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A Butterfly’s Kingdom

In light of recent events, smiles were in order… So we hiked, we walked our natural areas, and we visited the butterflies!! I’m a nut for butterflies — I often find myself plowing through beastly banana spider webs, or managing the swamp, to chase butterflies on our hikes. More than once I’ve nearly tripped over large, scaly, and silent objects at the water’s edge — quite unlike a butterfly — in my efforts to photograph these lovelies….

Butterfly World, located here in South Florida, opened in 1988. It’s the largest butterfly park in the world, and the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. At any given time, more than 3000 live butterflies are fluttering at the facility (and usually MORE), representing 50 different species (150 species over the course of an entire year). This is all thanks to Robert Boender, who raised butterflies and their food plants from his Florida home, post-retirement. In 1984, he was supplying farmed butterflies to zoos and universities with his own company. He met Clive Farrell — founder and owner of the London Butterfly House — in 1985, during a visit to England. Wanting to create a similar facility in Florida, Boender and Ferrell joined forces and began plans to create a combination public attraction / research facility and butterfly farm — and Butterfly World was born.

Visitors enter the spectacular Paradise Adventure Aviary, with fountains, ponds, lush vegetation, and of course thousands of butterflies — representing five continents. It’s a glorious shock to the human system, to be suddenly surrounded by thousands of fluttering brilliant colors. The Hanging Garden & Butterfly Emerging Area is next, where cases filled with pupa and emerging butterflies are displayed. Finally, the Tropical Rain Forest Aviary recreates a rain forest — complete with waterfall, thousands of tropical plants, and free-flying birds and butterflies.

Butterfly World also includes the largest free-flight hummingbird aviary in the United States — the Jewels of the Sky Aviary — as well as a Lorikeet Encounter, and an aviculture research center. At the butterfly laboratory, visitors can view — through a glass enclosure — where butterflies are raised, observing the different stages of formation including eggs, caterpillar, and pupa.

At the Museum/Insectarium, exhibits of mounted specimens of beetles, butterflies, moths, and other insects are displayed. The Bug Zoo features live insects, including spiders, walking sticks, and mantids. Not particularly my favorite part of the facility, having been raised on the Equator, on a tropical island where insects grew to gargantuan proportions — and there was little barrier between you and them.

Other features include Grace Gardens, offering examples of the world’s flowering tropical plants. The Wings of the World Secret Garden presents one of the largest collections of flowering Passion Flower vines (passiflora) in the world — beautiful beyond compare. Butterfly World’s conservation efforts include the establishment of The Passiflora Society International, which was established at the site to encourage research on passion flowers, the source of food for many butterflies. A North American “Bring Back the Butterflies” campaign is also active here, with thousands of people across the country receiving free literature on butterfly gardening for their region. Check it out! Butterfly World also helped establish the Boender Endangered Species Laboratory at the University of Florida — instrumental in saving the endangered Schaus Swallowtail, and reintroducing the species to South Florida.

Many pesticides kill butterflies (and bees, and…), so it’s important to be safe with their use — or, use ladybugs in their stead! Sadly, butterflies came up in the news recently with companies like genetically-modified foods giant Monsanto. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Crops have been tied to the decrease in Monarch populations by killing the very plants that the butterflies rely on for habitat and food — milkweed. These plants are being destroyed by the heavy use of glyphosate-based pesticides on Roundup Ready crops. Over the past 17 years, the Monarch butterfly population in Central Mexico has declined, reaching an all-time low in 2009-2010. Obviously there’s a far bigger picture here, which many are aware — land destruction, farmers’ livelihoods, and our own health — but when the news was released that these companies and their crops were now ravaging the butterfly populations (for years, now)…. Honestly.

But thanks to the education and conservation campaigns of facilities like Butterfly World, perhaps there may be some sort of balance reached between the destruction caused by these companies, and a return to the natural order.

Piano Key Butterfly

Swallowtail Butterfly (Specifically, err…)

Clipper Butterfly

Madiera Butterfly

White Morpho Butterfly

Still trying to figure this one out…

…And on to the birds!

Season of the (Red) Snake

It’s apparently the season of the red snake. We just encountered our first Corn Snake / Red Rat Snake (oddly enough, for its commonality) — and most recently, on a brief excursion to photograph butterflies in the northern section of the Everglades, I nearly stepped on this lovely young Orange Rat Snake at dusk. He was none too happy with our presence, and my undivided attention to his colorful mug.

