The butterflies we usually encounter are Gulf Fritillaries, Zebra Longwings, Sulphurs, Monarchs, Admirals (this picture was taken when the admiral was hanging upside down from the roof eave), Swallowtails (Giant and Zebra), Buckeyes, Sulphurs, White peacocks and, although they're not technically butterflies, Polka-dot Moths. Fritillaries and monarchs are the most common. Passiflora is the fritillaries' caterpillar food, so when spring comes around, plenty of these butterflies start flying around the garden. The young caterpillars eat the passionvine, but there's plenty of food for everyone. The monarchs, of course, eat milkweed, which we have in abundant supply. We've even seen monarch chrysalids hanging in the trumpet vine nearby! There are other butterflies that I've seen and haven't identified yet (so I shall refrain from commenting on those).
Passiflora is the food of choice for fritillary caterpillars. Having this plant in our yard ensures that we get these caterpillars and butterflies every year without fail. Here are some pictures of fritillaries in our yard:
Two fritillaries on the ground
Anybody who has oleanders, knows about the oleander caterpillar and about the polka-dot moth, which is the adult form of the caterpillar. They're not butterflies, but are so colorful that they could easily be confused with them. They are a deep blue with white dots all over their bodies, and their rear-end is bright red. The only problem: when you see them, it means they're looking for your oleanders to make a new generation of caterpillars.
Now, if you ever need to identify a caterpillar, I highly recommend a book called "Peterson First Guides - Caterpillars" by Amy Bartlett Wright. It is the best caterpillar book I have ever found. It identifies 120 species, and includes illustrations of the butterfly, caterpillar, pupa, chrysalis, and any other important information. Plus, the caterpillars are classified according to whether they are spiny, hairy, smooth, bristled, etc. The book is published by Houghton Mifflin, and costs around $6. Well worth the investment. I use it every time I find a caterpillar I can't identify.
A few years ago, I installed a bluebird house in my yard. Turns out no
birds ever showed up. I was disappointed. Then, one day, I find this
cute little frog all cuddled up in a corner. For about a year, it
lived in the birdhouse. Now, this is a
top-of-the-line birdhouse. It opens on the top and on the side for easy
viewing of... well, bird eggs. In my case, easy viewing of my
frog. I used to visit it every day. Sometimes, it would go out for a couple of days, but it always came
back. I figured, it you can't have birds, you might as well have frogs.
They're not as fluffy, but they're still awfully cute! At some point, we had 2 frogs [another view], and even 3. Nowadays, our birdhouse is vacant, but we still see frogs on the walls and windows at night. Sometimes, they even get inside!
Turns out these cute little things are actually Cuban treefrogs (at last check) which are a real nuisance around here. They eat anything from baby birds to other little frogs (no wonder I no longer see the cute little green treefrogs we used to have). During the 2004 hurricane season, they took refuge in the hurricane shutters. Some of the adults that were living in the birdhouse froze during one winter; and their babies usually overwinter safely in the birdbath, emerging in the spring... They really don't like winter.
We occasionally see opossums. Of course, this is rare because possums are nocturnal. We saw one once on the fence, looking pretty distraught. Then, we saw one on the suet feeder once, at night. I came near the window and saw something huge and dark. I had never really seen one of those things up close, so I had absolutely no idea what it could be. I finally decided to bring a flashlight, and what I saw amazed me. The thing was on the suet feeder, happily munching away at the cake. I thought it would run away when I shone the flashlight in its eyes, but to my dismay, it looked totally indifferent. It stayed there for a while longer, and I went to bed. The next morning, of course, it was gone.
