Monday, May 30, 2011

Unidentified wildlife sighting...what was it?

Was it a weasel?
A mink?
or, a more likely possibility, a fox squirrel

Simply Living
May 30, 2011

I saw a weasel or a mink.  At least, I think I did.  I was driving down a bumpy dirt road leading a prospective tenant to one of our more secluded rental homes when a medium sized animal dashed across the road. 

My first thought was, “That’s a big squirrel.” 

But something felt off. 

The animal seemed too large for a squirrel and its coloring was wrong.  Predominantly brown with a decidedly darker tail, it didn’t look like any squirrel I’d ever seen.  As my car crept closer, the fur-covered critter stopped running and posed on its hind legs. 

“Hmmm…,” I thought as I slowed the car, “I wonder what it is…” 

Well aware that it was being watching, the mysterious mammal sniffed the air and looked around before deciding to head for the trees.  That was when I knew for sure it was not a squirrel.  When squirrels run, they scamper.  Their bodies lack an undulating gait.  The animal I saw was sleek and smooth.  It moved like an otter.  As it vanished into the pinewoods, it looked like a large inchworm on speed.

My encounter was over in seconds but I had sufficient time to make certain assumptions.  Although it had an otter-like gait, it was not an otter.  This creature had the same long, lean body type but it was furrier and smaller than a river otter. 

“Is it a mink,” I wondered, “or a weasel?”  I have never seen either in Florida but that doesn’t mean they are not here. 

I continued on my drive and showed the rental house to the prospective tenants but my mind was on the sighting.  When I returned home afterwards, I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my husband.

“I think I saw a weasel,” I told Ralph excitedly, “in the pinewoods outside our gate, although it could have been a mink.”

“There aren’t mink in Florida,” my sweet husband replied laughingly.  “Are you sure it wasn’t an otter?”

I hate being alone when I spot wildlife.  It vastly decreases the believability factor.

“I was definitely not an otter and I don’t think you’re right about minks,” I said as I walked into my office and turned on the computer. 

Ralph disappeared into his own office and while he plowed through stacks of paperwork, I perused Florida wildlife sites.

It turns out that mink and weasels do indeed live in Florida but sightings of these elusive animals are rare.  The Southern Mink, Mustela vison evergladenis, is a threatened species that lives mainly in three south Florida counties.  Although Lake County is a long way from the southern mink’s home turf, its description in The Field Guide to Rare Animals of Florida – especially the part about the fur coloration - sounded spot on: 

Medium sized (17 - 25 in) member of the weasel family, with the characteristic long, slender body, short legs, long tail, small head, and rounded ears.  South Florida individuals are smaller than other subspecies.  Fur is dark brown over most of the body and blackish brown on the distal half of the tail.  Occasional specimens have a white patch on the chin or the chest.

Weasels are in the Mustelidae family, which also includes mink, otters, skunks and ermine.  Like the southern mink, three species - the Florida weasel, long-tailed weasel and southeastern weasel - also reside in the Sunshine State.  While weasels are not officially threatened, calculating statistics on their population has been difficult since they are so seldom seen.

Of the three types of weasels in Florida, all but the southeastern weasel live in Central Florida.  Weasels are smaller than their mink cousins.  These smallest of Florida carnivores have long, slender bodies, short legs and long tails, tipped in black.  I was happy to discover that they are often compared in size to gray squirrels.

Although I have no idea if I’ll ever see this furry fellow again, I’m sure of one thing – I will be looking for it whenever I’m outside.  Several years ago, I saw a deer in a nearby wood.  I haven’t seen another deer since, but that hasn’t stopped me from scanning the forest with hopeful eyes.  The same is true for wild boars, fox, coyotes and bobcats.  I’ve observed them all on occasion but those occasions are rare enough to keep me always on the lookout.

There’s no question - spotting wildlife is exciting.  Even fleeting encounters like the one with the potential weasel/mink make my day and fill me with awe.  They also make me wonder:  how many other animals am I missing?  So much goes on in nature without our knowing it.  Even now, as I ponder these thoughts, animals are on the prowl.  It’s a humbling realization.

Postscript:  Sharon, who read the print version of my column in the Orlando Sentinel, said I might have seen a Sherman's fox squirrel.  After researching this "species of special concern" I think she may be right.  Perhaps my sighting wasn't of a weasel or an Everglade mink after all.  

