Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Our Own Personal Nature Documentary!

The newest addition to our front yard is our brand-new "Florida-Friendly Yard" sign. That's right -- we are now an official Certified Florida Yard! The certifications are done through the IFAS Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Program, and practically every county in Florida now has an FYN program based out of its Extension Office. I've included a link to the yard recognition program so that you can check to see if your yard qualifies. It's a wonderful way to advertise eco-friendly landscapes.

More good news: Rick and I were recently notified that we won the 2010 Community Water-Wise Award for residential landscapes in the city of Tampa. This award program, sponsored by Tampa Bay Water and the IFAS FY&N Program, recognizes water-thrifty landscapes in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. There are separate categories for homes, businesses, industry and government, and site judging is done by a team of water conservation experts from area utilities and extension offices.  This program usually only receives a handful of entries for each community, so please enter your home next year if you have a water-conserving landscape, rain-harvesting devices like rain barrels or cisterns, or low-flow  irrigation systems like drip hoses or micro-jets. The deadline is June 30 of each year.

We haven't yet received our Water-Wise Award: a beautiful engraved stepping stone. When we do, you can bet I'll post a photo!

Our female Black-and-Yellow Argiope
OK, awards and recognition are great -- can't deny that -- but our biggest reward continues to be our beautiful yard itself, and the many amazing wild creatures it supports. Rick and I aren't sure whether we truly have more wildlife than before, or we're just noticing more critters because we spend so much more time in our yard now, just enjoying it. We prefer to think the new, more diverse landscape is attracting more wildlife. We now have all the essentials -- food, water and places to hide or nest -- and it is paying off. Our yard is like a living nature documentary! I'm even beginning to get over my fear of spiders, thanks in part to this beautiful black-and-yellow argiope who spun her web underneath an eave on our back deck. What a gorgeous creature!

 Passionvine bloom
Gulf fritillary sipping verbena

More Gulf fritillaries have visited our yard than ever before -- in fact, we've never had as many.  Early in the summer we were treated to their acrobatic courtship flights, followed by the appearance of dozens of orange caterpillars on our passionvine. The caterpillars completely stripped our passionvine of all leaves in a few weeks, and we have since brought in two more pots solely to feed caterpillars. I'm still seeing a few fritillaries flitting about, but their mating frenzy has abated considerably and the passionvine growing along our deck railing is starting to recover.

Monarch caterpillars in a tug-of-war
 over a milkweed leaf
Now we are watching a late-summer batch of monarch butterflies emerging from their gold-rimmed chrysalis cases. Just two weeks ago, we counted 15 of the beautiful little cases, hidden among the shadowbox panels of our fence or dangling from a leaf or branch. The newly emerged adults are gorgeous -- wet-winged and vividly colored and quite unsteady at first in their new bodies. Once they've stretched and dried their wings in the sunlight, and have made a few short test flights, off they go - inevitably to return a week or two later to sip nectar from our flowers and lay eggs on our milkweed plants. The caterpillars that will hatch shortly from these eggs are likely to produce the final adult monarchs of the year, and we are rooting for at least or two of these monarchs to make the winter migration to Mexico. We read that it is only the last generation of monarchs each year that survives long enough to migrate, winter over in a semi-hibernation in Mexico and return in the Spring to begin the cycle anew.

Rick keeps looking at the monarchs and wondering how they even know to go to Mexico in the first place, since none of them have ever been before. Do they follow a magnetic field? Are they born with this knowledge imbedded in their genetic code? Even scientists don't know how the monarchs make their amazing journey. We're just glad they have found our yard, so we can share their incredible odyssey.
Monarch laying eggs on our milkweed