Welcome to our fourth year of Backyard Blogging! At the start of 2018, I started posting photos of all the insects I was seeing in my yard. It’s a small space, and yet there was a lot of action. All I had to do was look. Insects eating plants, and each other. Caterpillars growing and making chrysalides, and pollinators on flowers. And on and on.
Over time, I started paying attention to the plants in the yard. I plant native to attract these insects, but also, a variety of weeds pop up. I started identifying them- the natives, a few naturalized nonnatives with some wildlife value, and of course the ones I had to pull. And then of course, insects are the foundation of the food web. They take the energy that plants take from the sun, and make it available to other animals- birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
What we’ll see on this page is that, for one thing, the insects in your yard are a surprisingly diverse lot. And even more when you plant to attract them. We’ll also see the seasonality of a yard, and the many interactions between plants and animals. It’s as busy an ecosystem as any I cover for the Ecology Blog
The 2021 Backyard Blog will work the same was as in 2018. I’ll add new posts over time to the top of the page, so that the days will appear in reverse order.
April 13, 2021
iNaturalist says Poey’s furrow bee for this one, but the yellow abdominal stripes aren’t there, and its head seems too small. Maybe a Dialictus? It soon jumps under that leaf. The sweat bees in the yard seem to be making new nests, and they always seem to pick spots with leaf cover- even if it’s merely a single leaf.
Female bees often breed before overwintering, hiding in leaf litter. In the spring, they dig nests and lay eggs. Bees have been busy making nests this week, so within a few weeks, we’ll be seeing many more of them on flowers.
Here’s a mason wasp doing what mason wasps do- gathering soil to cement their nests. This is one of the Euodynerus genus wasps that don’t seem to fit with the other local species of its genus (there are five Euodynerus species in Tallahassee). I’ve been trying to photograph them as much as possible, because the researcher who’s been confounded by these wasps in our yard wanted to see more of it. The more visual data I provide in iNaturalist, the more he has to work with.
Every day we see more piles of earth, or holes of various sizes in bare patches of soil. And more caterpillars and other larvae. Insects have awoken after winter, and are reproducing. Soon, we’re going to be seeing more insects flying.
April 12, 2021
Earlier in the day, I saw a blue sweat bee quickly find an opening in leaf litter, and dive in. And now, I see another bee (perhaps a Poey’s furrow bee?) hover around, finally jumping into the shade of this leaf.
The bee seems to be digging a new nest.
Later, I come out to see this fresh pile of soil.
As we see more and more larval and newly emerged insects, it makes sense we’d start to see more predators as well.
April 11, 2021
We ate that kale today in a delicious pasta Amy made. When I went to wash the salad spinner after dinner, I found this caterpillar hanging out. It must have been smaller than the others we picked off of the kale, hiding more easily in the leaves. Then it spent a few days in the fridge, nibbling on leaves and growing.
Knowing what it was, and wanting to get photos of a new butterfly’s caterpillars and chrysalides, I placed it on a cauliflower plant outside. They have plenty of large leaves, and unlike slugs, these caterpillars won’t go after the cauliflower itself.
Earlier in the day, I’d found this caterpillar with it’s head in a large drop of water. I shook the water free, afraid it might drown. Then one of the children theorized that it had been drinking. Maybe?
Another wet and wonderful yard work day. I was picking up leaves when I found this chrysalis- I’m guessing a moth of some sort? I love the sludge of decomposed pollen and tiny mushrooms. There’s so much life in a pile of leaves, if you let it sit for a while.
This caterpillar was under a leaf in the same pile. The pile had dumped down from a screen-topped area where we shade some plants. I’m not sure what this caterpillar is, and neither is iNaturalist, which recommends various moths with no clear leader.
April 9, 2021
The next day, I found the same caterpillars on a different brassicid- mustard family plants, which include broccoli, chard, kale, Brussels sprouts, and so on. So this caterpillar is a specialist.
I relocated these, but later I finally took out that butterfly guide and saw that there was a butterfly that hosted on Brassicaceae. And it’s caterpillars looked just like these. I decided to keep any further caterpillars I found.
The morning rain and the general wet atmosphere of the day made it an amazing day for replanting seedlings and newly bought plants. Unlike on hotter, drier days, every plant looked immediately happy afterwards. I found many worms and other ground dwelling critters, including this grody looking beetle larva.
April 8, 2021
Yesterday, I loved what turned out to be a cutworm, a pest. Today, I’m mad at what turns out to be a butterfly caterpillar. We like butterflies better than moths, and call some animals pests when all they do is eat a host plant the same way a monarch or swallowtail does. But we’re growing this plant for us to eat.
