Monday, October 29, 2012

Check In

It surprises me how much I've come to love the nature of Florida. I was not born here. This is not my ancestral home. And yet I've come to know it and love it like no other place. I try to get out to walk, observe and explore as often as I can, but when I get busy and can't, I feel anxious, like I'm missing something important. Even when I'm traveling and visiting other places with great things to see, I think about what's happening at home in Florida. I can't wait to get back and see what changed when I was gone. I love the way the flowers and other plants come and go with the seasons. I look forward to the migrating birds--the kites, the hummingbirds, the robins and especially the sandhill cranes. I mark the coming of fall with the rolling calls of the cranes as they fly in from the Great Lakes, and the end of Winter as they head back again in hundreds of V-formations. I relish the changing seasons as the temperatures climb and the humidity sets in, and after enduring summer, how we are rewarded with delightful cool, dry fall; when freezing winter sets in and the ice flowers explode from the stems of dead flowers, and when la Florida earns its name as the flowering shrubs and trees color us into spring. I cherish each day here in this beautiful place.

This has been one of those periods where I have been too busy to get out. I am preparing to leave on a long trip to South America. It will be wonderful, but I've had a lot on my plate trying to get ready and have started feeling the familiar, anxious pull. My favorite places that I haven't seen for what seems like weeks run like a newsfeed through my mind. Are the Kingfishers chattering on La Chua Trail? Can I see one more Harvester Butterfly at NATL before winter hits? Have all the Hummingbirds at Kanapaha Botanical gardens gone south on their migration? I'm headed for great and wonderful adventures in Argentina but I'm anticipating all the things will happen while I'm away. I won't hear the sound of the cranes as they come back to their winter home. I'll miss the migrating warblers. The Garberia is just starting to bloom in our yard. In an effort to check in one more time before December, I grabbed a morning and headed out to Morningside Nature Center to catch one last glimpse of the Fall wildflower colors.  Although it's late in the season, I managed to find a few patches of flowers, but it appears that winter is soon upon us. Much of the brilliant color is done and mostly seed puffs and grasses remain.
Pityopsis Puff
Fingergrass, Eustachys sp.

Foxtail and Crab Spider

I did find some late bloomers--Euthamia and Salvia azuria. The butterflies found them, too.
Blue Sage, Salvia azuria

Euthamia caroliniana and Butterflies

I spied a couple of the last assorted Carphephorus. The crab spiders are taking advantage of tall perches.
Carphephorus paniculatus

Carphephorus corymbosus and Crab Spider

The Buckeye caterpillars have eaten almost all of the Agalinis.
Buckeye Caterpillar eating Agalinis purpurea

Dogs or coyotes running wild in the park left a treat for the dung beetles and I spied this one as he trundled along, working so hard.
Dung Beetle
Now that I've checked in, I think it will be ok to head out and explore new places. And the cranes will still be here when I get back. I wonder if they will have missed me?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Like a Moth to a Flame...or a Flea to a Nightlight

A while ago I mentioned the flea infestation in our house. In June we adopted a cute little stray kitten that we found in our yard. He was about 5 weeks old, helpless, and cute as can be. 
Dedos, when he was the Cute Flea Trap (you can see the ringworm starting on his whiskers)

But after about 2 weeks, we discovered that he had ringworm (a non-fatal but annoying and infectious fungal infection). Our vet sentenced him to quarantine for 8 weeks. His ringworm was so virulent, that he ended up spending 11 weeks locked in the guest bedroom. It turns out that he was also infested with fleas. Each week when I'd take him to the vet for his ringworm bath, they gave him a flea pill. It would kill the fleas on him for about one day, but by the end of the week he'd be covered again. We couldn't use a topical treatment because he was getting a bath every week. And I couldn't spray the room because that's where he was living. And even though I vacuumed and washed the surfaces with bleach (to kill the ringworm) every week when he was at the vet's office, the fleas managed to lay eggs all over the room. So when our kitten was finally given the all clear for ringworm and I set out to convert the cat quarantine back into a guest room, the fleas were everywhere and really hungry. Within seconds of walking into the room barefoot, I could see 4-6 fleas on my skin. Although the fleas seemed to be contained in this one room, I was afraid that they would spread quickly to the rest of the house. One flea can lay a lot of eggs. All the pets were on serious flea treatment, but the dogs were starting to scratch a lot.  I was at my wits end and ready to just flea bomb the house. But it would be complicated with a fish tank, 2 indoor cats, and my own sensitivity and concern for spraying chemicals.

