Garden Duplicity

Dateline:  August 8, 2014*

What is that brown leaf?

When I’m walking around my beautiful wildlife garden, I’m always on the alert for something that just seems out of place.  In the process, I’m often rewarded with some pretty interesting encounters.

Recently I was finishing up the morning tour of the dog area when my eye was drawn to the Bidens alba.  I spotted a brown leaf that seemed completely out of place.  That part of the yard really doesn’t have any deciduous shrubs or trees, but Mother Nature often blows things from far away, so I headed over to see just what was up.

Wait, a leaf with legs?

Imagine my surprise when I saw a couple of legs sticking out of the front.  Meet the Mournful Sphinx Moth (Enyo lugubris).   The larval hosts for this interesting moth are members of the grape family (Vitaceae).  I’m amazed that this is my first encounter with this insect since my yard is a haven for Grapes (Vitus spp.) and Peppervine (Ampelopsis arborea). Cissus is another genus listed as a larval host.

So, yet again I’ve discovered a new member for my buggy life list.  I’m now on the lookout for the caterpillars which, according to a photo I found online is one of those beefy green ones, similar in looks to the hornworms we all love to hate as they nosh on our tomato plants.

Looks like an airplane

I’ve plenty of grapevines and peppervine in the native plant buffet, so this baby is welcome to visit any time.
Come back again, ya’ hear?

A few days later in the early morning while the dew was still twinkling, I was excited to see what I thought was a grass skipper butterfly emerging.  I’ve yet to see the chrysalis of this family, despite there being hundreds of the small butterflies skipping around on the B. alba and frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) most of the year.
Wow, have I finally found an emerging skipper?

The butterfly was hanging upside down from a bloom of some B. alba and appeared to be drying out its wings.  On second glance, I noticed that it had markings unlike any species I had encountered thus far in my life as a bug-aholic.  I snapped a few photos and headed inside to do a little research.
Wait, those antenna look threadlike and there are no knobs

On closer examination of the photos, I realized that is was a moth, not a butterfly. The antennas of moths vary from thread- or bead-like type to saw-toothed or comb-like, or occasionally feathery. Butterflies sport knobs at the end of their antenna.  This one had threadlike antenna.
Drying wings to take flight?

The North American Moth Photographers Group is a favorite Website of mine to view thumbnails. Hosted by Mississippi State University, I generally can quickly find a match for species unknown to me since one of the contributors features moths of Central Florida.  There I discovered my newfound friend is a Diaphania Moth (Diaphania modialis). This species is a member of the Crambid Snout Moth family (Crambidae).
The larval host, Melothria pendula, sometimes grows along my fenceline

The HOSTS database lists creeping cucumber as a larval host for this species.  I haven’t seen any of this delicate vine growing in my yard this year, but it has shown up in years past, so it is in the neighborhood.  The vine has fruits that look like miniature cucumbers.  Hopefully the moth’s caterpillars stick to this Florida native vine and aren’t indulging in my neighbors veggie garden cukes.

So, why didn’t this “butterfly” take off when the crazy paparazzi lady got close?  A review of the photos told the tale.  Poor moth was in the clutches of a spider.  Ahhh, the food chain in action.

Aha! mystery solved. CAUGHT!

I suppose I need to thank the spider since I doubt that I would have encountered the moth without his (her?) help.  Another entry on the never-ending buggy life list.  Isn’t nature grand?
Never ending nature

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 8, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.


Feeling Sluggish

I encountered a Florida native slug this week (shown above) so thought it was a good time to dust off and republish my lost article on these interesting decomposers.

Dateline: September 2, 2011*

I live in Florida for seven years now and this week I saw my very first slug. Two in one week! Slugs are mollusks similar to snails but without an external shell.

Introducing the Florida leatherleaf slug (Leidyula floridana), a critter native to our fair state. Initially thought to be endemic to Central and Southern Florida, it has since spread northward and has also been found in Louisiana, Texas and northern Mexico which could indicate that it was found in more areas than the original records indicate or that it was spread via transport of goods from state to state.