It took me a couple of days to think of looking at my butterfly guide. I relocated them to another part of the yard and harvested the leaves on our kale plants to prevent further consumption. I thought they looked like butterfly caterpillars, but I wasn’t sure. So I treated them like pests and banished them.
April 7, 2021
Here’s one I almost didn’t see, except it protruded slightly from the face of the shed. What a cool looking animal I thought. And then this intriguing common name. Reading up on laudable arches, I find that they’re a type of cutworm- a garden pest.
But that’s just how we regard them. Here’s an animal whose caterpillars can survive by eating numerous different hosts- as opposed to moths and butterflies that can only eat a species or genus of plant. And check out the adaptation that allows it to hide in plain sight. It’s a survivor.
April 6, 2021
The first bees I see in the yard every year are honeybees, followed by the larger natives- carpenter and bumblebees. Twice over the years, I’ve photographed mining bees earlier in the year, both on cherry laurel blossoms. Here is the first sweat bee of the year. This is one of the tiny fly-sized Dialictus sweat bees. If it hadn’t been for the pollen sacks adding some color to its black frame, I would not have taken a closer look.
During our outdoor lunch break, this caterpillar floated by the shed. You can see the long silk strand supporting it, and the bunched up silk held in its legs. I’ve seen where a wasp got close to a monarch caterpillar once under a leaf, and the monarch dropped and hung by a short thread. Was this one evading a predator as well?
iNaturalist couldn’t help me here. Its top suggestions look nothing like this insect.
April 5, 2021
I sat on the hammock to read to my younger son, when I quickly noticed something green on my arm. According to iNaturalist, this is not a caterpillar, but instead, a sawfly larva.
April 4, 2021
Mystery Euodynerous wasp
Who exactly are we seeing here? This is one of the mason wasps we first saw swarming a couple of weeks ago. My first stab at an iNaturalist ID was Euodynerous hidalgo. It’s not this. One of iNaturalist’s top wasp curators admitted he was stumped by this wasp, saying looked like another found in peninsular Florida, but not the panhandle.
Interestingly enough, it’s not the first time he was unsure about a Euodynerous wasp found in our yard. That time, in March of 2020, he placed the wasp in the Euodynerus foraminatus-complex. Again, he commented that it looked a little bit like similar wasps from other regions, or that it might be an undescribed species.
I asked him about the previous identification, and he thought that it was likely the same species, even though the previous wasp lacked the red spots on the upper abdomen. He said, “that could well be individual variation.” So we have species of wasp that doesn’t look exactly like anything nearby (there are five other Euodynerous wasp species with research grade observations in Leon County), and that might have a varied enough look to confuse things.
This is the real power of iNaturalist, along with the information it makes widely available to non-scientists. All the photos we take can help researchers more precisely figure out the ranges of plants and animals, track the spread of invasive species, or even notice new species or subspecies.
I’ll keep taking photos of these wasps, from as many angles as possible. Somewhere in that visual information lies an answer to this mystery.
Less mysterious residents of our yard
Eating an Easter afternoon snack outside, I found this caterpillar on my leg. I got it to crawl onto a leaf to photograph it.
I’ve been seeing on Facebook that we’re in the middle of a tent caterpillar explosion in Tallahassee. And now here’s one in our yard.
I’ve seen a metric paper wasp skin a black swallowtail caterpillar (you can see it in the video on the linked page). They’re hunters. This one touched down near the tent caterpillar, and two of the mason wasps were buzzing nearby on the same raised bed. The tent caterpillar never seemed in direct danger, but perhaps sensing these potential predators nearby, it made a quick (for a caterpillar) getaway.
Our food web is taking shape for the year.
And speaking of predators, I’m starting to see long-legged flies in the yard. These eat aphids and other small invertebrates.
Here’s another helpful fly. It flew off before I could get closer, but this looks a lot like a black soldier fly. Their larvae are valuable in compost piles, breaking down organic material. We had them last year, and I recently saw one next to the compost bin. I’m happy to see this and all of the other helpful insects returning to the yard.
Lastly, here’s one of my favorite early spring “weeds.” This is the only one I saw in the yard this year, growing in the shadow of the bird bath. I think it got a little viney looking for the sun.
I took the top off the bird bath to get some sun on it for a photo. Another beautiful, tiny native wildflower that grows in our yards for free.