Our third (and last for now) encounter happened in March '99. We came to the window in the morning, about 9 a.m., and saw a possum seated on the suet feeder. It was already daylight, and it looked like the poor thing was stranded. To this day, I still wonder how he was ever able to get to the feeder, which is several feet away from the nearest tree, and has a baffle on top of it. Anyway, as time passed, the possum looked more and more miserable. It was turning around, looking at all possible exits, and actually stopped eating. One thing was clear: it was stuck for good. No way up because of the baffle, no way out through either side of the feeder, and about 6 ft. to the ground below. It actually tried to jump a few times, but as soon as it got to hanging from the bottom of the feeder, it got scared and went right back up.
Finally, after an hour, it took the big plunge. It really had no choice... daylight was here to stay, and I bet it was starting to have cramps!! The suet feeder is a little wire basket, which is extremely small compared to an opossum! Anyway, there really was no risk in jumping, because the ground is covered with ferns. I saw it walk away calmly into some bushes. I don't think it's going to come back any time soon. The picture shows the possum stuck on the feeder. Those animals are so unafraid of humans that it's very easy to take pictures, and to come quite close to them. I had already found mice on the feeder, but this was some BIG mouse!
A squirrel is cute.
A hord of squirrels means disaster.
... especially when that hord multiplies :-)
Many years of experience have taught me that no feeder
is squirrel-proof. There is always one squirrel
that will outsmart you.
If you really want a good laugh, I recommend either watching
squirrels on a baffle trying to reach the seed below or squirrels
hanging from a little suet feeder (the grid type with no wood) some 6-7
ft off the ground.
They hang upside down while the suet feeder swings back and forth.
The more they try to hang on, the more it swings. I've seen squirrels
hang on to branches by a single toe! It's really most interesting to
watch. I think we have at long last claimed victory ... except for a few
non-conforming souls ;-).
Of course, it gets difficult to open the window and scream at them, especially when the feeder is next to the street. People have looked at me strangely in the past when I open the window and scream at the top of my lungs at the squirrels. People can't see them behind the tree and think I'm yelling at them !! :-) So I just stand there watching the
While most squirrels have given up the fight for suet, some try harder than ever, and others prefer to spy on birds, because they know that when a bird is at the feeder, there is always a lot to eat down on the ground ... especially if that bird is a blue jay. Jays have the nasty habit of throwing half of the seed on the ground. Apparently, this is not good enough for them. So they methodically search for that special seed, throwing the rest on the ground ... to the delight of squirrels! They'll also have a drink in the fountain and sit in the bottlebrush tree while they eat...
These days, they seem to have found the back feeder, and occasionally (only occasionally, thank God) get a few seeds from it. There's also a plethora of squirrels (again posing for the picture) at the local park by the river.
I'll mention these here, even though they are probably present in many
places in this country. Lizards/anoles are ubuquitous in Florida. Every time you
get outside and walk, you can be sure
a dozen lizards will come running. Every time you water something
in your yard, lizard will come running. Whenever you approach a flower, or touch a leaf, lizards will come out of the woodwork, so to speak. The water chases the bugs out of the ground and the lizards know it well.
And the lizards are always a bit thirsty too. They're on sidewalks, in the patio, on plants. They even came to say hello when we installed the veggie garden fence! I
don't know of anything that runs that fast... They look like those cartoons where the character starts running very fast on his toes! And we have all kinds: black ones, striped ones, even an almost fluorescent green. Recently, I also noticed crested ones. They're part of life in Florida and we're glad they are. For one thing, they keep the bug
population in check, by eating spiders, ants, and other small bugs.
Unfortunately, they also eat earthworms. And yes, they do bite! If you get them mad, they'll open that big mouth of theirs. That's quite convenient, though, because if you can give them something to bite on, you can bring them outside, hanging by their powerful jaws. It's really quite amazing, considering their size...
Snakes, where we live, are usually small and harmless. But we have to be
careful. The snakes we usually encounter are either black [all black (southern black racer, up to 4 ft.) or black with yellow underside and yellow neck ring (southern ringneck snake, usually around 13 in.)] or striped red/black/yellow (scarlet kingsnake). The small black ones are tricky because they look like giant earthworms. At first, you may think they are and pick them up. It's really quite amazing. Usually, though, earthworms don't get that big. :-) So before you put your hand anywhere you can't see it, think about the potential dangers. Our cat was particularly fond of killing black snakes, and she occasionally brought one into the patio where she would drop it into the pool. Fortunately, the water is a sparkling blue color, so it's easy to see the black thing at the bottom!
