Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween makes me happy

Creative homemade decorations are displayed at a house in Minneola
Simply Living
October 31, 2011

I often found myself smiling as I drove through town these past few weeks. The reason for these sudden bursts of levity was tonight's holiday, Halloween.

Instead of just treating it as a one-night celebration, as it was when I was a child, an increasing number of people now extend the fun by decorating their front yards weeks in advance with spooky or simply playful displays. From the yards I've passed, I'd say the most popular decorations are giant spiders, spider webs, fake gravestones and dangling displays of ghosts, goblins and witches. Most of these Halloween symbols are store-bought, but I've come upon quite a few homemade exhibits as well.

People who choose to decorate yards usually opt for a few well-placed pieces to depict the mood they want to convey, but not everyone subscribes to the "less is more" concept. Just as some homeowners go over the top at Christmastime, certain people seem to know no limit when it comes to Halloween.

The resident of a two-story wooden house in the west Orange County town of Oakland is a perfect example. Dozens of life-size, scary-looking creatures fill this house's expansive front and side yards, while ghouls of every sort hang from trees and leer at passersby from the house's second-story balcony.

A home in Oakland goes a bit over the top with Halloween decorations

The yard is so cluttered with every conceivable holiday symbol (think jack-o'-lanterns, skulls and crossbones, spiders, gravestones, scythes) that it would be a challenge to count them all.

"Where do you suppose he stores them all when Halloween is over?" my practical husband wondered as we drove by the house. Not my first thought, but I had wondered that, too, especially since I know the same homeowner decorates his yard just as elaborately for Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving.

The Oakland house is a marvel of holiday mania and attracts plenty of attention, but going all out isn't necessary to make an impression. One of my favorites is a simple Halloween display in a quiet Minneola subdivision.

Three pair of what look like adult-sized human legs protrude from the ground in this postage-stamp-size front yard. The fully dressed appendages are the only things visible. No head, arms or torsos are in sight.

When I first passed this display, my imagination was piqued. My eyes saw legs and feet, but my mind imagined upper bodies buried. Although the feet are immobile, I envisioned them kicking and thrashing about. I bet the person who created it gets a good chuckle whenever drivers like me do a double-take.

That's the thing about Halloween — it's such a playful holiday. Being different is applauded on Halloween, and outrageous behavior is acceptable. It's a holiday of broken rules. On most nights, kids are discouraged from eating sweets and told to keep their distance from strangers, but on Halloween, they're encouraged to knock on the doors of people they don't know and ask for goodies. Adults who might otherwise never talk to one another have a reason to be sociable, generous and friendly. On this one night of the year, neighborliness trumps discord, and fun and frolic win out over reserve.

Tonight on Halloween, I'll be accompanying my 27-month-old grandson and his parents on a short romp through their Winter Garden neighborhood. At his young age, I doubt if Atom can grasp the holiday's significance, but even at the tender age of 2, he's completely on board with the concept of "treats."

"More yummy!" I imagine him saying as he grabs yet another candy bar from a neighbor's hand.

For me, it will be a pleasure to see my grandson dressed up in a silly costume, continuing a practice that has been such a fun part of our family's traditions for years. Everyone can use more reasons to smile, and Halloween is a holiday ready-made for doing just that.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Coyote by the side of the road

The coyote is a close relative to the domesticated dog but relies on its own wits and hunting skills to find food.

Simply Living
October 23, 2011

On my way to town, I saw a dead coyote. A wave of sadness washed over me as I drove by. I wondered if the animal was male or female. If it was a female, did she leave a litter of pups? If the animal I saw had pups, would they be old enough to survive on their own?

Coyotes give birth to an average of six babies, though depending on conditions, a litter can be as small as one or as large as 19. The pups are blind for their first two weeks and don't accompany their mother on hunts until they are 6 to 10 weeks old. After a year, coyotes become sexually mature, and they mate for life. If the coyote I saw had a partner, its mate was suddenly alone.

I realize that many people don't share my empathy for these wild members of the dog family. To them, large predatory animals such as coyotes pose a threat to the safety of humans and their pets, and that perceived danger justifies the animals' eradication. In their minds, the only good coyote (or alligator, bobcat or bear) is a dead one.

