Friday, December 23, 2011

Do You See What I See?

How many birds do you see in this picture? We see 9, with 4 different species represented...

... 3 limpkins, 2 mallards, 2 muscovy ducs, and 2 ibises. Did we miss any?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Open Up

'Tis the season for amaryllis bulbs! They're incredibly popular (if misnamed - they're really hippeastrum) at Christmas, since these bulbs are prepped by the growers so they will begin to bloom just a few weeks after the recipient receives them. We bought a new one around Thanksgiving - Hippeastrum papilio, Butterfly Amaryllis. It started sending up a flower stalk almost immediately after being planted, and started to open this weekend.

We watched it eagerly, waiting for the spectacular blooms to appear. This hippeastrum is very popular because of its unusual coloration, a lime green color shot through with deep red. And the bloom doesn't disappoint. In fact, even thought its not quite done opening, we just couldn't wait to share it with you.

The bulb is already sending up a second flower stalk, and beginning to produce leaves as well. When it's done flowering, we'll probably move it outside to a partly shaded spot and let it return to its natural blooming cycle. In this climate, hippeastrum tends to bloom in late February or early March, so it will probably be about 14 months before we see the bloom again.

We think it will be worth the wait. Hippeastrum bulbs can be expensive - this one was $15 - but they're truly investments if you care for them properly. In a few years, this bulb will begin to produce baby offshoots, and over time we may have dozens of these beauties in My Florida Backyard. That's worth the money, in our eyes!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mouths to Feed

Summer is a slow time at the bird feeders in My Florida Backyard. Many birds change their diets in the summer to focus on the insects that are available in abundance; insects offer high amounts of protein and that's what nesting birds and juveniles need in the summer. When cooler weather arrives, insects are a little more sparse (not that it necessarily feels that way on a mosquito-filled evening) and some birds will drop by feeders for seeds instead. We have two common feeder visitors in My Florida Backyard - northern cardinals and tufted titmice, like the ones shown below.

The titmice are especially fun to watch, as they crack each seed delicately, holding it between their feet and using their beaks to get at the goodness inside. Experiments have shown that titmice will make an especial effort to select the largest seed available, and are also known to take cracked seeds off to store in a separate location for later.

Tufted titmice always seem especially colorful in the fall, most likely because they have one yearly molt sometime in August and are still flaunting their rust-colored and clean white breast feathers. Many birds have a spring molt to prepare for mating and nesting season, but tufted titmice do not.

We'd like to attract some additional feeder birds to My Florida Backyard, but haven't had much luck except for the aforementioned cardinals, mourning doves (in droves), and the occasional woodpecker (though never at the suet feeder - that seems to go untouched). Do you live in Central Florida and have any feeder tips for us? We'd love to know if anyone has any luck drawing finches with a thistle feeder when they're down here for the winter, or any other advice you can offer!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Natural Blues

As you may know, we can't really get enough salvia in My Florida Backyard. We love discovering a new species to add to the collection, so when we found Bi-color Sage (Salvia sinaloensis) a few months ago, we knew we needed it. We bought two and planted them, but before we could get any pictures, they stopped blooming. Last week's rain seems to have brought them back, though, and flower spikes have started to appear again.

This salvia is native to Mexico, as indicated by the botanical name - sinaloensis refers to the Sinaloa district of Mexico where the plant was first identified. The common name refers to the two colors of the blooms, blue with white centers.

The blooms spikes are gorgeous, but the foliage has a lot going for it too. It forms a nice low-growing mat of green and bronze leaves, making great ground-cover. Bicolor sage can be grown in full sun to part shade, and is said to be hardy all the way down to zero degrees, so we expect it to do quite well here even if we have a frost or two.

Nearly all salvias are wonderful in the butterfly garden as nectar plants (with Salvia splendens being a notable exception), so we can never have too much. Easy to grow, easy to love... those are the kinds of plants we love in My Florida Backyard!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

We Gather Together

Here in My Florida Backyard, holidays are generally pretty quiet affairs. Our families live many hundreds of miles away, so it's usually just us enjoying our holiday meal out on the back porch. Of course, plenty of wildlife is also around, feasting as well.

Who joined in your Thanksgiving feast? We hope it was as nice as ours was. Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Mexico Came Here

Fall in Florida is the season of purples. Asters, muhly, beautyberry - so many of fall's fantastic showstoppers here are purple. Another great example is Mexican Sage (Salvia leucantha), which begins blooming in early fall and lasts until first frost.

