— Raccoon: Procyon lotor —

The raccoon is found mainly in North America. These scrappy mammals are considered to be highly intelligent. They are recognizable by the mask-like black fur around their eyes and light and dark rings around their tail. The rest of their bodies are covered in grey-brown fur and they weigh 8-15 pounds

Raccoons are omnivores and very flexible eaters. Their diet is determined by their environment and can include frogs, fish, insects, mice, eggs, plants and garbage. They are most active in the late afternoon and throughout the night.

Raccoons are mammals who communicate through a variety of hisses, growls, and whistles. There are seven known species of raccoons but only the Procyon lotor is found in Florida. They will stay in urban areas or an area with water sources. In the wild, raccoons live for 2 or 3 years. Females give birth to between one and seven young, generally in a tree hole or log. Young raccoons are called kits.

Raccoons are known for putting their food in water and there are theories as to why they do this. They aren’t actually washing their food but rather wetting it. Some think it is to enhance the taste of the food.

Photo credit: Aymee Laurain.

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

— Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly Family: Papilionidae —

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail can be found from Ontario Canada down to the Gulf states and west to the Colorado plains. There are 10 swallowtail species in Florida10 among. The most familiar is the yellow and black striped Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, which can be seen from the Georgia border south to the Big Cypress Swamp.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has an average wingspan of 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 inches. They love to eat the nectar of many plants including wild cherry, honeysuckle, lilac, Joe-Pye weed, azalea, and milkweed.

This beauty is identified as a male because there is no blueish coloring in the hindwings. Some females are melanic (dark colored). An adult swallowtail’s lifespan is only about 2 weeks. They produce 2-3 broods a year in the south. Females lay a single egg on host leaves. Caterpillars will eat the leaves and rest on silken mats on the upper surface of leaves. The caterpillar is brown and white when it is young, but it changes color as it grows older to green with orange and black false eyespots. The eyespots are thought to scare away predators.

Photo credit: Dan Kon.

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Marsh Rabbit

Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris)

Marsh Rabbits are found throughout Florida. They are strong swimmers and usually found near wetlands where they dine on a variety of plants. You can find Marsh Rabbits near fresh and brackish marshes, flooded agricultural fields, wet prairies and other habitats near water.

Breeding occurs year-round but peaks December through June. Each year, mother marsh rabbits produce an average of six or seven litters with two to four young per litter. Nests are found on the ground in thickets, stumps or logs. lined with grass and breast fur. Young rabbits are weaned and are foraging for themselves within four weeks.

Predators include owls, foxes, bobcats, and alligators who like the Marsh Rabbit are most active at dusk, dawn and throughout the night.

Marsh Rabbits are a bit smaller and darker than the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit. Instead of a white cotton tail, Marsh Rabbits sport a small gray-brown tail.

Photo Credit -Dan Kon

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Cooper’s Hawk

— Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) —
The Cooper’s hawk is widely known and dispersed throughout the U.S., lower Canada, and Mexico. You may see this stealth hunter gliding low to the ground to grab its prey in a split second. They are raptors who will eat other medium-sized birds such as robins and jays but will dine on rats, mice, squirrels, bats, and an occasional lizard or snake.
The Cooper’s Hawk was declining in population throughout the U.S. due to hunting and pesticide use, the worst of these was DDT. Since DDT has been banned and hunting in many areas has been curbed, populations have become more stable.
Cooper’s Hawk eggs and hatchlings are susceptible to being food for other animals like raccoons and raptors. When there is a threat near their nest, you will hear them ka-ka-ka-ka.
Remember the circle of life when removing unwanted wildlife from your home. If you use poison to kill a mouse or a rat, the dying animal will likely be eaten by a cat, snake or raptor which will die from the poison too. The poison can also kill a third animal such as a turkey vulture who feeds on the dead raptor, cat or snake.
Connect. Respect. Coexist.
Image by Kon Studio

