Monday, March 25, 2013

Unhatched hopes...

The sandhill cranes couldn’t have chosen a tinier island upon which to build their nest, which now contains two eggs.

March 25, 2013

I’ve circled April 9th on my calendar.  That’s the day – or at least the earliest possible day – when the sandhill crane eggs will hatch.

Last week’s column documented the cranes’ discovery of a feeder made out of a recycled fire pit recently added to our yard.  Although a pair of the beautiful long-legged birds has wandered through our property for years, their brief ventures across our weedy lawn have always been to seek out underground insects and grubs.  Until their discovery of the new feeder, the cranes demonstrated no interest in any of the bird feeders hanging from tree limbs or attached to posts.

I suppose they’ve ignored the other feeders because they hang too high above their heads, whereas the fire pit feeder was in easy reach just above ground level.  The cranes’ attraction to the low-lying bowl filled with a mixture of seeds and corn kernels was intense and immediate.

One of several hanging feeders suspended too high to attract interest from foraging cranes

Located just above ground level, the seed-stocked fire pit feeder attracted the sandhill crane pair

For the two days during which the feeder stood in the yard (I eventually took it away because Florida law prohibits the intentional feeding of sandhill cranes), the birds pecked voraciously at the unexpected backyard banquet. 

Actually, only one of the two birds took advantage of the feast while its partner stood patiently by. 

Male and female sandhill cranes look so much alike, I was never sure which gender was eating so selfishly and with such an insatiable hunger.  However, considering the focus, force and concentration with which the feasting animal attacked the seeds I had a strong feeling the bird was female.  Not only female, but a female in reproductive mode.  I came to that conclusion after reflecting upon my own experiences.  I have four children and when I was pregnant, I remember eating with an unleashed appetite not unlike the seed guzzling gusto displayed by the fast-pecking bird. 

I assumed the crane was preparing to lay eggs and raise babies. 

I was right!

A few days after the fire pit feeding frenzy (before the station was removed), I looked out the window to see only one bird in the yard.  

My immediate reaction was concern.

“What happened to the other crane?” I wondered as I ran down the hall to tell Ralph. 

“There’s only one bird in the yard,” I announced fretfully.  “You don’t think the other crane got hit by a car, do you?”

Sandhill cranes mate for life and because of their lifelong commitment to one another, I lapse into worry mode whenever I encounter (which is seldom) a solitary adult bird.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Ralph responded soothingly. 

After 41 years of marriage, my husband has mastered the art of “tone-ification.”  When faced with my frantic wildlife imagining, he instantly adopts his “everything will be all right” tone.  It usually works.

It certainly worked this time.  Not only was everything fine, it was better than fine! 

The missing crane wasn’t injured or killed in some highway mishap.  It was peacefully sitting on eggs.  Unbeknownst to me, the pair had built a rough bed of sticks and reeds upon a miniscule spit of land in the north end of the lake.  Since cranes share incubating chores, they were taking turns feeding.  While one bird strolled the yard in search of seeds, insect or other edibles, its partner was sitting on the nest.

The cranes' choice of a nesting spot is a spit of land looking more like a tuft of weeds than an actual island  

Female cranes typically lay one or two eggs that hatch in 30 to 32 days.  “Our” cranes’ nest (I have become quite possessive about the health and welfare of “our” birds) contains two eggs but while I’m excited about the possibility of seeing baby cranes again on the property, I’m trying to be guardedly optimistic.  Cranes have nested here before but they haven’t always succeeded in raising hatchlings.  If we get much rain, the flimsy nests, which sit only a few inches above the water, will flood when water levels rise.  Other times predators kill the young despite the male crane’s valiant efforts to guard and protect his family. 

But most of the time, things work out.  The eggs not only hatch, the colts (the name for young cranes) soon start following their parents around the property.  April 9th is only a couple weeks away.  I can’t wait to see what will happen!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Makeshift birdfeeder draws unexpected visitors

A repurposed fire pit filled with a seed mix meant to attract songbirds, inadvertently turned into a sandhill crane feeding station

March 18, 2013

It began innocently enough. 

I rescued an abandoned fire pit from the curbside.  It was trash day, someone threw out an inexpensive three-legged metal stand with a solid bowl and mesh cover for containing sparks.  Although I had no need for a fire pit, it seemed senseless to let a perfectly reusable object take up valuable landfill space.  I pulled over and put it in my car.  At the time, I had no particular plan in mind but I knew an idea would come to me eventually. 

It did. 

By removing the solid bowl and using only the mesh top placed upon the tripod base facing upward, the fire put turned into a bird feeder.  Although subject to rain, the screening provided drainage to prevent seeds from getting wet and moldy.  Standing about two feet off the ground, the bowl-shaped screen was broad enough for several birds to feed at once.  I envisioned a flutter of finches, cardinals and doves taking advantage of their new feeding station so I set up the stand and sprinkled a generous helping of wild birdseed mix into the concave holder. 

Within a couple days, a few songbirds stopped by but it mainly attracted squirrels.  The rodents must have been thrilled with such easy access to food.  I had positioned the feeder about 20-feet away from the kitchen window on top of a grassless circle where a camphor tree once stood in the hope scattered seeds would soon sprout, turning the bare ground into a garden of sunflowers, safflowers, millet and corn stalks.

What I didn’t anticipate was a pair of unexpected visitors.

The other day as I was finishing breakfast, two sandhill cranes meandered into the yard.  Although they don’t visit daily, the cranes stroll by often enough to feel like regular members of our wildlife community.  Sandhill cranes mate for life with a lifespan of up to 25 years.  They also tend to return to where they were raised.  During dry seasons, cranes have nested on grassy islands in our lake and ever since, whenever I see them, I wonder if they are the same pair that nested here in the past. 

That’s what I was thinking the other morning as the tall birds strolled into the yard.  I expected them to poke around the ground hunting for bugs as they usually do.  Sandhill cranes eat grubs, worms, mole crickets and other insects as well as seeds, nuts, fruit and berries.  Their long pointy bills are perfect for underground foraging.  I soon found out their beaks are quite adept other things too.

I watched as the duo made a beeline for the birdfeeder. 

To be entirely accurate, although both birds hightailed to the repurposed fire pit, only one of them actually partook of the seed-strewn smorgasbord.  Was it the male, I wondered, or the female?  Since I’m a woman, I assumed the crane manically pecking seeds was the female packing away calories in preparation for egg laying.  Or, less altruistically, she (or he?) could just have been greedy and selfish.  Whichever bird it was, the crane appeared even more thrilled by its discovery of this unexpected banquet than the squirrels had been. 

It was at that point I realized I was committing a crime. 

In Florida, it is against the law to feed bears, alligators, foxes, raccoons, scrubjays and sandhill cranes.  As stated on the state’s “” website, “Feeding of listed species is prohibited because it can negatively alter feeding behavior in some species and can cause them to become accustomed to people.”

Even without the website’s warning, I knew it was wrong to set up a self-serve cafeteria for the red-capped birds.  Yet, as I sat in the kitchen watching their antics, my excitement soared.  At one point, the more subservient male (female?) attempted to sample the bounty but that’s as far as he/she got.  As soon as the less aggressive bird bent its long neck down, the more dominant one shoved it aside with a quick sweep of its beak and a fluffing of feathers.  That’s all it took to remind the male (female?) to stay away.  From then on the alpha bird ate (peck after greedy peck) while its partner stood stalwartly by patiently awaiting whatever dregs might remain. 

It only took one day for the sandhill cranes to become birdseed junkies.  Unfortunately, it took the same amount of time for me to become equally addicted to observing their feeding habits.  Fortunately, my own stalwart partner brought me back to my senses. 

“You’ve got to stop feeding them,” Ralph insisted as I peered out the window with camera in hand.  “Pretty soon they’re going to start pecking at the window.  They’ll tear the screen and besides, they probably shouldn’t be eating that much seed.”

I don’t know if he’s right about the seeds but he’s spot on about potential destruction.  Sandhill cranes are bold, not easily intimidated and fast learners.  On Day 2, after eating every seed in the feeder as well as those that had fallen on the ground, the two birds approached the kitchen window with a demanding glare in their eyes.

“Well,” they seemed to say, “Where is it?  We ate what you gave us and WE WANT MORE!”

As much as wanted to give in.  I turned away.  I haven’t taken the feeder away yet.  But I haven’t refilled it either.  

Monday, March 11, 2013

A botanical puzzle...

March 3, 2013

Here’s a question for you:  What tasty, nutritious and versatile fruit grows extensively in Central Florida, produces abundant crops without needing pesticides but is not available fresh in any grocery, specialty store or farmer’s market? 

Need a clue?  There’s a good chance you have this fruit growing in your own yard or, at the very least, in your neighborhood.  It can even be found as part of the landscaping surrounding many businesses you frequent. 

If you guessed, loquat, you’re correct!  Loquats are one of the least appreciated yet most widely planted trees in Southern landscapes.

The lovely loquat...although it rhymes with kumquat, loquats and kumquats are completely unrelated plants
Botanically named Eriobotrya japonica, the loquat is a member of the Rosacaea family, a broad group of plants that includes apples, raspberries and strawberries among others.  Native to southeastern China, the loquat likes a temperate or semi-tropical climate.  It grows in Asia, Hawaii, the Mid-East and South America as well as here in Florida.  Some of its other common names include Japanese medlar, Japanese plum, Chinese plum or pipa. 

If you have a loquat in your yard, it was probably installed for its ornamental qualities rather than for its ability to provide an early season harvest of fruit. 

The loquat is a medium size evergreen tree with an attractive rounded shade-providing shape.  Its dark green leaves are thick, stiff and glossy.  In winter, when few plants are flowering, its white blossoms produce a subtle sweetness attractive to bees and other pollinators.  In Central Florida from January to March, loquat trees are covered with clusters of small apricot-colored fruit, which provide an attractive contrast to the dark green, glossy leaves.

Bright green leathery leaves and fragrant white flowers add to a loquat's appeal as a landscape plant

There’s no doubt loquats make a striking addition to a yard and their  size (less than 30’ tall) enables them to fit into compact spaces but gosh, if you’re going to have them in your yard, why not nosh on the fruit as well?  I’m amazed by how few people take advantage of this abundant source of free food.

The one-inch-long ovoid fruit consists of an apricot-colored skin with a texture similar to that of a scuppernong or a concord grape.  The skin covers lighter colored flesh that surrounds one or more large, dark-colored seeds.  Because the inedible seeds take up so much space, there’s not much to eat in individual loquats.  But in my mind, that’s no reason to be ignored.  Many other fruit (think: cherries, seeded grapes…) also have multiple seeds or large pits yet we consume enthusiastically.

Inside each loquat is one or more large, brown seed

In most other parts of the world, loquat’s edible qualities earn far more appreciation than they do in the United States.  In Pakistan, the less ripe, sourer fruits are perfect for chutney or sauce, while in Japan, the ripe fruit is often made into jams, jellies or preserved by canning.  Some people turn the versatile loquat into wine while the more dessert-oriented create loquat pies, cakes or muffins.

Loquat wine is popular in many Asian countries

My own culinary propensity is of a ‘pick-n-pop’ nature.  I stand by a tree, pick as many ripe loquats with my right hand as I can fit into my left hand then proceed to pop each individual loquat into my mouth, one after the other, spitting out seeds as I go.  I don’t bother to peel off the skin as my daughter does when she prepares loquats for her kids, nor do I worry about blemishes on the skin like my far more meticulous husband does.  I simply pick-n-pop…savoring the moment. 

