Monday, May 30, 2016

Zebras in the garden!

There are zebras in my yard — lots of zebras!

Not the four-legged variety found in Africa. The zebras I’ve been seeing are garden-variety critters. Their official name is Heliconius charitonius, but most people know them as zebra longwings. They are butterflies, slender-winged bedazzlers with just a hint of red on their otherwise black and whitish-yellow wings.

Instead of grazing on grass like their horse-like namesakes, these fluttering beauties flit around the yard sipping nectar and feeding on pollen gathered from flowers. Found throughout Florida in hardwood forests, thickets and gardens, this neotropical butterfly is not only distinctive looking, it holds a special distinction. In 1996 it was named the official state butterfly of Florida.

In my yard, there has been a sudden population explosion of this easy-to-identify flier. I’m probably seeing so many zebras because of all the passion flower vines growing wild on our property. 

The Florida passionvine flower

Passionvine is the the host plant on which zebra longwings lay their eggs. In the right weather, it takes only about three weeks for the 15 yellow eggs each butterfly lays on a passionvine leaf to develop into a butterfly.

Zebra longwing laying eggs on passionvine leaf

Of course, before it can become a butterfly, an egg must first develop into a caterpillar and the white and black spotted, black-spined zebra longwing larvae have another distinction. Their bodies taste terrible and are poisonous to predators. The larvae get this extra protection from the leaves of their host plant.

Mature larva of the zebra longwing butterfly, Heliconius charitonia (Linnaeus), on corkystem passionflower, Passiflora suberosa L. (Passifloraceae). Photograph by Jaret C. Daniels, University of Florida.

When zebra longwing caterpillars eat the leaves of their host plant, toxins in the passionvine leaves enter their bodies. While the toxins don’t harm the butterfly larvae, they do major damage to unwitting predators that mistakenly bite into them. Predators soon learn to stay away from the foul tasting, poisonous insects resulting in a much higher developmental success rate than many other species experience.

Zebra longwing with curled proboscis

Once mature, zebra longwings, which can live up to six months, are busy finding food. Of course, not all flowers are equal. Just as people prefer one type of bloom over another, the zebra longwing has preferences, too. I’ve seen them completely ignore angel trumpet flowers, yet gather en masse around the purple and white blossoms of golden dewdrop growing right next to the angel trumpet. Lately they’ve also been paying special attention to the purple porterweed flowers and the red blossoms on the bottlebrush trees. 

Zebras are attracted to sticky red bottlebrush blooms

While many other butterflies flit about with manic energy that makes observation challenging, watching zebra longwings is easy. Zebras are seldom in a rush, often pausing for a moment or two at each flower before moving on to the next bloom at what seems to be a confident, leisurely pace. Their calm flight pattern makes zebra longwings easy subjects to photograph as well as to observe.

One of my most exciting zebra longwing observations took place several years ago at dusk when I was walking through a wooded part of our property. My path just happened to take me by a slender tree limb where I noticed dozens of these black-and-white beauties clustered together on a branch. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the butterflies were settling in for their nightly communal rest.

Zebras settling in with their brethren for their nightly slumber party

Zebra longwings are extremely social creatures. Not only do they seem to enjoy the companionship of their brethren during daylight hours when feeding, at nighttime they like to sleep next to each other, too. Every night dozens of butterflies come together to roost on a tree branch in a protected part of a woods. They return to the same spot night after night. Zebra longwings epitomize the term “social butterfly.”

It has been a long time since I encountered a butterfly slumber party, and I look forward to chancing upon one again some evening. Until then, however, I’m enjoying my daylight observations. Seeing the flight of dozens of zebra longwings fluttering around the flowers in my garden may not be as exciting as observing a herd of real zebras in the wild but it’s a darn close second.

There are real zebras in Florida too!
Read about them on my post Exotic animals A to Z 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Hello bats! Goodbye bugs!

Gainesville must not have many mosquitos.

How could they when every day at dusk 400,000 hungry bats fly out of two gigantic bat houses on the University of Florida campus to feast on the pesky insects? The custom-built structures are the world’s largest occupied bat houses containing even more insect-eating mammals than the famous Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

I had wanted to witness this amazing phenomenon ever since my youngest son entered graduate school in the college town. Unfortunately, during the three years he was there, my timing was always off. Seeing the winged mammals take flight required driving back to Groveland in the dark, and while nighttime driving never bothered me when I was younger, my 64-year-old self doesn’t like it one bit.

