Adult Southern Five-lined Skink. This fella is in the process of regenerating his tail. Young skinks have a bright blue tail which detaches when a predator tries to capture them. This gives them a chance to get away. As they get older, skinks get a reddish head and the stripes on the males fade. These lizards move fast so keep your eyes open when exploring damp trails.
The Monarch Butterfly population is in trouble due to loss of habitat, pesticides, and climate change. As the only butterfly who migrates, a single Monarch can travel hundreds to thousands of miles. Monarchs are born with an internal compass that guides them on their migration. Each year, three to five generations will be born. A Monarch’s lifespan is6 – 8 months but will live only 2-6 weeks as a butterfly.
—— You can Make a Difference —–
Plant native milkweed and nectar plants that have been grown organically.
Milkweed contains glycoside toxins that are harmless to the Monarchs but is poisonous to its predators.
—– Conservation Begins in Your Backyard ——
Witches’ brooms are caused by stress to the plant. Trees can be infected by a fungus, phytoplasmas (which are wall-less single-celled organisms), or parasitic plants like mistletoe.
These structures can be beneficial to wildlife, providing shelter for animals such as flying squirrels. There are also species of moths that rely on these for shelter as well as providing food for their larva.
Cutting from witches’ brooms can be grafted onto normal root-stocks creating weird, dwarf cultivars that people collect.
The photos here are of a Witches’ Broom growth on a sand pine, Pinus clausa in Wekiva Springs State Park.
We all know Florida has some very unique ecosystems. One of the most unique of these ecosystems is The Lake Wales Ridge. The ridge runs about 150 miles along the spine of Central Florida. The city of Lake Wales is located roughly at its center. The highest point of the ridge is Sugarloaf Mountain. At an elevation of 312 feet., this is the highest point in peninsular Florida.
As you can see in the satellite image, the ridge is actually visible from space as a bright white line. This line is caused by the dune sands of this former island chain. That’s right! The Ridge used to be a chain of islands 2 million years ago when the rest of the peninsula was under the raised waters of the ocean.
These ancient dunes and their white, powdery sand, provide a unique habitat for many rare and endangered plants and animals. These plants and animals have evolved to deal with the hot conditions and quick draining soil.
Species such as the scrub jay, gopher tortoise, Florida scrub lizard and sand skink make their homes here. Many of the plants have also adapted to the heat and lack of regularly available water. Scrub oaks have thick, curved leaves adapted to conserve water. Yucca, pear cactus, and scrub palmetto are all common plants along the ridge.
The black soldier fly is an excellent pest control companion. The larvae help break down organic matter for fertilizer and help reduce damage from manure pollution. Their presence will also keep those other pesky flies away. If you have a composter the larvae from this guys can help compost organic matter much faster. This fly is a Batesian mimic of the wasp. It resembles a wasp but isn’t harmful.
This one was still small, only about 18 inches in height but these can get up to 2 meters long. When they mature, they produce a single flower spike then die.
The Lake Wales Ridge is home to many rare and endangered plants and animals. Make sure to get out and explore. Use our state parks, wildlife management areas, and National parks. This shows, to government officials, how valuable natural spaces really are to people. Attendance matters.
Many neighborhoods have hawks who linger about the area. While they mostly prey on small rats, squirrels, and other birds, they will make a meal out of stray animals. If you have a pet, keep them inside or on a leash, secure all holes in your backyard to limit the exposure range, and for extra security, you can get a raptor-proof vest for when you walk your small dog. Making small changes in human behavior helps us coexist with our native critters. It also helps keep them on a diet that may just get rid of the invasive rat species.
Here’s a little girl that many people will be quick to recognize. She’s a young black and yellow garden spider. These spiders range all across the United States and up into Canada as well as south into Mexico and Central America. The spiderlings emerge in spring from egg sacs laid the prior year.
The dense zigzag of silk in the middle of the web is known as the stabilimentum. The true purpose of this structure is in dispute. Some say it is to provide camouflage to the spider resting in the center. Others think it acts as an attractant to insect prey or as a deterrent to birds who could fly into the nest and damage it. Every night, the female eats the center of her web and then rebuilds it in the morning.
