Sunday, June 24, 2012

Stormy Weather

This weekend has been a bit of a case of "be careful what you wish for". After watching TS Beryl dump all its rain on the north and east side of Florida a few weeks ago, we watched with glee as forecasts called for TS Debby to bring us lots of rain here in Tampa. And bring us rain it did... our latest estimate puts us at about 8 inches since Friday here in My Florida Backyard, bringing our stormwater drainage pond up and over its banks.

Note that poor little young cypress tree, which just a couple of days ago was right at the edge of the pond. It's now many feet into the water, and more than one duck has looked a little surprised to find it there.

Other than some gusty winds, Debby has mostly been a rainmaker in our area. We hope that if you're feeling Debby's effects, they're only beneficial to you too!

Sunday, June 17, 2012


After discovering our first Zebra Longwing caterpillars ever in My Florida Backyard a few weeks ago, we're now noticing clutches of eggs on the passionvine too. Passionvine (Passiflora spp.) is a popular host plant. In Central Florida, it's used by Gulf Fritillaries and Zebra Longwings. Further south, it's used by Julia Longwings, and to the north by Variegated Fritillaries. (Learn more about all these butterflies and caterpillars here.)

The eggs of Zebra Longwings and Gulf Fritillaries look very similar, but due to the laying habits of the butterflies, you can actually tell them apart pretty easily. Zebra Longwings lay eggs in clusters at the ends of vines, while Gulf Fritillaries lay their eggs singly, often on the upper sides of leaves. (The pictures below aren't of the greatest quality, but they help explain the point.)

Zebra Longwing Eggs

Gulf Fritillary Egg

Once hatched, the caterpillars have similar feeding habits. It takes them about two weeks to grow full-size and pupate to chrysalis. They then spend about two weeks hanging in chrysalis before emerging as butterflies. Gulf Fritillaries round out the life cycle by spending about two weeks feeding and mating before they die, but Zebra Longwings are actually much longer lived as adults. They are one of the few butterflies that possess the ability to digest pollen in addition to nectar, allowing them to expand their lives as butterflies to as much as six months or more. The pollen collects on their proboscis and is digested externally (click here to see a picture of a Zebra Longwing with collected pollen) - a cool and unusual process in the insect world.

We love nature of all sizes in My Florida Backyard, but we're especially fond of it on a small scale. It's endlessly fascinating to flip a leaf and see what's beneath!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Let's Go Fly a Kite

Well, that was certainly a very rainy week, wasn't it? Every time we had a few minutes to go outside and see what was happening in My Florida Backyard, it was either sprinkling, pouring, or something in between. There's no doubt we needed the rain (you could practically hear the plants sighing in happiness), but it definitely kept us inside most of the time. It was nice to get outside for a few minutes this weekend (yowza, it's hot now!) and see what's going on. While we were taking a stroll around the yard our attention was drawn up, up, high in the sky by some high-pitched calls.

Those tiny little dots are a group of Swallow-Tail Kites (Elanoides forficatus), more than we've ever seen at one time before. We usually see them in pairs, at most, so to see so many together was pretty exciting. We thought maybe it was a family group, but we can't seem to find any information indicating that a family group would be this large (we counted at least eight total) or that they would stay together like this.

The scientific name Elanoides is a Latin-Greek hybrid meaning "resembling a kite", while forficatus means "scissors" - referring to the forked tail. A Kite is a type of raptor with long wings and weak legs - they are almost always seen soaring in flight. They hunt and eat in flight as well; the Swallow-Tail Kite plucks its prey, including large insects and lizards, from the treetops as it flies. It drinks by skimming the surface of the water with its bill as it flies low over the surface.

Swallow-Tail Kites are seen during the summer in a limited range in the Southeast, including all of Florida. They reside in South America year-round, but when breeding season arrives, the spread out to the north to ensure everyone has enough food for their young. They nest in forested areas near water, and much of their range in the U.S. has been decimated by development (they were once found as far north as Oklahoma). If you spot Swallow-Tailed Kites, you can help track them by reporting your sighting to The Center For Birds of Prey - click here to learn more.

We can't take credit for creating the habitat that brings Swallow-Tail Kites to our neighborhood; we owe that to the last patch of undeveloped woodland nearby (at least the crummy economy has kept that from being bought and torn down!) and all the stormwater drainage ponds in the area. But we can definitely enjoy having them here, and knowing that our bit of Florida still has amazing wildlife just about everywhere you look.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Black and White

The rainy season officially started on June 1, and we ushered it in here in My Florida Backyard with almost three inches of rain. After watching almost of all TS Beryl's rain go north and east of us, it was wonderful to see our rain gauge fill at last. The plants in the garden seemed to perk up almost immediately, as often happens after a nice rain. We took a little stroll around the yard to check things out, and discovered this random passionvine that we don't remember planting... least not in this exact spot. We do have some about 25 feet away, and passionvines are definitely known for spreading underground and popping up in new places. This one is Florida's native Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), which is so aggressive that many people consider it a pest in their gardens. We don't mind it, because it generally gets eaten so quickly by Gulf Fritillary caterpillars that it doesn't have time to cause problems. Interestingly, though, it wasn't Gulf Fritillary caterpillars we discovered on the Maypop...

... it was Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia) caterpillars! This was pretty exciting, because this is the first time we've documented Zebra Longwing caterpillars in our yard. I raise them at work all the time, and I've written about them on My Florida Backyard before, but it's so fun to have them here naturally.

These are one of my all-time favorite Florida native caterpillars. The stark black-and-white coloration, the crazy long (but completely harmless) spikes, the reddish color on their legs and prolegs - they're just really fascinating. These caterpillars are just about full-grown, and soon will pupate into chrysalis - also some of my favorites, as they look like tiny upside-down bats.

Zebra Longwing butterflies are actually pretty rare sightings in our yard; we don't remember seeing one here in several years. They're obviously around though. They have a great affinity for firebush as nectar plants, and this passionvine just happens to be climbing up one, so this is a perfect corner of our garden for them. We'll know now to keep our eye out for them, both as caterpillars and adult butterflies.