Also known as the Everglades Rat Snake or Glades Rat Snake, this species is known for its calm nature (in captivity) and wide array of bright colors, making it another favorite with snake keepers. While many areas are host to the Everglades Rat Snake, Florida has a particularly high concentration — the species derives its name from the Everglades region in South Florida, where it’s said to have originated. Although prone to aggression if feeling cornered or threatened (like many animals, unsurprisingly), they are NOT dangerous, and spend much of their time in hiding — in crevices, tucked into knotholes, burrowing into holes, on trees (including palms), or on treetops (they’re great climbers). Like many Florida snakes, they’ll quickly flee to the water should they sense danger on land. They can reach lengths of 4 – 6 feet, although a few have been reported up to 7 feet — making it one of the longest snakes in North America. A single clutch can include between 7 – 27 eggs, hatching in July or September. As the snakes mature, they change from a blotchy grey to orange or sometimes red, with four standard stripes resembling their background color — with striking red eyes and a matching red tongue (the red eye can be seen in this picture). Their natural habitats are grasslands, wetlands, and swamps.

Whenever we see snakes around our home, they’re usually non-venemous; and we ensure that they’re protected from lawnmowers and the like. Snakes keep rodent populations down — and if you live anywhere near water, you realize how large water rats can become. Snakes are our friends! If you or someone you know is afraid of them, gently relocate the snake and / or its nest. We once had a large Brown Snake manage its way into our inside closet (how, we’ll never know). Believe me, I’d — and by “I,” I mean the male — would rather have relocated that Brown Snake than a water rat.

Everglades Rat Snake, or Orange Rat Snake in the Florida Everglades

Fae Mouse; or a Visit with an Eastern Harvest Mouse

Despite the commonality of some critters, I love to watch them just as much as any other — they’re all captivating. I recently watched and photographed an Eastern Harvest Mouse for a solid 20 minutes….

This little guy is common in Florida’s wetland ecosystems, but other natural habitats include subtropical and tropical grasslands, scrub, swamps, prairies, meadows, and pastureland. Their range includes the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Florida, and Texas. While the Eastern Harvest Mouse eats seeds, fresh plant matter, and small insects, they’re prey for our snakes, bobcats, large wading birds, and birds of prey. Their nests are constructed of shredded grasses and plant fibers, and are used by the mice year-round. Offspring are usually born in the late spring, summer, or early fall, with litter sizes ranging from 2 – 7.

I realize many people are spooked by rodents, mice in particular. Perhaps it’s my love of fairy tales, or plain fondness for all critters — every one — but I always see fairies accompanying them. Honestly, he’s adorable; as I’m always saying: THAT FACE!

Eastern Harvest Mouse, Florida Wetlands

Courtesy Project Gutenberg:

“Grasshopper Green and the Meadow-Mice,” Written and illustrated by John Rae. P.F. Volland Company, 1922

Courtesy Project Gutenberg:

“Grasshopper Green and the Meadow-Mice,” Written and illustrated by John Rae. P.F. Volland Company, 1922

“Fairies And a Field Mouse,” by Etheline E. Dell (1885-1923)

“The Chase of the White Mouse,” by John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906)

The Queen of the Field Mice, from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” by L. Frank Baum

Courtesy Project Gutenberg:

Thumbelina, by Hans Christian Andersen, from “Childhood’s Favorites and Fairy Stories: The Young Folks Treasury, Volume 1”

“The Fairy Bower” by John Anster Fitzgerald

Pretty Sssssnake

Initially we thought it was a young Cottonmouth…. Being near the water, and with the surrounding wetlands and fields. We’ve seen a few of them and their skins on our hikes through the Florida flatwoods and swamps — which is why I always wear my boots when we’re out and about! It’s their land, after all. I’m thankful to visit, each and every time.

But we realized it was far too bright, even for an infant Cottonmouth — besides, this was an adult (this realization reached after the human male jumped excitedly over the embankment to get a closer look). I researched it later, as I had honestly never seen one, in all my years here. It’s a Corn snake — otherwise known as a Red Rat snake, apparently quite common. The term “Corn snake” — dating as far back as the mid- to late 17th century — arose when southern farmers stockpiled their harvested ears of corn, attracting rodents. The rodents in turn attracted these snakes.