The Sherman fox squirrel is the largest squirrel in the western hemisphere - about twice as big as the common gray squirrel.  Its fur colors varies greatly so it is possible that the black tail I noticed along with the lighter colored body could have belonged to the fox squirrel.  Another telling fact:  fox squirrels are often found in pine forests - the very place where I saw my mystery animal - where they feed on seeds inside pine cones. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Lubbers under attack

In the nymph stage, lubber grasshoppers have soft black skin with yellow and red stripes

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 23, 2011)

Every evening, my husband goes hunting. He doesn't carry a gun or a quiver of arrows. His weapon is a one-gallon bucket filled with soapy water. The prey he single-mindedly stalks is grasshoppers — specifically, the infamous lubber grasshopper. Over the past few weeks, my gentle, sweet husband has caused the demise of several hundred of these plant-eating monsters.

Landlubbers must really like our property because each spring, baby lubbers emerge to parade across the ground. Throughout Florida, Georgia and other Southern states, nymphs barely a half-inch long hatch out of eggs laid by adult females who cleverly deposited their eggs close to sources of leafy vegetation at the end of the previous summer.

Because each fertile female can produce more than 100 eggs, it's not surprising that springtime heralds a population explosion. With no predators except loggerhead shrikes (and gardeners like my husband), the land is littered with these hungry nibblers.

Unfortunately, lubbers don't stay little for long. Young grasshoppers go through five stages of development, called instars. By the middle of summer, they have expanded to four inches, thanks to a voracious appetite for tender greens. Although lubbers will eat most vegetation, they are especially fond of rain lilies, amaryllis and other bulb plants. Their exoskeleton, which is initially soft, black and striped with bands of yellow and red, turns hard at maturity. As they mature, their color also changes from black to a dull yellow with spots of red and black.

Most grasshoppers can fly, but lubbers cannot. Their wings are not large enough to support the weight of these fast-growing invertebrates. However, being unable to fly isn't a handicap. They are adept at hopping and crawling, and their bright color warns potential predators to stay away. When that's not a sufficient deterrent, they also have the ability to hiss, spit and spray foul-smelling foam. The entire package yields one formidable, forbidding insect.

Despite its put-offish appearance and unpleasant defenses, I don't think my husband would have taken on lubbers had they stuck to ornamentals. They didn't. Their fatal mistake was to target Ralph's broccoli plants.

At this point, I should mention that broccoli is my husband's nirvana. If he had to choose one vegetable to eat, it would be no contest. Broccoli would be the hands-down winner.

This year, with more time to garden than he has had in a long while, his broccoli plants were a wonder to behold. Apparently, the lubbers thought so too. Every evening, several dozen settled on the uppermost leaves of the broccoli plants to nibble their way to sleep.

Seeing so many of the destructive insects in such a docile and vulnerable state was more than my husband could tolerate. It triggered his attack mode.

"They're so easy to catch," he said as he walked up and down the row brushing handfuls of bugs into the suds. "You should try it."

I declined his invitation but tagged along to watch the show. I was already familiar with lubber hunting.

Before my husband's broccoli-incited warfare, I had spent years waging my own battle with these plant-eating bugs. Their ability to chew their way through some of my favorite flowers had activated my own inner hunter. I have not only drowned the dastardly critters in soapy water but have snipped them in half with a scissor, stomped on their massive bodies with a heavy-soled shoe and even, in desperation, squished them between gloved fingers.

According to my husband, my methods are too gross. Instead, he takes a nightly walk through the garden rows, handpicking lubbers off the leaves of his precious plants. His diligence has paid off, as I see the lubber population waning. The question is: Will his efforts minimize next year's population?

Meanwhile, whatever grasshoppers have eluded Ralph's skillful hunts are growing larger, bolder and more unapproachable by the day. They have yet to molt into their final and most intimidating instar — the yellow-shelled stage, when they look like miniature lobsters and behave with bravado more akin to a bear than a bug. When that happens, I'll be curious to see how my husband responds. Will his nightly vigil continue, or will the lubber's bluster deter his efforts?

My husband's a brave man with a strong desire to defend his broccoli, but I fear he may have met his match in the mature lubber.

"When they get bigger, I'll just put on gloves," he insists. "Big, thick rubber gloves."

Rubber, meet lubber. Let the battle begin!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Too many books

After sorting, books are neatly stacked on shelves

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 16, 2011)

Books. I love them, but I have too many. The bookshelves in my house hold a lifetime collection of hardback and soft-cover selections. Practically every room of our house contains one or more bookshelf. The printed words of famous and lesser-known authors even fill the attic, where stacks of too-special-to-give-away-but-not-special-enough-to-display tomes are quietly stowed.

I love books, but clearly, my passion was out of control. My husband and I had accumulated printed matter to the point where — at least for me — it provided more pressure than pleasure. I hated seeing silverfish eat their way through pages, and my nose didn't like the layer of dust that settled on the bindings. "Musty" and "messy" defined the shelves. In some rooms, books overflowed onto the floor. The time was ripe for a reassessment of our bibliophile predilection.

Last weekend, I took it upon myself to tackle the problem. Difficult as I find it to dispose of the books, I made myself sort through our horde of written words.