I read up on flea control online and came across a chemical free product that used a light to attract fleas. From all the comments I read, it sounded pretty effective. I tried to find a place to buy one and happened on a site telling how to make one yourself. I decided to give it a shot. Wow! It really does the trick! It's so easy. Just plug a night light in an outlet close to the floor and set up a shallow pan (I had a disposable aluminum cookie sheet) just under the light. Pour a shallow layer of water into the pan (you don't need much to drown a flea) and add a couple of drops of dish soap. The dish soap breaks the surface tension so the fleas can't float on the surface. The light attracts the fleas, they jump towards the light, but fall into the water on the tray and drown. Within a couple of hours I'd caught 25 fleas. A day later, I checked again and found about 10 more fleas. Fewer and fewer fleas jumped onto my feet. Within 2 weeks, using the trap and frequent vacuuming to get the eggs, we seem to be flea free. I'm feeling pretty pleased. The critters aren't scratching as much, my ankles are feeling better, and the house may not have to be sprayed. What's really cool is that I got rid of the fleas by being able to understand their behavior and use that against them.

Cheap, Homemade, and Effective Flea Trap (See the fleas?)
I think it is really important for us to do our best to limit chemical pest control by using it sparingly and judiciously. We keep learning more about unintended consequences of chemical use. Recently I read an article blaming bee colony collapse on the use of certain field pesticides that confuse the bees so they can't return to their nests. And over-use of chemicals and drugs can lead to resistance. We all know about antibiotic abuse. Our vet has had us change flea treatment for our dogs from our previous topical treatment. I thought the old stuff was very effective, but she told me that the fleas have adapted and are no longer responding to it. I am not against chemicals and drugs for improving our quality of life. Good crop yields are necessary for feeding millions of people worldwide. Malaria is awful. No one should get polio in this day and age. But wanton use of DDT almost killed off the Bald Eagle and California Condor. We've got to be careful. I will jump at any opportunity I have to take care of pest problems without causing other environmental problems. This one seems pretty effective and safe.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Friend or Foe?

Google is an amazing tool. You can use it to learn about almost anything. I was moving pots in the yard yesterday and found a bizarre creature curled up under one of the saucers. At first I thought it was a tiny snake. I've found them in the yard before, in about the same location. But this was slimy. I thought for a while that it was just a long worm, but as I looked more closely, I realized that it was much longer than a worm, striped, flat and not segmented, and the most unusual part--it had a head that looked like a hammer or spade. It moved very gracefully and reminded me of a slug. A really long slug. Probably 6 inches long uncoiled. Really weird critter. I ran in the house, grabbed the camera, and shot a few pictures.

"Flat Head Worm"

I carefully moved the wormy thing to a new, safe location, and covered it with a dish to keep it from being squashed. Then I turned to the computer and Google to figure out what on earth I'd just found. It's always exciting to discover a new animal in your neighborhood! I didn't know where to start, so I just described it. I typed in "flat head worm". Bingo! I could see right away from the images that I'd found my animal. Unfortunately, as I read on, I learned that it wasn't good. I had found a Land Planarian or Flatworm (Bipalium kewense). Almost every article I read said that I should kill it right  away because they are invaders from Asia and they dine exclusively on earthworms. I was so disappointed. I really like this fascinating worm. But now that I know what it does, there's no way I can let it outside again. I'm not good at killing, either, so I'm considering keeping it as a pet for a couple of weeks.
My Pet Planarian, exploring

