Monday, September 30, 2013

This festival is for the birds!

Simply Living
I’m looking forward to the 2nd Annual Wings and Wildflowers Festival, which is set for Oct. 4 through Oct. 6 at Hickory Point Park in Tavares. Last year, I went to the festival for a few hours and came home with several wildflower plants that I had wanted to add to my garden for quite a while.

I didn’t make time last year to attend any of the field trips or workshops, but this year I hope to participate in several. The festival offers more than 100 programs, the majority at no charge. There are kayak, canoe and pontoon trips, guided walks to see birds, butterflies and Florida native plants, photography workshops, how-to presentations and a wide variety of educational and hands-on activities geared to children and families.

Florida scrub jay

Among the events in which attendees can participate is a field trip to see the rare Florida scrub jay, birds that exist in only a few parts of the state, including parts of Lake County. They can watch Swamp Girl Adventure shows, walk through a butterfly enclosure and learn how and when to plant a wildflower garden.

Black-eyed Susans

Keynote speakers include James Currie, host and producer of the popular adventure birding show, Nikon’s Birding Adventures on NBC Sports, and birding expert Jeffrey Gordon an author, photographer, speaker and tour leader who is the president of the American Birding Association. Forty-four other local experts are also slated to lead presentations, talks and tours.

James Currie

Jeffrey Gordon

I’m glad the county, which sponsors the event through Lake County Economic Development and Tourism Department, has chosen to focus attention on the many natural wonders that surround us every day. It’s easy to take for granted our area’s uniquely hilly topography, glistening waterways and diverse natural resources. We may live in Lake County, but we often overlook the small creatures and plants that share our humble slice of Florida terrain. While there are plenty of venues for sporting events, shopping trips and civic activities, the Wings and Wildflower Festival provides a unique opportunity for native plants, butterflies, birds and other wildlife to take center stage.

Zebra longwing on native porterweed

Last year, I attended more as an afterthought than a planned excursion. This year will be different. I will be going to the festival to gain knowledge but also to have fun. I want to surround myself with beauty in the form of plants and wildlife, and I am going so I can be among others who share my love for nature and value the preservation of wildlife and wild areas.

There is no fee to drive through the gates at Hickory Point, get out of the car and walk around the vendor’s area. There is no cost to attend most of the programs, workshops, field trips and other festival offerings. The only investment one needs to make is a willingness to take time to prioritize nature and appreciate the often underappreciated wonders of our everyday life.

Last year, I invested a few hours of time and gained several new wildflowers, which all are thriving in their new homes. I have no idea what treasures I’ll return with this time, but I’m confident the outing will be time well spent.

For more information and to sign up for activities, visit

Sunday, September 29, 2013

And what did you have for breakfast?

A Simply Extra
I got sidetracked on my way to breakfast this morning when I noticed a flutter of broad dark wings down by the lake.  I grabbed my camera and rushed outside certain of an imminent wildlife encounter.  

Sure enough, that's what I got.  A great blue heron had just caught and was struggling to swallow a thin, black water snake.  Rather than risk scaring the heron, I stayed back and zoomed in so as not to disturb the heron's breakfast even as mine own meal sat cooling on the kitchen table.

Click, click, click went the camera as I watched the large bird lift and turn its head this way and that to better maneuver its meal down its throat.

Lucky me for being in the right spot at the right time.  Lucky bird for scoring such a filling meal.  By the way, my own meal of hot oatmeal was still warm when I finally came back inside and was ready to sit down.  

What a great way to start the day!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Green lynx spider

A Simply Extra
On recent rows in the lake, I've seen quite a few green lynx spiders (Peucetia viridans) with captured prey.

This green lynx spider captured a beautiful golden-winged dragonfly.  I love the way the bright green color of the spider contrasts with the dragonfly's bright yellow wings.

Unlike web-spinning spiders that build sticky traps for unsuspecting insects to fly into, the green lynx stalks and pounces on prey much like a wildcat does.

