Monday, February 22, 2010

Rare storks visiting our lake are treat

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 21, 2010)

On a recent morning, two wood storks were trolling for food in the recently submerged shoreline. Wood storks are not among the water birds that frequent our lake, so I was especially excited to see a pair exploring our shoreline.

The presence of these large waders at our small lake was probably the result of recent rains. As rain has fallen over the last couple of weeks, water levels have significantly risen, submerging several feet of grassy shoreline. Wood storks rely on shallow water to find food — small fish, minnows, crayfish, snakes and tadpoles — so the pair on our lake may have been exploring newfound sources of delicacies.

Finding reliable, non-polluted food sources is a serious problem for these long-legged birds with dark, featherless heads, long bills and black-and-white plumage. By the early 1980s, development and pollution had taken such a toll on wetland habitats that wood stork populations declined significantly. Although there were an estimated 60,000 wood storks in the Southeast in the 1930s, by the late 1970s their numbers were down to only 5,000 pairs. Because of this, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added wood storks to their list of endangered species in 1984. Since then, the population of America's only native stork has increased slightly. Today, about 8,000 nesting pairs live in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

The two storks I saw were busy walking through the soggy shoreline alongside a white heron and a tri-colored heron. All four birds seemed to be enjoying the recently expanded shallows and, despite the long shoreline where they could have foraged for food independently, the foursome stayed together. Perhaps the company of other birds helped the storks by causing the fish to scatter.

Herons, like most water birds, hunt for food by spotting prey with their sharp eyes before catching it with their long, sharp bills. Wood storks take a different approach. They troll through the shallow water with their stout bills ajar in the hope that their prey will inadvertently swim into the openings. When that happens, their bills reflexively snap shut. Wood storks can close their bills in as little as 25 milliseconds, a speed unmatched by most other vertebrates.

I like seeing wood storks in our lake. Not only is it satisfying to think that these giant water birds – adult birds stand over 3 feet tall and have a 5-foot wingspan – can find food here, it is also exciting to observe at close range such a weird combination of ugliness and beauty.

From a distance, wood storks are lovely creatures. With their long, dark necks and white plumage tipped by black features, they're easily identifiable. But a closer look reveals some surprisingly incongruous features. Their long necks are bald and covered with bumpy-looking dark skin. Their pink-colored feet blend into black appendages as if the birds were wearing mud-covered leggings. From the neck up, wood storks look like gawky turkey vultures, while from the neck down their shapely, white-feathered bodies have the graceful look of herons.

Although I saw only two at our lake, storks are social animals that frequently seek food in groups and spend their evening hours resting together in treetop rookeries. To find food, pairs or small flocks will travel up to 80 miles, returning home at night to perch with their companions.

It's quite possible the pair at our lake didn't have to travel that far. I believe their rookery is just a few miles away. Several times at dusk, I've driven by a small marsh on State Road 19 where I've observed about a dozen white birds roosting on the bare branches of water-encircled trees. Because it is always twilight when I pass the rookery, and because I'm traveling on a busy road, I've had only fleeting glances. Now that I've noticed wood storks on our lake, I realize that those roosting birds might be storks.

I had fun watching the wood storks feed. As much as I relish any opportunity to observe wildlife, especially animals I seldom see, observing an endangered species on the land where I live is extra special. The tadpoles, snakes and minnows might not agree, but it makes me happy knowing that the rain we've been having lately is providing new feeding grounds for some of nature's most vulnerable creatures.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Surprisingly, tree-trimming didn't bug me

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 15, 2010)

The utility company just finished cutting down dozens of our trees. The trees, mostly slash pines and oaks, had grown tall enough to interfere with overhead power lines. The power company removed them to prevent damage to wires in future storms.

Even though two crews of tree trimmers cut down almost a hundred trees, I had no problem with the project. I didn't object to their presence other than insisting that the workers, most of whom were smokers, not drop cigarette butts while they were on our property. More surprisingly, I wasn't sad to see so many trees felled.

I wasn't always so unemotional on the subject of trees.

When we moved to our property in 1992, trees were a rarity. On the entire 50 acres, there were only two huge oaks, four broad pines and a small stand of slender willows. The land was open, exposed and raw.

Although the property was beautiful in its emptiness, our vision was to create a forest, to return the land to the woodland that longtime residents told us it used to be.

During those early years, we attempted to reforest the land ourselves. Our first effort was to hand-plant 4,000 pine trees — back-breaking work that turned out to be a waste of energy. The 6- to 8-inch saplings needed a better start than could be provided by a bunch of amateurs armed with nothing more than a spade, a shovel, a desire to save money and a willingness to work.

