Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Living near 2 screech owls is a real hoot

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 27, 2008)

"Did you know the owl's sitting in the garage?" my son asked me the other afternoon while I was out in the nursery trimming bamboo. "What's he doing there?"

"Probably resting," I said, using the interruption to wipe a strand of hair out of my face. "Waiting for dark to hunt some mice."

The owl in question was the male half of a pair of Eastern screech owls that have taken up residence in an old letterbox mounted under our porch eaves. This is the third successive year screech owls have picked a nesting spot next to our house and the second year in a row that they've claimed the mailbox for their own.

The owls have moved into the empty letter holder completely "as is." No twigs, reeds, leaves or soft fur have been added to cushion the tinny enclosure. Mama owl has simply settled herself in the rear of the hollow space and hunkered down. Day and night, she sits in her metal abode, patiently focused on the task of parenting. Despite its lack of accouterments, the box is a safe, dry place to nest. With an expansive view of the lawn and lake, it's not too shabby from a real-estate point of view either.

Eastern screech owls are one of the most common owls, but until they nested near our house, I hardly knew they existed. I had no idea that these diminutive members of the Strigidae family -- a mature screech owl is only 6 to 10 inches tall -- mate for life and are as likely to be found in an urban setting as a rural or suburban one.

I had no idea that a screech owl makes a call eerily similar to a horse's whinny or that the female does most of the incubating assisted only intermittently by her male partner. I certainly had no idea that their diet included huge palmetto bugs as well as mice, small birds, frogs, lizards and worms.

I've learned much in the three years since the first pair made a home in an empty black plastic pot that my husband had attached to a tall bamboo pole.

That first nest was most unexpected. Ralph devised the pot-on-a-pole as a tool to pluck fruit from atop a leggy papaya tree. When not in use, his invention fit conveniently in a corner under the porch eaves. It was there -- in that protected resting spot -- that a pair of screech owls found it and proceeded to chip a circular hole into the pot's side to serve as a door. Needless to say, once we realized that the papaya gatherer had been re-engineered into an owl home, we abandoned all aims to secure ripe fruit with the tool. Instead, it remained propped against the porch wall where, although we had no way of seeing inside, we could easily hear every movement and vocalization the female owl made.

I was amazed that the owls succeeded in nesting in the papaya picker at all. Although we tried to make it more secure, the nesting pot remained precariously propped in a corner with nothing to stop a strong wind from knocking it over.

When nesting season ended, I was quick to take it away and put up the mailboxes. Unlike the propped-up picking pole, the mailboxes were intentionally set in place and far more solidly fastened. I didn't know if the owls would choose them for a home, but I hoped that some birds would.

Sure enough, one of the mailboxes must have met the screech owl seal of approval, because last year they moved in.

It's very special having owls living in such close proximity to human habitats. It's a rare chance to study a wild animal up close and become familiar with another creature's daily habits. When Toby came out to tell me the owl was in the garage I couldn't wait to see it for myself. Fortunately, by the time I finished up my chores and got home, the bird was still there, calmly perched by the garage door window. He seemed unfazed by the flash of my camera and surprisingly unperturbed by my presence. He remained in the garage until dark, changing perches twice before flying off in search of food.

I've read that screech owls return to a successful nest site year after year and that owls in the wild have been known to live for up to 13 years. That's good news in my ongoing quest for natural ways to control pests. By erecting a few potential bird-nesting stations, we not only gained the ability to observe wildlife at close range, but we also found a way to use beneficial critters to defeat problem ones. Our yard and house are freer from mice, cockroaches and mosquitoes thanks to spiders, bats and now screech owls, all of whom are hunters.

With our planet's health at such a perilous point, it's more essential than ever to decrease our dependency on pesticides and poisonous chemicals.

