Tag Archives: florida

Mistaken Mosquito

Dateline: January 11, 2013*

I remember when I first moved to Florida I saw what I thought was a HUGE mosquito, thinking that there were mutant bugs down here, big enough to drain a body of blood in one gulp.  They certainly look like mosquitoes, but the poor critters are swatted and squished all due to a case of mistaken identity.  The flying mimics are actually crane flies and they don’t bite.

Some are reflective. You can see how they may be mistaken for a giant mosquito
Crane flies are beneficial in our gardens.   Some species’ larvae are aquatic while others spend their youth in the soil.  Both break down organic matter, returning nutrients to their respective habitats.  As with most of nature, occasionally too much of a good thing can pose a problem.  Some crane fly species can be a pest to agriculture.  That’s why it is so important to have a balanced garden.  Avoid pesticide use as chemicals kill the good bugs as well as the bad, and often kill those bugs that will control others to avoid them becoming pests.
They have extremely long legs as shown by the Colorful Tiger Crane Fly (Nephrotoma spp.)

Both larval and adult crane flies provide an important food source for birds, reptiles, spiders, fish and other insects such as dragonflies, mantids, centipedes and beetles.  Fishermen have been known to use the larval stage of members of the family Tipulidae (Large Crane Flies) as bait. As you can see, there are plenty of predators to keep the population in order.
Some seem acrobatic such as Brachypremna dispellens

Tipulidae is the largest family in the Order Diptera. Given this, identification can be mind-boggling. You can find out everything you ever wanted to know about the anatomy of a crane fly at that identification key link.  Suffice to say I was unable (or unwilling) to crawl around counting wing lines or antenna segments…that and I really don’t wear my reading glasses when I am walking around the property calling on critters for a photo shoot.  Old eyes can’t see tiny nuances.
Brachypremna dispellens have white legs

Crane flies undergo complete metamorphosis.  Some species have an elongated rostrum (think Pinocchio), a straw-like appendage used to draw nectar from flowers.  Thus, we can conclude that they also perform pollination duties.
wake up and smell the Bidens alba

I noticed that most of the time when I see the adults fly it is when it is slightly damp or overcast, so if it is daytime and you see a mutant mosquito, take a good look before you swat.  You may be saving the life of an insect that will help your wildlife garden grow more beautiful.
Limonia subgenus Geranomyia are drawn to flowers

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 11, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

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Autumn in Florida

Dateline: October 21, 2011*

Think Florida has no fall color? Think again!

Pine needles fall and drift lazily into the pond as the Spanish Needles (Bidens alba) produce copious amounts of seeds that stick to the dogs’ fur, my socks and every bit of clothing in the laundry. The Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) berries change with their wonderful aroma and pretty blue coloring. The American Beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) ripen to purple joy. The fruits of the Dahoon (Ilex cassine) turn bright red alerting the birds that look down from the blinding sunny skies to this important food source as they return to their winter homes from the north. The sun is much lower in the sky and intense in brightness but the breezes keep us cool.

Solidago sp. and Bushy Bluestem grasses add to the color pallette of the season

The edible garden renews itself preparing those delicious winter tomatoes and peppers. Celery that looked dead from the heat begins to green up again. Asters prepare their burst of blooms to provide nectar for the bees, butterflies and other pollinators that are with us year round.

Chalky bluestem provides various hues

Yes, autumn occurs in Florida and while it may differ from other parts of the country, we still have nice subtle shades of browns, yellows and oranges heralding the change of season. The Cypress trees (Taxodium spp.) turn from green to yellow to brown as they begin to drop their needles in anticipation of winter. The Red Maples (Acer rubrum) provide a wonderful color palette.

Fallen pine needles add a rich brown coloring of mulch returning nutrients to the soil

Tall native grasses bend in the wind as the fluffy tan seedheads shake free to travel in the breeze, planting their next generation and giving the birds a natural meal. The rich golds of several Goldenrod genus (Solidago spp., Euthamia spp. and Bigelowia spp.) coupled with Silkgrass (Pityopsis graminifolia) and Swamp Sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius) would give any Northeastern state a run for its money come late September and October.

