While we generally assume that the best sightings of animals are most likely to be found at parks and nature preserves, such is not always the case. Observations in our humble backyards can often reveal some truly amazing critters. In addition the mere fact that we spend a lot of time at home suggests that careful observations for wildlife will yield some surprising results. I have found that this certainly is the case at both our summer abode on a 107 acre farm in Virginia or our tiny bayside island lot in Florida. Each location has its special wonders.
You do not generally think about crabs in trees but in SW FL we have a small subtropical and amphibious tree crab that scurries around in the mangrove canopy and eats leaves plus some animal matter. It is intriguing because this crab is avidly pursued by yellow crowned night herons, and grandchildren with nets who get a big thrill from chasing and catching them on our dock. The crabs accept the dock as another large brown tree or jungle gym. The female carries thousands of eggs around under her abdomen and releases them into the water as they hatch into tiny swimming larvae.
We have a lot of Gulf fritillaries this time of year (November) and they are certainly one of the most beautiful butterflies. The inside of their wings is bright reddish orange and is believed to mimic the coloration of the monarch to warn birds of their toxicity derived from the passionvines eaten by the caterpillars. This Gulf “frit” is nectaring on a tasselflower which is a common aster family plant that is exotic, but of little ecological concern. It is interesting that the outside wing color is quite different with flecks of silver on a tan background; this would seem to be a disruptive coloration which is designed as camouflage. Although we have many adult Gulf frits and lots of passionvines, I see no caterpillars. My theory is that the ants kill any caterpillars that are not living high in the trees.
A less desirable insect was pointed out by my neighbor who was concerned about a honeybee comb just above her doorway. Since all honeybee hives in this area are assumed to be at least partly Africanized, it is unsafe to allow these “wild”, feral, exotic bees to exist near people. They can be quite placid for a long time but become aggressive when something excites them. A previous hive in a hollow tree lived for years with no trouble but then one day attacked my neighbor when he passed by on a lawn mower. So I recommend killing these wild hives with pesticides. This has an additional benefit in that these exotic honeybees do not then compete with native pollinators for limited resources of nectar and pollen in your yard.
One of the more bizarre backyard critters was reported to me by Jennifer McCullough who lives on nearby Little Gasparilla Island. She noticed this female scorpion with a crop of babies on its back in a pile of backyard wood and was less than pleased by the discovery. Although scorpions are scary looking, they are actually much less threatening than bees and wasps since none of the eastern species is deadly. They are a very ancient and primitive type, yet here we can see that they show maternal care for their young. So I hope we would all do what Jennifer did which was to move the scorpion away from her house but not kill it.
One of the tricks to finding animals that hide in vegetation is to examine the inside of palm fronds. Various insects can be found there and also treefrogs such as the one shown which appears to be an exotic Cuban treefrog. This species is attractive although destructive to native treefrogs.
A key technique to attracting birds to your yard is to have a drip water bath. This is particularly the case on Manasota Key where I live since there is no natural fresh water available. The drip provides a sound and visual stimulus that is very effective in allowing birds to locate your bath. Among the many birds which come to this bath every day were these two somewhat unusual visitors. First there was a juvenile white-crowned sparrow which is a very rare bird in our location. This bird remained in the vicinity for several weeks, probably because of the reliable fresh water supply. The regular evening visits of a black crowned night heron, during which it attempts to drink even though the shallow water makes this difficult, is unexpected for an island. The reason for this is that the typical salt water night heron is the yellow crowned which is a crab/crustacean feeder. The black crowned is normally a fresh water bird feeding on amphibians, reptiles and fish. But our neighbor feeds the herons and egrets and some black crowns have begun to visit us regularly.
So become more observant while at home doing yard chores or just relaxing and you may be surprised by unexpected views of the interesting critters that share your yard.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA