Monday, November 26, 2012

200 baby spiders...

A juvenile huntsman spider waits for prey atop a bar of Kiss My Face soap.

Simply Living
November 26, 2012

The huntsman spider that lives in our bathroom just had babies.  About 200 tiny brown spiderlings hatched out of the silky white, quarter-sized egg sac that their mother had carried on her belly for weeks. 

In our house, we hold huntsman spiders in high esteem.  As their name implies, these large, long-legged arachnids are excellent hunters but instead of spinning a web to capture prey, Heteropoda venatoria stalk their victims with patient vigilance.  After establishing a territorial claim, in this case the bathroom, the spider waits for its meal ticket to appear.  When prey is sighted, the stealthy spider springs into action with a speedy attack and fatal injection of venom.  Cockroaches are a favorite food and the huntsman’s effectiveness in capturing these pests is the main reason we welcome the spiders into our house. 

Our family has been coexisting with huntsman spiders for over 20 years.  
Over that time, we’ve seen many adult females carry around an egg sac and, on a few other occasions, have been around when the newly hatched babies leave the sac to live on their own.  While the thought of welcoming 200 new spiders into the house may strike some as daunting if not completely insane, the reality is, most of the young will not survive.  Like other creatures that bear multiple offspring, the majority falls prey to other predators or fails to thrive for one reason or another. 

That seems to be what happened with this latest population.  A few days after my husband noticed the mass of small, brown babies clustered around the mother spider and her abandoned egg sac, I can only find two spiderlings in the bathroom.  One seems to have taken a fancy to the sink while another has gravitated toward the shower.  Both choices make sense since many bugs (including cockroaches and mosquitoes) are attracted to moist environments.  Now that I’ve noticed the young spiders, I’m careful to check before turning on the water so I won’t inadvertently flush one of our latest little bug-eaters down the drain.  

Although baby huntsman spiders begin life at about the size of freckle, they grow quickly.  Mama spider watches out over her babies for their first few weeks, during which time they progress through several molts while consuming minuscule insects.  The spiderlings in our bathroom are now each about the size of thumbtack, still on the small side but definitely larger than they were initially. 

The leg span of a mature huntsman spider has always reminded me of a toddler’s splayed hand.  Its brownish-grey body is about two inches long but is closer to five inches wide if the spread of its eight legs are included.  Large spiders like the huntsman can be intimidating to the uninitiated and downright terrifying to people who suffer from arachnophobia.  Because of their size, and often simply because they are spiders, many are killed.  That’s unfortunate because despite their tarantula-like appearance, huntsman spiders pose no danger to people. Quite the opposite.  These beneficial creatures provide an invaluable service by devouring pesky bugs.  Welcoming huntsman spiders into your home is like having a team of round-the-clock in-house pest-control professionals working for free.

A huntsman "hides" on a roll of paper towels
Although commonly found throughout Florida, Huntsman spiders are native to warm-weather Australia.  Their inability to survive outdoors in the cold prompts many of these large-bodied, shy spiders to seek indoor habitats.  Numerous huntsman spiders live in our house, barn and sheds but because they are mainly nocturnal hunters, I see them infrequently.  When I do, I’m always awed, not just by their size (substantial) but by their obvious unwillingness to be observed. 

If I chance upon a huntsman at night by turning on a light, the previously mobile spider stops moving.  It freezes in place while telepathically telling me, ‘Look away.’  When I do look away, it scurries out of sight, behind a picture frame or a piece of furniture.  Huntsmans are shy spiders that do their best to stay away from human interaction.

It has been interesting watching this latest batch of young spiders develop, stake out territories and integrate themselves into our household.  Since a huntman’s lifespan is about two years, I like to think we’re just beginning a long and mutually satisfying relationship.   

Monday, November 19, 2012

Talking turkey

As viewed from the kitchen window, a flock of female turkeys meanders close to the house.

Simply Living
November 19, 2012

I may not be eating turkey this Thursday but there’s a good chance I’ll be devouring the sight of several gawky gobblers ambling around our property.  

A flock of wild turkeys seems to appear every year just before Thanksgiving.  The ladies – no male has yet made an entry - have a regular route.  They emerge from the pinewoods to a broad clearing between the lake and fig orchard.  From my seat at the kitchen table, I have a perfect view of them meandering along, pecking at seeds, bugs and low-hanging fruit.  They seem especially fond of the figs.

I’ve come to associate the arrival of wild turkeys with the onset of cool weather.  While their whereabouts the rest of the year remains a mystery, I know in autumn there’s a good chance their daily rambles with take them close to our house.