So what's the big deal? Who cares if it eats worms? Well, just like the Dung Beetles from my last post, earthworms are extremely important decomposers. They eat rotting vegetation and turn it into rich soil. They crawl through the dirt, aerating and supplementing with their waste, or castings. If we didn't have earthworms, we'd be buried in plant debris. Earthworms are essential, keystone species that many other organisms and systems depend on. But the funny thing about our earthworms is that they are not all native to North America. Those night-crawlers we use for fishing? Not native. One article that I read said that 60 percent of the earthworms in North America are not native, coming from Asia and Europe, brought here in the horticulture trade starting in the 1600's. There is a fascinating article from National Geographic about the Jamestown Colony which talks about the impact of the importation of non-native earthworms and other species. These non-native earthworms are also decomposers, but they are so numerous and voracious that they eat too much plant debris and dig it deeper into the ground. Some plants and trees need more leaf debris for slow leaching of the nutrients and ground cover and cannot extract nutrients from the soil if it is too deep. So the non-native earthworms may be harming and changing our ecosystems in myriad ways. Now that I think about it, maybe it's a good thing if the Flatworm is added to the mix. Maybe the Planarians can keep the non-native earthworms in check, too. Who knows? Anyway, who am I to point fingers and decide which species can stay in Florida?  I was born in Utah.  Once you start messing with the natural order of things, there is so much moral ambiguity that I get foggy. I think this time I'm going to err on the side of kindness and I'll let my pet Planarian go. I'm not all that keen on killing animals, even rotten ones (like cockroaches) and I've never seen one before, so they are not running roughshod over my yard. Yet. (Famous last words.)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Eat Poo or Die

Today I took a trip to La Chua Trail on Paynes Prairie. I hadn't been there for a couple of weeks, so I thought it would be nice to go and get some bird photos. I put the telephoto lens on the camera and set off down the trail. At the trailhead, I met up with some very nice people who were photographing and filming insects for  their educational books and videos. They told me that they'd heard the gators were out on the trail. I visited with the nice folks for a while, exchanging cool nature sightings and good stories. Then I headed off again in search of birds. With all the rain this summer, the water is still pretty high in the Alachua Sink (a basin in the Prairie that drains into the Floridan Aquifer), and there weren't many birds near the boardwalk. I did see a Pied Billed Grebe diving for fish, and a Marsh Wren, which were both cool, but I'm on the hunt for a good Belted Kingfisher photo, so I kept going. I finished the boardwalk and rounded the bend, just at the beginning of the trail into the prairie, and there was a Great Big Bull Gator blocking the path. He was probably 12-13 feet long.
Party Pooper
He was really too big to pass. There was no way to get more than 10 feet away from him, and that's just too close. I stood for a while, hoping I could make him uncomfortable by staring and make him leave. No luck. I whistled and kicked my feet, not too aggressively, but just enough to let him know I was there. No luck. Just down the path I could see a wild horse colt jumping around in the bushes. Great, missed photo ops! But the old gator didn't want to budge. There would be no water bird photos today. Time for a change of plans. I turned to plan B, and so changed lenses. Now I had the macro lens on and switched gears to search for insects and other tiny things on the plants close to the boardwalk and away from the big gator.

As always happens, there were plenty of neat things on the trail to keep me happy. I saw a bunch of Gulf Fritillary chrysalides. Several were empty, several were developing, and one had started to crack open. If I'd stuck around for a few hours I may have been able to watch the butterfly emerge. But I kept moving.
Gulf Fritillary Chrysalis just cracking open
Then I hit pay dirt! Truly! Up ahead I could see that there were several piles of horse manure and as I got closer, I could see that one of them was fairly well disintegrated.