Florida Leatherleaf Slug

This fellow (gal?) was a whopping 3.5-4 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. Slugs are hermaphrodites so I suppose it is a little of both! These critters are said to mostly live in natural, undisturbed habitats and as such are not of economic consequence. They rarely reach pest status although they do eat crops and ornamentals, given the opportunity. They have two pairs of tentacles, with the larger, upper pair bearing visual organs and the lower used for scent.

Their primary job is decomposition so I’m thinking that they are a good ally to have around. I discovered the first one underneath my sit-on-top kayak when I was dumping out some water. I wasn’t even exactly sure what it was, since it was in a “contracted” state. That is pretty much flat on the ground. The second was discovered by Chili, the Irish Setter who was nosing at it on the patio early in the morning where it was lounging in dampness along the drip-line from the gutter. Dampness must be their thing and appears to be vital to their habit needs.

Slug in contracted state, they flatten themselves out

Eaten by ducks, moles and shrews, a few other birds may partake in this <gag> delicacy. Other natural predators would be larvae from some insects, fungi and protozoa. Other species of slugs are eaten by frogs, toads, turtles, salamanders and snakes. Although mostly herbivores, there are some carnivorous species that will dine on other slugs or earthworms. They have their place in the food chain but I’m glad there is a huge gap between the links of slug and man.

The are quick to right themselves if flipped over

I flipped it on its back to get a look at the bottom and it was quick to twist and squirm right back over to right itself. The one on the patio didn’t seem to leave a slime trail like I remember those in New York doing. At any rate, rather than chance slime on the Irish setter, I gathered up my new found friend and placed him (her?) in the “dog free” area where it will hopefully break down some of the endless amounts of grass cuttings that are so typical of rainy season in Florida (it just never STOPS GROWING!) A little research indicates that they generally do leave a slime trail, so I must just have had a “Felix Unger” type. Lucky me!

The bottoms are smooth. This one covered in clippings it is breaking down

Once again I find another species in my beautiful wildlife garden. Nature never ceases to amaze me with the vast fauna it provides.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on September 2, 2011 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Nothing Goes to Waste in a Wildlife Garden

I often don’t leave my property for days at a time. That gave a Common Ground-Dove (Columbina passerina) time to build a nest alongside the driveway gatepost in a tangle of Saltbush. It flushed out the other day when I was headed to the vet with Louie, the new Labrador rescue family member.

First there was one egg

I was out and about several time since and I guess the dove didn’t like the constant disruption of the gate opening and closing for it seemed to me as of yesterday that the two tiny bright white eggs had been abandoned.

Wait, you don’t look like a ground dove

Today as I was cleaning up after the dogs I noticed some movement by the nest. I crept over to get a closer look and was surprised by what I found staring back at me. A colorful Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus). A very BEEFY, colorful corn snake.

A snake that goes by many common names: Eastern Corn Snake, Corn Snake, Chicken Snake, Red Rat Snake (Pantherophis guttatus)

I could see that it already had eaten an egg by the bulge 10 or so inches down its sleek length. Corn snakes are generally 18-44 inches but can grow to as long as 7 feet. I’d say that this one was about 3.5-4 foot or so and noticed that the tail was blunted, obviously bitten off by something larger up the food chain.

Great markings on the bottom of this beefy snake

The snake was quite tolerant of the photo shoot but when I reached in to move some leaves in the way it backed down the tangle of Florida native Saltbush (Baccharis halimifolia) that the dove had chosen as a home. I glanced in the nest and it was empty.

Given the bird’s leeriness of me (I’m harmless, I swear), it probably was for the best all around. I don’t think the eggs were being properly incubated given the amount of time mom had been spending away from the nest. Even if I was 20 to 30 feet away the bird was flushing out to take cover across the street. When I mowed the driveway the other day Momma bird was gone for an hour or more.

Pretty good length. I see them crossing the road sometimes, but they are not usually this big.

So, Mother Nature found a solution. Snakes need to eat and what better choice than abandoned nest eggs. Now I just hope that the snake is feeling full enough that it doesn’t seek out the new Cardinal babies that are growing daily over in the Wax Myrtle.

