Monthly inventory

October is a month of transition here in south Florida. The wet days of the rainy season start to taper off, giving way to the first few cooling breaths of our short-lived autumn, eventually to be followed by the drier and steadier days of our wintertime dry season (which usually arrives around November). That doesn’t mean it won’t rain; we still get appreciable rainfall in this last month of the wet season, but the rains are punctuated by spells of drier, cooler weather, that is much welcomed after the long, hot days of summer.

The first few days this month were typical late summer/early fall, with warm, humid weather. The only thing atypical about it was the lack of easterly breeze, at least in the early hours, making photography relatively easy. On the first weekend of the month, a cool front blew through, lowering the 8 a.m. temps from the high 70s/low 80s to the mid-60s. Yay! It also made photography even easier, pushing the energy budget of the insects down a mite. Whether for that reason or some seasonal effect (late emergence, early migration, what have you), I was able to add a Green Darner (only seen once before in the four years we’ve been on this site) and the two bee species only after the cool front. Whether they were here and I just missed them before the shift in the weather, I don’t know.

These questions mean it’s time to get outside on a bit more regular basis, to attempt to answer them! This year I was particularly motivated to get outside in October, because I recently joined the North American Butterfly Association, after years of telling myself “I really should join NABA.” They’re a nonprofit organization dedicated to education, conservation, and scientific research on—you guessed it!—butterflies! They have a butterfly garden certification program that allows you to send them a brief inventory of the nectar plants (flowers) and larval host plants (caterpillar food) in your yard, along with a check or other payment, and get a lovely sign to post in your yard:

NABA_garden_sign

While the certification process is not onerous (seriously—all I had to do was indicate the size of the plot, the management practices, and list three nectar plants and three host plants, no pictures, no records, nothing), it did get me to thinking about taking inventory in the yard in a new way.

So that’s what I did. First, I made a table of all the butterfly plants in my yard (nearly 30 different species!). That done, I decided I needed to do a bit more. So I started another spreadsheet (oh, the joy!) to record my wildlife sightings on a monthly basis. It’s a bit like the yard list that birders do, but like a true geek, I decided that it needed to be a bit more comprehensive, including month and year, rather than just as a checkmark on a bare list.

I went as far back as 2012 in my photo archives to populate the list with a bit of scattershot historical data, but going forward I’ll be updating it as often as I can, and as often as I can get decent pictures. Right now it lists only a couple of insect orders: Odonata (damsel- and dragonflies) and Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths, skippers). As and when I find time I’ll update the lists, at least to include the Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps).

This gives me an incentive to get out and see what’s new, who’s more abundant now, who’s absent. And I will no longer have to rely solely on my wretched memory to know when certain species are present or absent, and with what kind of frequency.

As advertised, the first few mornings of October 2014 were lovely—good light, very little wind, not yet hotter than blazes. Over those first few days I’ve documented the following insects and spiders in the garden:

    • 3 species of damselfly (the usual suspects: two fork tails [Ischnuras ramburii and hastata] and our ever-present Everglades Sprite [Nehalennia pallidula]); here’s a picture of the Rambur’s Forktail from September, but they look the same in October:
Rambur's Forktail (Ischnura ramburii). Boca Raton, FL, September 22, 2014.

Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii). Boca Raton, FL, September 22, 2014.

    • 6 species of dragonfly (Band-winged Dragonlet, Little Blue Dragonlet, Blue Dasher, Carolina Saddlebags, Halloween Pennant, and a new one for the yard, Eastern Amberwing!)
Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis genera). Boca Raton, FL, October 3, 2014.

Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis genera). Boca Raton, FL, October 3, 2014.

    • The usual species of butterfly (Zebra Heliconian, Gulf Fritillary, Cassius Blue, Cloudless Sulphur, Giant Swallowtail). Thanks to the cooler weather I was able to get up close and personal with a Cloudless Sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae), normally far too swift and fluttery for me to capture on “film.” Yay, cooler weather!
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

    • An Ichneumon wasp, genus Anomalon
Ichneumon wasp, genus Anomalon. Boca Raton, FL, October 2, 2014.

Ichneumon wasp, genus Anomalon. Boca Raton, FL, October 2, 2014.

      • The usual quartet of large south Florida garden spiders (Gasteracantha cancriformis, Argiope argentata, A. trifasciata, and Leucauge argyra). Pictured is the very common (elsewhere, rare-ish in my yard) Banded Garden Spider, Argiope trifasciata. The smaller spider on the opposite side of the web from the large female is the small male. He no dummy!
Banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata). Boca Raton, FL, October 1, 2014.

Banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata). Boca Raton, FL, October 1, 2014.

    • Several syrphid flies (also known as “hoverfly” or “flower fly”): Toxomerus marginatus and T. boscii.
A flower fly, Toxomerus marginatus. Like many tiny insects, this one has no common name.

A flower fly, Toxomerus marginatus. Like many tiny insects, this one has no common name. Boca Raton, FL, October 1, 2014.

      • A pair of unidentified sarcophagid flies (also called “flesh flies”)
      • A “leaf beetle,” Chalepus sanguinicollis:
Leaf beetle, Chalepis sanguinicollis. Boca Raton, FL, October 4, 2014.

Leaf beetle, Chalepus sanguinicollis. Boca Raton, FL, October 4, 2014.

    • One of our two yard-normal halictids (sweat bees), Halictus poeyi
    • A leaf-cutter (megachilid) bee, Megachile petulans, demonstrating a very stout abdomen and a tiny waist more reminiscent of a wasp than a bee—looks a bit like a little grenade or something! It also has a very loud buzz; much more noticeable than the sweat bees or honeybees that cruise through here most of the time:
A leafcutter bee (Megachilid petulans). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

A leafcutter bee (Megachilid petulans). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

I don’t know whether this data will ever be useful to anyone, but it’s a fun project. And when you find a new species for your yard, it can be really exciting. Getting a reasonable picture of one of those tiny little flower flies (T. marginatus in this case) encouraged me to comb through my past photos to get a few more IDs from the good folks at bugguide.net.

