Monday, April 12, 2010

April News~Challenges and New Hope, always!

As some of you know, Life has been one challenge after another for the past year (for me and our favorite hairstreak!) I won't burden my friendly readers with the gory details, but after moving three time last year, my new house in Sarasota was robbed in February, shortly after relocating again. They took many items, including my computer. I had learned a serious lesson when this happened to a friend a few years ago, so I had moved the six years of atala data, thousands of photographs, finished papers, journal articles, etc., to an external hard drive. By the grace of G-d, the thieves left the external hard drive behind (although they took EVERY cable and all the other accoutrements of my computer).

They also missed my camera, but because they took the cable, that has been another glitch in trying to normalize Life to some extent. I am just about over the recovery mode, and received much needed support in many forms from friends, both at home in Lauderdale, and here on the West Coast. Although I am trying to get the hang of living here, my heart is yearning to come home.....

In the meantime, though, I have done several programs at John Williams Park in Hollywood this year. In February, we had a few attendees for Audubon's "Great Backyard Bird Count" but it was not well attended for the non-native plant removal in the afternoon. Nonetheless, I gathered a few overloaded bags myself, especially the ubiquitous Caesar's Weed. In March, we had over twenty students from Hollywood Hills High School's Eco-Krew on hand again, and they collected many more bags of Caesar's Weed and Air Potato. They also managed to rip out and annihilate two medium sized Brazilian Pepper trees that I have been hankering to destroy for several years (but had no tools with which to do so).

Leave it to a handful of strong, young, determined students to figure out an alternative method: climbers broke the branches one by one, and another student, who lived nearby, ran home to 'borrow' his father's machete! The City will be treating whatever remains of the roots. These two trees were virtually the only mature Brazilian Peppers in the park, so removing them will go a long way in preventing further infestation of this invasive tree. After a day's hard work, we enjoyed a picnic lunch and "S'mores" on the grill!
I also had the delight of leading a tour through Sheridan Oak Forest for twenty-six Boy Scouts who were camping in John Williams for the weekend. They liked it so much that asked Jack Mathison, who is the Assistant Director of the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department for the City of Hollywood, and who happened to stop in for a visit, if they could do it again...
Fortunately, he said YES! So we have set up several more dates for the summer.
Miami Country Day School also asked me to lead a tour through Everglades National Park in February; this is the fourth or fifth trip we've taken together. Although the first day was quite cold and rainy, the kids had a good time and got to see lots of wildilfe and birds. One the second day, they actually witnessed an alligator in the process of processing an anhinga! Poor bird, happy gator. The children were both awed and a little frightened by the spectacle and they certainly acquired a true respect for the most important predator in the 'Glades. Alligators can move surprisingly fast when they are hungry, as many unfortunate animals (including people) have discovered.

I also got to take an excited group of Spring Campers from the City of Hollywood's program to Sheridan Oak Forest this month, too. We didn't see alligators, but we did see a lot of birds and butterflies. The "forest" is a very exciting place for children who have seldom seen such a sight!
On the lighter side, the little Florida house that I am renting in Sarasota has the ever-present-on-the-west-coast citrus trees in the back yard. It has a tangerine tree and a beautiful, sweet ruby-red grapefruit tree. I have been enjoying the grapefruits since moving in, but the tangerines were extremely bitter. West-coast denizens told me that the fruit would get sweeter after a cold front. We have had, as you know, numerous [unpleasant] cold fronts on this side (and I know the east coast has been reeling from the cold, too!)
After the last cold wave, I went out to the grapefruit tree to gather a few for juice, and was surprised to see many of them on the ground partially or completely eaten by wildlife (either by the neighborhood squirrels, or the opposums that I see in the evening). I chuckled to myself, thinking that those tangerines must really be bitter, if the wildlife is choosing a grapefruit over a tangerine!

Then I noticed scores of empty tangerine skins on the ground underneath the tangerine tree; curious, I decided to pluck a tangerine to test the local hypothesis that cold makes them sweeter.

Imagine my surprise to when I tried to find a tangerine ON the tree! Empty fruit shells were clustered on every branch, the insides munched in situ. I did manage to find six untouched tangerines, and they were sweet indeed! I ate them all. SO I am passing along this bit of naturalist-type information: citrus does get sweeter after a cold front. There are still plenty of grapefruits for me and the wildilfe, so I do not feel guilty for eating the last six tangerines.

On the heavier side, now: a very disturbing event has occurred at Nova Southeastern University. As you know from previous posts, the atala butterflies self-established in the "Mesozoic Garden" two years ago. There was plenty of coontie for the caterpillars, lots of nectar for the adults, and sufficient roosting sites to keep the colony happy. We planted more coontie and more nectar sources a year ago.
The other half of the garden is maintained by the Pharmacy School and is referred to as the "Medicinal Garden." It used to have plenty of nectar and roosting sites for the atala and other butterflies. However, someone at the school authorized the complete removal of the flowers, and roosting shrubs, replacing the 'jungle' with a series of mostly invasive, non-native plants offering little nectar or unusable nectar, and no roosting sites.