April 3, 2021
I saw another lacewing larva earlier in March. These are important predators, and their transparent wings make them a cool looking backyard insect. After having seen one in a friend’s yard, I’m looking forward to seeing this turn into an adult in ours.
April 1, 2021
After a few warm days, rains brought a small cold snap. It reached the 60s in the afternoon, which was warm enough for this honeybee. Honeybees are not native to the US, and are a little more cold tolerant than our native bees. That’s why flowers that bloom in the late winter and early spring are a help to this important agricultural species.
March 31, 2001
A couple of days ago, I mentioned seeing this without a camera in my hand,. Now, a few days later- a photo. It’s no surprise to see this active at the same time I start to see four-toothed mason wasps in the yard; cuckoo wasps are always crawling out of their nests, mingling their eggs with those of the mason wasp’s.
Again while eating lunch outside, we see insect life in action. This small inchworm was inching itself along the edge of our bee nesting box, and then it fell off!
It dangled for a little while on its silky thread before reeling itself back up to the box.
While watching the inchworm, Amy notices another leafhopper nymph. That’s two in two days.
March 30, 2021
We were eating an outdoor lunch when Amy picked up a hitchhiker. Over the next week we start to see more larval insects, and more predatory insects. So much attention gets paid to pollinators, and rightly so. But I get excited about these other insects as well. Little guys like the one in the photo above, they’re the foundation of the food web. The eat plants, and insects, birds, reptiles, and amphibians eat them.
This little guy by itself isn’t what excites me; rather, it’s the variety of different insects.
March 28, 2021
Max had a friend over for a socially distanced playdate, and she noticed this caterpillar. I mentioned that the mason wasps that nest in those tubes might snag it for their larvae, and she relocated it away from the box.
There are so many moth species with small green caterpillars, but I decided to try and ID this one in iNaturalist. For now, I think this is a white-dotted prominent (Nadata gibbosa). It hosts on oaks and cherry trees, both of which overhang this section of the yard, and both of which have recently shed a lot of leaves. I imagine it took a trip down on one of those leaves.
From what I can tell, we may have three or four carpenter bee nests in different spots around the house. I spotted one on one of Max’s sticks, which we have arranged in a display on the porch. I often see carpenter bees buzzing by our side porch, and now I see this one by the back door.
And here’s an insect I see making use of abandoned carpenter bee nests, the four-toothed mason wasp. I spotted it walking its way up a blueberry bush, and visiting flowers.
It looked like it was nibbling the side of the flowers, which some wasps do.
While our guest was leaving, I spotted a cuckoo wasp on the back rail. This metallic blue insect has a relationship with the previous two based on their nesting habits. Carpenter bees create cavities, and four-toothed mason wasps make use of them afterwards. Cuckoo wasps lay their eggs with those of the four-toothed mason wasps.
I saw a few butterflies in the yard today, though they were mostly passing through. But it was nice to see a swallowtail flying overhead, or a skipper skipping through the grass. I also noticed a cloudless sulphur nectaring on scarlet sage, and I’m seeing more and more of those these days.
More butterflies means we’ll start seeing caterpillars. There’s a lot to pay attention to this time of year.
March 26, 2021
Our flower patch is starting to take on some color as flowers bloom. Scarlet sage is exploding, crowpoison is adding white highlights, wood sorrel adds specks of yellow while the Carolina crane’s-bill’s pale pink flowers are only visible when you’re right on top of them. The brickellia and coneflowers are starting to leaf out, and the newly planted purple-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium) is quickly becoming one of my favorite wildflowers.
Just like last year, the Ohio spiderwort is becoming plentiful, and popular with honeybees.
We’re seeing more and more pollinators daily, and more flowers to feed them.
March 25, 2021
This moth was hiding in the leaves of our Meyer lemon tree. I tried to find a good angle to see more of it, but it was pretty well nestled in those leaves.
I never got a clear shot before it took off. This is the Eight-spotted forester moth, which hosts on Virginia creeper. Our creeper vines disappeared over the winter, but have been regrowing and spreading. I’m guessing this moth was visiting the new leaf growth to lay eggs.
March 23, 2021
Our combined school/ office lunch hour has been outside the last couple of spring weeks. Today, we saw a swarm over by the fence. Remembering the yellow-jacket queen we saw over the winter, I try to take a closer look. They’re fling fast, but are maybe too dark for yellow-jackets.
One lands on a spiderwort, and I see it’s a mason wasp. We’ve had several species of mason wasp in our yard, not just passing through but nesting. The bare earth in our side yard is a popular spot for them to pick up sediment with which to seal their nests, and I spot one doing so while we eat.
