Weather vain: ISS lands in Boca

Santa was very kind to me this Christmas. Not only did I get some awesome wardrobe updates (I mean, come on, a "Meet the Beetles" t-shirt from National Geographic! And a matching one in a size that Eric will be before I know it!), I also got some geek kit. Santa must have picked up on my frustration when, a couple of months ago, my previously satisfactory rain gauge from Oregon Scientific began blinking and refusing to send rainfall data. This caused me to miss out on some really big rain days in this El Nino-fired wet dry season, including a couple of big rain days in December, one on the 12th, and another a few days later, in the run-up to Christmas. Apparently several other people have experienced this same phenomenon with the Oregon Scientific device, and were dissatisfied with the company's response, so I didn't even bother contacting customer service. I decided to move on to bigger and better things, as soon as I could afford to. And Santa took affordability right out of my personal equation of time. [The actual equation of time correlates apparent and mean solar times (you know, the problem of local noon: the sun is rarely exactly overhead when the clock reads 12:00); my own personal equation of time correlates perceived need, actual need, available funds, and how long I need to wait before I can purchase an item where actual need is quite a bit less than perceived need. Read more

Christmas party

Our neighbors across the street threw a Christmas party last night, and as luck would have it, it was one of the rainiest afternoon/evenings in recent memory. The streets were flooded, and I really regret not having been able to mow the lawn before the rain started... But, luck tends to even out. This morning dawned bright and beautiful, and since Eric wouldn't let me sleep, I decided to take him outside to enjoy the morning as only he knows how: splashing through puddles! (Last night as we went home from the party he spent about 5 minutes stomping through the Überpuddle, the puddle of all puddles, the one puddle to rule them all and in the darkness drown them). This morning's puddle, by contrast, was quite tame, although he got to spend as long he wanted in them: He got to splash to his heart's content because Daddy was distracted by yet another spectacle of Urban Nature. Although the puddles had receded, the local ant colony decided that now was the time to go for it. Now was the time to hold their own holiday party, to boldly go forth in answer to nature's call: Click on the photo to see the larger version; small flying insects, unless they form swarms of truly ginormous proportion, simply don't photograph all that impressively. But even so, you can see that there was something going on here. There must have been several hundred little winged ants all trying to find two precious commodities: a mate and a place to nest. After all, the purpose of the mating flight is, well, to mate. Here is how Hölldobler and Wilson (1994) describe the mating flight of one common ant of the eastern United States:
At five o'clock on a sunny afternoon, if rain has recently fallen and if the air is still warm and humid, vast swarms of virgin queens and males emerge from the Lasius neoniger nests and fly upward. For an hour or two the air is filled with the winged ants, meeting and copulating while still aloft. Many end up splattered on windshields. Birds, dragonflies, robber flies, and other airborne predators also scythe through the airborne ranks. Some individuals stray far out over lakes, doomed to alight on water and drown. As twilight approaches the orgy ends, and the last of the survivors flutter to the ground. The queens scrape off their wings and search for a place to dig their earthen nest. Few will get far on this final journey. They must pass through a terrible gauntlet of birds, toads, assassin bugs, ground beetles, centipedes, jumping spiders, and other hunters of such vulnerable prey. Most deadly of all are worker ants, including those of the ubiquitous Lasius neoniger, always on the alert for territorial intruders.
Change the date (around Labor Day for L. neoniger, around Christmas for my neighborhood ants), change the time (this flight was well underway by 7:30 a.m., and didn't last much past 9), and the above description applies pretty darn well to these Florida ants. Below is a detail from a photo that showed three such scenes within about 3 square feet: Almost all castes are present: the winged reproductive hopeful, who appears to have run out of luck, the large soldier ants, and the small worker ants. These latter two castes appear intent on making a meal of what I can only assume is their queen's offspring. Nature red in tooth and claw, indeed! But these reproductive ants aren't all that aggressive; I allowed several to land on me in hopes of getting a decent photograph with some sense of the scale of the animals, and not one of them so much as offered to bite; not so the sneaky little mosquitoes who tried to impose on my hospitality in the same manner. Those, I swatted. I may be OK with most insects, and I understand the role the mosquito has to play, but I draw the line at willingly providing these ladies a blood meal. The long passage I quoted above from Hölldobler and Wilson talks about ants furiously copulating in midair. This subtropical species doesn't seem to hold with that; I couldn't find a single mated pair, although I wasn't able to search as intensively as I'd have liked. Myrmecologists are not advised to bring their adorable toddlers with them into the field, particularly when that field is a sidewalk next to a street. The church at the end of the block disgorges swarms of vehicle traffic directly into our street, and the early mass ended right around the time Eric saw his opportunity to reenact Splashdance. Thus, yet another adventure of this urban naturalist was curtailed, but not scuttled. At least I got some pictures! I've posted the pictures to, but despite the great success I've had with the folks there, I don't have high hopes of anyone being able to identify these ants to species, or even to genus. I simply couldn't get a good enough close-up of these guys, and I'm not big into capturing insects, even in the interests of research. And really, I'm not doing research on these guys. I'm just noticing them and their ant-ics as an interesting addition to the fauna of my neighborhood. [UPDATE: the folks at bugguide have given me some leads, and what looks like a solid identification! A Mr. James Trager tells me: "Can't tell the species from the pictures, but the waist of two segments plus two distinct sizes and shapes of workers clinches the genus for the Florida ant fauna. If this is the common one in urban southern Florida Pheidole as you note, then likely the non-native, invasive Ph. megacephala. The winged one is a female."]