And if a byproduct of those efforts includes having a family of screech owls to listen to, watch and appreciate -- so much the better. If that's not something to hoot about, what is?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bill Staines to bring heartwarming songs to Orlando area

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 20, 2008)

If you're anything like me, you have a collection of favorite songs by a variety of musicians. Browse through your library of CDs, old cassette tapes or dusty LPs and you'll likely find only two or three songs on each recording that you absolutely adore. That's pretty much the norm. It's what we've come to expect from most musicians.

But not from Bill Staines.

During his 40-plus-year career, this New England-based songsmith has managed to fill 26 albums with must-hear-again tunes. Of all the musicians I know and love, none compares with Bill Staines in the ability to produce so much consistently beautiful music with meaningful, engaging lyrics. Staines' songs ignite my imagination like no other artist's works can. His gentle melodies and insightful stories flow through my mind long after the music has ended.

I first heard Bill Staines perform on Cape Cod in Massachusetts in the early 1970s. In those days, Ralph and I were among the regulars attending weekly concerts at First Encounter Coffeehouse in Eastham. The venue was a small Unitarian church called Chapel in the Pines -- an intimate and acoustically idyllic setting to listen to the strummed chords and rich harmonies of some of the nation's best talent. During the 17 years we lived on the Cape, we enjoyed performances by local musicians as well as by folk-scene icons such as John Sebastian, Tom Paxton, Kate Wolf and Dave Mallett. But it was the Bill Staines concerts we most anticipated. An evening spent listening to Bill's entertaining stories, mood-inducing songs and upside-down-left-handed guitar picking was guaranteed to put a smile on our faces. We always left wanting more.

I've been thinking a lot about Bill Staines lately as the dates of his Central Florida tour approach. Every few years this traveling troubadour takes a Southern loop through the Sunshine State. While some people who attend his concerts may be hearing his songs for the first time, most, like Ralph and me, are longtime fans. We come because through his music -- so lovingly conceived and prolifically offered -- he has come to feel like family.

You know how some songs trigger memories? That often happens with Staines' music. I remember the first time Ralph and I heard Staines sing "Roseville Fair," a touching story of a couple who met at a county fair and fell in love. We were in the audience at the Eastham coffeehouse. When the song ended, Ralph and I turned to each other with a knowing look -- "this one is a keeper." And it was. We bought the cassette -- CDs had not yet been invented -- and no matter how many times we played that song, it always triggered a sweet and soothing stirring of the heartstrings.

That's how it is with all Bill Staines' songs. He breathes life into the characters he is singing about whether it's a weathered drifter named Rye Whiskey Joe, the ragged philosopher Ol' Pen or, my favorite, the small-town dancing girl Annie Drew.

Although he is New England born and raised, you wouldn't know it from tunes such as "Coyote," "Song for Tingmissartoq" or "My Sweet Wyoming Home." Staines has a way of capturing the essence of a place he is visiting or a time period he finds intriguing.

But his songs of love and family have always meant the most to me. As much poet as songsmith, he writes lyrics that touch upon everyday subjects and ring true in their insightful simplicity. From "Child of Mine" to "Bridges" to "I Must Be Going Home," there's something special in the way Staines captures emotions and wraps them in poignantly melodic packages. There's a universal appeal to this man's work.

This year's concert should be especially exciting because in 2007 Staines released a new album, Old Dogs, three years after his previous album, The Second Million Miles. For longtime fans, this chance to hear new songs by one of our favorite artists is a rare treat.

But you don't have to be an old fan to enjoy his music. Anyone who takes the time to listen can't help but be inspired and impressed by his poetic heart and gentle grace. If you're among those to whom Bill Staines' name is unfamiliar, take advantage of this week's concerts to get to know a truly timeless musician.

Bill Staines will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Craftsman House, 2955 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. For details, call 727-323-ARTS. On Saturday, he will be in Ormond Beach. Details are available at floridafolkmusic.org or by calling 386-437-0185. On Sunday, a 2:30 p.m. concert at Leu Gardens, 1920 N. Forest Ave., Orlando, will be sponsored by the Friends of Florida Folk. Information is available at cffolk.org or by calling 407-679-6426. And Sunday evening, he will appear in Mount Dora. Details are available by calling 352-735-4907.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Will cell survive dip in loo?

