Monday, January 28, 2008

Readers show support for sandhill cranes

Simply Living

First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 27, 2008)

If the response from Simply Living readers is any indication, sandhill cranes have a strong support base in Central Florida.

After an early December column on these magnificent birds, my in-box filled with e-mails from sandhill-crane admirers. Even now, almost two months later, letters and calls from crane enthusiasts continue to flutter in.

Many readers wrote to tell of their fond regard for these red-crowned beauties, whose grazing habits often bring them into close proximity with suburban neighborhoods.

"They routinely roost at one of the many lakes here in Heathrow and walk around our community as if they own it," e-mailed Ed and Ann Evans. "The Sandhill Cranes are a daily part of life here in our section of Lake Mary."

The column prompted some people, such as Frank Dressler of Leesburg, to present their personal birding insights.

"An observation that I have made is that these cranes seem to be mostly in areas where they feel the safest. Every senior community has them around constantly. We have several families in Highland Lakes where I live. You don't see them around schools and playgrounds where there are children. It seems they don't feel threatened in our community."

While many readers generously shared specific locations where hundreds of sandhill cranes gather at night for communal repose, others offered up words of caution.

"We too are 'passionate observers' and would love to see such a spot," wrote Leesburg resident Dennis Clayton, referring to my request for information about sandhill crane roosting sites. "But, publicizing their locations could easily lead to hordes of well-intended folks invading the birds' private spaces and adversely affecting their environment. We would urge you to keep anything you learn confidential so these wonderful creatures can enjoy whatever unspoiled places they may have left."

Not to worry, Dennis. My intention has always been to share observations rather than particulars of private roosting sites that are not already open to the public.

Several readers, however, did suggest places where -- thanks to park ranger supervision -- sandhill-crane assemblages can be observed without jeopardizing the birds' safety or damaging the environment.

Michael and Cindi Kay of Apopka were among many who suggested an early evening visit to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, where sandhill cranes gather by the hundreds at dusk.

"If you have the time, we recommend a trip to Paynes Prairie in Gainesville," the Kays wrote. "It is just south of downtown and is accessible via Paynes Prairie State Park, on the south side, and trails on the north side. The park will have this information. This time of year there will be hundreds, if not thousands of them."

Unable to travel to Gainesville? How about a visit to nearby Moss Park in southeast Orange County? According to Jeffrey Tillison and other readers, 1,500-acre Moss Park is an excellent place to observe clusters of these highly social birds.

"We were treated to seeing hundreds of the sandhill cranes and other wildlife," wrote Tillison of a recent weekend spent camping at Moss Park with 200 Scouts and their families. "They were so inured to human contact that we could stand within a few feet of these creatures. We enjoyed watching them play and dance around during low light morning and evening times."

My own quest to see where the sandhill cranes settle for their evening slumber led me to a site suggested by Minneola resident David James. James accompanied me to a private lake that does double-time in the evening as an avian landing strip. We stood on the soggy shoreline for about an hour as one group of cranes after another flew in, circled, released their landing gear and dropped down onto a grassy pad surrounded by shallow water. In place of a control tower, cranes that had already arrived called out what I imagined to be landing instructions to each incoming flock.

"Ground Control to southwest V of incoming cranes," they seemed to announce in their prehistoric-sounding croaky voices. "You are cleared for landing. Come in, cranes."

Swift came the reply, "We read you, Ground Control. Landing gear has been lowered. Prepare for touchdown."

What a thrill it was to finally see a sandhill roosting site and to watch the grassy island in the middle of a quiet lake quickly fill up with birds -- hundreds of birds -- as the daylight slipped away.

While I hope all sandhill-crane enthusiasts might someday witness such a sight, I know not everyone will be able to. Perhaps those who cannot will enjoy the next best thing -- sharing the experiences of others.