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Baird’s Sandpiper

My Road trip to Siesta Key Beach on Florida’s West Coast yielded a Rare Baird’s Sandpiper. I have included a range map so you can see it’s way off course and an uncommon visitor here.
Here are some facts about it.
Named for Fullerton Baird, the second secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Baird’s Sandpiper breeds over a broad expanse of high-arctic North America and in parts of Russia, wintering from the Andes of Ecuador to the lowlands of Tierra del Fuego. Its migration is long but rapid. After departing high-arctic breeding grounds and staging in southern Canada and the northern United States, most individuals travel 6,000 kilometers or more directly to northern South America, some going on as far as Tierra del Fuego and many completing the entire 15,000-kilometer journey in as few as 5 weeks.#lifebird 354

Thank you Paul for sharing this rare sighting of a beautiful Baird’s Sandpiper with all of us at Imagine Our Florida.

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The lovebug, (Plecia nearctica), is one species of insect that I think everyone in Florida knows and can identify. But, do you know ABOUT this species? There is a lot of misinformation about this species. Add to that, apart from the “flights” that occur, most know nothing else about the natural history of this species.

Let’s start with the one huge myth about this species. they are NOT a man-made insect, created in a lab at the University of Florida. This is a pervasive myth that has circulated for decades. They are a non-native species in Florida. The first time they were documented in Florida was 1947. They are found across the gulf coast and as far north as North Carolina.

In Florida, lovebugs can be found throughout the year. But, there are 2 big “flights” of lovebugs, when they occur in huge numbers across their range. As many already know, the first flight occurs in late spring in the months of April and May. The second flight occurs in late summer in the months of August and September.

The lovebug has some interesting reproduction behavior. When females emerge from the ground, they are met by swarms of males. The male will clasp a female in the air and the two will fall to the ground. When the males first begin to couple, the male and female are facing the same direction. Then, the male turns 180 degrees and remains that way for the duration of mating.

Large females lay an average of 350 eggs before they die. Adult lovebugs have a short lifespan with females living up to 7 days and males up to 5 days. The eggs hatch in 2 to 4 days. The larva feeds on decomposing vegetation in moist, grassy areas such as pastures. In this way, they are extremely helpful in converting decaying vegetative matter into organic matter.

The adults feed on the nectar of numerous species, particularly sweet clover, Brazilian pepper, and the goldenrod seen in these photos.

There are few predators of the adult stage of lovebug as their slightly acidic insides make them unpalatable. The larva is food for birds such as robins and quail as well as spiders, earwigs, and other insect predators.

They do not bite or sting, but they are considered a pest species. The huge flights often occur near roadways and interstates (think of all the moist grass of cow pastures and roadsides which is a wonderful home for larva). It also appears that the bugs are drawn to the exhaust of cars. It has been proposed that the chemicals in car exhaust, aldehydes, and formaldehyde, are similar to the chemicals released by decaying organic matter. This means that lovebugs think they are hovering over a great spot to lay their eggs. Older car paints used to be damaged by the acidic internal organs of the lovebug, however, they do not have the same effect on new cars. Lovebugs can be very difficult to remove from the fronts of cars after the bodies dry and can clog radiators.

Love Bug Season usually occurs during May and September. Love Bugs (Plecia nearctica), are not a genetic experiment. They are actually a small black fly, with a velvet looking appearance and a red area on the back of the head.

Love Bugs were not created and released by the University of Florida to control mosquitos. They do not eat mosquitoes. They are nectar drinkers and pollinators. They feed on Brazilian Pepper, sweet clover, and goldenrod. Adult Love Bugs do not eat at all.

Love Bugs are an invasive species from South America and have been in Florida since the 1940s. They are attracted by car exhaust, lawnmowers, other engines, and heat. The white splat on your car is their eggs. Love Bugs do not bite, sting, or transmit diseases.

Love Bugs serve an important ecological role in Florida. Their larvae convert plant material into organic components which growing plants recycle for food. Love Bugs live between 3 to 4 days.

