Monday, April 29, 2013

Captivated by cranes

A family of sandhill cranes

April 29, 2013

I’ve become captivated by a family of sandhill cranes. 

First thing in the morning, I reach for the binoculars to see if I can locate their whereabouts.  Are they still on their island nest or have they already begun their daily trek along the shoreline?  Once spotted, I eat breakfast contentedly.  If I can’t find them, I still eat breakfast but I do so with a certain amount of anxiety… 

So many things could go wrong.  Yesterday, I saw the first alligator of the season.  It was a relatively small one, maybe four-and-a-half-feet long.  Still, a gator of any size poses a serious threat to a week-old bundle of fluff.

Even a young alligator can pose a threat to baby cranes

I shouldn’t worry.  Sandhill crane parents are excellent protectors.  From hours of observation, I know how aware they are of their surroundings.  During the past week, I’ve watched them scare away water birds and bellow warning cries to other cranes flying overhead.  They’ve cocked their heads skyward to track the flight path of an osprey, jumped and spread their wings wide when startled by large, grass-grazing carp swishing through the shallow water.  In 2009, the last time a pair of cranes raised a hatchling on our lake, I watched as the adult birds scared away both an otter and an alligator!

In 2009, a nesting pair of cranes managed to keep an otter away from their eggs 

Still, the attachment I’ve formed with this latest grey-feathered family has superseded reason.  Something about watching the adult cranes raise their baby has triggered my own maternal instincts.  Ever since the egg hatched, I’ve felt protective and somewhat responsible for its health and wellbeing.  I know it’s not my job to tend to its needs.  The best I can do is to be an observer accurately documenting events that transpire.  But that doesn’t preclude me from hoping for a positive outcome.  Especially because I know positive outcomes don’t always happen.

When I was growing up in Yardley, Pa., our house fronted on a small lake occupied by several families of ducks.  Every year when duck eggs hatched, I’d watch in awe and fascination as the baby birds followed their mother, swimming in a straight line from one end of the lake to the other.  As the days went by, however, I noticed fewer and fewer chicks.  Snapping turtles were the culprits, capturing those sweet little ducklings by their webbed feet and pulling them underwater.  I tried not to let it bother me and mostly succeeded.  At a young age, I learned to accept the inevitabilities of nature.  I realized one animal’s loss was another’s gain.  The concept of survival of the fittest became a real life lesson.  After all, every creature needs to eat, including the snapping turtles in Pennsylvania and the alligators in Florida.

Knowledge, however, doesn’t prevent emotions from flowing.  Consider how Ralph and I felt when we realized the cranes in our lake had abandoned the second egg in their nest after their first egg hatched.  
Initially, we felt doubt.

Deserted egg

“They’re probably going back to the nest at night to sit on it,” I suggested after watching the birds wander away from the remaining egg that first day. 

Two days later, I felt differently. 

“They’re not coming back,” I reported to Ralph after surveying the situation from my rowboat.  “They’ve abandoned it.  They’ve even built a new nest on another spit of land.”

Upon hearing this news, my daughter Jenny – herself a new mother of twins – was distraught. 

“How could they do that?” she bemoaned by phone.  “Can’t you do anything?”

Her questions pulled me back into a pragmatic mode. 

“There’s nothing we can do,” I tried to explain.  “If the cranes decided to abandon the egg, there must be a reason.  Maybe it wasn’t viable or they knew they couldn’t raise both.  I don’t know why they did it but that’s just how it is.”

Sometimes, “just how it is” is the only explanation. 

For now, the crane family in our lake is doing well.  Every day the youngest member grows bigger, stronger and more capable of taking care of itself.  Hopefully, the baby bird will continue on the path to adulthood without encountering any life-threatening incident. 

For me, regardless of the outcome, the entire experience is a gift from nature.  I grew up watching ducklings follow their mother in Silver Lake.  As an adult, I’m doing the same with sandhill cranes.  

Although I worry about them and fret when I don’t see them with my binoculars, most of the time I find myself smiling.  I could do worse than be a watcher of birds.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Earth Day Optimism

Make everyday Earth Day

April 22, 2013

Sometimes good things happen simultaneously. 

During the same week that U-pick blueberry farmers in Central Florida welcomed customers to their blueberry fields, Ralph and I welcomed a newly hatched sandhill crane to our property. 

The fruit, picked fresh from Lake Catherine Blueberries off SR 19 in Groveland was, as usual, sweet and delicious.  The fluffy baby crane following behind its long-legged parents was, as anticipated, undeniably adorable. 

I’d be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying way to celebrate Earth Day than to focus in on the flora and fauna of our immediate surroundings. 