Swamp sunflowers provide golds

I’ve heard countless times how some people could never move to Florida because they would miss the seasons changing. When I first moved here I was convinced I would too, but I have found that I love autumn in Florida just as much as I enjoyed it up north. The seasons here change just like everyone else’s do; it is just a matter of watching to see the beauty that Mother Nature provides in your specific area. It certainly is glorious no matter where you live.

*This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 21, 2011 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Ants: Walking Wallendas in My Garden

Dateline:  August 2, 2013*

Acrobat Ants (Crematogaster) at the Bidens buffet

There are all sorts of ants and I was drawn to a group that was hanging out on a leaf of Bidens alba, a Florida native plant that is a bundle of biodiversity.  This group of ants was like none I had ever seen before.  Medium sized, shiny and with a heart shaped abdomen. What I found more interesting is that it was a reasonable gathering of say 50 or so, not thousands as I would normally expect of ant conventions.

They were engrossed in eating some white looking glop, the color resembling Elmer’s glue gone bad.  A lone fly was off to the side, standing watch.  I snapped a few photos to see if a closer look via zoom would tell me what was so fascinating as to draw this crowd.

Is the fly guarding the group? or is he trying to figure out how to sneak in

I learned these valentine looking scavengers are called Acrobat Ants. They are in the Genus Crematogaster.  I’m not ready to get these guys down to the species level with 10 different species in Florida that look rather alike to me.  I got itchy just looking for Genus.

Is the fly sick of waiting?

The habit of bending the gaster up over the thorax when disturbed is likely how it got the common name Acrobat Ant. The worker looks a little like he’s walking on his hands, so to speak.

Food for Acrobat Ants include

“honeydew, extrafloral nectar, scavenged protein from bird and other droppings, carrion”

Even a close zoom look didn’t reveal what the glop was but based on the listed foods, I figured it must have been bird poop.

The next day I returned to the scene of the crime and all the ants were gone, as was the fly.  There, on the leaf was a tiny spine bone.

Okay, what the heck is this?

My first thought was to dial up Dr. Temperance Brennan.  Of course she’s a fictional anthropologist and these bones seemed way too small to be human, so I opted to use an Internet search engine.  “T-i-n-y V-e-r-t-e-b-r-a-t-e” I tapped into the search box. Up popped some news results about a certain frog being the world’s smallest vertebrate.

I recalled seeing a lot of the juvenile invasive Cuban treefrogs in recent weeks, so I thought that frog might fit the bill.  Next search:  F-r-o-g S-k-e-l-e-t-o-n.  Up popped a very nice image of a labeled bullfrog skeleton.

Eureka!!!!  The vertebrae matched my find.  And, the small pointy piece is a urostyle.  And to think I failed biology.  Look at me now Ms. BiologyTeacherWho’sNameIForgot.

the remaining vertebrae and urostyle made identification as a frog pretty easy

I wonder where the rest of the frog bones went.  Did the acrobat ants bury the evidence?  Who did the actual killing? Was the fly merely a witness? Or did he have a role in this massacre? Well, I’m no “Bones”, so it shall remain a mystery.


At any rate, acrobat ants play a role in carrion cleanup, like vultures but on a smaller scale.  And, I’ve learned that they are an important food resource for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker:

C. ashmeadi workers make up the majority of this woodpecker’s adult diet, especially in the winter (Hess and James, 1998).

It seems that Acrobat ants are found in damp or rotting wood so they aren’t as big a house pest as many other ant species.  They may even cue you in to water infiltration problems if you find them in your home. Another interesting new species to add to my buggy life list.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 2, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

National Moth Week 2015: Central Florida

Dateline: July 24, 2015*

Well, another year has passed and we are in the midst of National Moth Week. It started back in 2012 and I have reported on moths I find at my place each year (2012, 2013, 2014). In keeping with that tradition, I am reporting this year on some different moths that have made an appearance at my place for 2014/2015. While the list is not all-inclusive it will give you some idea of what I find and, if I know, what plants attract them to my garden. There are a great many of repeat visitors from years past and several that I haven’t had time and/or success in identifying.

