Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Caterpillars are worth it when they become monarchs of the air

Simply Living

(First published in Orlando Sentinel November 25, 2007)

Caterpillars are gobbling up my plants, and I don't mind a bit.

I'm not bothered because the hungry nibblers are the larvae form of monarch butterflies, beautiful orange and black-winged wonders that will soon be flitting through my garden, brightening the landscape with their regal presence.

Monarchs -- the same butterflies famous for their much-documented migration patterns -- are strong fliers, but when it comes to eating, they're just plain finicky. The plants that supply the nectar they need to survive are in the genus Asclepias. We know those plants by their more common names of butterfly weed or milkweed.

Milkweed is one of those wonder plants that thrive on neglect. It grows, blooms, self-propagates and attracts swarms of butterflies and bees without much, if any, human attention.

A gardener who has introduced milkweed plants to the landscape need only sit back and admire the cheerful orange-yellow flower heads and the wildlife attracted to those blossoms. It's not even necessary to turn on the sprinkler because milkweed is like a horticultural camel -- it can withstand long periods with limited water.

If you're wondering, "What's the catch?" there is one: caterpillars.

This leggy wildflower is a botanical magnet for monarch butterflies that come for the nectar and remain long enough to deposit their eggs on the undersides of the plants' thin leaves, stems and blossoms.

Monarchs are single-source egg layers. The only plant that will do as a depository for their eggs is milkweed. That's because, when the eggs hatch, the only food the emerging caterpillars will eat are milkweed leaves.

It takes three to 12 days for the tiny white eggs to hatch. The resulting caterpillars are curious-looking critters with black, yellow and white bands ringing their stubby bodies.

Two long black filaments extend from behind their heads and two shorter ones from their abdomens. Although caterpillars don't have vocal cords, they do very well at expressing a message.

Their distinctive coloration and those black filaments transmit the warning, "Stay away!" to birds and other predators.

It's a message worth heeding. When the caterpillars chew on milkweed leaves, they consume a toxic substance in the plant that doesn't bother them but is distasteful to their enemies.

Two weeks later, after eating a diet of nothing but milkweed leaves, the larvae are ready to enter the next stage of their development, the jade green chrysalis or pupa.

Ten to 12 days later when butterflies emerge from the chrysalises, the toxin from the milkweed leaves will still be in their systems. This makes the butterflies equally as unpalatable to avian predators as they were during the larvae stage.

The monarch butterfly's metamorphosis is a wondrous process. And to think we can witness this remarkable transformation by simply adding milkweed plants to the landscape.

There are eight kinds of Asclepias -- milkweed -- that grow in Florida. None are natives, but all are invaluable additions to the garden for anyone who enjoys the sight of butterflies fluttering through the air.

While monarchs are the only butterflies that totally depend on milkweed plants for their survival, many other winged creatures seek out this humble wildflower for its nectar. Plant a few milkweeds in your garden and you are likely to see soldier, queen, swallowtail, painted lady, American lady and fritillary butterflies.

During the day, hummingbirds might flit from blossom to blossom, and just before dark, a hummingbird moth is likely to navigate the evening air for a nectar nightcap.

It is amazing how much beauty revolves around such an ordinary wildflower. With a lone flower head topping each stem, milkweed isn't particularly showy. It has no profusion of blooms and is leggy and, at times, even scraggly-looking.

To say it's a messy flower would be an understatement. When the seedpods open, white fluff flies everywhere. Hundreds of feathery parachutes, each attached to a single black seed, are as likely to settle on lawn chairs and porch screens as they are in flower beds. Yet, despite several false landings, enough seeds survive to warrant the label nuisance plant.

Wildlife sees past all that. Animals and insects are keenly aware of truths people often overlook. Beauty has many layers. Plain can be powerful, and something as ordinary as a lowly wildflower can be extraordinarily essential.