The Biodiversity of a Single Native Plant

My thistle is blooming this week so I thought it was a good time to dust off an old article about this great beneficial plant.

Dateline: April 19, 2013*

Nuttall’s Thistle (Cirsium nuttallii)

In my garden, I always savor the often unheralded plants.  Plants that many remove from their own landscapes because they are unattractive “weeds”.  If you remove Thistle (Cirsium spp.), you are missing out on experiences better than any action movie.

About 5 foot tall

Meet Nuttall’s Thistle (Cirsium nuttallii) a resident of my landscape.  This guy took forever to bloom, starting out with dirt hugging basal leaves about 12 inches in diameter.  Slowly it began reaching for the skies, eventually becoming eye to eye with me.  Five foot tall (or short depending on who’s doing the measuring).

A plethora of wasps were seen

I patiently waited as this larval host for Painted Lady Butterflies (Vanessa cardui)  and the little Metalmark butterfly (Calephelis virginiensis) slowly grew to produce one of the most abundant food provider of any Florida Native Plant I have encountered in my garden.  I’m still searching daily for caterpillars, but they are elusive at this point, that or with the way this plant can stick you, I’m reluctant to get stabbed in the search.

A delicate native meadow flower, but watch out, the spines hurt!

What I did find is somewhat awe-inspiring.   I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.


Some consider aphids pests, but they feed many up the food chain

Ladybugs eggs

Ladybugs lay their eggs where they know there will be an adequate supply of aphids to feed the young

lady bug larvae

The ladybug larvae have voracious appetites

ladybug pupa

Turning from larvae to adult is this ladybug pupa

small ladybugs

tiny ladybugs

big lady bugs

Big ladybugs

spotless lady bugs

Big spotless ladybugs (technically lady beetles)

Assassin bugs

Jagged Ambush Bugs (Phymata fasciata)

Jagged Ambush Bug (Phymata fasciata) munches on another tiny anthropod

Wasps of various shapes and sizes

Paper Wasp

Paper wasps

Ichneumon Wasp (Therion morio) use moth larvae as its host.

Ichneumon Wasp (Therion morio)

Cuckoo Wasps:

Cuckoo Wasps stand out with their pretty blue coloring

Some type of Diptera, likely a flesh fly whose Larvae parasitize bees, cicadas, termites, grasshoppers/locusts, millipedes, earthworms, and snails. Adults have a sweet tooth choosing nectar, sap, fruit juices and as this guy likely is, honeydew produced by the aphids.


Chalcidid Wasp (possibly Conura spp.) use butterfly and moth pupa as diet, but also will parasitize beetles and flies and some are secondary parasites of Ichneumon and Braconid Wasps.

Chalcid wasp

Velvet ants (Dasymutilla spp.) are not ants, they are wasps.

Leaf-footed Bugs (Leptoglossus phyllopus) are a common visitor to thistle, and while a pest, if it hangs out on the thistle, it isn’t sucking the life out of your citrus.

There are always some pests, but other beneficials keep them in check

Various stink bugs, both pests and predatory beneficials.

predatory stink bugs GOOD GUYS!

There are sure to be more species to come and I’ll venture to guess that the birds are waiting in the wings, so to speak, too reap the benefits of this amazing provider.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on April 19, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

What Does Weed Mean To You?

I saw my first Southern White Butterfly of the season this week…apt because the Virginia Pepperweed, a larval host is in full bloom. I also saw that the Plantain is sprouting, as is the Cudweed. That brings about the onslaught of pesky weed and feed commercials popping up on television. According to them I should be eliminating those lovely native larval hosts from my garden in favor of some biological desert of a lawn.

It brought to mind an article I wrote a few years ago that is worth repeating. Food for thought (and future pollinators).

Dateline:  January 31, 2014*

Monarch butterfly on Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)

I’m one who cringes when anyone calls a native plant a weed.  Given the top definition in the dictionary, it has such a derogatory sound to it:

Weed:  (wēd)
1. A plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one that grows where it is not wanted and often grows or spreads fast or takes the place of desired plants.
2. An aquatic plant or alga, especially seaweed.
3. Something considered useless, detrimental, or worthless.
4. Slang
a. Tobacco.
b. A cigarette.
c. Marijuana.

