Monday, March 2, 2015

The 'trumpeting' sound of sandhill cranes

Of all the sounds birds make, there's nothing quite as loud, distinctive and eerie in an I-feel-like-I'm-in-prehistoric-times sort of way than the trumpeting song of sandhill cranes.  That's especially true when you're standing - as I was - only 20 feet or so away from a pair of bellowing birds.

By the way, the bamboo the cranes are next to is Yin-Yang Timber Bamboo.

For birds and people: Some decisions are hard to make

On Valentine's Day, my husband Ralph installed the remaining five of seven bluebird boxes that Doug Spencer of Astatula built for us.

Less than a week later, a pair of beautiful bluebirds was already checking out the houses!

First, the male and female sat on top of one box. Then each bird took turns looking inside before flying to another box.

At the second box, the male flew down to the entry hole while the female waited on top. 

The male stuck his head inside for a good look around. I guess the female got tired of waiting because she flew down to the entry hole shortly after, while the male was still in the process of squeezing inside the box.

A few minutes later, the pair flew out and over to the first box again, repeating the process: Sit on top. Look in the opening. Squeeze inside. Fly back out.

As Ralph and I watched, we couldn't help but wonder what the birds were thinking. The conversation we imagined them having went something like this:

Male: How about this box? It looks nice.

Female: It's too soon to tell. Let's go look at the other ones.

Male: They're all the same. What's wrong with this one?

Female: It's a little rustic. I was hoping for something maybe a little more modern.

Male: It's just a nest, dear. What difference does it make how it looks?

Female: Are you kidding? It makes all the difference in the world. I'm the one going to sit here day in and day out while you're off doing whatever it is you do. It has to be comfortable. End of discussion.                  

Male: You're right. You're right. I'm sorry. I know you're right.

Although I didn’t see the birds in the afternoon, they were back the next morning repeating the same pattern.

“I guess they’re having trouble deciding,” I said to my husband as we sat at the kitchen table. Ralph was eating breakfast, but I was too preoccupied with the bluebirds to pay much attention to food.

“At least they came back,” I muttered, more to reassure myself than expecting a response.

Surprisingly, a response was forthcoming.

“I can relate to their indecision,” Ralph said as he put down his spoon and turned toward me. “They’re probably trying to decide if it’s just too much work to fix up another place. Maybe they don’t know where to begin. Maybe they’re thinking they should just stay where they are.”

I looked at him, smiled and said, “It is birds we’re talking about, right? Not something else…?”

Ralph and I have recently been struggling over an upcoming building project. It’s such a multifaceted undertaking, we’ve been unable to decide which aspect to tackle first. Like the bluebirds, we’ve been wavering, going back and forth from one possibility to another.

“You know,” I said, “maybe I should stop watching the birds for a while. They’ll settle when they’re ready — if they decide to settle at all. Maybe we should do the same.”

For two days, we did just that. Oddly enough, the bluebirds seemed to be taking a break from house hunting as well. By the time they returned, we all seemed ready to move forward.

“The bluebirds are back,” I once again exclaimed at breakfast. “I don’t see them carrying any nest-making materials yet, but I have a feeling they’ve chosen a box.”

My husband gazed out the window with envy. Empathizing with his look of longing, I let him know we weren’t far behind.

“I’ve decided too. Let’s start upstairs and work our way down. There’s no need to rush. We can just take our time.”

When it comes to homebuilding projects — by birds or by people — sometimes making the initial decision can be the hardest part of all. Once decided, everything else falls into place.

Can't get enough bluebirds? Me neither! More stories and photos here:
Calling all bluebirds

Bluebirds make me happy

Saturday, February 28, 2015

15 birds of February

February may have been a short month but there was no shortage of bird sightings on or around our Groveland homestead.

The highlight for me was seeing so many bluebirds right here on our property.

Below are three of many pictures (I'm embarrassed to say exactly how many I took...) of male and female bluebirds checking out the nesting boxes Ralph installed on Valentine's Day (best gift ever!)  More about that in my upcoming Simply Living column to be posted this Monday, March 2nd.

When it's not chowing down on insects, this little Carolina wren has been a frequent visitor to a suet feeder hanging just above the lantana on which it is perched.

A catbird perched in a sumac bush always mews at me when I pass by its territory in my rowboat.

So many chipping sparrows came to my birdfeeders this month.  These small brown-capped biddies with a black stripe going through and a white stripe above their eyes travel in flocks and supplement their diet of grass seeds and insects by filling up on the millet and other smaller seeds in a general birdseed mix.

In addition to the chipping sparrows, other regular visitors to our property were a pair of sandhill cranes.  Although the lake is too high for nesting this year, a pair has nested here in the past and it's very likely that they're the ones returning to search for bugs and birdseed that on the ground.

When they're not on the ground pecking for seeds, collared doves like to sit high up in the branches trees like this sycamore.

I took this picture of a great egret a few miles away from where we live in a small wetland where the nesting sandhill crane (pictured above) was sitting on her eggs.

A solitary pied-billed grebe, swims through the morning mist in the calm lake water.

On my way home from town one afternoon, I noticed several killdeer skittering across a nearby field.

The bright red plumage of this male cardinal looks especially against the yellowy color of a clump of Asian Lemon Timber Bamboo on the west side of our house.