A fierce predator, the green lynx will eat just about anything.  Bees, wasps, beetles, flies, grasshoppers and even other spiders become victim to the green lynx's aggressive hunting.

This large black and yellow argiope, a web-spinning spider, must have wandered into the wrong place and fell victim to the aggressive green lynx

While the green lynx is dangerous to other spiders and insects, it seldom bites people.  When it does (which usually happens only if a person disturbs a female spider guarding her egg sac), the bite is not harmful.

Insects, on the other hand have reason to avoid this nimble hunter. The green lynx spider has excellent eyesight, moves quickly and has the ability to spit venom at it's targeted prey.  Because it kills so many bugs that are agricultural pests, the green lynx is considered a beneficial spider.  However, there's some debate about that label since it is not particularly discriminating and will kill beneficial bugs as well.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Spider vs Butterfly

A Simply Extra
In a battle between butterfly and spider, spider usually wins.  This luckless cloudless sulphur had the misfortune of becoming entangled in a writing spider's web.

This black and yellow argiope (writing spider) scored a big meal when a cloudless sulphur butterfly flew into its web

The spider is busy wrapping up its catch

Several black and yellow argiopes (Argiope aurantia) have built their distinctive webs on the firespike bush, which attracts many butterflies as well as hummingbirds, bees and other insects.

In another firespike bush, a writing spider's web captured a moth

This cloudless sulphur managed to avoid any sticky entanglements, at least so far...

Eating breakfast out(side)

I did something the other morning I don’t ordinarily do.  I ate breakfast out.  

You’re probably thinking I went to a restaurant, but I didn’t.  I ate my bowl of fruit and (hot) oatmeal outside at a park in downtown Clermont. 

Admittedly, it wasn’t my first choice but it turned out surprisingly well. 

As usual, the night before I prepared my next-day breakfast mix of cut-up fresh fruit to eat with the steel-cut oats and ground chia seeds Ralph cooks each morning.  The two of us have enjoyed the same basic breakfast for years varying the fruits with the seasons.  It’s a meal I love and look forward to every morning.

Cut up fruit awaiting the addition of hot oatmeal

On that morning, however, I had routine blood work scheduled.  I’d forgotten all about the appointment, remembering only after slicing the last piece of fruit into my bowl the night before.  The test required fasting - no food, tea or even water until after the visit. 

“So, should I make oatmeal for you, anyway?”  Ralph asked.  “You can have it when you come home.”

I told him to go ahead but that instead of eating it afterwards, I’d take it with me.

When morning came, I packed my white ceramic bowl of cut-up fruit and hot oatmeal into an insulated bag together with a small towel, a cloth napkin and my favorite spoon.  I made up two steaming travel mugs of jasmine green tea and took it all out to the car.  I wouldn’t be able to eat breakfast at home but I could still start the day at a pretty table eating food I enjoy.

“I might be a little while,” I told Ralph.  “After the appointment, I’m going to find a quiet place to have breakfast then do a few errands.”

I kissed him goodbye and went on my way, stopping at the mailbox to pick up the newspaper.

At the doctor’s office, the blood work was quick, over before hunger pangs had even begun.  I was soon back in my car driving around downtown Clermont in search of a little park I remembered noticing in an older residential neighborhood along Lakeshore Drive.

It took a while to find, but was worth the effort.  Park of Indian Hills encompasses a narrow stretch of shady ground beneath several ancient oaks along Lake Minnehaha.  The park’s limited amenities include three wooden picnic tables, a lake-facing bench and a few trash receptacles.  A woman walking a dog was just leaving as I pulled in.  No one else was there.

The Park of Indian Hills

“Perfect,” I thought.  “Privacy and beauty.” 

I settled in at one of the tables, unpacked my breakfast, tea and napkin and folded the paper to the comic page.  By the time I’d finished eating, I’d perused most of the news, been scolded by a squirrel and searched an oak’s uppermost boughs for a woodpecker that I heard but never found.

