Friday, August 2, 2013

Mission Accomplished, or Why We Haven't Posted in Awhile

You may have noticed it's been quite some time since a new post on My Florida Backyard. This is not because we've fallen into a sudden sinkhole or been swept away by one of those crazy waterspouts that keep cropping up in Tampa Bay this year. No, My Florida Backyard is right where it always is and even much less weed-filled than last summer. Butterflies are visiting, birds are singing, and flowers are blooming, and every trip around the yard gives us something new to discover, just like always.

See? We're right where we've always been, and not even buried under the usual summer weeds!
So where have we been? Well, right here, but very very busy. And in many ways, I have this blog to thank for it.

You see, when I started this blog four and a half years ago, I had three major goals in mind:

1) Keep my mom and other up-north relatives posted on the cool stuff happening in my garden
2) Keep my writing skills sharp after losing my job in communications during The Great Recession
3) Create a portfolio of nature-based writing I could use as I started a job search with new goals in mind

After many years working for a bank, first doing training delivery, then instructional design, and finally internal communications, I had decided it was time for a change. Like many folks, I decided to turn my job loss into an "opportunity" and pursue work that really interested me. I knew I wanted to write, and I knew I was done with corporate 9-5 jobs (especially in finance) that involved cubicles and phrases like "Interest-may-be-tax-deductible-consult-your-tax-advisor".

Isn't this much nicer than a cubicle, or even an office with a window?
Who needs windows when you can sit on the back porch and write about what you see?
So, with the full support of a wonderful spouse, I took some time to just explore what interested me. I started My Florida Backyard, and within a few months had an opportunity to blog for a larger site geared toward Tampa Bay (which no longer exists). Through this, I met the Coordinator of MOSI Outside and began volunteering, spending time at the butterfly garden and gaining a lot of specialized knowledge.  Eventually, my volunteer work turned into a paid part-time job. Now, you'll find me at MOSI at least three days a week, and online at the MOSI Outside blog.

The BioWorks Flight Encounter at MOSI, where I spend much time with sweat in my eyes and hands full of caterpillars.

After endless prodding from friends, I decided to join Facebook a few years ago, and it turns out that it was one of the greatest things I ever did. (And I don't even play Farmville!) One of the magazines I was following, Birds & Blooms, put out a request for "regional reporters" to turn in bi-monthly updates to be featured in the magazine. Eventually, this expanded into the opportunity to blog for them several times a week, and I recently had my first by-line in the magazine. (Look for "Diary of a Monarch" by Jill Staake, in the September issue of Birds & Blooms Extra! Coming soon to a news stand near you!) I've taken on some other responsibilities for them too, especially in social media, and now spend a good chunk of my time writing about birds, blooms, and butterflies - for pay!

Hey, that's my name! Check out the blog by clicking here.

I'm extremely proud of the career I've managed to create for myself over the last few years. The pay isn't the best, but the work is something I feel passionate about. I'm allowed to be creative, to dig in the dirt, to photograph butterflies and birds, and to share my knowledge with others. I've had the chance to travel for Birds & Blooms, and to make interesting contacts around the Tampa area and beyond.

Of course, this is all keeping me very busy. And when too much is happening at once, something's gotta give. In my case, it was My Florida Backyard. It's been harder and harder to find time to write posts for it, when other writing jobs (the kind with paychecks attached) are awaiting my attention. So days slipped into weeks, which slipped into months, which brings us to now.

I thought about calling it quits on this blog, and just leaving it up as a resource for others. After all, I send my mom pictures from my phone all the time, and my Birds & Blooms blog posts are frequently about things going on in my yard. Why not just let this particular blog's activity come to an end?

But I find I'm not quite ready to do that. I think that occasionally, I'll find topics that are very specific to Florida backyards, ones that I really want to write about but that only a very few people might care to read about. I love writing for B&B, but their audience isn't always the right fit for more technical posts, or for those about very specific regional species. And in those cases, for the right special people, I want My Florida Backyard to remain active.

How else can I justify posting yet more photos of white peacocks?

So you may not see a lot of new posts from this site going forward. But I hope you'll join me in several other places around the web, to see what's going on here and what I'm up to in general. And I hope you'll continue to subscribe, or leave me in your RSS feed, or just check back every once in awhile, because plenty of amazing things still happen in My Florida Backyard, and from time to time, I'll be sure to let you in on some of them.

Find Me on the Web (look for the posts by Jill):

Friday, April 5, 2013

Fly Like an Eagle (Reprise)

Our eagles have been back again! This time, one of them snagged an enormous fish out of the lake and landed in the neighbor's backyard across the water to subdue it before flying off with it.

Check out the size of the talons on this bird - this picture is overly-zoomed and a little pixelated, but you can really see the power these eagles pack in their feet.