I saw this American robin and several of its friends in a feeding frenzy gobbling down the fruit of a Chinaberry tree off Grassy Lake Road in Clermont.

I haven't seen any male redwing blackbirds at our feeders but quite a few females have become regulars this month.

A sweet little phoebe is well camouflaged among some older gray canes of bamboo.

No turkeys on our property during February (at least none that I saw) but I did notice a small flock feeding in the side yard of a house along Hwy 19 in Groveland.  I was so taken aback by their appearance in this less semi-urban setting that I had to turn the car around and go back for a second look.

And finally, a picture - not my best shot - of a bald eagle preening its feathers while perched on top of a snag across the lake from our house. A few minutes after I took it, two crows dive-bombed the eagle. Please visit my YouTube channel to see a short video of that encounter as well as several other wildlife movies I've made over the past couple years.

Thursday, February 26, 2015 or catbird?

From the safety of a brier thicket, a gray catbird calls out a series of sounds warning me to stay away.  I did stay away but I also took this short video of the mewing bird.

Crows harassing bald eagle

A bald eagle sitting atop a dead tree is trying to preen its feathers. But no matter how well groomed an eagle is, a couple of crows don't want it in their neighborhood. Although it doesn't seem to faze the eagle, the crows attempt to scare the large predator away.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A small wetland: One egret and a nesting crane

If you are driving on busy Rt.19 just north of Groveland, you might miss it. With all the semis speeding up and down that narrow stretch of two-lane highway, taking yours eyes off the road can be a risky move.

But, for those of us familiar with that thoroughfare, there are treats to be found in the still-rural area.

Groveland resident and acclaimed duck artist John Harris, told me about the sandhill crane nest he noticed in a small wetland area just north of town.  This morning as I headed south on 19 from my house, I made a point of looking for the spot he mentioned and found it practically across the street from our bamboo nursery,

The great white egret is fairly obvious but see if you can find the sandhill crane's nest...

This particular swath of moist ground is a beautiful place - a small watery area surrounding a fairly large island where egrets often roost in the evening. This morning, however, in addition to one great white egret, I also found a sandhill crane sitting on a nest just as John said I would..

A closer look at the crane on her nest

Even though I know that's where they like to roost, I always find it surprising to see large birds like herons and egrets perched atop bushes or tall tree branches

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pucker up!

It’s not Christmas, but I’m standing beneath mistletoe.

I’m not waiting to be kissed but I am wondering: Mistletoe? In the sycamore tree? Is that even possible?

It is. Finding this Florida native plant in deciduous trees is common in winter when circular clumps of mistletoe stand out against bare branches.

Green mistletoe is easy to see when a tree is no longer covered in leaves

That’s how I noticed the mistletoe. For several months, I’ve been watching the seasonal flutter of falling leaves. While many land on the ground, a substantial number of the large, brown, leathery leaves also end up in our gutters. My husband has agreed to clean the clogged gutters but not until the last leaf has finally left the tree.

Sycamore leaves everywhere

His procrastination turned me into a relentlessly diligent leaf monitor. However, as fewer and fewer leaves remained, I became aware of a patch of greenery that didn’t belong.

The greenery is mistletoe, a parasitic evergreen plant that grows in the upper branches of deciduous trees. Mistletoe has an unusual way of landing in those trees.

Mature mistletoe plants, Phoradendron laucarpum, bear small, showy flowers that attract pollinating insects. A pollinated flower can take a year or longer to develop into a white-fleshed berry that contains one extremely sticky seed. 

Mistletoe berries beginning to form

A bird eating a berry — the fruit is toxic to most animals except birds — will either excrete the seed while sitting on a branch or rub its beak against the limb in an attempt to dislodge the sticky seed from its beak. Either way, feathered fliers act as inadvertent mistletoe propagators, transferring the plant from one location to another.

By rubbing its beak against a branch, birds like this chipping sparrow help spread mistletoe to different arboreal locations

Once deposited on a branch, the sticky mistletoe seed germinates in the sun and sends a feeding organ similar to a root into the tree bark to absorb water and nutrients from underlying tissues in the host’s branches. The feeding organ called haustoria, can penetrate only thin-barked trees such as sycamore, laurel oaks, water oaks, chinaberry and elms. Although this harms the tree — a tree covered with too many clumps of mistletoe, can lose enough water and nutrients to die — it benefits the mistletoe, enabling it to thrive independent of soil.

Parasites are like that. They suck life from their hosts to gain a foothold on life itself.

Before I began monitoring the tree to let my husband know when the last leaf had fallen, not only was I unaware that mistletoe grew in Florida, I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of parasitic plants. Now that I have, the thought of kissing someone under a parasitic mistletoe plant seems rather unsettling.

But I’ll do it. I will. As soon as those clogged up gutters are finally cleaned out, I’ll be standing beneath the sycamore tree — right under that clump of green mistletoe. Let the smooching begin!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Bathing behind the 'boo - A sandhill crane takes a bath

From the upstairs window, I watched a sandhill crane indulging in a little afternoon delight. 

(No, not that kind of afternoon delight!)  

She was taking a bath in the shallow water along the shoreline while her mate stood guard nearby, doing a bit of preening of his own.

The video is 2:04 minutes long.