Monday, July 30, 2012

My neighbors are frogs and toads...

A well-camouflaged, partially burrowed toad cools off in the sand during a hot summer day

Simply Living
July 30, 2012

For someone who has lived next to lakes and marshland for most of her life, I know remarkably little about fish and frogs.
I see small fish swimming in the shallow water and large fish jumping where the water is deep, but other than being aware of their presence I know little about their specific identities.
The same is true for frogs and toads. I notice the small green frogs that hide in my mailbox and bumpy-backed toads that burrow in the sand beneath the rowboat during daylight hours. But if you asked me which type of frog or toad they were, my answer would at best be a guess. In the evening, I enjoy listening to the cacophony of bellows, croaks and peeps that fill the air though have no idea which song belongs to which critter.
Lately, my bad case of ARD (amphibian-recognition-deficiency) has been particularly acute thanks to the sudden appearance of tiny tadpoles. Quantities of solid black and grey-speckled pollywogs cluster along the sandy-bottomed edges of the lake. Every morning, when I enter the water to take a quick wakeup dip, dozens of wiggly swimmers scurry out of my way. Recently, I've noticed that a few of the grey-speckled variety have begun to grow feet. Not quite fish but not yet land animals, these pea-sized pods of frogs-in-waiting paddle their way through the inch-high water with a swish and a kick.
I'm getting a kick out of watching them develop.
Since realizing how little I know about frogs and toads, I decided to remedy the situation with a little online research. One of the first things I learned is that both frogs and toads belong to the order Anura. Within that group, toads belong to a family called Bufonidae while the frog family goes by the name Ranidae. Since Florida is home to 33 different kinds of frogs and toads, it's not surprising how challenging it can be to identify individual species.
Although they belong to the same zoological order, frogs and toads have many differences. For starters, frogs have smooth, slick skin that feels slimy to the touch while the skin on toads is dry and bumpy. A frog's eyes also bulge out more than toad eyes do and their hind feet are long while a toad's back legs are short and stubby. Those long legs make frogs great jumpers. Toads, with their wide, fat bodies and shorter legs tend to walk more than leap. Those features also make them better adapted to land than their water-loving cousins.

An unidentified frog sits on the proverbial lily pad

Despite their many differences, both toads and frogs begin life in an aquatic setting first as eggs, then as tadpoles. When a female frog is ready to reproduce, she does so by depositing eggs in a jelly-like mass on the water's surface while a toad anchors her eggs in long, double gelatinous strands to plants growing in or along the water edge. The eggs of neither amphibian are fertilized beforehand. It is the male's job to find the eggs after they have been laid and fertilize them in a process known as spawning. It is only after he has completed his task that metamorphosis begins.
The transformation from egg to tadpole to frog or toad takes about 16 weeks to complete although it varies from species to species. Either way, that means I still have plenty of time to learn more about the tail-wagging swimmers that have appeared in my lake.
Nature is a constant source of mystery and wonder. When the tadpoles appeared, I became aware of how little I know about certain species. But I was also reminded of how much I want to learn about the world outside my door. A lack of knowledge is a good thing when it opens the window to continued learning and exploration.
Some nights, when the air resounds with a rhythmic chorus of bellows, croaks and peeps, I hope to open my window and do more than just enjoy the sounds of my surroundings. I want to be able to identify some of my amphibian neighbors. After all, we share a love for both land and water. The least I can do is to learn a few of their names.

Monday, July 23, 2012

My batty friends

An unidentified bat that inadvertently entered our shed rests before flying off to find a safer roosting spot