I understand the “troublesome” part and perhaps even the “unattractive” part, but the “undesirable” moniker is what really rubs me the wrong way when it comes to targeting native plants.

Ok, you don’t want a lot of stragglers growing in your formal garden, I get that, but to kill off a whole species of plants, just to get the look of a carpet in the front yard seems ridiculous to me.

Lately, the term “weed” has a happier connotation (see definition #4c above), at least in my mind. Super Bowl XLVIII (Seattle v. Denver) is “The Weed Bowl”. It brings back memories of the ‘70s although it might not have much to do with gardening, unless you are running a grow house for recreational marijuana in the two states that the Football Conference winners hail from.  😉

Now, more importantly, since so many so-called “weeds” are larval hosts for butterflies and native insects, this is what “weed” means to me:

This might be what is there

but I see this Buckeye Butterfly

Cudweed might be what is growing

but I envision this American Lady

It might look like pepperweed to you but it looks like a southern white butterfly to me
A ground cover of Frogfruit might be offensive to some But I only see White Peacocks fluttering around

Whenever doubting that some wild growth in the garden bed is a good thing, think about this quote by Eeyore:

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” –A. A. Milne (1882-1956)

and, for more than just nectar….food for growth.

So before you head out with the weed and feed, think about where have all the butterflies gone?…Food for thought.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 31, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

The Hills are Alive at my House…the Beneficial Mole!

Dateline:  October 22, 2010*

If you are bothered by the mounds left by moles, consider planting a native ground cover such as Frogfruit (Phyla Nodiflora) which will disguise them and is a larval host for many butterflies and nectar for all pollinators

I was getting ready to give my Irish setter a piece of my mind because there was digging at the fence….a no-no. It didn’t seem to be her usual “let’s bury the human” size hole, merely scratching along the surface. As I continued to walk along, I felt the earth move under my feet which is always a sign that my friends the moles are doing their thing. To me, moles are a good thing since I found out they eat ants…I really dislike ants (except for the ones that go marching two by two…hurrah, hurrah!)

I continued walking, looking under the bayberry for signs of the box turtle, another possible digging friend. I refreshed my memory of a year ago by looking at some pictures recently and realized that the turtle was around at this time of year. And sometime closer to our winter I found turtle eggs…alas they never hatched. Perhaps victims of the hard freeze.

I noticed a creature in the brush, obviously not moving. At first I thought it was a bird and looked suspiciously at my English setter. He’s caught a bird or two in his time….hey, he’s a bird dog, but it was always in the dog area, not back in the bird area. I got closer, plastic bag in hand, shoo’d away the Irish (who was looking for trouble) and got a closer look at a newly deceased mole (Scalopus aquaticus). A sad event, but nature taking its course. Now it may just be that the English setter got it, although he usually runs around with his “prizes”, but this one looked relatively unscathed, so my thought is that perhaps a hawk dropped it from the heavens. Plenty of those around my area.

My friend from Minnesota managed to capture this guy visiting her planter….how timely…Thanks Lynn!

I didn’t know a heck of a lot about moles, except they are a little on the ugly side, so I read a bit about them this past spring when they were quite evident at my place. I learned they are not rodents, but mammals, mostly insectivores, although may eat an occasional small animal. They live underground and based on most of what I found online, people are on a mission to try and kill them. Why? because they cause aesthetic damage to precious lawns. Give me a break!

update July 2018. FINALLY saw a live mole digging its way through the groundcovers.

moleJuly2018ALet’s be realistic, and come to terms with the fact that they can be quite beneficial to a beautiful wildlife garden. They aerate the soil for free, provide housing for some critters, entertainment for others (my friend’s dog can wag for hours at the end of a mole tunnel) and eat insects that probably are damaging the roots of your plants. According to University of Florida IFAS Extension ”moles eat mole crickets; beetle larvae (white grubs, wire worms, etc.); ants and ant brood; moth larvae and pupae (cutworms and armyworms); and slugs.” Sounds like the perfect houseguest to me. Further, they write: “The damage caused by moles is almost entirely cosmetic. Although moles are often falsely accused of eating the roots of grass and other plants, they actually feed on the insects causing the damage. The tunneling of moles may cause some physical damage to the root systems of ornamental or garden plants and may kill grass by drying out the roots, but this damage is usually minor.”

