Monday, May 28, 2012

Are there alligators in that lake?

In Florida, where there's water, there are gators

Simply Living
May 28, 2012

Alligators are scary.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates the state's population of the large-jawed reptiles to be 1.3 million. The fact that alligators occupy just about any soggy scrap of marshland, pond or river doesn't help their reputation as objects of fear. Ask any newcomer to the Sunshine State what they worry about most and, along with concerns over bugs and hurricanes, their answer will undoubtedly include alligator attacks.

I've always felt differently.

While acknowledging the power and predatory nature of these sharp-toothed animals, I've made it a point to educate myself about their habits, diet and — most importantly — the real (as opposed to perceived) threat alligators present to their human neighbors.

Because like it or not, we're neighbors.

People who choose to reside in a semi-tropical climate aren't just opting to enjoy warm-weather activities and sweet-smelling flowers. They are also choosing to live alongside the area's wildlife including scary-looking ones like gators.

Because I live next to a lake in which I take frequent dips, learning about alligators is especially relevant to me. But residing near water isn't a prerequisite to becoming educated about reptiles. Learning and living go hand-in-hand. The more you know about your surroundings and its inhabitants, the better able you are to enjoy and respect them.

Although Florida is home to many gators, only 22 people died from alligator attack between 1948 and 2010. During the same period, 333 people received unprovoked bites and another 184 people were bitten because they did something to taunt or provoke an attack.

These statistics gain even greater significance when you consider that more than 19 million people live in Florida year round and another 75 million visit the state annually. With such a large number of people and alligators sharing the same turf (and water), you'd expect the number of encounters to be much larger.

The fact is that the vast majority of alligators stay away from people.

Unless people feed them (which it is illegal as well as dangerous and foolish), alligators tend to retreat from humans instead of aggressively moving toward them. That has certainly been our experience over years of watching alligators in our own lake. During the past two decades, we've seen dozens of gators but we seldom have had cause to worry. On the rare occasions when a rogue reptile defies the norm by coming toward us when we're in the water, we report the animal to the Fish and Wildlife nuisance alligator hotline. After taking information by phone, the agency sends a trapper to capture and remove the potentially dangerous animal.

That's exactly what happened this month.

Ralph and I had been keeping our eyes on a relatively young gator that had been hanging around our swimming beach. Although the reptile was too little to pose a threat to an adult, our 2-year-old grandson seemed about the right size for a gator snack — not something any parent or grandparent wants to imagine. 
When our attempts to chase away the gator failed to frighten it, we turned to the Fish and Wildlife hotline.

Even small gators that act aggressively can pose a threat to little children
"A trapper will contact you within 24 hours," we were told and, sure enough, one did.

Jimmy Douglas Jr,. an alligator control agent out of Sumterville, arrived the next day to set a baited hook for the offending animal.

"Check the line first thing in the morning," he instructed us, "and call me if the bait is gone."

The bait — a smelly piece of meat suspended over the water from a large hook — did the trick.

"The bait's gone," we dutifully reported the next morning.

Unfortunately, the captured animal was too small to be the one we had been observing.

"This one's too little," we told Douglas when he came to take it away.

When we asked what he would do with the 3 1/2 -foot long critter, Douglas told us he'd let it go in a canal near his property.

"Florida law requires any alligator under 4 feet to be released," he said.

We were glad that it wouldn't be killed and that its release would be far away. Douglas set a second baited hook as we watched with mounting curiosity. Just how many gators lived in our lake, we wondered.

As it turns out, the answer is at least two.

By the following morning, a second gator — a 5-footer — had swallowed the bait. When Douglas came to remove it, the animal looked like the one that had acted aggressively.

Licensed trapper Jimmy Douglas removes a rogue alligator

Learning about the things that frighten us is one of the best ways to overcome fears. Alligators might be scary-looking animals, but they rarely pose a serious threat to people. When they do, it's good to know there's a government agency ready to step in and fix the problem. If a gator seems threatening to you, don't hesitate to call 1-866-FWC-GATOR. If the gator is deemed to be a threat to the public, a licensed trapper will be sent to remove it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A surprising bobcat encounter

A bobcat pauses in its pursuit of dinner to observe two humans

Simply Living
May 21, 2012

I never know what I’ll encounter when I take a walk around the lake but I know enough to bring a camera along in case I happen to be in the right place at the right time to catch sight of something spectacular. 

It’s a good thing I do because something spectacular happened the other day.

Ralph and I were chatting away as we walked along a well-worn path. Suddenly in front of us a rabbit dashed across the path into a dense hedge of bamboo. Rabbits are plentiful on our property so seeing one was no surprise, but the sighting triggered a thought I've had many times before.

"I wonder if one of these days I'm going to see a coyote or a bobcat chasing a rabbit."