Female Love Bugs lay between 100 to 350 irregular shaped, gray eggs on decaying topsoil material such as cut grass or thatch. Once the eggs hatch the larvae will live and feed in the organic material until they turn into a pupa. The larvae are gray with a darker head. They will stay in the larvae stage between 120 to 240 days depending on the season. They are in the pupa stage 7-9 days. Mating takes place right away once they emerge as adults. The male emerges first then waits for the female. Females fly into the swarming males. Once the adults copulate they will remain joined until the female is fertilized. The male stays attached to the female to prevent another male from fertilizing her. This takes 2-3 days, then the female detaches, lays her eggs, and dies.

Remember, if the University of Florida had created Love Bugs, they would be orange and blue, not black and red. : )

Photo Credit: Andy Waldo

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Slaty Skimmer Dragonfly

— Slaty Skimmer Dragonfly. (Libellula incesta) —
The Slaty Skimmer is one of the most common species of the dragonflies. They are found in marshy ponds, lakes, and slow-flowing forest streams with muck bottoms. This male landed on a sand pile.
Females stay away from the water’s edge except during mating and when laying eggs in the water. After the eggs hatch, they emerge as wingless, water-breathing, immature forms called naiads. Naiads will live in the water for up to four years. Even as a naiad, the dragonflies are carnivores. They dine on mosquitos, butterflies, moths, mayflies, gnats, flies, bees, ants, crickets, termites, and other dragonflies. In short, if the Slaty Skimmer can catch it, it will become dinner.
The Slaty Skimmer dragonfly is found in all 50 states, Canada, and Mexico. Scientists are researching why their population is declining in Wisconsin.
Slaty Skimmers can see almost 360 degrees, however, they can not see what is behind or below them. The Slaty Skimmer’s vision lacks the clarity that we see. They can see ultraviolet and polarized light which allows them to navigate easily.
The dragonfly is one of the most beneficial insects to humans. They are revered in Japan as the country’s national emblem. Over the ages, dragonflies have been viewed as omens, a sign of good luck, a warning of caution, magical, and were once considered real dragons. When you see a dragonfly as beautiful as the Slaty Skimmer, just remember this – Dragonflies pre-date dinosaurs and had a 3-foot wingspan.
Connect. Respect. Coexist.

Photo Credit: Dan Kon

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Hanging Crane Fly

—–The Hanging Crane Fly—–

Can you spot this stealthy insect? If you are out and about you may miss them. Much like stick bugs, the hanging crane fly blends into its surroundings by pretending to be a hanging twig. This male hanging crane fly was observed performing a mating dance. This dance involves very quick shaking motions. Having more little hanging crane flies in this wet area of Alderman Ford park would be very beneficial since their diet consists of eating mosquitoes. Do you have a favorite mosquito eating predator?

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Florida Mangroves

— Florida Mangroves, A Native Story —

Florida mangroves, also known as walking trees, are native to Florida. There are four tree species that are considered mangroves. They are the red mangrove (Rhizophoraceae family), the black mangrove (Avicenniaceae family), and the white mangrove and Buttonwood (Combretaceae family). These trees all thrive in tidal zones and are very tolerant of salt water and water level changes.

All mangroves can live in freshwater areas but have adapted to brackish areas after being out-competed by freshwater only trees. Buttonwood and black and white mangroves have evolved to excrete the salt they absorb through salt glands at the base of their leaves. Red mangroves do not allow the salt to enter at all.

Mangrove trees produce seeds called propagules. The seeds will begin to germinate and grow roots while still on the tree. The seeds when mature, drop from the main tree and float away with the high tide. They will bobble on the root ball until they find a mud flat where they will attach and start growing into new mangrove trees.

Like many of Florida’s wildlife and plants, mangroves are now protected and it is illegal to destroy a mangrove tree. Human development and impact are the reason the Tampa has lost over 44% of its coastal wetlands acreage which includes mangroves and marshes. Punta Gorda has lost 59% of the mangrove forest due to waterfront development. Lake Worth has experienced an 87% decrease of its mangrove acreage due to invasive Australian pines and urbanization.