A few weeks ago, however, I finally made it. By then, Toby had earned his degree and moved out of the townhouse where he had been living. Since he was no longer in the area, we decided to place the property on the market, and my husband Ralph and I went up to ready it for sale. Since we realized it would take more than a few hours to get everything done, we decided to go up for a day and stay overnight.

“While we’re there, we can finally go see the bats,” Ralph said.

Everything went as planned. We cleaned. We took care of minor repairs. We worked hard but felt good about our accomplishments. When the afternoon waned, we got in the car and drove the short distance over to the campus.

The UF bat house and bat barn — two structures with the capacity to house 750,000 bats — are located on the north side of Museum Road across from Lake Alice. The two current bat buildings were constructed in 2009 and 2010 respectively after one built in 1991 collapsed under the weight of the bats and their debris.

The current wood-gable and gambrel-roofed structures are raised 20 feet off the ground on wooden poles. During daylight hours, three different species of insect-eating bats rest by hanging upside down from crevices created by partitions spaced between 3/4 to 11/4 inches apart. The majority of bats living in the two buildings are Brazilian free-tailed bats, but some southeastern bats and evening bats have also taken up residence.

Although they rest by day, the bats make a dramatic appearance about 15 to 20 minutes after sunset. Ralph and I had arrived early, but by the time the sun set, the parking lot was filled with cars, and dozens of other curious folks had gathered to watch the impending show.

And what a show it was! Just as the sky began to darken, thousands of bats swooped out of the houses, flying in what seemed like a synchronized pattern of down, up and around the skyline. In all my years of observing wildlife doing amazing things, I have never seen anything as surprising as the nightly exodus of 400,000 fast-fluttering mammals pouring out of the bat houses and flying through the sky with determined ferocity.

“This is incredible!” I murmured as much to myself as to my equally awed husband standing by my side.

In the coursse of just a single hour, each individual bat can catch and consume up to 1,000 mosquitoes. Multiply that by 400,000 and the result is the potential reduction of 400 million insects in just one hour alone. What’s even more astounding is that these winged eating machines don’t limit themselves to just an hour of feasting on the fly but continue to scour the night sky for hours. That’s enough to make one wish more parts of the country were so naturally well-protected from pesky insect scourges.

Our visit to the UF bat houses was even better than I imagined it would be. Not only were we able to watch the entire spectacle, but our early arrival at the site coincided with the appearance of a beautiful double rainbow in the sky. 

Call it an omen or perhaps just a reward for waiting three years to make it happen. However you look at it, seeing the bats leave their slumber spots to fly out into the night was well worth the wait.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Land turtle comes to visit

I was surprised when I first saw the gopher tortoise on the concrete path by our porch. I figured it must have wandered there by mistake.

Then I saw it again the next day.

This time, the tortoise was in the same spot but it faced a different direction. The day before its head pointed away from our house. On the second day, it pointed toward it.

On Day 2, the tortoise was in the same position only facing toward the porch

Something was going on but I wasn’t sure what.

I squatted down to watch the unexpected critter and took a few pictures but soon left because not much was happening. The hard-shelled reptile didn’t move. All it did was open and close its eyes — two dark knowing orbs sunk deep within its grayish-brown scale-covered head.

An ancient and knowing face

As surprising as it was to see a gopher tortoise so close to our house, encountering one in our area is not unusual. Tortoise holes pepper our property. Some are abandoned but others show signs of use with newly scuffed sand in front of the entry hole.

An in-use gopher tortoise burrow

The animal’s scientific name, Gopherus polyphemus, means “burrower” (Gopherus) and “lives in cave” (polyphemus). It’s an appropriate moniker since digging tunnels and living in them are defining features of this land turtle whose relatives date back 250 million years. After selecting a semi-sunny location in an open area with sandy soil, a gopher tortoise uses strong claws on its shovel-like front feet to create a deep and expansive burrow twice as wide as its body.

Strong, sharp front claws are for digging burrows

It takes about two to three days of steady work for a tortoise to dig a downward-slanting 15-foot long by 5-foot deep burrow, but not all tortoise holes are the same size. The length and depth of the reptile’s subterranean home depends on location. In coastal areas where the water table is close to the surface, a burrow may only be 6 feet deep and 3 feet long while in high, dry sandhill areas a tortoise may have to excavate a tunnel more than 50 feet long and more than 20 feet deep to reach a point just above the water table.