Though not native to Florida (it hails from Central American and Mexico), Mexican Sage is well-suited to our climate and shows no invasive tendencies. It has silvery green foliage that grows into almost shrub-like proportions by the end of summer (3 feet high and tall), when the flower stalks emerge and add another foot or so to the height. (Ours are still small - we planted them only a month or so ago when we got a great deal on the clearance rack at Lowe's.)

The stalks and calyxes are purple and fuzzy, while the blooms themselves are a soft white color. This late-bloomer is a favorite of pollinators like bees and butterflies, and is very easy to maintain. After the first flush of blooms has finished, cut back to the base (you'll see the new growth beneath) for continued blooming as long as the season permits.

Mexican Sage will likely die back to the ground if we have a hard frost, but will re-grow quickly once warmer weather arrives. We always love adding new salvia species to the butterfly garden in My Florida Backyard - especially those that add to the purple pageant of autumn!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Back Porch

Our screened-in back porch is probably our favorite part of the house here in My Florida Backyard. It gives us a place to sit and watch the wildlife world go by without being eaten alive by mosquitoes or drowned in the rain. In turn, the outside of the screen gives wildlife a place to hang out - lizards spend time there warming up in the sun, squirrels race across it on their way from one feeder to another, and insects rest there before heading back out into the world, like this furry brown moth we found the other day:

The world is full of PBMs - "plain brown moths", most of which are extremely difficult to identify, but the fun furry legs on this one led us to try anyway. We started at's Moth ID guide, which allows lets you check boxes and narrow down your options, but we still got too many possibilities. We tried some Google searches for things like "furry brown moth", but again - no luck. In the end, we found it by dumb luck while browsing brown moth images. It's a Florida Fern Moth (Callopistria floridensis), whose caterpillars feed on many kinds of ferns, and its native to Florida and the tropics.

Small discoveries like this aren't exciting to everyone, but they make days in My Florida Backyard a little more fun for us. Time spent on our back porch is never time wasted!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mellow Yellow

Fall is the time of purple and gold in My Florida Backyard, and one of the brightest patches of yellow comes from the Winter Cassia (Cassia bicapsularis syn. Senna bicapsularis). This shrub provides a bright burst of color from now through the first frost with its unusual flowers, but that's not the only way it provides gold in the garden. You see, cassia species are host plants for sulphur caterpillars of several varieties. Normally, these caterpillars are the same green shade as the leaves they eat. But when the flowering season arrives, the caterpillars immediately begin to dine on this delicacy, and as a result - they turn bright yellow.

The species above is an Orange-Barred Sulphur caterpillar, but Cloudless Sulphur butterflies (shown below) will lay on cassia as well, along with the smaller Sleepy Orange. They generally lay far more eggs than will ever hatch - Winter Cassia is extremely attractive to ants, and while harvesting nectar the ants will also gobble up any sulphur eggs along the way. Fortunately, sulphur butterflies seem to haunt these bushes, laying eggs from spring to first frost, so their continued success is pretty well-assured.

It should be noted that some organizations place Cassia bicapsularis on invasive species lists, but other groups, like the University of Florida Extension, are not concerned and in fact continue to recommend this bush for planting. To add to the mess, C. bicapsularis is sometimes confused with Senna pendula, a similar and possibly more invasive species. You can use your own judgment on whether to include this non-native in your own landscape, but in My Florida Backyard, we feel comfortable enough with this plant to enjoy the incredible benefits it brings to the butterfly garden, including the bright yellow caterpillars of fall.

P.S. Nov. 7: A quick update - here's a good article from with more info about the differences between C. bicapsularis and S. pendula.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Have a Feast Here Tonight

Regular readers may remember that back in the spring, we installed a "squirrel feeder" in My Florida Backyard. This cleverly designed feeder looks like a corn stalk, and you just add dried corn on the cob to the stakes. Well, as much as we liked it, the squirrels spent the summer ignoring it, and we were getting ready to chalk it up to another "oh, well, we tried" situation.

But then a few weeks ago, the squirrels seemed to suddenly realize this feast of plenty of was free for the taking, and they quickly began to strip the cobs of the tasty little kernels. One squirrel loves to perch atop the fence nearby as he nibbles his dinner, while this little guy prefers to use the corncobs themselves for his seat (sorry for the poor image quality - we snapped this through the window so as not to scare him off):

It's nice to know this fun feeder is finally working out. Most likely, the squirrels spent the summer feasting on insects that were readily available, and as those populations began to dwindle, they looked around for easier food sources. While this doesn't necessarily keep them off the bird feeders nearby when there's sunflower seed to be had, it does at least provide ridiculously cute photo opportunities as they enjoy their tasty corn snacks in My Florida Backyard.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Purple and Gold

Northern autumns mean colored leaves blazing the hillsides. Here in Florida, autumn comes in with plenty of color too, and the height of it is just beginning. My Florida Backyard is full of the purples and golds right now that make a Florida autumn special.

