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Red-bellied Woodpecker at Our Feeder

Anne and I enjoy watching birds come to our backyard feeders. We get quite a few varieties of birds eating the assortment of seeds offered to them. One of my favorite visitors is the red-bellied woodpecker. It often flies in to eat sunflower seeds from the feeders. It looks very awkward as it dangles practically upside down using its tail feathers to brace itself on the bottom of the feeder as it grabs the bird seed. When in this position, you can see faint red splashes on its belly.

This medium sized woodpecker is often seen on tree trunks picking bugs out of the nooks and crannies of the bark. Its sticky tongue can reach two inches from the tip of its beak to reach insects hiding in the deep crevices of the bark.

Like other woodpeckers, it is a cavity nester and will often take over the nesting cavities of smaller birds where it modifies the hollow to meet its needs.

This woodpecker returns a few times to the feeder, then it is gone until another day. When it warms up a bit, we do not see the bird at the feeder probably because of the availability of insects stirred by the moderate weather. We are happy to help this and other birds survive the winter months and continue to enjoy their exquisite beauty.


The Amazing Seahorse

I love seahorses. Go to any aquarium and you are likely to see a tank full of these fish. In the natural world, they live in the coastal waters of tropical and temperate regions. I occasionally found them in the marine waters off of Long Island in New York. There are about 45 species worldwide ranging in size from a half-inch to the size of a banana.

Seahorses use their prehensile tail to hold on to underwater plants such as eel grass and kelp where they suck in plankton and small crustaceans floating in the water. These fish have no teeth and no stomach. Food travels through their digestive system fast requiring them spend a lot of time eating. Due to their boniness, fish do not eat them, but seahorses are a delicacy of crabs.

Seahorses are monogamous and some species mate for life. The females lay eggs in the pouch of the male. The eggs hatch about 45 days later where they are expelled from the pouch. The babies seek shelter in small groups to escape predators and find food.

Divers have reported hearing seahorses make noise. The sound is like smacking your lips.

These astonishing creatures face challenges when pollution destroys aquatic vegetation and coral reefs. The next time you visit a marine environment, think about the marvelous seahorse world that lies beneath the water.


Helping Birds Survive the Winter

An Arctic blast has created a frigid air mass over much of the country after a major snow storm dumped up to two feet of snow in some places. While many insect-eating birds flew south for the winter, many seed eating birds stay. Black-capped chickadees strip out seeds deep within pine cones and gold finches find dried up wild thistle plants where they eat the seeds produced in the summer.

Many people install bird feeders in their yards to help birds survive the winter and to enjoy their beauty. We have many birds at our feeders – Carolina Chickadees, Chipping Sparrows, Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Mourning Doves and others. I installed a remote camera on the patio in our small back yard to see doves and sparrows that prefer to eat seeds on the ground.

With all the challenges birds face due to environmental issues and human impacts to birds’ habitats, it is good to help them by providing food, water and shelter, something that all species need to survive.

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Horror in the Milkweed Patch

Anne walks out the front door into our yard to look for caterpillars on the milkweed. She has seen some Monarch butterflies recently and thought they may have laid eggs on the plants. A few minutes later, she knocks on the dining room window and tells me to come quick with my camera.

As I approach the milkweed plants, I find Anne bent over holding a milkweed plant aside. She points to the stem of one of the plants where there is a paper wasp eating a monarch caterpillar. I had to act quickly to capture the image on my camera because the wasp was nearly finished with eating the caterpillar.

Evidently, paper wasps have an appetite for caterpillars. These insects seek butterfly and moth larvae and when it finds a caterpillar, it chews it in half with its powerful mandibles before eating it.

As I photograph the demise of the caterpillar, Anne spots the beginning of a paper wasp nest hanging from the eave of the neighbor’s house. There is a paper wasp on it building the papery nest. They are able to do this by stripping wood from fence posts, trees and other woody objects, chewing the wood and mixing it with saliva. The wasps create cells in which the queen lays its eggs. The wasp larvae are fed and watched over by workers until the larvae pupate.

Anne was horrified to find wasps eating her caterpillars, but these insects kill a large number of pests as well. There are many insecticides on the market that shoots a stream of poison that kills wasps, but we prefer to be vigilant and knock down the hive just as the wasps are starting to build it.

Anne goes out in the evening with a broom and swooshes the hive down and makes a mad dash into our home. Hopefully, the wasps will rebuild their hive elsewhere.

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Spiny Orb Weaved Spider

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday I went out my front door to find interesting photography subjects in my yard. After a couple of steps, I walked right into a spider web. It was sticky and creeped me out. No, I am not fond of spiders. As I turned around, I saw what was left of the web above my head. A spider had spun a web that had strands connected from the roof to the front porch overhang.

I found the tiny spider, about the size of a dime sitting in what was left of the web which was most of it. To my naked eye it looked strange so I began snapping pictures of it through a telephoto lens.

It is one of the strangest looking spiders I have ever seen. It is a colorful spider that resembles a crab. It has a off-white abdomen with black spots and red protruding spines. It is a spider commonly seen in Florida in the fall.

Suddenly the spider descended on a thin strand of silk and floated down slowly. The light breeze carried it just where the spider wanted to go – to shrubs next to our sidewalk. Once it landed on the leaves of the shrub it attached the strand to the leaves and climbed up the strand to the center of its web.

The spider and its web remained at my front door entryway for days. I was able to duck under the web as I went in and out of the house. When I returned after a trip to Maryland for Thanksgiving, the spider and all evidence of its web was gone. Perhaps the predicted freeze that night cause the spider to close up shop.

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The Curious Mockingbird

It is a fall November day in Florida and as Anne and I enjoy the last days in the swimming pool before the cold weather moves in, we are accompanied by a northern mockingbird that sits on a fence post of a cyclone fence that surrounds the pool.

The bird is unusually quiet and complacent, but it is fall. The nesting season is over; the baby birds are now adults. No need to defend its nesting territory against intruders

Mockingbirds are year-round residents in most of the U.S. eating berries, seeds and insects. The northern mockingbird is the state bird in 5 southern states including Florida.

When we leave the pool area, the mockingbird flies into a nearby tree and seems to watch us walk to our car. I can’t help but to say, “By birdie, we’ll see you again.”

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Snatching Bugs!

“Feeebe, Feebe,” calls a bird from nearby woodland. Anne and I are in the community pool and when I hear the familiar call.  I tell Anne that it is an eastern phoebe.

This flycatcher flies from the woodlands and perches on the cyclone fence enclosing the pool. It flies up five feet, then lands back on its fence perch. This behavior is typical of flycatchers. Phoebes find a good spot to watch for insects that they can snatch out of the air. This phoebe repeatedly flies up to catch mayflies, damsel flies and other small bugs. Then it drops down on the lawn and comes back to its perch with what appears to be a large insect or caterpillar that it devours.

When we lived in New York, eastern phoebes were harbingers of spring and nested in the woodlands around lakes and rivers. Eastern phoebes migrate south in the fall into southern U.S. and Central America. So now they are harbingers of fall to us living in Florida.

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