Dragonflies and damselflies returning to the yard

After a dry beginning to March (and no rain since then, but at least the heat's moderated a bit for the past few days), the odonates have started returning to the yard, just in time for the equinox! One or two of them run into mishaps:
Watch where you fly! Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) served up for breakfast to a spiny-backed orb weaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis). Boca Raton, FL, March 18, 2015.

Watch where you fly! Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) served up for breakfast to a spiny-backed orb weaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis). Boca Raton, FL, March 18, 2015.

but by and large they are still the most formidable airborne insect predators out there. Most of them sprint to safety as I approach, although the Blue Dasher is often more docile,
Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Boca Raton, FL, March 19, 2015.

Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Boca Raton, FL, March 19, 2015.

as is a chilly Eastern Pondhawk in the early morning:
Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

The smaller and daintier damselflies are generally more approachable with a camera even after the sun has warmed them up a little; after the "chill" of the morning burns off, most of my dragonflies sprint away as I approach. Damselflies, on the other hand, sit still so you can sneak up on them. And, if you look at the bottom of the photo below, other creatures have little difficulty approaching as well.
Rambur's Forktail (Ischnura ramburii). Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

Rambur's Forktail (Ischnura ramburii). Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

Since I didn't notice the spider until after I'd come inside to view the photos on the screen, I have no idea what kind it is. Presumably a flower spider of some sort; it's quite small, given that the damselfly is no colossus itself. Happy first day of spring!

Atalas in November

It seems that every November the Atalas cruise through my neighborhood. There are supposed to be several broods per year, but each and every documented sighting I have had on my property has been in the month of November. And last December I installed their larval host plant, coontie (Zamia pumila), so they might have a reason to stay:
Florida coontie (Zamia punila). Boca Raton, FL, November 24, 2014.

Florida coontie (Zamia punila). Boca Raton, FL, November 24, 2014.

Of course, not every butterfly that stays is happy to have done so:
Atala (Eumaeus atala) hairstreak butterfly. Boca Raton, FL, November 13, 2014.

Atala (Eumaeus atala) hairstreak butterfly that has seen better days. Boca Raton, FL, November 13, 2014.

Looks to me like the spider got it all wrapped up and then decided that the chemical brew in the butterfly's body wasn't too much fun to ingest. I'm not sure, but that's my working hypothesis. After all, the coontie, a cycad native to Florida, has some nasty chemicals in it to prevent herbivory, but the atala larvae are able to not just neutralize them but use them to their advantage to prevent insectivory! (The cuticle of the larva is apparently "covered with droplets of a bitter-tasting liquid." How do you suppose the researchers found out what it tasted like?) In my yard, the coontie plants on which the life cycle of this butterfly depends are located next to several ready nectar sources, chief among them the butterfly attracter par excellence, Cordia globosa, with its small inflorescences present throughout the year. Here's a shot taken on a windy day:
Atala hairstreak (Eumaeus atala), Boca Raton, FL, November 23, 2014.

Atala hairstreak (Eumaeus atala), Boca Raton, FL, November 23, 2014.

The bright reddish-orange abdomen and the iridescent blues on the dark black wings are eye-catching, to say the least. An unusual survival strategy in nature, unless, like this butterfly, the flashy insect is advertising not just its presence, but its don't-mess-with-me inedibility. The coontie has similar warning signs, with the bright red seeds of the seed cones saying "don't eat me":
Seed cone of the Florida coontie (Zamia punila). Boca Raton, FL, November 24, 2014.

Seed cone of the Florida coontie (Zamia punila). Boca Raton, FL, November 24, 2014.

These warning colors are one way noxious chemicals are signaled to would-be predators or consumers. Wise are they who heed the signs. If you don't know the story of the Atala butterfly and its relationship with its host plant, by all means, go read about it.  

New backyard butterfly: Great Southern White

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.