The muhly grass (oh, the muhly grass!) is at its peak right now. We write about it every year, because we wait for it and love it just as much every year. What an amazing native grass!

The Winter Cassia (Cassia bicapsularis) is beginning to bloom too. After spending the summer being visited by bright yellow sulphur butterflies to lay eggs, the cassia seems to takes its inspiration from them, putting forth gorgeous gold flowers that will turn the caterpillars a brilliant yellow as the fall progresses.

There are plenty of other fall colors around the yard (Beautyberry and Carolina aster to name a few), but they'll have to wait for another post, because the purple and gold of the muhly and the cassia are all we really seem to need today.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Don't Be Shy

Here in My Florida Backyard, we're lucky to live on a stormwater drainage pond, part of a huge stormwater management system designed to prevent flooding and filter out contaminants before they can drain into the groundwater. This pond also adds a wetland aspect to our environment, bringing in wading birds, alligators, and water-loving plants we wouldn't have otherwise. We love to check out the shoreline for new sightings, like this cute little wildflower we found the other day.

We pulled out our Wildflowers of Florida Field Guide and found it on the first page of the "yellow flowers" section. It's Shyleaf (Aeschynomene americana), a native plant found in wetlands throughout Florida. It grows about 2 feet by 2 feet, in a rather feathery fashion that reminds us of Partridge Pea.

In fact, both Partridge Pea and Shyleaf are in the Pea Family (Fabaceae), as you can pretty easily tell by looking at the flowers, and by the fact that it spreads by seeds from pods. It prefers moist soil, so it's often found along the edge of lakes and rivers. As you might have guessed from the name, Shyleaf folds up its leaves when touched, and it's a host plant for the Barred Yellow (Eurema daira) butterfly, a fairly small pale yellow butterfly with a green caterpillar.

It's always fun to find a new plant in and around My Florida Backyard, and when it's a native wildflower, that's even better. When you keep your eyes open, you never know what you might find!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Flowers are Red

As we work to rehab the gardens after the long humid days of summer, we've been adding new plants here and there. One of our new additions to the butterfly garden is a small shrub called Peregrina, or Spicy Jatropha (Jatropha integerrima). It has interestingly-shaped shiny green leaves and delicate small red flowers that butterflies love.

Though small now, this shrub has the ability to grow up 10 feet tall. We'll probably keep it trimmed to 3 - 4 feet, encouraging it to grow wider instead of taller. Spicy Jatropha is native to Cuba and Hispaniola, and is sensitive to hard freezes, though it will re-grow even if killed to the ground. We will most likely cover it if any especially cold weather threatens.

This is a popular plant with butterflies, especially zebra longwings. The little flowers are less than an inch across, but very beautiful up close. All parts of this plant are toxic, so don't plant if you have dogs that like to chew on your shrubbery, and be careful when pruning as those with sensitive skin can have reactions to the milky sap.

Though we try to focus on native plants in My Florida Backyard, some carefully chosen non-natives are fine in any garden. This plant doesn't really show any signs of being invasive in Central Florida, so we can plant and enjoy it in good conscience!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Georgia on My Mind

Last spring, we bought a neat little native wildflower from Wilcox Nursery over in Largo. We were intrigued by the yummy minty smell at the time, and the promise of hordes of tiny flowers in the fall. Well, fall has arrived, and the Georgia Calamint (Calamintha georgiana) has delivered the promised buds and blooms, the sheer number of which are hard to appreciate in this photograph.

Up close, the flowers resemble those of Florida Pennyroyal (Piloblepis rigida), another native member of the Mint family (Lamiaceae). The flavor and smell of mint from the foliage has a bit of savory spice to it, which is most likely why its other common name is Georgia Basil. Some write of using this plant as seasoning or for teas.

Our plant is fairly small still, though it's said to grow 2 feet high by 3 feet wide. This species is actually not really found in the wild this far south, though it's common a little further north, including (as you might guess) Georgia. Here in Florida, it's only found in a few counties in the extreme north. It does well here, though, and apparently can be propagated by cuttings if they're kept sufficiently moist.

