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.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

From Orange to Pink

The amazing Florida photographer and artist Clyde Butcher has said that in Florida, clouds are our mountains. The towering banks of afternoon thunderheads add the texture to the sky that our flat landscape lacks. In fact, our flat landscape provides the wide-open sky needed for spectacular displays, whether it's the powerful spectacle of lightning in the distance, or the vivid but silent splash of color across the evening sky at sunset.

Come watch with me the shaft of fire that glows
In yonder West; the fair, frail palaces,
The fading alps and archipelagoes,
And great cloud-continents of sunset-seas.
~Thomas Bailey Aldrich, "Miracles"

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Orange in Bloom

This spring, we planted a variety of new canna bulbs we ordered online. Cannas come in a wide selection of colors, most of which aren't available locally, but you can find some interesting options online. Since we planted them, they've grown well, putting on plenty of large green leaves, but have been very slow to bloom. This past week, at last, one of the new plants finally deigned to show some color.

This isn't one of the showier cannas we planted. It's called Tangelo, and on closer inspection, you can see the orange blooms are actually touched with yellow.

Fortunately, the occasional invasion from canna skipper caterpillars don't really damage the blooms, though they do cause some leaf damage. As wildlife gardeners, we tolerate these caterpillars rather than use pesticides, although if we spot the eggs before they hatch, we scrape them off. They're fascinating caterpillars, as we've noted before in previous posts.

We're still waiting on some of the more exotic-colored flowers to make their first appearances, like Cleopatra and Yellow King Humbert. We planted them in an area with part shade, which is usually fine for Cannas this far south, but we're wondering if this could be keeping them from flowering. Fortunately, since they're bulbs, they'll be easy to transplant this winter or spring if we need to.

In the meantime, we'll appreciate the blooms we have. Autumn is here, according to the calendar, so hopefully soon the temperatures will drop and we'll be outside doing clean-up and new fall plantings. We can hardly wait!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Girl in the Green Jacket

Dragonflies always amaze us with their abilities to come in so many colors and sizes. We love that they hang around eating smaller and more annoying insects like mosquitoes, and that when they mate, they often form a heart-shaped duo. One of the more common dragonflies in Florida is the Common Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), sometimes called the Green Jacket. The name "Green Jacket" is really only appropriate for females of the species, though - the males are a powdery blue color.

Female Common Pondhawk

Male Common Pondhawk

Dragonflies are amazing in flight, with some species reaching speeds over 40 miles per hour. Their individual wing control allows them to make very precise maneuvers, perfect for plucking a pesky mosquito from mid-air. We always welcome natural mosquito control in My Florida Backyard, and when it comes in such beautifully-colored packaging, we just can't lose!

If you're interested in learning more about dragonflies and their relatives, damselflies, click here to read a post I wrote for Tales From a Butterfly Garden.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Laying Low

This mallard is taking it easy in the summer heat...
and so are we.
You may have noticed the scarcity of posts here on My Florida Backyard in recent weeks. We're still here - we promise. It just seems hard to find much to write about lately. The yard is overgrown and new plantings are still a few weeks off, waiting for the day when the forecast stops including 90-degree temperatures. Birds, except for ducks, have mostly deserted us, since food is plentiful everywhere and they don't need to flock to backyard feeders or inland ponds like they do in mid-winter. Caterpillars still abound, but you can only write so many posts about them, no matter how much you love them.

We're still dedicated to our yard and to wildlife, though. I'm doing a lot of writing for other blogs, where the posts don't depend so heavily on the wildlife in and around our little suburban lot. I've been writing about stinging caterpillars and swarming hummingbirds over at the Birds & Blooms Blog, among other things of interest to Southeastern gardeners and birders. I've also done some posts on how caterpillars use silk and edible caterpillars for Tales From the Butterfly Garden, a blog that takes you behind the scenes of the MOSI BioWorks Butterfly Garden where I work. Drop by and check out these posts and others, if you like.

My Florida Backyard should be full of excitement again before too long. Migration season is in full swing, so we're about to fill the bird feeders and see who drops by. Fall color is just around the corner too, with purple asters, blooming muhly grass, and ripe beautyberries all waiting to be admired. So don't take us off your "to read" list... we promise to be back just as soon as there's something fun and interesting to report!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Hidden Away

We know we've been a little remiss with the blog posts here on My Florida Backyard lately. It seems we're in the doldrums of late summer, with not much happening. We've started clearing out some of the overgrowth lately, though, getting ready for some fresh fall plantings whenever that cooler fall weather arrives. Recent rains and winds had beaten our amazing forest of Partridge Pea down, so we removed nearly all of it, leaving just a few plants to provide seed for next year. The butterfly garden is very bare without it.

On the plus side it gave us a chance to rediscover some of the plants tucked away underneath it all. The dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata) is even more prolific than we had realized.

Some 'Coral Nymph' Salvia coccinea is doing pretty well under there as well, along with some purple Lantana montevidensis.

Nearby, after pulling some overgrown grass and other weeds, we found some brilliant pink Pentas lanceolata, along with an orange zinnia that must have popped up from seed.

So, we found some hidden treasure in the garden, which was nice. Oh, and don't worry about the sulphur butterflies who were using the Partridge Pea as host plants - they've got plenty of room on the nearby Cassia bicapsularis for their caterpillars!