No sooner did that thought enter my mind than a bobcat popped out of the scrub. Ralph and I saw it and immediately froze.

"My gosh!" I exclaimed while fumbling inside my fanny pack to extract my camera. "It's so close!"

The bobcat, immediately aware of our presence, paused in its pursuit of dinner to evaluate the situation.

We knew it was trying to determine its safety and to appear unthreatening we needed to keep our movements to a minimum. However, I desperately wanted to capture the moment on film. Doing so required two things: 1) Getting my camera out of the bag into which I had foolishly stowed it and 2) Unhooking the bifocals from my shirt collar and putting them on my eyes so I could see what I was doing.

My nearsighted husband has worn glasses since childhood but my farsightedness is a result of aging. Although I've had progressive lenses for almost two decades, I don't like wearing them. I take my eyeglasses off whenever I have the chance, including the other day as we took our evening stroll.

While my mind considered the situation's logistics, the bobcat must have been doing some mental calculating of his own because he sat down in the middle of the path and proceeded to give us a good long stare.

By then — much to my relief — I retrieved my camera. My glasses, however, proved too tricky to unhook so I left them in place, squinted into the viewfinder and let my fingers feel their way to the shutter.

I have no idea what the bobcat was thinking as it silently watched the two silly humans who had interrupted its hunt, but it graciously stayed put long enough to allow me to snap several shots. Then, as quickly and silently as it had appeared, the tawny predator dashed into the bamboo hedge and disappeared. Ralph and I tried to follow, but even though we were only seconds behind, we were unable to see any sign of the wildcat at all.

"That was incredible," I said as we re-entered the path brushing twigs and spiders from our hair. "I can't believe we saw a bobcat and that it actually sat down and watched us watch him. I hope my pictures come out."

As it turns out, most of them did.

In addition to photographs, the experience also yielded the following useful lessons:

1) When taking a camera expressly to capture images of surprise encounters with wildlife, do not bury said camera in the bottom of an overly stuffed fanny pack.

2) If the intention is to take pictures, it's a good idea to actually wear the lenses designed specifically to improve eyesight even if doing so is a reminder that aging eyes can no longer see clearly.

3) Bobcats are much more adept than humans at navigating dense underbrush and bamboo thickets.

I may not be adept at following bobcats through thickets of bamboo, but I'm a skilled practitioner at following my heart when it comes to observing wildlife in my surroundings. On our property, nature encounters seem to happen with a predictable irregularity. If I expect the unexpected and prepare accordingly, there's a good chance memorable experiences will follow.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A berry good time

Octogenarian "Danny" Daniels prepares to weigh the blueberries Ralph and Timmy picked at Lake Catherine Blueberries in Groveland

Simply Living
May 14, 2012

Call me a blueberry magician.  Place a bowl of the marble-sized fruit before me and I make them disappear.

In Central Florida, May is prime picking season and I practice my magic skills daily by devouring one handful after another of luscious ripe berries.

My appetite for eating quantities of blueberries is nothing new.  Some people go crazy over bakery items, burgers or beer.  My passion is whatever produce is in season.  It doesn't matter if it grows on a vine, tree or bush. When it's ready to pick, I'll grab my bucket and be right there.

This year I didn't have to go far.

In 2010, a u-pick blueberry farm opened four miles from our house. Lake Catherine Blueberries is located on State Road 19 just north of State Road 50 in Groveland. During their first two seasons, the bushes were small but this year the plants matured. Not only were they taller and fuller than in previous seasons, as the weather warmed, clusters of tasty morsels covered the head-high bushes. The 5-acre u-pick field yielded enough blueberries to fill a one-gallon container in about 30 minutes.

Ralph and I took advantage of the prolific plants by filling our buckets several times a week during the relatively short season. This year, the mild winter and warm spring caused Florida blueberries to ripen early. Picking for the commercial market began during the last week of March while the u-pick field season at Lake Catherine, which only grows two varieties of blueberries (Emerald and Jewel), started mid-April and ended last week.

Blueberry farms with late-season berries have longer u-pick seasons and now that the u-pick season is over at Lake Catherine, we'll be turning our attention to them. One of our favorite spots has always been Mark's Blueberries in Clermont. With 20 different varieties of fruit, Mark's provides u-pick opportunities at two separate u-pick fields three days a week through mid-July.

I've always appreciated people who open their farming operation to the public and while Mark's has been welcoming customers for more than two decades, Lake Catherine Blueberries, run by the Lowe family, is one of several new u-pick blueberry farms in the area. The Lowes may be new to blueberries but they're not new to agriculture. Their family has a long history of growing citrus in Lake County.