I see one wasp jump on another- are they mating? Soon, more wasps join in and form a ball for a few seconds before breaking apart. The anole in the photo had been hanging out at this spot; I notice them do that on flowers pollinated by bees as well. I always watch these instances with interest. Will the lizard try to grab a bee or wasp? Will the bee or wasp put up a fight?
Mason wasps often make use of existing cavities (like carpenter bee nests) to make their own nests. I wonder if such a cavity exists behind this fence post, where we see the wasps swarm daily.
March 22, 2021
Spending some family time in the yard as the sun set, I noticed these tiny things on a silphium that started resprouting a few weeks ago. One of our diverse assortment of planthoppers, sap sucking insects.
March 19, 2021
Here’s a scene I spotted through a window. I wish I could tell what that Carolina wren is thrashing, but I knew if went outside for a closer look I’d scare it off. Carolina wrens have been active in the yard lately, gathering food and other materials, sometimes in pairs. There’s got to be a nest nearby. At this time last year, we had chicks in a hanging pot.
Meanwhile, I’m seeing bees visiting blueberry bushes. Carpenter bees spook easily when I approach with a camera, even though I stay back a few feet. This bumblebee was a little more cooperative.
March 16, 2021
I found this grasshopper on our shed. First iNaturalist guess is (Amblytropidia mysteca). The name is right for the season, though it hasn’t been feeling like winter this past week.
I’m not sure what kind of beetle I’m seeing here. iNaturalist suggested skeletonizing leaf and flea beetles. I clicked compare, though, and none of the species found in Florida looked quite like this one. There’s such a diversity of insects in Florida, and some insects can vary in appearance, or radically change appearance throughout their life cycle.
That’s the fun of it to me- I’ll never run out of things to learn, either about my backyard bugs, or about plants and animals in our forests and waterways. And then some of these observations end up being species that are still being sorted out.
March 14, 2021
I found this wing in the leaf litter under our oak tree. I’d much rather have found the living moth, which is a large, ornate insect. The fact that I found this one means there may be others about, right? Polyphemus moth caterpillars host on a variety of trees, such as oaks, and cherry trees like those around the house.
This looks like the husk of a very small insect on our scarlet sage. Was it killed, or does it leave its exoskeleton like a cicada?
A lot of the earlier blooming weedy flowers in the yard have small flowers. These Nothoscordum flowers are popping up around the yard after a hiatus of a few months. I saw them briefly in November, but this is their best time.
Before a lot of the flowers I buy and plant start to bloom, these late winter bloomers give our yard some color, and offer nectar to pollinators as they slowly return to the yard.
March 13, 2021
I spent a little time this morning following a hoverfly as it repeatedly curled its abdomen on dandelion flowers and leaves. You can see aphids on the stem of the flower above; hoverfly larvae feed on aphids.
Here are more aphids on a neighboring lettuce plant. My first iNaturalist guess puts these in the Uroleucon genus.
This may be the same species, or one related to it. iNaturalist suggested two different IDs, but the Uroleucon genus is in tribe Macrosiphini.
Another aphid, it’s initial ID is also in tribe Macrosiphini. They may all be the same species, in different life stages, or maybe males and females as well. I don’t know much about aphids, other than I like the insects that eat them.
I shared a photo of this last year, but here I am seeing it again. Squirrels like those crane’s-bill seeds.
March 11, 2021
Finally, some pollinator pics!
They’ve been flying high overhead, visiting the cherry laurel flowers. Today, I saw a bumblebee briefly visit our blueberry flowers before I could get to a camera. But it was warm today, and a lot was flying.
I’ve been seeing dusky hoverflies in the yard, inspecting leaves on all sorts of plants. They look for aphids, lay eggs, and their larvae will do us a favor and eat the pests. This one is visiting one of the many newly bloomed scarlet sage flowers in the flower patch.
They’re patient pollinators and photographic subjects.
Every day, more and more of our overwintering pollinators emerge to find more and more flowers open to feed them. The White M hairstreak hosts on oaks, and makes its chrysalis in leaf litter. Amy’s been asking whether it’s time to rake the leaves, now that spring is here. I think there’s quite a lot more waiting in there, so we may be a few weeks away from that. Sorry!
Occasionally, up in the most heavily flowered cherry laurel tree overhanging our yard, a bee would stay for a while on a lower down flower. I think this is a plasterer bee, a ground nester. We have a lot of bare earth in the yard, and quite a few holes have opened over the last few weeks.