Clouded Crimson Moth on its larval host, Southern Beeblossom

In 2014 I reported on my first encounter with an adult Clouded Crimson Moth (Schinia gaurae). The larval host has had a recent scientific name change to Oenothera simulans from Gaura angustifolia from which the butterfly species appears to have been named. Southern Beeblossom is still the common name. I just wonder if the poor butterfly is going to need identity therapy. 😉

Palm Leaf Skeletonizer

Another new-to-me adult was the Palm Leaf Skeletonizer (Homaledra sabalella). Prior to this year I had only encountered the damage of the larvae to my Cabbage Palmetto (Sabal palmetto). Since I only have one of these trees I do clip off the severely affected fronds since it is a young tree and I don’t want it to meet its demise. I have been doing a little research on the moth and Chalcid Wasps are indicated as potential predators. I have seen adult Conura sp. wasps at my place and Horismenus ignotus is reported as “likely the primary parasite of the larva” (source: Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington pg. 76-7) and a Tachinid fly may be a parasite of the larva. I’m on the lookout now for these natural predators with my fingers crossed.

A second Palm Skelentonizer shows the antenna
Palm Leaf Skeletonizer can do extensive damage to the fronds of cabbage palms

This week I spotted a Red-waisted Florella Moth (Syngamia florella) shown at the start of this article. A brightly colored and diurnal (day flying) moth that is another personal favorite. According to HOSTS database, larval hosts are in the Rubiaceae family of plants, including Spermacoce brachysepala and S. tetraquetra. While I don’t have those specific species at my place, I do have two similar buttonweed species in that genus.

As with many moths, getting a photo of the Florella Moth was somewhat tricky. Many moth species are inclined to land on the underside of plant leaves and are quick to fly when the big bad photographer stoops down to get a shot. I lucked out that after a three minute chase, it landed on the leaf of some Bidens alba which was somewhat taller so I didn’t have to bend so far.

Mournful Sphinx on Bidens alba

Mournful Sphinx Moth (Enyo lugubris) larvae feed on plants in the grape family (Vitaceae) including Vitus, Ampelopsis, and Cissus species. Still haven’t found a caterpillar for this species, but I see where HOSTS database also includes Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) as a potential host, so I’ll have to start paying close attention since that native vine is also growing at my place.

Diaphania Moth

Diaphania Moth (Diaphania modialis) Host: Creeping Cucumber (Melothria pendula). This poor preyed-upon specimen is still the only one I have encountered.

Puss Moth Caterpillar DON’T TOUCH!

Southern Flannel Moth (Megalopyge opercularis) a.k.a. Puss or Asp caterpillar moth is polyphagous (eating many different species of plants) including oak, citrus, and at my place: wax myrtle or the redbud that is shown in the picture. The caterpillars of this species contain toxic spines so I remove them from the areas of the yard that the dogs have access to in order to prevent potential envenomation. I tried to raise one in a breeding container and it moved to cocoon stage, but never emerged and the cocoon began to disintegrate. Perhaps I’ll see an adult some time in the future.


Groundsel Plume Moth (Hellinsia balanotes) a.k.a. Baccharis Borer Plume Moth uses Groundsel Bush a.k.a. Saltbush (Baccharis halimifolia) as the host. I’ve plenty of larval hosts for these babies.

Samea sp. Nectaring on Bidens Alba

This Samea sp. may be a Salvinia Stem-borer (S. multiplicalis) or Assembly Moth (S. ecclesialis). Both are found in my locality and are difficult to distinguish.

common name of the caterpillars is grapeleaf roller

A Crambid Snout Moth (Desmia sp.) is another hard to identify to species. It may be D. funeralis or D. maculalis which use the same species of hosts as the above mentioned Mournful Sphinx. D. deploralis is another possibility since I have Wild Coffee (Psychotria nervosa), a Florida Native Plant which was documented as a host via a bugguide.net entry.

Coffee anyone?

Since I mentioned Wild Coffee, always happy to share a photo of the tiny and beautiful Coffee-loving Pyrausta Moth (Pyrausta tyralis) moth that also feeds on it. Here it is nectaring on Tickseed (Coreopsis sp.), the state wildflower of Florida.

This Puss Moth caterpillar cocoon never produced an emerged adult.

There are thousands of beautiful moths, so check out what native plants fuel their needs and if you have the appropriate habitat, begin adding them to your beautiful wildlife garden to encourage these important beneficials who then fuel those higher up in the food chain.

Not yet identified. Do you recognize me?

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on July 24, 2015 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Meet the Moths: It’s National Moth Week 2013

Dateline:  July 19, 2013*

National Moth Week is a global celebration of moths and biodiversity, being held the last week of July.