"Our children will be the fifth generation to farm the land," said Jamie Godfrey Lowe, who lives on the premises with her husband, Dustin Lowe, and their two children, 6-year-old DJ and 2-year-old Ava Grace.

Dustin Lowe's parents, Clinton and Ann Lowe, live next door and are actively involved in the business as is Jamie Lowe's grandfather, "Danny" Daniels, who often acts as greeter, handing out buckets and explaining u-pick how-to's to new customers.

"Eat as many as you want," Daniels tells a first time visitor. "Don't worry. We won't weigh you when you come back, just the berries."

It's a good thing customers aren't required to stand on a scale before and after spending time in the field because part of the fun of going to a u-pick operation is sampling the fare. Some farms, like Mark's, charge a "grazing" fee of $1 per person but most allow pickers to eat their fill as they gather fruit.

I'm not sure which I enjoy more — munching on berries while I pick or spending time outdoors chatting with my picking partners.
Conversations during berry picking are always special. It might be because we're in the fresh air away from attention-demanding computer screens. Without devices, fingers pluck fruit, leaving minds and mouths free to ease into thought-provoking exchanges. We pick, we talk, we explore topics that might otherwise go without discussion.

Picking fruit is such a positive activity I'm surprised how few people take advantage of it. It's not as if there's a dearth of u-pick operations in the area. The website lists seven u-pick blueberry farms in Lake County in addition to many others in neighboring counties.

Our family has picked fruit all across the country. To us, traveling is not about choosing the fastest route from Point A to Point B. It's about which roads will take us past the most u-pick farms along the way.

Maybe making a bowlful of blueberries disappear doesn't qualify me to be a real magician, but it does prove my passion for these small orbs of goodness. The real trick is making time to take advantage of this fun-for-all-ages activity. Try it and you'll not only wind up with a fruitful outing, you and your picking partners will have a berry good time.

Find a blueberry farm
Lake Catherine Blueberries,  352 551-4110
Green Acres Fernry and Citrus (and Blueberries!) 352 360-5445. Alternate Phone: 352 406-9724

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mother's Day reflections

Messages of love

Simply Living
May 7, 2012

Although I've been a mother for 33 years, my parenting role isn't the same as it used to be.

When my kids were little, one of my main jobs was to sooth bumps and bruises. Tender kisses, comforting words and well-placed Band-Aids did wonders to alleviate life's owies and make everything better.

These days, the hurts I address tend to be more fiscal than physical.

Loving hugs and supportive comments still work magic but as my offspring navigate the turbulent waters of modern-day adulthood dealing with mortgage payments and insurance issues, daily living expenses, taxes and child-care concerns, I find myself reaching into my wallet more often than the medicine cabinet.

I don't mind the change and I'm glad to be able to help. At this stage of parenthood, instead of being a fixer of strife, my job is to be a fixture of life. I strive to be a stable reminder of what parenting is all about: unconditional love and support.

I'm more an observer these days than an active participant. Both of our daughters are married with children of their own. One son is in his last year of college while his older brother has taken over the day-to-day operations at our bamboo nursery. I try to be there for my children without being too involved in their everyday lives. I want to help without hampering their burgeoning efforts at adulthood and parenting.

As Mother's Day approaches, I find myself reflecting on the different stages of parenting.

I made it through the early days of seemingly endless sleepless nights, dealt successfully with medical emergencies, conquered challenging social and educational hurdles and managed to usher my children through their individual periods of romantic angst with everyone's hearts still intact.

If you had asked me what I wanted for Mother's Day 10 years ago when my youngest child was still living at home, I would have answered the same way I did every previous year: "I want four hours — that's all — just four hours, in the house ALL BY MYSELF."

When children are little, alone time is a precious commodity. The two things I couldn't get enough of when our kids were small were a good night's sleep and time in the house by myself. These days, both are non-issues.

I have plenty of alone time in a house no longer filled with other people's strewn-about clothing, partially filled glasses, broken toys and sandy-soled shoes. I enjoy my newfound independence as well as the chance to spend uninterrupted time with my husband. I also sleep better now than I have in decades although I still toss and turn when one of the kids is having problems that I can't get off my mind.

If you ask me now what I want for Mother's Day, I'd say, "I want to see my children happy. I want to know they are managing even though they've outgrown the magic of Band-Aids and a mother's kiss to make everything better."

There's no getting around life's bumps and bruises. Maternal roles may change as children age but a mother's desire to ease hurts remains constant.

My Mother's Day wish is intangible, but that doesn't make it less desirable or important. It also doesn't matter if the currency I dole out takes the form of dollar bills or common sense. My job as a mom is to do what I can to help my children live happy, healthy lives.

When my kids were little and they misbehaved, I used to give me them a piece of my mind. These days, peace of mind is the gift I'm after.