Cold-blooded gopher tortoises like to warm themselves in the sun outside their burrows 

The gopher tortoise I recently encountered must not have read the gopher-tortoise handbook. Either that or he skipped the chapter on proper burrow construction. For the last six days my new friend lived above ground, not under it. He “burrowed” into the accumulated leaf litter in a corner of our paved patio, wedging himself snuggly between the porch’s stucco wall and the underside of low tables and patio chairs. When I open the porch door, I can see him.

Can you find the land turtle sleeping beneath the repurposed stove?

Having a wild animal take up residence in an easily observable location is an incredible opportunity. I have learned much over the last week by simply keeping an eye on our almost-a-houseguest. One of my main discoveries is how inactive he is. My new neighbor is not what you’d call a go-getter. He sleeps until mid-afternoon. Around 3 p.m., he comes out of his “burrow,” chooses a direction and strolls out to eat. Meals are a slow but steady graze. A bite of this leaf. A taste of that. Chew slowly. Yawn often. Move on to the next snack.

Big yawn!

By 5 p.m., mealtime is over and he’s ready to head “home” — home being his lazy-turtle abode beneath our patio furniture. Before the sky has darkened, he is already hunkered down for slumber in the shelter of his repurposed home.

My messy patio seems to suit the needs of a slumbering gopher tortoise

I spent six illuminating days keeping an eye on the gopher tortoise but the fun ended on day six when my reptilian rambler failed to return “home” following his afternoon graze.

I’ve read that during mating season, which is now, male tortoises often roam large distances in search of females. I like to think that’s what he’s doing. Perhaps his stay at Chez Sherry helped him rest up to be refreshed and ready for the journey ahead.

Of course, he could as easily have been a mixed up old land turtle who didn’t know what he was doing or care where he slept. Either way, watching him was a thrill I could “gopher” again and again.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Love those volunteers!

The best cherry tomato plant in our garden isn’t in our garden at all. It’s growing in the middle of the lawn. I noticed it in January and since then I’ve watched it grow taller, fuller and more laden with fruit than any of the well-tended cherry tomato plants in the garden.

Volunteer tomato plant.  Big and getting bigger!

How this particular plant came to be growing in the middle of our weedy lawn is a mystery. It could have come from a seed deposited by a bird, squirrel or some other tomato-nibbling critter or I suppose we could have tracked it there on our shoes.

What’s not a mystery, however, is how well it’s doing. It’s doing amazing. This lone volunteer plant – grown without soil amendments and watered only by raindrops - produces more ripe, red, bite-size morsels of flavorful goodness than any of the cherry tomatoes in my husband Ralph’s well-tended, irrigated garden.

That’s not to say Ralph did anything wrong. My husband is an adept gardener with an impressive ability to produce a wide variety of lush edibles, but even the most dedicated gardener can be bested by a strong willed plant. The way I see it, the cherry tomato seed that took root and grew in our weedy lawn was one heck of a resolute sprout, determined to strive and indeed thrive in the precise place it happened to land.

A less self-assured person might feel defeated by having his gardening efforts upstaged by nature, but my husband is not like that.

“Have you seen how many tomatoes that plant in the lawn has?” he recently asked.

Pointing to the basket on the kitchen counter, I replied, “Sure have. I picked these a little while ago, and that’s just some of what I could have picked. There are so many more.”

And that's only some of the ripe fruit on our volunteer tomato plant!

Our volunteer plant is a veritable jungle of verdant vitality. Shortly after I discovered the young sprout growing far away from the garden, I knew it needed protection from the lawn mower and car so Ralph encircled it with a wire tomato cage. Initially, the enclosure provided support but soon the spiral wires began to bend and lean under the weight of the plant’s ever-expanding limbs. A thick bamboo pole pounded into the ground helped hold the wired cage upright but it didn’t do anything to relieve the sprawl.

A bamboo pole helped keep the tomato cage from falling over

Tomato limbs soon poked through the tomato cage holes. Limbs were stretching to the left. Limbs were stretching to the right. Tomato vines reached for the sky and spread across the ground. Rather than pester Ralph to fashion another fix, I came up with my own solution. I positioned two worn out rattan and iron chairs across from each other with the plant in the middle and used the chairs’ iron frames as trellises.

Some old, worn out chairs add support to the vine's sprawling limbs

The chairs worked great…for about a week. That’s how short a time it took the tomato vine jungle to take over. The chairs vanished as volunteer vines gobbled them up with wild cherry tomato vigor.

