Just in time for Fly-day

Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). Boca Raton, FL, April 23, 2015.

A few flies I’ve seen this spring.

A common hover fly, Toxomerus geminatus:

Toxomerus geminatus. Boca Raton, FL, March 19 2015.

Toxomerus geminatus. Boca Raton, FL, March 19 2015.

A less common drone fly, Eristalinus taeniops:

Drone fly, Eristalinus taeniops. Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

Drone fly, Eristalinus taeniops. Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

A common (in my garden) syrphid fly, Palpada vinetorum:

Palpada vinetorum, Boca Raton, FL, April 23, 2015.

Palpada vinetorum, Boca Raton, FL, April 23, 2015.

None of these flies would find my yard at all attractive without the flowers that grow in it. And I would probably find my yard a lot less attractive without these flies and their other insect friends in it. After all, where there are bugs, there are bug-eaters! This morning I saw (from too far away for a good picture) a Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) looking for prey:

Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). Boca Raton, FL, April 23, 2015.

Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). Boca Raton, FL, April 23, 2015.

Sometimes all the hard work to transform the landscape into a flowering and fruiting habitat seems worthwhile.

Green Herons in winter

Green heron (Butorides virescens). Boca Raton, FL, January 29, 2015.

Apparently Green Herons like to poke their long noses into everything in winter. I first found one hanging out in my yard a couple of Novembers ago; today, while searching for other things, I saw this one in a corner of the yard where the grass is longer. I’m guessing it’s going after the lizards that litter the place.

Green heron (Butorides virescens). Boca Raton, FL, January 29, 2015.

Green heron (Butorides virescens). Boca Raton, FL, January 29, 2015.

Nice to see something other than the “typical” blue jay/cardinal/dove conglomerate.

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 plant and helping it grow. Soft-bodied scale also excrete (yes, excrete, not secrete) honeydew, which, in enough quantity, enables the fungus called sooty mold to grow on the plant. Sooty mold can cover the entire leaf surface, interfering with photosynthesis. So not only do the scale insects steal the plant’s sap (literally sapping its energy), they also create an environment in which other plant pests can interfere with other important plant functions.

You’d think that scale insects would be pretty easy to defeat—after all, they can’t move or sting, and they have no particular defenses at all apart from a waxy covering that prevents casual inspectors from noticing that they exist. Other insects, such as lacewing and lady beetle larvae, like to eat these little guys whenever they find them. But their honeydew buys them some serious protectors: ants. The sweet, nutritious by-product of their all-plant-juice diet is beloved by these social insects. Ant colonies will send out “cowboys” to tend the herd and to bring back their liquid excrement (“milk,” if you will) to the nest. That’s right, ants are scale and aphid ranchers.

I’ve spent the last few weeks out in the garden trying my best to remove these scale insects without damaging the plants, but it’s tough sledding. There are dozens of insects per growing stem, and most of the shrubs and trees in my yard have dozens upon dozens of growing stems. Stripping the bugs off and squishing them makes your fingers sticky and smelly, and there’s always the risk of pinching off the stem or leaf of the plant when you’re just trying to scrape off the sticky gooey bug that’s attacking it.

There are about 175 armored species of this pest in Florida, and 60 “soft” scale species. The biology of the species goes like this, according to the UF/IFAS web page about them:

The armored scale life cycle is generalized as follows. The eggs are laid underneath the waxy covering and hatch over a period of one to three weeks. The newly hatched scales (called crawlers) move about over the plant until they locate succulent new growth. They insert their piercing-sucking mouthparts into the plant and begin feeding. Female scales lose their legs and antennae during the first molt. They molt a second time before reaching maturity and do not pupate. The cast skins (exuviae) are incorporated in the scale cover. Male scales go through two additional molts and pupate underneath the wax. Adult males are tiny two-winged, gnat-likeinsects without mouthparts. In some armored scales the adult stage is reached in six weeks, and there are several generations per year.

 In the females of the soft scales the antennae and legs are not lost, but are reduced to such an extent that though the adults can move about somewhat they seldom do. The wax when secreted, usually forms a sac at the rear end of the body enclosing the eggs, and the scale on the back of the insect becomes much thickened, forming a thick fluffy mass. The life cycle is similar to the armored scales except some soft scales require one year to reach maturity.