Bald Eagles will eat a lot of things, including roadkill, but they do love a good fish. About they only thing they love more than catching a good fish is stealing one from another bird. In fact, although these birds are mighty hunters, swooping down to catch prey in those enormous talons, they'd rather snatch a fish that someone else has already caught. They're frequently seen grabbing the catch of smaller ospreys right out of the sky. I didn't see if this one did its own fishing, but I can say that the fish in our lake are nesting in the shallow waters at the edge right now, and they would be easy pickings for a bird of this size.

Once this eagle was quite sure the fish was dead, it headed off carrying the fish in its talons, perhaps to share it with a mate. It also may eat the fish all on its own, and then not need to eat again for a few days.

Once again, we can't help but be amazed at the size of that fish. Remember that although Bald Eagles are very big, they don't weigh very much - the largest are about 13 pounds, even with a 6.5 foot wingspan. (Birds have hollow bones to make flight easier.) That fish probably weighed at least half as much as the eagle, but the eagle carried it easily, without a bit of a struggle once the fish was dead. The raw power of these creatures is astonishing.

We're really enjoying the eagle sightings in My Florida Backyard, and hope to continue to have more to share in the days to come!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Springtime Snapshot

Whether you're celebrating Easter today or just enjoying spring, we hope your day is as lovely as ours here in My Florida Backyard!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Roll Out the Barrel

Now that we've finally tamed the backyard again, we decided it needed a little color. Since we just finished laying new landscape paper to block the weeds, we didn't want to cut through it and give the suckers a chance to grow again. Instead, we added some half-barrel planters to the yard.

The original plan was to buy wooden whiskey barrels, but I went to the store by myself to get them, and wow - those things are heavy! So, I found these lightweight resin ones instead. They may not last more than few years, but they were much easier to move. I drilled a few holes in the bottom for better drainage first, and then added some organic potting soil.

Then came the fun part - adding the plants! I had picked up a bunch of calibrachoa and petunias on the Lowe's clearance racks a few weeks ago and hand't yet decided what to do with them. I wound up mixing them with some Agastache rupestris, sometimes called Rose Mint Hyssop, making for containers full of butterfly attractants.

Calibrachoa 'Coralberry Punch'

Petunia and Calibrachoa 'Coralberry Punch'

Plants in containers may require a little extra water, but fortunately we had some nice rains last weekend to fill up the rain barrel. This color and plant combination should be irresistible to butterflies now that our Florida weather has finally returned (what's up with 40-degree nights at the end of March, anyway?). These barrels give My Florida Backyard just the kick of color it needs to welcome spring!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Fly Like An Eagle

So the other day, I came home from work to find this in the pine trees outside:

The picture is terrible, because I had to grab it through the back porch screen before they flew off. Still, who cares? There were TWO bald eagles sitting in My Florida Backyard!

Once I made it out into the backyard with the camera, they spooked pretty quickly and flew off. One landed a way off across the lake, and I was able to zoom in and grab a few more mediocre shots.

Could this be a mated pair, nesting in the area? We've seen bald eagles in our neighborhood before, and Florida does have one of the largest nesting bald eagle populations in the country (second only to Alaska and Chesapeake Bay, in fact).

But, note the dark "smudges" on this eagle's head and the edges of its tail. These are signs of an eagle that's not fully mature, which takes up to five years for this species. This is most likely a fourth-year eagle, and therefore is unlikely to have been part of a nesting pair.

It's really wonderful to see these representatives of America's healthy bald eagle population. There aren't a lot of conservation success stories out there, but this is certainly one of them. Having bald eagles in My Florida Backyard is a reminder that every little thing we do to help the environment can have a big impact, and it's always worth the effort.

Monday, March 11, 2013

New Faces

This has been an interesting winter on the lake in My Florida Backyard. Perhaps because of a lot of new vegetative growth in the lake itself (we believe most of it is the very invasive hydrilla, but it's not something we have any control over as the lake belongs to the HOA), we have seen winter visitors we've never noticed before. Our wintering water fowl have always included Lesser Scaup and Ring-Necked Ducks, but in recent months we've also noticed Blue Winged Teal and American Coots. And this past weekend, we documented another Florida winter bird that was new to us - the Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata).

We first noticed this pair while watching the more usual mallards on the lake, but quickly noticed something different. The bills of these birds are simply massive, and have a very obvious shovel shape. A quick web search for "duck shovel bill" gave us our answer, and the information that this bird is extremely common in the US. It winters here in the South, migrating north to its breeding grounds in the Northwest US and Canada.

The glossy green head of the male and obvious large bill make it easy to identify this bird. Interestingly, several of our birding guides note that this bird is more of a forager and is less likely to upend itself, instead feeding by swimming along with its head underwater. Our experience has been quite different, as these birds spend at least half their time with their hind ends up in the air looking for food (placing themselves squarely in the category we here in My Florida Backyard call "butt ducks"). This does give you a nice chance to notice the blue and green feathers that hide underneath their wings.