Unlike the one in the park, this squirrel is too preoccupied with its treasure to scold me

“How lovely this was,” I mused while repacking my bag.  “A quiet breakfast in a pretty spot, outdoors in the breeze.  Why don’t I do this more often?”

Lake County has well over 100 parks from tiny residential retreats like Park of Indian Hills to rambling state and national parks like Lake Louisa in Clermont, Lake Griffin in Leesburg and Alexander Springs in Altoona.  Although I appreciate the many public spaces (two of my favorites are Sara Maude Mason Nature Preserve in Howey-in-the-Hills and Pear Park in south Leesburg), I seldom take advantage of them. 

A family enjoys Dixie Lake in Lake Louisa State Park

I don’t because I’m lazy when it comes to things like this.  It’s easier to stick with the norm; to not alter routines, even the pleasant ones.  I’d like to think I’d do it again – purposely go “out” to breakfast in a public (albeit minimally populated) venue - but the reality is, I probably won’t.  What I can do, however, is appreciate the moment, inadvertent though it was.

A little imagination turned a pre-breakfast appointment to the medical center into a mini-vacation.  Not a bad way to start the day.

To find a park near you, visit Lake County’s Park Finder Website at 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Lovebugs and hempweed

A Simply Extra
Ever wonder where lovebugs hang out when they're not smashing themselves against the front end of your car or flying into your face when you're outside?

Lovebugs on car...time for the hose and scrub brush

At least some spend time in the twining vines of climbing hempweed (Mikania scandis), a Florida native plant that likes wetland locations.

Climbing hempweed blooms in mid-September around the same time that lovebugs appear.  The insects, which don't bite or sting, could be seeking nectar as nourishment for their short (3 to 5-day long) lives or laying eggs on the plant leaves.

Climbing hempweed (with lovebugs) winding its way around dog fennel

I'm not a fan of dog fennel so I'm glad to see this pretty vine encircle it. As for lovebugs...well, no one is really a fan of them but I'm glad to know they have other places to spend time besides the hood of my car, the windshield or in my face.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A butterfly bonanza

Butterflies are everywhere! 

A clouded sulphur approaching a cassia 

A pair of clouded sulphurs flits around the cassia bush, their yellow wings in sharp contrast to the plant’s green foliage.  Nearby, a zebra longwing, the Florida state butterfly, has lit upon the firespike, a late season bloomer with clusters of tubular red flowers.

Zebra longwing on firespike
Strolling around the house, I notice two Gulf fritillaries on echinaceas and a painted lady on bush sunflowers.  

I follow a small Florida white butterfly as it weaves its way through a patch of overgrown grass, lighting at last on a slender blade.  I squat down to get a closer look.  Is it laying eggs?  Absorbing moisture?  Or is it simply resting, preparing to fly off again moments later?

Florida white on blades of grass

Although my knowledge of the order Lepidoptera has expanded over the years, new questions arise with every sighting.  Is it a male or female and of which species?  Am I seeing a monarch or a viceroy?  Has a palamedes swallowtail landed on the leaf or a spicebush swallowtail?  

Not only do many butterfly and moth species share similar features, their quick, erratic movements make close inspections tricky.  Nonetheless, I’m having fun learning.  There are worse ways to spend time than wandering through flower gardens in pursuit of winged beauties. 

Tiger swallowtail on bush sunflowers

Books and websites provide a wealth of facts and aid identification but everything I’ve learned began first by paying attention.  Simple observation sparks curiosity.  By watching, I realized that clouded sulphur butterflies are in constant motion, while others like the tiger swallowtail pause long enough on a leaf or flower for me to snap off numerous pictures.


Zebra longwings like to congregate at night in amongst the pine trees.  They form colonies, roosting in clusters on single branch.  I didn’t realize butterflies did this until I chanced upon such a grouping one evening at dusk when Ralph and I were walking through the woods.  What a surprise it was to discover dozens of zebra longwings resting in the same spot.