But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you really can get help from mother nature, in the good old-fashioned food chain sense. And that’s what happened the other day. I was soaking my feet in the pool while making sure my three-year-old stayed in his floatie—he can “swim” really fast in that plastic ring, but he tends to sink if he’s not using it, which is a Bad Thing—when I heard some fast-paced, high-pitched bird calls somewhere nearby. Intrigued, I started checking things out when I discovered to my great astonishment and delight that a pair of Downy Woodpeckers were gleaning insects from the firebushes that were most heavily infested with scale.

Upon further inspection it turned out that this wasn’t a “pair” of woodpeckers so much as it was a parent and a young bird. And what was that dad (male downies have a red patch on the nape of the neck; female birds are white-headed) stuffing down baby bird’s gullet to shut it up? You guessed it: a beak full of scale!

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) gleaning scale insects from firebush (Hamelia patens). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) gleaning scale insects from firebush (Hamelia patens). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

In case it’s hard to see in that shot, here’s a closer look:

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

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

How’s that for service? I get to see wildlife in action, and that action consists of helping me out in my gardening endeavors! While it’s too soon for the plants to have regained their showy appearance after their battle with the sap-sucking, soot-making, honeydew cows, it’s encouraging to see that garden ecology sometimes does work.

Here are a few more shots of the birds doing their thing; I tried to stay inconspicuous for fear of frightening them off, but they didn’t seem to mind my being about 20 feet away, hiding behind the kids’ plastic slide and firing away with my zoom lens:

Downy Woodpecker feeding young. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014

Downy Woodpecker feeding young. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014

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Dad (bottom) shows scale on outside of beak; baby (top) displays a mouth full of bugs. Yum!

The next morning as I was out, sans camera, inspecting the handiwork (beakywork?) of these fine insect control service technicians, the same pair flew right up into the tree next to those firebushes and began their chipping/begging act again. You can bet I high-tailed it out of there, in hopes that they’d set about polishing off the bugs that survived the previous night’s work.

As it turns out, the woodpeckers appear to be husbanding their food supply rather than eradicating my pest problem, so I still have a lot of bug squishing to do. Oh, well. It’s fun having the birds in the yard, and if I’m out there squishing the scale, at least I’m out and about with a chance to see more urban wildlife!

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 fence line.)

No pictures of my own this morning, but here’s a White-Eyed Vireo from audubon.org (photo by Johann Schumacher/VIREO) :

White-Eyed Vireo. Photo by Johann Schumacher/VIREO

Birds of Green Cay

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), Green Cay Nature Center, November 30, 2013.

Every Saturday after Thanksgiving for the last several years I’ve led the local Audubon Society’s field trip to one of the constructed wetlands in central Palm Beach County: Green Cay. It’s always fun to visit there because the birds know that the people never leave the boardwalk so they’re very tame. Photographers, well aware of this phenomenon, crowd the boardwalk every day of the year. And even those of us who have decent gear but will never be more than a snapshot artist can get a decent snapshot now and then:

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), Green Cay Nature Center, November 30, 2013.

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), Green Cay Nature Center, November 30, 2013.

In this case, the bird is Podilymbus podiceps, the Pied-billed Grebe. It’s a small water bird with lobed feet that enable it to swim incredibly well, but their position so far aft makes the bird clumsy, at best, on those rare occasions when it ventures on land.

Speaking of clumsy birds, another marsh bird has such an awkward gait that it made it into its common name: Limpkin. These are the birds with the astonishingly loud voice; whenever you hear a jungle bird from a Hollywood movie of the pre-Internet era, it was probably this bird. And they too are quite tame at Green Cay:

Limpkin (Aramis guarauna), Green Cay Nature Center, November 30, 2013

Limpkin (Aramus guarauna), Green Cay Nature Center, November 30, 2013

 

Etymology

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps). Although the picture doesn’t show it because this bird is in its winter plumage, in breeding plumage there is a black ring around the tip of the otherwise grayish-silver bill, which explains the common name for this grebe. The generic name is a combination of two genera that both mean “grebe”: Podiceps and Colymbus. The former is a current name for another genus of grebe (in North America, the Horned, Red-necked, and Eared), while the latter is a former name for a genus that comprised the grebes and loons.

