Monthly inventory

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

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:


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 tenera). 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

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).

Tropical Storm Isaac: warm and wet, but not bad. At least here.

All week long I’ve been watching the approach of Tropical Storm Isaac, waiting, holding my breath, hoping that I wouldn’t have to put up shutters at two houses. And today, at long last, the track is clearly going elsewhere.

History of Tropical Storm Isaac, from Wunderground.

This morning was actually so nice (at least, it was nice until the tornado watch was posted) that Daniel and I went puddle-jumping between rain bands. Our neighbor has the perfect driveway: concrete, slightly below the street paving, so the puddle there gets a good couple of inches deep. Just right for splashing.

Hope you and yours are safe indoors, or out enjoying some fine weather. Cheers!

Hunter’s Moon 2011

October 11, 2011 Full moon

October’s full moon this year, the Hunter’s moon, occurred at 10:06 p.m. EDT, about 9 hours before it reached apogee (Oct 12 7:44 a.m. EDT, distance 406 434 km). Local conditions here in south Florida were a bit of a challenge; I had to set up under clouds and hope for a break in the clouds near the time of full moon, which is when I wanted to take the picture. After all, it isn’t often that the moon is exactly full at a convenient time for picture-taking.

Some things fell in my favor: I had completed my field battery over the weekend, so my scope had its larger, more stable and, most importantly, tracking, mount from which to operate. Here’s a picture of the battery setup:

As you can see, it’s on a wheeled cart; those deep-cycle marine batteries are heavy! Some people recommended that I use a LiPo (lithium polymer) battery designed for golf carts and wheelchairs, but I went with the cheaply available Wal-Mart option instead. Having field-tested the weight, I’m thinking those LiPo people weren’t wrong…

This is one heavy battery:

But it does the job, with power to spare (literally—there are two extra cigarette lighter sockets; one for the dew heater and one for a future, as yet unplanned, accessory). The socket strip even has a power switch to prevent accidental draining of the battery:

Even with the best setup, though, you can’t control the weather. There was enough moisture in the air that I never did get a very good shot of the full moon; at “exact” full (10:06), I couldn’t even see the moon from my backyard. This picture is from 9:53 p.m., and is the closest I could come this time around:

If you look at the southern and eastern limbs of the moon, you can see a faint haze; that’s not evidence of an atmosphere on the moon! It’s just photographic evidence of the atmosphere here on Earth!

The moon’s angular size at this point was just under 30 minutes of arc, about as small as it gets, since it was close to apogee, and the second-farthest apogee of the calendar year at that (only March 6, at 406 582 km, was farther).

Like the Harvest Moon last month, the time of the Hunter’s Moon rise over the three nights around full is closer together than at other times of the year: 6:01, 6:33, and 7:08 for my location in Boca Raton; compare that to the situation for March’s full moon, which rose successively at 5:37, 6:44, and 7:52, more than an hour later each night.

It’s all a plot…


Every now and then I take a look at the data in my weather center to see how things are going. Have we gotten a lot of rain this year, or a little? Has the weather finally cooled off?

One thing I hadn’t done before is just look at the overnight data and see what happened. When I did so, I noticed that something interesting occurred between 2 and 4 AM. The data in the plot below should help you figure out what it was. (You might need to click for the full version to really see it; the legend shows that purple is wind direction, red is outside temperature, and blue is wind speed.)

Or maybe a simple table would be easier to read; I’ve restricted the data to the time period of interest:

TimeTemperature (F)Wind DirectionWind Speed (MPH)
2011-10-10 02:00:0073.2N/A0.0
2011-10-10 02:05:0073.2N/A0.0
2011-10-10 02:10:0073.2N/A0.0
2011-10-10 02:15:0073.3SSW1.0
2011-10-10 02:20:0073.3SSW1.0
2011-10-10 02:25:0073.3SSW1.0
2011-10-10 02:30:0073.3SSW1.0
2011-10-10 02:35:0073.3SSW1.0
2011-10-10 02:45:0076.3SSE3.0
2011-10-10 02:55:0076.3SSE3.0
2011-10-10 03:00:0076.3SSE3.0
2011-10-10 03:05:0076.3SSE3.0
2011-10-10 03:15:0078.3SE4.0
2011-10-10 03:20:0078.3SE4.0
2011-10-10 03:25:0078.3SE4.0
2011-10-10 03:30:0078.3SE4.0
2011-10-10 03:35:0078.3SE4.0
2011-10-10 03:40:0078.3SE4.0
2011-10-10 03:45:0078.7SE4.0
2011-10-10 03:50:0078.7SE4.0
2011-10-10 03:55:0078.7SE4.0
2011-10-10 04:00:0078.7SE4.0

I’ll post the answer later in the week, along with the explanation.