We realized our mistake as we sadly watched most of the green sprouts shrivel up and turn brown. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, we hired a professional tree planter. Driving in straight rows across the open land with a machine designed for the task, the tree man managed to install 11,000 pines in less time than it had taken my husband and I and our children to plant the previous 4,000. More important, unlike us, he knew what he was doing. The majority of his saplings lived, growing over the course of 18 years into the forest we envisioned.

I've spent many hours observing my surroundings, focusing much of my attention on the growth patterns of trees. I learned that willows are not to be depended upon. Strong winds repeatedly broke willow branches and bent and uprooted their trunks. Maple trees can withstand weeks of wet feet, but pines planted too close to the lake have died when they've stood too long in water that has risen to abnormally high levels. I've come to realize how much hardier slash pines are than sand pines, and that all pine trees have roots that are easy to trip over because they grow so close to the surface.

I've come to appreciate the inadvertent efforts of wildlife in helping me reforest. I've watched chokecherries and wild persimmon trees appear out of nowhere, the result of seeds dropped by birds and scattered by wildlife. Pine cones are another source of volunteer plants. The seeds of future conifers are nestled within the sappy confines of these brown containers, waiting until conditions are right for them to break forth and take root.

And then there are bamboos. If we knew as much in 1992 as we do now about these beautiful, fast-growing, low-maintenance giant grasses, I doubt we would have planted as many pines.

One of the main things I've learned from observing my surroundings is how quickly the landscape can change. In the beginning, when trees were scarce, the thought of cutting down even one sapling was unimaginable. Now, a tree-cutting crew can spend 10 days on the property slicing down one 35-foot tall leaf-bearer after another, and I hardly blink an eye. Time has buffered my emotions. I've gained patience and faith in nature itself to do what it does best — reproduce, grow and reseed the land.

It also helps that we insisted the power company leave all the wood chips left over from its tree-clearing operation. We may have lost close to 100 trees, but we gained a lot of compost, and it's out of that compost that new trees will grow.

Monday, February 8, 2010

An exotic yet healthy food: seaweed

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 7, 2010)

When I think about seaweed, I think of Cape Cod, where Ralph and I lived for so many years. During our time in New England, we regularly drove out to Nauset Beach to fill the back of our four-wheel-drive truck with eelgrass that had washed up on the shore.

We used the still-moist sea grass to mulch our gardens, and what a wonderful mulch it was! Eelgrass smelled good and felt nice underfoot. As it dried and eventually decomposed, the mineral-rich sea vegetable deposited nutrients such as iron, copper, zinc, boron and manganese into the soil. Those nutrients enriched the sandy soil, enabling us to grow large, healthy plants. Some of the tastiest raspberries, the largest heads of broccoli and the sweetest carrots I've ever eaten grew out of our seaweed-mulched gardens.

Our mulching-with-seaweed days ended when we moved to Central Florida. We lived much too far inland to drive to the beach, load up our pickup with washed-ashore sea vegetables and make the return trip home. Although no longer practical for mulch, seaweed remains a constant in our daily lives. Now, instead of using it to feed our gardens, we use it to feed our bodies.

"What's in the box?" I asked my husband a few days ago when I saw him carrying a large parcel into the house.

"It's the seaweed I ordered," he said excitedly.

The box, shipped from Maine Coast Sea Vegetables in Franklin, Maine, yielded an oceanic bounty. Ralph unpacked several packages of certified organic alaria, kelp, dulse, laver and sea lettuce leaf plus two shakers of salt-free, kelp-based seasonings. Also in his purchase were several bags of Sea Chips — unsalted corn tortilla chips, seasoned with sea vegetables, that my husband adores — and a few sesame-seed snack bars called Kelp Krunch that both of us enjoy having for treats.

"Wow," I said as I looked through the packages. "What are some of these?"

Most of the sea vegetables were familiar foods, but some, like Ulva lactuca (sea lettuce), were seaweeds we had never tried before. Dulse, alaria, kelp and laver have been part of our diet for more than 30 years. I especially like sautéing dulse in our cast-iron frying pan with a generous amount of freshly pressed garlic and a little olive oil. Within minutes, the sautéed leaves turn crisp and crunchy, making them a tasty side dish or a satisfying eat-alone snack.

I've used alaria — also known as wakame — and kelp as additions to soup, stews and stir-fries. When cut with a scissor into bite-sized pieces, the stiff, dried leaves soften quickly as they absorb liquid.

Laver, better known as nori, is probably the sea vegetable most familiar to Americans. Anyone who has enjoyed sushi has probably eaten nori, the black-colored seaweed used to wrap many sushi preparations.

In much the same way that eelgrass adds nutrients to soil, eating sea vegetables adds nutrients to our bodies. Calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, iodine, manganese and chromium are among the 56 minerals and trace elements found in this most basic and natural of foods. Although harvested from the sea, seaweeds have surprisingly low levels of sodium.

