Friday, July 29, 2011

Middle of the Midwest

Have grown up in the midwest, we can't help but feel a fondness for an Ohio garden in mid-summer. Visiting my mom in the heart of Ohio's Amish Country last week gave us chance to admire those staples of a midwestern summer garden - Black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, Shasta daisies, hostas, and daylilies galore!

Some of these plants will grow in central Florida, but they don't thrive in quite the same fashion. Hosta here rarely receives the cold dormant winter period it requires, and certainly doesn't grow so prolifically that neighbors will happily let you dig up large clumps to start your own gardens. These plants are beloved up north as excellent ground cover almost anywhere, and the tall flower spikes that begin in mid-summer are a draw for butterflies and hummingbirds.

Speaking of butterflies and hummingbirds - we found Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies just about everywhere in Ohio this time of year. These are found in Florida as well, but they don't seem to be seen in such great numbers.

And the hummingbirds! They are rare visitors in My Florida Backyard, especially in the summer when the heat is simply too much for the tiny creatures. But in the midwest, Ruby-Throated hummingbirds are a common sight all summer long, visiting nectar plants and sugar water feeders throughout the day and tempting nature-lovers with cameras to take way too many pictures (we've narrowed it down to a couple of our favorite shots).

A midwestern sunset can be pretty beautiful, but at the end of the day, we're always happy to return to My Florida Backyard. In a few months, our gardens will still be full of blooms while those up north will be covered in snow, and that's something we just wouldn't trade for anything!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Life in a Northern Town

Visiting family up north in Ohio is always fun, partly because the birds that visit their backyard feeders are so different than the birds that visit ours. At my dad's house in Canton, Ohio, dozens of small songbirds visit his feeders each day, most of which we never have a chance to see in Central Florida. His yard is flanked by tall trees, so even in an urban setting, it's not unusual to have 10 or 12 birds at his feeders at a time, waiting for their turn and fighting off the squirrels.

Finches especially are fond of nyjer thistle seed, like this American Goldfinch pair. The males are a brilliant yellow during mating season, with females only slightly duller. This species is known to winter as far south as Florida, and this year we plan to try a thistle feeder and see if we can't lure a few to My Florida Backyard.

Finches will eat black oil sunflower seed too, and this red-headed House Finch joined a White-Breasted Nuthatch in a search for dinner. Nuthatches are very fun to watch, as they frequently feed head-down both at feeders and along tree trunks. Neither of these birds are seen in Florida, so we have to enjoy them when we're out of town.

Perhaps our favorite Ohio backyard visitor, though, is the Black-Capped Chickadee. Another bird we'll never see in Florida, these little guys are so friendly they're often known to eat out of people's hands. Their call is easy to recognize... they sing "Chickadee-dee-dee!" early and often, and their adorable hopping behavior endears them to nearly all backyard bird lovers.

As much as we love My Florida Backyard, a trip to another backyard is always fun. The birds at my dad's are very different than those at home, and we truly enjoyed the chance to watch them for a few days!

P.S. There was one familiar visitor to this Ohio backyard... this little Tufted Titmouse dropped by to remind us of home!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Give Me a "J"!

We came around the corner in the garden the other day and almost ran smack into this monarch caterpillar, hanging in the classic "J" position and preparing to pupate into chrysalis.

This is a pretty common sight in My Florida Backyard. Most species of butterfly caterpillars display this behavior, spinning a silk pad and attaching their hind end to it by a hook called a "cremaster". The rest of their body hangs free, allowing the caterpillar to shed its skin one last time and form a chrysalis. (Learn more about each species below by clicking the name.)

Other butterfly species hang in a modified "J", using a second strand of silk to secure themselves across the middle. This adds an extra level of security in case the cremaster accidentally becomes detached.

Observing the full life cycle of butterflies is just one of the joys of building and maintaining a wildlife habitat. Watching these creatures from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly never fails to impress us with the amazing complexity of nature at its finest!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Over My Shoulder

We were a little startled this evening by the bird perched on our backyard feeder. He was most definitely not there for the safflower seed...  that's just not part of the diet of a juvenile Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus).

We made our way outside to see him a bit more clearly. We knew he was juvenile because of the white coloration of his breast. Adults have reddish-brown breast feathers. The tail feathers also show distinct bands, a characteristic of a younger hawk of this species.

Red-shouldered hawks are a common predator in My Florida Backyard. They've been responsible for picking off plenty of baby ducklings, and last year we watched one take down a crow (click here to learn more). If this one continues to haunt the bird feeder, we will most likely see very few songbirds for awhile, but tonight the sight of this hawk was enough to fill us with awe... and that's enough for one day.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hot Pink

It's been a little gloomy in My Florida Backyard this week, with record rainfalls and lots of overcast skies. Fortunately, the gardens have plenty of color to counteract the gray conditions... case in point: these hot pink zinnias.


We've been loving zinnias this year. Some we've started from seed, others (like these) we've bought as plants. They seem to bloom without concern for sun or rain, especially if we remember to get out and deadhead every once in awhile, and the butterflies like to stop by for a drink when they're in the neighborhood. They're such an easy annual, with such big payoff!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bend Down the Branches

When we opened the blinds on the back windows this morning, we squinted into the morning sun and were greeted with this sight:

Taking pictures through a screen into the sun isn't really optimal, but you can still get the idea. This female anhinga was perched in our very young cypress tree, bending it halfway to the ground as she dried her wings.

Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) are waterbirds common in Central Florida. They resemble cormorants, but in warmer months, cormorants are nearly always found on salt water rather than freshwater. Anhingas are more common on freshwater all year.

Anhingas swim with almost their entire body submerged, ducking entirely below the surface to swim for prey. When they surface and wish to fly, they must emerge onto dry land and dry their wings. Unlike ducks, they do not have oils on their wings to make the feathers waterproof. This makes it easier to dive but harder to fly in a hurry. So they are often found perched along the edge of waterways, wings spread to the sun.

With a patch of tall strong pine trees only ten yards to the right, this cypress seems like an odd choice for this anhinga. The landing must have been amusing, as the tree bent closer and closer to the earth, and the bird struggled for balance. Still, she managed it, and although this great blue heron that wandered over almost seems to be saying, "What are you doing up there?", we're glad to have anhingas anywhere they want to be in My Florida Backyard.

Monday, July 4, 2011

American Red, White, and Blues

"May the sun in his course visit no land 
more free, more happy, more lovely, 
than this our own country!" 
 ~Daniel Webster

Happy Independence Day from My Florida Backyard!