New this week: Spurge Spanworm Moth – (Oxydia vesulia) landed on the recycle bin

For 2013, that is July 20-28, 2013.  As you know, I love my bugs and reported on last years’ inaugural celebration of these important players in a garden.  Recently I have identified a few of my unknown moths and a couple of old standbys showed up for a photoshoot.

A favorite colorful, diurnal moth is Syngamia florella, the Red-waisted Florella Moth visits Bidens alba

I’ve talked diurnal moths in the past. Those fly during the day.  Often they are pretty enough to rival the beauty of butterflies.

Black-dotted Spragueia Moth (Spragueia onagrus) colors could rival most butterflies

I’ve talked about the importance of the caterpillars to the survival of other arthropods.  Judy Burris also highlighted some pretty interesting caterpillars recently.

Pale-edged Selenisa Moth (Selenisa sueroides) caterpillar is a favorite food for nesting wasps
But some survive to turn into interesting medium size moths (Pale-edged Selenisa) adult

There are tiny moths.

Stained Lophosis Moth (Lophosis labeculata)

There are HUGE moths, many of which produce silk as reported by Ellen Sousa.

Large Maple Spanworm (Prochoerodes lineola), tattered but still flying (note: not a silk moth)

And there are shiny moths:

Snowy Urola Moth (Urola nivalis)

I’ve tried to alleviate fears of some caterpillars decimating your trees with hints on how to control them in an environmentally sound way.

Bagworm Moth caterpillars cover themselves with debris to try and fit in with the landscape colors. Easily hand-picked and disposed of

How some dress up to disguise themselves from predators.

Some moth caterpillars emulate butterfly cats, such as this Clouded Crimson Flower Moth Caterpillar (Schinia gaurae) who looks like anorexic monarch larvae

There are moths that have unusual shapes:

Diamondback Moth (Plutella xylostella)

And some that have interesting markings:

Plume Moth

Some are in love:

Mating Plume Moths

Moth caterpillars feed birds, host wasps, and perform many important duties in the natural scheme of things. Adult moths serve as a food source for not only birds but for spiders and others as well.

Yellow Mocis Moth (Mocis disseverans)

Plant a few oaks, some wax myrtles and look up what other native plants in your location will serve as a larval plant for the deserving and beneficial moth.  And put on your party hat to join the festivities.

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

Being Green in the Wildlife Garden

Dateline: May 17, 2013*

As I do every morning, I was walking around the property enjoying nature at its best.  I took my normal route past the Rusty Lyonia, Pawpaws and Dwarf Oaks, among others and headed down the bank of the pond into the section that dries up during Florida dry season.  I checked two small temporary pools created from recent rains and watched the tadpoles dance with the diving beetles.

Poised to catch a meal

As I turned my attention to the main section of pond, I was surprised to see a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) standing on the side, poised to grab a meal.  He seemed unfazed with my presence, unlike his compatriots the blue or white herons, which fly off the moment I open the door to the house some 150 feet way.  Not the first time I have met up with a green heron in my pond, but it is an unusual and welcome occurrence.

They stand very still

I watched and photographed as birdy moved stealthily around the perimeter, snagging mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) along the way.  As I walked, we seemed to move in unison, always at exact opposite positions along the pond edge.  He was diligent and obviously very hungry as we spent about 45 minutes doing our opposing dance.  I climbed up the bank at one point and wandered to another part of the yard.

Quick to grab their prey

When I returned, I noticed that the green heron had climbed aboard the tussock (island) at one end of my pond.  When the tussock first appeared, I had visions of wildlife making it a home and my new bird friend made the picture painted in my mind a reality.

Green Heron on the Tussock, my dream vision

Green Herons, small by most heron standards, are “one of the few birds that uses bait to attract fish, it drops such things as bread crusts, insects, and twigs onto the water.”   Fish is the primary diet along with frogs, insects and other invertebrates. They are vocal when they fly in or fly off.

Short and stocky

I gave him some words of warning, advising that I would be VERY annoyed if he ate my new turtle friends and he seemed to stick with the fare of the day, fish.  I hoped that he would snag one of the bluegills or large mouth bass that reside in the depths of the water so I could have that Kodak moment of a wading bird with a fish in his mouth.  It was not to be.  Without warning, my green heron friend flew off leaving me with a good feeling that I am not viewed as a threat to the wildlife friends who come to visit my native plant gardening paradise.