"Dulse contains less sodium per serving than one slice of most commercial breads and one-half to one-third the sodium in one cup of cooked beet greens," according to the Maine Coast Sea Vegetables Web site ( Other sea vegetables have similarly low levels.

The lack of salt in seaweed is one of the main things my husband, whose blood pressure runs on the high side, likes about eating this underappreciated vegetable.

"It gives food a salty taste with hardly any sodium," he explains.

My reason for enjoying seaweed is not about its low sodium or high mineral count. I simply like the way it tastes and the different textures and colors it adds to foods. I also enjoy experimenting with and learning about underappreciated foods. Although seldom served in American cuisine, seaweed is hugely popular in Asia, where it has been a dietary staple for thousands of years. Around the world, people use more than 400 different species of seaweed for food, medicines, livestock feed and garden fertilizers.

From my own gardening experience, I learned how vital seaweeds are. Although I've graduated from mulch to munch, I continue to reap the benefits of this fundamental and multifunctional food.

Monday, February 1, 2010

It's natural to appreciate armadillos

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 31, 2010)

I live on land dotted with holes. Gopher tortoises are responsible for many of the dugouts, but armadillos have done their share of dirt moving as well. Yesterday I watched an armadillo emerge from one of the underground burrows, and I followed him as he went about his business of searching for food.

Armadillos are weird little critters. The combination of leathery skin, a pointy snout, tiny eyes, large ears, a long tail and short legs results in a creature that looks more like a walking helmet or a pint-sized armored tank than the harmless bug-eater it is. These gray-colored dirt diggers are among the most recognizable and commonly seen animals in the Sunshine State. Unfortunately, because of the way they search for food, they are also among the most disliked.

Of the 20 species of armadillos worldwide, only one species lives in North America — Dasypus novemcinctus, the nine-banded armadillo. Its name refers to the flexible midsection of the animal's carapace, or shell, which has six to 11 movable bands.

Weighing 8 to 17 pounds and measuring just over 2 feet long from the tip of its sensitive snout to the end of its ratlike tail, the nine-banded armadillo is considerably smaller than its distant relative, Dasypus bellus, which roamed South America between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago. Dasypus bellus was a 600-pound behemoth with a 10-foot-long body that stood about 31/2 feet tall. It looked like a giant version of the present-day armadillo.

Considering how annoyed many homeowners are by today's version of Dasypus, it's probably a good thing the 600-pound hole digger no longer exists. Armadillos are nocturnal animals that find their food by smell. Their diet consists primarily of bugs, supplemented by berries and occasional bits of carrion. Like their anteater and sloth cousins, armadillos have sticky tongues and long, sensitive snouts that can detect the movement of worms, ants and other insects moving underground.

Once they've homed in on their target, these surprisingly spry mammals quickly uproot their prey with their sharp, strong claws, leaving behind a trail of wedge-shaped depressions in the process. Homeowners often get upset when they realize that an armadillo has been digging in their yard. That's too bad because for the price of a few shallow holes, homeowners have gained an invaluable service.

One armadillo can consume 40,000 ants at a time. Armadillos also keep down the termite populations, can devour entire wasp nests and delight in consuming cockroaches, grasshoppers, larvae, spiders, worms and snakes. Their annoying digging aerates lawns. The aftermath of an armadillo foraging expedition can make a mess out of a patch of St. Augustine grass, but once the holes are refilled, the grass will grow better for having been aerated.

The armadillo I observed popped out of his tree-shaded burrow and immediately began looking for food. I watched as he busily wove in and out of one brushy spot after another. Because armadillos have terrible eyesight, I was able to stand extremely close to the preoccupied poker as he chased after underground delicacies. Even though I was always within a couple of feet, I couldn't tell whether the armadillo was male or female.

Female armadillos are unusual in that they always give birth to four same-sex babies — never more and never fewer. Baby armadillos, called pups, are born with open eyes and the ability to walk within just a few hours of birth. Unlike their parents, they don't have a hard shell. Pups have a soft skin that hardens gradually as they mature. As often as I've seen adults, I've never seen armadillo offspring. Perhaps now that I've identified a burrow as an armadillo home, I'll have a chance to observe some young members of this interesting family of bug-eating mammals.

I like sharing the land I live on with a bunch of crazy-looking, hole-digging, armor-covered critters with the ability to produce identical quadruplets. With a population in the 30 million to 50 million range, Dasypus novemcinctus is living proof that you don't have to be pretty to be prolific. A good nose, strong shell, sharp claws and a proclivity for bugs are helpful traits on the evolutionary trail. Sometimes the oddest creatures are among nature's most fascinating. The armadillo is definitely an animal I dig.