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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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The Beautiful Banded Sphinx Moth

When Anne takes the mail out, she calls me from our front porch. “I know your foot hurts, but you might want to bring your camera,” she tells me. Having just injured my right foot, I hobble over to the love seat, grab my camera and painfully limp over to the front door.

To my delight, it was worth the painful trek because on the wall of our porch was one of the most striking moths I have ever seen. It was large, about 3 inches and had an eye-catching pattern with a tiny splash of deep pink on the inner edge of one of its wings. It was clinging on the wall and occasionally flicked its wings as I snapped photos of it. It was an adult banded sphinx moth.

The larvae of this species are large and striking too. These sphinx moth caterpillars eat willows, pupate underground, and emerge as adults. These moths live in tropical and sub-tropical areas in South America, Central America and in southern North America although strays have been seen as far north as Nova Scotia.

I wonder what the moth is up too. What brought it from the nearby wetlands to my front porch? It did not look old; its wings were not tattered. Throughout the night, I check on it and it has not moved from its spot. The next day I go out to see it it is still there and it is gone. Or so I thought. It fell to the ground, dead. I guess it lived out its life. I am glad Anne found it. It will live on in the internet.

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Cut-leaf Morning Glory

During a recent walk in a park here in Florida, Anne pointed out these beautiful morning glory flowers growing on intertwining vines that climbed on the shrubs of the woodlands. The blossoms were white with a splash of magenta in the center. Its leaves were intricately cut – finger like. Seed capsules hung off the vines.

I did not find much information about this wild native plant except for its historical medicinal use to cure giddiness, snake bites and intoxication. Nevertheless, it was a welcome sight on this fall day in the sunshine state and we enjoyed its subtle beauty in a still green landscape.

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The Venomous Caterpillar

During a recent trip to Prospect Mountain in the foothills of the Adirondacks in New York, my grandchildren found black and white fuzzy caterpillars climbing on the rocks near the top of the mountain. I cautioned them not to touch these hickory tussock moth caterpillars because its hairs can attach to your skin and inject an irritating venom that causes an allergic reaction in some people. This is an adaptation to protect them from predators.

The caterpillar eats the leaves of hickories, maples and oaks and other trees before forming a pupa which overwinters in the leaf litter of the forest floor. This caterpillar through the process of metamorphosis will transform into an adult moth.

The hickory tussock moth caterpillar is not the only venomous larva. Many of the moth species have larvae that contain stinging venomous hairs. These include the saddle-back moth, hag moth caterpillar and others. Just be careful with any hairy caterpillar and you will be fine.

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