Saturday, August 29, 2009

Don't Cry Out Loud

We continue to be without a camera here in MFB, but our ears are working, and through our closed windows, with the AC running, I can still hear the raucous cry of the limpkin outside on the shore.

If you've never heard the cry of the limpkin, it's rather hard to describe. describes it as ""kkrrrraaow", which just doesn't do it justice. Imagine a cat whose tail has just been stepped on, crossed with a very hungry baby, and you might get something close. The strength of the cry is really unbelievable - if you live in a limpkin neighborhood, you know what it's like to wake up to that insane noise.

We saw very little of this delightful wading bird until we moved to My Florida Backyard, where apple snails and freshwater mussels (the limpkin's major food sources) are abundant. Now, rarely a day goes by that I don't see one or more of these guys stalking the water's edge. When they nab a mussel or snail, they bring it up on shore and begin the process of extracting the yummy stuff inside.

In this picture from last summer, the limpkin is prying open a freshwater mussel, but I find it even more fascinating to watch them extract the meat from an apple snail. Their beak actually curves slightly to one side so they can slide it into the shell opening. They slice out and remove the meat, almost never breaking the shell itself. The shoreline of our lake is littered with empty apple snail and mussel shells, proof of the abundance of food provided for these birds in our small suburban pond.

We're actually fortunate to have limpkins here at all. Although they are very common in tropical America, their population in peninsular Florida (the only place they're found in the U.S.) has dwindled. Settlers hunted them for food in the early days of Florida, and as development threatens the wetlands that provide their food source, the Florida limpkin's future is somewhat uncertain. They are listed as a Species of Special Concern (SSC).

Quite honestly, though, you'd never know it in My Florida Backyard. Limpkins are a constant source of company here, day and night, winter and summer, wet and dry, and I hope that our efforts to preserve the health of our pond will allow them to continue to thrive. Their shrill cry is sometimes annoying, but I can't bear to imagine the silence if their cry were removed forever.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Itsy-Bitsy Spider

My Florida Backyard is currently without a camera, due to an aqueous accident (i.e. someone spilled water all over the camera). So, I can't post pictures for you of the gulf fritillary caterpillar hanging upside-down from the bottom of the birdhouse getting ready to go into chrysalis, or the black swallowtail eggs on my parsley, or the lantana that finally consented to bloom again.

Instead, I thought I'd share with you a resident we enjoyed last summer in My Florida Backyard - an awesome spider we affectionately named Killer.

When Killer first moved in over our front door, she startled us, to say the least. Though she wasn't large, maybe the size of my thumbnail, she didn't look like any spider we'd ever seen before. She spun absolutely enormous webs, spanning up to 4 feet across, ornamented with little silk "flags" you can see in the picture to the right.

We love to identify new creatures here in My Florida Backyard, so we scoured the internet until we discovered Killer was a Spinybacked Orbweaver, also known as a crab spider. Some theorize those little flags in the webs are to warn birds that the web is there, so they won't fly into it and ruin the spider's hard work.

The thing we found most fascinating about Killer was how long she stayed with us. She and her massive webs were with us for weeks last summer. After each strong rainstorm, we'd think she must have finally been swept away, but within a few minutes, out came the sun to dry up all the rain and there would be Killer, hard at work.

Spinybacked orbweaver females live only until they produce an egg mass, so perhaps Killer was having difficulty finding a suitable mate? It's hard to say. At any rate, one day, she simply wasn't there anymore - no goodbye note, no forwarding address. Her time in My Florida Backyard was done.

We're big fans of spiders in My Florida Backyard. Their webs are amazing works of art, and they love to trap and eat the nasty insects that otherwise like to attack and eat us. Killer was especially welcome, as she herself seemed a fantastic work of art, and when she was gone, our front entry seemed a little empty (although I think maybe the UPS guy was relieved). We had hoped some of her children might make their home here this year, but so far, we haven't seen any.

