Sunday, March 29, 2009

Time travel in the age of Facebook

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 30, 2009)

Thanks to the social-networking site Facebook, I've been traveling back in time to my teenage years.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of my high-school graduation, a fact undetected by my mental radar until a cadre of long-forgotten classmates "friended" me on Facebook. As I began receiving e-mail from people I hadn't heard from in decades, my mind drifted back to my Pennsylvanian roots.

High school was an emotional time. As with so many of my peers, my days were a swirl of feelings in constant collision with a maze of social, political and philosophical discoveries. Love, frustration, elation, disappointment — during my teenage years, I felt them all in varying shades and degrees of intensity.

I struggled with fitting in or — more accurately — with not fitting in with any of the many cliques that so acutely define the high-school experience. I wasn't a geek, a complete freak or a brain. Although I was on the field hockey team for a while, I was hardly a jock. Nor was I a member of the band, chorus or any other defining section of the high-school community. I was involved with plays — always behind the scenes and in minor parts — and contributed regularly to the literary magazine.

A thinker and dreamer, I found myself on the outskirts of several groups, never meshing for long with any one faction. Although I had spent my first 18 years in the same town, none of my personal connections managed to last for long once high school ended and I moved away.

Maybe that's why it feels strange to be suddenly awash in a sea of semi-familiar names and faces. As I struggle to remember the people now contacting me, I find my memory surprisingly foggy. Why is that? How can such incredibly important years be so difficult to recall?

For assistance, I've brushed the dust off my yearbook and scanned the pages in search of triggers. Unfortunately, that immortal tome of hormonal expression hasn't been much help. The 40-year-old images of girls with pageboy haircuts and boys with tucked in button-down shirts only remind me of how uninvolved I was with school activities.

There were about 1,000 graduates in my class. Like most of my classmates, I was aware of the ever-popular football players, cheerleading squad and student council, but my yearbook documents the existence of so much more. Apparently, my high school had a swim team and although I went there for four years, I can't recall ever seeing a pool. How is that possible? The depth of my obliviousness is astounding.

Thanks to Facebook I am reminded of how much I've forgotten. Far beyond names and faces, events that once seemed immensely important now barely elicit a memory blip. I guess time has a way of sorting through the mass of information that floods our minds and filing it all away in a manageable fashion. High school may have seemed all-encompassing at the time, but in reality it barely took up 4 percent of my 57 years. So much has happened since 12th grade ended and the rest of my life began.

Traveling back in time can be fun. It can be interesting learning about people in our past, especially when we chance upon that rare someone with whom a true connection can be made. But maybe the best part of this whole return-to-high-school-revisit-my-roots experience is how much it makes me appreciate the present.

There's no comparison between now and then. Now is so much better. I'm still a thinker, a dreamer and not a member of any special clique, but I'm very much a part of a family. That's something I wouldn't trade for all the high-school homecoming dances in the worl

Monday, March 23, 2009

Loss of cranes' eggs brings grief, awareness of life cycles

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 23, 2009)

The sandhill-crane eggs are gone. I don't know how it happened or exactly when, but the day after I watched the nesting pair scare away two other sandhill cranes, a misguided turtle and a murder of crows, I realized their eggs were missing.

What I actually noticed was an unattended nest. Until then, one or another of the cranes dutifully sat on the eggs day and night. Male and female cranes share incubation responsibilities, so I could never be sure which bird was keeping the two eggs warm. Except when they flew off in tandem to chase away other birds, one crane was always there.

The morning I realized the eggs were missing I also saw the season's first alligator glide through the shallow water. Our family regularly uses the lake for swimming. Monitoring the alligator population is an activity I take seriously.

Every year about this time, one or two of the toothy reptiles discovers our 12-acre watering hole. This year's visitor was relatively small — maybe 4 feet long — and too little to pose a serious human threat but large enough to devour sandhill-crane eggs.

Then again, the egg robber just as easily could have been a fox, raccoon, crow, owl, bobcat, coyote or even the osprey that regularly roosts on the lake-top platform my husband built. We have no shortage of predators willing to fight for a mouthful of crane eggs or hatchlings.

If that's what happened, it must have been quite a battle. When under attack, sandhill cranes command an arsenal of weapons. Their large stature and 6-foot-wide wingspan can be imposing. Add to that a pointed beak for poking, strong legs for kicking and a bellowing voice that doesn't let up, and you have the means to stop most enemies in their tracks. Unfortunately, even the best weapons don't always work.