I’ve been doing a bit of gobbling myself lately, devouring cherry tomatoes raw as well as stir-fried and roasted. I love the way these juicy orbs taste when cooked slowly with slices of garlic, chunks of fresh pineapple, a few mushrooms and small chunks of onion. Each bite feels like a gift.

And that’s exactly what it is – a sweet gift of nature – an unexpected treasure growing with abandon in an unlikely spot. The best cherry tomato plant in our garden is not in our garden at all but that only makes it more special.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Splitting time...

During the last year, Ralph and I have been going back and forth between Lake County and the Volusia town of New Smyrna Beach. 

For part of each month I’m a country gal, enjoying the fields, woods, wetlands and lakes that blend together on our Groveland property with groves of bamboo, fruit trees, vegetable gardens and flowers. 

Relaxing in my south garden at our Groveland home

For the rest of the month, I’m a beach bum, riding my bike along the surf, exploring brackish water lagoons, discovering different plants and learning about all kinds of previously unfamiliar wildlife. 

It's hard to feel crabby at the beach

I go for the occasional dip in the ocean but not nearly as often as my saltwater-loving husband for whom beach time is a throwback to his formative years on Cape Cod. 

Riding waves through time and saltwater

Initially, I found the transition from one place to another to be difficult. I’m a put-down-roots kind of person and although it took several months to set things up so both places feel like home, we eventually achieved that sweet spot of familiarity settling in with only slight modifications depending on where we were. In Groveland, I may go for a morning row whereas at the beach, I might bike down to ocean to watch the sunrise.

A short jaunt to the beach to see the sunrise

Watching the sunrise is a big attraction to me and while catching a glimpse of Ol’ Sol peeking over the horizon requires more precise timing than a pre-dawn paddle on the lake, I’ve found it to be well worth the effort. 

The morning sky changes so fast

I wish I could say I’ve watched the sun rise over the waves often but the reality is I’ve only managed to motivate myself to get to the beach early enough to see the sunrise a half-dozen times this past year. Although not nearly often enough, each time has brought me a great deal of pleasure.

The last time we were in Volusia County was the first time Ralph joined me for a pre-dawn jaunt. Usually, he stays behind in bed, content to catch up on his sleep while I pedal along the ocean until I find a place on the hard sand where I can set up my camera and sit back to watch the show.

This time, he timidly asked from the bed, “Okay if I come along?”

I looked at his sleepy face and thought about all the things my dear husband normally does before he goes anywhere in the morning.

“Sure,” I replied with a hint of hesitancy. “But you’ll need to get going. The sun rises in less than 15 minutes.”

“That’s okay,” he said. “You go ahead. If I can get ready in time, I’ll meet you there.”

That sounded fine to me. Although I doubted he’d make it, I gathered up my gear, kissed Ralph goodbye and headed out the door. The beach is just a couple blocks from our house so it didn’t take long to arrive. The tide was low – perfect for beach biking – and the shore was exactly how I like it, occupied by many birds and few people. 

Few people, many birds

I was focused on a willet skirting the waves when Ralph startled me with a cheerful ‘Hello!’ as he pulled up alongside. Pleasantly surprised, I looked at him and smiled.

“Didn’t think you’d make it,” I said, “but I’m glad you did.”

We rode a little farther down the beach before stopping to set up the camera and wait for the sunrise. When it finally appeared – at first a mere sliver of orange light that quickly rose in brilliance as it arched above the horizon – I looked at my husband and saw the wonder of the moment reflected in his face.

Watching the sunrise...what a rush!

“I understand now why you like getting up early and coming here,” he said.

His comment required no response. The sky said it all.

We stayed on the beach for about a half-hour, long enough for the orange orb to set the day aglow in dazzling and quick-changing displays of color and light amid shifting clouds.

We were both quiet as we biked back to our beach house until Ralph asked, “Don’t we see the sunrise at home?” referring to our west-facing Groveland house.

“We do,” I explained since I’m usually out rowing during that time of day, “but we see it after the sun has already risen. Trees prevent us from seeing the sun peek over the horizon like we can at the beach.”

A short video of our sunrise at the beach

The sunrise is an often-overlooked marvel of life. It happens so often we take it for granted. But when we do look – when we take the time (make the time) to notice that golden glow rising about the horizon - a warm and brilliant glow rises within us as well.

I went to the beach, saw the sunrise and shared it with the most important person in my life. A new day began. It was good.