Pay Dirt!
I knew I should look for dung beetles! Sure enough, they were all over. I didn't know much about them before I moved to Florida. Somehow I'd managed to live my life in ignorance of the magic of Dung Beetles. The first time I saw them I was working in our back yard and noticed a pile of our dog's poo churning and heaving on the ground. I was horrified, thinking that she had some disgusting intestinal parasites that were erupting. But as I watched, suddenly this amazingly gorgeous green and blue metallic beetle poked out of the pile. Soon I saw several more and I was hooked. Dung beetles are so cool! They are members of the Scarab Beetle family, the same Scarabs that the ancient Egyptians portrayed in their jewelry, sculpture and hieroglyphics. There are many species in the family and about 250 in Florida. I've since learned that Dung Beetles come in many shapes, sizes and colors. The ones I saw today were smaller, less metallic colored, and blackish green than the ones in my dog's poo. The ones we have in Florida are much smaller than the ones in Africa and the Middle East, but they all do the same basic thing--eat poo. And it's a good thing they do. If they did not consume animal waste, we would be drowning in the stuff. Dung Beetles are rather particular--some species eat only elephant dung, some only eat turtle dung. They hunt for fresh manure and grab enough to pack into a tight ball.
Dung Beetles Packing
Then they roll the ball to a special location, using their hind legs to push.
Rolling the Dung Ball
When they find the right spot, they burrow into the ground below the poo ball.
Settling into Place. The Beetle is in the sand under the dung ball, digging furiously.
They churn the soil until the ball is sucked into the ground. Then they lay an egg or two in the poo and leave it in the ground, safe and secure until it hatches underground. The hatched larva eat the dung ball. By spreading, burying and digesting animal waste, Dung Beetles break up and fertilize soil, remove millions billions uncountable amounts of animal waste. Less waste saves money for farmers and ranchers in manure removal and disposal, and cuts down on flies. I was told the other day that cattle ranchers in Australia had to import dung beetles in order to raise cattle there, because cow poo eating dung beetles do not occur naturally Down Under.  I guess you could argue that cattle probably have no business being there at all in that case, but that's beside the point. The point is that Dung Beetles eat poo and this is a good thing.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Caterpillar Crazy

I volunteered today at the Florida Museum of Natural History Butterfly Festival Plant Sale. They have a great selection of plants, both native and exotic (but not invasive) that are guaranteed to attract butterflies to your yard. I had a lot of fun helping people choose new plants for their yards amidst the beautiful colors and happy butterflies that were drawn to the delectable flowers, shrubs and trees. It's pretty impressive to see how many butterflies will suddenly appear in a parking lot if you load it with their nectar and larval host plants. There were lots and lots of butterflies! We even had a clearwing hummingbird moth buzzing around the plumbago.

There were also lots and lots of caterpillars because there were host plants for sale, too. To create a butterfly garden, you need to provide flowers for the butterflies to get nectar, and you also have to provide a food source for the larva (caterpillars). The foods are pretty specific. Monarch butterflies only feed on milkweed plants. They do this because milkweed is toxic. The caterpillars eat the toxic plant and become toxic themselves. Animals that eat them will get sick, so after trying once, they learn not to eat the caterpillars. The orange and black color of the adult butterfly tells potential predators that they are toxic, too. Other butterflies and moths also have specific plants that are the only food their caterpillars will feed on.
Monarch laying eggs on Milkweed; Caterpillar eating Milkweed
The Museum is selling planters filled with a variety of host and nectar plants. Every planter I saw came ready with at least one caterpillar! Instant butterfly garden! They offer milkweed with Monarchs, fennel  with Black Swallowtails, and passion flower with Zebra Longwing and Gulf Fritillary caterpillars. They also have Dutchman's Pipe Vines, each covered with ravenous Polydamas caterpillars.
Black Swallowtail Caterpillars on Fennel

Polydamas Caterpillars on Dutchman's Pipe

Zebra Longwing Caterpillar on Passion Flower
Gulf Fritillary Caterpillar on Passion Flower

I didn't see any Palamedes Swallowtail caterpillars at the Museum, although there were bay trees for sale. Too bad! The caterpillars are really neat! They have large eye spots on their heads, and they can hold their heads in a way that make them look like a snake. It's a cool bit of trickery! Palamedes Swallowtail Butterfly Caterpillars feed on trees of the Laurel family, and so the host plant specificity may be a problem for them in the future. A disease called Red Bay Laurel Wilt is killing most of the Red Bay trees in the South, and may also attack Florida Avocados, members of the same plant family.

Another caterpillar that uses disguise for protection is the Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar. I didn't see any of these at the sale, either, although they were selling Wild Lime, which is one of the host plants. The caterpillars look like a big blob of bird poop. They're even shiny, which makes it look wet. No one wants to eat bird poop--great disguise.  Giant Swallowtails feed on plants in the citrus family. They are considered pests in the citrus industry, because the caterpillars eat the leaves of the host plant. You need to keep this in mind when you're growing a butterfly garden. When used properly, butterfly host plants will be eaten!
Bird Poop or Caterpillar? Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar on Orange Tree

