Birds and Blooms Blog

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Birding at One of Florida’s Best Birding Hotspots

Rob Ripma

This past weekend, while in Florida for a family wedding, my wife and I were able to sneak away for a morning of birding at one of Florida’s top birding hotspots, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. This amazing refuge is located right on the Atlantic coast and is only about an hour from Orlando. I had been to this property once before, and I was very excited to make a return visit during this trip. As always, the birding was awesome and the refuge was beautiful!

Merritt Island is a wonderful place to watch a huge variety of wading birds, and there is no better place to do this than along the Black Point Wildlife Drive. This 7-mile one-way auto tour route allows you get rather close to many herons and egrets! The birds are rather used to cars and people, allowing you get great photos without disturbing the birds.

Tricolored Herons were the most common wading bird at Merritt Island while I was there.

Tricolored Herons were the most common wading bird at Merritt Island while I was there.

In addition to seeing many herons and egrets, there were quite a few shorebirds around as well! Some of the highlights were Marbled Godwit, a couple dozen or so Black-bellied Plovers, and several Willet. In order to really get great looks at all of the shorebirds, I highly recommend bringing along a spotting scope.

Another highlight of our trip to Merritt Island was a huge number of Osprey throughout the refuge. This is a bird species that just a few short years ago was in serious trouble due to the use of DDT. They have made an incredible recovery, and I’m always excited to see high concentrations of this species.


My wife captured this image of an Osprey as it cruised overhead.

My wife captured this image of an Osprey as it cruised overhead.

Although this refuge is known for having a large group of Florida Scrub-Jays, we were unfortunately unable to find them on this visit (partly due to lack of time). I have seen them before on refuge property, but there were none to be found during our trip. In addition to being a great place to find birds, Merritt Island NWR is also an incredible spot to see West Indian Manatees! While they aren’t really a great subject to photograph, we enjoyed watching a large group of about 15 manatee feeding very close to shore in one of the canals.

As we about to cross the bridge to leave the refuge and head back to Orlando, some birds caught my eye near a fishing access area. I quickly pulled over and found three Black Skimmers resting not too far off the road. Black Skimmers have always been one of my favorite birds, and it was the perfect way to end our day!

These Black Skimmers were mixed in with a flock of Laughing Gulls. Don't worry, nothing is wrong with the one with its head on the ground, it's just resting!

These Black Skimmers were mixed in with a flock of Laughing Gulls. Don’t worry, nothing is wrong with the one with its head on the ground - it’s just resting!

Have you ever visited Merritt Island NWR? If so, what were some of your favorite sightings?


Finding Caterpillars in the Butterfly Garden

Jill Staake

Butterfly gardeners know that the best butterfly gardens have both nectar plants and host plants. Nectar plants feed adult butterflies, while host plants are those that caterpillars feed on. Each species has a plant or family of plants they use as host plants, and the key to attracting a wider variety of species to your butterfly garden is to seek out and plant those hosts. (Learn more about that here.)

Finding Caterpillars

Jill Staake If only all caterpillars were as easy to find as these Polydamas Swallowtails!

Once you have those plants, though, it can be hard to know whether or not the butterflies are finding and using them. Caterpillars are pretty vulnerable to predators, so they have a variety of methods to camouflage themselves or hide from prying eyes. Here are five tips for finding caterpillars in your butterfly garden.

Know what you’re looking for. Most caterpillars are made to blend in to their host plants. If you know what butterflies should be laying on the host plants in your garden, it’s easy to use the internet to find photos of the caterpillars you might expect to see. Butterflies and Moths of North America is my favorite site for finding that type of information.

Finding Caterpillars

Jill Staake Unless you know what they look like, finding caterpillars like this Cloudless Sulphur can be nearly impossible.

Expect the unexpected. Not all caterpillars camouflage themselves to blend in; many rely on other sorts of defenses. Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) caterpillars have large eyes to mimic snakes. Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) caterpillars, along with many others, have stiff spikes. And several species, including the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) shown below, look just like a pile of bird droppings sitting on the plant. (Reminder – a few caterpillars do have venomous spines. If you don’t know whether the caterpillar is safe to touch, DON’T TOUCH.)

Finding Caterpillars

Jill Staake Bird poo? Nope, a Giant Swallowtail caterpillar!

Check for chewing. Chewed-up leaves are often the first sign that caterpillars are on your plants. Very small caterpillars often “skeletonize” the leaves, eating the softer juicier material but leaving the structural veins behind. Others chew holes in the middle of leaves or simply devour everything in sight and move on to the next stem or plant.

Finding Caterpillars

Kristen Gilpin This tiny sulphur is only a little larger than a grain of rice, but holes in the leaves were the clue it was there.

