New backyard bird: Chimney Swift


A bird that’s probably familiar to many of you is Chaetura pelagica (Linnaeus, 1758), more commonly known as Chimney Swift. It’s been described by Alexander Sprunt (1954) as “resembl[ing] in appearance a cigar on wings” because of its tubular body and long, long wings. Most of the time you see it on the wing, flying overhead chasing down its insect prey, and twittering like mad. It always reminds me of the last line of one of the most famous of Keats’s odes, “To Autumn”:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, […]

New backyard bug: Ischnura posita


One thing that I’m really enjoying about the new place is that I’ve seen several species of damselfly in the backyard in the little more than a year that we’ve been here. The old place had lots of dragon- and butterflies but, perhaps because there was no backyard pool, there were no damselflies, at least that I recall.

So far I’ve seen a couple of species of Forktail (Ischnura ramburii and I. hastata), a sprite or two (Nehalennia pallidula), a bluet (Enallagma sp., probably doubledayi) and an unidentified spreadwing species (“documented” by perhaps the worst photo I’ve ever taken).

Today […]

A grasshopper on a leaf is not a leafhopper


After you’ve seen them a few times, you stop being surprised at where you’ll find grasshoppers: crushed gravel roads, up in palmettos, on your pipevines. Still, when they let you approach closely, there’s no denying that they’re handsome beasts:

But no matter where you find them (trees, leaves, gravel), they’re still grasshoppers, not treehoppers, leafhoppers, or gravelhoppers. One of these days, I suppose I’ll find a real leafhoppper. Trouble is, they’re all pretty small, and I’m still barely learning the charismatic megafauna of the insect world (you know, the large showy creatures like butterflies, dragonflies, etc.), […]

Small Owls

I’m preparing a slide show for an upcoming talk on the Birds of India, and one of the most charming ones is Athene brama, the Spotted Owlet:

Tiny little birds (hence the diminutive “owlet”), they are nonetheless mobbed mercilessly if they don’t choose their daytime hiding place carefully. At the Okhla Bird Sanctuary where I snapped the above image, they roost in a giant banyan tree at the western end of a large weir, close by a house. They’re almost always there, but the trouble with finding Spotted Owlets isn’t knowing where they hang out: it’s spotting them! […]

Frogs by the garden hose

Introduced species play conspicuous roles in any ecosystem, particularly here in south Florida, the gateway to the Caribbean and most of Latin America. Every few years we hear of the potential for ecological harm posed by the latest introduction, either those that have escaped from captivity, like the walking catfish, Burmese python, or Purple Swamphen; the Everglades ecosystem is still threatened by the intentional introductions of invasive plant species like melaleuca and Brazilian Pepper.

Another widespread exotic species in Florida is Osteopilus septentrionalis, the Cuban Treefrog. It’s the largest treefrog in North America by far, and it’s considered an invasive […]

Florida's marine terraces

In an article last year about Montana de Oro state park in California, I discussed how the land there includes a series of uplifted marine terraces. Those terraces are formed by a combination of geologic uplift at periodic intervals and the eroding action of the shoreline.

Well, here in Florida we’re pretty conversant with the eroding action of the shoreline. But for most of the east coast, at least, the forces of erosion and deposition are pretty much balanced. What the waves take away in the winter, they deposit in the summer, or vice versa. And in parts of the […]


The other day I was talking about spines on palm trees and got to thinking about defensive strategies of plants in general. It seems like there’s a general arms race going on between primary producers (organisms that convert sunlight into energy that sustains them) and primary consumers (organisms that capture that energy by feeding on the primary producers). Since most primary producers are plants and algae, by definition most primary consumers are herbivores. So in order for a plant to pass on its genes to its descendants, it must ensure that it survives long enough to reproduce.

One way to […]

How low are the clouds?

I first set foot in Florida back in 1984, on spring break from my sophomore year of high school. I was accompanying my dad on a plane trip that was to take us from our home in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, located in a basin between the San Gabriel and the Santa Monica mountains, all the way around the perimeter of the lower 48 states: from L.A. south along the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Mexico border, hang a left and go straight along that imaginary line until we hit the Rio Grande, then follow the natural geography […]

When is fall in South Florida?

I mean, really! The leaves of our tropical and subtropical trees aren’t really deciduous, so we can’t rely on the glorious fall defoliation as an indicator. This defoliation, which some people like because it’s preceded by a change in color from healthy chlorophyll green to less healthy oranges, browns, and reds, is caused by hormonal changes in the tree which are in turn triggered by shortened day length and cooler weather. These hormonal changes lead the trees to sever the links between their twigs and their leaves; if you look at the leaf stem, you’ll see the typical abscission marks […]

It’s raining cats and…frogs?

Unfortunately, given the precipitous worldwide population crash among frog populations over the last few years*, even though the rainy season has kicked into high gear here in Florida, I’m not hearing a lot of calling frogs.

Anecdotal evidence is mounting as well. When we first moved into our house in Florida,