Many readers suggested a wonderful Web site posted by Robert Grover, a dentist and amateur photographer from Suntree. Although Grover's unparalleled pictures do not focus on sandhill crane roosting sites, they do provide with amazing clarity a close-up view of sandhill family life from nest to fledgling stage. You can view them at groverphoto.phan

More information about sandhill cranes can also be found at the Web site of the International Crane Foundation -- Or, as Villages resident Anne McDonald suggested, in author Steve Grooms' "wonderful and informative" book, The Cry of the Sandhill Crane (Camp & Cottage Birding Collection, 3).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Blooms are the reward for patience

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 20, 2008)

Sweet! That's how the narcissus growing on my porch smell.

Whenever I pass through the screened room, a whiff of scented air catches me by surprise. It's the springtime of my past -- Cape Cod Aprils and Mays where cheery daffodils and colorful crocuses blossom in lawns still spotted with snow. The fragrant blooms trigger fond memories of people and places long unseen.

Growing bulbs indoors is like that. It's a way to bridge the difference between yesterday and tomorrow.

As horticultural endeavors go, forcing bulbs is straightforward, but it does take time. It's a practice of delayed gratification that involves planning and forethought. Bulbs must be ordered or purchased by early autumn and stored in a cool spot for several weeks before blooming can commence. That alone has always dampened my enthusiasm. I'm an immediate gratification person -- the type store managers hope will impulsively place a pot of blooming bulbs in the shopping cart alongside groceries.

But not this year. This year I made it happen by default.

In November, when my oldest son returned from a trip to see his grandmother in Seattle, he brought back a small bag of assorted bulbs.

My husband's mother is an amazing gardener. At age 90, she still lives on her own in a home surrounded by gorgeous gardens. In the summer, under her attentive care, flowerbeds overflowing with roses, gladioluses, dahlias, fuchsias, sweet white alyssum and beautiful blue lobelias burst into bloom. Not one to be content with summer-only gardening, in the winter Mary fills the inside of her house with flowers too. An assortment of forced bulbs sit on her windowsills as a sweet reminder that springtime is just around the corner.

As much as I love and admire my mother-in-law, when Timmy came home with Grandma's gift for me, I wasn't exactly filled with excitement. My immediate thought was one of regret.

"Now how am I supposed to do this?" I wondered. I always feel inadequate with gardening methods that involve detailed preparations.

But this time, instead of fretting or procrastinating -- OK, I did procrastinate for about a week -- I set about doing what needed to be done. I unwrapped the package and placed the bulbs in several flowerpots filled with small stones and pieces of sea glass.

Although bulbs are usually refrigerated for a couple weeks after being potted up, I decided to forgo that step and place them on the porch where the air is somewhat cooler than the house.

My decision to skip the chilling phase was inspired by a pot of daffodil bulbs that I never got around to removing after they bloomed last winter. The daffodils were another gift -- this time from my Massachusetts-based daughter, Jenny, who gave them to me early last autumn during one of her visits home. Jenny's bulbs flourished in our Florida winter, but when winter was over, I neglected to de-pot the spent blooms.

No matter, they sprouted again anyway.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a mass of green stems easing their way out of last year's bulbs. And, while none have yet flowered, they've been the perfect excuse to be lazy about refrigerating my new crop of narcissus-to-be's.

I guess it worked because, as of today, two of the narcissus have produced multiple white flowers, and several other buds are swelling with the potential of fragrance to come.

While not proud of my laziness when it comes to gardening, I admit to having limitations. How lovely it is, then, to discover that sometimes limitations can be lifted. The blooms that fill my porch with a memory-triggering sweetness prove that force is not the only means of achieving positive results. Rules are to question, and discoveries sometimes result from the most haphazard methods.

I doubt if this experience is going to make me an overnight advocate of multi-step gardening -- my needs for immediate gratification are too deeply ingrained for that. But my recent success with spring bulbs has been encouraging.