I feel differently. My heart goes out to all unfairly maligned critters — spiders and snakes included — struggling to survive in a human-dominated world.

Most wild creatures have it tough. People are constantly modifying animal habitat in the name of progress, often eliminating nesting grounds and natural food sources. Then, when the same animals whose homes and hunting grounds we've destroyed seek out alternative sources of food and shelter to survive, we victimize them for their efforts. We label them "dangerous" without bothering to understand who they are, what they are all about or how we may have contributed to the problem.

The coyote is a close relative of the domesticated dog. However, unlike pampered house pets whose human handlers present them with a daily diet, these 17- to 46-pound wild mammals must rely entirely on their own wits and hunting skills to find food for themselves and their offspring.

Mice, rats, squirrels and rabbits make up most of a coyote's diet, supplemented by fruits, insects, frogs and, at times, carrion. Occasionally coyotes — especially those with compromised hunting grounds — seek food in areas where farm animals or pets live. That's usually when problems arise.

Pet owners get scared if coyotes wander through a neighborhood, and ranchers feel threatened. That fear turns into rage if wild animals capture and eat livestock or attack a free-roaming house cat or small, unleashed dog. However, when a cat captures a songbird (often killing but not eating the bird), the typical pet-owner response is a resigned shrug, as if to say, "Ah, well, that's what cats do."

Pets receive a generous amount of leeway denied to wild animals such as coyotes.

I understand the sadness felt when a beloved pet dies unexpectedly. Years ago, an alligator ate our 13-year-old terrier, but the loss of the family pet to a hungry reptile didn't make me hate alligators. I knew that the 6-foot-long predator was only doing what alligators do: hunting for easy prey. We were aware at the time that an unusually aggressive gator was present in our lake, yet we thoughtlessly let our unleashed dog outside. It was our responsibility as pet owners to have better monitored his whereabouts.

In the wild, a coyote has a life span of 10 to 14 years, but just over 20 percent make it to adulthood. October or November is when most pups are mature enough to forage on their own, but those young, inexperienced animals are especially vulnerable. A car apparently hit the coyote I saw. I'll never know if it was a young adult just starting or a mature animal that left behind a mate and family.

Although the sight of the dead coyote by the roadside saddened me, in general, I'm encouraged by the species' success rate. Rather than decreasing amid the loss of wilderness area, populations have grown. Like their domesticated canine cousins, coyotes are adaptable animals. They have learned to forage for food and find shelter in suburban and even urban settings. Unfortunately, not all have learned to avoid cars.

It's hard enough for people to survive in the complicated world we've created, but it's more difficult for wild animals that must adapt. I passed a coyote the other day that didn't make it, but I'm hoping its family will survive.

For more information about coyotes, check out this Project Coyote, which, according to their website, "creates innovative solutions that foster peaceful coexistence between people and coyotes. We champion progressive management policies that reduce the number of human-coyote conflicts and the number of coyotes destroyed. We believe that, as North America’s native wild "song dog", coyotes are a vital component of our rural and urban communities, deserving respect for their adaptability, resilience, and intelligence."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A park with good taste

Juicy oranges grow next to the fitness course at Aesop's Park in Tavares

Simply Living
October 17, 2011

There are many words to describe a park — scenic, convenient, nicely landscaped — but "tasty" is not usually one of them.

Aesop's Park in downtown Tavares is the exception. The 11.5-acre park at the end of Caroline Street, which will have its grand opening Saturday, meets all of the usual descriptions while striving to satisfy the tastes of the community with an edible landscape.

"We have been planting lots of fruit trees," said Tim Ernst, a landscape specialist for Tavares. "We're hoping people will use the fitness areas and then, after exercising, refresh themselves by picking an orange off the tree."

Park visitors also can sample blueberries, figs, bananas, pears, pineapples and persimmons in season.

I love the concept of a city's inviting the public to enjoy fresh fruit while visiting a park. Although some public venues showcase gardens and fruit trees, it's a rare place that lets visitors try samples for free.