A study of 1,096 sandhill-crane clutches at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon from 1966 to 1989 showed coyotes destroyed 20percent of the eggs, ravens killed 15percent and raccoons destroyed 9percent. I know all three predators frequent our property, but ravens or perhaps crows have been most visible. The Oregon study noted the obvious: Well-concealed nests resisted the most predation.

The cranes in my lake must not have read that report, because their nest was as exposed as could be. Stuck on the end of a barren sand spit in the shallow water a mere 20feet from shore, the roughly composed structure was visible to any potential egg-eaters and easily accessible.

I'm not surprised the two eggs vanished, but I am sad. Unlike birds that may lay multiple clutches yearly, sandhill cranes nest only once. When eggs disappear, chances of another clutch by the same birds in the same year are nil.

Meanwhile, the male and female cranes continue to roost on the same sandbar by their empty nest. During the days, they wander about together, foraging for food, preening their feathers and raising their voices to bellow to any other sandhills that chance to fly overhead.

Is their vocalization a warning to others to stay away, or a message of mourning to announce their loss?

It is anthropomorphic to attribute human feelings to animal behavior, but when something like this happens, it's hard to avoid such speculation. That's especially true with animals such as sandhill cranes that forge strong parent-child bonds. Although immature cranes can fly only 10weeks after hatching, they usually remain with the parents for a full year, staying together until the elders are ready to lay another clutch of eggs. Only then will the young colts — immature cranes — venture off on their own.

My nesting couple won't raise babies this year, but that doesn't mean their child-rearing days are over. Sandhill cranes can live in the wild for more than 20years. They tend to return to previous nesting sites year after year, so it's likely we'll have several more chances to observe the life cycle of these fascinating birds.

With so many future chances, it's quite likely their next egg-laying experience will be a success. I certainly hope so. A pair of Carolina wrens is building a nest under the eaves of our house. Watching them scurry back and forth with building materials has helped ease my feelings of loss.

It's hard to keep things in perspective when emotions get in the way. Losing the eggs is a disappointment, but it's not without an upside. Those eggs nourished some animal that also may be raising young. Life is full of ups and downs. One critter's loss is another animal's gain.

As for me, I'm in awe of the cycle. Life goes on no matter what, for birds as well as people.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Nesting cranes bluster, but no blood is shed

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 16, 2009)

The sandhill-crane saga continues.

One recent Saturday, I heard the sandhill cranes on our property making their warning calls, so I grabbed the binoculars and rushed outside to see what was going on.

On the long, narrow sand spit where the cranes nest, the female had stood up, leaving her two eggs exposed. About 20feet away, the male crane walked toward her with long-legged determination. Between them was a large turtle. The turtle, probably figuring the narrow sand spit was a good place to catch some rays, made an unfortunate pick. His sunning spot — about 7 feet from the nest — was too close for comfort.

The female crane raised her voice in protest, her warning cry joined by the male, who was rapidly approaching. The vocalizing continued until the female felt sure her partner was close enough to deal with the problem alone. Secure at last, she returned to her egg-warming responsibility. Meanwhile, the male used his pointy beak to approach the unwitting turtle and drive home the message that it was time to leave.

"Go!" Nudge, nudge. "Get away!" He poked. "Find somewhere else to sun, away from our eggs."

Turtles are reputed to be slow on land, but if my observations are any indication, they're fast on the uptake. The hard-shelled critter wasted no time retreating into the water and paddling off to friendlier shores. With the threat abated, calm returned. Mama crane continued nesting, papa crane resumed foraging for food and the unwelcome turtle disappeared underwater.

A few minutes passed. I returned to my desk, and the cranes resumed foraging for food and incubating eggs.

You would think one such adrenaline-pumping experience would be enough for the birds to deal with in a day. It wasn't. Less than 15 minutes later, I again heard sandhill-crane sounds of alarm. I ran outside again, binoculars in hand. This time a turtle didn't trigger their cries; another pair of sandhill cranes did.

This was the second time I've witnessed the territorial proclamations of sandhill cranes. A few days before, a pair of the long-legged birds had flown overhead before settling down on the shoreline at the opposite end of the lake from the nesting couple. In typical crane fashion, a great deal of vocalizing transpired in the air and on the ground.