Green Heron is truly a beautiful bird

*This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on  May 17, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Beneficial Insects: Nice Lice?

Dateline:  April 27, 2012

A dragonfly lands on a branch of my Winged Elm

OK, I’m itchy…I’ve been sitting at the computer scrolling through bugguide.net to try and identify a tiny insect that was on my Winged Elm (Ulmus alata). I was actually giving the tree a once over because it is a larval host for Question Mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) and I wanted to see if I had any success thus far by trying to locate larvae. I specifically chose this tree to serve as a butterfly attractant for that species, which I’ve yet to have the pleasure of meeting.

Whatever is this mysterious bug?

I saw something stationed along a limb and I use the term limb loosely as the tree is a mere sapling. The creature was way too small to see without a magnifying glass or at least reading glasses. I took a photo and headed inside to see what I could see via the magic of computer zoom. It looked a little like a fat caddisfly if a caddisfly would have a bee shape abdomen and long thin antenna. Back outside to get a few more photos. Moving the stick of a limb every which way to get a better shot from different angles sent the little creature on a walk up toward the trunk. Satisfied that at least one or two of the numerous photos would provide a clue, I headed back in on my quest for knowledge.

Top of my new insect friend

Well, scrolling through all the caddisflies proved that wasn’t it. It looked a little like it should be a creature with an aquatic start, but I was having no luck. The wing shape seemed a little moth-like and tiger moth came to mind. Tiger and lichen moths are grouped together so I tried lichen in the search box since that was what the bug seemed intent on. Lo and behold, I found a critter that seemed close… stout barklice. EWWWWWWWWWWW! My immediate reaction was to reach for a nit comb and some Rid® shampoo.

It certainly has long antenna

I searched up a rung or two in the taxonomy and began scrolling through various photos of barklice. FINALLY, I found what I believe is my critter. It is in the Insect Order Psocodea that consists of Barklice, Booklice and Parasitic Lice. I was a little disappointed that it is called Common Barklice…with all this effort, there doesn’t seem to be anything common about it. The scientific name is Cerastipsocus venosus and they don’t feed on living plants. They work as a decomposer/recycler so it is a beneficial addition to the landscape. The Galveston County (TX)  Master Gardeners had this to say:

The term lice as part of the common name of these tree dwellers is quite misleading as these insects are neither parasitic nor louse-like in appearance. Upon being informed of the identification of this insect, the typical response of a gardener is a widening of the eyes and other momentary indications of being aghast! Our Galveston County Extension Horticulture Agent advises us to precede the identification with a notation of Congratulations, you have beneficial insects in your landscape!

I like their style! 😉

Up close, Barklice have a face only a mother could love

This particular species of barklice eats lichen so it is one of nature’s cleanup crewmembers. Some barklice build tents along the trunk and limbs of trees. People are often alarmed by this and seek help in what pesticides to use to clear up the culprits. Since the insects are not harmful the recommendation is to hit them with a spray of water if their habits offend your senses. That should send them on their way…at least for a brief time. Personally, I’m glad they are around at my place. I’m likin my lichen, but sometimes it can really put a coat on a tree so anything that keeps things balanced is a keeper to me. Of course, people have that aesthetic fear of nature…you know…so they feel compelled to disburse the BUGS!

Munching away on lichen they prefer trees with smooth bark

In reading I learned that they often travel in packs and are given the common name of bark cattle since apparently disturbing one sends them all on the run. Thank GOODNESS I only found the one rogue specimen…I may have had a heart attack if I’d found a herd of unidentifiable insects. And, with over 3500 species in Psocomorpha the fact that I was even able to FIND the type of creature, let along the seemingly exact species is a miracle…but I think it is more tenacity and luck. Now, I’m off to find my lasso and see if I can’t get in on the roundup to find this fellow’s friends!

Id say my barklouse is doing a good job!