Simply Living
July 23, 2012

Bats come out at dusk. If I time it right, I can be outside jumping on the trampoline while several of nature's only flying mammals swoop and circle overhead.
With headphones on my ears and my body bouncing to a playlist of upbeat melodies, my eyes are free to search the sky. One … two … three … flapping bats appear above the rooftop.
"Catch a lot of mosquitoes," I silently command.
I like bats. I can't remember ever being afraid of them. Of course, I have heard stories — we all have — about bloodsucking bats attacking people, carrying rabies or becoming entangled in a person's hair, but I have always taken those stories for what they are: fanciful tales fostering fear instead of understanding.
The truth is bats are beneficial. They are one of nature's best weapons for reducing insect populations. A single bat consumes up to 3,000 bugs a night. Multiply that by three, and you have 9,000 fewer insects pestering a susceptible human target, which quite often is me. Knowing bats are busy patrolling the night sky makes bouncing on the trampoline at dusk — or taking a walk, going for a swim or simply sitting outside — much more appealing.
Of the 1,000-plus species worldwide, Florida is home to 13 different kinds of bats. Despite popular opinion, not one of the 13 is rampant with rabies, blind or drinks blood.
Fewer than 1 percent of bats contract rabies, and those that do usually die within three to four days. There are only three species of vampire bats, and all live in Mexico, Central and South America. Florida's bats, like most of these oft-maligned, misunderstood animals, are insectivores, devouring their body weight in beetles, flies, moths and mosquitoes nightly. They are shy critters that avoid human contact. Although bats have perfectly good eyesight, sonar helps them navigate and hunt. Their ability to echolocate also keeps them out of people's hair, literally as well as figuratively.
Most bats are communal, roosting in large groups called colonies. They spend daylight hours resting in dead trees, caves, under bridges or in man-made structures. A few species, such as Seminole bats, yellow bats and tricolored bats, prefer a solitary existence roosting instead beneath dead palm fronds or amid Spanish moss.
One of the mysteries I'd love to solve is where the bats on our property live. Because I always see two or more at a time, I think they are one of the more common communal-living varieties such as the brown bat, evening bat or Southeastern bat. However, identifying a flying bat is difficult because its movements are so quick and erratic. On a handful of occasions, I've seen one up close when it has inadvertently entered our garage or shed. Those occasions have been brief because the bat has always flown away, leaving me unsure exactly which species I was looking at or, more intriguingly, where it normally roosts.
I find the question of where wild animals live fascinating. Although I spend quite a bit of time observing my surroundings, I have no idea where most of the wildlife I see sleeps. Which holes do armadillos live in? Where do the coyotes, foxes or bobcats make their dens? Are raccoons and squirrels living in some of the many dead trees? If so, which ones? And how about opossums, alligators and, of course, bats? It's easier with birds. I have located many bird nests and identified their residents, but other animals pose a more difficult challenge.
Perhaps someday I'll learn which species of bats I see at dusk and where they spend their hours of repose. Until then, I'm content to observe the aerial acrobatics of these bug-eating creatures as they circle overhead.
"Thank you," I say as I step off the trampoline. "No mosquito bites tonight!"