A Bit of History
Earth Day began in 1970 as a way to raise awareness of environmental issues.  Distressed by damage caused by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin initiated a national teach-in day as a way to infuse the public with a passion for protecting precious resources like air and water from pollution. 

Nelson’s idealistic campaign may have started small but it didn’t stay that way long. 

By 1990, Earth Day had become a global phenomenon that involved 141 countries and 200 million people.  Today, 43 years after its inception, over a billion people in 193 countries are celebrating the largest secular holiday in the world by doing what they can to improve the quality of the world’s precious resources.  People pick up trash, plant trees and clean waterways.  Some help educate others by sharing their love for planet Earth with anyone willing to listen and learn.

Although I prefer to think of Earth Day as a year-round celebration instead of a one-day holiday, I’m focusing today on some of the wildlife and plant life that make my humble niche of Planet Earth so special.
That brings me to blueberries.  And sandhill cranes.

In Central Florida, blueberries are available to the public from mid-April to July.  When we first moved to south Lake County in 1992, there was only one U-pick blueberry farm within a 10-mile radius of our home - Mark’s U-Pick Blueberries at 18900 County Road 561 in Clermont. 

Back then, our four children were little, our youngest just a baby.  But that didn’t stop us from taking advantage of fresh fruit for the picking.  Whenever Mark’s was open, our family was there, gathering plump berries until our fingers (and mouths) were stained blue.  It was a wonderful way to raise kids – outside in the open air, picking fresh fruit alongside parents, siblings and friends.  When we came home, we made blueberry pies, muffins and pancakes but mostly we ate quantities of blueberries by the bowlful.

Twenty-one years later, instead of disappearing like so many other agricultural operations, blueberry farms in Central Florida have multiplied.  Within a 10-mile radius of our south Lake County home, there are now five U-pick blueberry businesses as well as at least one other that grows fruit exclusively for the commercial market.

Picking blueberries is a great fun for the whole family

Ripe berries by the handful...soon to be eaten by the bowlful

We still eat blueberries by the bowlful and I’m glad to say we are now sharing our love of nature’s bounty with another generation as we introduce our grandchildren to locally grown fruit. 

However, we’re not the only beings infusing a new generation with an appreciation for nature’s bounty. 

Baby Cranes
A month ago, a pair of sandhill cranes built a nest on a tiny island in our lake.  Since then, we’ve eagerly anticipated the arrival of baby cranes.  On April 12, one of the two eggs hatched.  While the adult crane continued to sit on the second egg for another day, it failed to open.  Rather than pursuing a futile effort, the birds abandoned the second egg and proceeded to focus their attention on their single offspring.

Nesting crane

Day-by-day, Ralph and I watched as the baby crane followed its parents on increasingly expanded forays away from its island home.  As we sat at home popping fresh-picked blueberries into our mouths, the sandhill cranes explored their surroundings by poking at bugs, seeds and aquatic tidbits.

2-day-old crane with parents

An Optimistic Outlook
On this 43rd annual Earth Day, I find it encouraging that segments of the agricultural industry in Central Florida are still alive and thriving.  Equally reassuring is the knowledge that wildlife populations like sandhill cranes continue to secure places to raise young and survive.  While major environmental problems unfortunately exist – climate change threatens, litter proliferates, air and waterways remain polluted – I prefer to focus on the positive. 

Picking locally grown blueberries and watching a baby crane discover the world are uplifting activities.  They give me hope and enable me to celebrate Earth Day with a smile on my face and optimism in my heart. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

A foraging trip down back roads

Looking sleepy, Trillian Fischler (pictured with her mother, Amber Boas) is ready for a car-seat siesta

April 15, 2013

On a recent Sunday, my daughter Amber and her family spent the day with us.  By mid-afternoon, Trillian, our 16-month-old grandchild, was ready for a nap but even though she was obviously tired, she was unwilling to stop playing long enough to lie down. 

“Let’s take her for a drive,” Amber suggested and I readily agreed.  When my children were little, I often reverted to the car-ride solution, especially with Amber who tended to be a fussy sleeper. 

After installing the car seat and strapping Trillian in place, we set out for a leisurely drive.  Less than a mile down the road, Trillian nodded off, which enabled Amber and me to have some rare alone time together.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked but when I received no definite proposal, I made the decision myself. 

“Let’s explore,” I said, knowing a relaxing meander around back roads is something Amber and I both enjoy.  “Let’s drive around and see what we can find.  I know the first place we can stop.”

A few minutes later, we pulled off the two-lane onto a grassy strip in an older residential neighborhood where homes sit on a few acres and peeling wood fences delineate property lines. 

“A few months ago I discovered a kumquat tree here that nobody picks,” I said pointing to the bushy citrus plant straddling the fence line of an unused pasture.

