Saturday, July 31, 2010

I Love a Parade

Lately My Florida Backyard has had a daily parade almost as reliable as the one at Disney World - although there's nothing animatronic about this one. Ours consists of about 25 ibis wandering through on a search for lunch:

The American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), as these fellows are more formally known, is one of Florida's most easily-identifiable wading birds, due to the prominent curved orange beak. They are gregarious, and nearly always seen in large flocks. In fact, a single ibis wandering on its own is actually pretty unusual, and always causes us to speculate on what may have gotten him excommunicated from the tribe. 

Ibis eat insects along with small fish and frogs, so you don't need to be near a water source to see them. They are just as frequently noted wandering through grassy areas where insects and lizards no doubt make fairly easy prey. They are also commonly seen along beaches, darting in and out of the waves. White Ibis juveniles are darker in coloration - presumably this gives them better camouflage - becoming mottled and eventually all white as they age. The ibis shown on the right below is nearly full-grown, with only the head and neck retaining the darker colors.

Florida is also home to Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), which is not nearly as commonly seen in the Tampa area. We've only spotted it at Lettuce Lake Park, in the distance through binoculars. The Glossy Ibis is very dark in coloration, and can be confused with a juvenile White Ibis, but there's an easy way to tell them apart. As you can see in the picture below, even when a juvenile White Ibis is still very dark in color, its underside and rump are white. The Glossy Ibis does not have this white underside at any life stage. The Glossy Ibis, incidentally, is thought to be native to Africa and Southern Europe, accidentally introduced here in the 19th century. The White Ibis is native to Florida and other parts of the US.

Our daily noon parade may not be accompanied by 76 trombones, but it's a joy to watch all the same. Ibis are a common Florida bird, but one we have a soft spot for here in My Florida Backyard, so it's a pleasure to have their company on a regular basis - no admission ticket required.

Monday, July 26, 2010

If You Want To Know Who We Are

On an average day, we spot anywhere from five to ten different butterfly species in My Florida Backyard, and that's usually just as we're passing through or looking out the back window. There's always a gulf fritillary or six hanging around, monarchs laying on the milkweed, sulphurs attracted by the cassias, and tiny skippers galore. Some butterflies are easy to identify - nearly anyone can tell you what a monarch looks like - but others take a little more work, especially if you only see them flitting through the air rather than at rest.

One of our biggest challenges has been telling apart Eastern Black and Spicebush Swallowtails. Their shape, size, and markings are very similar. In fact, both are mimics of the foul-tasting female pipevine swallowtail, adding another butterfly species into the mix to confuse those trying to identify them. However, if you happen to see these butterflies at rest with their wings open, there is a pretty simple trick you can use to help you out. Kristen G, who runs the butterfly garden and historic tree grove at MOSI, explains:
"The best way to be sure is to follow the inside line of the hind wing to the bottom, near the tails. Spicebush Swallowtails may have a blush of orange marking but [Eastern] Black Swallowtails have an orange or yellow marking with a black eye-spot in the center."
So, let's compare. In first picture below, which we took last year and correctly identified as an Eastern Black Swallowtail, we can clearly see the eyespot Kristen describes.

In this next picture, taken this past weekend, the eyespot is absent. This picture shows a male Spicebush pursuing a female. The female's markings, shown clearly in the first picture of this post, are even more similar to the Eastern Black's.

Life would be easier here in My Florida Backyard if we didn't have inquiring minds that always want to know "What exactly is that?". We could just sit back and enjoy the spectacle, and we often do. But we're happiest when we know exactly what we're looking at, because then we can learn more about it, including how to make sure it visits My Florida Backyard again and again!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

There'll Be Some Changes Made

My Florida Backyard is taking advantage of some Blogger features and making a few changes to the page. So what's new?
  • The page layout has changed a bit, with the main posts on the left and sidebar items moved to the right.
  • The background is a little fancier, and photos now have a white border to help them stand out.
  • Some of the links and information formerly found in the sidebar can now be found in the tabs across the top under the header, such as "Sites to Learn More" and "Where to Get What You Need". We'll be adding more tabs to make navigation easier, such as a list of local nurseries that My Florida Backyard likes.
Our goal is always to keep the page easy for users to read and enjoy. If you have comments about the new look, please let us know. We'll keep tinkering with it until we're happy... just like we do with the gardens in My Florida Backyard!

Yellow Days

The hot and hazy days of summer are here, and yellow seems to be the prevailing color in My Florida Backyard. Lantana, zinnias, yellowtop, rosinweed - all are spreading cheery yellow blooms beneath the steamy summer sun. In the last few days, the Partridge Pea began to bloom, adding to the golden glow of the garden.

Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) is a native wildflower in Florida and throughout much of the U.S. east of the Rockies. It's an annual, lasting until the first heavy frost, but reseeds easily. Once you have it established in an area, you can expect to see it pop up each summer without any encouragement. It grows quickly from the ground; the plant shown above took about a 4-6 weeks to reach its current height of about 3 feet. The leaves are feathery and sensitive to the touch; the leaflets will fold up during rain and each evening at dusk. The bright yellow flowers appear along the stem at intervals where the leaves meet the stem (known as the "leaf axil"), and will be followed by seed pods that resemble pea pods.