Monday, July 16, 2012

Barely contained excitement

A Florida Black Bear runs across a country lane toward a large expanse of woods

Simply Living
July 16, 2012

"Want to take a walk with me to the mailbox?" my husband asked.
Evening was just around the corner and since we both spent the better part of the day inside, we were overdue for a bit of outdoor exercise.
"Sure," I said. "Just give me a minute to get ready and I'll join you."
I slipped into shoes, stuck the phone in my pocket and grabbed the camera. Even for a short walk, I make a point of taking a camera along just in case. I've been out too many times without one and missed some exciting shots.
Our mailbox is about a half-mile away. To get there, we meandered down our dirt driveway and the unpaved road, flanked by houses on one side and a 120-acre wood on the other.
After stopping to chat with a neighbor, we continued along. Mosquitoes were coming out and I was eager to get the mail, return home and jump into the lake before the bugs got the best of me. But a few steps farther along, all thoughts of biting insects vanished when I caught sight of something I had never seen before.
"Ralph! " I commanded, pointing ahead. "Stop! There's a bear right there!"
No sooner had the words escaped my lips than a black hunk of a creature emerged from beneath a broad oak tree. Instantly, the animal noticed us and shifted gears. When I first saw him, he was nosing something on the ground but seconds later he was lumbering across the road toward the safety of the woods. Midway, he stopped to size up the two humans who had interrupted his foraging.
While all this was happening — less than a minute — I was prying the camera from my pocket and directing it toward the bear. Click. One shot was all I got before the bear disappeared into the woods.
"Should we follow him?" Ralph asked eagerly.
I shook my head. "There's no way we'd be able to find him. He's too fast, the woods too dense. It's too late to try."
We continued to the mailbox on a cloud of excitement.
"I can't believe we saw a bear!" I repeated about a dozen times. "I'm so glad you were with me. I don't think anyone would have believed me if I'd been alone."
Equally awed, Ralph said, "It looked like a big dog. I'm amazed you saw it."
"Me too," I admitted. "I still can't believe, after 21 years living here, we actually saw a bear! That's so incredible! I wonder when we'll see it again."
My elation didn't abate. I uploaded the picture I took soon after we got home and left an excited message on my daughter's voice mail. My natural high remained throughout the night and following day. It wasn't until about 24 hours after spotting the bear that my euphoria took a nosedive, settling into sorrowful despair.
On the Lake Sentinel's Facebook page, I read the following post:
"A bear was struck and killed on U.S. Highway 27 between Clermont and Leesburg sometime between Thursday night (July 5) and Friday morning (July 6), a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman confirmed Friday.
The bear was about 3 years old and weighed between 250 and 300 pounds, FWC spokeswoman Joy Hill confirmed. The agency does not know the details of the crash, but sent a crew out to collect the body…"
Although I have no way of confirming that the bear was the same one Ralph and I saw Thursday evening, it probably was. I live close to the reported area and, sadly, the timing was spot on. Black bears are solitary, reclusive creatures most active during dawn and dusk. They range over dozens of square miles in search of the berries, nuts, roots and insects that make up 80 percent of their diet.
The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that a 300-pound animal managed to survive at all on the limited tracts of undeveloped land in my semi-rural slice of south Lake.
Of the estimated 3,000 black bears living in Florida, most occupy eight distinct areas, none of which includes my neighborhood. Late last month, the Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) was removed from the state's threatened species list because its numbers have increased dramatically in recent decades. Intentional killing of it is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison or a $5,000 fine. However, the majority of deaths are the result of traffic accidents like the one that took place on U.S. 27 the other night.
The possibility of seeing another black bear along our quiet country lane is slim but nature, as I was recently reminded, is full of surprises. I walked out to the mailbox expecting nothing more than a bit of exercise and a stack of bills. I returned home with a memory that will last forever.
Learn more
An excellent 15-minute video about Florida black bears can be seen at

Monday, July 9, 2012

Adapting to the ebb and flow of lake life

An alligator takes advantage of an exposed lump of peat in the middle of the lake

Simply Living
July 9, 2012

The daily downpours from tropical storm Debby have given our lake a lift. Water levels that had fallen to near-record lows during months of drought have gradually risen. The change is far from dramatic but it is definitely noticeable.

I do most of my observing either from the front porch or kitchen window. From both places, I can see that the mid-lake isle of peat, which took months to emerge, is once again submerged. New sights catch my eye daily.

Recently when the island of peat was almost completely submerged, I watched an alligator and a great blue heron share the narrow bit of bumpy ground. Although the gator's toothy mouth was slightly ajar, the heron seemed unconcerned. While the leathery reptile lay but a few feet away, the feathery bird paid it no heed, concentrating instead on its own search for food.

A heron and alligator share a barely exposed island without incident

I, on the other hand, anxiously anticipated a dramatic encounter. Grabbing my camera and positioning myself on the shore, I focused my binoculars on the duo and patiently waited.

And waited…and waited. Nothing happened.

The heron caught supper, the gator caught rays and I put my binoculars away to go inside to make my own evening meal.

On another day — this time when the island was exposed — the pair of sandhill cranes that makes our lake their nighttime home landed on the peat island and hung out there for a while.

"I hope they aren't planning to build a nest," I muttered as much to myself as to Ralph. "It's going to rain again and when it does, the island will disappear."

I spoke from experience.

In 2001, a pair of sandhill cranes had raised a family on that same strip of exposed land during a similar drought. Ever since, I hoped the birds would return but only if they timed it right. As was recently proved, the island is hardly a dependable piece of property. A few weeks of precipitation can alter its appearance to the point of disappearance.

Not the most secure place to raise a family.

The cranes must have thought so, too, for although they spent several hours that day poking around, they eventually flew back to their regular roosting place — a slightly larger temporary island at the north end of the lake.