Though this small plant hasn't put on a whole lot of new growth in the last six months, it seems to have established itself well. It's said to be deciduous, so the small needle-leaves will apparently fall off during the winter. In the meantime, we're in peak flowering season, which will last a couple of weeks. Bees, small butterflies, and tiny nectar-seeking ants seem to be loving it, and so are we.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sneak Peak

Fall colors and new plants are starting to arrive in My Florida Backyard, and we've got a bunch of good posts coming up... .just as soon as we have to time to write them. In the meantime, here's a little sneak peak at a couple of fall favorites who seemed ready for their close-ups. Can you ID them?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

'Tis Autumn

At last, fall weather has arrived. The days are still plenty warm, but the nights are generally cooler, and good breezes have made working outdoors pleasant again. We spent the weekend cleaning up the backyard and putting in a few new plants. We love to hit the markdown rack at the Lowe's garden center, where perfectly good plants that just need some love are often available at a bargain. This week, we found some Mexican Sage that just needed to be cut back and watered well (more on that in another post) along with some wonderful Anise Hyssop plants.

Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) isn't a true hyssop but, like the Agastache rupestris we planted last spring, it's a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). The tiny flowers attract bees and butterflies by the dozens, and humans enjoy the licorice scent of the foliage.

Anise Hyssop is native to the northern part of the U.S. and Canada. That makes it perfect for growing in Florida in the cooler months. If we cover it from hard freezes, we should have it right through spring. It likes sunny spots for best flowering, and will need a little supplemental watering during the driest spells. Cutting back the flower stalks after they bloom will help encourage further flowers. Northern growers note that this plant re-seeds prolifically, but I don't expect that to be too much of a problem here, as it is unlikely to survive the hot wet summers.

At the butterfly garden where I work, Anise Hyssop is one of the biggest draws for butterflies. Here in My Florida Backyard, we were especially pleased to get these plants because they were marked down to half-price ($5 each for plants in 2.25 gallon pots) even though they seemed to be in perfect condition. They were a fantastic bargain and are helping to replenish the butterfly garden as we head into the wonderful months ahead.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Big Bird

We welcomed the first cool weekend of the fall with a lot of yard work and a surprise visitor. As we sat on the bench in the backyard planning what we wanted to accomplish, a flash of red in the nearby pine trees caught our eye. A loud hammering sound quickly clued us in to the woodpecker nearby, but we were surprised to find it was a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), which we've never had the pleasure of seeing around the yard before.

Pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers in Florida, and get their name from their red cap of feathers. In Latin, pileatus meant "wearing a felt skullcap" (seems sort of an oddly specific word, when you think about it). Incidentally, in case you've ever had trouble pronouncing the word, the preferred pronunciation is "pie-lee-ate-ed", although "pill-ee-ate-ed" is also fine. In both pronunciations, the accent is on the first syllable.

Male and female Pileated woodpeckers can be differentiated by the head. Males have an extra splash of red below the eye (click here to see). Our visitor was lacking that patch, so she was a female. Both forage for food in the same way, by excavating rectangular holes in the bark of trees to find ants and small insects. They make holes so large that other birds come to feed there as well.

Though we've seen Pileated woodpeckers in other places, having one visit My Florida Backyard was very exciting. Somehow, we feel a little more acquainted with a species once it visits us at home. It was a wonderful way to ring in the first weekend of fall weather, and made the hours of weed-pulling ahead seem that much more pleasant.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Our Only Native Stork

We get many wading bird visitors in My Florida Backyard. A couple of our favorites are Limpkins (which we've written about before) and Wood Storks, both of which are on the endangered list in the United States. It's exciting to know that our lake provides habitat for these birds, which we see regularly enough that if we didn't know they were endangered we would never have guessed.

Wood Storks (Mycteria americana) are the only storks that live and breed in the US. They're found in Florida and along the Gulf Coast, and a few isolated populations are known in North and South Carolina. During the drier months, they're often found in pretty heavy concentrations around freshwater lakes and watering holes, so as the rainy season comes to an end, we'll see larger numbers of them in and around My Florida Backyard.

Wood Storks are easily identifiable by their bald black heads. Presumably this lack of feathers makes feeding easier as there are no feathers to dry and preen after dunking their heads in the water. These birds wade in the shallows and use their brightly colored feet as lures. They trail their open beaks through the water until it makes contact with something (hopefully food), at which point it snaps shut with a reflex response time of 25 milliseconds - an incredibly fast response time among vertebrates.

Wood Storks are also easy to identify in flight. As you can see in the picture above, taken a few years ago, the bottom half of their wings are black. Combined with their dark heads, this makes them easy to tell apart from other large white birds in flight.

We're always very conscious of the amazing array of wildlife in My Florida Backyard. Knowing a species in endangered makes a sighting that much more exciting, but we value every thing that walks or flies through our gardens each day, including these magnificent Wood Storks.