Limpkin (Aramus guarauna). The common name derives from its awkward gait (limp) plus the diminutive -kin, while the taxonomic name is a bit more of a mystery. Aramus is rarely credited authoritatively, although Holloway (2003) cites the Oxford Greek-English Lexicon derivation of Greek aramos as a form of herodios, heron, and then specifies that the species name comes from “the Spanish name of the region inhabited by the Guarauna (Warrau) Indians in Venezuela, where this bird is abundant.”

References

Holloway, J. E. (2003). Dictionary of Birds of the United States. Boston: Timber.

New yard bird: Green Heron

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Boca Raton FL, November 26, 2013.

The week before Thanksgiving continues to be busy at the homestead. On Tuesday and Wednesday—both rainy, windy mornings—we had a special visit from a new bird for the yard: Butorides virescens, the Green Heron. It’s a nice little marsh bird, but rather uncommon here so far from the nearest canal or other permanent wetland. We felt quite favored to have it drop in. I managed to get a couple of decent (if you squint, you almost can’t see how blurry they are) snapshots before herding the kids into the van for school drop off:

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Boca Raton FL, November 26, 2013.

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Boca Raton FL, November 26, 2013.

These birds are somewhat awkward looking, don’t you think? And when they raise their crest, they look even more, um, interesting:

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Boca Raton, FL, November 27, 2013

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Boca Raton, FL, November 27, 2013

And then when they stretch their necks out? Fuggedaboutit:

 

Green Heron (Butorides virescens). Boca Raton, FL, November 27, 2013.

Green Heron (Butorides virescens). Boca Raton, FL, November 27, 2013.

Each time this bird has appeared, I’ve seen it through the kitchen windows near the house and then been forced to open the glass doors, thus scaring it a bit farther away than I’d like and making it skittish and hard to approach. And since my good telephoto is just at the limit of my ability to hold by hand, I just can’t quite get that perfect shot. But if it keeps coming, I’ll keep trying!

Etymology

The etymology of the taxonomic name is uncertain. Butorides, according to my copy of Choate,  is apparently a coined modern Latin word probably related to butio, “bittern,” with -ides (from Gr. eidos) meaning “resembling.” Virescens, of course, is “growing or becoming green.” (An alternative explanation is that butor comes from bos (cow) and taurus (bull), in which case the Green Heron resembles a bull-cow. You see why I don’t always follow Cabard and Chauvet.) Gruson is no help, following, as he so often does, Choate (or perhaps it was vice versa, as Choate published in 1973 and Gruson in 1972).

References

Cabard, P. and B. Chauvet. (2003). L’Etymologie des noms d’oiseaux. Paris: Belin.

Choate, E. A. (1985). Dictionary of American Bird Names, Revised Edition. Boston: Harvard Commons

Gruson, E. S. (1972). Words for Birds: A Lexicon of North American Birds with Biographical Notes. New York: Quadrangle.

New backyard bird: Nyctanassa violacea, the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea). Boca Raton, FL, June 11, 2013.

You never know when something new and unforeseen is going to drop in, but that’s what keeps you going back outside. My back yard is small. Not tiny, but small. There isn’t a lot of lawn, and there isn’t any water apart from the pool, which is completely surrounded by a rather inhospitable (to birds) fence. So to see a wading bird, other than an ibis, strutting around the back yard like it owns the place is a bit of a surprise. So imagine my surprise the other morning when I spotted this Yellow-crowned Night-Heron doing just that.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea). Boca Raton, FL, June 11, 2013.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea). Boca Raton, FL, June 11, 2013.

Night-herons aren’t entirely nocturnal, but they are more active at night than most other herons, hence their common name. They are mostly a coastal species, found more frequently along the Intracoastal Waterway than inland, but they do cruise the nearby canals. They nest in colonies; the closest one that I’m aware of is over at Spanish River Park, several miles away. A coastal bird, they eat mainly crustaceans, but also enjoy lizards, insects, and worms, among other things, from time to time.