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on April 27, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

The Mydas Touch

Dateline: May 13, 2011*

Lynx spider eating stink bug (a good thing)

I’m always excited when I find a new species to add to my “Florida buggy life-list”. Yes, I maintain a sort of life list of the insects and spiders that I am able to identify in my beautiful wildlife garden. I then try to determine whether of not they can prove to be beneficial in the garden. Some are a mixed bag, such as the Green Lynx spider. It is a spider, so it eats destructive bugs and is a food source for birds, but it also has a habit of eating pollinators. I tend to like them having observed grasshoppers in their clutches. I just hope that the pollinators are smart enough to avoid their grasp. At any rate, I suppose it is Mother Nature keeping us in balance. If a certain insect seems destructive, I learn how to control them without resorting to chemicals, much as I did with the Cottonwood Leaf Beetle where I used handpicking as my method of control. (Editor’s note:  as I have evolved and learned more about wildlife gardening, I would not put handpicked insects into soapy water, I would merely squish them and place them in the compost pile to be recycled back into the earth.)

Lynx eating pollinator (not such a good thing)

Amazingly, I find new insect species all the time, despite having lived in this location 5 years. This week was no exception. I was outside with the dogs having an afternoon stroll in record high heat when I saw a VERY LARGE insect land on the wood chip mulch pile. I was excited because it was something I had never seen before. I had to race to get a camera and unfortunately, the one that was “loaded” was my zoom camera which I generally don’t use for the insect pictures since I’m not good at getting close-up detail with it (thus the less-than-quality photo). I zeroed in as best I could and snapped a few shots. My initial thought was that it was some sort of robberfly.

When “new bug” flew off, I headed to the computer to do some research. “Black orange robberfly Florida” was what I put into my Goodsearch search engine that is powered by Yahoo (not a Google fan). I scanned the results and saw there was a listing from whatsthatbug.com, a favorite insect ID site of mine. Sure enough, there was a picture of my finding, Mydas Fly (Mydas clavatus). Then, as I always do, I headed on over to bugguide.net to confirm my findings and to see what information I could learn:

Adults sometimes found on flowers, presumably taking nectar. Some sources say adults take caterpillars, flies, bees, and true bugs. Others are skeptical of this. Bugguide further expands, “Eggs are laid singly in soil or rotting wood. … Mydas larvae prey on beetle larvae, esp. those of June beetles. Larvae pupate close to soil (or wood?) surface… Adults are active only in mid-summer. Mating system in this species unknown.”

Mydas Fly


Since the University of Florida didn’t have it listed as a “Featured Creature”, I turned to the University of Arkansas who, in addition to behavioral data, stated:

“…Adults were long presumed to be predaceous, but the lack of mandibles along with other features of mouthpart morphology and observations of flower feeding tend to indicate that they consume nectar.”… Larvae are associated with decaying stumps and logs, where they feed on scarab beetle larvae.

Bottom line: I vote beneficial. Flower feeding always produces some pollination ability. Got grubs? Mydas Fly larvae will help in control, although the birds might not want to share those delectables.

What are your favorite insects?

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on May 13, 2011 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

 

When Birds Recycle

Dateline: February 3, 2012*

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) found and used this nest in a Live Oak tree

I was out and about on Sunday, cleaning up after the dogs and looking for wildlife of interest. January is not always the best time of year to find things, but Florida has experienced a relatively warm winter and spring is in the air so we have our fair share of resident wildlife meandering around. I spotted a Saltmarsh Caterpillar (Estigmene acrea) and a Pinewoods Treefrog (Hyla femoralis). I passed by the young live oak and was leaning down under some branches when I heard the sharp whistle of a Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) taking flight. The sound created by their flapping wings during takeoff is unmistakable. I nearly jumped out of my skin I was so startled. Heck, I was close enough to feel a breeze in my ear.

I stopped and leaned under this live oak tree

I often see the Mourning Doves, which are native to all of North America, high up in the trees, hanging out on power lines and down pecking around the bottom of the pond in a section that is exposed during the current dry season. They are fond of the areas alongside the driveway which has a lot of Cranesbill (Geranium carolinianum) growing, a plant native to most of North America. Cranesbill provides an excellent source of natural, non-toxic bird seed, if you avoid use of chemicals in your yard. Be wary if you use a weed and feed, as this plant is on many chemical company hit lists to be killed for some unknown reason.

Doves like a view from power wires

I’d never really seen the Mourning Doves low in the trees before, so I glanced at where the bird may have been perched and noticed two bright white eggs, sitting up in a nest. I laughed because now I understood why the bird was at my ear height.