My question is, just when did it become acceptable to kill God’s creatures purely for aesthetic reasons?

Mole hills can be the perfect place to plant wildflower seeds into nicely aerated soil.

In my crawl across the web I found one humane wildlife control and prevention company “The Skunk Whisper” (update for 2018: now called “The Wildlife Whisperer Wildlife Control”) who seems to have realistic prevention ideas (IMHO) including: “When landscaping your property you might consider choosing a native grass that is heat and drought tolerant, a grass that will not require so much moisture near the surface. The same principle applies to which plants and flowers you choose for your property. Landscaping that moves moisture deeper into the soil will not prevent moles but the damage done by the moles will be deeper down thus helping preserve the beauty of your lawn and flower beds.”

Moles don’t eat plants. Consider planting a meadow as a disguise if the hills bother you

I have a few ideas of my own. Plant a few different wildflowers, sedges or ground covers instead of a monoculture of one alien grass that needs to be chopped at an unrealistic even height of 3.5 inches. The hills are less evident in a meadow of glorious life producing natives. Mole hills make the perfect area to drop native wildflower or ground cover seed. Just sprinkle the seed and tamp down a bit in the lovely aerated soil. The hill is gone and the seed has been easily sown. Your future reward will be a meadow of color, from flowers and butterflies and other pollinators which will hide that “ghastly” unkempt looking “mountain”.

Loret is a member of the Florida Native Plant Society who maintains a natural, beautiful wildlife garden in Central Florida.

*This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 22, 2010 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

It’s a Girl! Why Sex Matters in a Wildlife Garden

Dateline:  October 15, 2010*

Female Myrica cerifera rich with fruit

Have you ever been walking through a nursery and noticed a plant which has a pink ribbon attached? It probably is a dioecious species. Yes, believe it or not, plants have sexuality. Some plants are monoecious meaning they have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Examples of monoecious trees would be oak or cypress. Now dioecious flowered means that the male and female are on separate plants. That’s why some nurseries put the ribbon on to distinguish them.

I discovered this fall that my newest sapling, a dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) expertly planted by an unknown birdy is a female! Oh JOY!

What’s the big deal, you might ask. Well, trees have different roles in the garden. Pollinated female-only trees often set a lot of seed and fruits—perfect for feeding wildlife. Some gardeners, certainly not this one, consider this “messy”. If you hire a landscaper to install and maintain your plants, you might just find out he chooses all males because cleanup will be minimal. However, wildlife will suffer because the males don’t produce the abundant fruits and you might suffer because many all-male flowered plants produce tons of pollen which will send an allergy-prone human reeling.

Of course, as a beautiful wildlife garden-owner your smart choice would be the female plants and you would never consider cleaning up dropped fruit…that’s what birds and mammals are for. Whatever they don’t pick up will work towards fertilizing the plant by breaking down into the soil and providing nutrients for the next crop.

An older, female Ilex cassine has beautiful red fruits, a favorite with birds

Now let’s talk about the fact that some of the all-male plants produce copious amounts of pollen. Thomas L. Ogren has written a book called Allergy-Free Gardening: The Revolutionary Guide to Healthy Landscaping (2000, Ten Speed Press). It outlines the Ogren Plant-Allergy Scale (OPALS™) created to rate the allergy potential of certain plants. Plants are assigned a rating of 1 to 10 to measure their allergenicity, or potential to cause problems for allergic people. Most allergenic effects of plants were taken into consideration in the OPALS™ rating: reaction to contact with leaves and sap, reactions to odor, and effects of inhaled pollen. Plants assigned a 1 on the scale are least likely to cause allergenic reactions in most people, whereas trees assigned a 10 should be regarded as highly allergenic. For instance, a male Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) is rated 9 whereas a female plant is rated 2. A male holly (Ilex spp.) is rated 7 whereas a female is rated 1.  In these two cases, females have less allergy potential than their male counterparts.