Books differ from other material items. I can toss away old clothes and knickknacks without much trouble, but when it comes to an author's typeset words, I hesitate. Do I really want to give it away? Will I miss it if it's gone? Will the children want it? Or the grandchildren?

When Ralph and I started our family, my in-laws gave us a box full of children's books. "Ferdinand the Bull," "Harold and the Purple Crayon" and "The Possum That Couldn't" were among the many wonderful picture and story books my kind in-laws had thoughtfully saved. My father-in-law carefully re-bound frayed covers and taped over rips before passing the books to the newest generation. I tried to follow their example and, for the most part, succeeded. When I was sorting through the bookshelves the other day, I didn't toss away those treasured tomes. I placed them in a glass-covered bookcase for my own grandchildren's use.

Other books weren't as lucky. I filled about 10 boxes with old almanacs, novels, essays, collections of stories, reference works and schoolbooks. As difficult as it was to decide which would stay and which ones would go, the times we live in made my work easier.

We purchased most of the books in pre-computer days. Back then, if you wanted information you had two choices: Go to the library or buy a book. Ralph and I did both. But why hold on to books if the information they contain can be easily found elsewhere? These days, if I want to look something up, I turn to the Internet instead of paper pages. I still frequent public libraries, but my need for a vast in-house library has considerably waned.

The fact that I have whittled down our collection by getting rid of few hundred books doesn't mean my house has become a literary-free zone. It never will. Even though we have entered the e-book era, I still love the feel of a real book in my hands. I love the excitement of turning pages and staying awake into the wee hours to finish a novel too captivating to put down. One of life's simple pleasures is being surrounded by special books whose words either resonate with meaning or trigger precious memories.

As difficult as it was to start this project, the finished product was worth the effort. I found getting rid of stuff to be extremely satisfying. My house looks better, and that makes me feel better. I love books, but I've found it important at certain stages of life to learn to let go. Letting go is a sensible release, and de-cluttering is an exercise in delight.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Two owls strive for second chance at parenting

Mama screech owl with eggs in her recycled mailbox nest

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 9, 2011)

Screech owls are a hoot. I know this because I've been following one pair's antics for the past two months.

For the fourth consecutive year, a nesting couple of Eastern screech owls has returned to a recycled mailbox mounted under the porch eaves. If their chosen location were any closer to our house, it would be inside.

This is the second mailbox the diminutive owls have occupied. The first mailbox is also under the porch eaves but mounted lower, in a more exposed location. The female laid four eggs in that box, but three of the eggs fell out, at which point she abandoned the fourth.

It might be helpful to interject a few words about screech owl nest-building skills: They don't have any.

A screech owl nest is hardly a nest at all. The basic process is this: Find a hollow space. Claim it. Lay eggs. No laborious construction effort is required, and no soft, downy material is gathered. Although comfort isn't paramount, efficiency is. Screech owls make fast work out of finding a site so that they can get down to the important business of raising a family.

Hardwood trees are the most common nest location for screech owl nests. Cavities abandoned by flickers or pileated woodpeckers are particularly popular. I'm sure there are oaks in our woods containing screech owl nests, but I haven't sought them out because … well, I'm spoiled. The pair that has adopted our recycled mailbox has made bird watching so easy.

I can sit in my porch practically underneath the nesting female and listen to her shift about in her metal home. The female owl is a fidgety creature. I guess that's understandable when you spend all day and night inside a large tin can filled with nothing more than your accumulated eggs and whatever tidbits of food your devoted mate has deposited on your doorstep. Flying insects, moles, mice, lizards and spiders are among the edibles screech owls consume.

When the female fidgets, she makes the eggs roll, reminding me of balls in a bowling alley. Without a lip to hold them in, it's no wonder she lost three eggs from the first mailbox.

Eastern screech owls lay one egg every other day until a clutch of two to eight eggs (the average is four) is produced. Incubation lasts 28 days, counted from the time of the first egg. While screech owls mate for life, their partnership includes definite male/female roles. For instance, the male plays no part in the actual incubation. His job — and it's a job at which he excels — is to be a loyal protector and provider of food.

Every day, while his partner sits in her metal hothouse, Mr. Owl positions himself in one of three nearby perches, on a branch of a bottlebrush tree, in a clump of bamboo or next to the porch door. It is his job to sit there, less than 20 feet away from his family, to watch over and protect them.

A screech owl's small size — less than 10 inches tall and weighing under 8 ounces — makes it vulnerable. Predators include larger owls, raccoons, weasels, snakes and even blue jays. By spending his daylight hours so close to his mate with a clear view of her nest, the male owl is ready to thwart potential attacks. I have yet to see him defend his nest, but every day I watch him watch his surroundings.