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 13, 2008)

If you have a cell phone and who doesn't these days? -- you've probably come to depend upon it. I know I have.

My personal dependency was recently tested when our 3-year-old Motorola flip phone had an unfortunate encounter with the working end of a toilet.

Suffice it to say that technological wonders of communication and mechanical objects of waste removal are not meant to converge. It might also be worth mentioning that the back pocket of tight jeans is not the most secure spot to stuff a phone when said jeans are about to be lowered in front of a porcelain bowl of water.

In case you're not aware, close encounters of a wet kind render cell phones inoperative. In less time than it takes to say, "Can you hear me now?" a submerged phone will become eerily mute. No dial tone. No time display. No sign of life at all.

That was my experience.

For one brief panicky moment, I stared at my de-pocketed communication device, chastising myself for my foolish behavior. Then I pushed aside all thoughts of regret or propriety and stuck my hand down the hopper. I fished out the phone, took it apart and proceeded to dry out its individual parts.

Inside a cell phone are two major components: the battery and the Sim card. Think of the tiny Sim card -- smaller than a postage stamp -- as the cell phone's brain. In it is stored all the information you've ever entered -- phone numbers, call logs, voice messages, etc. If the Sim card is the phone's brain, the battery is its heart and, like a human heart, it pumps less efficiently over time. Eventually, it shuts down completely and the cell phone dies.

My phone's battery had been showing signs of age for months. It wouldn't hold a charge, and calls often cut off before I had a chance to answer them. Because of these problems, Ralph and I had been considering alternatives.

A few days before the commode experience, I had asked a sales representative how much it would cost to replace the phone's battery. What I learned was: A) new batteries for old phones are not readily available, and B) if you are lucky enough to find one, it will cost more than three times the price of the least expensive new cell phone.

Because of the economic implications, we resigned ourselves to the inevitability of getting a new phone. And although there is an element of excitement in the idea of buying a fancy new gadget with cool features and sleek, smooth looks, there is also trepidation.

Past experience has proved that no matter how "easy to use" technological wonders claim to be, a steep learning curve -- one that is occasionally insurmountable -- will be involved.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened.

Thanks to our diligent drying efforts, the Motorola was resurrected, but we remained apprehensive about its long-term survival. Since we knew we would eventually have to buy a new phone, we decided to follow our phone's lead and take the plunge.

After being promised by the youthful employee at the local T-Mobile store that the Samsung Beat was the "best choice" among all the "free" phones (add on the $18 upgrade fee), we signed the papers and headed home, new gadget in hand. It was only after we got back and began to fiddle with it that we realized what a mistake we had made.

The Samsung Beat is a pretty phone. Compact and attractive, it has a built-in music player and camera and can even take movies. What it also has is a speakerphone that is barely audible and an external time display that goes blank after three seconds.

I spent just under four hours reading the manual, pressing buttons and fiddling with settings only to discover I couldn't care less about its built-in music player, camera and camcorder. What I really want is a loud speakerphone and an external time display that stays constantly lighted.

So I'm taking it back. I'll probably have to deal with a different youthful salesperson who will try to convince me that another sleek and fancy phone would be "a much better choice." But I doubt if it will.

Right now, I'm leaning toward buying that expensive battery and staying with my old phone for as long as possible. It's hard to match what you're used to. My Motorola -- ancient though it is in techno terms -- does what I want it to do, and I've come to realize how dependent I am on familiar patterns.

A cat may have nine lives but as of now, my cell phone has two. If a dip in the loo couldn't kill it, who am I to bury it in a drawer?

Long live all things familiar. I'm willing my old phone to last a little bit longer

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Mulberries are ripe, but where are the cedar waxwings?

Simply Living

(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel April 6, 2008)

Bountiful. That's how our mulberry crop is this year.

The dozen or so mulberry trees on our property are heavy with fruit. So many berries cling to the branches that the boughs bend with their weight. It's remarkable.