Follow the frass. Caterpillar waste is called “frass”. It’s a solid material, and as caterpillars get large, they can leave pretty big amounts of it behind. If you see what you think might be frass on a leaf, check the leaves just above – you have a good chance of finding caterpillars nearby,

Finding Caterpillars

Hillary Roedell This monarch has made a mess – making it much easier to find.

Unwrap the leaf.  Some species are especially good at hiding, and finding caterpillars will take a little more work. Leaf shelter builders, like Spicebush Swallowtails and Long-Tailed Skippers (Urbanus proteus), use silk to pull a leaf around them. They then eat one end of the leaf from the inside and usually move on to another leaf at night, when they’re less likely to be spotted. Cool fact: Some species have the ability to expel their frass out of the other end of the leaf shelter at a high speed to scare off predators!

Finding Caterpillars

Jill Staake Curled-up leaves like this one may have a caterpillar inside. (Long Tailed Skipper)

What signs do you use for finding caterpillars in the butterfly garden? Need help identifying a caterpillar or butterfly you’ve seen? Drop by the Birds & Blooms “Bugs & Butterflies” Community forum to share your thoughts!

6 Simple Planting Tips for the Backyard Garden

What steps do you go through when adding new plants to your garden?  How big is your hole?  Do you add fertilizer and other soil amendments right away?

Today, we’ll talk about what steps you need to do for ultimate success with adding new plants and why you’ll want to skip adding fertilizer.

New Plants

Let’s face it – shopping for new plants is more fun than digging holes and planting them.  Last time, we talked about tips to help you to select healthy plants at the nursery.  Now, it’s time to get ready to plant – but before you grab your shovel, there are a few important planting tips as well as some common mistakes to avoid that will help ensure a beautiful, thriving plant in the future.

Hole that is too narrow

Hole that is too narrow

At first glance, you may not notice anything wrong with the hole, above.  However, this is NOT the right way to dig a hole for new plants.

Correct planting hole

Correct planting hole

Look carefully at the hole in this photo, above.  The first thing you will notice is that it is much wider than the previous one, which leads us to our first planting tip:

1. Dig holes at least 3X as wide as the root ball.  Why do plants need a wide hole?  The reason lies with how roots grow.  Most of the roots of plants grow outward and they have an easier time doing this in soil that has recently been loosened by digging.  Plants grown in holes like this will grow faster and become established more quickly as well as opposed to those grown in narrow holes where the roots have a harder time penetrating the soil around them.

2. Plant holes should be the same depth as the root ball or a couple of inches shallower.  New plants need to rest on a solid base, but after planting – some settling can occur resulting in your plant dropping down a few inches, which is not healthy for plants.  By creating a hole slightly shallower than the root ball, your new plant will rest at the soil level once the soil settles.

Root bound plant

Root bound plant

3. Check the root ball before planting.  Often, you cannot check the roots of a plant at the nursery and when the time to plant comes, you find that your plant is root bound.  Plants that are root bound have been in their container too long and as a result, the roots start growing in a circular pattern.

If you add a plant that is root bound, it will struggle to survive because its roots won’t grow out into the soil and absorb water and nutrients.  However, if you discover your new plant is root bound, you can help to correct the problem by making vertical cuts, 2 inches apart, around the entire root ball, which will redirect the roots to growing outward.

4. Improve the soil when adding non-native plants to the garden.  Adding compost to the planting hole helps to improve the texture clay and sandy soils enabling them to hold onto just the right amount of water.  In addition, compost adds some nutrients to the soil as well as beneficial soil organisms.

A good guideline as to how much compost to add to your planting hole is 1 part compost to 1 part native soil, mixed together.

*Native plants do not need any soil amendments like compost added to the soil because they are adapted to the native soil.

When to apply fertilizer

5. Skip the fertilizer when planting new plants.  This tip is one that is often surprising to many people – often our first impulse when adding new plants is to grab some fertilizer and sprinkle it around.  But did you know that this can do more harm to your plants than good?

So, why should you skip adding fertilizer?  When new plants are planted, they focus their energies on growing more roots into the surrounding soil to absorb water and nutrients.  Plants need a good root system to support the top growth of a plant.  However, when fertilizer is added at the time of planting, new plants are forced to direct its resources toward growing  the top growth – often before the plants have sufficient roots to support the top growth.

For non-native plants, the best time to add fertilizer is once you see new top growth.  Plants that are native to your area do not need any fertilizer.  In the case of fruit trees, it is recommended to wait to fertilize until 1 year after planting.

6. Water new plants deeply and often after planting.  New plants need more water initially until their roots have been given enough time to grow out into the surrounding soil where they can uptake larger amounts of water.  Gradually reduce the amount of watering until plants are on the same schedule as the existing plants, which is usually one year after planting.