The male's job description changes at night. Dusk signals the end of guard duty and the start of provider mode. A few days ago, I sat outside just before dark to see if I could watch the male owl leave his perch to catch food for his mate. I parked myself in a chair less than three feet from his perch and commenced waiting.

He saw me. I saw him. He didn't seem the least bit threatened or disturbed by my presence.

At one point, he stepped a few inches closer to the edge of his perch, a signal that flight time was imminent. I put my book down and focused all of my attention on the male screech owl. I consider myself an astute observer. Nonetheless, I missed his takeoff. An owl's flight is so fast and silent, even a mindful watcher can be caught unaware.

Being privy to the screech owls' steadfast devotion and unwavering patience reminds me of a nursery rhyme I learned long ago:

The wise old owl
Sat in an oak.
The more he saw,
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke,
The more he heard.
Why can't we be like
That wise old bird?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Making memories one berry at a time

Third generation picker, Atom Fischler, feeds a ripe blueberry to his grandpa

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 2, 2011)

Picking fruit is one of our family's favorite pastimes. Our fruit-picking fervor is obvious by the stains on our fingers and the smiles on our faces.

We're as passionate about the start of each fruit's season as most Americans are about the onset of their favorite sports. Hang a bucket from our necks and point us in the direction of some early Sharp blueberries or white-flesh peaches and we're as excited as ticket-holders on the way to the stadium.

In Central Florida, late April through May is blueberry season. This year, that most-anticipated period coincided with a visit from our daughter and son-in-law. Jenny and Brett are (for the moment) our only children who don't live in Florida. They live in Massachusetts, where forsythias and daffodils are blooming but blueberry season is still several months away.

Two days after I picked them up at the airport, we woke up early, packed the van with our assorted gear and headed over to Mark's Blueberries in Minneola. We've lived in Groveland for 20 years and, if memory serves, we've been gathering fruit at Mark's blueberry fields for that entire time.

Picking berries has always been a whole-family event. As soon as they were old enough to walk on their own, our children learned to follow rudimentary u-pick rules:

•Pick only ripe fruit.
•Don't break plants in the process.
•It's OK to eat a little as long as you pick mostly for the bucket.
•Don't dump a bucket over, especially when it's full.

Diaper-clad toddlers, like my grandson, are just beginning to understand these lessons. At 22 months old, Atom is in the "green berries are yucky" stage of learning. He listens attentively to directions like "just pick the blue ones," then proceeds to pluck whatever berry he can grab. He has the concept down, but it needs fine-tuning.

My children were equally oblivious when they were little, but repeated exposure to foraged food sped up the learning. When they were little, we went road-trip-crazy, picking our way cross-country and back and forth between Cape Cod and Florida.

Whenever we traveled, we sought out local u-pick farms. During those trips, we picked all kinds of edible delicacies, including apricots, figs, peaches, apples, cherries, assorted berries and tropical fruits. One farm worthy of repeat visits was Westmoreland Berry Farm in Colonial Beach, Va. It's a long, tedious drive from Florida to New England, and it helped to stop along the Rappahannock River in the northern neck of Virginia to gather quantities of red raspberries, plump blueberries and sweet peaches.

Memories of those long-ago times drifted back to me with Jenny and Brett visiting. Returning to Mark's with our children and grandchild reminded me of the days when our own kids were little and we spent so much time outdoors enjoying one another's company while picking fruit.

On Saturday, Amber and Atom joined us at the blueberry field. Together we trolled the rows in search of the largest, sweetest, most flavorful fruit. When Atom tired, we took turns holding and talking to him.

As usual, Amber was her industrious self, picking only the cleanest, sweetest fruit. Jenny was less fussy, as was I. To me, it's all about filling my bucket. I care less about variety and size than I do about quantity. Fill it up, take it home, start eating — that's my philosophy.

My husband is a grazer. He likes to mosey along in search of that elusive bush no one else has found. For him, each blueberry-picking excursion is a quest for that perfect find: a bush heavy with clusters of tasty, ripe berries. Despite our diverse picking styles, we managed to score enough fruit on Saturday to last until Wednesday, when Mark would reopen and Jenny and Brett had to leave.

The plan for Wednesday was to pick berries before heading to the airport. Amber, Atom and Jenny's brother Tim joined us at the field, and together we gathered more than 20 pounds in less than 45 minutes. When we returned to the house, Brett added three boxes of blueberries to his already bulging bag, and before long, another batch of fresh-from-Florida fruit was en route to New England.

I was sad to say goodbye to my daughter and son-in-law but I was glad to send them off with a taste of home. The flavor of love makes everything sweeter. With Mother's Day around the corner, it pleases me to know one of our most basic family traditions is being carried on by the next generation. A family that picks together sticks together, and in Florida, during May, that means blueberries.