Damsels in Distress

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 come, the sand next to the sidewalk tends to follow the water downhill, leaving the sidewalk higher and drier, which will eventually cause the sidewalk to fracture and degrade. So our work party helped to shore up the sand around the sidewalk, delaying the inevitable for another few seasons.

We also did the traditional work party routine: trash pickup, with long-handled grabbers and trash bags, cleaning up as much of the area as we reasonably could. You always find the usual stuff that people discard (cans, bottles, wrappers, shotgun shells), but you’re also always on the lookout for the fun stuff. For example, when we did the planted area in the parking lot, my covolunteer Dan found the weirdest object I’ve yet seen: a fully inflated toddler’s waterwing. What on earth was that doing in the parking lot of a scrub area?

As we were taking trash from around the perimeter of the wetlands, we ran across some pretty blue flowers, which our ERM coordinator ID’ed for us as Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum); I was able to snap a decent image with my iPhone and its little Olloclip macro lens:


Blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum</em.). Yamato Scrub, August 30, 2014.

Blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum

We also ran across some hogplum (Ximenia americana) in flower; the contrast between the delicate blooms and the long, wickedly sharp thorns, never ceases to impress me (particularly when I get too close!). I couldn’t get good focus with the iPhone, so here’s a shot from the next day with my real camera:

Hog plum (Ximenia americana). Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

Hog plum (Ximenia americana). Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

Of course, during a work party I can’t exactly tote around my real camera and rig, so the iPhone photos just serve to remind me of what’s there until I can get back to the site with my DSLR and its macro lens to do some real “work.” For example, here’s a shot of the blue curls taken with my Nikon instead of my smartphone:

Blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum</em.). Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

Blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum

Nice to get some focus across the entire image!

In fact, the main reason I went back to the site the day after the work party was that while we were working, I noticed some damselflies that intrigued me—spreadwings of some sort, but without my macro lens, I wasn’t able to get a sharp enough picture to ID them. So I returned the next day with my real camera and set about hunting them down. Turns out I wasn’t the only hunter in the wetlands: this enterprising Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) captured an unwary (or just unlucky) Atlantic Bluet (Enallagma doubledayi).

Rambur's Forktail breaking its fast on Atlantic Bluet. Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

Rambur’s Forktail breaking its fast on Atlantic Bluet. Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

Damsels in distress, indeed! The fork tail in the picture above is spreading its wings, but only to keep its balance and flight-readiness; when resting normally, it folds them over its back, like so:

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

Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii). Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

Here’s a closer look at her enjoying her breakfast:

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

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

After some hide and seek, I was able to relocate some of the spreadwings and, as I might have expected, they’re the only species we have here in Boca as far as I know: Carolina Spreadwing, Lestes vidua:

Carolina Spreadwing (Lestes vidua). Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

Carolina Spreadwing (Lestes vidua). Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

Carolina Spreadwing (Lestes vidua). Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

Carolina Spreadwing (Lestes vidua). Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

But when you’re intent on hunting down one particular insect, there might be others who are just as intently trying to hunt you down!

Biting fly, Tabanid family. Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

Biting fly, Tabanid family. Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

A word of caution if you plan to hang out in the wetlands: there are plenty of predators on the wing! For example, a few dragonflies (top, Little Blue Dragonlet, Erythrodiplax minuscula; Middle, Common Green Darner (Anax junius); bottom, unidentified.

Erythrodiplax_minuscula_YS_20140831 Anax_junius_YS_20140831 Dragonfly_YS_20140831

And if you’re the first one on the trail, you might find a few roadblocks put up by other kinds of predators, like this spider (I think it’s the tropical orb weaver, Eriophora ravilla, but I’m not sure):

Orb weaver. Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

Orb weaver. Yamato Scrub, August 31, 2014.

You need to look sharp if you don’t want to walk out of the scrub wearing spider silk! Now, if only those biting flies had been the bugs that these spiders were eating… Oh, well.

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


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 [...]

Backyard plant: Jamaica caper. Or, flowers attract bees

A honeybee (Apis mellifera resting in a Jamaica caper (Capparis cynophallophora) flower. Boca Raton, FL, May 31, 2014.

Back in April I called my native landscape guru, Melissa McGaughey, because I wanted her advice on some of the things going on around the yard. One of my main concerns was the Jamaica caper in the front yard. It was growing fairly bushy, with lots of what looked like competing leaders, etc. I’m used to it having a more pyramidal shape. When she came by, practically the first words out of her mouth were “that’s the best specimen you have in your yard; I wouldn’t touch it!”

She pointed out that it was just about to enter the budding/flowering [...]

New backyard bird: Downy Woodpecker, or why native plants love birds (and vice versa)

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescent with scale. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

From time to time the native plants in my yard, which I do my best to foster, suffer from an overabundance of a certain tiny insect: scale. These insects aren’t scary to most people—they don’t bite, they don’t fly up and startle you, they don’t even move after they hunker down in their chosen spot to feed. But they are rather scary to the plants they parasitize. They latch onto a growing stem, use their piercing sucking mouthparts to penetrate the thin exterior walls, and suck up the vital juices that are supposed to be circulating through the [...]

New backyard plant: Wild Cinnamon

Canella winterana foliage.

The rainy season is right around the corner, so last month I worked on the landscape a little bit. I’d been disappointed in the performance of the gumbo limbo tree out front; it was in the shade of the towering coconut tree that dominates that front yard, and I wanted to see whether it would do better in full sun. It was bothered by scale, the spiraling whitefly infestation that’s hit south Florida, and the sooty mold that both those pests leave in their wake.

After about a month t’s obvious that full sun is not keeping the scale in [...]

Early spring birding in the front yard

It may be only Presidents’ Day on the calendar, but the weather down here in south Florida is nice and the birds are enjoying it. Was outside doing some early morning gardening on this blessed day off work and I heard the R2D2-like witchety watchety-doo of a White-Eyed Vireo across the street. Ran inside for my binoculars and picked up three warblers just in my front yard (palm, prairie, and yellow-rumped), along with Fish Crow and Green Heron. (The Green Heron loves our yard because we have such a rambunctious lizard population; I see him here most mornings prowling the [...]

New backyard butterfly: Ceraunus Blue

Ceraunus Blue (Hemiargus ceraunus). Boca Raton, FL, February 6, 2014.

Today I saw the smallest butterfly I’ve ever seen in my life: the tiny Ceraunus Blue, Hemiargus ceraunus. Most blues, as this family of butterflies is known, are tiny, but I cannot convey to you the utter tininess of this thing. The tiny little stalk of dead weed it’s perched on looks gargantuan in the photo of it:

Ceraunus Blue (Hemiargus ceraunus). Boca Raton, FL, February 6, 2014.

She’s a pretty little thing, though, (I say “she” because females are brown, males are gray) with two prominent dark spots on the leading edge of the forewing and one giant [...]