It is the little things

Seems like I’ve been moving around a lot this summer, but this has its rewards. Whenever I get back home again, it’s the little things in my yard that always welcome me back.

When I am here day after day, I get immune to the joys of the smaller forms of nature in my own backyard. After all, I see these critters every summer day – the hummingbirds, anoles, and dragonflies that inhabit my landscape.

But when I return from an absence, I notice them again and appreciate them more than ever. Take the anoles for instance. These small lizards live all around our house. One particular brown (aka Cuban) anole lives outside by our front window, in front of a table we visit to add pieces to our always ongoing jigsaw puzzle. Our cat Dumela often joins us on the table. While we are looking at puzzle pieces, she is equally entertained with watching this lizard. It works for us all!

Our backyard landscape has lots of low-level flowers and shrubs. Higher up, some trees and a shade structure give plenty of room for the two species of anoles, the brown ones and the green ones, to coexist. The green anoles (sometimes called chameleons by locals) have been in our area the longest and once had full run of the vegetation. But over the years, the brown anoles have extended their range and moved in too. Now the lower leaves and shrubs are full of brown anoles, but happily the green ones still thrive, just higher up in the canopy. When I come back from a trip, I notice them all.

The hummingbirds are a fun sight too. We don’t put out hummingbird feeders because these attract ants and the sugar solution needs to be regularly changed to keep it from spoiling. But in our yard these supplemental feedings are not needed. We have two large bottlebrush trees that have bright red flowers on them most of the summer. And usually when I look there is at least one hummingbird, sometimes more, happily feeding on the nectar. I stepped into my backyard for the first time after a recent trip, and immediately a hummingbird flitted over and hovered near me, watching me. Maybe it was happy I was back too. After all, I’m a regular part of their environment too.

And dragonflies, how can I forget them? These insects are known as an indicator species for healthy aquatic environments. The more species of them present the better the ecology of an area. Well, sadly, we used to have dragonflies of many different colors in our backyard, back when the retention pond was newly formed and not yet polluted by the runoff from adjacent homes.

Paula Staples with the St. Johns River Water Management District visited our pond for a number of years to collect dragonfly nymphs (immature ones) for education programs, but this program has now been cancelled. And I doubt as many nymphs live here now anyway. Now we only seem to have blue dragonflies, but even these I admire for their tenacity to continue to live in our increasingly urban environment.

And ah, yes, the butterflies! This year has been my most successful one yet in attracting these beauties to my yard. Instead of fighting with “weeds” in the butterfly garden, I’ve learned to accommodate them. I’ve installed seven large pots with dianthus, pentas, lantana, various salvias, milkweeds and other known butterfly-attracting plants. The milkweed reseeded and new plants have shown up in the ground around the pots; now two entire waves of monarchs and their caterpillars have partaken of them. The Spanish needle plants around the pots may look weedy but they also attract their share of butterflies. The milkweed has also attracted milkweed bugs, beautiful themselves in orange and black. There’s a lot of milkweed in our yard, plenty enough for one and all.

It’s not just the smaller critters that welcome me back; it’s the bigger ones too. Our bird feeders attract a regular contingent of cardinals, chickadees and titmice, not to mention the squirrels and doves that eat the fallen seeds on the ground. Back in the woods, I often see pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers, hawks, and sometimes owls. Frogs still live in the brush of the pond margins, and egrets and wood storks sometimes pay visits to the pond too.

With this largess in my own back yard, why do I ever leave? I sometimes wonder. Maybe it’s just because I like to return and see it all, even the small stuff, with fresh eyes again!

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. Her email address is patandbucko@yahoo.com.

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