Monday, May 25, 2009

Butterfly Kisses

A little over a year ago, when we were doing the initial landscaping in our yard, I decided that I definitely wanted to plant a butterfly garden. I hadn't paid much attention to butterflies in the past, other than to notice a particularly pretty butterfly fluttering by (was there ever such a delightfully perfectly named creature?). But just as I began to notice and love the waterbirds of Florida over time, so it was with butterflies. Once I started looking, they were everywhere, and there were so many kinds with such great names! (The one on the left is a Red Admiral.) I knew I wanted a way to bring them close to me, so I could see them every day.

To get started, I did some research and decided I would use as many native plants as possible. We had gotten our hands on a great little laminated brochure put out by the Florida Museum of Natural History that had native wildflowers on one side and Florida butterflies on the other. It explained that you should plant flowers that would serve not only as food (nectar) for adults, but those that would serve as larval food for caterpillars as well.

As always, finding the native plants was easier said than done, and in the end, I compromised a little with a few species of plants that are not exactly native, but still serve the needs of the butterflies. Here are some my favorites (natives are starred):
  • Pineland Lantana* - Great nectar source for all sorts of butterflies. Everyone seems to visit the lantana.
  • Lantana Camara - This is a non-native and is considered invasive. But it just attracts so darn many butterflies that I have to have it. The best thing I can do is prune regularly to keep it in check.
  • Tropical Milkweed - This is the orange and yellow flowered kind that's easy to find. I really want some white swamp milkweed, which is native, but I haven't been able to find it. You must have milkweed in a butterfly garden - the monarchs and queens adore it and lay their eggs on it.
  • Yellow Butterflyweed* - I just got some of this a few days ago, and the monarchs barely waited for me to get it in the ground before attacking it. It seems to be a huge success.
  • Passionvine (also called Maypop)* - Another cool plant I just got this year. It has these amazing purple flowers and serves as a larval host for fritillaries and zebra longwings.
I have a variety of other plants, such as Blanket Flower* and coontie*. I also just added some parsley and dill, which I'm told are larval plants for some of the swallowtail butterflies. We'll see what happens - I'll keep you posted!

Here's a picture of my butterfly garden last fall, just after its summer peak:

It faces east, and it's really not all that big - about 6 feet by 25 feet. Most of the plants were dormant in the dry winter months (except the blanket flower - that stuff grows like crazy!) and there weren't many butterflies around. This spring, we rejuvenated with some heavy pruning and the addition of fresh milkweed and other plants. I'm always looking for new and interesting butterfly plants to attract new and interesting butterflies, so this garden changes frequently. Here it is more recently:

Of course, the best thing about the butterfly garden is the visitors. They're so darn hard to snap pictures of - they fly away before you can run for the camera. Still, we've gotten some pretty good shots. Check out more at my Flickr Butterfly Gallery.

Red Admiral:

Palamedes Swallowtail (L) and Giant Swallowtail (R):

Gulf Fritillary (L) and Monarch (R):

Summer is a great time for butterflies in My Florida Backyard, so look for more posts with pictures of our delicately-winged friends over the next few months!

Monday, May 18, 2009

What A Difference A Day Makes*

Just a week ago, Bay News 9 ran an article stating Tampa Bay was on track for the driest May ever. It had been 21 days since the last measurable rainfall, which measured a paltry .01 inches. Residents were bemoaning the state of their lawns and flower gardens, and every day there was an article about the sad state of the reservoir or river or desalination plant.

Well, today Tampa International Airport has broken the rainfall record for this day in May - a record stretching back to 1911. Granted, it's only gotten about 1.25", but considering May is part of the dry season, this is a pretty outstanding number.

By our own somewhat unscientific measurements (we're still working out the right placement of our rain gauge), we've gotten about 3 - 4 inches of rain in My Florida Backyard over the last week. We've had rain 5 out of 7 days, and our rain barrel is full to overflowing.

Does this mean the drought is over? The answer is a resounding "NO!". Tampa Bay has had below average rainfall for the past 3 years, so we have a long way to go to catch up. Still, my flowers are getting good long drinks, and the Hillsborough River was up almost 8 inches the other day, so we're making good progress.

Let's hope for more of the same in the weeks and months ahead. Soft summer rains and lovely rumbling thunderstorms from now till October would make us very happy. (There's no need to send any hurricanes our way, though!)

*Well, a week, but that's not the title of the song.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Rainbow Connection

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky.
-William Wordsworth

P.S. Not in the mood for rainbows? Here's a little lizard mating for you. It's beautiful in its own way, right?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Here Comes the Rain Again

Late afternoon... distant thunder... black boiling clouds... and here it is again. Blessed rain!

These aren't the summer daily rains, though they're behaving just like them. They're the result of some front sitting on top of us, causing disturbed air in the upper levels (or something like that). Anyway, we have a chance of more of them over the next few days, and I'm thrilled!

Today's storm came with high wind gusts and made me glad I was able to bring the laundry in off the line in time.

P.S. This time next month, I'll probably think it's funny that I wrote two posts in a row about the rain, but for now, I stand by my excitement!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Little Fall of Rain

The most amazing thing is happening right now. It's raining.

I was startled this afternoon to hear thunder in the distance. The forecast recently has been the same every day - high of 90, low of 70, chance of rain 10%. We've been waiting and waiting for the seasonal rains to arrive. They're not due for another month or so.