However, we welcome the spiders we do have, and we're grateful for the important and often lovely part they play in our ecosystem. As Edwin Way Teale said, "The difference between utility and utility plus beauty is the difference between telephone wires and the spider web." It seems nature always has the most elegant solutions.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Wade in the Water

The other night, our community held our first planting for the Adopt-A-Pond program. Despite a pouring rainstorm and some slightly less than helpful Boy Scouts, we managed to plant over 900 plants in less than 2 hours. Click here to see pictures of the planting if you're interested.

Although this first planting was focused on the playground area at the other side of the pond, we were able to bring home a few plants to start in the water by our house. Since we were already wet and muddy from head to toe, we plunged in and got them planted right away.

It doesn't look like much yet, but the plants will grow and spread over time. We planted duck potato, blue flag iris, canna, and lemon bacopa. We also planted a bald cypress tree:

Now we'll need to be vigilant to make sure that the HOA maintenance crews don't spray herbicides on our new plants. We'll also have to watch for invasive weeds (yup, they grow in the water too!) that could choke out our new plantings. Water planting is a new experience for us here in My Florida Backyard, so there's a lot to learn.

P.S. It seems to be dragonfly season - they are simply everywhere. I never realized before just how many colors there are - this vibrant blue fellow is actually one of the less conspicuous ones!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I Just Wanna Fly

Well, you read about it in books, and you see it on TV, but I guess until you see it with your own two eyes, you never quite believe it will happen. But it really does. Caterpillars really do turn into butterflies, as Heimlich proved this morning.

Last night, we noticed the chrysalis was becoming somewhat darker, and that the butterfly features seemed to be more defined.

Still, it wasn't until we woke up this morning to find this that we realized that
our time with Heimlich was definitely growing short:

Heimlich has always liked a little privacy for his biggest tasks, and this final one was no exception. In the time it took us to pour a bowl of cereal, Heimlich the butterfly had emerged.

The fluid from his body was already being pumped out to fill and expand his wings,
a process that continued over several minutes.

After the wings were fully expanded, he spent several hours hanging from the remains of his chrysalis, slowly expanding and contracting them as they strengthened.

Finally, he dropped to the ground and stretched his wings, ready for flight. It was then we discovered... Heimlich is actually female. How can you tell? The hind wings have no dark spots indicating male scent glands, and the black lines are thicker.

So, having renamed Heimlich Henrietta,
we removed the cover of the jar and urged him her to take flight.

She flew up into the nearby palm tree (that dark spot in the picture above is her) and stayed for another hour or so. Finally, she took off for good. She'll most likely live 2 - 4 weeks, long enough to mate and lay eggs (maybe on the milkweed in My Florida Backyard!) so the cycle can begin again.

In case you missed the story of Heimlich, here's a slide show of his life, beginning with when we collected him as a caterpillar about 2 weeks ago.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

We hope you've enjoyed following Heimlich/Henrietta's story here on My Florida Backyard!

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Bargain at Twice the Price

I stopped by my local Lowe's the other day, and (as usual) couldn't resist a quick trip through the garden center to see if they had anything I just had to have. To my great delight, they happened to have passionflower vine in stock! I already have one native purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) and the gulf fritillary butterflies (and their caterpillars) simply adore it.

Lowe's happened to have blue passionflower (Passiflora caerulea) available the other day; it's not native, but it's still great for Florida and is said to be especially popular with the julia butterfly, which I have yet to draw successfully to My Florida Backyard.

I'm not really supposed to be buying plants right now - My Florida Backyard is living on a tight budget - but my thought process went something like this: "Passionflower! Oh, no, I can't. Well, how much is it? $10? That's pretty reasonable - and look how many buds it has. No, really, I can't. Oh, it's blue passionflower! I don't have one of those. Still, $10 is $10. Oh, but look at all the caterpillars already on it! What if someone else buys it and decides the caterpillars are pests and kills them all? I can't let that happen! I have to buy it!"