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 limber caper (Capparis flexuosa). I was surprised, because I wasn't aware that these plants, with their incredible showy flowers, were butterfly host plants. The eggs I saw were small (as butterfly eggs are), slender, yellow, and laid out in attractive little bunches on the leaves. Most butterfly eggs are laid on the bottom of the leaf surface, to protect the developing larva from the sun and, I don't know, lazy predators who don't know how to cruise the underside of a leaf? But what caught my eye this fine morning was a cute little bunch of eggs on the top surface of a tender young leaf:
Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) eggs. Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) eggs. Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

The yellow-and-white pattern was rather striking. It turns out that the yellow was made up of still-occupied eggs, and the white was just the reflection through the translucent remains of some "hatched-out" eggs (eclosed, in technical parlance). These eggs were so small that I really had no idea what I was looking at until I brought the camera inside and looked at the photos on the computer screen. It was only then that I discovered that they were butterfly eggs and not, as I'd first suspected, stink bug eggs, which are also laid in geometric patterns. Once I found out they were caterpillar eggs, I needed to figure out what species they might be. That part was easy: just consult Marc Minno's book on Florida butterfly caterpillars and see which butterflies use Limber Caper as a host plant. Turns out there are only two, Florida White and Great Southern White. And the Florida White's eggs are white, not yellow. Case closed! But, I reasoned, since in this group there were some occupied eggs and some eclosed eggs, there must have been some caterpillars on this here plant that I missed when I was photographing the eggs. So I went back outside to try to find them. And sure enough, I found a whole little community of tiny caterpillars doing their thing:
A whole passel o caterpillars (Ascia monusta, Great Southern White). Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

A whole passel o' caterpillars (Ascia monusta, Great Southern White). Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

They appeared to be busily occupied constructing a little shelter for themselves out of silk, presumably to protect themselves from the numerous ants, lacewings, and other predators in the well-tended garden. (I noticed several lacewing eggs on other parts of this bush.) The caterpillars are quite interesting, with numerous "spikes" (setae), most of which seem to be growing out of the numerous small black sp0ts that adorn the caterpillar's back. It's green and yellow, at least this early in life (first instar); Minno describes the body of later instars as "gray with yellow stripes." Apparently the back of the caterpillar has short tails, but I've been unable to discern any in the photos I've taken so far. Also, it seems that the caterpillars—which right now appear to be quite social, feeding and hanging out  together—start to disperse as they mature, rather like human children. Here's a solo shot:
Ascia monusta (Great Southern White) caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

Ascia monusta (Great Southern White) caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

I'm not quite sure what the droplets on the end of their hairs might be; there was no rain this morning and I hadn't even watered the plants as I often do early in the rainy season when, as now, we've been without rain for a few days. I've posted a question on my go-to site for insect identifications, bugguide.net, and will update this post if I hear anything back. If you're interested in learning more about these butterflies, the Miami Blue chapter of the North American Butterfly Association has a nice write-up on their website. References Minno, M., J. Butler, & D. Hall. (2005). Florida butterfly caterpillars and their host plants. Gainesville, FL: U of Florida P.

New plantings: Forestiera

newplanting-forestiera
For anyone interested in creating a backyard habitat for wildlife, it makes sense to learn everything you can about your own backyard and what kind of plants will thrive there. So this year I joined the Florida Native Plant Society, Palm Beach County chapter. And this week they held their native plant auction, which I attended with the desire to acquire both knowledge and some appropriate plants for my yard. And I came away with both desires satisfied. The auction had groups of plants arranged into themes: butterfly garden plants, grasses, "staples" (i.e. plants for beginners to grow), orchids, etc. I had hoped to get some grasses, but the bidding was too intense for me, so I had to settle for picking up the starter group, which actually contained many plants that I was looking for, and some that I'd never planned to use but am quite happy to have. (I still need a bunch of "normal" native plants, like cocoplum, wild coffee, firebush, etc., that I have in abundance at the old house, but I'm not ready to try my hand at propagating; at least not yet.) There was also a silent auction for some plants that didn't go into the themes, and a few leftovers from their sale table at an event the previous weekend, and I picked up several from each category as well. Over the next few days, I'll tell you about them. The first plant I want to talk about is the first one I put into the ground: Florida-privet, Forestiera segregata. It's a shrub that is perfect for hedging, with tons of tiny little flowers that aren't particularly showy but that are quite attractive to many insect species. And when it fruits, it's rather attractive to birds as well. I'd been trying (quite lazily) to get this plant for some time, so I was quite pleased when a decent-sized one fell into my lap last night. I've got it planted in a nice sunny corner of the yard, and can't wait for it to get established so I can see what it will really look like. After all, it's hard to tell what it will be like from its appearance right now: But when it grows up, it will be an extremely important backyard plant, almost a foundation planting. Rufino Osorio, author of A Gardener's Guide to Florida's Native Plants, and last night's MC at the auction, says:
Both the regular and small-leaved forms make excellent, tough, pest-resistant garden plants. As a result of their stiff, densely leafy branches, Florida-privets make excellent hedge plants that may be trimmed to any desired height or shape. [...] Although the flowers are small and inconspicuous and lack petals, they are sweetly fragrant and provide abundant nectar for an assortment of insects.
Gil Nelson, in Florida's Best Native Landscape Plants, agrees:
The dainty and tidy habit; thick, dense, evergreen foliage; drought and salt tolerance; and edible fruit, which are a superb source for songbirds, make Florida privet an excellent landscape plant. Tolerates pruning and shaping.
About all he can find to complain about is that it is "subject to a few insect pests, but not seriously so." My newest reference, Craig Huegel's Native Plant Landscaping for Florida Wildlife has the best advice, and something I hadn't remembered to check, and will need to address as soon as I find out whether I have a male or female:
[O]nly the females produce the large and dependable crops of 1/4-inch purple fruit that make this such a valuable wildlife plant. [...] Because it is dioecious, it needs to be planted in groups.
My little specimen won't tell me whether it's male or female for some time, so I'll have to leave room in the yard for more of this guy to come in at a later date. Elizabeth Smith, over in Southwest Florida and an excellent blogger whom I just discovered, had a similar experience, as you can see from this beautiful page of one of her gardening journals (click on the image to go to her blog post about it, and explore her site for yourself; it's worth it!): I can't recommend her blog highly enough; I wish I had the talent and energy to sketch as she does. Something to aspire to!