The sweet scent of long-ago Aprils and Mays is ample reward for the minimal effort involved in growing this year's crop of cheery flowers. With this experiment under my belt, I look forward to less laborious garden adventures for many seasons to come.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Among winter pleasures: Vermont folk musicians

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 13, 2008)

There are many things to look forward to during a Florida winter. There's the fresh taste of red navel oranges and the juicy flavor of a just-picked strawberry. There's finally having a reason to don long-sleeve shirts and the opportunity to go for midday walks now that the sun's heat has been somewhat subdued.

Something else I anticipate during wintertime is the return to Florida of some of my favorite Northern musicians. As predictable as a pair of songbirds flying south from their snow-covered homes, Bennington, Vt., residents Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen make up a folk music duo that has been flocking to the Florida winter music scene for the past nine years.

"We've been coming to Florida each January and have built up an audience over time," said Gillette. "We were invited to the South Florida Folk Festival in 1998, and in May of 2000 we played at the Gamble Rogers Memorial Folk Festival in St. Augustine."

While I'm not sure if I attended their concerts every year, I've been in the audience enough to know how much I look forward to their annual concerts. With Gillette on guitar and Mangsen on concertina, their show never fails to entertain, enlighten and amuse.

Perhaps Florida singer-songwriter Jack Williams said it best when he posted these comments on a Florida folk music listserv about the couple's 2008 tour, "The coming of two of my favorite people/musicians to Florida prompts me to write and suggest that no one miss a concert by Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen! Whether you like your folk contemporary or traditional, you'll get it all with these two most comfortable of writer/performers. These two friends always remind me that folk music can still be gentle, friendly, old and new -- all at once. Hold on to your hearts for Steve's song about Gamble Rogers. They're the best."

I'm not sure which of the Gillette-Mangsen songs I like best. Out of the four compact discs they have produced together -- individually they've each also produced four others -- their most recent album, Being There, might be my favorite.

That album includes the lyrical "Road Through the Wood" that Mangsen adapted from a Rudyard Kipling poem, as well as two irreverent ditties -- "Homelessness" and "Odd One Out" -- written by their friends, fellow performers and comedic cohorts Lou and Peter Berryman. Also on the Being There album is the thought-provoking tune, "The Kid with the Comic Book" written by Canadian songwriter Trevor Mills, which Gillette-Mangsen call a "quirky, sweet vision of the cosmos."

This year the husband-wife team, whose performing history dates back to the 1960s, will be providing music lovers with several choices of listening venues. Their first Florida stop will be in The Villages for a one-hour free concert at the Church on the Square at 6 p.m. Wednesday. For information, call 352-750-5411.

They leave The Villages for Tampa, where they'll do an on-air show at 88.5 FM (WMNF) and then a live concert at the Cultural Center in Tarpon Springs before returning for a . show at 7 p.m. Saturday at Lake Eustis Folk Center. For information, call 352-253-6448.

After a quick trip to Sarasota for a house concert, they return to Orlando at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 27 for a performance at beautiful Harry P. Leu Gardens, sponsored by Central Florida Folk. The Leu Gardens show costs $12 at the door. Those who arrive early can enjoy a pre-show ramble around the ever-verdant botanical gardens. For information, call 407-679-6426.

I haven't decided yet which of the three local gigs I'll go to this year, but whichever I select, it's sure to be time well spent. If you're in the mood for music that will soothe as much as amuse, check out these mavens of the melodic folk scene.

Snippets of their songs are available at

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Flights of sandhill cranes inspire questions for an expert wildlife biologist

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 6, 2008)

There is a mystery surrounding sandhill cranes that has intrigued me for years. It concerns their evening pattern of flying in great V's toward some unknown location. If you've been outside about 5:30 p.m. and happened to look upward, you might have seen them too. Maybe, like me, you've also wondered, "Where are they going? And why are they going there?"