What do mangroves do for Floridians? Mangrove forests protect uplands from storm winds, waves, and floods. The wider the mangrove area the more protection they give us. Mangroves can help prevent erosion by stabilizing shorelines with their specialized root systems, filter water, and maintain water quality and clarity. Florida has an average of 469,000 acres of mangrove forests.

Underwater, mangrove roots provide surfaces for various marine organisms to attach. The organisms feed off of organic materials, chemical elements, and nutrients that get trapped in the mangrove’s spider-like root system. The marine organisms are food for a multitude of marine species including snook, snapper, tarpon, jack, sheepshead, red drum, oyster, and shrimp. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida’s commercial and recreational fisheries would drastically decline without healthy mangrove forests.

Above water, Mangrove trees provide nesting areas for birds such as the wood stork, roseate spoonbill, brown pelican, and mangrove cuckoos. They provide a smorgasbord of crayfish, crabs, frogs, mice, small fish and snakes for a variety birds.

So next time you see mangroves, take a closer look at the unique ecosystem right before your eyes. Appreciate the beauty, the wildlife who live within, and the protection the mangroves provide us when we retreat inland. While you are there pick up the trash that always gets caught in the mangrove roots. Together, we can enjoy our mangroves while making a difference for our wild friends and in our wild spaces.

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Curtiss’ Milkweed

— Endangered Milkweed Found by IOF Director —

Species Profile: Curtiss’ Milkweed, Asclepias curtissii, is a Florida endemic species which is also an endangered species.

Imagine Our Florida Director, Andy Waldo, discovered this rare species while hiking. After confirming the plant was Curtiss’ Milkweed, Andy immediately notified the Park Rangers and a biologist who hiked back to the site with him and pinpointed the exact location of this endangered endemic species for further research.

What is an endemic species? It is a species that can only be found in a certain area. That means Florida is the only place you can find this species. As you can see by the range map, Curtiss’ Milkweed can be found in several counties across the peninsula of the state.

This milkweed is a herbaceous perennial species which can grow to heights of 2-4 feet tall. This species often dies back in the winter and may not re-sprout the following year. Curtiss’ Milkweed can lie dormant under the soil surface, re-sprouting after a year of dormancy. They stand erect when small. As they continue to grow, this milkweed will become somewhat vine-like, sprawling over large shrubs. There are no definitive studies on longevity, however, a Curtiss’ Milkweed living in a garden is at least 25 years old. This is definitely a long-lived species and as further studies are conducted, we will likely get a better picture of their longevity.

It should come as no surprise that such a unique and rare species would live in an equally unique and rare ecosystem. This plant can only be found in scrub and Flatwoods scrub habitat. These habitats are known for their very deep, sandy soil which is very low in nutrients and moisture. Within this unique habitat, the Curtiss’ Milkweed has an even more narrow micro-habitat. They are almost only found in sites that have disturbed soil. In modern times, that most often includes along the side of trails and dirt access roads in parks and wild spaces. More natural disturbed soil sites would include gopher tortoise aprons (the sand field in front of tortoise burrows), harvester ant sites, and other similar locations.

The Curtiss’ Milkweed has flowers that develop in clusters and last for about 5 days. They begin to bloom in June and can be found blooming into September. The flowers are pollinated by butterflies such as Ceraunus Blues, Hairstreak Butterflies, and several species of Skipper Butterflies. If the flowers are pollinated, the milkweed produces a fruit that takes 60 days to mature. Inside each fruit, there is an average of 68 seeds that, when the pod opens, are released and spread by wind.

Why is the Curtiss’ Milkweed so rare? Probably the biggest single reason is habitat loss. That very deep sand of the scrub community is also very desirable for construction. This species is also dependent upon fire to maintain an open forest floor and canopy. The policy of fire exclusion in the past further reduced the usable habitat of this species. Curtiss’ Milkweed is a very long-lived species but they have a low reproductive rate. This makes their recovery more difficult.