Caterpillars are gobbling up my plants, and I don't mind a bit because there's a promise of beauty in each denuded stalk. From egg to larvae to chrysalis to butterfly, monarchs seek milkweed for sustenance and support. By cultivating this modest plant, I'm following their lead. If it's good enough for royalty, it's good enough for me.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Moving to a new room can change outlook

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 18, 2007)

For 16 years, my office has been in a 9-by-12-foot room on the south end of our house. It's a small, warm room, the place to gather on chilly winter mornings.

Large picture windows overlook a garden that -- regardless of how much I neglect it -- remains on the fly-by list for assorted winged creatures. Butterflies, birds and bees are attracted to a colorful collection of flowers. The plants in turn, provide shelter to snakes, anoles, frogs and small mammals. Gazing out my office window guarantees interesting observations -- a snake climbing a metal pole, an owl resting on the trellis, a hummingbird flitting from one blossom to another. The view from that window has been a continual source of entertainment and inspiration.

While wildlife have no difficulty finding their way to the garden, the room itself is off the beaten path, and that's fine by me. As a work-at-home parent who raised four home-schooled children, I learned long ago the importance of personal space.

My ability to successfully cope with whatever life hands me is directly related to a certain amount of physical separation from the people I love the most. I've never needed much distance, but some place -- a designated space to recharge -- has always been a mainstay of my sanity. Having a home office that's not in the main traffic flow provided the right proportion of accessibility to aloneness.

My office has been my sanctuary. Until recently.

Of late, it has become more repository than refuge. Stacks of this, mounds of that and paper -- piles and piles of paper -- have found their way onto all available surfaces, including a large expanse of floor. Instead of walking into my office to find much needed peace, more and more often the feeling I'm struck with is repulsion. How can I work amid so much disarray?

The answer is, I can't.

Drastic methods were needed. So I moved.

One evening when I must have had more caffeine in my system than usual, I took my computer, printer and the bare necessities of my craft and moved them into what used to be my oldest son's bedroom.

Like many parents of grown children, we have a number of rooms in our house that are in transition. Bit by bit in the months (and sometimes years) after our three oldest kids moved into their own houses, Ralph and I reclaimed those spaces for other activities. One became a computer room for my youngest son, the other a nicely appointed guest room. The last space in want of transformation was my oldest son's bedroom. He had already removed his furnishings, leaving behind a delightfully sparse, clean and empty room.

I was drawn to that room like ants to honey.

Every time I'd pass it -- it's on the main corridor between the kitchen and living room -- I'd look in longingly. Such a lovely space, all empty and open. No clutter. No mess. No anything at all but pale purple walls promising calmness and order.

I wanted that desperately. So, I took it.

During the past week, I've settled in. While admittedly basic, my new office is functional and, so far, that's enough. I placed my desk against the window -- another large expanse of glass -- and now look out on a different view. Instead of the familiar scene outside my old office window, my gaze is directed toward a tall sycamore tree surrounded by a smattering of orphaned plants. I look at the tree and imagine bird feeders hanging from its limbs, the squirrels competing with goldfinches for an afternoon snack. Beyond the sycamore are shell gingers, climbing roses and honeysuckle vines covering a clay wall.

Although I'm still adjusting to the sights, the change of scenery has been an unexpected benefit of my new surroundings. My eyes seem glad for the change, eager to explore and absorb each nuance of this fresh landscape.

Another perk has been the location. After years of self-imposed isolation, I'm finding it surprisingly convenient to have an office in the thick of things. Now when I'm in the kitchen fixing food, I'm just a step away from checking e-mail or browsing the Web.

Time to exercise? My new office is uncluttered. There's plenty of room to stretch out on the floor, lift hand weights or attempt a pull-up on the chinning bar my son left behind.

Although the plan was to empty everything out of the old office and give it a thorough cleaning, what happens afterward is fuzzy. Originally, I intended to move back into my old office once it was reorganized, but for the moment I've put that plan on hold. This new space is so pleasant that I might just make it permanent.