My curiosity has peaked in recent weeks as I began noticing their distinctive flight patterns just before sunset. Looking up, I see the sky dotted with cranes flying overhead in flocks of 14, 16, two dozen or more at a time.

They take to the sky with uncanny regularity, as if an internal buzzer has signaled them to stop feeding and go aloft before dusk. Coming from all directions, these majestic fliers with the gray feathers and red crowns flap their wings in unison and point northeast.

Their evening flight takes them directly over our property, causing me to stop whatever I'm doing to ponder their patterns. Is there some great roosting spot where hundreds of cranes gather at night for communal repose? If so, where is it?

To find answers, I contacted Florida's pre-eminent crane researcher Steven Nesbitt at his home in Gainesville. According to Nesbitt, a communal resting place is exactly where they're going.

"Cranes are social birds," explained the retired wildlife biologist formerly with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Sometimes hundreds or, in some places, even thousands, will roost together in one spot."

They gather for protection as much as socialization. With predators in Florida such as alligators, bobcats and coyotes, sandhill cranes seek safe roosting spots free from surprise attacks.

"Typically, they want open marsh or shallow open water," said Nesbitt. "Since cranes cannot perch, they are obligated to spend their time on the ground or standing up in water that's two to three inches deep. They look for a lake bottom that is solid or firm, not one that's mucky or with a whole lot of vegetation. They also roost on islands in lakes and shallow water."

Nesbitt postulates that the many of the cranes I've noticed are "northern migratory cranes that have come to Florida for the winter from the Great Lakes, eastern Minnesota, Wisconsin and southwest Ontario."

There are six subspecies of sandhill cranes worldwide with a total population of about 400,000. Florida's year-round residents are called Florida sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis pratensis) while the migratory birds that winter in Central Florida are greater sandhill cranes (Grus candensis tabida).

Migratory cranes start arriving in Florida in late October and peak between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They remain in the Sunshine State through mid-February before leaving for the long flight back North.

Despite belonging to different subspecies, the native and visiting birds intermingle freely, occasionally feeding, flying and roosting together. That explains why large V's of birds appear in wintertime when the area's total crane population swells.

"The last time it was recorded," Nesbitt said, "the Florida sandhill crane population was in the 4,000-to-6,000 range. The population of greater sandhill cranes is approximately 40,000, and most of them migrate to Florida in the winter."

Sandhill cranes usually roost within about a mile of their feeding range area of 500 to 1,200 acres.

"They're as much an upland bird as a wetland bird," he said. "They do a lot of their feeding in pastures and grassy uplands."

Maybe that's why I seldom see more than an occasional pair here on our property -- with an ever-expanding number of bamboos, pine and oak trees, our land no longer contains large enough open pastureland to satisfy a large flock's needs.

Of the many wondrous birds in Florida, sandhill cranes are among my favorites. Their great size is part of what makes them special. About 4 feet tall with a wingspan of almost 7 feet, these beautiful birds are just slightly smaller than North America's largest bird, their endangered cousin the whooping crane.

Their mating habits are also endearing. Like geese and swans, cranes are monogamous. Not only do they choose lifelong partners -- and live an average of 25 years -- but both sexes also share in parenting chores, with the male birds helping to incubate the eggs and raise the babies.

With a tendency to return to the same habitat annually and an easy comfort with their human counterparts, sandhill cranes become familiar sights in many a Central Florida neighborhood.

Finally, it's their distinctive call that draws me to them with wonder and admiration. A sandhill crane's croaky vocalization is like a beacon back to prehistoric days. Fossilized remains of birds with bodies almost identical to modern sandhill cranes are estimated to be at least 10 million years old.

Although Nesbitt helped clarify much of the sandhill crane mystique, I'm still curious about those expansive marshy areas where hundreds of cranes roost at night. Someday, I'd like to see one in person. If any readers know of such a spot and are willing to show it to a passionate observer, I'm up for the task. Anything I find out will be shared in a future column.