Florida word of the day: pickerelweed

In my day job, I spend a lot of time with my nose in dictionaries and style manuals. And today, while thumbing through Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition* (you see why in the trade we call it MW11), I ran across a headword (MW11 calls them "guide words") that I actually know something about, and, what's more, is on topic for a blog about nature in south Florida: pickerelweed. Here is what the MW team has to say about the plant:
pick·er·el·weed \-,wed**  n (1836) : a shallow-water monocotyledonous perennial plant (Pontederia cordata) chiefly of the eastern U.S. and Canada with large leaves and a spike of purplish-blue flowers
That definition is true enough, but it doesn't go very far. And a picture is worth 1000 words (actually, the MW11 team thought of that, too, but I don't want to scan their line drawing and break copyright; they have the picture on their own website, though, if you want to follow the link): The image above shows the "pickerel" spike, but there's much more to this plant than that. For one thing, the leaves, which, as MW11 admits, are large: For another thing, the common name of the plant, pickerelweed, seems to come from its shape, which one must suppose, is somewhat like that of a pickerel. Whether this quick association makes sense, though, remains to be seen. So let's go see! According to MW11e, a pickerel is either what the Brits call a small pike (sounds reasonable enough), or:
either of two fishes resembling but smaller than than the related northern pike: (1): CHAIN PICKEREL (2): one (Esox americanus) of eastern No. America having green or red fins and a black bar below and slanting away from the eye 2 : WALLEYE 3 [which, if you follow that cross-reference, MW11 tells us is "a large vigorous No. American freshwater food and sport fish (Stizostedion vitreum) that has large opaque eyes and is related to the perches but resembles the true pike—called also walleyed pike
So, as far as I can tell according to MW11e, this plant, Pontederia cordata, must either look like a little British fish or a large vigorous North American fish. Of course, if you follow taxonomic changes, you'll find that the MW11e team is a bit out of date; the walleyed pike is no longer called Stizostedion vitreum, but Sander vitreus. I assume that doesn't change too much about the facts of the case, though: this plant must be the plant that looks like a fish, right? Well, sort of. Actually, opinions vary. Maybe it's a mistake to rely on one dictionary's definition; let's see what the American Heritage team brings to the table:
pick·er·el·weed n. A freshwater plant (Pontederia cordata) of eastern North America, having heart-shaped leaves with long petioles and spikes of violet-blue flowers.
Leaving aside the typographic considerations (AH actually uses periods at the end of their definitions! Hallelujah!), this definition does bring a bit more clarity to the issue. The leaves are described as heart-shaped; MW's team is happy with the vague description "large." AH also mentions that the petioles (what most people think of as "leaf stems") are long; MW doesn't seem to care about this. Then again, MW does provide a picture, which AH doesn't, so maybe they were relying on those 1000 words to flesh out the missing details from their 25-word description. And when it comes right down to it, neither team has defined the plant all that well, despite having 64-dollar words like monocotyledonous or petioles. Many botanical descriptions of the plant are much more helpful, explaining that the leaves are twice as long as they are wide, with heart-shaped BASES, etc. etc. The leaves do bear somewhat of a resemblance to the pickerel fish, although I suspect they look more like the namesake of the pickerel, which is the pike, itself named after its resemblance to the weapon:
A pike

