Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Look what we found at the beach...

Over the past year, Ralph and I have seen quite a few unexpected sights at New Smyrna Beach. There was the day we spotted a manatee swimming at Canaveral National Seashore and the time we saw a stingray lolling about in the shallow water along the same stretch of unpopulated beach.

Both sightings left me wanting more, so now before we go for a swim in the ocean, I always take time to scan the water first in the hopes of spotting yet another unexpected creature.

The other day, however, I didn't have to look long. In fact, I didn't have to use my eyes at all.  My ears told me something different was in the water.

Making music with the waves

Yup, it was a guy playing a banjo.  In the water.  With waves (albeit small ones) crashing all around.

One reason I love going to the ocean is because I never know what I'll see or find. There are always feathers, shells and forgotten toys to pick up and examine.

One day's cache

There are new birds to learn about, jellyfish to avoid and crabs to watch disappearing into holes.

Willet examining jellyfish

One time we even came across a washed up, abandoned catamaran sailboat.

Ralph was excited about all he could salvage from this washed up sailboat 

But a banjo-playing fellow?  Now that was a truly unexpected and probably not-be-repeated find.  

Monday, July 27, 2015

It's U-pick scuppernong season!

It’s almost scuppernong season and I’m looking forward to picking some grapes.

For the last couple of years, I was unable to pick at Lake Apshawa Farm & Nursery, the Clermont vinery where I usually gather my annual supply of scuppernong grapes. This year, I’m eager to revisit one of my favorite local sources of organically grown fruit during the month-long U-pick season that begins August 1st and continues through the first week in September.

Amber picking muscadine grapes at Lake Apshawa Farm & Nursery in 2006

For those who have never tried them, scuppernong is a uniquely southern crop, a type of light-colored muscadine grape native to Southeast U.S. The indigenous fruit was first noted in the 1500s by New World explorers who described in their logs a ‘white grape’ growing wild along coastal river valleys in what later was to become North Carolina.

Fruit of the vine

A century passed before evidence of the grape’s cultivation appeared in the log of another explorer traveling along Scuppernong Lake in North Carolina. The fruit’s association with that body of water stuck. Ever since, the large, round, seeded bronze-skinned grape has been known as a scuppernong and in 2001 it officially became the North Carolina state fruit.

Dark-skinned muscadine and light-skinned scuppernong grapes

North Carolina may be where explorers first discovered wild scuppernong vines but Florida is the birthplace of American wine dating back to French Huguenot settlements during the 16th Century in northeastern coastal parts of the state where wild muscadine grapes grew prolifically. 

Making wine from muscadine grapes continues to be an important part of Florida agriculture. There are currently 24 certified wineries in the state and while I prefer eating my scuppernongs fresh by the bowlful, many people enjoy the fruit of the vine by the glassful. It is also well suited for jams, jelly and juice.

Click for step-by-step instructions for scuppernong jam-making
from HGTVGardens, Mike Telkamp

No matter how they’re used, scuppernong grapes are an easy fruit to gather. Because they are commercially grown on vines trained to trellises – wires stretched horizontally between upright posts – picking requires very little bending. The fruit grow in clusters enabling a picker to gather several grapes in one spot before moving on to the next bunch of golden orbs peeking out from behind lush green lobed leaves. In less than a half-hour, it’s possible to collect enough grapes to snack on for several days.

Although the grapes may be an inexpensive treat that’s easy to gather, finding a nearby U-pick vineyard can be a challenge. In addition to Lake Apshawa Farm & Nursery in Clermont, I’m only aware of one other Lake County farm that welcomes U-pickers, Heather Oaks Farm in Lady Lake. 

Lake County does, however, have two local wineries – Lakeridge Winery & Vineyard in Clermont and Oak Haven Farm & Winery in Sorrento.

Local grape juice from
Lakeridge Winery
Both locations produce a selection of white and red wines made from dark-skinned muscadine grapes and light-skinned scuppernongs. Lakeridge also sells a wonderful non-alcoholic juice made from freshly pressed scuppernong grapes. Just mentioning it makes my mouth water. 

This year, Tommy Free, owner of Lake Apshawa Farm & Nursery tells me he has several new varieties of both muscadine and scuppernong grapes ready to pick. “It looks like a productive year at the vineyard,” Free said.

I for one am excited to sample both old and new varieties of one of my favorite local fruits.

If you plan to visit one of the local U-pick grape farms or wineries, call first for information on availability, location, price and hours of operation. 

Lake Apshawa Farm & Nursery: 18030 W. Apshawa Rd., Clermont; 352-394-3313

Heather Oaks Farm: 4240 Christmas Lane, Lady Lake; 352-753-1184; www.heatheroaksfarm.com

Lakeridge Winery & Vineyard: 19239 U.S. 27 North, Clermont; 1-800-768-WINE; www.lakeridgewinery.com

Oak Haven Farm & Winery: 32418 Avington Road (formerly Bird Road), Sorrento; 352- 735-1996, 352-516-2139; www.berriesandwines.com

Read my 2009 story about scuppernong grapes

Friday, July 24, 2015

Finding Beauty

By itself, Wendys Wish Salvia is not the most impressive plant.  It has a somewhat sprawling, spindly growth pattern with scattered flowers that droop wearily instead of stretching upward with perky optimism.