The Florida wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo Osceola) is one of five subspecies of wild turkeys in North America and the only one to live exclusively in the Sunshine State.  Slightly smaller and darker colored than the eastern wild turkey, Osceola, as it is commonly called, has plumage that blends well with its ranges in marshy lowlands as well as in palmetto, pine and oak woods.

From my experience watching and attempting to follow the small flock that frequents our property, I’ve found turkeys to be quite adept at avoiding observation.  When feeding (which is most of the time), one hen acts as watch guard, surveying the surroundings for signs of danger.  

Apparently, they consider me dangerous because whenever I try to get close – no matter how ably I practice my best silent stalk – I inevitably trigger awareness, which then causes the group to retreat quickly into the underbrush.  Though I’ve tried to follow them into the woods to see where they go, I’ve never been successful.  Their plumage blends so well with their habitat and they move so swiftly, they vanish in a flash.

I have so many unanswered questions about ‘my’ wild turkeys.  Where do they go at night?  Why haven’t I ever seen a male?  Or babies?  And how come they seem to only appear in autumn? 

I know that at nighttime, wild turkeys perch in the low branches of trees and with that knowledge in mind, I’ve walked through the forest at dusk with an eye to seeking out potential roosts.  Much to my disappointment, I have yet to find one.

I know that males (toms) and females (hens) live in separate groups, coming together in the spring to mate before rejoining single-sex flocks.  Young males (jakes) form a third flock until they reach maturity and are ready to mate.  I have no idea why in all the time I’ve been observing the birds I’ve only seen females.  It could be because they only come together during springtime and at that time of year they frequent other foraging grounds.  It remains a mystery.

Frequenting different foraging ground might also be the reason I have never seen baby turkeys (poults).  After mating, the hen scratches out a rough nest amongst the fallen leaves and twigs in the woods under or near a log.  Over a period of about two weeks, she lays 10-12 eggs, covering them with leaves until she is ready to sit upon the entire clutch.  Once incubation starts, it takes 27 days for the brown-speckled eggs to hatch.  The young birds are able to fly less than two weeks later.  At that point, their chance of survival increases because they can fly up onto a branch to roost with their mother instead of remaining in the nest where predators are more likely to find them.

I realize I’m lucky to see all the wildlife I do but that good fortune doesn’t stop me from wanting more.  Someday I hope I’ll look out my kitchen window and see not only a flock of hens but also a tom in all his male turkey glory.  Someday perhaps I’ll walk through the woods at dusk and actually discover the tree in which the birds are perched.  And someday - maybe best of all – I’ll catch a glimpse of tiny poults trailing behind their mother as she teaches them how to forage, fly and beware of dangers.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I’ll not only be thankful for the amazing wildlife encounters I’ve already experienced but for the many wonders yet to come. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Awesome Autumn

A sign of autumn in Florida: A pair of wild turkeys meandering through the woods on a cool November morning

Simply Living
November 12, 2012

Autumn has come to Central Florida.  Windows sealed shut for months are finally open to the breeze.  It’s extra-blankets-at-night, long-sleeve-shirts-during-daytime weather.  After a long, hot summer, there’s a welcome crispness to the air. 

Autumn is my favorite season.  When I lived in Pennsylvania and later in Massachusetts, the transition from summer to fall was always dramatic.  Bright red, orange and yellow leaves dazzled the eye, vying for attention.  Puffs of smoke from fireplaces and wood-burning stoves filled the air with clouds and even a few minutes of outdoor time caused noses and cheeks to take on a ruddy hue.

Florida autumns are far more subtle and not nearly as chilly.  Not only do they begin when northern autumns are winding down, they do so in such a muted fashion they’re easy to miss unless you’re paying attention. 

Instead of brilliant colored leaves, amber and umber tones predominate with a scattering of deep scarlet and mottled greens.  Florida autumn is the sunny yellow of cassia blooms and Mexican sunflowers growing alongside the coral-colored pods of golden rain trees.   

When I walk outside, my ungloved fingers don’t go numb like they would if I were back on Cape Cod.  I can still be barefoot and even take a quick dip in the lake, although at 68-degrees, the water is no longer easy to get into.

Autumn in Florida is the season when native grasses go to seed.  As I look out across the lake, I see the shimmery glow of broom sedge, wiregrass and dog fennel.  Nearby, groundsel bushes boast fluffy white blooms while the plumes of goldenrod sway in the breeze.