In addition to cranes, alligators and herons, numerous turtles, ibises, crows, tri-colored herons, lesser blue herons, egrets and the occasional osprey have taken advantage of the mid-lake peat island. I had hoped to see otters — they appeared in 2001 — but they have yet to show up or, if they have, I missed them.

An otter eyes a sandhill crane nest in 2001 when drought exposed a mid-lake island of peat

 In the aftermath of Debby's deluge, tufts of green rising above the water line are the only signs of the isle's existence. During the months when the peat island slowly rose, grassy seeds sprouted, grew and ultimately flourished. The waterweeds don't seem to mind the land's submerged state. Neither do the wildlife. Alligators, birds and turtles continue to flock to the soggy platform, wading through the shallow water to explore, hunt or absorb the sun's rays.

When I was new to Florida, extreme weather conditions caused me to worry. I fretted over high water flooding and became anxious when drought caused drastic reductions in the water level. But two decades of lakeside living have provided perspective. I've come to understand and appreciate the ebb and flow of lake life. Rather than stress over nature, I've learned to relax and accept the moment.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A gift of figs

A fresh fig is a soft fruit about the size of a small plum that, depending on variety, is either round or shaped like a teardrop

Simply Living
July 2, 2012

"There are 74 figs in the fridge," read the note my son left on the kitchen table.

It was almost midnight and Ralph and I had just arrived home after a week away. Although drenched in fatigue, we dragged our belongings inside, adjusted the thermostat and went to work. Ralph was in the kitchen putting away our travel food while I headed to the bedroom with the suitcases.

I had just begun unpacking when I heard my husband's voice calling from the kitchen, "Come see all the figs!"

In the time it took me to toss a few dirty clothes in the laundry, Ralph had already begun sorting the unexpected bounty into trays.

"I can't believe how many figs there are," he said, separating eat-now from the not-quite-ripe fruit. "None of the figs were ripe when we left and look how many there are now."

Our son Tim monitored the garden and fruit tree production while we were away. Knowing how much his father loves figs, he collected the ripening bounty during our absence.

"I wonder how many are on the tree," Ralph said as he searched for a flashlight. He found a light but it was too dark outside to see much of anything.

"In the morning," I mumbled while popping another fig into my mouth, "you'll be able to tell better then."

Sure enough, morning offered a dazzling sight. The LSU purple fig tree outside our west door was — and still is — covered with fruit.

"This is the best year yet!" Ralph exclaimed in delight. "Look how many unripe ones are coming along."

Ed O'Rourke, professor of horticulture at Louisiana State University, developed the nematode-resistant LSU purple fig after 16 years of research and testing. He introduced it to the public in 1991 and a few years later we purchased our first plant.

In the years since, Ralph has propagated more figs from cuttings of the original plant. About a dozen trees are now scattered around our property, but the one growing next to our garden on the west side of the house produces the most fruit. That's probably because it is planted in good rich soil, receives regular watering, fertilizing and — most importantly — it is located right outside our door guaranteeing it plenty of personal attention.

My husband grew up eating fresh figs, but I didn't. The only figs I knew as a kid were in Fig Newton bars or as the hard, dried variety that my mother bought for holidays. I was well into adulthood before discovering what a real fig tastes like.

A fresh fig is a soft fruit about the size of a small plum that, depending on variety, is either round or shaped like a teardrop. All parts of the fruit are edible including its extremely thin skin and pudding-like flesh, which contains bunches of tiny seeds. Some figs are brown, black, purple or amber-colored but all varieties grow on compact deciduous trees that like a warm Mediterranean-like climate. Too much rain causes ripening fruit to split open, while too much cold kills the plant entirely.

Nematodes are a major problem affecting fig production but certain varieties (including LSU purple fig) are bred to resist nematode invasions. We don't spray our fig trees with herbicides or use any chemical solutions. Instead, we try to provide our plants with the best growing conditions possible. We use a rich but light loam, mulch heavily to preserve moisture and fertilize occasionally.

The result of those efforts is trees brimming with tasty morsels.

"I love fig season!" Ralph said a few days later while we were outside gathering several dozen more fruit to eat.

 Since fig production continues into the early fall it's a season he'll be enjoying for many months to come.

Yummy!  Fresh picked figs!