Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A dragonfly for Halloween?

It's almost the end of October so I suppose it's fitting to post a picture I recently took of a Halloween Pennant Dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) posing daintily on the curled tip of a spiderweb-adorned cattail.




Named for its orange and black wings (the Halloween part) and a propensity to flap in the breeze like a flag while attached to bare perches (the pennant part), the Halloween pennant dragonfly is a familiar sight on our lake.

I especially like this picture, however, not so much for the dragonfly - lovely though it is - but for the curled tip of the slender cattail reed upon which it chose to perch.  Something about that spiral curve sets my heart aflutter.  Combined with the Halloween pennant's pretty profile it becomes a special end-of-October picture.

Taking flight

It was early morning.  It was chilly outside, which made the mist hang heavy over the still water.  I was sitting in my rowboat along the shoreline at the lake's north end about 50 feet away from where our resident pair of sandhill cranes spend the night when all of a sudden the birds took off.




They do this every morning.  They spend the night on a tiny island in the lake, then in the early morning just as the sun is beginning to rise above the treeline, they preen their feathers before flying off.

This morning, however, I was in the right spot at the right time to catch these beauties just as they were lifting off.  It was my birthday and of all the presents that day brought, none filled me with as much joy as this one picture capturing a moment long to be remembered.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A day when doing nothing is more than enough

A great way to start the day


Ever since the beginning of the month, my husband Ralph has been asking me what I want to do for my birthday. My answer has been consistent:

“I’m thinking about it,” I’d say. And I really was.

I thought about when I was out for my morning row and when I was drifting off to sleep at night. I even thought about it off and on during the day while making dinner, washing dishes or driving around town doing errands. I thought about it often, but I had no answer.

Then one morning it came to me. I don’t want to do anything. More specifically, I don’t want to do anything that involves doing things I don’t really want to do.

For instance, going away is an option Ralph has mentioned. He loves the beach — a bit more than I do — and whenever we spend time there, we enjoy the ocean and our time away from the unending demands of home. With that in mind, I considered a trip to the beach for my birthday or to any of several other not-too-far-away places where it might be fun to go.

But even a short trip involves the gathering together of stuff, packing and unpacking, then doing it all over again when it’s time to return. It involves sleeping in a different bed and cooking in a different kitchen and driving in a car with a partner who doesn’t much enjoy driving in a car for any distance longer than 20 miles. All things considered, going away just seems like too much effort for too little return. Nope. I don’t want to go on a trip for my birthday.


We always have fun at the beach but going anywhere involves so much packing and unpacking as well as travel time, which is not nearly as fun as actually being there


There’s a certain allure to seeing a movie and going out to dinner.

For most people, a restaurant meal and theatre ticket is a solid, sure-to-please present, and I’d like it too — if the picture I saw were a romantic comedy. So I checked my local multi-screen cinema, which is less than 20 miles away, and although the schedule on their website lists 25 pictures currently playing, none of the movies fit the bill. If frightening flicks, tragic love stories or mutant Ninjas were my thing, I’d have plenty of choices but finding a well-written, feel-good movie with a happy ending is much more difficult. Apocalyptic-terrorist-thriller-blood-and-gore films dominate the cinema scene. Romantic comedies? Not so much.


Why aren't there more movies like When Harry Met Sally?


That leaves going out to eat. A restaurant meal is usually relaxing, assuming you share the meal with an amenable companion. However, my husband is not what you’d call a restaurant aficionado. He likes to eat certain foods prepared in a particular way. Unfortunately, his idea of a perfect meal — with rare exception— doesn’t match that of any local restaurateur. After years of trying unsuccessfully to find a nearby dining experience he’d enjoy, I finally gave up. We eat at home now, and that’s fine with me. I like our way of eating too.

In the following clip from When Harry Met Sally, Harry explains to Sally why she's a "high maintenance" woman.  What is not said is that being "high maintenance" is not restricted to females alone...





So what did I do on my birthday? Exactly what I said I’d do. I did only things I enjoyed.

I got up early and went for a row while the lake was still thick with morning mist. I watched the sunrise over the trees, went for a meandering walk through the woods and took dozens of pictures. I ate delicious meals that Ralph and I prepared together and while we ate, I watched chickadees, cardinals and a tufted titmouse at the birdfeeder.


A cheery little chickadee


I allowed myself time to escape into a good book, to sip tea and to talk to my children on the phone. In the evening, I cuddled with my husband on the couch as we watched some favorite shows and before going to bed that night, I went outside to see the stars to catch a glimpse of the waxing crescent moon.