So, dear reader, I bought it. And today I discovered that not only does it have plenty of caterpillars (if you look closely at the bloom above, you can even see one there), but it actually has a chrysalis too.

Gulf fritillary chrysalises look amazingly like dead leaves, don't they? Very different from a monarch chrysalis, but the same magic of life is going on inside of there.

While I was out admiring my new passionflower vine, multiple butterflies were visiting the milkweed, which is in full bloom. I saw a giant swallowtail, monarchs, a gulf fritillary, white peacocks, a fiery skipper, and this female eastern black swallowtail, who was here for at least half an hour and posed for some nice pictures.

More pics in the Flickr Butterfly Gallery, as usual.

All in all, a pretty good day for butterflies in My Florida Backyard. We'll keep an eye on the chrysalis and try to catch some shots of the butterfly emerging, if at all possible. Stay tuned!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Band of Gold

Heimlich is still secure in his chrysalis, working hard to transform. While he prepares to greet the world again, I've been reflecting on the unbelievable event that's taking place inside, one that's unlike anything else in the animal kingdom.

Consider first the chrysalis, waxy green and flecked with gold. It is in fact these gold flecks that give the chrysalis its name - the Greek word for gold is chrysos.

The monarch chrysalis must be one of the most beautiful in Florida, but it's nothing compared to that of the Common Crow butterfly, which lives on the other side of the world. Its chrysalis appears to be made entirely of gold - check out some pictures here.

Of course, there's no real gold in a chrysalis. It's merely a trick of the light. That's probably a good thing - can you imagine the fate of butterflies if their chrysalises were worth their weight in gold?

To begin with, a chrysalis is full of quite a lot of, well, goo, in non-scientific words. When the chrysalis forms, the body of the caterpillar inside breaks down, and the resulting goo is used rather like building blocks to assemble the parts of the butterfly.

(Click here if you'd like to learn more about the process of holometabolism.)

When a chrysalis first forms, it's soft and vulnerable. If it's dropped or damaged at this point, some of the goo may leak out. If this happens, it's unlikely the butterfly will have enough of the building blocks to work with, and will not survive the metamorphosis.

As I mentioned the other day, the chrysalis is actually clear. As the butterfly takes shape inside, you can see the development if you look closely. Note the obvious wing shown in the picture to the right.

Essentially, Heimlich is involved in one of the most amazing transformations imaginable. He's breaking down his entire body and rebuilding it into something completely different. It's one of the most complex processes in the world - and it happens millions of times every year. We here in My Florida Backyard are glad we can be a part of it.

"Oliver wondered how he had lived so long without paying any real
attention to caterpillars. It seemed a terrible oversight."
-Elizabeth Enright, Then There Were Five

Skip to My Lou

It's hard to say what draws you outside at certain times of day. Often, during the hot, humid days of a Florida summer, I observe the flora and fauna through a window, sacrificing up-close views for the comfort of AC. But other times, I feel the need to find some shoes and slip outside into the heat, looking for creatures I couldn't possibly see from the great indoors.

When I stepped outside this afternoon, I immediately began to sweat. But I was quickly rewarded for my discomfort when I spotted this long-tailed skipper visiting my butterfly garden. I do love the thrill of catching a butterfly for the first time on camera.

It seems to be skipper season. Fiery skippers have been visiting frequently, and I'm sure there are others I've been missing. After all, there are dozens of types of skippers in Florida, many of them very diminutive. The long-tailed skipper is about 2 inches long, though, so it's much easier to spot.

Here are a few more pictures of this wonderful little butterfly. To see all the pictures from today's shoot, visit my Flickr Butterfly Gallery.

