Thursday, July 30, 2009

Waiting to Grow

Just a quick Heimlich update...

He's been living in his glass palace for four days now, and by my estimate, has more than doubled in size. He chows on milkweed, eating a leaf or two every day, and he's definitely eating more as he grows larger.

He is also a champion pooper, as you might expect from one who does nothing but eat all day. Caterpillar waste is called "frass", and you can see some scattered around on the bottom of the jar. I clean it out daily, because who wants to live in their own poo?

If you're worried about him getting enough exercise, you'll be glad to know that he sometimes takes a stroll in between snacks.

My guess is, at the rate he's growing, it won't be long before he needs to shed his skin. With luck, I'll be able to catch one of those molts on camera.

Keep checking back for Heimlich updates!

Let the Sunshine In

On my way out to get the mail, I had to stop and admire the beach sunflower I planted in the front yard this spring. We don't spend much time in the front yard, but it is the side of the house most people see, so we try to keep it looking nice with minimal effort. Beach sunflower is a fantastic Florida native that fits the bill perfectly. It works as groundcover in full sun or partial shade, and is incredibly drought-tolerant once established.

I planted it this spring after trying several other plants out under this tree in front. I planted some mondo grass, but it didn't do much of anything. I tried several kinds of annuals, but the heat was just too much, even in shade for part of the day. Finally, I decided to try beach sunflower. Since this plant generally grows directly on sand dunes, I knew it should be able to tolerate hot dry conditions.

Because it's a Florida native, of course it was somewhat difficult to find. Fortunately, all the native plant nurseries in the area carry it pretty reliably. I bought mine at Wilcox Nursery in Largo, my favorite place for native plants. We planted four plants under the tree, facing west, back in March. They were watered in and established within about 3 weeks, and since then, I haven't done anything to them. They just grow and bloom and grow and bloom!

We also planted one by the mailbox. Personally, I prefer it to the neighbor's marigolds, but I suppose some prefer a more "manicured" look.

Note that these plants have a spread of 2-3 feet in all directions. Again, that's one plant by the mailbox. This is a true groundcover - one plant will spread to fill in space where you need it.

It does seem to draw some butterflies; I saw a Horace's Duskywing visiting it one day. Since it's in the front yard, where we don't spend much time, it's quite likely that other butterflies visit when we're not looking.

Although I prefer to be in My Florida Backyard, I like knowing that I can keep the front yard looking friendly and cheerful with plants like beach sunflower.

P.S. Just to remind you how much Gulf Fritillary caterpillars love passionvine, check out all the little guys competing for food on this one leaf! (Gee, I wonder who's gonna win?)

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Bug's Life

Somehow, I never got to participate in that classic elementary school classroom experiment: watching a caterpillar grow into a butterfly. I've been experiencing it somewhat in the butterfly garden in My Florida Backyard, but lately we've had a wasp problem. Wasps, you see, eat caterpillars. This is great in a garden where you don't want caterpillars eating your plants, but since one of the main purposes of my butterfly garden is to produce more butterflies, it's pretty frustrating to watch the wasps prowling my milkweed in search of new tasty treats.

So, following some internet directions, I found myself a jar, filled it with some milkweed leaves and a stick, and fastened some lightweight material over the top with a rubber band - voila:

That being done, I found myself a resident:

I've decided to call him Heimlich, in honor of that great Disney caterpillar. I'm going to follow his progress, and I'll keep you updated here on My Florida Backyard!

Friday, July 24, 2009

I Love to Laugh

A little woodpecker-related humor, compliments of webcomic xkcd:

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cast a Giant Shadow

My Florida Backyard had a visit today from one of the biggest of butterflies, the Giant Swallowtail.

See more shots of this amazing visitor at my Flickr Butterfly Gallery.

I'm enchanted by all butterflies, big and small, but there's something about the Giant Swallowtail that just makes you hold your breath in admiration. I feel honored whenever one visits.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Black Bottom

It's a breathlessly hot afternoon, and only the bumble bees seem hard at work. I caught this guy poking his head into every Mexican Petunia (sterile cultivar, of course) he could find.

I admire his industriousness, but I'm just going to keep sitting under the ceiling fan and staying cool. It's too darn hot for anything else.

