Monday, August 29, 2011

Fire and Rain

We've been enjoying the rainy season here in My Florida Backyard. We monitor the rain gauge daily, feeling almost as if we've accomplished something ourselves when there's a good reading, like today's inch and a half. Wandering the gardens after the rains, we love to watch as wildlife re-emerges and activity picks up. This Gulf Fritillary dropped by the Firebush as soon as the last raindrops had fallen.

Firebush (Hamelia patens) is one of our very favorite Florida native shrubs. Though vulnerable to freeze, it grows back so quickly, even from the ground, that it can even be grown up north as a perennial. The "fire" in its name can be attributed to the color of the tube-shaped blooms and leaf stalks, the reddish tinge of the new foliage, or the brilliant flame hue of the leaves in late fall.

Firebush is a terrific wildlife-attractant. Butterflies, especially sulphurs, love it. It's one of the two plants we've seen hummingbirds visit in My Florida Backyard (the other is Coral Honeysuckle). Birds, including Mockingbirds, love to eat the berries that follow the blooms throughout the year.

There is another type of firebush that is not native to Florida: Hamelia patens var. glabra, sold as “Dwarf Firebush”. This non-native hails from Mexico and Central America. There is some concern that it may be hybridizing with our native species, although no particular warnings or prohibitions have yet been issued. Native firebush, shown below and throughout this post, has orange flowers and lighter green leaves, while dwarf firebush has orange and yellow blooms and shiny darker green leaves. Both attract wildlife, but we find native firebush a little easier to grow.

There are still at least six weeks left in the rainy season, and though the temperatures and humidity are high, the rain is welcome in the garden. So for now, the rain continues to fall, wildlife wanders through, and summer lingers on here in My Florida Backyard.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Look Alike

Things always seem to slow down in the garden in August. It's so very very hot, with rain nearly every day, and we don't always seem to get out to see what's going on like we do in the cooler months. There's still plenty of activity, though, as we found when we turned over the oleander leaves and discovered some new caterpillars the other day.

Polka dots! We knew pretty quickly what these caterpillars were likely to be. Last year, we posted about the Spotted Oleander Moth (Empyreuma affinis), a Caribbean species that has been moving its range steadily north for the last 30 years or so. It feeds, as should be extremely obvious, on oleander (Nerium oleander).

The Spotted Oleander Moth is similar in appearance to the Common Oleander Moth, also called the Polka-Dotted Wasp Moth (Syntomeida epilais), both as adult moth and and as a caterpillar. The common oleander caterpillar is familiar to anyone who has oleander in their yards, as a bright orange caterpillar with black spiky hairs (click here to see a picture). The Spotted Oleander Moth caterpillar is also orange, but with white spots and mostly white hairs, with longer black hairs at the front and back.

All parts of the oleander plant are very toxic, so it seems likely that any caterpillars that feed on it would be toxic as well. The bright coloring of the spotted oleander caterpillar is a good indicator of that danger - it's a form of defense called "aposematism". These bright colors basically indicate to possible predators that the organism in question is likely to make them sick if eaten. The hairs of this caterpillar, or setae, are harmless to humans, but likely very irritating to anything trying to ingest it.

The common oleander caterpillar is a known pest on oleander plants, but the spotted oleander caterpillar shown here is not considered to be as destructive as they are not as gregarious. We found only three altogether on our oleander plants, so that seems true. 

Not that it matters to us. Since our yard is designed to attract wildlife, we rarely consider any new creatures to be pests in My Florida Backyard. This recent find was a good reminder that summer heat doesn't keep wildlife from visiting the garden, and it shouldn't keep us from visiting either!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Skipping 'Round the Garden

Not all butterflies are big and colorful. Some are small and need to be seen up close to be truly appreciated. Case in point: the Long-Tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus). This diminutive butterfly is only a couple of inches in size, and seen in flight might appear to be a drab brown. But take a closer look - there's more than first meets the eye.

Long-Tailed Skippers lay eggs on a variety of plants in the pea and bean family (Fabacae). In the past, we've had Long-Tailed Skipper caterpillars on Hairypod Cowpea (Vigna luteola) and Creeping Beggarweed (Desmodium incanum). We've grown green beans and peas for them, too. This year, we have a new "volunteer" host plant for these skippers, Dixie Tick Trefoil (Desmodium tortuosum), a non-native that has naturalized in the southern US. A seed from this plant most likely hitched a ride home from the butterfly garden where I work, and has taken hold and grown... and grown... and grown. This plant is now well over six feet tall, and the leaves are kind of like condominiums for skipper caterpillars.

Skippers are leaf-rolling caterpillars. They use silk to pull the leaves around them to protect them while they eat. The leaves of D. tortuosum are soft and textured in a way that actually makes them stick to each other very easily, rather like Velcro. Perhaps this helps the caterpillars with the rolling?