TIP: If you love Florida butterflies, you have to check out the MOSI Butterfly Garden curator's blog, Tales from the Butterfly Garden: Lepcurious.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Gimme Shelter

As expected, Heimlich pupated overnight, and we awoke this morning to find him inside this beautiful green chrysalis:

Although we didn't get to see it happen, the process of pupating is very interesting. Many people incorrectly believe that caterpillars "spin a cocoon" and climb inside to await metamorphosis. In fact, the chrysalis (not cocoon) forms from the inside out. While Heimlich hung upside-down last night, his chrysalis was actually forming underneath his cool striped skin. When he was ready, Heimlich's skin split open and he basically wriggled and danced his way out of it, leaving it discarded on the floor of his jar. His chrysalis would have been fairly soft at first, hardening into the shape you see above. Interestingly, the chrysalis is actually clear - as Heimlich begins to transform into a butterfly, we'll be able to see wing patterns and so on through the chrysalis.

NOTE: Even though Heimlich has passed some pretty big milestones, we here in My Florida Backyard are aware that the biggest challenge is still ahead. Florida monarchs are especially susceptible to disease, possibly because they don't migrate like other monarch populations. Monarchs frequently suffer from Oe, a parasitic infection. Heimlich could have it even now - there's no way to know. If he does, he could emerge from his chrysalis not fully formed, or even not emerge at all. However, we're not going to borrow trouble - right now we'll just hope that Heimlich is healthy and develops as he should.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Get Ready

Heimlich's had a busy day. After eating a record 12 milkweed leaves in 24 hours, he decided enough was enough. This morning, we found him hanging around near the top of his jar, surrounded by silk threads he had been making. If you look closely, you can see them in this picture.

I don't know if he was practicing or what, but by a few hours later, he had moved to the top of the jar and was working busily to create a tightly woven silken pad, which is circled in red in the picture below:

After working on this for a while, he rested, then laboriously turned himself around and hooked his tail-end feet into the silk pad. Finally, bit by bit, he released his other feet from the fabric on top of the jar until he was hanging upside-down. He curled his body into a "J" and settled in to wait for what comes next.

We've had Heimlich with us for about a week now, and by my estimate, he's about 10 days old. I had expected it to take a few more days before he was ready to pupate, but I guess he knows best.

Over the next 12 - 24 hours, he'll shed his last layer of skin and emerge as a chrysalis. We may not be able to catch this transformation on camera (we do generally sleep at night), but if we can, we'll definitely post those pics.

P.S. We've been referring to Heimlich as a "he", although you can't tell gender in a caterpillar. Once he forms his chrysalis and starts to transform, we'll have a better idea. Any name suggestions if he turns out to be a girl?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

All Creatures Great and Small

Some days seem to be better butterfly days than other in My Florida Backyard. Today has been quite good so far, with visits from old friends and new ones.

This little fellow, just an inch or so across, is a Fiery Skipper. I'm sure they've visited before, but this is the first time I've gotten a picture.

Not long after that, the Giant Swallowtail came a-callin' again. He's certainly bigger and showier than the Fiery Skipper, but each butterfly holds its own fascination for me.

The day is still young. Who knows what else it will bring to My Florida Backyard?

See more pics of today's visitors at my Flickr Butterfly Gallery.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

And Baby Makes Three

For some time, I've been pretty sure that the pair of red-bellied woodpeckers who visit our feeder have been raising a family. From time to time, I've seen them carry seeds off into the distance, rather than stopping nearby to bang them open on a tree and eat them immediately. I'm not quite sure where the nest was, but it turns out I was right.

During a rainy afternoon yesterday, the pair brought a youngster over to visit the feeder. They seemed to be teaching him to grab a seed, take it to the nearest palm tree, and crack it open so he could eat it. At one point, I saw one adult offer a freshly cracked seed to his offspring, who plucked it delicately from his beak.

I wasn't able to get particularly good pictures, as every time I opened the door of the porch to go outside (no matter how quietly and carefully!), they flew off. So, the few shots I have are through the screen, and a bit blurry. Still, you can see how the little guy doesn't yet have the distinctive red coloring on it's head. He or she will develop this gradually over the coming months so that by next spring, the bright coloration will show a readiness to mate.

It's good knowing My Florida Backyard helps local wildlife not only survive, but multiply!