While still in the beginning stages, Aesop's Park already has much to offer. In addition to fruit trees, the park has a community garden with raised-bed plots available to the public for $20 a year, a butterfly garden bursting with blooms, a nature-themed playground and tennis courts. There's also a dog park with a dog-washing station and a fitness course for the exercise-minded.

People who love books will gravitate to the park's "reading tree," where a wooden bench encircles a camphor tree, enabling book lovers to enjoy their favorite reading material while relaxing in the cool shade.

A wooden bench surrounds a broad camphor tree providing shaded reading stations at Aesop’s Park in Tavares.

Anglers of all ages will appreciate the fishing lake, a small pond in the center of the park stocked with 1,000 catfish, courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. People like me, who simply want to meander along scenic paths, have the added benefit of picking ripe fruit to munch on as they wander along.

The recently planted trees are young, and production is modest. But as time goes by, the quantity of fruit will increase. Plans are also in place to add move varieties of edibles and to include information about each variety.

"We're going to have information plaques by the fruit trees to let people know what they are," said Tammey Rogers, director of the Tavares Parks and Recreation Department.

The park has been a labor of love by a staff excited about its effort to transform a limited-use facility into a park that meets the needs of a diverse community.

"There wasn't much to do here before or reason for people to come," said Rogers, "but that has changed as we've cleared more land and expanded the park."

I have no doubt I'll be returning to Aesop's Park throughout the year. Let's see … blueberries ripen in May, orange season begins now and runs through the winter. Hmmm …I can see where this is heading!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Back roads yield sighting of seldom-seen birds

The Florida Scrub-Jay, the state’s only native bird, exists nowhere except in Florida. Sadly, even though it is listed as a threatened species, populations of this unusually friendly bird continue to decrease.

Simply Living
October 10. 2011

I often take alternative routes to town. Rather than stay on the straight four-lane, I turn onto narrow side roads, meandering up and down hills, around curves, over bumpy roads and through landscapes more rural than commercial.

One of my favorite back roads borders an abandoned orange grove slated to be a mega-development before the bottom fell out of the real-estate market. I like that route because it's rich in wildlife and short on traffic. Driving along at a sluggish 35 mph, I'm more likely to pass a gopher tortoise than another car.

While other vehicles are a rarity on this particular stretch, birds are not. Hawks hover overhead and ospreys fly by with fish in their talons. One time in the early evening, I pulled over to watch a large owl on the prowl. But the main reason I take that route is to see scrub-jays.

The Florida scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) is a living treasure. Native to and found only in the Sunshine State, this 12-inch-long, 3-ounce blue-and-gray crestless cousin of the common blue jay is a friendly, intelligent and highly social bird. Mature pairs mate for life, raising their young on a diet composed mainly of acorns, insects, fruit and small vertebrates. Family units often include adult offspring that help raise their younger siblings while doubling as sentries on the lookout for predatory hawks.

As its name implies, the Florida scrub-jay favors scrubby areas. In order to supply its needs, a family group requires about 25 acres in which oak trees less than 8 feet tall cover 50 to 90 percent of the land and underbrush is six inches tall or shorter. When scrub oaks are unavailable, they often set up residence in neglected citrus groves.

Unfortunately, such property also works well for residential and commercial development. Habitat loss has resulted in drastic decreases in Florida scrub-jay numbers. The bird was listed as a threatened species in 1975 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and in 1987 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite those classifications, scrub-jay populations continue to plummet. A 1992-93 statewide survey conducted by the Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid numbered the Florida scrub-jay population at about 10,000 but in May 2011. A follow-up count revealed that fewer than 6,000 birds remain in all of Florida.

Because I know how rare Florida scrub-jays are, I was awed the other day to chance upon not one, but three of these winged beauties sitting atop successive trees. Driving down that route along acres of nonproductive orange trees, I always hope to encounter birds, but I don't always see them. On this particular day, I was unusually lucky.

I wish Florida scrub-jays shared my good fortune.

