Monday, December 31, 2012

Goodbye old...

The garden here is full of milkweed plants, most of which show signs of recent caterpillar damage. I'm told that there had been several monarch (Danaus plexippus) caterpillars on these plants earlier this month.  However, by the time I returned to Florida, the caterpillars had disappeared.  I frequently searched on and around the milkweed plants for caterpillars or chrysalises, but to no avail.  Therefore, it was a big surprise when my mother found a chrysalis lying on the ground right underneath one of the milkweed plants.

A monarch (Danaus plexippus) chrysalis that we found on the ground.
Monarchs hang their chrysalises (see one from this summer); thus, this one must have been knocked down somehow.  Luckily, when I carefully picked it up, it did not look damaged in any way.  We decided to hang the chrysalis up again with some thread and brought it inside for observation.  Two days later, we began to be able to see the butterfly inside.

The monarch chrysalis two days after we found it.
I guessed that it would be just another day before the butterfly was ready to emerge.  Indeed, the next morning the chrysalis was completely transparent and the fully formed butterfly could be seen inside.

The monarch chrysalis three days after we found it.
Throughout the morning, I watched in anticipation, hoping to see the butterfly emerge (eclose).  To be continued...

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The aphid lion's den

There is so much to observe in the garden that it is easy to overlook small piles of debris stuck to leaves.  However, when a pile of debris begins wandering around on a leaf, it becomes much more noticeable!

* To see this video in high definition (1080p), you may need to (1) click "YouTube" to watch on the YouTube website and (2) change the settings at the bottom of the video screen.

In the video above, the pile of debris conceals a "trash bug" (the larva of a green lacewing).  If you watch closely, you can see the larva's legs and very large mandibles sticking out from underneath the debris.  Lacewing larvae are predators of many insect species and they use their large mandibles to pierce their prey.  Lacewing larvae are particularly known for consuming aphids, leading to their other common names "aphid lion" and "aphid wolf".  Here is another larva that I found roaming a bromeliad:

A green lacewing larva that has disguised itself as a pile of trash.
I have now found four of these "trash bugs" in the garden and each has had a different disguise.  The trash on their backs has included bits of plant material, tiny snail shells, and the shriveled bodies of insects.  These lacewing larvae have not been letting the leftovers of their meals go to waste, but have instead been using them to augment their camouflage.  However, not all lacewing species carry trash as larvae.  Those that do not carry trash look even more intimidating (see the photograph below).  In fact, I have read that lacewing larvae can deliver nasty bites to people, but I have not been interested in testing this myself.

A related lacewing larva (from this summer in Maine) that does not carry a trash pile.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The dragonfly's lair

The pleasant winter climate in Florida comes with a catch -- mosquitoes are out and they are looking for blood.  Furthermore, they are frustratingly good at finding and extracting my blood.  Thus, it wasn't long before I received several painful and itchy reminders of the need to take precautions (such as wearing long sleeves and pants) before going out into the garden for any length of time.  Another component of my campaign against mosquito bites is to eliminate female mosquitoes on sight.  Consequently, I only get photographs of the males, which are harder to find but do not pose an immediate threat.

A male mosquito resting on a leaf (note the bushy antennae that distinguish males).
My campaign is supported by at least one resident mosquito hunter: a dragonfly.  In the mornings and evenings, I catch only brief glimpses of the dragonfly as it patrols the garden.  However, in the middle of the day I can pretty reliably find the twilight darner (Gynacantha nervosa) roosting in a sheltered part of the garden.

A twilight darner (Gynacantha nervosa) spending its day hanging from a palm frond.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Soaking up the Florida sun

Eager to spend more time in the Florida sunshine, I followed up my walk to the beach with a survey of our backyard garden and then a walk to a nearby public garden.  Being surrounded by lush vegetation again, I was reminded what green really looks like.  It may be winter, but the plants here are sending out new shoots and leaves, as well as an abundance of flowers.

A waterlily in the public garden.
As will be apparent from later posts, our backyard here is teeming with life.  Nevertheless, the most exciting find of the day occurred in the public garden.  On our way out, I spotted something long and skinny woven through a bed of bromeliads.

A peninsula ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus sackenii) in bromeliads.
Since it was still early, there weren't many people around to be startled by my happy exclamation of "snake!".  The peninsula ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus sackenii) was not disturbed much either and did not move from its sunny spot when I came close to get a better look at it.

A close-up of the peninsula ribbon snake.

Friday, December 21, 2012


The second part of my southward migration involved traveling a bit farther south and a long way east -- all the way to the Atlantic coast of Florida.  Due to a surprise victory over jet-lag, I got up early enough on my first full day back in Florida to watch the sun rise over the ocean.  At that hour, the beach was nearly deserted except for sea gulls scavenging for breakfast.

A ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) investigates an apple on the beach.
The most coveted prize to wash up on the shore was a large green apple.  Soon after it was discovered by one gull, more gulls began to arrive, all showing a keen interest in the apple.

A younger ring-billed gull drives off the first gull.
However, the apple posed two problems: it rolled away when pecked and it was too heavy to carry off.  Therefore, it was difficult for any one gull to monopolize the apple for long.  The more determined gulls were forced to switch continually between taking guarded pecks at the apple, dodging incoming waves, and chasing off any rivals that got too close.

The gull aggressively defends the apple as it is moved about by the surf.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A bush for the birds

Before leaving Santa Barbara, I made a quick visit to the botanical garden.  I did not expect to see much besides the plants, since it was cool and overcast with sunset quickly approaching.  Nevertheless, I did find quite a few birds and ants, as well as a small number of other insects including just one bee.  Most of the animal activity was in the area of the garden showcasing a large number of native manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.).

A cluster of manzanita flower buds and flowers.
Many of the manzanitas were covered in clusters of delicate white or pink flowers.  On some low shrubs, I saw ants attempting to get into the flowers.  However, one manzanita bush was successful in attracting much larger visitors to drink its nectar.  In addition to the one bee that I saw, these thirsty visitors included a hummingbird...

A female hummingbird drinks nectar from a manzanita flower.
... and a whole flock of bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) that fluttered spiritedly among the branches until I came too close.

One of the many bushtits that were visiting the manzanita bush.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The bee's knees are covered in pollen

The first destination of my southward migration was Santa Barbara, CA, where I spent a very full week.  Although I was kept busy working all day each day, I did manage to set out first thing one morning in search of flowers.  Despite it being December, there were blooming plants nearly everywhere I looked.  The most impressive displays were the towering inflorescences of the foxtail agave (Agave attenuata).  These curved spikes could be eight or more feet long and were densely packed with light green flowers.

Flowers of a foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) in Santa Barbara, CA.
The foxtail agaves were very attractive to honey bees as well.  Even though it was only a few minutes after sunrise, honey bee foragers had already collected large amounts of pollen in the "pollen baskets" on their hind legs.

A honey bee (Apis mellifera) forager collecting pollen from the agave flowers.
The agaves benefit if the bees transport their pollen to other flowers, fertilizing seeds.  However, the honey bee foragers have a different objective: to feed the protein-rich pollen to their developing sisters back in the hive.  Nevertheless, the bees I saw were getting so coated in pollen that they may have been doing some pollinating as well.

A honey bee (Apis mellifera) forager covered in agave pollen.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Flying south for the winter

My neighborhood is generally quiet; however, over the past weeks, there have been sporadic bursts of honking.  Unlike the noise of busy traffic, this honking occurs both day and night, is always moving from north to south, and is coming from the sky.  More specifically, it is coming from flocks of Canada geese (Branta canadensis).

Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying south in V formations.
These geese are making their yearly migration from their northern breeding grounds to their wintering range.  Although the trip may be long and difficult, the reward is milder weather and more plentiful food.

I think that the geese have the right idea, and so the time has come for me to make my own migration south.  As a result, the upcoming posts will feature the much more active winter wildlife of southern California and South Florida (although it may be a few extra days before my next post).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

And then there were none

I periodically check on the aphids on the pine tree and have been keeping track of one colony in particular.  In early November, this colony was growing rapidly.  However, after reaching a peak of nine aphids, the colony went into decline.  It lost one then another of its three adults, leaving just one adult surrounded by a few juveniles.

The dwindling colony of aphids.
A few days later, all the aphids of the colony were gone.  They may have succumbed to the cold and wind, or perhaps to something even more sinister. 

A seven-spotted ladybug (Coccinella septempunctata) on the pine tree.
Although I haven't seen any ladybugs (such as the one pictured above) on the pine tree for the last few weeks, I have caught glimpses of a few camera-shy spiders on the branches.  I also found one aphid that was missing a leg, perhaps as a result of being attacked by something.

An aphid missing its hind right leg.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Searching high but not low

Two weeks ago, I found two green caterpillars in front of the house.  I put one in a jar to observe, but left the other.  This second caterpillar had been climbing up the house and had made it about three feet off the ground.  I thought that it must have kept climbing, but I did not see it anywhere higher up on the house when I went back to look for it again.  The caterpillar had vanished, and I turned my attention to other things.

This Saturday, it was sunny, relatively mild, and the ladybugs were out again.  I was crouching down to see how many ladybugs I could spot, when I noticed an incongruous shape near the bottom of the siding.  Taking a closer look, I saw that it was a chrysalis just like the one I had in a jar, but still green.

A small cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae) chrysalis on the house siding.
Since I had only been looking for the caterpillar higher up on the house, I don't know whether this chrysalis was made by the caterpillar I saw two weeks ago or by a more recent arrival.  Perhaps more time -and a color change- will tell.