fused hexagonal bone plates. Once seen, there is no doubt as to why a cow fish is called such (the scrawled part comes from the short lines decorating the body). They are equipped with two little forward facing horns over their eyes. Two additional horns face backwards next to their anal fin which would suggest an alternate name of horn butt just in case the old name runs out.

The beach near Bayonet Point was littered with their sun-dried carcasses where tourists and shorebirds were picking at their remains. Ruddy Turnstones sought access through chinks in the cow fish armor for bits of fish jerky clinging to the inside of the shell. Most of the fish were picked clean. One of them returned home with me and is banished to the back porch until it no longer smells of ocean (and other things).

I am not done with my Floridian rambles yet and will return to the subject next week. Meanwhile I’ll soak in this Michigan winter and return to my native roots. It is funny that in this discussion about Florida and unique names, I can only recall one other four-lettered name for snow and it too starts with the letter “s.”

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