Their bites are comparable to a bee sting and are harmless to healthy adults and those who are not allergic to their venom. They maintain a clean and orderly web and help remove loads of insects. They are great to have around and are a truly beautiful arachnid. We hope everyone gets a chance to get out this weekend and enjoy the outdoors!
Cicadas are some pretty neat little creatures that are all around us but go largely unseen. They do not, however, go unheard. I bet, at some point, just about everyone has heard these guys screaming from the tree tops at some point in their lives. But, did you know that most of their lives are spent underground?
The species in the photos are of the Little Brown Cicada (or grass cicada), Cicadetta calliope. This is a small species of cicada, growing to just under 1 inch in size. Unlike its larger cousins to the north, this is not a periodical cicada. Those cicadas emerge every 13 to 17 years in numbers as great as 1.5 million per acre. For our residents who hail from the northeast, Florida has no periodical species. The closest location to observe the emergence of periodical species would be one of the 13-year varieties. Southeastern Louisiana will have its next emergence in 2027, and in central Alabama and Georgia, the next emergence will be in 2024.
So, some cool facts on these amazing insects. We all know their sound but did you know only the males actually make noise. Cicadas make noise using timbals, a drum-like structure on either side of their abdomen. Only males possess this structure. They make different songs, calling songs to attract mates, protest songs when captured by a predator, and in some species, courtship calls, which are softer and made when the male is in visual or physical contact with the female.
The nymphs feed on the xylem sap from the roots of grasses and trees. This low nutrient sap is partially the reason for their long duration as a nymph. The minimum time a cicada spends as a nymph is 4 years but, in the case of the periodical cicada species, can be as long as 17 years.
Every cicada species molts 4 times as a nymph. For its fifth molt, the nymph emerges from the ground and molts into its adult form.
Cicadas do little to no harm to plants. They are harmless to food crops and landscape plants. They do not bite or sting and are an important food source for wildlife.
Watch our video here: https://youtu.be/be80lm4fn7k
This Florida Softshell Turtle, aka. Apalone ferox, made her way into a human neighborhood. Softshell Turtles will lay their eggs under the edge of a driveway or sidewalk. The sun will warm the concrete and keep her eggs warm until they hatch. If you see a Softshell Turtle in your neighborhood, just give her space and she will make her way back to the pond here she akes her home.
Softshell Turtles usually eat snails and small fish but have been known to eat waterfowl such as ducks and small herons. Florida Softshell turtles will hide in the sand at the bottom of lakes and streams and ambush passing schools of fish for lunch or dinner. Softshells take 10 years to reach full maturity. They play a role as predator and scavenger. Animals who prey on these turtles are raccoons, bears, other turtles, skunks, snakes, eagles, otters, armadillos, and alligators. Their biggest predators are human.
These pictures might look like different skinks but they are the same species. You can see in the first picture that the eggs look painfully larger than the young skink next to them. Don’t worry. They are much smaller when laid. The eggs start out small but will swell with water. The eggs are usually laid in a damp location with some burrowed areas around them. You may find them under flower pots or bricks. The second picture shows the vibrant color of the newborn skink. Newborns are about 4 cm in length. The bright colors will fade over time but juveniles will retain the bright blue tail. In the third picture, you can see the bright coloring has faded leaving just the black and yellow stripes. This skink has just entered adulthood. Females will retain this appearance throughout the rest of their lives. In the fourth picture, you can see a full grown male skink. The stripes have faded and the head is a bright red color. These little lizards are very fast and it’s difficult to see them but they are very fascinating to watch as they hunt for small insects. Much like a cat, they flicker their tail as they stalk their prey. Have you been lucky enough to spot one of these little skinks around your yard?
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Today, we look at a very important member of Florida’s ecological community. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is one species almost everyone can identify. Found across the entire state of Florida including the Florida Keys and several barrier islands, the only snake that looks even a little similar is the timber (otherwise known as Canebrake) rattlesnake.