As I mentioned above, the other snake that is somewhat common where I live,
which is in a suburb, is the scarlet kingsnake, which is pretty and
totally harmless. It looks like another harmless snake, the scarlet snake, which is the same except that its belly is white (the bands don't wrap around). The scarlet kingsnake is often confused with the poisonous coral
snake, which it resembles, and whose bite can be lethal. They both have
red, black and yellow bands, but in different order. Here's the rhyme
that's usually used to remember which one is poisonous:
"red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, good for Jack." The
scarlet kingsnake, which we often find in backyards, has red bands that
touch the black bands. The coral snake, which we haven't encountered yet,
has red bands touching yellow bands. When you see this pattern on a snake,
don't pick it up!! (Come to think of it, never pick up a wild snake!!)
The Scarlet Kingsnake, Lampropeltis triangulum, is also often called Milksnake, and scientists aren't sure whether they
should be separate, or if they're actually the same species. You can read more about this on the Davidson College Herpetology website.
Coral Snake Notice the order of the bands
Scarlet Kingsnake/Milksnake Notice how the bands wrap around the body
Scarlet Snake Notice the white belly
Raccoons of course are quite common in rural areas. Even in some
suburbs, you can expect to see one at one time or another. Here, we only had
two encounters. During the first one, we were all eating dinner in the nook,
when we heard the cat door slam. The cat was inside already, so this really
took us by surprise. A few moments later, we saw an enormous "thing" running
toward us. It came up to the sliding door, looked inside (at that point, we
realized it was a raccoon), and when it saw us, it ran away... the same way
it came in: through the cat door... how friendly!! Until then, I had never
realized how large these things can get.
In August 1999, we had our second encounter. It was
night and everything was calm. Suddenly, we heard a noise in the patio at
the back of the house. We turned on the lights, and to our surprise, we
saw a *huge* raccoon that was walking, in no hurry, in the patio. It was
about twice the size of our cat. Finally, after a few minutes, it walked
toward the cat door. Our cat was in the patio, and, as fierce as she
usually is when it comes to other creatures invading her private space, that
night, she just sat there, underneath the ping pong table, and looked at the
whole situation as if it was something normal. She didn't seem to want to
fight, nor did she seem terrified at all. Usually, she's one or the other.
I must say she'd already had a "raccoon encounter" once, and she got such a
big wound out of it, maybe she had learned a lesson.
Anyway, as the raccon was walking toward the cat door, suddenly, we saw
another raccoon that was previously in a dark area of the patio. Now, he
started to follow the first raccoon. Of course, he got to step on all of
our flowers before finally exiting through the cat door. I guess they're
just a lot of fur and very slim bones, as they were able to go through the cat door.
Apparently, they're regulars!! It's kind of scary, because they're known to
carry rabies. And those
"beasts" eat everything: fruit, flowers, birds, their eggs, frogs,... you
name it, they eat it! Not to mention they also like to go through garbage
bags! And to top it off, they live long and can adapt to any environment... A wonderful creature!
But wait, there's more!! As soon as they had left (and we were sure
there weren't any more of them!), we noticed paw marks on the lanai. Now what could
possibly cause raccoons to leave paw marks on a dry surface?? You guessed
it... these monsters had apparently gone for a swim in *our* swimming
pool!!? What a pity I didn't get to photograph them! I was so busy
looking at them... and it all went so fast!
Alligators are usually not found in suburban yards, but they can be present
wherever there is water. Some people have found gators in their pool
(unscreened), but it is uncommon. The main thing you have to remember is
never to swim in rivers where you can't see the bottom. Unlike rivers up
north where you can take a swim fairly easily (provided it's allowed),
rivers in Florida are the prime territory of gators. By going into the
water, you must realize you're a prey of choice for those things.