The crescent moon


Birthdays have always been special to me but that doesn’t mean special days have to involve fancy gifts, getaways or elaborate dining experiences. Sometimes the best way to celebrate is to savor the moment and let your heart swell with gratitude for simply being here in this amazing world. For me, on my birthday, doing nothing is more than enough.




Monday, October 20, 2014

Twice the excitement when two eagles visit the lake

I don’t usually see bald eagles on our property. They aren’t regulars like the great blue heron, white egret or the resident pair of sandhill cranes. Nonetheless, every now and then, an eagle drops by to survey the surroundings. It’s usually perched on the bare branch of a dead tree standing along the shoreline of the lake.




Twice during the past year, I was lucky enough to spot an eagle bathing in the shallow water — an activity I had never seen before — and one time I chanced upon an eagle attempting unsuccessfully to snatch a small duck out of the water.


The lake is a perfect 'tub' for an eagle's bath


A bit of feather fluffing and preening proceeds a good bath


On each of those occasions, I saw only one eagle, but just the other day, two bald eagles were in the lake at the same time.


Twice the delight!  Two eagles in the lake at once


It is not uncommon to see bald eagles in Florida. The Sunshine State is home to approximately 1,400 nesting pairs of the majestic birds, third in the United States only to Alaska and Minnesota in eagle populations. When I’m out driving — especially if I’m anywhere near a landfill — I watch for eagles. I look for a large bird with a white head, sitting upright on top of a utility pole, and quite often I spot one.


Eagles can often be spotted sitting atop utility poles in Central Florida


Despite being our country’s national emblem, emblazed upon the Great Seal of the United States in 1782 to symbolize freedom, strength and longevity, not everyone thinks the bald eagle is the most qualified bird to hold such a position of honor. 


Benjamin Franklin would have preferred the turkey to represent the United States instead of the bald eagle

“For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in a legendary letter to his daughter penned a year-and-a-half after the Great Seal was adopted. “He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the fishing hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”

On several occasions, I’ve seen eagles do precisely that — let an osprey do the hard work of catching a fish, only to suddenly swoop in and steal the food away in a fierce aerial flight.

In the same letter, Franklin also accuses the eagle of being a “rank coward” because small birds defending their nests often chase it away. Although I’ve seen that happen too, I’m not sure I would characterize the eagle’s behavior the same way Franklin did.

A couple months ago, I watched several crows dive-bomb an eagle perched in a pine tree. The eagle tolerated the crows’ assaults even after they escalated and became more menacing. Finally, the eagle had enough and flew away.


Eagle being attacked by a crow


Letting the crows know he doesn't like being harassed


Tired of being subjected to continual assaults, the eagle decides to fly away


Instead of acting cowardly, it seemed as though the eagle’s retreat demonstrated avoidance rather than a lack of courage. It reminded me of how I feel when I’m sitting quietly in the woods watching wildlife until mosquitoes find me. I tolerate the bugs for a while, but eventually they become too annoying. I pick up my gear and move to a different spot.

Below is a video of the eagle under attack by the crows



The day when two eagles visited, smaller birds weren’t harassing them, and they weren’t attempting to steal prey away from another predator. Instead, I think they might have been involved in pursuits of a more amorous nature.

In the south, bald eagle mating season takes place from September through November, and part of the courtship rituals involves the pair perching, bill stroking and overall body stroking with the bill.

When I happened upon the two eagles, they were facing each other in shallow water. I don’t know what they had been doing before I saw them, but my observations included some intense bald eagle eye contact, face-to-face activity followed by pair perching in the pine tree.


Love in the lake?  Perhaps...
One tree, two eagles

I’d love to think that seeing two eagles — possible mates — by our lake foretells more frequent eagle sightings in the future. However, I’m realistic enough to know that’s probably not how it will be. 

Happenstance led me to each eagle encounter in the past, and that’s most likely how I’ll experience them in the future. Whether it’s about specific wildlife or life in general, so many wonderful moments result from being in the right place at the right time.





Monday, October 13, 2014

A gentle reminder...

“Breathe in…Breathe out…Move on.”

Printed in black letters on white poster board, the small handmade sign sits on the dashboard of my car. It faces the steering wheel, so whenever I’m in the car, those six words are always within view.


A gentle reminder...