Two perfect eggs

I’m not sure whom the doves’ real estate agent was, but I’m hoping they got a good buy on this nest. It is a “resale” home that was constructed by Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) last year. The Mockingbirds didn’t have much luck with this location. I have a picture of four eggs one day, and none a day or two later. Victims of some raccoon, hawk or snake’s breakfast, I suppose…or perhaps all three met for elevenses.

Pop (?) keeping those eggs warm!

I looked up the Mourning Dove nesting behavior and found that they lay 2 white eggs in a loosely made nest of sticks and twigs placed in low bushes and tall trees, more rarely on the ground. As you can see in the photo, there are two eggs, soooooo…MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Now, was this a lazy dove? Since Mockingbirds also make nests of loose sticks and twigs I’m attributing the reuse by the dove as being smart and eco-friendly, you know…wanting to recycle…no unnecessary development.

I’ve often been conflicted about whether to remove a bird nest after the miracle of birth has taken place and they leave. I know as I monitor my bluebirds, I need to remove the nest a day after they fledge as it is extremely dirty and can harbor parasites. Bluebird parents will come back a week or two later and quickly build a new nest for a second or third brood if there is enough time left in the season. I’m more inclined to leave the nest of Mockingbirds. I have witnessed them reuse the same nest on more than one occasion. On the other side of the coin, I’ve also had wasps take over a previously used nest, in a less than convenient location. Decisions, decisions.

Cranesbill, also called Wild Geranium are great natives to attract doves.

Mourning Doves are the most hunted migratory game bird (think squab) in North America although they are also protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Since they are granivorous , they eat agricultural crops such as corn, millet, wheat and even peanuts. For a native plant diet, they exist on a variety of grasses, spurges (Croton spp.), goosefoots, lambsquarter (Chenopodium album), saltbushes (Atriplex spp.), Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), Ragweed (Ambrosia spp.), Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), Pricklypoppy (Argemone spp.), Pigweeds (Amaranthus spp), Smartweeds (Polygonum spp.), hemp (Cannabis sativa) (my kinda bird), Purslanes (Brassica spp.), Pines (Pinus spp.) and my favorite, Wild Geranium (G. carolinianum), as stated above. Get those meadows planted but if you include Cannabis make sure you have bail money.

Grit is essential component of diet, but why they eat it is unknown. But eat it they do, since they routinely spend some time on my crushed rock driveway. They also like some animal matter, primarily snails. The need for surface water is imperative, so to attract these guys, start planning those ponds.

Snails, such as these native Southern Flatcoils (Polygyra spp.) are a part of a Dove’s diet.

These birds appear to eat fast. They save the food they forage in their crop (that dangly thing at their neck) and digest it later when they settle in to roost. The young are raised on “crop milk,” a unique secretion of the cells of the crop wall provided by both mom and pop.

Mom (?) sees that incubation is continuous

Mourning Doves incubate continuously for 14-15 days, with the male often taking the day shift and the female taking the night shift. They will build where humans frequent and if they feel threatened, parents will use the “nest distraction” technique (fly out of the nest in the hopes you don’t see it) or “broken wing feign” strategy (flapping around on the ground, as if injured). Right now, I need to keep away from that area. I got one photo of the eggs since the opportunity presented itself (glad I keep my point and shoot camera with me). I also got the photo of pop? sitting on the eggs from a distance. Ahhh…the beauty of a zoom camera. Now, “grandmama” will patiently await little heads to appear, but I will do so from across the yard watching through field glasses.

As far as the nest? I’m just curious if the Mockingbirds were savvy enough to downplay the reason they decided to move.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on February 3, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Planted for the Birds, by the Birds

Dateline: August 13, 2011*

Propagation can take place by several means: we break apart large clumps of plants at the roots and plant elsewhere or share with others, we gather seeds and plant or share with others, the wind blows seeds, mammals and other critters carry seeds from place to place and there are many other methods, including propagation by bird. They eat the seeds, which travel through their systems, and plant them, “pre-fertilized” when they stop to rest and…ahem…poop. Sometimes they plant in excellent locations, sometimes in not so excellent locations.

Eastern Bluebird grabs a Beautyberry to plant

I thought, today we’d walk around part of my Florida yard to see what appeared along the fence line, under the flagpole, under a wax myrtle shrub and under a pine. I’ll call this my “Planted for the Birds, by the Birds” tour. At my house, as long as the birds are planting Florida native plants, they pretty much have free rein in their choice of location. Sometimes where they choose to locate a plant will become the centerpiece for a new gardening bed.