The largest recorded eastern Diamondback was 96 inches (8 feet!) in length. Today, however, you would be considered lucky to see one as large as 6 feet long. They are found in pine flatwoods, long leaf pine, and turkey oak, and sand pine scrub areas. These areas are also prime for development.
A combination of a loss of habitat and the indiscriminate killing of these snakes by the general public upon site has caused a major population decline. They are currently afforded no protected status in Florida.
This is a species that must be respected when encountered. They can strike up to 2/3 the length of their body. Like other snakes, we are not prey to the D and they would be just as happy if we would leave them alone. If you encounter one of these amazing animals, observe from a safe distance and allow it time to pass, or simply walk around it.
In the United States, the vast majority of venomous snake bites occur when someone is trying to kill the snake. Attempting to kill these snakes greatly increases your risk of being bitten. They will not chase you and in fact, are very afraid of you. One of our Facebook friends commented with a wonderful little rule of thumb that I really like, 30/30. Stay 30 feet away for 30 minutes and they will leave. As he pointed out, this will hold true most of the time so long as they are not waiting for food to go by.
Please, give these wonderful creatures the respect they deserve as fellow residents of our great state!
The thread waisted wasp (Ammophila pictipennis) is an ambush predator that will attack small worms, spiders, or other insects. It carries the prey back to the nest made out of packed dirt and stores it with its eggs. When the eggs hatch the larvae feed on the treat left by the mother. Adults are excellent pollinators and feed on the nectar from flowering plants, such as this firebush, or from small insects including those pesky aphids. They are relatively docile but if they feel threatened will attack defensively. However, they would much rather save their energy for something they can eat. What is your favorite native pollinator?
This beautiful male Boat-tailed Grackle is on lookout at the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive. He is a permanent resident of Florida. The bright sun makes the beautiful iridescence of his feathers glow for all to enjoy. Females have a brownish coloration and a smaller tail. Boat-tailed Grackles breed abundantly in salt and freshwater marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. These birds forage on the ground, in shallow water, or in shrubs. They eat arthropods, crustaceans, mollusks, frogs, turtles, lizards, grain, seeds, fruit, and tubers. At times they have been known to steal food from other birds, animals and humans. They overturn shells and stones with their beaks, dunk their heads in water to catch their prey and pry open mussel shells. Just like us, they will dunk food like rice, dogfood or bread before eating it.
What could be nicer than a native pollinator and a native flower. This southern carpenter bee, Xylocopa micans, is stopping by a flowering pennyroyal, Piloblephis rigida. The carpenter bee is a solitary bee that lives for one year. They nest in the wood of dead trees. Like other pollinators, carpenter bees are important to the survival of many species of plants. Pennyroyal is a member of the mint family and can be found in sunny areas of sandy soil along forest edges. It can be brewed into a tea as well.
Get ready for spring. The woods are beginning their transformation now and in a few weeks should be all dressed up in the spring attire!
Did you know that the Pileated Woodpecker, aka Dryocopus pileatus, is one of the largest woodpeckers in North America? With a black body, a red crest, white stripes on its neck, and black and white stripes on its face it is hard to miss. Pileated Woodpeckers love to eat insects, fruits, and nuts. A large part of their diet is made up of carpenter ants and beetle larvae. This is why they are always knocking on trees and wood sensing a ‘hollow area’ where the insects may be. Once they have located their dinner, they use their bill to drill into the wood and use their long sticky tongues to drag out the insects. Sometimes they will expand the holes that they create looking for food and make a roost inside the tree to lay their eggs. Tended by both mom and dad, the little hatchlings will be ready to fledge within 1 month. Males and females are similar, but males have a red forehead, and females have a gray to a yellowish brown forehead. If you hear knocking outside, be sure to look up and see if you can spot a stunning Pileated Woodpecker.