"This is our lake," the nesting pair seemed to bellow from below.

"Don't get your feathers all ruffled," the newcomers seemed to reply. "We're not going to bother you. We're landing on the other end, far away from your island."

I suppose their exchange succeeded in placating the nesting pair because the new birds landed and did stay far away, at least initially. Several hours later, that wasn't the case. The nonresident birds slowly meandered their way around the shoreline until they were a mere 40feet or so away from the other cranes' nest. At that point, new bellowing began, accompanied by a sudden explosion of wings as both mama and papa crane took off and landed next to the newcomers. All at once, four sets of croaky voices filled the air.

"You said you were not going to bother us and now look where you are," the nesting couple seemed to scold.

"All right already, don't get so upset. We're out of here," the newcomers seemed to say.

Their wings spread and away they flew.

As soon as the intruders were in the air, the nesting couple returned to the sand spit and the two exposed eggs.

This time, I expected to see a similar confrontation. But that wasn't the case. Instead of the new birds coming close to the nest, the visitors were far away at the opposite shore. The nesting pair reacted immediately. They flew off together and landed right next to the newcomers.

"Leave!" They seemed to say. "Right now! Fly away!"

And they did. The visitors took off and our resident birds flew back to their island home. The female went back to the nest, but the male stopped by a nearby shoreline to chase away a murder of crows. After the crane-chasing incident, some adrenaline must still have been pumping through his system that he needed to release.

I suppose we all have territorial limits. When it happens to people, fights ensue. When it happens to countries, we have war. When it happens to sandhill cranes, there's a lot of bluster, feather ruffling and vocalizing, but, eventually, one bird or the other gets the message and flies away. End of story. No bloody encounters or bombing of homelands, just loud cries of complaint followed by acquiescence.

Too bad people can't act the same way

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Nesting sandhill cranes ready to raise young

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 9, 2009)

I recently wrote about watching a male sandhill crane court a female with elaborate displays of wing flapping, feather fluffing, stomping on the ground and jumping up and down.

The lady to whom this dance was directed appeared to be completely uninterested in his performance.

While her partner pounced upon a gangly weed to demonstrate how forcefully he could destroy an enemy, the female sandhill crane walked away, pecked at seeds and generally ignored her suitor's dramatic show of virility.

Although she may have looked and acted indifferent, some of those masculine attempts to impress must have penetrated her feathery feminine psyche.

Today, a mere three weeks after the mating dance, the female sandhill crane is contentedly incubating a clutch of eggs on an exposed spit of sand at the north end of our lake.

I'm excited!

This will be the second time our family will have an up-close opportunity to follow the life cycle of sandhill cranes.

I'm not alone in enjoying such a spectacle. After my column appeared, many readers wrote to tell me how thrilled they also are to be following the development of sandhill crane families.

Leesburg resident Joe Schlegel's letter began, "Are you ready for some GOOD NEWS? I sure hope so, 'cause the sandhill cranes from last year are still here and nesting in the same place, and she laid TWO eggs this year, same as last year, but this year ONE hatched and we have the most BEAUTIFUL baby sandhill crane walking around with the proud parents.

"WOW!! What a sight!" he added. "The papa stands guard and the mama has been teaching the baby how to pick bugs out of the ground."

It is typical of sandhill cranes to return to a nest site for many years.

Although there is no way to know for sure, I suspect that the cranes now nesting near our lake are either the same cranes or the descendants of the cranes that nested here eight years ago. The water level now is similar to what it was then — very low — with many exposed sand or peat islands, ideal for nest sites.

Gertrude de Jong is another Leesburg resident fortunate enough to follow a crane family's antics.

"We live on a pond, too, in a retirement community in Leesburg and for the last month and a half we have been watching two of them prepare their nest to receive two big beautiful eggs," writes de Jong.

"We watched them protect them, hover over them, taking turns to keep them warm, and about 10 days ago a beautiful little chick came into being," de Jong continued. "Only one of the eggs hatched. Now each day we see them protect the little chick with their nearness and at the same time teaching it to feed. What a beautiful sight. At the first indication of a predator in the area, both birds make the most awful noise and scare the osprey away."