By itself, the Clouded Skipper is not the most impressive butterfly.  Its size is small.  Its color dark.  It lacks an array of fanciful markings that distinguish many of its fluttering brethren.

But put them together and beauty emerges! Colors dazzle! A composition of simple elegance erases any sense of plainess. 

Nature proves, once again, that precious moments need not be showy and how if you take the time (make the time!) to look closely, beauty can even be found in every species. 

Salvia Wendy's Wish
(the following information is from www.floridafriendlyplants.com)

'Wendy's Wish' was discovered in the garden of Wendy Smith, a Salvia hobbyist, in Victoria, Australia in 2005. It is a patented plant with a portion of the proceeds going to the Make-a-Wish foundation. Its exact parentage is unknown but Salvia buchananii, Salvia chiapensis, and Salvia `Purple Majesty' were all it the neighborhood and are likely suspects. Wendy's Wish has upright growth to 48 inches with dark geen leaves and lipstick flowers all year. It is a hummingbird and butterfly magnet. Plant in full sun to partial shaded gardens.

Clouded Skipper
(the following information is from wikipedia)

The Clouded Skipper is a butterfly of the Hesperiidae family. It is found in the United States from Georgia west to Texas, south to Florida, and south through Mexico and Central America to Venezuela and Colombia. The wingspan is 32–45 mm. Wikipedia

Scientific name: Lerema accius
Higher classification: Lerema  

Monday, July 20, 2015

Lots going on in my 'flutter and buzz' garden

Lots of activity today in my 'flutter and buzz' garden.  Despite the wind, many bees and a several butterflies were gathering nectar and pollen from the basil, salvia and milkweed plants.  Below are a few photos and one video I shot of the action.

Gray hairstreak on basil

Spicebush swallowtail (I think) on scarlet milkweed

Bee on basil

Bee en route to tropcial salvia

The swallowtail butterfly couldn't seem to get enough of the milkweed nectar.  I took this short video (1:56) as it flew from one flowerhead to another.

Unlike the hairstreak that paused for a while on a flower, the swallowtail never stopped flapping its wings.  I don't know if that was because it was such a windy day or just the way that specific butterfly acts.  I still get confused with swallowtails.  I think the one I watched today was a spicebush swallowtail but it may have been another type entirely. I'd love to hear what you think.

Too much of a good thing?

I should have been making dinner. Instead, I was dawdling in the dirt. It had rained earlier, and the damp ground made weeding easy. Even deep-rooted weeds gave way with the slightest tug.

I’d been on my hands and knees for about an hour and although there was more to do — in a garden, there’s always more to do — my back said to rest, so I settled into a chair, picked up my mug of no-longer-steaming tea and surveyed my surroundings.

While I savored that first sip, a female cardinal flew by with a length of grassy material dangling from her beak. As she disappeared into a nearby bottlebrush tree, it dawned on me that: A) she was probably building a nest right there in the garden, and B) she was building it out of weeds I’d just pulled.

Needless to say, the discovery of a nest-building bird in my south garden was a game changer. Opportunities for such close observation are rare. I tossed aside any further thoughts of pulling weeds and focused my attention instead on learning as much as I could about the cardinal’s nest-building habits.

One of the first things I realized was that a cardinal nest is a female work zone. While the red-feathered male was nearby — he flew over intermittently to check things out — his less colorful counterpart did all the heavy lifting. The female found the nesting material, transported it to the work site and wove each weed, twig, leaf and string of Spanish moss seamlessly into place. The male acted as protector, chasing away another female cardinal who chanced by, but I never saw him assist in the actual construction of the structure.

Although I began watching outside, I soon moved into the house and set up an observation station by the bedroom window. From there, I had a clear view of the bird activity just a few feet away.

Back and forth the female flew. She never went far and always came back with a beak full of material. As I watched her scratch the ground in search of just the right size and shape leaf material, I marveled at her ability to not only build a nest by herself but also to know instinctively how to make it structurally secure and beautiful.

I must have sat watching for a couple hours. My husband Ralph came by a couple times wondering what I was doing and asked if I was getting hungry. I wasn’t, but I guessed he was. After his second inquiry, I decided to exchange my observation post for a more active role in the kitchen.

By the time dinner was over, it was dark. I went to sleep that night anticipating being awakened by a cardinal singing in its nest. Unfortunately, the morning broke with no birdsongs at all. Not only weren’t the cardinals singing, the female was no longer busy working on her nest. She seemed to have abandoned it sometime the previous evening after I left to make dinner.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. My excitement and anticipation faded into feelings of sadness and concern. Why had the birds left, and did I have anything to do with it? Even though I was mainly watching from inside the house, I wondered if my presence had a bearing on the birds’ decision to leave. Questions tumbled through my mind as I went about my day.