The neatest caterpillar I saw today was not at the plant sale. It was in the hardwood hammock at NATL, one of my favorite natural places in Gainesville. I ran into Larry, one of the people who works at NATL, and he had just seen a Harvester Butterfly. I'd never seen one before, so I headed out to the area where he found it. Alas, I never did see the Harvester, but I found something just as cool--the caterpillars! Harvester Butterfly Caterpillars are unusual in that they feed on wooly aphids. Carnivorous Caterpillars! I knew that they fed on wooly aphids, so I kept my eyes open and found a few Smilax vines that had an infestation. On the last vine, I found two caterpillars tucked in among the aphids.
Harvester Butterfly Caterpillar eating Wooly Aphids on Smilax
Being a plant collector and butterfly gardener, myself, of course I bought some plants at the sale. Now I have a job to do this weekend, finding the right place for those great butterfly plants. My cluster of plants was mobbed by buckeye butterflies in the parking lot at the museum, so I think I chose well!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Wildflowers and Weeds

When we moved to our house over 7 years ago, it had a traditional landscape with big lawns in the front and back yards, and traditional shrubs and plants. Maintaining all that grass was labor and water intensive and I soon grew weary of it. I decided to jazz it up with a small flower patch. Over the summer, I dug up grass, little bit by little bit, to accommodate new flowers for the patch. Soon it was a bigger flower patch. Then I got the idea that I could extend the patch all around the perimeter of the yard and shrink the grass.
Big lawn with flower patch and border

It looked great, but the grassy area was still large and required a lot of water and maintenance, and the weeds were creeping in. So, I took a big breath and decided to take the plunge into a grassless yard, planted with only native and Florida Friendly plants. It was a lot of work. I pulled up all the grass by hand (it probably would have been easier to get someone to do it for me, but it was great exercise and got me outside every day). My neighbors thought it was very interesting and I had countless nice conversations with them as they cheered me on, and with strangers who stopped by and ask what on earth I was doing every day. Eventually, the grass was all gone and replaced with pine bark mulch. Then I started adding the plants. At first, it looked sparse. But each year the plants grew and self seeded, and I added more every chance I could get. I chose plants that would do well in our slightly dry and sandy, sunny space. I was also interested in attracting wildlife, so I planted flowers and grasses attractive to birds, bees and butterflies. Most of the plants were native to Florida, but some were not. Many non-native plants are Florida Friendly—that is, they are not invasive, and do not require extra water, fertilizer, or cold weather treatment. We put up bird feeders. The end result (as if there is an end—I am always re-arranging the garden!) is that we have a yard full of flowers, butterflies and bees, caterpillars and spiders, birds, lizards and even the occasional snake, in downtown Gainesville.
No lawn, native plants thriving
My understanding of the importance and beauty of native plants and species has grown over my years in Florida. I have come to understand the interconnectedness of plants and animals in their habitats and ecosystems. Native plants are the ones originally found in that particular area and are adapted to that ecosystem. Florida native plants are well equipped to live and thrive in the heat and humidity, dry or wet, shade or sun, coast, uplands or wetlands of our state. Native fungus, disease, insects and animals control the spread of the plants. The organisms in turn, depend on the plants for food and shelter. They need each other. Our ecosystems are in a delicate balance and once you throw people into the mix, with our constant movement and development, the ecosystems are in danger of disruption. We destroy habitat to build our cities and homes in the country. We bring plants from all over the world to make our homes look pretty. But those plants are not adapted to Florida and need special treatment, whether it be extra water or fertilizer. And when those non-native plants escape into the wild, some of them can become invasive (think kudzu!). They do not have the natural pest and disease controls, and native organisms have not adapted to depend on them. They grow unchecked and soon out-compete the native plants. The ultimate result is loss of diversity as the native species are crowed out and the invasive plant dominates the landscape.

