Monday, May 27, 2013

The result of a little wild(life) sex...

Two ducks in still water

Simply Living
When I saw a pair of ducks in the lake, I thought I knew what they were. 

“Mallards,” I said to myself reflecting upon childhood memories. 

When I was young, I often saw mallards swimming in the lake next to my Pennsylvania home.  Male mallards have bright green iridescent plumage on their heads and necks in contrast to the plainer – some might say drab-colored females. 

Each of the two ducks I saw swimming in my Florida lake resembled female mallards.  Both were dappled shades of brown and tan, although one of the ducks seemed slightly darker and its bill was a bit more brightly colored.

The two ducks look alike

I considered the possibility that both birds were females but the way they were acting – one bird standing guard while the other bobbed for food – as well as the guard’s darker plumage and yellower bill, made me question their identity.

I was right to be doubtful.

It turns out the two birds were not mallards but a closely related species called Florida mottled duck that lives year-round (non-migratory) in Florida’s freshwater and brackish marshes.  Like the mallard, it’s a ‘dabbling duck,’ because it trawls along shallow water skimming aquatic plants off the surface instead of diving for food and disappearing completely underwater as other ducks do.  Periodically, the mottled duck bobs under, submerging just its head and neck to feed.

While one watches, the other duck submerges its head underwater in search of food
About 40 percent of the mottled duck’s diet consists of snails, insects, small fish and other aquatic animals.  The rest of its food comes from the roots and stems of plants, seeds, reeds and even berries.

Mottled ducks aren’t ‘regulars’ on our lake like the heron, great egret, tricolored heron or ibises, but for the past week or so I’ve noticed them while rowing.  They tend to swim close to the shoreline and do their best to stay as far away from me as possible.  If my rowboat passes too close, they take flight. 

It could be that I’m seeing them lately because they’re ready to have babies.  Mottled ducks nest February through July in stands of tall rushes, reeds or palmettos close to shallow water lakes.  They select a site close to a lake, hollow out a space amidst the dense vegetation then line it with soft down.  The female lays 8 to 10 eggs that she incubates for just under a month.  A day or two after the eggs hatch, the entire family leaves land and takes to the water where the parents show their offspring how to skim the surface for food and how to “duck” their heads underwater to find aquatic edibles.

I’m not surprised I initially misidentified them.  The two species look so much alike, even mottled ducks get confused.  Interspecies mating (hybridizing) between mallards and Florida mottled ducks has happened so often in recent years, pure-breed Florida mottled duck populations are in decline.  The resulting offspring of hybridized pairs are fertile, which perpetuates the problem.

Both sexes of mottled duck look similar to female mallards but not at all like the brightly colored male mallard (picture credit:

Mottled ducks and mallards haven’t always interbred.  In the past, they didn’t crossbreed because mallards that migrated to Florida in the winter flew back north prior to mottled duck mating season.  That changed when more and more Floridians began raising mallards and releasing them in local waterways.

Feeding wild ducks contributes to changes in migration patterns (photo credit:

Instead of returning to northern climes, domesticated mallards stayed in Florida year round and bred with local populations of native mottled ducks.  In Florida, the release of mallards is illegal but people still do it and interbreeding continues.

I had no idea when I spotted two rather ordinary looking ducks swimming in our lake I was gazing upon critters whose amorous activities can contribute to the extinction of an entire species.  

That’s a hefty price to pay for a little wild(life) sex. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Turtle reproduction efforts versus human curiosity

A softshell turtle prepares to dig a hole in the soft sand to lay eggs

Simply Living

Before leaving the property to do errands in town, we stopped at the barn so Ralph could look for some tools he needed.  While my husband searched, I waited in the car wondering if this unexpected delay would be long enough for me to read a few more pages of the novel I’d brought along for just such a situation. 

I decided it was and had turned to my bookmarked page when I heard a shout:

 “Come quick and bring the camera!”

Putting down my book and picking up the camera, I opened the door, slid out and ran to where Ralph stood next to the barn by the dirt driveway.  He was pointing to an animal with a long, thick neck.

At first, I didn’t know what I was looking at.  A tan appendage about the size and shape of an adult forearm with fingers curled into a fist protruded from the sand.  My first thought was, snake.  Then it dawned on me.

“It’s a turtle laying eggs!”  I said, stating the obvious.  “Geesh!  Could she have picked a worse spot, right in the middle of the driveway?”

The soft sand in the driveway made digging easy

The turtle, a Florida softshell (Apalone ferox), was taking advantage of a sandy section of roadway to deposit eggs.  This odd-looking aquatic resident of the Sunshine State rarely leaves water except to bask in the sun or when the female’s internal clock tells her it’s time to reproduce.  Then, following nature’s command, she crawls ashore to seek out a suitably sun-warmed spot to deposit and bury a clutch of up to 30 one-inch diameter oval-shaped, white eggs.