Corn snakes are found throughout the Southeastern and Central US, and are known to be extremely docile — not biting easily, and not aggressive — making them “ideal” pet snakes (boo). Averaging 3.9 – 6 feet, they’re considered a moderate-sized snake, and prefer habitats such as overgrown fields, trees, palmetto flatwoods, and abandoned buildings and farmlands. They host a wide variety of color and pattern variations, as well. I’m still in disbelief that I haven’t seen one of these lovelies on any of our hikes — they’re pretty hard to miss.

Corn Snake, or Red Rat Snake

Corn Snake, or Red Rat Snake

Happy Mommy’s Day

 Happy Mother’s Day! MUCH love to all the dedicated, devoted, and hard-working women — and female critters — of the world.

Me + Mom (w/ brother in belly) in Central FL, 1972, PRE-Disney — while swamps were being filled

Momma Grackle feeds her young

I’ll save *exactly* what the momma’s feeding the juvenile (below) for an upcoming post…. It’s just. That. Yummy!

Great Blue Heron feeding her young on a tree-top nest

Big Like You: Momma Alligator with one of her babies

Anhinga Mealtime: Busy mother Anhinga with her brood

Red-winged Blackbird nest with a new momma

Red-winged Blackbird mother feeds her hatchlings

Our neighborhood stray cat and her kitten in our yard; such a good momma (now: TNR time!)

Pretty in Purple

Purple Gallinules are one of the shyer creatures of our wetlands, and to spy one is a fun and colorful event. Even if you’re a sly watcher and/or photographer, they’ll quickly flit into the dense marsh vegetation when they sense your presence…. It’s ironic, being as shy as they are, with such bold coloring. But it’s always a joy to spy these purple, blue, and green gems — especially so for me, as they’re all my favorite colors, wrapped up into one bright little bird.

These lovely creatures live in the freshwater marshes of the southeastern United States, as well as in Central America and the Caribbean — although they have turned up in the northern states and southern Canada, and even in parts of Europe and South Africa. There’s no mistaking this medium-sized rail, with its purple-blue plumage, green back, pale blue forehead, white undertail (of which I’ve caught more than one glimpse), bright red and yellow bill, and long yellow feet. The juveniles sport blander, brown colorations. The  gallinules’ huge legs make them awkward fliers, so short bursts of activity are their mode of transportation — or swimming like a duck if they’re not navigating the marsh with those dangling legs. They nest in floating constructs in the mashes (although I haven’t spotted many — they’re quite well hidden), laying 5-10 eggs.

The Purple Gallinule is omnivorous, eating the seeds, leaves, fruits, and grains of both aquatic and terrestrial plants; they also enjoy insects, frogs, snails, spiders, earthworms, fish, and even the eggs and young of other birds. When I see them in our wetlands, they’re often alone, nestled in the vegetation and cackling away — or being chased by other birds, most often by their sister species the Common Moorhen.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule — Nice Legs

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule — White Undertail on Display

Purple Gallinule about to be chased into dense marsh vegetation by a defensive moorhen parent

Purple Gallinule successfully chased into dense marsh vegetation by a defensive moorhen parent

Growing Gator Baby — A Survivor!

I was lucky to have witnessed a mating pair of alligators during a recent trip to our protected wetlands — while I believe the actual mating had already occurred (as evidenced by the babies on the nearby bank), their  affinity for each other was obvious; Alligator Love: A Courtship offers opportune images of alligators’ elaborate courtship. Nearby were their offspring (8-9 counted) — as captured in Alligator Babies.

This little guy has grown quickly in the last 2-3 weeks; I didn’t spy any other siblings, but hopefully some have managed to survive the rigors of the swamp. After laying 20-50 eggs, the mother alligator closely guards her hatchlings — at 6-8 inches long, they’re near-replicas of the parents, save for a series of yellow and black stripes which camouflage beautifully with the surrounding marsh roots (the rings aren’t as pronounced in this more recent picture). They remain with her for five months before finding their own ways. We typically see 5-10 hatchlings survive in our protected wetlands — and even less make it to this age, as shown below. Common predators that prey upon the juvenile alligators include snapping turtles, snakes, raccoons, bobcats, raptors, and even larger male alligators.

Look at that face; I hope the little guy makes it….

Young Alligator in the Florida Wetlands

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