The most common mosquito in Florida is the Aedes aegypti. The females are carriers of West Nile Virus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Dengue fever, Chikungunya, and Zika virus. Female mosquitos need blood to produce eggs, therefore they love to live where people and pets are abundant.
What can you do to stop mosquito breeding in your yard?
Mosquitos only need 1-2 centimeters of stagnant water to breed.
1. Change water in birdbaths 2x/week.
2. Be sure flower pots and the dish underneath does not contain standing water.
3. Be sure gutters are debris free so water will not collect in a leaf “dam.”
4. Bromeliads are a perfect habitat for mosquitos to develop. Flush bromeliads with a garden hose 2x/week.
5. Check yard toys and yard ornaments for standing water.
6. Check for leaks from outdoor faucets and around your air conditioner.
7. Is there standing water in your boat or any other vehicle stored outdoors?
8. Look for standing water near your swimming pool, pool equipment and pool toys.
9. Check for standing water in holes in trees and bamboo.
10. Walk around and look for water in things like trash cans, trash can lids and any container or object where water can accumulate.
—— Install a Bat House ——–
Bats can eat up to 600 mosquitos in an hour!!
Alligators get a bad reputation but as long as we respect them from a distance we have no reason to fear them. Alligators have ears directly behind their eyes. Do you see that part that looks like this alligator’s eyes are smiling? That’s its ear. The structure of the ear is designed to pinpoint sound rather than hear a vast amount of sound.
Female alligators can lay between 35-50 eggs. If these eggs are hatched in the wild, and not a hatchery, there is a chance that only a few eggs will survive. Predators such as birds, snakes, racoons, otters, bobcats, bass, and other alligators can eat their eggs. According to FWC an average of 25 eggs will hatch but only about 10 alligators will survive their first year. These eggs and small gators become food so that another species can survive. In turn, large alligators may eat these same animals to ensure their survival. It’s all about balancing out populations.
If you see an alligator, don’t touch it. Take a few pictures and observe from a distance. In most cases if you get too close an alligator maybe become afraid and swim away. Alligators wait patiently for animals to come near and then use all their energy at once to take down their prey. This is one way they conserve energy.
This is an Eastern Spadefoot Toad, Scaphiopus holbrookii. This little guy has recently cast off his tail and emerged as a little toad. Now, it will spend most of its life burrowed underground, primarily emerging only after explosive, heavy rains.
When Hurricane Irma passed through Florida, many saw only destruction. For many species, the hurricane was the perfect setting for reproduction. These toads emerge by the thousands and breed in the temporary pools of water that form in the forests after such weather events. These pools have no fish in them to prey on eggs and tadpoles. The rainfall associated with hurricanes can result in millions of tiny spadefoot toads coating the forest floor before they find their way into the forest and burrow down into the sandy soil.
What have you seen this week as you saunter through Florida?
Hanging Thieves robber fly, Diogmites salutans. This large fly hangs from leaves and branches waiting for its favorite food, bees, dragonflies, and biting flies like horse flies to pass by. It then takes chase and captures its prey in flight. It takes its prey to a branch or leaf where it pierces it victim with its mouth parts and drinks its fluids.
In this photo, you can see the behavior that earned this fly its common name of Hanging Thieves.
The genus Diogmites consists of 26 species in the United States, with 12 of those species living east of the Mississippi river. This species is best found in damp, sandy areas that are more open with tall grasses. This photo was taken in just such a spot on the edge of a pine forest.
This little guy is a Shield-backed Bug, Orsilochides guttata. The shield-backed bugs are related to the stink bugs and are true bugs, unlike the beetles they closely resemble. Like other true bugs, shield-backed bugs go through several stages of development (instars) of nymphs until they reach adulthood.
They feed on plants, including many commercial crops.
There are hundreds of species of shield-backed bugs ranging in color from rather drab to bright metallic greens and reds. Like stink bugs, when disturbed, shield-backed bugs will emit an odor to deter predators.
This little bug is perched on a goldenrod flower in late September in the Lower Wekiva Preserve State Park in Seminole County, Florida