Invasive Exotic Air Potatoes crowding out native landscape (photo from Lee County IFAS, Univ. of Fla)

It may come as a surprise, but water is critically important in Florida, as it is all over the world. We may have a reputation for swamps and lush rainforest-like landscapes, but that is an illusion. We do not have water to spare. 50-70% of our drinkable water is poured onto landscapes and turf farms every day. As water becomes more precious, it is more important than ever to conserve it. Native landscapes can help. Once they are established, native plants can grow on just the rainfall. Other than to get the plants started, I do not water our yard. Pesticides and fertilizers run off of landscapes, into the drains and into the aquifer, further endangering our water resources. Native plants do not need to be fertilized and have fewer pest problems. I do not use fertilizer or pesticides in our yard. I use mulch from pine tree bark, and let tree leaves compost in place on the ground. Both will add nutrients to the soil. If we have nuisance insects, I can pick them off the plant or treat with a soapy water spray. I encourage caterpillars! And when the weather turns cold, I am not outside covering the plants. I am inside, toasty and warm, knowing that the plants in our yard will be fine. My style of garden may not be for everyone. I happen to like a crazy meadow. But you can use native plants in just the same way you use any landscape plant. To people used to a manicured lawn, some of my plants may look like weeds. But weeds are just plants growing where you don't want them. In my yard, they are not weeds--they are wildflowers.

Our lawn-less yard this spring
Consider turning your yard into a "(name of your state here) Friendly Yard". The issues that we face in Florida are faced everywhere. Make your yard part of the solution, not the problem. You can help conserve water, reduce groundwater pollution, create wildlife habitat, and have a beautiful yard. You can start by planting Native Plants. The Fall Native Plant Sale takes place at Morningside Nature Center this weekend.

One of the many attractive native plants available at the plant sale (Lopsided Indiangrass, Sorgastrum secundum)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Golden Silk Orbweaver
By the time fall rolls around in Gainesville each year, the Golden Silk Orbweaver spiders (Nephila clavipes) (aka Banana Spiders) have grown into their full glory. They first appear in early summer, small and yellow, and tend to weave their webs in low areas, across paths and near doors. But as their webs are disturbed they move higher or tuck themselves into more protected paths. If you look up into the utility lines, you can see web after web of smart spiders taking advantage of the convenient distance between the wires. The spiders that don't get gobbled up by hungry birds can get huge. These majestic creatures can achieve a leg-span of 4-5 inches. Their webs are wondrous as well. They can also be huge--several feet across. The spider silk is golden, as their name implies, and is very strong.
Golden Silk
If you walk into one of the webs you can feel the strength of the strands. The webs have as much tensile strength as steel. Scientists noticed this and have tried to use Nephila silk to make stronger, lighter parachute straps, bullet proof vests, and other materials that need to be strong. Fishermen in Malaysia and Indonesia use webs from a related Nephila spider, wrapped around a branch, to catch fish. People have even used the silk to make glorious golden cloth. Here's a link to an incredible video about creating a cape from spider silk.

This spider set up a web under our living room window. The web is about 4 feet across, stretched between a tree and a bush. It is tucked out of the way of foot traffic, but will catch the insects drawn to the lights of the house.
House Spider
Looking closer at the web, I realized that at least 12 Orchard Orbweaver Spiders had used the strong strands of the web as supports for their own. Unlike web parasites, small spiders that live in a large spider's web and steal the insects that are caught on the periphery, this arrangement is more like camp ground. They catch their own food. Except that I can't see what's in it for the Orbweaver.

One of the "Campers"
There was another small spider in the web--the male. Male Golden Silk Orbweavers are comically small. People mistake them for baby spiders. They stay close, but not too close to the female, and hope to mate without getting eaten.
Male (upper left) and Female
When they do mate, the female will spin an egg sac. The spiderlings will overwinter in the egg sac and emerge in the spring. The big spiders usually die when the temperatures get too cold. Sometimes in the early winter I will find a wilted spider hanging limply from its web, only to see it revived when the day warms up. One year, a spider set itself up next to our front porch light and managed to stay warm enough from the heat of the light to last 2 full seasons. We knew it was the same spider because it was missing a leg.

When we first moved to Florida, I found the Golden Silk Orbweavers scary and intimidating, because of their huge size, and the sticky strong webs that I often found myself tangled in. But I quickly learned how to avoid the webs and love the spiders. They bite, but are not especially toxic or harmful to people (they say the bite is similar to a bee sting). I've never been bitten, which says something about their disposition--everything bites me. I also know now that they are very beneficial because of the numbers of insects they trap in their webs. I no longer fear them, but look forward to their return each year. And each fall I revel in their golden beauty.
Golden Silk Orbweaver abdomen, detail