Palamedes Caterpillar on Red Bay during better days

Let’s start with a lovely Red Bay (Persea borbonia) that was planted next to an alien Pyracantha. This showed up under the branch of a very tall pine. Now, many people would have removed the Red Bay as being out of place, but I mulched around it and tried to help it grow, with the intention of removing the Pyracantha once the Red Bay reached a certain height and was established. I loved that I had something native coming up to replace a non-native that was gifted to me when I first moved here. The Red Bay did well for two years, even encouraging Palamedes Swallowtail Butterflies (Papilio palamedes) to leave their eggs, but it succumbed this past winter. Maybe it didn’t like the location but I think, in part, it met its demise since it was taken over by galls. Now, galls alone shouldn’t be harmful to this type of shrub, except for the fact that it was such a youngster and there were a LOT of galls. I still plan on pulling out the Pyracantha** after I replace the deceased Red Bay with a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) seedling that was passed on to me from a native plant sale. Hopefully I’ll have better luck with the Red Maple. I still hold out hope that a Red Bay will appear somewhere in the yard and “stick” next time.

I think too many of these red bay psyllid galls resulted in the young tree’s demise

In the front section of the yard I noticed that a Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) was coming up all on it’s own along the fence. This will happen often since birds will eat the berries and rest on a close-by fencetop. Think: WOW these birds are smart to plant a natural hedge to cover that ugly fence. While this might be in a somewhat crowded location, I like when nature plants things and I pretty much have decided to go with the flow. Beautyberries provide food for insects, birds, mammals and humans alike, and their bright purple-y-pink berries are eye-catching so from my perspective, they are a welcome addition no matter where they appear.

a baby beautyberry among blackberries and native grasses at the fence

Not far from the new Beautyberry is some Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) crawling it’s way out from under a Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera). I have a friend who told me I don’t want Virginia Creeper in my yard. Well, maybe she doesn’t want Virginia Creeper in her yard, but I’ve been gathering free seedlings from another friend who, like me, thinks it is a great vine that will provide for wildlife. We tend toward more informal gardening styles. Again, Virginia Creeper provides berries for birds to eat and good coverage for nesting purposes, so I think they are pretty smart to plant it for themselves and I’m only happy to help by adding more to their landscape design.

Virginia Creeper creeping out from Under Wax Myrtle is ok by me

Along the same fence as the beautyberry I noticed black-eyed Susans had begun to sprout on the outside. My initial planting of Rudbeckia hirta was in the back pollinator garden area. Based on new location, I’m guessing that birdy picked a few samples seeds and is sharing the wealth in the front garden. The more, the merrier.

They added black-eyed Susans next to the culvert among the camphorweed

I was thrilled this year to see Pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) appear next to one of my pine snags. The berries are a favorite among song birds, but use caution in maintaining a bird-planted location as they are also poisonous to humans, so keep them out of the reach of inquisitive kids. Young shoots are said to be edible, but given that the mature plant is poisonous, I wouldn’t play around with it myself. I’ll stick to other ethnobotanical uses such as using the juice to make dye or ink which we’ve used at outreach programs to teach kids about great everyday uses for native plants. A while back a Pokeberry began growing in an area near my electric box. I decided to move it outside the back fence. It didn’t make it. That’s one of the reasons that I generally let the locations chosen by the birds be the locations that the plant gets to stay in. How I wish I had just let the darn plant be. My tinkering killed the poor thing and I’m sure the birds were annoyed with me.

Big green leaves and interesting buds make pokeberry pretty even before the fruits show up

I also discovered an Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) stalk growing out of the planting area around the flagpole that holds my American flag. The mockingbirds just love to rest up top and I’m sure that’s how this newcomer arrived. Perhaps not the best location…I suppose I could have dug it up and moved it, but I thought back to the pokeberry brouhaha and opted to just leave it be. I now look on it with loving eyes, although I’m sure others would be rolling their eyes.  But that’s ok. It was planted for the birds, by the birds, and maybe they just know best.

The elderberry stalk is almost as tall as the flagpole

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on December 3, 2010 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

**Update: The alien is gone and instead of putting the maple in, I  added a one gallon Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) which seems to be adapting nicely having gotten its first berries in 2016.