The guides also note that this species is monogamous, so the pair that's been in our pond all weekend are probably a mated pair getting ready to head north for the summer. We're not sure exactly why more species of migrating waterfowl are choosing the lake in My Florida Backyard this winter, but one thing's for sure - we're not complaining!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Simple Gifts

There's something so wonderful about an afternoon to yourself at the end of a very busy week. And it's even nicer when that afternoon is warm and sunny (while the weather reports are full of the winter storm up north!), and you have a few new plants needing homes, like the kalanchoe and sedum you found that are just perfect for the rock planters, and the marigolds you rescued from the clearance rack for half price.

Nothing fancy, nothing crazy... just some simple garden tasks in the backyard that you've finally taken back from the weeds of last summer. Remember this nightmare from last fall?

You can't help but pleased to know you're finally in charge again, and your favorite bench is available for basking in the winter sun once more.

Once you're done getting your hands in the dirt, you can wander around and see what's new in the garden. Winter is a wonderful time for native Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), and in a few weeks the hummingbirds will pass through on migration and stop to enjoy it. This afternoon, the pleasure was all mine.

I've not been alone all afternoon, of course. The tufted titmice and cardinals are visiting the feeder, and a Great Egret is stalking its dinner in the pond nearby. Even more interesting, a pair of Blue-Winged Teal are floating past, the first time we've documented this species in My Florida Backyard.

And now, as the song goes, "the purple dusk of twilight time steals across the meadows of my heart..." as well as across My Florida Backyard. 

It's not as calm and peaceful as the pictures might suggest - our neighbors are racing a dirt bike around the block, children are playing a noisy game across the lake, and it's our time of night to be in the flight path for Tampa International Airport. But the frogs are singing too, and a mockingbird in a nearby tree is trying out every tune in his repertoire. A limpkin calls in the distance, and the flapping of wings on the ponds suggests not all the ducks have settled down for the night. Nature fights for dominance in the suburbs, and rarely wins. But we do our best to focus on the simple gifts of My Florida Backyard, and let the rest slide by - at least today.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Pale Green Stars

Each year, we treat ourselves to a new variety of hippeastrum (more commonly but incorrectly known as "amaryllis"). This year's purchase, Evergreen, has begun to bloom, and it's pretty spectacular.

We're absolute suckers for green flowers, and you just don't find all that many of them in nature. This variety of hippeastrum looks like pale green over-sized stars studding the tall green stems.

The bulb was enormous, the size of a softball, and threw up three flower stalks almost as soon as we put it in the ground a few weeks ago. The flowers are slightly smaller than some other hippeastrum we've grown, but the number and color more than make up for it.

Our other hippeastrum are getting ready to bloom - the orange "Miranda" in the front yard is nearly a month early, too. More pictures coming as soon as they start to open!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Early Years

It's been another warm winter here in My Florida Backyard, and coupled with last year's complete lack of a hard freeze, some of our plants are getting a very early start. We were astonished this year to find our hippeastrum already pushing up shoots in mid-January, at least 3 weeks earlier even than last year, and more than six weeks ahead of the extremely cold winter of 2010. There's no doubt that, even in Florida, changes in average temperatures can have a real impact on plants and animals.

In the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau began keeping a very detailed journal documenting the first flowering dates of plants in New England. Scientists recently compared Thoreau's flowering dates to those from recent years, and discovered that, on average, plants are blooming about 11 days earlier than they did 150 years ago. In that same time, average temperatures have climbed, and scientist have worked out that flowers are blooming "up to 4.1 days earlier for every 1 degree Celsius rise in average spring temperatures, which translates to 2.3 days for every 1 degree Fahrenheit" (via National Geographic).

This doesn't come as a surprise to gardeners, or to scientists for that matter. Just last year, the USDA released a new Plant Hardiness Zone Map, reflecting a shift to warmer average temperatures since the last map issued in 1990. (My Florida Backyard shifted from 9A to 9B, although our urban environment means reflected heat that really puts us in zone 10A.) This winter seems to be keeping line with those changes, with no hard freezes in the area so far, and none in the forecast despite some chilly mornings in the 40s.  Other plants and trees are blooming early, with redbuds and toadflax already putting on a good show in many areas, and willow trees leafing out even in cooler inland areas.

Regardless of your belief in the impact humans are having on our climate, there's no doubt that it's changing, and at a very fast rate. Gardeners in all climates will have many changes to adjust to, and many surprises in store, in the years to come. What's blooming early by you this year? I'd love to hear some other examples of how frost-free winters are affecting Central Florida gardeners.