Although it has no fruits, this male Myrica cerifera is perfect cover for wildlife and a pretty backdrop for taller plants like the goldenrod and bluestem grass shown here

For a plant to truly be beneficial to your beautiful wildlife garden, you need a combo of both males and females. Keep in mind that one male can go a long way in pollinating females, so you could conceivably plant one male far away from the house or outdoor living space to avoid the pollen blanket and then plant several females close by to enjoy the wildlife viewing experience. Then again, maybe your neighbor has a landscaper who planted males to avoid cleanup and you could just plant females and get free “stud” services. Your neighbors will be scratching their heads wondering why all the birds and other critters are running around your place while their yard sits relatively unoccupied. Buy a box of tissues as a thank you…just don’t explain why!

Additional select references:
University of Florida IFAS Exension Publication #FOR 206

Related Posts with Thumbnails*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 15, 2010 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

When Choosing Plants, Think Food Chain

Some years ago when I began writing for a national wildlife gardening blog, I wrote from the standpoint of my personal observations and over the years I have learned and evolved in my way of gardening based on those observations. Below is the very first article I wrote and one of which I am most proud.

It still holds true today as evidenced in the “featured photo” above taken in 2016 which shows the larva of a ladybug eating the pupa of a leaf eating beetle that had dined on the Florida native Goldenrod plant shown. Years ago I may have tossed the beetles in their active leaf-eating stage into soapy water, thinking they were ruining my plants. As I observe the food chain in action, I have learned the importance of leaving them to feed others higher up since if you break the chain at any point someone further up suffers.

Dateline:  October 8, 2010*

Caterpillars of Automeris io moth

I do outreach events for the local chapter of The Florida Native Plant Society. This is our busiest time of year as the weather turns cooler and delightfully breezy.

This past weekend we were at the local Home Depot, sharing our space with Audubon as we often do. I always bring a few live bugs or small garden critters to serve as a conversation starter in how to go about creating a beautiful wildlife garden. It gets kids interested in plants and keeps their attention while I talk to the parents about biodiversity.

I only had about five minutes to locate my “friends” in the early morning hours when things are wet and critters aren’t as plentiful, but I managed to gather a treefrog, a lynx spider and a white peacock butterfly, who was just emerging. Into their display cases they went with proper moisture and plant materials.

When things slowed down at the event, Larry, the president of the Kissimmee Audubon who is also a Native Plant Society member and I got to talking. He said that he was amazed at what I find in my yard to get the conversation flowing. He remarked that not many people could do as I did the week before and bring seven different species to an event without struggling to find them.

That hunt on a single area of Bidens Alba and some native mallow species took me about 15 minutes resulting in finding a praying mantis, two different butterflies, soldier beetles, a spider, and a treefrog. I added a grasshopper which I found on a citrus tree and I only stopped because I ran out of display containers.

Afternoon events are always easier to supply because the bugs are enjoying the sun and are plentiful. Our discussion continued in how planting for butterflies is good but having a lot of different plants in a garden to support all types of native insects is critical in being sustainable and providing for a more diverse array of wildlife.

Birds like all caterpillars, not just those of the butterflies. Consider planting some native plants that support moth caterpillars. You’ll feel less upset about the caterpillars being devoured. I don’t want to give the moths a complex by pointing out that some are not as pretty as a butterfly, but if I see a bird near my Cowbane (Tiedemannia filiformis), I get a little uneasy feeling that perhaps he is eating a potential Black Swallowtail Butterfly. Alternately, if I see a bird on a Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) I enjoy the encounter without much concern that a possible looper moth is being digested. Ok, so I’m a little shallow.  😉

I guess the point is that not every critter is going to be something that you want to hug or photograph but they may be the food for something that you want to hug, photograph or observe in your own beautiful wildlife garden.