I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled to see what else might drop in.

Chimney Swifts return (no photos this time): UPDATE: Now with photos!

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica). Boca Raton, FL, May 6, 2013.

For the past few days I’ve been out in the back yard trying to track down as many of the abundant damselflies as I can (four species so far: fragile and Rambur’s forktails, and Everglades and southern sprites). All this time in the great outdoors has been accompanied by some great natural soundtracks—the piercing call of the cardinal, the ever-so-slightly less piercing but much more varied song of the mockingbird, the raucous screeching of the parakeets as they do their flybys. But more enjoyable than all of those songs has been the nearly constant twitter twitter tweet of the chimney swifts overhead. There’s no disguising their return to our latitudes; the skies are simply full of their uplifting tweeting.

Last year, almost to the day, my home office was graced by a lost and confused swift that had made its way down my disused chimney and popped out on the inside. I was so pleased to be able to document that occurrence with photos (see the post here). Well, Sunday, Cinco de Mayo 2013, saw a repeat of this occurrence, but with our whole family home to see it. We were out in the family room watching YouTube videos and the Marlins game (they won!) when all of a sudden a swift shot around the corner, played peekaboo with our ceiling fan, and tried to escape through our glass doors (without success). We tried in vain to usher it to an exit, but it vanished back into the part of the house where the chimney is, and since we couldn’t find a trace of it, we assumed it had gone back up the chimney.

But a couple of hours later, it came back out to the family room. This time, the boys and I were outside, but Marcella was inside and had the presence of mind to open all the doors. Eventually it found the exit, and both of us cheered heartily. (The boys were too busy playing with the hose in the sandbox.)

So yay! Two years in a row our house has been deemed worthy of a close inspection by Chaetura pelagica. Still haven’t heard any indication that our chimney is inhabited, but I’m holding out hope! (And it’s the only thing that’s keeping me from knocking this chimney down and putting something more practical in my tiny little office.)

[UPDATE: A day later and now I have photos. Don’t know whether this is the original bird, or a second one, but as I was picking up some of the kids’ toys upstairs, I heard the now-familiar whirr of giant flying cigar wings, and sure enough, a swift had made its way up our stairs and into the laundry basket on the landing. With great presence of mind, I grabbed a baby blanket and tried to herd it into a grabbable spot, which I did, sort of:

Chimney Swift (<i>Chaetura pelagica</i>). Boca Raton, FL, May 6, 2013.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica). Boca Raton, FL, May 6, 2013.

As I was carrying it downstairs to release it, I tried to take a few photos, but, as with last year’s experience, it is just plain hard to take pictures of a fragile little thing that you’re trying to keep calm by covering its eyes with a blanket. Here’s one that sort of turned out:

Chimney Swift (<i>Chaetura pelagica</i>). Boca Raton, FL, May 6, 2013.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica). Boca Raton, FL, May 6, 2013.

I got it outside and removed what I thought was just enough blanket that I could keep hold of it and still grab a shot or two, but it was not to be. As I was trying to unhook a snag of the blanket from one of its teeny little claws, it took matters into its own wings and flapped like mad to get out of there. I guess wandering around in a big enclosed space, bonking into windows and television screens was more than it had in mind when it explored our little chimney…]

Shooting through glass doors

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Boca Raton, FL, March 1, 2013.

When you have the opportunity for a photo of a bird in a nice setting, you run for your camera. This Northern Cardinal was singing in the starburst and bougainvillea on our neighbor’s property, in perfect view of our glass doors in back. So I went and grabbed my camera and fired off a few shots through the dirty glass before attempting to head outside and get a clear shot.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Boca Raton, FL, March 1, 2013.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Boca Raton, FL, March 1, 2013.

Unfortunately, I had neglected to factor the toddler into the equation. Seeing the open door, he rushed to close it, not realizing (or not caring) that his beloved daddy was trying to squeeze off a few shots using the doorframe to steady the camera. The last thing I saw before my eye exploded in blinding pain was this:

The fast approaching door.

The fast approaching door.

A good photographer must always be aware of the dangers around him.

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