Monday, November 28, 2011

Savor the moment

Watching the babies you once held in your own arms mirror that love to a new generation is one of life’s many pleasures. In picture:  (bottom row, from left) Brett Constantine holding Ella Constantine, Jenny Boas holding Maya Constantine (top row, from left) Amber Boas, Atom Fischler, Scott Fischler  

Simply Living
November 28, 2011

At the end of October, I celebrated my 60th birthday. I've made many discoveries in my lifetime, but perhaps the most relevant is that the older I get, the more precious time becomes. When I was younger, I often wished time away.

"I can't wait until summer," I'd say, or "I wish it were the weekend."

These days, I try not to do that. I've come to realize how precious and limited time is, so I try to savor the moment. Not only do I take time, I consciously make time to treasure everyday pleasures.

It's the little things that make my heart sing. When I wake up and see the morning mist on the lake, I smile. I consider the amber light that precedes dusk a gift. When I smell a flower, pick a bouquet or watch the erratic flight of a dragonfly, I'm enjoying nature, souvenirs of life that are always there if I only make an effort to look at them and see.

Not a day goes by without multiple reasons to be thankful. The very act of waking up is a gift in itself. When I'm feeling bad — if I'm sick or upset, weary or depressed — I try to consider how much worse things could be. I'm thankful for the good times. I'm grateful for a world filled with marvel and wonder, for the love and caring of family and friends.

My husband, children and grandchildren provide endless sources of bliss. Ralph's kindnesses and little gestures — the breakfast he prepares for us each morning, the way he runs his fingers through my hair when we're watching TV, his eagerness to spend time with me, his patience and consideration — make me feel loved and appreciated.

Some people think money and material items are important, but my fortune is in having such a caring partner. My husband and I share that richness by passing it along to future generations.

This past week centered on family. All four of our offspring were here, including my two daughters, who have children of their own. As I watched Amber with her 2-year-old son and Jenny with her 3-month-old twins, I was awed not only by the passage of time but also by the layers of love that exist in a family. Seeing your own children grow up is remarkable in itself, but even more amazing is watching the babies you once held in your own arms mirror that love to a new generation.

Sixty years is the equivalent of 21,900 days, and while 21,900 is a large number, I don't think it could ever be big enough to waste even one of those days on wishes of tomorrow. The present is a gift that's precious and special. Being present — being aware of what's happening in the moment — is perhaps the most valuable gift of all.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Knock-knock...who's there?

An Eastern Phoebe poses on a bamboo cane before attacking its reflection in the window

Simply Living
November 21, 2011

Several years ago, a rufous-sided towhee raged war against the window in my old office. Every day for weeks, the male bird relentlessly attacked the glass with his black, pointy beak.

A couple of years later, a red cardinal engaged in a similar battle. However, unlike the towhee, which focused his testosterone-triggered attention on one particular window, the cardinal made a broader territorial claim. His war involved any surface reflecting his image, including the side-view mirrors on my car.

This year, a new bird has taken up the cause. An Eastern phoebe, a sweet little bird in the flycatcher family, is determined to prove his prowess against the reflection he sees in my current office window.

The Eastern phoebe is a medium-size, brownish-gray bird with white-buff undersides, a black bill, a forked tail and a slightly oversized, darker gray head. One of the phoebe's distinguishing characteristics is the bobbing of its tail feathers up and down, often accompanied by the fluffing of its crown feathers.

Phoebes are wonderful birds to have around homes and gardens because they eat the insects most people find annoying. Ticks, spiders, flies, gnats, mosquitoes, moths, bees and wasps are among the delicacies phoebes enjoy. Bugs are usually caught on the wing, but the phoebe will occasionally pluck an insect off plants or, as I've recently observed, off a window screen.

Distinguishing between the two sexes by physical characteristics alone is difficult with phoebes. Males are slightly larger, and their plumage is somewhat darker, but both of those traits are hard to observe unless the birds are together — and phoebes rarely are. I saw two birds on one occasion, but the rest of the time, I've seen only one. From my observations of that solitary bug-catcher, I've concluded that the bird attacking my window is male — not by the way he looks but by his actions and voice.

Although female phoebes sing, their songs are brief and infrequent. The bird I've observed vocalizes continually. His habit is to perch upon a bamboo pole about three feet away from the window, bob his tail, make some noise, flutter a few inches up into the air, turn around and resettle on the pole, only to repeat the pattern. Intermittently, he attacks the window with his beak, sometimes latching on to the screen with his little claws, spreading his tail feathers and wildly flapping his wings.