Edit March 23 2021: Dr. John Ascher, iNaturalist’s top bee curator, has identified this as a mining bee in the genus Andrena. I ID’d one of these in January of 2018, tackling shriveled cherry laurel flowers on the ground. That makes it one of the earliest bee species I see in our yard, and one of the first insects busting out of the ground when I start noticing holes. It’s also a bee with an affinity for cherry laurel flowers.
Original Text: This is the first time I’ve ID’d a plasterer bee, if that’s what this is. We have a high diversity of native bees in Florida, and they’re not all in the forest. I don’t have multiple photos of this from different angles, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t get verification on iNaturalist.
March 10, 2021
I’ve looked over this video and my photos, and I think I somewhat know what we’re seeing here. I was looking at the leaf litter for signs of new plant growth. So many of the late winter/ early spring flowers are blooming, and quite a lot of other plants are leafing out all over the yard. So I’m looking around when I see the thrashing I videotaped above.
Looking closely, I could see that I was looking at two animals.
At first, I thought the larger thing was attacking the smaller thing, though that doesn’t appear to be the case when I freeze the video and export a frame. Eventually, the smaller insect is shaken free, and we can see a white foam at the tip of the larger being.
The foam is sticky, picking up bits of leaf.
I think the smaller insect was attacking a moth chrysalis. Chrysalides do wiggle and thrash when touched, and that seems to have worked against the aggressor, which dug itself back into the leaf litter.
Looking for that smaller insect in the leaf litter, I found this resting roly-poly.
Nearby, a patch of dewberries is in bloom.
March 8, 2021
When I go on hikes with the family, or on shoots, I’ve seen a few bees and butterflies. I have seen carpenter and honey bees, mostly flying up high on cherry laurel blossoms.
The kind of thing above, that’s what I’m seeing a lot of in the yard now. I’m not sure what it is, but my best iNaturalist ID was a tube-tailed thrip. Another user suggested lacewing larva, which are predators. Lacewing larvae ambush their prey in debris, such as leaf litter, which is where I found this one.
I was disappointed in myself for not including anything in the photo to provide scale, when I realized those yellow speckles are pollen grains. This is a tiny critter.
March 1, 2021
I saw this interesting looking insect sitting on a Vietnamese cilantro leaf. My iNaturalist ID is Chironomus, a midge that spends its larval stage in the sediment at the bottom of a lake or pond. According to its description, members of the genus are almost identical, needing a close expert look to tell one from the other.
Here’s a closer look. I love the hairy antennae!
February 28, 2021
Today I laid in the hammock for a while, noticing two or three carpenter bees flying over the house, back and forth, towards and away from each other. One follows another, the other flees from it. It’s the same thing I see with butterflies when they’re feeling frisky.
Later, I was sitting on the back steps when I remembered there had been a couple of carpenter bee nests in the railing. One had been taken over by four-toothed mason wasps in recent years. I looked, and it was sealed with earth the way mason wasps seal their nests. There’s a brood in there waiting to pop out, and likely with a cuckoo wasp or two mixed in; for years I’ve seen cuckoo wasps crawl into nests after the mason wasps have left. Their nesting strategy is to add their eggs to the nests of other wasps.
Insects are hatching, and there’s plenty of new plant growth for them to eat. I’ve cleared out last year’s woody salvia plants (leaving them in a brush pile in case any insects nested in their stalks) and the new salvia growth is getting taller and starting to bloom. If any plant eating insects are interested in this tender young leaf, they’ll have a little surprise waiting for them.
There’s another plant species in bloom now in the yard. The plant gets taller, and its leaves get much larger before it produces this tiny flower.
This is a spring plant, a native geranium that will disappear in the months to come.
February 27, 2021
My sons collect a lot of items from nature that they had left in a pile on our porch over time. This includes a lot of special sticks, each with its own outstanding qualities that preclude our tossing them out, ever. One day I put all of those sticks and dried flowers and moss and bits of oyster shell into a pot, and kind of arranged them. I was proud of it, but I won’t bore you with the display.
Anyhow, I followed a carpenter bee onto the porch, and it eventually slowed down enough for me to take this not-great photo of it in flight. It then disappeared into a cavity in one of the sticks.
I told Max that his old stick had found a new purpose as a home for pollinators. He felt that the bee was defacing the stick that he had long forgotten about on the porch. Boo.
I’m seeing more evidence of insects emerging from or creating new nests as spring arrives. New holes and mounds are popping up throughout the yard. A few of them seem to be coming in twos.
Are these two ends of the same tunnel?