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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 that indicate that the autumn leaf wasn't ripped from the tree by the force of the wind; it's more like the tree was pushing the leaf off, and the wind just encouraged it to meet its fate... No, we here in Florida don't have this visual cue. What we have, as you can see in this post from the South Florida Watershed Journal (one of my favorite Florida blogs), is a temperature boundary. Robert V. Sobczak has a fabulous graphic that shows how the 60-degree line advances slowly across the state from north to south. By this definition, fall won't hit Boca for a few weeks! We did get an early precursor of its arrival in the middle of October, but we certainly didn't get the "typical" fall arrival that I predicted (because, you see, I based my prediction on my memory rather than the data). I always tell people that I never thought I'd wind up in Florida, but now that I'm here, I don't want to be anywhere else between Halloween and Easter. Well, make that Thanksgiving and Easter, now! Fall starts late down here! This week the weather has begun to moderate somewhat; we're finally coming down from the record heat (daytime highs from the high 80s to low 90s in November!) to "normal" temperatures, but, as that graphic shows, we have a ways to go before we feel the full blast of fall. Brrr. 60s!

New moon tonight

If you go down to the observing pad tonight aiming for faint fuzzies, you're in for a good 'un. At least, as long as it's not a cloudy night. Because tonight, we are at the new moon (image from the USNO website here): Since the moon's sunlit half will be facing away from us tonight, there will be no moonlight to wash out the nebulae, galaxies, etc. (collectively known as faint fuzzies) on which amateur astronomers lavish so much of their time and attention. Or, if you're so inclined, you might like to check out Uranus (no potty jokes, please!), which is now only one day past opposition. It moves slowly in its own orbit, but once we pass it on our inside track, it recedes fairly quickly. Whatever you choose to do, enjoy! The weather's cooling off here; I felt it last night! Evenings are becoming tolerable out of doors. Hurrah!

If it weren’t for all the rain…

When my wife and I visited Scotland more years ago than readers of this blog are invited to think about, we got great enjoyment from a weather reporter reminding us, in her bonnie Scots burr: "Remember--if it weren't for all the rain, there wouldn't be so many rainbows." As tourists, we were still able to enjoy the spring showers, pedaling up Arthur's Seat on rented bikes, gazing out over the Firth of Forth, wishing we had the budget to rent a car and really get a feel for the countryside. The rain didn't dampen our spirits at all, even though it did curtail our activities a little bit. And I got a reminder of that time this morning, driving in to work. The morning drizzle had the freeway backed up, but at least the cars were moving. The sun was out, playing peekaboo through the clouds, the rain was coming down through that delicious sideways illumination you can only get early in the morning or right before sunset, when the rays from the sun shine horizontally through the cloud deck. And even though I was a bit late for work, once I did arrive, I got to see a sight that always brings a smile to my face: a rainbow! Seems I only ever get a chance to snap rainbow shots with my cellphone camera, through some seriously reflective glass! This shot is taken from the plane as I'm about to return from Boston last year: potogold For more on rainbows, see my earlier post. For those of you who are technically minded, you might enjoy this page with a Java applet demonstrating the physics of rainbows, or this one that provides a narrative account of those physics.