I realize projects aren’t always completed. I never finished the weeding I started, and birds don’t always finish building nests that they’ve begun. I’ve seen Carolina wrens and collared doves abandon uncompleted nests so there’s no reason to suspect cardinals don’t do the same. But I also realize I may have been watching a bit too closely. There’s a fine line between being intent on learning and craving knowledge too intensely. I have an uneasy feeling this is one case in which my eagerness to learn might have gotten the better of me.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Finding beauty in a droplet of rain

The blanketflowers have stopped blooming in my yard but that doesn't mean they're no longer worthy of notice.

The other day after the rain stopped, I sat outside combing out my hair. As I brushed through the snarls, I looked over at the faded flowers. Most had already turned into spiky seedheads.

Yet, despite their lack of colorful petals, there was much to admire. Droplets of rain clung to their undersides.  Bent low from the downpour, their beauty remained.

Blanketflower seedhead adorned by droplet of rain

Bent low but not beaten, beauty remains

Blanketflower in the process of developing seeds - there's beauty in all stages of a flower's transformation

Several stages of blanketflower beauty admired by me and a pollen-seeking insect 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Cattail geometry

There's a small stand of cattails in a shallow cove on the east side of Bare Lake.  I especially enjoy rowing by that section on calm days when reflections of the tall stalks are mirrored in the still water.

Usually cattails stand upright, but on the day I took these photos a good many were bent or broken.  A geometric gift of shapes and shadows.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Crabby discovery at the beach

Although my husband Ralph and I have had a get-away place at the beach for only a few months, it didn't take long to realize how different an ocean-side habitat is from our residence alongside a small lake in the middle of the state.

Despite being less than two hours away from our Lake County house, the beachside retreat is home to an entirely different set of flora and fauna. Among the many new-to-me plants, birds, fish and animals is a particular crustacean, the Giant Blue Land Crab, Cardisoma guanhumi, rarely found more than five miles from the coast.

On a recent visit, I took a stroll through the Indian River Lagoon Preserve, 200 acres of natural uplands in New Smyrna Beach. In addition to a covered pavilion, fishing dock and kayak launch, the park has a nature walk that winds through various habitats. While walking along the paved path, I stopped frequently to observe the trees, peek through the foliage and explore the ground for any creatures I could find. I also paused often to read the informative signs that explained what I might expect to see along the way.

What I didn’t expect, however, was to be the one under observation.

When I stood on a bridge over a tidal creek and looked down at the mucky ground, I sensed a scurrying motion below. Looking closer, I noticed several pairs of alien-looking eyes poking up out of brightly-colored, crusty-shelled bodies. Much to my surprise, the ground was dotted with holes. Standing next to or protruding from each burrow was a crab. I had suddenly become a subject of interest to an entire community of peculiar-looking crustaceans.

This was my first encounter with Giant Blue Land Crabs, although I have lived in Florida for almost 30 years. Not only did I lack knowledge about their habitat, behavior and lifecycle, I didn’t even realize they existed until I saw them at the preserve.

While I may have been oblivious, many residents of seaside communities know them well. In the Bahamas and Caribbean, Giant Blue Land Crabs are an important part of the local diet, often added to stews and considered a delicacy. They are also eaten in Florida, but do not share the same culinary appeal of the more popular Blue Crab. In Florida, harvesting Giant Blue Land Crab is legal November through the end of June. Harvesting of crabs, which can weigh up to 18 ounces and grow to 14-inches across with 5.9-inch-long claws, is legal November through the end of June. It is banned from July 1 to October 31, the period when egg-bearing females are migrating.

After mating with a male in his underground burrow, the female remains submerged for about two weeks until the larva, which she carries beneath her body, are ready to hatch. She then leaves the burrow and migrates to the ocean to release her cache in the shallow offshore water. A female may produce up to 250,000 eggs per spawn, but barely one percent will reach maturity. The majority fall victim to predators, pollution and disease.

It takes four years for Giant Blue Land Crab to reach maturity. During that time, the crustacean that begins life as a tiny larva will grow and molt 60 times. It will leave the ocean and return to land. It will dig burrows several feet deep and eat a mainly vegetarian diet augmented by the occasional beetle, large insect or meal of carrion.

In addition to people who capture them for food — the white meat of the ten-legged critter reportedly is quite sweet — raccoons and armadillos find them tasty, too. Homeowners who dislike having their lawns dotted with deep holes also kill giant land crabs.

With so many dangers threatening their existence, it’s no wonder the Giant Blue Land Crab community at Indian River Lagoon Preserve was on high alert when I paused in my meandering to look out over the estuary. I’m glad the carapace-covered crustaceans sensed my approach and acted cautiously. Although my intentions were harmless, I could just as easily have been there to catch dinner.

I left the park that day thrilled with my find. While the animals I chanced upon were only crabs, to me they were something new, a different and curious creature to learn about and observe. There are many reasons why Ralph and I enjoy our trips to the beach, not the least of which are all the exciting new experiences an unfamiliar area provides. When it comes to the beach, I’m ‘shore’ ready to learn.