I have not yet discovered how many eggs our sandhill crane is sitting on, but the last time we watched a nesting pair raise young, two eggs hatched. Unfortunately, only one of those colts survived.

Baby sandhill cranes are called colts because of their long, strong, well-developed legs. A day after hatching, colts are already able to run after their parents.

Although two eggs are usually laid, more often than not only one bird survives. The eggs — about twice the size of the largest chicken eggs — incubate for approximately 30 days, and during that time both parents take turns sitting on the eggs.

The nest, which typically sits only inches above the water in marshy areas, is a casually built affair made from marshy vegetation.

From my vantage point on the shoreline about 40 feet away, I can't even see the cranes' nest. The mama crane's body — or is it the papa's? — completely covers whatever reeds, cattails or tall grasses the birds have haphazardly woven together into a shallow bowl.

What I do know is that ever since I first observed the birds nesting, one parent or another has stayed glued to the nest site, leaving the remaining partner alone to forage the shorelines and fields for food.

Assuming that the cranes can successfully fend off predators — as the male so ably demonstrated in his mating dance — we soon should be observing the young colts' arrival.

It only takes 10 weeks after the baby birds are born before they are able to fly, so much should happen in a relatively short time.

I'll be sure to share with you as many stages of the happy events that I can record.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Lowly sorrel a surprising, edible treat

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 1, 2009)

Remember fields? They are those expansive stretches of landscape uninterrupted by trees, shopping centers, tract homes, condos or parking lots.

If you've passed by one lately, that is, if you are fortunate enough to live in an area where acres of open space still exist — you might have noticed a reddish tint to the grasses waving in the breeze. The cause of this botanical blush is the seed stalks of the Rumex acetosella plant, better known as sheep sorrel, sour sorrel, common sorrel or the visually descriptive moniker, red sorrel.

As its blush suggests, Rumex acetosella is a modest plant, unassuming but pervasive. A perennial herb with edible stem and leaves, sorrel's lowly stature and ubiquitous nature cause many to consider it a weed. It pops up in gardens and lawns alike, in open fields and meadows, in sandy or gravelly soil. Wherever there are sunny expanses — even in disturbed, nutritionally poor soil — sorrel plants are apt to take root.

When we first moved to our south Lake County homestead 17years ago, sorrel-covered meadows were so widespread, we named one of our roads after the omnipresent herb. We'd munch on the lemony leaves when taking walks, and at dinnertime we would send the kids out to collect a handful of the plant's arrow-shaped leaves to mix with lettuce for a tasty salad. Sorrel leaves are slightly juicy and mildly astringent. They add a satisfying crunch to tossed salads and a pleasing tang to sandwiches and stir-fries.

So many sorrel plants grew in our "lawn" that the kids didn't have far to go to gather what was needed.

Our three oldest children have long since grown up and moved away, but their fondness for sorrel has remained intact. Unfortunately, fields of the red-stalked plants diminished as we added more trees and bamboo to the landscape. Sorrel still exists but instead of covering acres, it forms a patchwork of individual plants.

This past week, our older children rediscovered some of those patches during a trip home to celebrate our youngest son's birthday. In addition to time spent talking and making meals, we juggled clubs in the backyard, played board games and took walks around the lake. It was on one of those walks that Timmy, our oldest son, noticed the sorrel. He plucked a few leaves off a plant and nibbled them as he walked.

Seeing Timmy munch on the tangy greens reminded me of the special connection people can have with specific plants. As a child in Pennsylvania, I used to pick wild blackberries when I walked along the old railroad track. Now, 50-some years later, every time I pick a blackberry, I flash back on my youthful home.

During the years Ralph and I lived on Cape Cod, wintergreen berries were among my favorite wild edibles. Whenever I strolled through the woods during autumn, my eyes would seek out the small red berries hidden beneath the low growing ground cover. I miss the minty taste of those berries — they don't grow in Florida — but I still remember how much I enjoyed them and how exciting it was to fill up my pockets with enough of the tiny round fruits to last for the entire walk.

It doesn't take much to trigger a memory. Songs do it. Smells do it. Plants do it too. Fields of sorrel may no longer be a large part of our Florida landscape, but the memories they trigger are not about to disappear. Rumex acetosella is undeniably a common, lowly plant that some people consider a weed, but to our family it's special: It's the flavor of home, of family and time spent together.