Subtle colors of a Floridian autumn

I like to be outdoors in November.  It’s the perfect weather for taking long walks, working in the garden or going for a row.  Throughout the summer, my aluminum rowboat sat on the shore but as soon as the weather cooled down, I found myself eager to be on the water.  These days, as I stroke along from one end of the lake to the other, I absorb the view as if it were food and in a way, it is…the ultimate soul food.

Speaking of food, autumn is harvest time.  In our garden sweet red peppers, leafy kale and green beans are ready to pick and we look forward to the day (soon!) when the broccoli and tomatoes will be ready to eat. We season many of our meals with fresh-cut parsley, chives, basil and hot peppers.  In the fruit department, we’ve been enjoying an autumn flush of figs and the oranges from our son’s Minneola tangelo tree.  One hand of bananas is hanging in the pantry with a few more still on the trees.  

Unfortunately, our carambola and papaya trees are late in fruiting.  Since it’s doubtful they’ll make it through winter, I spent time seeking out other sources.  In older parts of town, I discovered a couple trees covered with fruit that no one seemed to be picking.  After receiving permission, Ralph and I returned to pick starfruit and papayas.  It was almost as good as growing our own. 

Other fruits are also in season but rather than attract people, the ripening elderberries, fox grapes, holly berries and sumac seeds fulfill the needs of wildlife.  Flocks of American goldfinch have made their annual autumnal appearance as have the wild turkeys that meander by on most days.  A pair of grebes has adopted our lake.  Like the turkeys, the little grebes waited until the temperatures cooled down to show up.  I didn’t see them all summer but since the beginning of November, they’ve become a regular freshwater fixture.

A solitary grebe was soon joined by a partner

Autumn has come to Central Florida.  I don’t care if it is two months later than most northern autumns and I don’t mind if it puts on an entirely different kind of show than the traditional northern fall.  I love autumn and I always will.  Fall in Florida is every bit as welcome and appreciated as any autumn of my youth.  It might even be more so because its many differences make it special.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Electing to reflect

An early morning row provides a much-needed retreat from the intense political posturing preceding Election Day

Simply Living
November 5, 2012

With tomorrow being Election Day, it would be fitting if today’s column focused on voting. 

It doesn’t.

While others are swirling in the pool of political rivalry, I find myself retreating into the more stable grounds of nature.  I feel a need to refresh myself with wildlife, to gaze at the reflection of the moon in the lake and absorb the beauty of a butterfly sipping nectar from a bloom. 

Who isn’t tired of watching – or even of fast-forwarding through – political ads?  Who hasn’t seen enough lawn signs proclaiming one candidate’s prowess over another?  Who isn’t weary of listening to endless promises that we know will be broken?   

Nature provides a welcome break from the rhetoric, the campaigning, the championing of causes.  Instead of tuning into the annoying chatter of pundits, we can turn to the bellows of sandhill cranes flying overhead and the proclamations of an Eastern phoebe announcing its territorial bounds.  

Lately, I’ve been taking early morning rows.  While motivated by the cooler weather, I also row because of the water’s soothing qualities.  It’s hard to feel anxious or upset when your focus is in stroking smoothly from one end of the lake to the other. 

Elections bring problems to the forefront.  Politicians play upon our fears while simultaneously trumpeting solutions.  For far longer than is healthy, we find ourselves inundated with critical issues that demand our attention.  The issues are important but there are so many.  It’s easy to be overwhelmed, to need a retreat.

I find sanctuary in nature.  I go for walks.  I take early morning rows.  I weed the vegetable garden, pot up some flowers and water the plants.  I watch for butterflies, birds and wildlife and take delight in each sighting.  I step outside when it’s dark – even if only for a moment – to look up at the stars and to smile at the moon. 

Nature reminds me that like a hurricane that rips through a region, even the wildest of elections eventually ends.  Sure, there will be cleanup to do but normality – or at least a semblance of it – will eventually return.  Like all creatures, humans adapt.  We make do.  We adjust to the changes. 

Being President of the United States is an awesome responsibility.  I suppose we should feel fortunate that there are any candidates at all willing to subject themselves to the personal attacks and weighty decisions that political leaders face on a daily basis.  While it’s too early to tell which candidates will win the presidential election, we can be sure of one thing:  Whoever holds that office will age more quickly in the next four years than he would if he’d lost. 

I said this column wouldn’t be about voting but in a way, it is.  In this time of elections, I cast my ballot for a world in which nature can still provide solace, for a country where individual freedoms will always rein paramount and where diversity of all species is celebrated instead of disdained.