Fun Fact: The scientific name for the Common Eastern Bumble Bee is "Bombus Impatiens".

Monday, July 20, 2009

In the Good Old Summertime

When I was first learning to read, I loved the book Summer, by Alice Low with pictures by Roy McKie. In the book, a little girl and boy (and their dog) explain how "We love the things that summer brings" and the whole thing is illustrated in these crazy vivid pictures that could only have been drawn in the 60s.

I've always loved summer, so it's no surprise that our copy (yes, I still have it) is tattered and dog-eared and held together with tape. I read it over and over, long after I progressed to chapter books and beyond. One of my favorite passages began "Summer brings us things with wings!", and that's certainly true in My Florida Backyard.

My backyard seems full of butterflies today. The monarchs are visiting the milkweed, the gulf fritillaries are laying eggs on the passionvine, and others are drinking nectar from the lantana.

I captured this new visitor, a fairly dull-looking butterfly with a great name - Horace's Duskywing.

Then there was this rather sorry-looking fellow, who reminded me of another childhood favorite - Shel Silverstein's poem, "It's Hot". The last stanza reads:

It’s hot!
I’ve tried with ‘lectric fans,
And pools and ice cream cones.
I think I’ll take my skin off
And sit around in my bones.

It’s still hot!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Tiny World

We took a stroll around My Florida Backyard after a sudden summer shower this evening, noting what's growing well and what needs some work. We encountered many tiny creatures along the way (not all of which were trying to suck our blood). Here's a sampling...

A Gulf Fritillary caterpillar on the tendrils of the passion vine:

A Milkweed Assassin bug, one of the many pests eating my caterpillars:

A damselfly:

An Orchard Orbweaver spider on the beautyberry bush:
As always, we're amazed by the amount of life, big and small, that thrives in our tiny piece of suburbia!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

They're Laying Eggs Now

I caught this Gulf Fritillary laying eggs on the passionvine in the bright sun this morning. I love to watch a butterfly laying eggs - it's such a delicate process.

She hovers, wings fluttering, as she chooses her spot. Then she lands, and bends her abdomen to touch the leaf:

Then, a second later, she pulls away, leaving her tiny egg (yellow, in this case) behind.
Then she's off, no doubt to lay dozens more. If this little egg survives ants and wasps and other threats of nature, it will grow into a caterpillar and maybe someday become a butterfly itself. It has an awfully long way to go until then, but we'll be rooting for it here in My Florida Backyard!

See these shots and more in my Flickr Butterfly Gallery.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Look to the Rainbow

We had hoped to watch the shuttle launch this evening - it's surprising how well you can see it from over a hundred miles away - but the launch was scrapped at the last minute due to weather conditions on the opposite coast.

However, we were rewarded with another phenomenon in the sky...

We see plenty of rainbows in My Florida Backyard during the summer, but this one seemed especially vivid and striking. So, we accepted the gift the evening gave us, and we'll try to watch the shuttle launch tomorrow evening instead.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again

We've been in a pretty wet pattern lately, which we here in My Florida Backyard don't mind at all. The lake and the rain barrel are both full to the brim, and far beneath our feet we know Florida's aquifers are filling up too. This is the way summer in Florida should be.

About a month ago, I stopped filling the bird feeder because the pigeons were taking over. However, I was getting lonely for our regular visitors, so I filled it up again yesterday, and today I found that the birds were back in abundance. In fact, the red-bellied woodpecker goes so far as to chase off the pigeons, but politely allows the cardinals and titmice to feed right along side.

The woodpecker likes to hang out in the pine trees nearby too; no doubt the soft bark hides many delicious creatures for him to dig out and scarf down.

The rainy weather keeps the butterflies away, for the most part, but it's a great time to go on a caterpillar hunt. My milkweed has constant visits from Monarchs, so it's not surprising we have plenty of brightly colored Monarch Caterpillars:

From the very small...
To the very large!
My passionvine may be stubborn about flowering lately, but the Gulf Fritillary butterflies are still using it to lay their eggs, as is evidenced by their spiky orange caterpillars:

Finally, I made one more interesting discovery, which my neighbor Paula (of Adopt-A-Pond fame) helped me identify as lacewing eggs. I love how they hover at the ends of their delicate little threads:
Unfortunately, research tells me that once they hatch, the lacewings will feed on such tasty morsels as that little tiny monarch caterpillar crawling alongside them. Although lacewings are generally considered beneficial in a garden for just that reason, I'm actually trying to raise caterpillars, so the lacewings have to go.

