Tropical rainforest butterflies float over flowerbeds seeking the sweet nectar the blossoms produce. Morpho butterflies, iridescent sky blue above and brownish below land on a tray with rotting fruit to sip the salts and nutrients from soft bananas, pears and watermelon. Owl butterflies with large eye spots to scare predators also enjoy the produce.
Zebra long-wings flutter in the vegetation while autumn leaf butterflies cling to the stems of plants looking like dead leaves. Rice paper and Isabella butterflies mingle with monarch and giant swallowtails.
No, global warming has yet to change the Maryland deciduous forests into rainforests; we are in the Wings of Fancy Butterfly Exhibit at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland. Dozens upon dozens of subtropical and tropical butterflies have free roam inside the butterfly house.
My two-year-old grandson was not so sure about these colorful creatures. At first, he had apprehension about them, but after alighting on his shoes and his shirt without biting (of course butterflies do not have mouth and cannot bite), he warmed up to them. It was a learning experience for him and an opportunity to foster stewardship of God’s creatures. If you are in the Baltimore, Maryland area, this is a place worth the visit, not only for the butterfly house, but to enjoy Brookside’s 50 acres of gardens.
A peculiar wild flower grows in many forest throughout North America. It is a strange plant because it has no chlorophyll, the substance that gives plants their green color and is critical in the production of food for the plant through photosynthesis. It is totally white – stems scale-like leaves and flowers. It depends on insects for pollination and produces seeds just like any other wildflower.
How can such a wild flower survive without chlorophyll? The Indian Pipe is a parasitic plant. Its short roots contain a specific fungus that spreads through the leafy matter of the forest floor where it attaches to the roots of the trees the plant grows under. Sugars produced by the tree is absorbed by the fungus and carried to the roots of the Indian Pipe.
Due to is lack of color, the Indian Pipe has been called the ghost plant and corpse plant. As you can imagine, there is much native American folklore about this plant and poets have written about it, but I leave that up to you to explore this further on the internet.
During a recent trip to Cocoa Beach, Anne and I walked from our small suite to the Atlantic Ocean beach front. Our short hike took us through a dune community dominated by a dense growth of sea grapes, a tree flattened by sea breezes and thriving in the dry sandy soils. Large rounded green leaves, coated in wax to protect the plant from salt water spray and to reduce the loss of moisture to the air, hid the thick branches supporting the plant. The clusters of small green fruit that resemble grapes will ripen into burgundy colored edibles in late summer. It is edible although you’ll be competing with wildlife for the ripened berries. Hopefully, Anne and I will get back to see birds and other wildlife eating this fruit and we may just try it ourselves.
It is May 2017 and the Southwest Florida Water Management District has issued Phase 3 water shortage restrictions limiting the use of water for watering lawns and washing cars. The below average rainfall this winter has contributed to the dearth of water.
Lakes are receding into shallow ponds concentrating fish, frogs and other aquatic life. Great blue herons, egrets, ibis and limpkins feast on the fish trapped in these pools.
The exposed lake bottoms are cracked from the sun baking the muddy soils. Tracks of raccoons, ducks, opossum and herons tell the stories of wildlife travel to and from the pooled water.
For me, I have no problem conserving water. My lawn can dry up and my car can be dirty a bit longer, but I do care about the impact of the drought on our wild plants, birds and wildlife. Hopefully, once the rainy season starts in June, afternoon thunderstorms and tropical storms will replenish the life line that aquatic flora and fauna need to survive.
In the headwaters of the Florida Everglades, two ten foot male American alligators confront each other on a hot and humid day in May. One male bellows at his opponent. The other arches its back and shows its gaping mouth. In an instant, tumultuous splashes expose the aggressiveness of the gators as they battle to establish territory and dominance. After a few minutes of thrashing, one of the gators uses its powerful tail to propel itself away from the aggressor. The victor bellows again and swims off to challenge other gators.
This behavior assures the survival of the species. Champion males will breed with females passing its genetic code to offspring that results in strong, healthy alligators. That is why this species has been on the planet, unchanged, for 8 million years. Homo sapiens have been here for 200,000 years. Will we survive for millions of years like the alligator?
During a recent walk near Lake Tsala Apoka, Anne spots a strange creäture clinging to the edge of the sidewalk. I look down to see an insect with large eyes and claw-like legs. This weird-looking bug is a cicada nymph that just crawled out of the ground.
Cicadas are those insects you hear buzzing from tree tops during the summer heat. The hotter the day the louder the buzz. The males sing to attract females to mate, then die. There is no long life for these organisms. Their sole purpose as an adult is to procreate. The females lay eggs. The eggs hatch and the nymphs that hatch fall to the ground where they burrow into the ground. These tiny nymphs seek out the roots of the trees they were born in where they attach themselves to the roots and suck the nutrients they need to grow.
What we were seeing is one of the grown nymphs, freshly emerged from the ground seeking the base of the tree it was born on where it will crawl up on the tree’s bark and shed its outer shell emerging as an adult cicada. If it is a male, it will crawl to the top of the tree and buzz to attract a female. If it is a female, it will fly to a buzzing male to reproduce.
This cicada was far from any trees, but it was a windy day so it was probably blown from where it emerged. Anne and I grabbed it gently and carried it to the trunk of one of the trees in the park. It immediately clung to the tree’s rough bark and climbed up a bit almost posing for the pictures I was taking of it. The following day, during a walk in the park, we could hear the buzzing in the tree where we left it and wondered if it could be the same creature.
I always enjoy watching wild birds come to my backyard feeders. Regal cardinals, petite black-capped chickadees and tiny chipping sparrows are just some of the many birds that come to eat sunflower seeds, millet and safflower.
Today, Anne shouts to me, excitedly, “What kind of bird is that? It’s beautiful!” I dart across the living room to see a rose-breasted grosbeak eating sunflower seeds. This robin sized bird has striking rose red bib on a white breast, a dark black head and body with white stripes on its wings. Its strong triangular beak is well adapted to cracking open the sunflower shells exposing the nutritious seed inside.
This is the first time I have seen this species in Florida. These grosbeaks winter in northern South America and migrate north, some of them through the Florida peninsula, each spring until they reach forests of northern U.S. and Canada where they breed.
Initially, I thought I should get up early the next morning to capture more photographs of this beautiful bird, but I was resigned to knowing that this bird will be gone by the evening when it continues its journey northward. (Most migrants travel by night and rest by day.) I hope that other grosbeaks stop at my backyard feeder during the spring migration.