I had the idea to make a sign with the phrase after listening to a song by the same name on Jimmy Buffett’s 2006 CD, Take theWeather with You. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a Parrothead — a diehard Jimmy Buffett fan — many of Buffett’s songs have made their way onto my personal playlist of all-time favorite tunes.


Buffett's album cover


Buffett co-wrote “Breathe in, Breathe out, Move on” with Coral Reefer Band member Matt Betton as a tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans nine years and one month ago today. In a promotional interview for the release, Buffett referred to the song as “a quiet gesture” that says “We’ve gotta deal with it and move on — no matter how bad it is.”

Although I’ve never had to deal with devastating hurricane damage, like everyone else, I’ve had my share of difficulties. If given half a chance, I know how easy it is for daily woes to escalate into depression and stress. Even with a reminder posted on my car’s dashboard — and another on the window sill by the kitchen table — I sometimes find myself regressing into a tangled web of what-ifs and if-onlys.

Fortunately, to free myself I need only look up. It may take more than one glance but eventually, the simple message works its magic. I refocus my attention and allow my wandering mind to snap back in place. “Breathe in,” I tell myself. “Breathe out. Fretting won’t solve the problem. Let it go. Move on.”

Over the past couple years, Buffett’s words have become something of a mantra to me but it’s hardly the first time I’ve depended on visual reminders to reorient my mindset. During my early 30s, I made a batch of small calligraphy signs stating, “Accept Pleasure” and posted them around the house. At the time, I was deeply enmeshed in raising three young children and far more occupied with giving time to others than in finding time for myself. My two-word message was a reminder that to be a good giver you must also learn how to receive.

During my late 40s and 50s, the phrase, “The best is yet to come,” was my beacon, shining a light on a future bright with possibilities. I didn’t need any signage for that middle age mantra. I simply repeated the phrase often and each mention filled me with hope.

These days, as I’m about to celebrate the third year of my sixth decade, I’m more in need of peace than encouragement or support. I’m tired of being upset, of worry and woe. If a songwriter’s simple phrase can offer me solace, I’m going to embrace it as best I can.

Toward the end of Buffett and Betton’s song, the lyrics sum up my current philosophy:

According to my watch, the time is now
The past is dead and gone
Don't try to shake it, just nod your head
Breathe in, breathe out, move on.





Below is a letter I received in response to this column:

Dear Sherry,  Loved the column today not that I don't feel the same about all of your columns.  However, today touched a soft spot that had nothing to do with hurricanes but with just living life the best you can no matter the circumstance.  I'm in the middle of my 7th decade and can see, quite well, the possible end of things a whole lot better than when I was in my 50's.  So, the breathe in, breathe out, move on sentiment and the final stanza of the Buffett/Betton song made me make my own sign as you can see from enclosed photo.  It has a place on my kitchen counter and I'll probably make one for my own car. Thanks, thanks, thanks,  Nan Rigotti


Monday, October 6, 2014

Some birthday gifts grow on trees

Although birthday gifts come in all shapes and sizes, they don’t usually grow on trees — but sometimes they do.

My daughter Amber’s birthday presents were literally handpicked at an orchard in rural Hernando County where we recently went to get tree-ripened persimmons and chestnuts.


Picking persimmons


Amber’s birthday is in the first week of October, a fruitful period that coincides in Central Florida with harvest time for papayas, avocados, starfruit, bananas and chestnuts as well both hard and soft varieties of persimmons.

Although persimmons are unfamiliar to most Americans, our family has enjoyed the taste of these Asian delicacies for years. We discovered them shortly after we moved to Florida in 1987 and every year since then, we usually include a persimmon-picking expedition as part of Amber’s birthday celebration.


Last year, we went on a birthday persimmon picking excursion with Amber in Gainesville


“They’re like Florida’s version of northern apples,” the birthday girl said after biting into a fuyu persimmon she’d just plucked from the tree. “I really like them when they’re crisp and crunchy.”

Sampling the goods during persimmon picking in Brooksville 


Persimmons come in two basic varieties, astringent and non-astringent fruit. Fuyu, the kind my daughter likes best, are in the non-astringent “crunchy” category, edible when their flesh is either hard or soft. Fuyu persimmons are in direct contrast to hachiya and other astringent varieties, which are edible only when their flesh is soft and squishy.

Astringent persimmons are the ones that give the fruit a bad reputation. One bite of an unripe fruit, and the mouth goes suddenly dry and feels like it is full of fluff. It’s an extremely unpleasant sensation and enough to make many people avoid persimmons from then on. That’s too bad because if they’d only waited until it was completely ripe before tasting, they would have had a completely different experience. When ripe, an astringent persimmon is extremely sweet with none of the negative characteristics of an unripe specimen.