I’m seeing some solo holes as well, of different shapes and sizes. I’ll also be seeing more insects in different shapes and sizes soon, I’m sure.
February 26, 2021
It follows that as soon as I started seeing new blooms and pollen, I’d see insects as well. I’m seeing a lot of insects in flight, like hoverflies and carpenter bees. Others are more cooperative and rest for the camera.
Hoverflies, the adults of which are pollinators, have been inspecting plants not yet in flower. They’re looking for aphids. When the hoverfly finds aphids, it will lay eggs near them, and their larvae will feed on the garden pests.
Here’s another aphid eater; our garden food web’s predators are now out and about. Unfortunately, this is an invasive lady beetle, and one that aggressively removes its native competition.
February 22, 2021
After a morning rain, we had a couple of puddles that slowly filtered through the clayey soil in the yard. At first I was worried about the yellow streaks across the puddles, when I remembered what I saw on my car yesterday. Tallahassee’s trees are starting to reproduce.
Flowers are staring to bloom as well. One of the first I noticed is a single lance-leafed coreopsis plant, which has been making flowers for a few weeks.
The blooms last a few days. You can see where the flower is starting to look ragged as another gets ready to bloom. I spread seed all over the yard last year, and while they grew, only one plant made flowers. Seeing this, I’m hopeful we’ll have many more of these flowers, which were popular with smaller sweat bee species.
A few weeds are starting to bloom:
Left to right: Bidens alba, Ohio spiderwort, and common vetch (Vicia sativa), visited by ants.
That little Bidens plant has been flowering throughout winter. That’s why it’s such an important flower for winter-flying pollinators. We have a couple of spiderwort flowers here in late February, and they were a major nectar source for our early spring bees last year. The vetch is non-native, but it’s a nitrogen fixer and it’ll die off in a couple of months.
A couple of my planted wildflowers are in bloom now as well.
The Leavenworth’s coreopsis started blooming a couple of weeks ago, while the sage had sparse blooms throughout the winter. That sage is constantly going to seed, and spreading itself in the yard. I recently cut back the older, woodier growth to give the new plants space.
February 20, 2021
I got a closer look at one of the pine siskins that has been flocking around the neighborhood. In addition to the winter visitors I’ve photographed, I’ve also seen yellow-rumped warblers and goldfinches.
Adding compost to a flower, bed, I noticed a few of these little white creepy crawlies. At first I thought they were a beetle larvae, until I saw one uncurled, and all of its legs.
Since I started writing this, an iNaturalist user has identified this as a geenhouse millipede (Oxidus gracilis), a non-native that’s considered a garden pest. These, and slugs, and roly-pollies, and snails- these threaten seedlings in the yard. And many of them are exotic species.
February 18, 2021
This is the second time in recent weeks that I’ve seen a downy woodpecker pecking at a wood structure in the yard. Today it was a wooden post left from a wooden bench I removed. When I removed the boards, I found sweat bees nesting in its soft wood. The remaining post is apparently soft enough for some kind of insect life, or so this woodpecker was hoping.
I must have startled it. It flew into the crepe myrtle and was very still, eve as I photographed it. It then slowly climbed up and around the trunk, safely out of view.
February 10, 2021
I was watering my plants when I saw what looked like ice on a brassicas leaf. Looking more closely, I see what looks like a moth cocoon. Getting an even closer look with a macro lens, I see legs. This could be a spider crab nest, they make silky nests like this on leaves.
Once again, I hear a ruckus of birds outside. But these aren’t the winter visiting robins and cedar waxwings Ive been seeing. I look with binoculars and zoom in with my camera, and I can see their striped undersides but not much else.
Some friends have been posting about purple finches and pine siskins visiting their yards. I’m guessing siskins.
The beak is thinner and pointier than a finch. And siskins do fly in flocks. Even without a clearer photo, I’m pretty sure that’s what they are.
February 2, 2021
Great joy turned in to great disappointment today. Cedar waxwings returned to the yard again, with those large flocks of robins. Unlike on their other visits, the sun was shining. And I had figured out a better vantage point from which to photograph them. I was pretty pleased with myself.
So I posted these photos on Facebook, and my bird loving friends responded in the way I’d expect. As you might imagine, I know some knowledgeable plant people as well. Having these migratory birds in the yard is, of course, wonderful. But they were eating something different than what I had thought.
We have a row of native cherry laurel trees planted on the other side of our fence. It’s a visual barrier between our yard and the parking lot next door. They have little blue berries, and in the past, robins have eaten them off the ground in our yard during this time of year. I though that the largest of the cherry laurels, growing in the corner of the yard next to ours, and which shades a good part of our yard, was having a banner year for fruit production. Not so.
