Saturday, July 28, 2012

Summer of Roses

A blooming rose in Florida's summer heat that's not a Knockout Rose? That's why we love Belinda's Dream. Given enough rain (something that hasn't been much of an issue lately), it will bloom pretty much 12 months a year. It doesn't suffer from disease or fungus either. And the pink blooms are even prettier than these photos show.

My Florida Backyard is in the middle of the summer doldrums, where we start to lose sight of the flowers due to the weeds. It's nice to have a bloom like Belinda's Dream to distract us from the jungle!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What's My Name?

A year ago, we would have told you that this little water bird that's recently started making appearances in My Florida Backyard was known as the Common Moorhen (Gallinula cholorpus). In July 2011, though, the American Ornithologists' Union voted to split the American population of the bird into its own separate species, the Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata). And so that's how we introduce it to you today.

The Common Gallinule and its relative, the Common Moorhen, are the most commonly seen members of the Rail family (Rallidae) around much of the world. Here in the U.S., it's found year-round in the south, including Florida, and spreads throughout the eastern half of the country in the summer breeding season. The red face patch and bill tipped with yellow make it easily identifiable. NOTE: Despite the new name, don't confuse the Common Gallinule with its arguably more gorgeous relative, the Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica)

It's a small bird, compared to companion ducks and other water birds, as you can see below when compared with female mallards. It eats mostly vegetation, but supplements its diet with small snails it finds among the floating leaves. It has very cool feet, with extremely long toes, and despite the lack of webbing, it's an excellent swimmer. Click here to see a photo of Common Gallinule feet.

You might be wondering, who gets to decide what to call a bird, and how do they make that decision? Well, according to its website, the American Ornithologists' Union is "one of the oldest organizations in the world dedicated to the scientific study of birds". As such, it commands a great deal of respect from ornithologists worldwide, and the research it sponsors and produces greatly increases our understanding of the bird world. In a nutshell, if these folks say the American gallinules are a different species than those found in other parts of the world, then there's an awfully good chance they are.

Science is a search for answers, and what we think we know today can be turned on its head tomorrow. So we're willing to be fluid with the names and classifications of plants and animals as new discoveries are made. After all, none of that takes away from the delight of watching these creatures as they pass through My Florida Backyard, and in the end, that's what matters most to us.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Born on the Fourth of July

In the sweltering heat of this sultry Independence Day, we managed to get some very good pictures of a Zebra Longwing butterfly ovipositing, or laying eggs, on our passionvine.

A close-up of the eggs reveals the ridges and pointed oval shape. This egg shape is common to the three heliconian species (Zebra Longwing, Gulf Fritillary, and Julia Longwing) that lay on passionvine, though the colors and laying habits differ among species.

In the photo below, note the butterfly's proboscis - it's completely covered in pollen. Zebra Longwings are among the very few species of butterflies that can digest pollen in addition to nectar. (They digest it externally, on their proboscis.) The extra energy from this pollen protein extends their lifespan dramatically - most butterflies live about two weeks as adults, but Zebra Longwings can live as long as six to nine months. As I tell kids at the museum where I work, imagine if you only drank soda all day long - how long would you live? Then imagine adding daily steak to your diet - now you have the extra nutrients you need to live a much longer life.

Zebra Longwings seem to be a fairly permanent fixture in My Florida Backyard these days, for the first time since we moved in nearly five years ago. It's fun to have Florida's State Butterfly hanging around as we celebrate our national holiday!