Their natural herbivores include the larva of the Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus) as well as deer. Curtiss’ Milkweed, like other milkweeds, has a thick, sticky, white sap that contains low levels of cardenolides which are toxic to vertebrates. The levels are low however and deer still will graze upon this species.

Given the status of this plant, as well as the difficulty to locate when not in bloom, park biologists came out to mark the location of the three Curtiss’ Milkweed found in this section of the park. A few more plants in another section of scrub which were located by a biologist who was studying scrub jays are awaiting identification. Documenting the location of these Curtiss’ Milkweeds will help park staff conserve this species within the boundaries of the park.

So the next time you are hiking, keep your eyes open for unusual flowers, plants, and wildlife. Like Andy’s, your discovery may lead to more research about a rare, endangered species.

*Range map used in this post came from the following link:
*Info for this post from The Pollination Biology and Ecology of Curtiss’ Milkweed (Asclepias curtissii) by Francis E. Putz and Maria Minno
*Images by Andy Waldo -Director Imagine Our Florida, Inc.

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Gulf Fritillary Butterfly

From forest floors to urban landscapes, the Gulf Fritilary can be seen playfully frolicking throughout Florida. The life of a Gulf Fritilary usually starts as the tiny larvae emerge from their eggs which the mother usually lays on a passion flower vine. This little red caterpillar with black spikes quickly begins munching on the passion flower leaves. In about 20 days the caterpillar goes into its chrysalis to pupate. You can see in this first picture the Chrysalis is forming by breaking the skin. The exoskeleton of the caterpillar will form the chrysalis which looks like a dried leaf. This camouflage helps protect the caterpillar during this vulnerable stage. In about 5 days the butterfly will emerge with it’s beautiful red, black, and white wings. When the butterfly is ready it will search for a mate who will help bring about the next generation of Gulf Fritilaries. These butterflies are capable of mating while in flight and it can be very fascinating to watch their graceful dance.

What is your favorite butterfly?

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Shermann’s Fox Squirrel

—-Shermann’s Fox Squirrel—-

These gorgeous rodents feed off longleaf pine seeds, turkey oak acorns, and fungi. They have two breeding cycles per year but most females only have one little a year. They can be seen from the east panhandle down to the south-central portion of Florida.

This beautiful young mother was seen at the Dade City Pioneer Museum in Dade City, Florida. You can see she has been nursing recently. This curious squirrel kept a watchful eye on humans but eventually retreated to a nearby tree. She was quite a cooperative model.

What is your favorite rodent?

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Blue-Green Weevil

These little bugs get a bad reputation but such is the life of a weevil. The adults, such as this one, munch on plant leaves. The larvae fall to the ground and will munch on roots. This can be quite annoying in agriculture, especially citrus. For most plants, they aren’t much of a problem but if they seem to get overwhelming, the USDA recommends the Trichogrammatidae family of wasps can help by preying on their eggs.

Have you seen any little bugs that don’t get much love today?

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Common Moorhen

– The Common Moorhen —
also known as Marsh Hen or by its scientific name – Gallinula chloropus.

This medium-sized bird is a migratory bird in some parts of the U.S., Canada, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa but they love Florida and Mexico and stay year round. The Moorhen, a part of the rail family. spends its life on the water and is usually 12 to 15 inches in size when fully grown. In spite of having no webbing on their feet, they are good swimmers. Of course, you can not miss them with their gray-black feathers, a line of white feathers, and a red bill with a yellow tip.
Moorhens are omnivores and love to eat seeds and other plant material floating on the water. They also eat algae, small fish, tadpoles, insects, aquatic roots, berries, grass, snails, insects, rodents, lizards, and worms. On land, you will see them ‘peck’ like a chicken for their food.
Moorhen pairs are monogamous. Females will lay 4 to 12 eggs, laying only one egg a day. The chicks will fledge within 5 to 7 weeks and Momma Moorhen might have another brood later in the season.
Predators such as foxes, dogs, coyotes, and raccoons are the main predators of the moorhen. Large reptiles and Wildcats may also prey on them.
Here you see a moorhen family on the water’s edge.

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