Amber’s eyes lit up when she saw the fruit-covered shrub.  In addition to sharing my love for lazy meandering down untraveled roads, Amber inherited my propensity for foraging free food, flowers and herbs.  I stayed in the car with my sleeping grandbaby, while Amber jumped out and proceeded to fill her pockets with the ripest kumquats she could reach.

Bright orange kumquats ready to pick 
Kumquats are members of the citrus family, small fruits with a sweet edible skin and very tart flesh.  While Amber likes to eat only the skin, discarding the rest, I prefer to pop the entire morsel into my mouth savoring the contrast between sweet and sour sensations. 

The thing about kumquat trees is that they are prolific bearers over an extensive period.  With most varieties of backyard citrus, it’s possible to eat or juice all the fruit they produce.  However, unless you’re a commercial grower planning to sell your crop or convert it all to kumquat marmalade, there’s bound to be waste and lots of it. 

Rather than see good food fall to the ground and rot, I like to stop by occasionally and pick a few handfuls.  If the fruit is growing in someone’s yard, I always ask for permission before picking, but if it’s growing by the roadside and seems neglected, I consider it free for the taking.

A few minutes later, after filling her pockets, Amber got back into the car and we ventured on, nibbling away at our foraged find. 

“Where to now?” she asked after checking to be sure that Trillian was still asleep. 

“I know a place in Clermont,” I said, “where we can pick some Surinam cherries.  I passed it the other day and the bushes were covered with ripe fruit.”

Even though they are edible, most people use Surinam cherry bushes as ornamental hedges.  In South Florida, they are a common landscaping plant but in the central part of the state, they are rare.  The few plants I have found have been located in older sections of town, planted at a time when homeowners wanted to surround their yards with as many edibles as possible. 

Surinam cherries are red like more many other cherries but they have their own unique taste

We were heading for the downtown region, but although Clermont was only about 10 miles away, I chose a convoluted route that enabled us to drive along several rural roads flanked by stands of pink phlox and other wildflowers. 

“They’re so pretty,” I said as we rambled by.  “I’d like to have a field of phlox growing on our property some day.”

By the time we reached the Surinam cherry bushes, Trillian was beginning to make wake-up sounds, so only Amber had time to pick a few of the ripest fruit hanging from the shrubs closest to the road.  Even though her cherry cache was small, it whet our appetite for more foraging adventures.

“Let’s do this again soon,” I suggested as I turned the car toward home.  “I can come by your house in Winter Garden one morning when Trillian is ready for her first nap and we can poke around back roads there to see what we can find.”

Amber nodded in agreement as we set off on the only route since we began that took us on main thoroughfares. 

From start to finish, we were gone about 90 minutes.  Although our outing was brief, our accomplishments were many.  My daughter and I spent precious alone time together.  We shared pretty country views and tasty foraged foods.  More important, we talked - conversations uninterrupted by demanding little voices. 

And what about Trillian who slept through the cherry picking, kumquat gathering, scenic vistas and interesting discussions?  We returned home with one smiley, refreshed baby ready to run and play again after her car seat siesta.  Sometime it takes the fussy qualms of an overtired toddler for parents – and grandparents - to reclaim feelings of calm and connectivity.  

Monday, April 8, 2013

Seeing a familiar weed in a new light

Although the short-lived three-petal blue flowers of spiderwort only last a morning, by the next day new blooms have taken their place.

April 8, 2013

My yard is full of spiders but only some are invertebrates.  A surprising number are botanical beauties called Tradescantia ohiensis, commonly known as spiderwort.

Although I never intentionally planted spiderwort, this blue-flowering Florida native has made an appearance in our lawn and garden beds for years.  Spiderworts usually pop up erratically - a few here, a few there, with no particular show of profusion. 

Until this year. 

In 2013, the population exploded.  Suddenly, I began noticing spiderworts everywhere.  While the majority surrounds the compost area, others have infiltrated the collection of weeds my husband and I call “lawn.”  Some have crept their way alongside dirt walkways, next to the clay wall while others crawled toward the lakeshore.  It doesn’t seem to matter what type of soil is present.  Spiderworts are thriving in sand, hard-packed orange clay as well as in rich loam.

Growing in clump, spiderwort flowers range from pink to blue to purple

The explosive growth of this weed/wildflower has caused me to pay closer attention.  While I’ve often admired its colorful blooms – yellow stamens surrounded by three pink-to-blue-to-purple petals – I did little more than acknowledge its presence.  I assumed it spread through some sort of underground root system since I always noticed it growing in clusters instead of isolated specimens.  However, it wasn’t until I did some research that I realized there was much more to this hardy bloomer than a pretty face with leaves that resemble a spider’s legs.