International Observe the Moon Night — except here in south Florida

I take full responsibility for our area being unable to participate in today’s International Observe the Moon Night. I had been trying to set up my battery-powered telescope mount for last month’s full moon when I discovered that my battery would no longer hold a charge. So I scoured the Internet for plans, found lots of good ideas, and eventually cobbled together a deep-cycle marine battery and a 12V outlet strip, so my scope is fully capable of observing whatever there might be to observe. Now here’s a satellite picture of my area:

Sorry, guys!

And this was a small storm…

Fallen tree, crown. Boca Raton, FL, June 30, 2011

I’d been complaining about the lack of rain at our house recently, while the rest of the state, it seemed, was getting their fair share. Well, yesterday we got our fair share. 1.65 inches of rain according to my weather station, and wind gusts of 50 mph.

That’s not too bad, you say? Well, my next-door neighbor might disagree:

“Only” 50 miles an hour is still enough to drive the rain completely sideways, and fell a top-heavy, poorly rooted tree. And the puddles left behind after more than an inch and a half of rain are enough to delight a toddler for quite some time, as you can see in one of the pictures above…

This happened with winds of “only” 50 mph; we had 110+ mph winds several times back in 2004 and 2005 (Frances, Jeanne, Katrina, Rita, Wilma). The 2011 hurricane season is fast approaching (technically, a month of it has already gone by, but “June—too soon”); now that we’re in July, I think I’m going to head outside this weekend and batten down the hatches!

The in-ixorable march of progress

People often wonder how they can help reduce their consumption of resources. Whether this question arises out of a laudable desire to help conserve our planet, or an equally laudable desire to help conserve one’s financial capital, the answer, at least sometimes, is to go native. This January, for example, we got a good lesson in the value of native plantings. The picture below is a non-native, but very pretty, flowering shrub in the genus Ixora.

Beautiful, isn’t it? Here’s a close-up of one of the flower clusters:

These flowers attract countless bees and other pollinators, who would probably be better off elsewhere, as Ixora doesn’t really have all that much in the way of nectar for them. It’s a showy cheat, is what it is. But these shrubs are not particularly long-lived, although this hedge on our front lawn has held on quite a bit longer than one might have expected: we’ve been in the house for 9 years, and it was old already when we moved in. Our neighbor, who has been here longer than we have, doesn’t remember our house ever not having these shrubs, so they’re at least 20 years old.

The prolonged cold spell we got this January, though, proved to be a bit hard for this tropical species to handle:

The leaves dropped all over the place, and it looked like the plant was ready to give up the ghost. And, rather than wait and see, I decided to help it along:

I’ve been itching to replace this exotic hedge almost ever since we moved in, and certainly since we redid the entire landscape in plants native to Palm Beach County, with a few exceptions that our landscape designer holds dear: Aristolochia gigantea, for the Polydamas Swallowtail caterpillars; the widespread Asclepias for the milkweed butterflies (Viceroys, Monarchs); and we left one or two of the “foundation” plants like the Areca palms by the entryway, and the Ixora hedge.

But now that hedge is history; soon to be replaced by, well, we know not what. Sabal minor? Coontie? Both? We want a hedge that won’t need clipping all the time, so its ultimate height should only be 4 or 5 feet. That reduces our options considerably. And we already have tons and tons of horizontal cocoplum, so I really don’t want to add more. Walter’s Viburnum would have been lovely, but it needs too much water for this high dry sand we’re on.

We also want a native plant, to provide food and shelter for butterflies and birds that evolved in conjunction with this ecosystem. Plus, the cocoplums and all the other natives did fine during the cold; the only casualties were this hedge in front, and a sister hedge in the back that looks like it might be on its last legs as well…

Stay tuned to see what the in-ixorable march of progress brings to Boca!

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