The first time that happened, I got scared. I thought the bird was stuck, so I ran outside to help. I needn't have worried. Apparently, the whole body-to-the-window thing was part of his hormonally driven plan to thwart adversaries. As soon as the bird saw me, he easily detached himself from the screen and flew away. I guess the phoebe thought if he waged an all-out, full-body approach, he might succeed at scaring off his reflection. No such luck.

Male birds attack their reflections because of what scientists call "gonadal recrudescence." Testosterone surges during spring mating season and again in autumn. This hormonal flush causes some males to enter defense mode. They deal with any perceived threat to themselves or their mate through posturing, vocalizations and direct body contact.

Such noble but fruitless efforts … such winged flights of fancy.

As much as I love birds, I find the actions of these males baffling. Head-banging against glass seems a step backward on the evolutionary highway.

It's not as if birds are incapable of learning new behaviors. Over time, birds have learned to avoid poisonous or foul-tasting insects. They've learned not to frequent areas that would put them into direct contact with predators. There is even evidence that some birds have learned to avoid newly established and potentially harmful wind turbines. Yet, these flying bits of feather and bone can't overcome the urge to attack their reflection.

The little phoebe at my window is the latest in what will most likely be a stream of avian gladiators, willing to risk their all in defense of their families. Birds may be small — the phoebe weighs less than three quarters — but they are large in determination and devotion to a cause. I just wish their efforts were less painful.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Snakes make me feel safe

A black racer slithers across the lawn

Simply Living
November 14, 2011

I was about to enter the porch from outside when a long, black snake slithered by.

"The black racer's back!" I shouted to Ralph as I stepped back to let it pass. "It's heading toward that hole underneath the addition."

Ralph and I share our yard with a number of non-venomous snakes, and the black racer is one of our regulars. We have what I like to think of as a symbiotic relationship. In exchange for a yard filled with snake-friendly hiding places, these slithering cords of bone and scale keep the rodent population in check. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Although many people would shudder at the thought of coexisting with snakes, I find it comforting. Snakes make me feel safe because, although I seldom see them, I know they are out there patrolling the ground around my house. I don't love mice, but snakes do. They love them to death — a good thing because the fewer mice there are to sneak into my house, the happier I am.

My affection for snakes is not new. I've felt this way since childhood, which is somewhat surprising since I grew up with a parent who abhorred snakes. My mother was so frightened by long, squirmy creatures that even an earthworm could trigger a trembling frenzy. Looking back, I can see how my mother's irrational fears might have prompted my own positive attitude. I like snakes in part because I know how misunderstood and underappreciated they can be.

Of the 50 snake species in Florida, only half a dozen are venomous, and two of the six (Southern copperhead and timber rattlesnake) are not even found in the central part of the state. Every year, venomous snakes bite about 8,000 people in the United States, but an average of only six people die from those bites. Nine times as many fatalities occur annually because of wasp, hornet or bee bites. The number of snake-related deaths is far too small to warrant such widespread paranoia.

Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how few dangerous snakes there are or how rarely snakebites result in death. Snakes remain one of the most maligned animals on the planet. All members of this beneficial species receive universal hatred and fear.

It's odd that creatures that do so much good are the subject of such loathing. Without snakes, mice and rat populations would get out of control, causing disease-carrying rodents to run rampant in yards, barnyards and houses. Fortunately, snakes don't let that happen. Unbeknownst to most humans, snakes go about their business of silently stalking and devouring prey. No dangerous poisons are necessary when snakes are on the job. No-pest control companies are involved or dollars exchanged. Snakes work for food and, luckily for us, the foods they prefer are the animals and insects we least want around our houses.

When I chanced upon a black racer as I was about to enter the porch, my reaction wasn't fright but delight. I hadn't seen the snake in a while, but the black racer was there all along. It was just doing what snakes do — furtively stalking sources of food and absorbing heat from the sun.

In a perfect world, people wouldn't react with irrational fear to animals that do more good than harm. They wouldn't go crazy at the sight of snakes. The vast majority of snakes in Florida present no threat to humans, yet people kill them indiscriminately. My yard is far from ideal, but when it comes to snakes, it is a perfect haven.