Zebra longwings roosting
Puddling is another butterfly behavior I hadn’t thought much about until recently.  Every now and then, I noticed butterflies lighting upon the ground.  Sometimes they landed on concrete, other times in muddy or sandy locations.  

Painted lady puddling on concrete

I knew butterflies depend on flowers for nectar but I wondered why they sometimes landed on surfaces with no nectar in sight.  It turns out they do so to absorb water and essential minerals like salt.  In most species, only male butterflies do puddling.  The males then transfer those life-sustaining nutrients to females when they mate.

I haven’t seen butterflies mating very often but I’ve frequently caught them doing an aerial dance.  Because butterflies have poor eyesight, the male must swoop close to a potential mate for a better look.  If he correctly identifies another butterfly of the right species and sex, a courting ritual might ensue in which the two flutterers spiral upward until they eventually join forces in an amorous embrace. 

Sometimes, however, the male encounters a butterfly of the same sex.  When that happens, the two might engage in a territorial display.  These displays look similar to the male-female courtship except they end with the butterflies parting ways instead of coming together. 

A couple months ago, I chanced upon several monarch butterflies in a mating tumble.  What began with two soon evolved into a mass entanglement.  Butterflies engaging in group sex?  I had no idea!  After doing research, I learned the period of sexual arousal for butterflies is brief – sometimes lasting just minutes to hours.

Multiple monarchs in a mating tumble
During that time, the male releases powerful pheromones to attract a female.  Apparently, the strong scent sends messages to other males as well.  Sometimes the message says, “This is my territory.  Stay away.”  Other times it’s more a signal to “battle it out.”  The tumble I saw probably involved several male butterflies participating in what scientists call “contest behavior” vying for the favor of a single female.  In the end, only one pair remained.  Mission accomplished, I presumed.

Of the 100 or so moth and butterfly species in Florida, I’ve probably identified just over a dozen and of those, I’d be hard-pressed to differentiate between the sexes.  Such a disparity of knowledge could be seen as a huge task yet to accomplish or as the beginning of an exciting journey of discovery.  Without hesitation, I choose the latter. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

On the web

“Don’t use that door,” I told my husband as he was about to go outside.  “You’ll break the spider’s web.”

“What web?” he asked absentmindedly, adding that he’d already gone out and come back through the same door earlier today.

“Well, I guess I mean the web I saw there yesterday,” I said with a twinge of sadness.

I felt bad, but not too bad because I knew the spider that lives by the door rebuilds its web on a daily basis.

The Black and Yellow Argiope as seen from its underside

The Black and Yellow Argiope (Argiope aurantia) is a beautiful orb-weaving spider with bright yellow and black markings on its oblong body and long orange and black legs.  It’s also huge, about the size of an infant’s hand.  Although big, it’s harmless to people.  But bugs…well, it’s far from harmless to them.  Like other orb weavers, this carnivorous hunter makes fast work of pesky insects like flies, wasps, aphids, gnats, mosquitoes, moths, grasshoppers and palmetto bugs.  It catches them in its distinctive web.

Argiope with captured prey (a moth?) as seen from the its topside
Do you remember the message-writing spider in Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White’s classic book?  Well, Charlotte was a Black and Yellow Argiope, also known as a writing spider.  She is easy to identify because in the middle of her web she weaves a series of thick white zigzags that look like writing, hence the nickname. 

Lately, I’ve been seeing Argiope aurantias everywhere.  They’re in the vegetable and flower gardens and under the house eaves.  

Hanging out in the basil

In the rose bushes, they’ve stretched their nets from one stem to another.  In the crepe myrtles, they wait for prey to land on sticky silk strung between branches.  

This spider built its attractive web in among the bamboo

When I take a walk in the woods, I have to be careful not to run into a web.  The center part has a diameter of about two feet held in place by five or six anchors stretching up to three-feet away.  Often when I’m out rowing, I spot a Black and Yellow Argiope glistening in the sun as its web, suspended from trees along the shoreline, sways in the breeze.