I've come to realize it doesn't take much to change your perspective. Something as minor as the relocation of a home office can result in a refreshed outlook and a realignment of fixed notions.

Like most people, I'm a creature of habit but occasionally -- say, once every 16 years -- it's a good idea to shake up the system. This past week I moved my office and gained much more than a new place to sit and type. I've changed my perspective and couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Grass carp eat lake weeds for 17 months and grow huge

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 11, 2007)

At first, I thought it was a gator. It was that big.

I was walking around the north end of the lake just before dark. The shallow water there is dotted with tufts of grassy weeds and is clear enough to see straight to the bottom. It was a still evening. The lake mirrored the sky just the way I like and I was taking my time, admiring the view.

Suddenly, I heard a loud splash and saw ripples in the water. My immediate reaction was to stop and gaze directly toward the spot in the water. The ripples receded, but moments later it happened again. Something large and white emerged from the lake -- not in a jumping motion but with a determined upward lift. Whatever it was had an agenda -- to reach a grassy tuft and pull a single blade down into the water.

I've watched enough alligators in the lake to know there was something unquestionably nonreptilian about this creature's movements. If not a gator, then what, I wondered? An otter? A large turtle?

No to both. It was a fish. A very large fish.

After months of wondering where they've been hiding, I've finally found my triploid grass carp. And my, how they've grown!

In May 2006, we stocked our 12-acre weed-clogged lake with 75 10- to 12-inch-long triploid grass carp. Grass carp are grazers whose diet consists entirely of aquatic plants. Triploid is just a fancy way of saying the carp are sterile. They can't reproduce and make more carp. We bought the fish from a hatchery in Center Hill after receiving a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Our objective in stocking the lake with grass carp was to control the weeds. Choosing fish seemed like the most viable option. The other choices -- mechanical removal or chemical applications of herbicides -- just didn't fit our budget or lifestyle. Using triploid carp did, although the idea that weed-eating fish could possibly consume all the bladderwort floating about seemed highly implausible. Our doubts lingered as time passed and, while the weeds diminished substantially, the fish were nowhere in sight.

"I don't understand why I never see them," I often lamented. "I'm on the water just about every day, but I never see any carp. The alligators, ospreys and otters couldn't possibly have eaten all of them up. So where are they?"

News flash: They're there!

Although the carp have managed to elude my observation during the past 17 months, they haven't ignored the lake's vegetation. Those babies can eat! And get big.

The fish I observed were between 18 inches and 30 inches long. With their beady eyes, wide mouths, white underbellies and black-tipped tails, the carp reminded me of small sharks cruising the shallows in search of prey.

In June, when I wrote about stocking our lake with triploid grass carp, some readers responded with words of caution.

"I thought you would like to know," wrote Bud Simmons of Tavares, "grass-eating carp are not always the 'perfect solution.' "

In his e-mail, Simmons explained that about 25 years ago grass carp were added to Lake Fairview in Orlando to control weeds and grasses that were clogging that waterway.

Within a couple years, the weeds were gone. All the weeds.

"They cleaned the lake completely out," Simmons wrote. "The baby fish had nowhere to hide. Within five to six years the fish population in the lake crashed."

According to Simmons, the lake eventually had to be poisoned to kill the carp then restocked and replanted with aquatic vegetation.

At my small lake, we're almost a year-and-a-half into our fish-conquering-weeds project, so it's too early to tell if the Lake Fairview situation will be repeated.

Ryan Hamm, a biological scientist with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, doesn't expect that to happen.

"We're conservative with our approach when we permit stocking of triploid grass carp," Hamm says. "While it's true that grass carp are more of a wild card than an herbicide treatment, in most cases, they won't overgraze lake vegetation."

I hope he's right.

So far, I'm delighted with the progress being made in our fish-versus-weeds experiment, but more time is needed to tell if my enthusiasm is justified.