Similarly, if you're in a boat, don't put your hand in the water... you
never know what's in that water! Here's an interesting fact for our
northern residents: gators don't have tongues. They swallow their prey
directly ... (well, after crushing it with their teeth!)
There are quite a few common turtles in this area. Most common in the pond I usually visit is the Florida
Softshell Turtle (Trionyx ferox). This one has a very long snout, very large webbed feet, and is flat as a pancake. With no markings
anywhere on its shell, it's not exactly pretty. Muscovy ducks regularly kick them in the snout when they get too close.
In another pond, I recently noticed some red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). This one's much cuter. Smaller, with markings on its shell
(although usually covered with algae), it's got a small face, and a large red stripe next to its eye.
The rabbits we usually see around here are cottontails. They are the *cutest*
things!! Of course, now, we don't see that many, because they live mainly
on unoccupied lots, but we do sometimes see a rabbit that runs across the
yard! We rescued 2 little baby rabbits once. The first one died (it was too
young), so we put the second one back near its burrow, and its mother found
it. Apparently, they don't mind our touching them. It was sooooo cute
I have never seen armadillos in my yard, and while I know that friends and colleagues have them in their yards, I thought my yard
was somehow immune to these creatures. Not so. A few months ago, we started seeing little holes, about 6 in. deep, and not very
wide. They couldn't be burrows, and we honestly had no idea what they could be. So I decided to look in a wildlife book I have, and
discovered, to my surprise, that these holes were dug by armadillos! Apparently, these creatures are able to smell bugs up to 6 in.
down in the ground, so they dig a hole with their front paws, and then stick their long snout in to capture the bugs, usually beetles.
Well... that means that we have, unbeknownst to us, armadillos patrolling our yard at night!
I hate bugs, but I'll say one thing about bugs in Florida: there are many
and they are generally bigger than in other places. Aside from the usual
spiders and such, we have the ever-present mosquito, which comes out mostly
at night. Some mosquitoes in Florida are totally lethargic. When you see one,
you have all the time you need to take your fly-swatter, come back and crush
the thing before it realizes you're there. In addition, they're totally
black, so they're really easy to spot on a white wall! Others, however, are very aggressive, and will even bite through clothing! If you're going to be outside for an extended period of time, you better bring mosquito repellant with a good amount of DEET in it. A lot of times, though, we don't stay outside at night, or we'll stay in the screened lanai...
One of our main
problems here is that bugs overwinter. They don't have to hide for long
since our winters are mild. One thing I've noticed is that we don't have
flies here, at least not in the suburbs. I know they're probably common in
the country, but here in the suburbs, they're almost totally absent. I know in Europe, we
used to be bothered with flies all the time!
As for the garden varieties, we carry a full line of caterpillars and
stinkbugs. I should mention we also have *good* bugs (ladybugs, for
instance, and beautiful damselflies). Also, there are the wasps, usually paper wasps and yellow jackets [got a nest of these a couple of years ago - nasty creatures when they feel threatened :-o]. The other day, there was a huge bumblebee hovering around the cape honeysuckle. You can even see its wings on the picture! Apparently, they also enjoy thistle.
And then there are the lovebugs, a typical Florida phenomenon...
Lovebugs are present only 2 months out of the year: May and September. They
come back every year during those entire months. And since they are
lovebugs, they always travel in pairs. These things are totally harmless,
and weak as can be. If you blow on them, they'll fall to the ground... and
then take off again. They're more of a small nuisance because they're
everywhere, and they don't avoid humans at all. Actually, they don't avoid
anything. They just fly aimlessly and collide with whatever is in their
way. That could be a windshield, for example. Many people protect their
cars to avoid having an abundance of dead lovebugs squashed on their
windshields and lights.
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