Spiderwort is in the Commelinaceae family of flowering plants that are often nicknamed dayflowers.  Like others in that genus, spiderwort plants and flowers grows in clusters, with each individual bloom lasting only part of a day.  In our yard, the petals open early but by midday, they’ve already begun to wilt.  By dusk, the once pretty blooms will have transformed into a soft jelly-like mush.  The next morning, however, new flowers appear and the cycle of beauty continues. 

In Florida,spiderwort is a perennial reappearing each spring.  While I was correct in assuming this two-foot-tall wildflower spreads by underground rhizomes, I didn’t realize it propagates by seeds as well. 

I also didn’t know it is an edible plant.  I discovered that all parts of 
Tradescantia ohiensis can be eaten – leaves, flowers, stalks and roots.  Although I haven’t tried them yet, people who have compare the steamed stalks to asparagus.  Tender young leaves can also be steamed or used fresh in salad and the blue-colored flowers work well both as a garnish and as a snack when working or walking outdoors.

Tradescantia ohiensis also has medicinal properties.  The plant’s crushed leaves are purported to alleviate the sting of insect bites while a tea made out of boiled roots has use as a laxative. 

It has been an eye-opening experience to learn so much new information about a familiar garden face.  As it turns out, spiders and spiderworts have more in common than just a name.  Neither receives the appreciation they deserve for all the good they have to offer.  Once I stopped thinking of spiderwort as just another annoyingly “creepy” weed, I was able to see it as the valuable botanical beauty it is. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

New life for old shoes

Begonias and dusty miller plants take root in a pair of outgrown children's boots

April 1, 2013

If the shoe fits, wear it. 

But what if it doesn’t? 

What if your kids have outgrown their shoes or if that designer pair of heels simply hurts too much to wear?  What about your favorite sneakers with the worn out soles and dime-size holes or the snow boots that made sense when you lived in Massachusetts but haven’t touched ground in years? 

Well…the closet is always an option.  But even after the door is closed, you’ll still know you added to the mound of unused items in your already cluttered house. 

If the shoes are still usable, you could donate them to a thrift shop – that’s a worthy thing to do.  And for really old, worn out pairs, the trashcan sits ready.  But don’t rush to discard those tired treads!  Other options – equally as worthy as donating to a thrift shop – also exists. 

I have two suggestions that promise a great deal of satisfaction especially if you’re a gardener or a person who enjoys watching birds. 

Take out that pair of unwanted shoes, boots, sneakers or clogs and pour a light mixture of potting soil in the space where your foot normally goes.  Then, take a young start of a favorite plant and push it into the soil.  Succulents work especially well as “shoe-ins” as do small flowering plants like impatiens, begonias or low-growing herbs like thyme or oregano.  

Succulents work especially well in planters made from refashioned high heels

After giving them a good watering, place your new planter in a spot where all can enjoy their repurposed glory.  It always makes me smile when I look out at some of my favorite “shoe-ins” made out of sneakers our grandchildren outgrew, laced-up shoes I no longer wear or worn out boots my kids left behind when they moved away.

A pair of outgrown kid's sneakers finds new life as a container for impatien plants

Nesting season is upon us.  As one who has watched baby birds hatch, develop and eventually fly off on their own, I can attest to the deep pleasure derived from observing this most exciting and endearing of wildlife encounters.  But enticing birds to build nests in a place where they can be easily observed isn’t always as simple as it sounds.  In addition to costing money, most store-bought birdhouses require time and effort to set up.  There’s hardware to purchase and install, tall posts to erect or chains to hang.  Even when mounted, birdhouses require a seasonal cleaning that involves taking them down and, after emptying out the detritus, climbing up a ladder to reattach.

A Carolina wren feeds its babies in a repurposed shoe nest
A boot-nest is so much simpler.  The only necessary items needed are one (free) unwanted boot, lace-up sneaker or shoe, a screwdriver (or hammer if a nail is used instead of a screw) and a tree, fence or wall upon which to attach the refashioned footwear.  Using one screw (or nail), secure the boot-nest to the surface with toe pointing down.  If the footwear has a tongue, pull it outward to make the available nest space as roomy as possible.

Before long, birds will stop by to check it out the new fixture.  Most likely, Carolina wrens will be the first to take up residence.  These feisty, tawny-colored flyers with a white stripe above each eye are curious and inventive nesters.  When wrens settle upon a location, the male and female birds work together to build a nest of tightly woven fibers.  In less than a day, a bowl-shaped nest will be “shoehorned” in, transforming an unwanted piece of footwear into a cozy shelter for a clutch of baby birds.

Some people say, “If the shoe fits, wear it,” but I prefer the adage, “If the shoe doesn’t fit, find a new use for it!” 

Imagination and creativity go a long way to turning the unwanted into the welcome.

I just found this great image online, an apt way to end this post