Although both astringent and non-astringent persimmons turn orange when ripe, their different shapes make it easy to tell the two types apart. Non-astringent persimmons look like tomatoes. They are round with flat bottoms while astringent ones have an acorn shape with a broader top and pointed bottom.




The grove we visited on the outskirts of Brooksville had several species of both types of persimmon trees as well as numerous chestnut trees. After picking as many persimmons as we wanted, we turned our attention to the chestnut trees. While our family is well acquainted with persimmons and enjoys eating chestnuts, we had never harvested chestnuts before.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to harvest them this time either. The farm’s owners, Fred and Dorothy Galbraith, had already picked the chestnuts and extracted the nuts from their extremely prickly burs.


Persimmon and chestnut farmers, Dorothy and Fred Galbraith


“Better not touch them unless you have leather gloves on,” said Fred Galbraith when he saw me reach out toward the spiny bur. Heeding his words, I pulled my hand back but not before it brushed against the pointy spines. Goodness, how sharp!

“How do you pick them without hurting yourself?” I asked Fred as I inspected my hand. 

His wife said, “You shake the tree and the ripe chestnuts fall to the ground. Fred wears thick leather gloves to pick them up and to open them to get the nuts.”


Before you can roast a chestnut, it must be extracted from a very prickly covering

 We left the farm with a little over five pounds of chestnuts, many more pounds of persimmons and a quart jar of raw clover honey. Although we shared part of the bounty with our other children, Amber took home the most. Birthday gifts may not usually grow on trees but when they do, they can be especially tasty presents.


Want to pick your own?
Fred and Dorothy's u-pick farm is located on Hickory Hill Road in Brooksville.  To see if any chestnuts or persimmons are still available call 352-799-4068. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Got questions? Get answers at Wings & Wildflowers Festival

Have you ever noticed an unfamiliar bird in your yard and wondered what it was? Maybe you’d like to create a butterfly garden but are unsure what plants to include. Have you always wanted to explore a local waterway but don’t know where to go?

You can find the answers this weekend (Oct. 3-5) during Lake County’s 3rd Annual Wings and Wildflowers Festival based at Venetian Gardens in Leesburg.


Faithful Beauty Moth (Composia fidelissima) on Chicksaw Plum


I always look forward to the festival because it focuses attention on something I value — Lake County’s diverse and bountiful natural wonders. From kayak trips to tram rides, rare plant hikes to scrub jay sightings, there’s a field trip, lecture, outing or adventure to spark the interest of anyone with curiosity about local plants and wildlife.


Florida scrub jay


With more than 100 programs and events to choose from — most free or for a small fee — people of all ages can gain a better understanding of the world outside their door. Pre-registration has been going on for more than a month at the festival website, www.wingsandwildflowers.com, but there’s still time for last-minute festival goers to sign up for a wide range of offerings.

Anyone interested in attracting hummingbirds to their yard might want to check out Naturalist Lavon Silvernell’s free Friday afternoon program, Hummingbird Habitat. Silvernell, who recently retired as director of Trout Lake Nature Center in Eustis, will explain how the right configuration of native plants, water and shelter can draw these diminutive feathered beauties to any patio garden. Her program runs from 2 -3 p.m. at the Venetian Gardens Community Building, 103 E. Dixie Ave., Leesburg.


Hummingbird drinking nectar from Wendy's Wish Salvia


Another free program presented by a local expert is apiarist Billy Fussell’s class, “Beekeeping 101,” which runs from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Friday at the community building. Fussell, owner of Bee Fussy Apiary in Leesburg and president of Lake County Beekeepers, is bringing a variety of different honeys from around the region for participants to sample. What a sweet way to learn.


Bee approaching bottlebrush bloom


Although Venetian Gardens in Leesburg is the festival’s home base this year, many of its programs, especially field trips and water adventures, take place at locations throughout the county.

There are still seats available for the a two-hour pontoonboat tour of Lake Dora and the Dora Canal for $27 a person. It is set for 2-4 p.m. Sunday, departing from the Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora. Attendees can ride in comfort while a guide from Premier Boat Tours points out 2,000-year-old cypress trees, herons, ibises, egrets, osprey, alligators, turtles and maybe even a bald eagle or two.