Clearly an onslaught of stinging caterpillars (Automeris io (shown above)) on an Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) can be a frightening encounter. But if you wait a day or two to see a fattened anole playfully running up and down the branches of the tree you’ll have expanded your wildlife viewing experience. And you’ll be relieved to observe that the majority of the leaves may still be intact. In the world of native plants, nature tends to keep a balance.

Loret is a retired, transplanted New Yorker. She resides on an acre of land in a rural central Florida community called Holopaw with her three sporting dogs. She is a member of The Pine Lily Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society which encourages others to plant native plants in order to reap the benefits of a beautiful wildlife garden and avoid spreading invasive exotics into our natural areas. 

*This is tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 8, 2010 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Timmmmmmmberrrrrrrrrr! Yet, Not the End of the Road

Dateline:  January 7, 2011*

Pine Warbler doesn’t seem concerned that tree is on the ground

I’ve struggled with a decision to remove one of my Pine snags. It was uncomfortably close to the house yet provided such a wealth of entertainment with the wildlife that partakes in its demise from a lightening bolt in 2008. I remember that day vividly because I felt my hair stand on end and I was sure the house had been struck, but that tall pine gave its life to protect my home. The dead tree swayed in recent 50 mph winds and the weight at the top seemed to lean it toward the house rather than away, so I knew it had to go.
When I bought the property another snag was standing and I opted to leave it up since it was housing Pileated Woodpeckers at the time. They had a family of two fledglings and I was hooked on keeping snags in my wildlife garden. That tree fell down in tropical storm Fay yet pieces of the debris still provide habitat for my many critters. I cut it up and stacked it and it is slowly returning to soil, dwindling slowly, beetles breaking down the wood structures, birds eating the beetles for protein, snakes finding a safe haven, lizards playfully dancing between the cracks.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

Back to my current dilemma. The tree was clearly rotting and ants had taken up residence in the lower section. When oak firewood was delivered from a local guy, I inquired if he could fell the snag and lamented how I would miss it. He said he could top it. A deal was made and he came back a week later chain saw in hand!

Half a tree is better than no tree

He cut it about 15 feet from the ground and had it land in the wrong direction (scaring the bajesus out of me…so dangerously close to his truck). Judging from the look on his face, perhaps the delivery guy wasn’t a smart choice to cut it, but it is a good height and no one got hurt, so the results are good. It still stands proud and the balance will be put to some use as soon as I think up all that it can be used for. I know the outer layers will be raked up and used to help form the basis for natural pathways through my growing restoration areas or mulch where needed.

That which crumbles will be used to make pathways

The birds seem unconcerned that part of it is on its side and still visit. Bringing it down to my level is intriguing….I’ve got a close-up view of where the redbellied woodpeckers were making a hole under the protection of a large branch. The hole is perfectly round. I can see the core is solid…perhaps it will be the base for a new water dish or will help by being the base for the cedar bench that recently had it’s legs give out.

The woodpeckers made a hole under the protection of a birds

I only know that the nuthatches are still thrilled and have already begun digging feverishly into its side making a deep hole. Perhaps a nest area? They’ve teased me before and I hold out hope that one of these times they will actually complete the nest. They are cagey sorts….but I have faith. Faith in those little birds and faith in my lovely half-tree as it continues to give pleasure.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 7, 2011 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.


Solving Garden Mysteries

Dateline:  May 30, 2014*

In recent days I heard the hammering of a bird outside the computer room window which faces the front of the property.  I really didn’t think much of it. Red-bellied Woodpeckers bang incessantly around here, with the males often using the gutters of my house to sound bigger and more virile to the local ladies. Nesting season is well underway and I even hear the Pileated Woodpeckers hammering in the distance. They’ve used snags on my property in the past to raise their young.

While out and about on a morning walk around the lot, I heard an odd sound…the call of a bird, unknown to me,  hidden somewhere in the landscape.  I peered under branches of the wax myrtle where the sound seemed to be coming from, but the shrubbery is lush with leaves these days, providing great hiding spots for nests and new fledglings.  I came up empty.