Long-Tailed Skippers lay their eggs in stacks several high. We managed to catch this one in the act of ovipositing the other day - if you click the picture to enlarge it and look very closely, you can see the eggs she's already laid on the leaf at the end of her abdomen.

The light wasn't great, but we didn't want to disturb her, obviously. We did flip over the leaf and get a better shot of the eggs themselves when she was done.

Long-Tailed Skipper caterpillars have fun little heads, shaped almost like the peas and beans from their host plants. This caterpillar looks similar to other skipper caterpillars, like the Dorantes Skipper, but is easy to distinguish due to its bright orange hind end.

When ready to pupate, the caterpillar rolls itself up one final time for a safe place to transform into chrysalis. The chrysalis of the Long-Tailed Skipper is coated in a powdery substance that is a actually wax (click here to see a picture). After a couple of weeks, they emerge as butterflies to begin the process again.

Big or small, the butterfly and its life process is fascinating. We're so glad to have such a wide variety of species in all parts of their life cycle here in My Florida Backyard!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fields of Gold

It's not a good idea to turn your back on a Florida yard in the summer. You take a short vacation, and when you return, it's clear the plants have taken over. Just last week, the weeds and grass were there, but you seemed to be keeping them in check. A few days (and, according to the rain gauge, five inches of rain) later, and it's obvious you're no longer in control.

It's not always a bad thing, though. Given free reign, native wildflowers can fill your yard with color. Last year, we had two Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) plants in the butterfly garden. They dropped plenty of seeds, and this year the two have multiplied exponentially, literally taking over.

It does seem like a little much, perhaps. Everything else in the butterfly garden is pretty much buried. Then again, the wave of yellow and soft feathery green looks better than most of the rest of the plants this time of year. And the sulphur butterflies (who lay eggs on the leaves) and pollinators like bees just love it.

A few other plants have managed to poke their heads through, too. The Yellowtop (Flaveria linearis) is blooming too, adding to the fields of gold.

And the sunflowers we started from seeds are adding to the golden glow.

Of course, there's always someone who has to be a little different, who likes to stand out from the crowd. The Dotted Horsemint is poking up through the partridge pea, with its unusual fairy-like blooms. Against the fields of gold, the delicate hue is especially soft and lovely.

We know that the gardens in My Florida Backyard are in charge, for now. It's simply too hot and muggy to fight back against the jungle. For now, we'll sit back and let the inmates run the asylum, happy to appreciate the colors they display and the wildlife they bring.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Beautiful Stranger

So often, a wildlife sighting happens out of the corner of your eye. By the time you turn your head to look more closely, the object of your attention may be gone. Or - if it happens to be your lucky day - it will be sitting there patiently, ready to be admired, and maybe even willing to wait while you run for the camera.

You approach cautiously, your first photos from a distance and perhaps not clear, but at least now you've gotten a few shots.

Feeling emboldened, you move in a little closer, hoping for a better picture. Your prey is still obscured a bit, but there's still a certain charm to the shot.

Do you dare move that leaf out of the way? You take a deep breath, move the leaf ever so gently... and it takes off! Will it fly away, or hover and land nearby again? Fortune is with you! It alights nearby, in an even better position.

Oh, what a perfect shot! The White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae) butterfly you've been stalking is in pristine condition, and its appearance is all the more special because of the rarity of the sighting. Once a common sight in My Florida Backyard, White Peacocks all but disappeared after the record cold winter of 2010, returning only in the last month or two - nearly a year and a half later.

The butterfly seems content to hold still, and you zoom in closer and take dozens of shots (thank goodness for digital cameras), wondering exactly what happened to the Tampa population. White Peacocks are a butterfly of the tropics, common from South Texas and Florida all the way down to South America. Was the resident population killed off when temperatures didn't rise above 45 degrees for a full week in 2010? Has a new population just now migrated north into the area?

There's no way to know for sure. A few of these were seen in the Tampa Bay area last year, in wetter spots on the edge of the bay, where temperatures would have been a bit more moderate during the cold snap. But in My Florida Backyard and other butterfly gardens nearby, butterfly lovers noted the absence of these beauties and hoped they would return to their former abundance someday.

They seem to be doing so now. This was one of a pair haunting My Florida Backyard yesterday. Their beautiful condition indicates they were recently emerged, having undoubtedly grown from caterpillars right here in the area; they breed mainly on Water Hyssop (Bacopa) at the edge of lakes and ponds, and are clearly doing so again here. This sighting not only gave us the chance to photograph a perfect specimen of a gorgeous butterfly - it also gave us the chance to photograph hope for the future.