Once it was pointed out to me, it was obvious. This glossy privet plant is growing next to one of the shorter cherry laurels on the other side of the fence, and has grown in an arch shape over our yard. The taller cherry laurel is above it, and the shorter ones next to it. It was all a mass of leaves until I looked up and noticed how different some of the leaves looked, even from a distance.
The opposite leaf pattern, the smooth sheen of the individual leaves, and those clusters of berries at the ends of the branches- when I looked more closely, it’s much different than its native neighbors.
I’m disappointed in myself for not having been better educated on invasive trees, and for not noticing a different tree among the others. Now I know, and I can work to remove the invader. Unfortunately, these trees spread when birds eat their berries and poop them out, and birds have been feasting on it.
So, if it doesn’t hurt the birds, what’s the harm of the plant? For one, invasive plants spread easily and crowd out natives. Insects eat native plants. And, for most of the year, birds eat insects. In the winter, hollies, cherries, mistletoe, and even vines like Virginia creeper and poison ivy make berries and feed both our resident and our migratory visitors. But birds need multitudes of caterpillars and other plant eating insects to survive the year. If we let non-native plants overtake natives, there’s less bird food, and ultimately, less birds.
Thanks to Florida Native Plant Society’s Lilly Anderson-Messec and Leon County IFAS Extension Agent Mark Tancig for identifying the plant.
February 1, 2021
I was looking at a potted coreopsis plant when I noticed a few leaves weren’t looking so great. The soil surface was covered in leaves, so I started peeling a few back, when I saw this tiny cutworm caterpillar. Over the years, during the winter months, I’ve found the caterpillars of a few different moth species hiding in leaf litter. If you let a thick layer accumulate over soil, you have an insulated habitat for the hardier caterpillars to find shelter in months like this one, which alternate between slightly cold to moderate temperatures.
Anyhow, cutworms are generalist caterpillars, that can feed on a variety of host plants. This is why they become garden pests. Maybe there’s a bird that’s tired of berries, and wants a juicy caterpillar snack.
January 31, 2021
I didn’t take any photos today, but as we awoke this rainy Sunday, there was heavy bird activity around the bird feeder. House finches, cardinals, and a few red winged blackbirds took turns perching on the fence and on the feeder. A downy woodpecker clung to the pole holding it up, before jumping to peck on the fence.
And then I saw robins. A few in the yard, and a whole lot more across the street. Soon, house sparrows, chickadees, titmice, a bluejay, and a single warbler flew into and out of that part of the yard, most stopping for a few seeds. I saw this all from the window. These are all birds I’ve seen in the yard before, some more than others, but never all at once.
Stepping outside, those large flocks of robins and cedar waxwings from New Year’s were back in the cherry laurels. The robins in particular were on the ground and on various trees around the house and down the block. I imagine they descended in large numbers into a relatively small area, and flushed the other birds out of their trees and into the open. Or maybe it was something in the conditions, the rain and wind, that agitated all of the birds.
January 26, 2021
I’ve been seeing these curious clumps of red hair in the yard. At first, I thought they might be cardinal feathers, until I took a closer look. It looks like mammal hair, doesn’t it? I’ve been wondering if this hair isn’t related to the little holes dug in the yard (documented in last month’s Backyard Blog)- maybe a grey fox?
We’ve seen foxes in the neighborhood for years, and someone in the neighborhood Facebook page recently wrote about seeing one happily trotting towards a nearby park. Looking up their diet, they eat berries, insects, and birds, all of which they’d find in the yard.
This could be something else entirely, but a fox is not unlikely.
January 17, 2021
My wife was unfolding this inflatable kiddie pool to repackage it, and she found this wasp. The spots on the abdomen must have thrown me off, because it didn’t occur to me that this was an eastern yellowjacket. After iNaturalist confirmed its identity, I began to wonder about this solitary insect in the dead of winter. Bee colonies collapse before the end of year, and their queens mate before finding a secure place to spend the winter in a state known as diapause. I’ve seen a couple of wasp species flying on warmer days, but are yellowjackets one of the active winter wasps?
According to a page on the University of Florida Entomology Department web site, this is indeed a queen. Only queens have spots like these. We left her exposed for a few minutes during which she disappeared, either finding a new hiding place or, perhaps not yet fully awakened, taken by a predator.
I checked the brown-eyed Susans to see if our milkweed assassin nymph was still hiding out there. This is a much better photo than I took in late December. Here, you can see its deadly proboscis tucked under its head.