What's also remarkable is that the birds aren't eating them. By this time in previous years, flocks of cedar waxwings would have descended to devour the fruit. Waxwings are voracious feeders who send scouts out early in the season to secure feasting spots for the birds back home. With an uncanny ability to predict precisely when fruit is edible, migrating flocks of birds arrive just in time to wipe out whatever mulberries are ready to pick.

That has been their pattern for the past six or seven years. I don't like it, but I accept it as part of nature's cycle.

Not this year, though. This year things are different.

I'm thrilled with the abundant harvest, but I'm also concerned. A radio story I heard March 21 keeps running through my mind. In the broadcast, National Public Radio reporter Noah Adams interviewed Kirsten de Beurs, one of several scientists who have studied satellite images of foliage changes from 1982 to 2006. Their studies have shown that spring is occurring an average of eight hours earlier each year.

While an eight-hour difference might seem inconsequential, the accumulation of hours during the course of many years is anything but. In 26 years, those eight hours translate into 208 hours, or just under nine full days.

What does that mean? It means birds such as the cedar waxwings that usually eat our mulberries have to continually reset their internal time clocks to mesh with unanticipated seasonal fluctuations.

"We see the vegetation start to occur earlier, and the animals have to adjust their timing as well, and that's not always easy to do," de Beurs told Adams.

"They cannot necessarily adjust at the same speed that the vegetation is occurring."

A lack of precision timing can have reverberating effects. If birds miscalculate when food sources are available, they might not be able to adequately provide for their offspring. Nesting time might be delayed, causing an entire generation to suffer.

Although I'm neither a fatalist nor a pessimist, I have only to look toward our abundant mulberry trees to know something is amiss. The possibility that climate change has had an impact on the patterns of migrating birds is right outside our front door. Why else are our fruit trees so untouched by avian beaks? Would the birds really decide to cross us off their annual fly-by route on a year when our harvest is amazing? I don't think so.

But maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps our mulberries are the exception rather than the rule. Maybe waxwings are eating their fill of other fruiting plants instead.

To find out, I contacted a professional. Karen Brothers has been managing a 36-acre commercial blueberry operation in Tavares with her husband, Jerry, for 22 years. Blueberries ripen about the same time as mulberries, and farmers such as the Brotherses wage an annual war against avian intruders that descend en masse to devour their crops. I reached Karen Brothers by phone.

"This is the first year they've skipped us," Brothers reported. "We've spoken to other blueberry growers too, and although some cedar waxwings have been spotted, they don't seem to be arriving in droves like they have in the past."

Brothers also reported that, like our mulberries, the blueberry crop this year is exceptional. "We've never had a year like it," she said.

Is that because the birds haven't come to eat their share of the fruit or simply because conditions were right this year for a robust harvest? I don't know.

What I do know is that the lack of winged creatures makes me anxious. Their presence -- or in this case, the lack thereof -- is one of the more obvious signs that something is amiss in our oh-so-precariously balanced web of life.

You might think I'm talking nonsense. So what if a few birds don't arrive to eat some berries? Who cares about birds and mulberries anyway?

I do, and I hope others do too.

Although we human residents of Planet Earth prize independence, the reality is none of us acts alone. As scientists such as de Beurs discovered, climate changes are already affecting vegetative growth, which in turn, affects insect and animal patterns. Farmers might be relieved to have one less pest to contend with in any given year, but this season's change in bird migration patterns provides an eerie peek into the future.

What kind of world do we want to live in?

I, for one, would like it to be one populated by as many different kinds of creatures as possible. Do I want our mulberries devoured by droves of waxwings? No. But neither do I want birds to disappear.

Nature's bounty is meant to be shared. Not only that, we all must care and do our part -- however small or seemingly inconsequential -- to decrease our carbon footprint. The future of all life lies in human hands.

I treasure this year's bountiful harvest, but I treasure more a planet that can produce sustainable harvests for countless years to come.