The birds I saw standing guard on the branches of dead orange trees might be able to protect their families from hawks and owls but have no control over the actions of people. In the wild, the inherently friendly Florida scrub-jay will eat peanuts out of a person's hand. It's sadly ironic that the very beings it trusts present its most serious threat.

Someday, when the real-estate climate improves, developers inevitably will plow down the stubby orange trees, replacing them with paved roads and home sites. If the birds are lucky, they will relocate to another abandoned grove. If they're not lucky, they'll become just another name on the list of extinct species.

Destructive as people can be, we also have the ability to help. Organizations like the Clermont-based Florida Scrub-Jay Trail (; 352-429-5566) educate the public about the scrub-jay's plight while programs like the Nature Conservancy-sponsored Jay Watch (352-732-1225) trains community volunteers to monitor bird populations.

It was a heartening experience to see three scrub-jays the other day, but as I drove on, I couldn't help but wonder what if instead of being rarities such sightings were commonplace? If more people get involved to help the state's only endemic bird, things could turn around and Florida scrub-jay populations might one day rebound.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Fields of flowers

Broad fields of coastal-plain golden-aster bloom in early autumn.

Simply Living
October 3, 2011

Some things are so common, they become unnoticeable.

Blue skies are like that. When I moved to sunny Florida from overcast Cape Cod, I was constantly aware of the continual brightness. Every day I'd awaken to find rays of sunshine streaming through my windows. Although I was initially awed, after about a year of living in the Sunshine State the novelty of one brilliant day after another began to fade. Bit by bit, my mindset adjusted. I stopped being keenly aware of the sky above and began to take daily doses of brightness for granted.

"It's another picture-perfect day!" someone might say. "Oh, yeah," I'd respond matter-of-factly, glancing upward. "So it is."

The same thing can happen with wildflowers.

It took me about a week of driving past large fields of golden-aster before I realized the land I was passing was bursting with blooms.

During early autumn in Central Florida, huge expanses of coastal-plain golden-aster are flowering. The small, daisylike blossoms are about an inch across, with about 20 dandelion-colored petals encircling a slightly darker center. Multiple flowers open atop ungainly 2- to 3-foot-tall woody stalks. While each bloom is a sweet little flower, the entire package — stalk, stem and blossom — is unimpressive and ordinary.

In my rural neighborhood, golden-asters cover acres of undeveloped land. They also appear in small clusters alongside roadways and mailboxes and in just about any other place where land is untended and weeds can grow.

The fact that golden-aster isn't a showy plant might contribute to its anonymity. Unlike larger, brighter or more unusual blooms, this humble flower is easy to miss. What isn't as easy to overlook is the plant's ability to dominate acreage. Once aware of its existence, you will notice these wildflowers everywhere.

There are three reasons that golden-aster has proliferated so successfully. It tolerates a wide range of conditions, it's extremely hardy and it has an effective method of dispersing seeds.

The plant does best in dry, sandy soil — the type found in pinewoods, oak scrub and disturbed areas. It likes sun but proliferates freely in shady habitats as well. Extremely moist locations are a no-no for this no-nonsense perennial. And when it comes to propagation, golden-aster has it down pat, dispersing individual seeds in its puffy, round seed balls through air as well as by contact. This plant rarely succumbs to disease or insect attacks, but it does attract a fair number of butterflies and moths, which find it a suitable source of larvae food.

With so much going for it, you'd think this herbaceous Florida native would be a must on any gardener's wish list. Think again. The plain truth is, despite its attributes, golden-aster isn't as attractive as other plants in the aster family. Demand is low, so few native plant nurseries carry it. Beauty sells. Anything less...not so much.

If, instead of golden-aster, I drove by acres of sunflowers, coneflowers or phlox, I bet it wouldn't have taken me a week to notice them. Then again, like the Florida sky so blue, over time even stunning flowers might have gone unnoticed.

We live in a world filled with splendor. To enjoy it, all we have to do is open our eyes to the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. Golden-aster may be a fairly nondescript wildflower, but when seen from a distance, it fills the land with a golden hue. Blatant beauty may sell, but subtle beauty survives, and if the landscape around my neighborhood is any indication, golden-aster is nothing less than a thriving survivor.