Meanwhile, my family can once again enjoy refreshing swims without becoming ensnarled in annoying weeds. As an unexpected benefit, we've also gained a new form of entertainment. We can sit on the bank and watch the antics of fish that look like sharks, eat like cattle and perform acrobatic movements like Baby Shamu.

Triploid grass carp are a force to be reckoned with, and that's no fish tale.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Bobcat's visit raises natural question

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 4, 2007)

I went outside to feed the birds today and saw a bobcat.

He (or she) was about 200 feet away, resting on the ground in front of the compost pile.

Compost piles are wildlife magnets. The odiferous porridge of kitchen wastes attracts mammals large and small. I've watched foxes and raccoons explore these bins of human detritus, but this was the first time a bobcat showed interest in the family dumping ground for avocado pits, eggshells, burnt rice and apple cores.

The bobcat, a tawny mass of cropped fur and pointy ears, looked comfortable. Like an oversized house cat who had just polished off a hearty meal, he rested contentedly on the matted grass. We eyed each other from afar. I squatted low, to appear less threatening. The cat simply stared in my direction, tufted ears at full attention, assessing the menace.

Reluctant to miss anything, but eager to immortalize this special moment, I rose slowly and slipped back into the house. Unfortunately, my camera wasn't hanging on the hook next to the kitchen door as I assumed it would be.

Not wanting to waste precious time searching the house, I eased back outside. By then, the bobcat had risen, but remained in the same place.

The feral feline must have realized (correctly) that I was harmless, because he proceeded to stretch with a long, leisurely gee-I-wish-you-hadn't-disturbed-me arch of the back. Standing my ground, I watched in awe.

Moments later, the object of my attention ambled off toward a more sheltered environ. There was nothing frantic or fearful about his movements. His graceful gait was slow and steady. I watched as he rounded the corner, disappearing from sight. Wanting more, I followed in his wake, moving as quietly as my bare feet would allow.

As I approached, I noticed the bobcat had paused beneath the overhanging branches of a nearby mulberry tree. The low-hanging limbs of the leafy fruit tree provided a tangled web that blended perfectly with his reddish-brown fur. When I rounded the corner, the cat caught sight of me. He responded by moving toward the woods. My eyes followed his trail for an instant before he vanished into the brambly undergrowth.

My one-on-one moment with nature was over. My only photographs were mental snapshots of the bobcat's movements. I rushed back inside, eager to share my experience with Ralph and Toby.

Although this was the first time I've seen a bobcat by the compost pile, it was not my first sighting. On at least a half dozen occasions, I've chanced upon bobcats on the property. Each encounter has been spectacular, a cherished gift. But these experiences concern me, too. I'm not scared for myself or for the safety of others, but for the bobcats themselves. Every peek into the waning wilderness reminds me of what we have to lose.

So much untamed land has already been developed. What will happen to the bobcats, bears, deer, foxes and coyotes when people eliminate even more woods to make way for shopping centers, residential communities and industrial complexes?

The Florida panther is endangered. According to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), only about 100 of these magnificent mammals remain in the wild. About a million bobcats roam throughout North America. In Florida, they are neither endangered nor threatened. But how long can that last?

Bobcats are solitary hunters. A male needs about 4,900 acres of field and forest in order to supply its carnivorous needs. A female needs 2,900 acres. That's so much land. While these dog-size consumers of rats, mice, birds and rabbits can adapt to eating out of compost piles, foraging through trash cans and licking the remains of pet food bowls, it's unlikely suburban residents will welcome their arrival to the neighborhood. Any nondomesticated creature that wanders into suburbia is more apt to arouse panic than peaceful observation and gratitude.

That's not how I feel. I'm grateful for any chance to see a wild animal -- large or small, on foot, wing or water.

I went out to feed the birds today and wound up feeding my own insatiable appetite for wildlife encounters. The few minutes the bobcat and I shared made an impression that will last for years. Will moments like this continue to happen? I don't know, but I hope they will. I hope time is gentle to bobcats and the many other creatures whose fate relies heavily on the course of human actions.