What do the plants know that I don’t?

All of the plants in our yard are in outrageous bloom or fruit this summer. Our ixora hedge (non-native) has never had so many lovely pink blossoms. Our areca palm (also non-native) has never thrown off so many juicy (but inedible to me and all the birds too) nuts; it took several wheelbarrows full to cart them off after I realized that they were never going to stop dropping onto our driveway, littering our sidewalk, and making it impossible to walk around in bare feet. The natives are getting into the act as well. Our ground-hugging cocoplums are fruiting like there's going to be no tomorrow; our American beautyberry is loaded; while our strongbark and bitterbush in the back yard are throwing up huge loads of drupes. All of this activity is a bit unnerving. Part of me wants to believe that it just means I'm finally becoming a decent gardener. Another part of me, though, points to the years and years of proof to the contrary and looks for a different answer. I wonder if the plants have some way of knowing that it's really going to be a bad hurricane season, despite the eerie, El Niño-induced calm that has prevailed so far, and despite the recently lowered forecast by the god Dr. Gray. That would explain why they're throwing all their energy into reproduction: somehow they know they're not going to be around much longer themselves, and they're doing their best for the survival of their genes... Boy, I hope there's another, less end-of-the-world explanation. Something like the fact that the garden has been in for a little over 2-1/2 years now, and the plants have finally settled in and are getting down to business? Nah, can't be as simple as that.

Saturday Stroll-with rain

This morning's stroll, according to the radar, should have been safe. It had been raining off and on all night, but the radar images clearly showed that the rain bands that had been coming on shore all morning were petering out, and the last ones had already moved through our area. Heh. So much for technology. If you want to know whether it's going to rain: look outside! Unfortunately, I neglected to do that, so our morning stroll was quite a bit wetter than I'd expected. We spent most of the walk huddled under a palm tree at the new park up the street from us; our umbrella was able to cover Eric and about half of one of us... Read more

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Park substitutes

Broward County parks are closed on Tuesdays, so Fern Forest is off limits. On my intermittent searches for a substitute park, I've run across some pretty nice places. Windmill Park, on Lyons Road just north of Atlantic (less than a mile from Fern Forest, actually), is OK. Today, though, I went back to the first park I visited when I started working at the soon-to-be-vacated office location: Hampton Pines Park, in North Lauderdale. It's just a few miles west on McNab Road. Read more

Fall foliage. In Florida?

Sure! Everyone who's ever spent time in subtropical Florida has heard the popular wisdom that there are only two seasons: wet and dry. But after you've been here for a while, it's possible to make out some subtle reminders of the pattern in temperate latitudes. They're just not as noticeable, and they usually come a little bit later. For example, the leaves do change color. Here's a Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) with the leaflets starting to turn rusty: In a month or two, when the cypress trees leaf out again, the leaflets look like this: Read more

The great outdoors – in my backyard!

Most of the people who know me would agree that I'm pretty much a homebody. Sure, from time to time you'll catch me on a nature walk at Yamato Scrub, or leading a field trip for the local Audubon Society. And as a birder, I'm not immune to the temptation to drive all over creation chasing a rarity. And I'm even occasionally to be found in India. But for various reasons (new paternal duties, the price of gas, the desire to avoid damaging the environment, even just plain old personality), I prefer to stay at home and try to bring the birds to me. With this in mind, a couple of years ago we removed most of our typical south Florida home vegetation and replaced it with mostly native plants designed to attract birds and butterflies. Our yard list is small but growing, and staying around the house allows me to observe more of the many nonavian orders of life than I would if I were constantly on the move searching for birds. For example, this morning as my clippers were poised to trim back a bit of the Coral Bean (Erythrina herbacea) from the side of the house, my attention was captured by a new lizard species. Well, it's not new to science, or even to me, but it is the first time I've noticed it in our backyard. We've got our share of other non-native herpetofauna: the abundant Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei) and the even more abundant Northern Curlytail (Leicocephalus carinatus). In fact, there's a curlytail living in our garage that we're practically on a first-name basis with. He's a giant! And he's so used to us that he'll barely even move as we tromp toward him on our way to the refrigerator or the laundry. Today, however, marks the first time I've found the largest non-native anole in south Florida in our backyard. Read more
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