Rain or shine, My Florida Backyard continues to amaze me with the amount of wildlife you can find in a tiny piece of suburbia!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Live and Learn

On July 7, My Florida Backyard hosted the second meeting of the Greenbrook/Brightside Adopt-A-Pond Project. John McGee, Hillsborough County Adopt-A-Pond program coordinator, was on hand to provide us with lots of information and materials to get our project up and running.

We were also fortunate to have on hand John Calvert, Plantation's new property manager, and Danny Church, Plantation's maintenance supervisor. We need the support of the whole community to make this project succeed, and John and Danny understand the positive impacts our planned improvements will have on Plantation as a whole.

John (McGee) began the evening by giving us an overview of stormwater ecology, and then asked us what our goals are as we begin work on our pond. Several of us listed the desire to create new wildlife habitats and improve the existing ones. Danny indicated it would be great if this program could help to stop erosion of the pond banks. We also discussed the possibility of maintaining water quality while using fewer chemical herbicides. John assured us all of these goals were very possible.

He then moved on to explaining the materials he brought to support our efforts. The most important is the giant Adopt-A-Pond Notebook. This book contains just about every kind of information we could need, including forms, program information, pictures and detailed description of plants, and a landscaping guide. Paula will hold onto one copy of this notebook, and Danny will receive another to be used as our group cooperates with the maintenance team to make the project successful.

John also brought copies of the Adopt-A-Pond brochure, stickers, and several reference books, as well as print copies of the Adopt-A-Pond newsletter, On Our Pond.

The group spent some time addressing concerns that while residents may work to establish new plants and habitats in and around the pond, well-meaning maintenance crews could inadverdently spray herbicides that would destroy all the hard work. Danny assured us that he would work with us and his crew to ensure that our pond maintains maximum health levels while protecting the efforts of the Adopt-A-Pond team. Danny explained that one of the main pond issues is controlling the very invasive Hydrilla. John explained some possible alternatives to the current methods, including the possibility of introducing a carefully controlled population of Chinese Grass Carp. We will explore these ideas further as the project progresses.

Finally, the group was ready to make some plans for moving ahead with the project. We agreed to focus our initial efforts on the playground area at the north end of the pond, where we can work to control erosion as well as establish wildlife habitat. John suggested he visit the area and choose the best plants (all native to Florida) to start the project off right, and we agreed. Some of the plants he may help us introduce include:
Our first planting is planned for Wednesday, August 12, from 6:00 - 8:00. John will be there to guide us every step of the way, so no experience in any kind of planting is required. All residents are encouraged to join in! We'll meet at the playground area. Be sure to dress in clothes that can get wet and muddy, and bring a long-handled pointed shovel if you have one.

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.
-Frank Lloyd Wright

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Red, White, and Blue

My Florida Backyard has gotten into the spirit of the holiday, as you can see by the festive colors:

Have a safe and happy Independence Day!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Which Came First?

I went out this evening to give some water to some newly planted Tampa Mock Vervain and coneflower in my butterfly garden - and found a real mess. Something had been digging like crazy all around my duranta bush, knocking over one of my toad houses and kicking up a bunch of dirt and mulch.

As I began to straighten up the mulch, I discovered what had made the mess - at least to start with.

We assume these are duck eggs. However, we found only 7, and this is a pretty small number. I'm afraid that after the eggs were laid, something else discovered them. They were scattered around the area when we first found them, instead of all being together in a nest. It's likely that a neighborhood dog or cat, or even crows, had found and dug up the nest, possibly even scaring the mother away, since she was no where to be seen.

However, we are ever the optimists, so we gathered them back up carefully and placed them together, covered with a light layer of mulch, just in case the mother duck decides to return. We'll keep our eyes open, and update the blog if anything changes.