My thought was to try to figure out what bird it was, but I wasn’t really sure where to start.  I’m helpless at trying to translate the “chirps” and “pee-whees” written in my bird field guide and my bird language skills in imitation  is non-existent.  I thought of going to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Website to listen to bird after bird after bird, but didn’t seem a very efficient method.  My birder friends who all can bird by sound would know in an instant but aren’t close enough to give a quick emergency “I hear it NOW” type of phone call…all are at least 30 minutes or more away.  I wouldn’t count on the bird hanging out to wait for them.

The bird identification was placed on the back burner, while other interesting critters and flowers jumped higher on the research list.  It is May, after all, one of the busiest times in my garden.

Ut oh, what is THIS??

I was again in the front yard and decided to check the Live Oak tree (Quercus virginiana) to see if anyone had set up a new nest there.  The mockingbirds are nesting just about everywhere and this tree is a favorite for them.  I was a little taken aback when I looked.  At eye level was a whole section of holes in the bark.

Is it YOU?

I imagined all sorts of damaging insects envisioning an attack akin to the Emerald Ash Borer up north.   That night I was taking the dogs out for the final trip before bed and I spotted an unusual insect on the door jam.  I got the dogs in, grabbed my camera and took some photos of what turns out to be a Long-horned Beetle (Eburia distincta).  Now the preferred host for this boring beetle is cypress, but there are also notations that it may use some hardwoods.  Could this be the holey oak culprit?

As I mumbled “holy moley”, I took my photos of the oak and beetle friend and emailed them to Eleanor Foerste who is Emeritus Faculty, UF IFAS Extension. I was a little concerned by her immediate response that started off with “OMG!” and ended with “I will also send to our forester, … for her ideas”.

Cooperative Extension Services is a gold mine of information through a partnership of United States Department of Agriculture with a state land-grant university to “provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.”  In Florida they have a network of local offices at the county-level that teach Master Gardener Courses as well as numerous other educational programs.  Our county even has a daily walk-in plant clinic where you can bring in soil to have pH tested or a leaf or root showing some damage and they will analyze it to try to figure out the problem.

Back to my garden mystery…

Eleanor’s emailed response posed a couple of questions: (1) “How high up on the trunk is this happening?” and (2) “Can you hold a cup to your ear and the tree like a stethoscope (like the old telephone game with cup and string?) and hear any chewing inside?”

Eleanor, who prior to retirement taught the Florida Master Naturalist program, noted that “Yes, longhorn beetles will chew but typically on weak trees.”

It looks like swiss cheese

I quickly replied that it was about eye level (5 ft.) limited to about a foot vertically and only about 1/2 way around. “It looks like a wide hole-y ribbon got tied around.” I mentioned that I didn’t see any damage anywhere else on the tree.  I also said that I would find a cup and give a listen  (with thoughts of what the neighbors would be mumbling about me for THIS activity).

close up

A gloom and doom attitude began to take over, but that was quickly alleviated when Eleanor sent another email just minutes later “Not sapsucker damage???”

Sapsucker?  Our area has sapsuckers?  How the heck have I missed them all these years????  I opened my browser to the Cornell site for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) and immediately clicked on the “typical voice” button.

Yes! Sapsuckers make this type of pattern in their quest for food

THAT’S IT!  Well, I’ll be…two mysteries solved at the same time.  The birdie I heard days before matched perfectly with the sound!  Since Florida is listed as winter (non-breeding) on the range map, I suppose my friend was tanking up on sap for the summer trip up north.  Jumping for joy, now I will wait the long months and hope that I get to see it on the return.

Just listening in the garden can help you learn more about what is using your habitat than by sight alone.  I’ll add the sapsucker to my Florida bird life list, with an annotation “heard, but not seen”.

So, leave the phone and the radio inside and take in the sounds of Mother Nature…and tell me what you hear in your own beautiful wildlife garden.

Update 2017: I’m pleased to report that I finally got to see the sapsuckers in the flesh and much to my delight, they spend a lot of time visiting my trees so I now see them often.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on May 30, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.