Bald eagle in pine tree overlooking water


For birders in need of a bit of relaxation, head over to the Birds & Beer event from 4-6 p.m. Saturday at the Leesburg Boat Club TikiBar, 31 Dozier Circle, Leesburg. JayMc & The Mountain River Band will provide a free concert of old and new country music, including many original tunes. Mingle with fellow birders while enjoying a cool brew in a shaded waterside setting.

More into butterflies than brewskis? If so, bring the kids to the Florida Scrub-Jay Trail at 11490 Monte Vista Road, Clermont, all day Saturday to observe butterflies in the garden and learn about the cycle of birth from egg to newly hatched Monarch butterfly during Cathy Brown’s continuously running program, “Butterflies are Free.”


Learn how monarch butterflies are tagged at the "Butterflies are Free" presentation


The festival’s website is the place to learn about the three keynote speakers, Birds & Blooms magazine editor Stacy Tornio;

Stacy Tornio

author, botanist, photographer and naturalist Roger L. Hammer,

Roger Hammer
and birder Greg Miller, whose 1998 cross-country quest to view 700 species of birds in a single year is the true story behind the 2011 film “The Big Year.”


Greg Miller

You can also sign up online to save your spot in any of the programs, including meet-and-greets with the keynote speakers and other presenters.

Even if you don’t have time to participate in any of the scheduled events, stop by anyway to check out the vendors and exhibits. Last year, while browsing through the vendor area, I found three new Florida-friendly plants to add to my garden.

One of my Florida-friendly plant finds:  Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica)

This year, in addition to poking around the plants-for-sale section, I’m looking forward to seeing the ongoing exhibit of nature-inspired art by the Pastel Society of Central Florida.

With so much going on, it may be hard to decide what to do first. My suggestion: Pick one and have fun. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A fruitful harvest

For breakfast, I filled a bowl with small slices of starfruit and bite-size chunks of pineapple topped off with a few spoonfuls of pear sauce and a dollop of maple syrup. The maple syrup came from the local grocery but everything else was homegrown.

The starfruit, also known as carambola, grew on a small tree next to our house while the pineapple bore fruit in the shade of a dwarf bamboo in and among a sprawl of wandering Jews and rain lilies.

I had picked the pears — hard Florida pears with a vastly different texture and appearance than the more familiar store-bought Bosc or Bartlett pears — from an abandoned orchard on a neighbor's property.




A few evenings earlier, I sat in front of the TV surrounded by two large stainless steel bowls, a cutting board, one paring and one chopping knife plus a moist towel to wipe stickiness from my hands. Peeling Florida pears is a messy, time-consuming job, but I didn't mind. Producing pear sauce has become an annual autumn activity. One taste of the smooth sauce that follows a long slow boil of the peeled and mashed fruit replaces any negative thoughts with the sweet flavor of homemade food.




I have last year's mild winter to thank for my morning meal. While Florida pears can tolerate winter frost and temperatures in the teens, pineapples and starfruit are not nearly as forgiving. Until last year, the previous four or five winters in our part of Central Florida were brutal. Chilly temperatures caused tropical plants of all types, including fruit trees, to suffer greatly. Unless covered, heated or otherwise protected, many either died or died back.

That changed last winter when mild weather persisted from late autumn through early spring. Our 10-year-old starfruit tree, which died back during previous cold spells, finally made it through the winter of 2013 unscathed. New limbs appeared and in early spring, small white flowers dotted many of the slender branches, the first hint of the fruitful season ahead.




A few of my pineapple plants also survived. For several years, I have been saving the tops of every store-bought pineapple I'd eaten — about two a month — and planting the spiky green crowns wherever I could find space in the garden. Pineapples are a type of terrestrial bromeliad with a shallow root system, minimal water requirements and a preference for acidic soil in a sunny or semi-sunny location.




Although they are low-maintenance "air" plants, their long growth period requires quite a bit of patience. It takes approximately two years for each crown to produce a single fruit. During that extended growth period, these heat-loving plants must stay out of the cold. Most of my young pineapples died during winter 2012. The ones that escaped harm were either sheltered from chilling by neighboring plants or had been planted during a period when their growth wasn't halted by frigid temperatures.

After so many years of disappointment, it's been exciting to once again harvest fruit from some of our more cold-sensitive plants. While the starfruit tree is just beginning to produce fruit, I don't have more pineapples to pick. But that's OK. Yesterday my husband Ralph and I cut down a small hand of bananas and the persimmons on our trees are almost ripe. There is fruit in our future — homegrown and fresh picked. Breakfast couldn't look better.

Persimmons almost ready to pick