Fall is the best time of year to add new plants to the backyard garden and you’ll be more than ready armed with these simple tips.

2014 State of the Birds Report

Rob Ripma

Earlier this week, the 2014 State of the Birds report was released by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. This report uses long-term population trends to analyze how birds in the United States are doing. Although it’s not always good news in the report, I always am extremely interested to see what the trends are each year. You can read the full report by following this link.

This year, there were some very good highlights within the report that really give a lot of hope for what conservationists can accomplish. The major highlight is that wetland bird species  continue to make an incredible recovery. Thanks to a number of programs that safeguard our wetlands, many duck species are doing extremely well.  But despite wetlands being in a good spot, there are still some wetland birds that are struggling. Northern Pintail populations continue to decline, but the USFWS is beginning to spend Duck Stamp dollars to preserve more of their breeding habitat in the Prairie Pothole region in the upper Midwest, primary in the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. This will help not just pintails but also Black Terns and LeConte’s Sparrows.

LeConte's Sparrow will be one of the species that will benefit from additional wetland conservation in the Prairie Pothole region.

LeConte’s Sparrow will be one of the species that will benefit from additional wetland conservation in the Prairie Pothole region.


One of the more startling negative statistics in the report is that all 33 species of Hawaiian forest bird are on the Watch List, and 23 of those are federally listed as endangered. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Hawaii twice and have been fortunate to see many of these species that are in serious threat of going extinct. It would be an absolute shame to lose any more of the Hawaiian species, and I truly hope that groups such as Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project can make sure that this does not happen!

'Akohekohe is only found in the forest on Haleakala on the island of Maui. This is just one of the many Hawaiian bird species that faces the threat of extinction.

‘Akohekohe is only found in the forest on Haleakala on the island of Maui. This is just one of the many Hawaiian bird species that faces the threat of extinction.

Kiwikiu or Maui Parrotbill is one of the rarest birds that I have ever had the opportunity to see. There are only about 500 individuals left on Maui.

Kiwikiu or Maui Parrotbill is one of the rarest birds that I have ever had the opportunity to see. There are only about 500 individuals left on Maui.

The report also highlights the biggest threats facing birds today. As always, habitat destruction is at the top of the list. The birds cannot survive if we don’t protect the habitats that they live in. Check out the rest of the top threats to birds on page 6 of the report.

Are you doing something to help birds survive all of the threats that they are facing? If so, tell us about it in the comment section below!

Attracting Butterflies: Common Buckeye

Jill Staake

A surprising number of species include the word “common” in their name, though the species itself is anything but ordinary. One good example is the Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia). The “common” in its name helps to distinguish it from the similar-looking Tropical Buckeye (Junonia everete) and Mangrove Buckeye (Junonia genoveva). At first glance, this medium-sized butterfly may seem brown and commonplace, but a second look will bring the brilliant eyespots and orange accents to your attention.

Common Buckeye

Common Buckeyes are found across nearly all of the U.S. and southern Canada at some point in the year. In southern regions, they may be more common during the cooler seasons, when their host plants are more readily available. Here in Tampa, Florida, I usually see Common Buckeyes up through late June or early July, after which the population moves north to find a better crop of host plants for their caterpillars. (Folks in Florida may also see Mangrove Buckeyes, while those in the Southwest may see Tropical Buckeyes. Click the links to learn more about each.)

Common Buckeye

Top: Common Buckeye eggs on plantain; Bottom: Common Buckeye caterpillars

The Common Buckeye lays its eggs on plants in the Plantago, Acanthus, and Antirrhinim families. This includes toadflax, broadleaf plantain (a common “weed” found in lawns), wild petunia (different from the standard non-native petunia usually sold at garden centers; look for the genus name Ruellia to find the right varieties), and snapdragons. The eggs are small and green, laid singly but often with many close together, as shown in the photo. The caterpillars are dark with white, blue, and orange markings, and short stiff spikes that are harmless to humans but deter predators like lizards and birds.

Common Buckeye Profile

While Common Buckeyes don’t exactly migrate en masse like monarchs, they do shift their population center throughout the year. People further north may just have started seeing these butterflies in the last few weeks, as the last populations finally made their way to the northern end of the range. Most of these butterflies will begin to shift back south for the winter, but they won’t fly in large groups like monarchs. Their population will just slowly start to focus itself further south a bit at a time. You can help them thrive in the late summer and fall months by keeping plenty of nectar flowers in your garden. (They especially love the late-season asters.)

Need ideas for late-summer and fall nectar flowers? Click here!

Unexpected Fall-Planted Bulbs to Try

It’s time to go beyond tulips, daffodils, and crocus. Try these fall-planted bulbs to add some new and unusual blooms to your garden next spring.

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