I took this picture of an argiope while rowing.  If you look closely, you'll see hundreds of tiny insects caught in its web.

The spider, whose web anchors blocked the side entry, had been living under the eaves next to the door for most of the summer.  That’s typical of this species.  Once a female finds a suitable site, she stays put unless the food supply diminishes or the web is destroyed.  I say female because in the arachnid world, females rule.  It’s the female who decides where she’ll live and with whom she’ll mate. 

This is the female whose web anchor (the strand she is climbing) blocked the door

The male, who only mates once, is about a third of the size of the female and lacks her colorful markings.  Once a potential partner is located, the male weaves a small web next to hers where he may have to compete with other spiders vying for her attention.  

Look closely and you'll see the male, much smaller and less colorful than his female counterpart

Males woo by plucking a taut strand in the female’s web in the hope that his potential mate will respond positively to his good vibrations.  If she doesn’t, she may eat him instead.  She might do that anyway even if she does accept his musical overture.  After mating, females sometimes consume the male, a process known as monogyny or sexual cannibalism.

Because of monogyny, the male spider’s lifespan is short, usually under a year.  Female golden orb weavers, however, can live for several years in warm climates like Florida.  After mating in late summer, the female will produce a brown, papery egg sac about the size and shape of a fig that she attaches to her web.  

Hundreds of baby spiders await hatching inside the brown, papery egg sac

Inside the sac are 300 to 1400 eggs that will hatch in the spring.  Many of the young will not survive predation by parasitic insects, birds and lizards.  Those that do, venture off to build new webs, find mates and continue the cycle of life.

Even young "writing spiders" make beautiful web designs
As regular readers of this column know, I’m quite fond of spiders.  I appreciate the way they control pest populations and consider their webs to be works of art.  I find their individual behaviors and markings to be just as fascinating and special as those of birds or other wildlife. 

Although Ralph may have been unaware of the Black and Yellow Argiope’s presence outside the entry to our house, I’d had my eye on her for months.  I realized she’d made a mistake when she decided to anchor her web in front of our doorway but was confident she’d recover if some of the anchors were broken.

“Come see the spider,” I said to Ralph a few days later.  This time he knew which spider I meant.

“That’s quite a web,” he admitted as he looked at the zigzag design in the web’s center upon which the Black and Yellow Argiope sat.  
Nearby, a much smaller, less colorful spider awaited his fate. 

I gave my husband a hug. 

“Let’s go inside,” I said.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Peek-a-boo! I see you!

There is no house spider I like more than the Huntsman spider (Heteropoda venatoria).

Big spider!

Naturally shy and harmless to people, these large (3" to 5" long) arachnids are aggressive cockroach killers.  Their preferred time to stalk prey is at night.  During daylight hours they tend to seek out dark, quiet places to hang out and hide.

Most of the time I've discovered their hiding spots inadvertently while dusting picture frames or reaching for a container of something seldom used in the pantry.  When the picture or container is moved and the spider is exposed, it usually freezes for a moment as if to say, "What happened?" then scurries off to find another place to hide.

Occasionally, however, there have been times when daytime hangouts have not been nearly as secretive as the spider may have hoped. Below are a few of the less than appropriate places where our beloved Huntsman spiders have chosen to reside...

Hunstman:  "If I stand real still when that human is wiping his face with the towel, maybe he won't see me..."

"I'm hiding...behind the towel"
(Not exactly what you want to see when you're about to dry your face)

"Kiss My Face"...I don't think so!

"You can't see me!"
(Oh, yes, I can)

A close up of the Huntsman in it paper towel hangout

A couple days ago we discovered a Huntsman in what it probably thought was a safe, dark and soft hiding place...With my allergies, I guess the spider didn't realize how often I reach into that box for a tissue.

And finally...
Just last night my husband called me into the bathroom for the latest sighting of a Huntsman hangout:  In Ralph's waterpik!
Not the best place to hide, Mr. Huntsman.  Please find a new spot