The plant at the left is Sansevieria hyacinthoides, one of several species. Organizations pay THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS and volunteers spend THOUSANDS OF HOURS removing this Category II invasive from Florida Natural Areas and Parks (I know, I am one of them!) It is listed as a plant to avoid by the Institute for Food and Agricultural Services (IFAS, associated with the Extension Office of the University of Florida). In addition, Broward County has listed this plant as a B1, with a strong advisement to avoid planting it. Treatment priority calls for "Immediate REMOVAL."

I would venture that someone did not do intensive research before choosing the plants; one plant, now only a few inches high, will grow to be "3 feet wide and 6 feet tall", and is used as a marijuana substitute, with hallucenogenic attributes. I do have to question by whose authority that one was chosen!
FLEPPC is a state-wide organization which monitors the invasive status of non-native plants. It doesn't promote ONLY native plants; many non-native plants are 'well-behaved' and stay where they are planted. However, it does provide a very extensive list of invasive plants that they advise strongly against using because they are considered highly disruptive to natural eco-systems. NSU has planted quite a few of them, in addition to planting a few with undesirable side-effects!

I understand that this is meant to be medicinal garden, but there are literally hundreds of native Florida plants with medicinal attributes from which to choose. Not only are there medicinal uses, the native plants proffer important nectar sources for the atala, which are considered an "Imperiled Species" by the Imperiled Butterfly Working Group .

It is my opinion, and that of many others who now wish the jungle was back, that the new replacement garden is simply unattractive and sterile, as well as toxic, non-native, and invasive.

Another issue is that NSU landscape maintenance crews are the same group of general laborers hired by practically every place in Florida that has lawns, bushes and trees. These laborers are hard-workers, but often have no training for actually doing anything but hard labor (I have never seen work done by these guys that exhibits a properly trimmed tree, seen a bush that wasn't mutilated by dull blades!) The complaint here is primarily regarding the palm trees on campus.
Palm nectar is one of the most significant nectar sources for the atala (as well as many other insects and pollinators). The yard crew on campus continually chops down the inflorescences depriving the butterflies of much needed nectar. If the palm inflorescences were not cut until fruit began to form, it would be a major step in the right direction.
I encourage individuals and organizations to be aware of the multitude of factors that disrupt, or enhance, atala habitats and act accordingly in the best interest of the colony.
In that respect, I offer this list of hand-management for atala colonies:
1. Plant and maintain a minimum of twenty coontie (50-100 is better). Coontie care can be found on Tom Broome's Cycad Site. He has excellent articles about fertilizing, trimming. hand-pollination. root-division, and species types.

2. Use pine duff (shed pine needles) as mulch instead of wood shavings (Broome). One reason is because the pine mulch allows water to penetrate to the tap roots of the coontie. Pine duff
helps prevents fungus and mold development because it does harbor excessive moisture for long periods of time, and mimics the natural pineland of the coontie's original eco-system. The use of such dry, clean substrate in domestic or semi-wild populations also helps prevent fungus diseases which the larvae may contract when they crawl in the substrate.

3. Allow nectar sources to flourish without undue trimming by overly-enthusiastic lawn maiintenance crews (when trimmers 'square off' a shrub, they often destroy the flowers, and tear the stems, which opens the plant to diseases. Nature did not place any square-cut shrubs on the planet for a reason!)
4. Plant native Florida nectar sources as much as possible. The atala has a short proboscis and small flowers are preferred. My article, "Nectar sources for the Atala" is available for free from the Florida Entomologist.
5. Do not remove the blooms from palm trees until the flowers have been pollinated and fruit is beginning to form.

6. Plant native roosting tree, such as cypress, oaks, cedars and pines, such as you would find in a natural environment. Butterflies need shade and safe roosting sites as well as food sources.

7. Avoid pesticide use of any kind entirely. There are thousands of gallons, literally tons of pesticides already invading our soil, water, and even our homes. Remember that some fertilizers can be just as destructive to the environment.

At least one Fort Lauderdale site has announced atala activity this month. I am awaiting more good news from all of you!

On April 30-May 1, 2010, Biscayne National Park, on Biscayne Bay, and National Geographic will be hosting a BioBlitz---documenting every life form found at the park, from tube worms to birds, from river otters to sharks. I will be priviledged to partcipate with other Lepdioptera-loving scientists as we document butterflies, moths, and other insects. This is a magnificient opportunity for you to chip in your energy and skills to help (and learn) as a citizen science volunteer! Visit to learn more about this exciting day!

I am looking forward to seeing you all soon! Next blog: WILDFLOWERS are EVERYWHERE!

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