For those of you not yet aware, the sweet taste of Central Florida spring is right outside your door.  If you don’t have a loquat tree growing in your own yard, stop by a neighbor’s to ask if you can pick a few fruit off their tree.  Most people will be surprised to discover that the plant they thought of only as a pretty provider of shade is also a source of sweet, tasty and free-for-the-picking fruit.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Taking time to reconnect

Staying close by eating out 

March 4, 2013

There’s something special about a parent’s one-on-one time with a child.  Conversation takes on a different dimension without other people around to hear.  Now that my kids have grown up – my youngest child recently turned 21 and is about to graduate from UCF - I miss those times and the intimacies they fostered.  Perhaps that’s what prompted me a few days after Toby’s birthday, to call him on the phone. 

“Can you meet me for lunch one day this week,” I asked.  “I was thinking Garden Café, like we used to do.”

“Sure,” he said.  “Is something wrong?” 

“No,” I responded, “it’s nothing like that.  I just wanted to spend time with you again, the two of us for lunch.”

During his preteen and early teenage years, Toby and I used to be regulars at the small vegetarian restaurant on West Colonial Drive.  We’d go there after Saturday morning practice sessions at the Central Florida Chess Club.  Toby was, and still is a chess devotee so I, by default, became a chess mom driving him to and from tournaments, practice sessions and private lessons waiting around while he studied, competed or played games with others. 

For several years, the 35-minute drive from our south Lake home to those CFCC practice sessions in downtown Orlando was part of our routine.  While my burgeoning chess maven immersed himself in strategies and techniques, I sat in the car, savoring a few hours of uninterrupted reading time.  When the sessions were over, he’d pack up his chess bag, I’d lay my book aside and we’d head over to Garden Café for a light lunch before driving home.

By the time I got off the phone with Toby, we had arranged to meet on a day that fit his schedule, which happened to be a Saturday at noon.  He even had a chess tournament to go to afterwards, which seemed serendipitous.  

The closer it got to Saturday, the more eagerly I anticipated our meeting.  Enthusiastic as I was however, a sense of sadness tempered my emotions.  It felt like the moment I was approaching punctuated the end of an era.  Because my youngest child will soon be leaving the state, I knew our chances of one-on-one times together were fleeting at best.

We arrived at the restaurant simultaneously and hugged in the parking lot.  My first impression was that he seemed taller (or was I smaller?) than the last time we saw one another.  After settling into a booth and reviewing the mostly unchanged menu, we placed our orders.  A comfortable zone of catch-up conversation ensued.  I gave Toby a quick overview of what each of his siblings was up to, how his father was doing and what was going on at home.  He in turn filled me in on his plans for next year, how his girlfriend was and a little bit (as much as I could comprehend) about stochastic processes, the field of mathematics that is his current academic focus.

By the time the meal arrived and the jasmine tea had steeped sufficiently to pour, we’d gone well beyond appetizer chatter.  More meaty matters (as much as can be expected at a vegetarian eatery) were being explored.  We touched upon relationships, feelings and the importance of intimacy. 

I can’t say exactly how or when it happened but somewhere along the line, it felt like old times.  Once again, we were two people exploring subjects that normally go unspoken.  We were mother and child, confidants and sounding boards.  I listened to him talk and when appropriate, offered suggestions and advice.  In turn, he made comments, a few criticisms and revelations.  By the time we sipped the last drops of tea from our cups, the plates were cleared and the bill paid. I felt far richer despite having less money in my wallet.

Kids grow up and move away.  It’s normal, healthy and to be expected.  But it’s also normal and healthy to want to maintain an intimate relationship with open discussions about things that matter.  Feelings.  Emotions.  Subjects of the heart. 

As we walked back to our separate cars and hugged goodbye, I willed myself to restrain the teardrops welling in my eyes.  They were tears of sadness for the fleetingness of time and tears of pride for a child who has developed into such an independent, responsible and kind adult.

Toby drove off to his tournament and I got in my car and headed home.  Our destinations were different but our hearts were together.