It was just warm enough today for this brown anole to venture out. This is about as active as I’ve seen the yard in January, aside from birds, without digging through leaves or into the soil.
As for the birds, I haven’t been snapping photos, but I have been watching. I occasionally hear the flock of robins down the street. One of them seems to have staked out a permanent spot in our cherry laurels, and what I’ve noticed is that it’s aggressive to other birds that want those berries. Robins are large for songbirds, and I’ve seen this one chase off a pair of cardinals, and chickadees as well.
January 9, 2021
At the right in this photo, we see what appears to be a hole dug by an insect. Again, bare ground and fallen leaves are critical habitat for insects.
January 4, 2021
I dutifully cut back our nonnative milkweed in October, and it’s finally starting to grow new leaves. And just as soon as it did, we have milkweed aphids. In another part of the yard, we have native aquatic milkweed, which doesn’t lose its leaves in the winter. Those plants don’t have aphids, though that may have something to do with the milkweed assassin nymph I found on a neighboring plant.
I may be in the minority here, but I do love the look of flowers gone to seed. It’s as much a part of winter as robins and mistletoe.
January 3, 2021
Flocks of robins are still flying around the neighborhood, even if they’re not raiding our trees in the same large numbers as New Years Eve and Day. I can’t help but notice how many berries are still on the trees. Was this an especially productive year for the cherry laurels? Pollinators flocked to their many flowers in May, and now I’m noticing more migratory birds on them in the winter. Was 2020 a good year for these trees, or am I finally noticing their ecological value?
January 1, 2021
On the last day of 2020, flocks of robins and cedar waxwings feasted on cherry laurel berries over our yard. The flocks have been hopping around the neighborhood, with robins making an appearance for a little while in the morning.
With insects scarcer in the winter months, berry producing trees like cherry laurels and hollies provide food for both our resident birds, and winter migrants like robins and cedar waxwings. Native vines like Virginia creeper and even poison ivy produce fruit eaten by birds as well. And then there’s mistletoe, which grows as a hemiparasite in trees, and fruits when those trees are leafless.
The mistletoe above is in our pecan tree. When robins visit our yard, I look to see if they’re eating any of those white berries (or any of the leaf footed bug nymphs I saw on the chunk of mistletoe that fell onto the driveway). They like to hang out there, anyhow.
On the warmer winter days, I’ve been seeing wasps flying in the yard. I disturbed this mason wasp’s rest to take a photo. It was so still, like some of the bees and moths I’ve seen walking about as temperatures dropped in the fall. Many of those animals were dying, their offspring spending the colder months as larvae or pupae in leaf litter, or in the soil. Wasps seem to be a little hardier.
So what is hiding in the leaf litter?
Speaking of larvae, pupae, and leaf litter, I found a few things when cleaning leaves out of a raised bed. I do like to let leaves alone in a lot of the yard. If I like seeing ground nesting bees, and much of the diversity of insect life I that enjoy, they need this habitat. But I do clean leaves out of raised beds with seedlings. Many animals that eat fallen leaves- snails, slugs, and roly-polies- will eat seedlings as well.
Clearing leaves, I find a lot of slugs and snails I move to other parts of the yard. But there are other interesting things as well.
So many moths have similar looking caterpillars and chrysalides. I wonder if this one started high up in a tree and fell to the ground.
Gall wasps make so many different types of galls. Galls are structures made by this type of wasp, which injects a chemical into a leaf or branch when it lays eggs. The chemical creates a structure for the gall wasp larvae, which, depending on the species, can be perfectly round and translucent, or look like an acorn, or be pink and fuzzy.
From what I could tell when comparing species on iNaturalist, and confirmed by one other user, this is a gall midge gall. Gall midges are flies, but they do the same kind of thing as gall wasps. This is a close up of the structure we see in the first leaf photo above.
Anyhow, this is the life I found under some leaves after a few minutes of searching. Pretty Cool!
Taking a closer look at some fallen branches
And while picking up branches, I found a couple more overwintering moth pupae.
Apps and Citizen Science mentioned in the Backyard Blog
Identify plants, animals, lichens, and fungi in your yard. Other users correct your identifications if you’re wrong, and even if they don’t, it can be a good springboard to further research.
Instant identification, and it doesn’t record your location. This is a good option for kids with phones.
Enter information about monarch caterpillars in your yard, and help researchers get a sense of the health of the monarch population that year, and how and when they’re migrating.
Record the number of pollinators visiting your flowers, and help researchers map pollinator activity across the country.