A pike

Or was it the other way around? People were probably catching pikes to eat long before they were making them to keep people beyond sword's length. MW11 tells us that the word for both the fish and the pointy spiky spear date from the 13th century. The Old English word pic, meaning sharp point, might be behind both words. (The verb form, to pike, comes from the French piquer, to prick.) Oh, for a good etymological dictionary! Speaking of which, the OED cites the pike as fish as far back as 1314; pike as sharp point goes back much, much further; pike as weapon dates from about 1275. However, there is another option for the derivation of the name pickerelweed, one which makes at least as much sense as the association between the shape of the leaves and the shape of the pike-weapon or pike-food. According to a blog post by Ken Moore, a North Carolina blogger, "the common name, pickerelweed, refers to the pickerel fish, which feed along the edges of such emergent aquatic vegetation." While I've not independently corroborated Moore's research, this ecologically based derivation makes intuitive sense as well; the namers of things were much closer to the natural world than we are; it seems plausible that they would have named the pickerelweed after its ecological associate, the pickerel fish. Moore's source appears to be Paul Green's Plant Book, which sounds delightful, as it apparently contains
daily observations and conversations with the local folks of the Cape Fear River valley, from Chapel Hill down through Lillington, Fayetteville and beyond. Plants take on a special dimension when accompanied with past and present human association.
Hear, hear! And here is a lovely old illustration of P. cordata from a 19th-century book on lilies that I found on Wikipedia:
from Les liliacées by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Paris, 1802-1816. Stipple-engraving in colour finished by hand after Pierre-Joseph Redouté, engraved by J. Chailly (sheet 342 x 515 mm, under passe-partout).

from Les liliacées by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Paris, 1802-1816. Stipple-engraving in colour finished by hand after Pierre-Joseph Redouté, engraved by J. Chailly (sheet 342 x 515 mm, under passe-partout).

As the Wikipedia entry tells us, the generic name of this plant was applied by Linnaeus himself, in honor of Giulio Pontedera, an Italian botanist from Padua who, ironically, did not accept Linnaeus's system of binomial nomenclature. The italian Wikipedia entry tells us that he is responsible for discovering and naming several plant species ("A lui si deve la scoperta e classificazione di diverse specie di piante; la famiglia botanica delle Pontederiaceae è a lui dedicata."), although the entry doesn't tell us which species he discovered, or whether they retain the names he gave them, since he rejected Linnaean naming conventions. The specific epithet, cordata, means "heart-shaped," which refers to the leaves. (Please don't confuse it with the phylum name chordata, which means, basically "having a notochord"; these plants may look like they have a heart [they wear it on their leaves], but they don't have a nervous system.) Don't rely on the heart-shaped leaf base, though; the leaves can have a distinctly heart-shaped base, or it can be rounded. It's far easier to ID the plant by its pickerel-shaped spike. So pick your favorite explanation for the "pickerel" in pickerelweed: either it's the pike/spike of the flowers, the pike/spike of the leaves, or the pike/pickerel that browses in and around its feet! Either way, it's one of the prettiest flowers in the wetlands. If you're interested in more details about pickerelweed, I recommend the following links: * Disclaimer for the FTC: I bought my own copy of all the dictionaries cited in this article. No one gave me anything, either in money, consideration, or in kind, for this article. **Sorry, I don't have access to the special phonetic characters that should be there, the high-set mark for primary stress, the low-set mark for secondary stress, or the e with a horizontal bar over it that shows how to pronounce that tongue-twister "weed"; if you want to see them, check out the online definition provided by MW. For the same reason, I have not bothered to replicate the phonetic spellings from AH either.

Lizards; little dinosaurs?

During my frequent rambles through Fern Forest, I've run across a number of saurians, both native and non-native. Often they flee at my approach, not trusting the enormous disparity in our sizes to keep them safe. Apparently evolution has favored the flee-from-all-comers approach over the size-em-up approach. Today's walk, though, was pretty special. It got me to thinking about the dino, in addition to the saur... Read more