"I'm going to run inside to get the camera," I called to Ralph after I saw the snake. But by the time I returned, the black racer had disappeared into the hole. Fortunately for me (and for the snake!), there will be a next time.

Monday, November 7, 2011

An anhinga discovers Bare Lake

An anhinga spreads its wings wide to dry in the breeze

Simply Living
November 7, 2011

An anhinga has taken a liking to our lake. It arrives in the morning and spends the day either in the water fishing or perched nearby drying its wings.

Anhingas differ from most water birds in that they don't have oil glands to waterproof their feathers. Unlike ducks that can dive under water and return to the surface, the anhinga must air-dry its feathers after each submersion. The bird in our lake re-fluffs its feathers in various locations. Sometimes it sits atop the mid-lake platform, while other times it stands on a partly submerged log, on the uppermost canes of bamboo or even on the arms of a plastic chair on our beach.

"Come see this bird by the beach!" my husband called from the porch.

"It's an anhinga," I said when I joined him outside. "Or a cormorant — I'm not sure which."

Because the two birds look very much alike and have overlapping habitats, they are often mistaken for each other. Both are large, dark-colored water birds without oil glands that swim through the water with only their heads exposed and spend extended periods perched along waterways air-drying their broad, outstretched wings.

Although there are several noticeable differences between the two fish-eating predators, the easiest way to determine which bird is which is to focus on the neck and bill. If you are looking at a slender, long-necked bird with a straight, pointy beak, it's probably an anhinga. However, if the bird you see has a shorter neck with a curved, hooklike bill, it is most likely a cormorant. Cormorants also have a distinctive orange throat pouch as well as a stockier body and shorter tail feathers than anhingas.

Despite those differences, I still get confused. I've found the easiest way to distinguish between the two is to think of the anhinga's nickname, snakebird. Since the anhinga's neck is so long, it is sometimes mistaken for a snake.

Anhingas and cormorants share similar diets, but their methods of catching food differ. The cormorant uses its hook-shaped, serrated-edge beak to grasp slippery prey, while the anhinga impales its catch on its long, pointy bill. Once prey is caught, the cormorant will eat under water while the anhinga tends to devour its meal on land by tossing it into the air and swallowing it whole. Occasionally a fish will be so severely speared that the anhinga will have to ease it off its beak by rubbing against a hard object.

I haven't watched the anhinga in our lake devour any fish, but I have seen it dive off its perch in search of food. The main time I notice this 3-foot-tall water bird is when its 48-inch long wings are open to catch the breeze.

"It really seems to like that plastic chair," my husband said as we stood outside watching the bird watch us while it air-dried its wings.

"I thought it would mind us being so close but it doesn't seem scared," I said as we eased closer to get a better look.

The bird didn't have much choice but to wait patiently for us to go away. An anhinga with wet wings has difficulty flying. It can do little more than skip along the water's surface while madly flapping its wings.

"I'm glad it's here," I said, when we returned to the house. "I like looking out and seeing it on the perch. It's a weird- looking bird, especially with its wings outstretched, but also exotic."

Herons, ibises, wood storks, egrets, rails, grebes, ospreys, hawks, various ducks and the occasional eagle have all made their appearance on our lake at one time or another. Some are regulars while others come and go with the seasons. Whether the anhinga is an occasional visitor or takes up residency matters little. Every bird is a welcome addition.

I recently received an email from an Everglades National Park volunteer with some relevant information about anhingas.  Here's his email in full:

I recently read one of your 2011 articles on Anhingas, and felt an
irresistible urge to correct an error of fact. Anhingas do have
uropygial or preening oil glands. Their wing and tail feathers are
fully waterproofed contrary to Audubon and most other sources, even
reputable ones. Please see photos (1st one not mine) showing gland and
preening. Another way to prove this is to take a feather, dip it it
water, remove, perform a couple of Flitwickian swishes and slicks, and
you will be hard put to to wring even a small droplet of water.

I have had to suffer an education about blindly accepting "facts" from
authoritative sources on nature. As an Everglades National Park
volunteer whose job includes interpreting wildlife for visitors, I now
check everything with judicious observation and with experienced
colleagues. I preface what I say with "I have read that..." or "we
think that...." Only when I have verified something by observation and
concentrated research can I claim something is true. And even then, I
suspect that half of what I say is wrong.

Meant in a friendly way....

Chris Reiss