So I guess it’s misleading to call this an “inventory”; for now it’s more of a snapshot, taken from the limited perspective of a few short hours in the “field.” Nevertheless, it’s an interesting snapshot. Speaking of which, hope you enjoyed these snapshots of the insect and arachnid life in a small suburban yard in south Florida!

You never know what you mind find when you get out into nature—even if it’s only right outside your door.

Next up: the second half of the month, including a new butterfly species for the yard, Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (with photos) and the return of the hummingbirds (without photos).

September equinox today, 10:29 p.m. EDT

Today, at 10:29 p.m. Eastern “daylight” time, Earth’s equatorial plane intersects the center of the Sun’s disk.

Sunrise and sunset occur due east and due west, respectively, from all points on Earth’s surface.

Equinox, man!

Days and nights will continue to get shorter in the northern hemisphere, as they’ve been doing since the June solstice, culminating in the shortest day of the year (and longest night) at the December solstice.

Enjoy the equilibrium today!

Giant Swallowtail at last

Papilio_cresphontes_20140918-3

The Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) is not the largest butterfly in North America. That distinction goes to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, at least to the larger females of that species. P. cresphontes, though, is still “noteworthy for its size” (Cech & Tudor). It’s also a butterfly that is rather camera shy, at least in my experience. (The only pictures of an adult Giant Swallowtail in my photo files date back to Fern Forest days, back in 2007 or 2008.)

Their larvae, however, are considerably less camera shy, and over the years I’ve noticed (and even written about) the tiny little [...]

Bees have hairy eyes

European Honeybee (Apis mellifera). Boca Raton, FL, September 14, 2014

If you’re a native plant gardener, it’s easy to let your focus on native plants and animals blind you to the characteristics of non-native species. But one of the most important non-native species worldwide is the honey bee, Apis mellifera. Because they’re so common, I frequently opt not to take pictures of them, preferring instead the more unusual “sweat bees” (halictids), with their bright green bodies and unpredictable (to me at least) sighting opportunities. This gal, for instance, was rescued from drowning in my backyard pool; she’s still in the net (she recovered and flew away):

Halictid (Sweat Bee), [...]

Here there be dragons

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) enjoying a repast of Blue Dasher (

Wow, a record for me. Three days in a row at the Yamato Scrub! My older son, Eric, surprised me midmorning on Labor Day by suggesting that we go to Yamato Scrub. I seized on the suggestion, and off we went. I brought snacks and a drink to keep him occupied, and it worked! I was able to install him on a bench with a good view of the pond while I wandered off to take a few more pictures of the insect life around the wetlands, and found some new (to me) creatures and behaviors. It wasn’t long before [...]

Damsels in Distress

Rambur's Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) and breakfast. Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

You may remember that I volunteer with the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resource Management from time to time, helping them clean up and maintain the natural areas here in Boca Raton. Last weekend there was a work party at Yamato Scrub, and we were there for sunrise, coffee, donuts, muffins, and—oh, yeah—work. We trundled wheelbarrows full of sand from the sand mound to a few areas of sidewalk between the two recreated wetlands on the site. There’s a sand berm between the northern pond (the deep one) and the southern wetland (much larger and shallower). When the rains [...]

New backyard spider: Cyrtophora citricola

Cyrtophora citricola. Boca Raton, FL, July 29, 2014.

Gardeners in south Florida are the inverse of the typical beachgoer: instead of looking forward to a sunny day for reading, we look forward to a cloudy morning for weeding! August days, even in the morning, can be brutal. Earlier this week my weather station reported a heat index of 110°F! So when we get rain overnight followed by lingering clouds, we jump at the chance to get a bit muddy while trimming back the overgrown foliage and pulling out the weeds from the flower beds.

When we get the chance to do this, we often discover new and unusual [...]

Fiddlewood caterpillar (Epicorsia oedipodalis) update

Moth_Fiddlewood_flying_20140612

The fiddlewood caterpillars (not their real common name, but since they don’t seem to have a common name I’m calling them that) I discovered the other day haven’t done very well in captivity. I’ve had them in a plastic jar for a couple of days but they haven’t grown at all—still the same 10 mm long as two days ago. Their brothers and sisters that I missed, though, and found two days later on the original shrub, are a bit more robust—already 15 mm long and quite active. I’ve removed those caterpillars and the leaves they were on, and we’ll [...]

Ants bite; they can also tend your garden for you

Epicorsia oedipodalis detail. Note the stemmata rather high on the head

Last weekend I went out to Yamato Scrub for another volunteer clean-up event coordinated by Palm Beach County ERM. We were removing the last of the temporary irrigation installed years and years ago to jump-start the native plants that they imported to the site to replace the acres and acres of Brazilian Pepper and Australian Pine that had grown up over the years since the site was drained by the canals that run all over the place down here.

The irrigation was the typical black poly tubing with smaller tubes for the emitters. But the contractors who installed the tubing [...]

New backyard butterfly: Great Southern White

Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) nectaring on Indian Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella). Merritt Island, FL, January 12, 2008.

I’ve been noticing some large, white butterflies in the front yard throughout the month of May; they’ve been a bit hard to photograph with the constant wind and their habit of flying off at top speed when I approach with a camera, so I’m digging into my photo files and showing this version from a January, 2008 trip to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) nectaring on Indian Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella). Merritt Island, FL, January 12, 2008.

Now back to Boca: this June, for the first time ever, I noticed some butterfly eggs on my [...]