But today, we got a little freebie - an unexpected and altogether delightful thunderstorm. The rain has been coming down steadily for the last 30 minutes or so, and the radar shows more storms to the north (which is where they're coming from), so we may even get more this evening.

How are the local residents handling this change in the weather? Well, I watched an osprey fishing in the lake for quite awhile despite the downpour. And this immature little blue heron seems to be enjoying it.

But this muscovy duck seems a little grumpy about the whole thing.

Well, guys, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, "The best thing one can do when it's raining is let it rain." We're happy to do just that in My Florida Backyard.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Feed the Birds

We have a lot of bird visitors to My Florida Backyard. The lake helps - we get a lot of wading birds like egrets and herons, as well as fishing birds like cormorants. Of course, we throw cracked corn to the ducks (more nutritious for them than stale bread), so there are always plenty of those hanging around.

For a wider variety, though, we needed a feeder. As with many things in My Florida Backyard, it took some experimentation to get it right. In the Midwest (the land of our childhood), you can put out a thistle feeder and draw finches by the hundreds, or a simple black sunflower feeder and draw dozens of other colorful visitors.

Things are a little different in My Florida Backyard, although, like many backyard birders, the first real problem we encountered was the squirrels.

There are about a gazillion supposedly squirrel-proof feeders out there. I chose one with a weight-sensitive design, the idea being that when a light bird lands on the feeder, the feeding ports stay open, but when a heavier squirrel tries to use it, the cage slides down and the ports are closed. We hung it from a shepherd's hood and filled it with black oil sunflower seed.

There were, however, several problems with this feeder.

1.) Squirrels in Florida are a lot smaller than squirrels up north. They are also a lot lighter. You can adjust the cage to be more weight-sensitive, but then some birds will actually activate it and defeat the purpose.

2.) Squirrels are much smarter than people give them credit for. Our squirrels just leaned over from the pole, stuck their paw into the feeding ports, and scooped out the food without ever getting onto the feeder itself.

3.) (And this was the big one) No birds really seemed to like this feeder style. We got the occasional cardinal, and that was it.

So, the research continued. The first great discovery was that although squirrels love to eat sunflower seed (and most commercial mixes contain this), squirrels don't like safflower seed. No one is sure why this is, but it's absolutely true. Once I filled the feeders with safflower seed, the squirrels couldn't have been less interested in the food. Safflower seed costs a little more than sunflower seed, but it lasts much longer because the squirrels don't eat it.

I had solved the squirrel problem, but my feeder still wasn't getting many visitors. Finally, I decided that based on the types of birds we were seeing (mostly cardinals), we needed a platform feeder. This type of feeder works well for birds who generally prefer to eat on the ground. I ordered a hanging version from Duncraft, a company with a really great selection of bird feeders and seeds. We decided to mount it on a pole instead of hang it from the provided chains. I filled it with safflower seed, and we had visitors almost immediately!

The cardinals, male and female, came first. In the beginning, they'd come one at a time, but now that they're comfortable, a pair will often feed together, especially in the evening.

In the winter months, we had a tufted tit-mouse* or two. They pick up the seeds one at a time, hold them between their feet, and crack them open.

And just recently, a red-bellied woodpecker has started stopping by for the occasional snack.

The cardinals visit almost every night while we eat dinner out on the porch. Even if they were the only birds who came to My Florida Backyard, their cheery plumage would be enough to thrill us every time.

I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries,
and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.
- Joseph Addison (1672 - 1719)

*Why is it that, even though I'm grown up enough to know better, I still giggle like I did in seventh grade when I talk about the tit-mouse?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

And Then There Were None

The last of the mallard ducklings has been taken by the Hawkwaffe. We watched as, one by one, they were picked off by red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks. In spite of the best efforts of the duck mama and her gang of loyal duck protectors, and the survival skills quickly learned by the babies themselves, in the end, it's a hawk-eat-duckling world, and there's not much we can do about it.

We're really going to miss watching the fluffballs in My Florida Backyard.

Rest In Peace, baby ducks.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dig It

On a sunny day in May, this Florida soft-shelled turtle wandered up into My Florida Backyard from the lake. She visited a few times throughout the morning, and in early afternoon, finally decided the time and place were right.

So, she began to dig.

In slow steady strokes, she used her strong hind legs to dig a deep hole in the sandy soil. She worked for nearly 20 minutes, laboring under the hot sun.

Then, for about 10 minutes, she sat fairly still, though if you watched closely, you could see her straining and shifting from time to time. My research tells me she laid "9 - 24 brittle, white, spherical eggs". When she finished, she scratched in the soil again to cover them, and then returned to the lake with unbelievable speed.

We knew what would happen next, although we did try to fight it off by covering the site for a few minutes and then watering it down to wash away some of the smell. But the crows had been hovering the entire time, and the turtle eggs didn't really have a chance.

In a few minutes, the nest hole was all that was left, crawling with fire ants. It's surprisingly deep and narrow, although sadly empty.

Some people say there are no seasons in Florida, but springtime here in My Florida Backyard seems to bring out the same behavior you'd see in wildlife anywhere this time of year!

P.S. For those who've been following the saga of the baby ducks: we're down to two now, after a red-tailed hawk captured one on Wednesday. The remaining two are holding strong, though, and we have high hopes for them!