Partridge Pea serves as a host plant for several butterflies, including the Sleepy Orange and some sulphurs. My Florida Backyard has been invaded regularly by Sleepy Oranges lately, and the Partridge Peas are full of eggs, which resemble little grains of rice. Because Partridge Pea has nectar glands along the stem, the plant is very attractive to ants. These ants will frequently carry off the caterpillar eggs and even young caterpillars, so it's a good thing that the butterflies lay their eggs in volume. A recent survey of one Partridge Pea plant yielded over 30 eggs before the surveyor (yours truly) stopped counting due to the sweat blurring her vision.

We love any plant that brings butterflies to My Florida Backyard, and Partridge Pea is an easy-to-grow native that fits in any wildflower garden. Obtaining seeds or starter plants can be a little difficult; try a native nursery or wildflower website, or watch for plants along the side of the road and gather some seeds for yourself (not on private property, of course!). If you can get your hands on it, Partridge Pea is definitely worth the space in your wildlife-friendly garden!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Beautiful Ohio

My Florida Backyard has been on its own for the last week, as its owners have been up north for a family wedding. As you might expect from a Florida garden in the summer, we returned to a serious jungle situation, especially since we received about 8 inches of rain in the 10 days before we left. Weeds are rampant, grass is knee-high, and the work ahead of us feels a little daunting.

On the plus side, we managed to squeeze in a little time in Ohio to visit the Secrest Arboretum in Wooster, a part of The Ohio State University's OARDC. Mid-July is probably the best time of the year in an Ohio garden, and we were able to enjoy some of the best flowers the state has to offer. Until My Florida Backyard is back in shape, we thought you might enjoy seeing what's in bloom up north right now.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea):

The arboretum also had the newer orange cultivar of coneflower, which is amazing:

Shasta daisies (Chrysanthemum maximum):

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) enjoying Bee Balm (Monarda):

The variety of day lilies and Asiatic lilies is astonishing:

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is part of the hibiscus family, so we felt almost at home:

Columbine (Aquilegia hybrida), which unfortunately doesn't grow well in Florida:

A massed planting of Verbena bonarensis:

The arboretum also includes woodland trails and an outdoor amphitheater:

No butterfly lover would be happy without a new sighting on a trip. We saw our first Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis), named for the small white marking on the lower hindwing.

Ohio is truly beautiful in the summer, and we're glad we had a chance to enjoy it. Now we're back home, ready to tackle the jungle that used to be our yard. Florida is beautiful in summer too, once you get all the weeds out of the way!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I've Got My Eyes on You

Just when we think we've seen it all here in My Florida Backyard, along comes something that makes us step back and say, "What the HECK is that???"

It's important to understand, mind you, that this beetle was nearly TWO INCHES long - almost the length of my pinky finger. At first sight from the other side of the screen, I wondered if it was an especially big specimen of what we Floridians delicately call a Palmetto bug (and the rest of the world knowingly calls a disgusting cockroach) - we've seen some pretty darn large ones, I'm sorry to say. But when I came around to the other side of the screen and saw the distinctive markings, I knew I was definitely looking at something else.

A quick search of showed this to be an Eyed Click Beetle (Alaus oculatus), a pretty common beetle in the eastern US. It's known to eat some nectar, so perhaps it's not surprising we found it near the butterfly garden, which is full of nectar plants. It takes its name from the large eye spots on the pronotum, which are most likely used to fool predators much like the Buckeye butterfly does. You can learn more about this beetle and see some really incredible pictures by clicking here.

You never know what's going to cross your path in My Florida Backyard... and that's the way we like it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

America the Beautiful

With the surrounding neighborhood full of the sound of firecrackers, My Florida Backyard celebrates our country quietly, with the vivid color of flowers in bloom. Some of our plants are blooming for the first time this Fourth of July, and though they may not be red, white, or blue, their colors are better than sparklers to our eyes!

The Railroad Vine has begun to bloom:

... as well as the Canna we started from bulbs this spring:

The native Starry Rosinweed isn't showy, but bees and butterflies seem to like it:

And this Liriope muscari has shoots of flowers that look almost like fireworks shooting into the sky:

Combined with the dozens of other flowers in bloom in My Florida Backyard, these plants give us brilliant colors to enjoy even if the rain doesn't allow fireworks to fill the sky tonight. Happy Independence Day!

Friday, July 2, 2010

We Are Family

During a particularly rainy week in My Florida Backyard (the rain gauge tops out at 5 inches, and it was close to overflowing this morning), we had a visit from a local family of limpkins, who apparently produced an amazing five babies this year!

The limpkin is a SSC (Species of Special Concern) in the U.S., although common in South America. Even if the call of the limpkin is not exactly a sweet one (see Don't Cry Out Loud for details), we're so fortunate to have them not only living but thriving here in our neighborhood.