I had to wonder what instinct directed this particular turtle to select a well-traveled dirt driveway for her offspring’s nest.  Sure, the location was sunny to aid incubation and the white sand made digging easy, but the fact that cars and trucks regularly rode over the spot made the choice less than sensible. 

Apparently, sensibility was not part of the equation as the serving-platter-size reptile proceeded to push aside dirt with her massive webbed claws.

“Look how fast she’s digging!”  Ralph exclaimed.  “Find something to protect the nest so no one will run over it.”

I grabbed two chairs from a nearby gazebo, placing one in front and the other behind the rapidly expanding hole.

The Florida softshelled turtle is easy to identify.  As far as size goes, it’s large.  Females are about two-feet long with males about half as big.  Instead of having a hard shell like most turtles, the carapace covering the softshell has the look and feel of wrinkled leather and because its tan-to-brown body is more flat than convex, some people call it a “pancake turtle.”

Its long, thick neck supports a head that resembles a moray eel with broadly spaced eyes and a porcine snout.  The three webbed claws on each of its strong, stout feet enable the turtle to swim swiftly through water and be a speed demon on land. 

The first time I saw a softshell turtle in Florida was shortly after we had moved here from Massachusetts and were driving down a two-lane bordering a nature preserve in Kissimmee.  Suddenly a turtle-like creature started to cross the road ahead of us.  In a panic, I hit the brakes.  As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.  With unexpected speed, the odd-looking animal traversed both lanes well before our car was within striking distance.  Once it was safely off the road, we pulled over too.  Our kids were little back then and we simply sat there awestruck. 

“What kind of strange animal was that?” we wondered.  “It looked like a turtle but didn’t move like any turtle we’ve ever seen before.”

Fast forward 25 years later and I’m still awestruck.

Not only can this reptilian anomaly move fast on land and water, it can dig a hole quickly too.  What it doesn’t seem to like, however, is being gawked upon at close quarters by enthralled humans.

Curiosity got the best of us despite our attempts to be mere observers. 

As we edged closer to see if the hole contained any eggs yet, the turtle stopped digging, extended her impressively thick neck and gave us the evil eye.  She stayed stretched out and still for a few seconds as if she was considering her options.  Moments later - decision made - she headed back to the lake, leaving behind a partially excavated hole devoid of any eggs.

Leaving the nest...
No eggs this time

“I guess we scared her away,” I said disappointedly as Ralph proceeded to smooth out the sand and remove the chairs. 

Softshell turtles are vulnerable to many predators but I don’t like to think I’m among them.  However, even those of us with the best of intentions can inadvertently disrupt nature’s plans.  

The next time I encounter a softshell turtle digging a hole to lay eggs, I hope to respond differently.  I’ll still observe but rein in my curiosity.  I’ll let the turtle do what it wants – even if that means choosing a well-traveled road as a nest site.  I’ll try harder not to interfere.  

Monday, May 13, 2013

Row, row, row my boat

Rowing at dusk

Simply Living

Lately, instead of going for morning rows, I’ve been going boating in the early evening.  At that time of day, the lake is usually glassy calm, the sun has sunk beneath the tree line and the water reflects the changing colors of the sky.  As I stroke steadily from one end of the lake to the other, I feel like I’m drifting down a stream of sensory stimulation. 

Every tree, shrub, vine and species of bamboo is a slightly different shade of green.  Elderberry bushes topped with broad white blooms are interspersed among the willows, pines and myrtles.  Along the shoreline, yellow-eyed grass, blue pickerelweed and tiny white bog buttons add dabs of brilliance.

White elderberry flowers add a splash of brightness
On overcast days, the mirror-like water reflects the cloud cover from billowy white to peach to grey.  Then there’s the sky itself.  Sometimes it’s blue, sometimes pink.  Usually, it’s a swirling combination of colors in between.

The ever-changing early evening skyscape

At dusk, birds are active.  I can depend upon at least one great white egret standing like a statue in the shallow water while nearby a tricolored heron does a jittery dance as it trolls for food.  Often a great blue heron appears and on occasion, a pair of wood ducks.  Ibises are regulars that tend to fish in groups, as do the nervous little sandpipers that skirt the shoreline with their constantly bobbing bodies.

I have to look closely to see small sandpipers that blend so effortlessly into the shoreline

As I pull the oars through the water, my rhythmic strokes startle turtles and interrupt the shallow-water grazing of triploid carp.  Occasionally I’ll be startled myself by the loud splash made by a small alligator diving for cover before I approach.

A young alligator checks out my rowboat

Living next to a lake, I’m accustomed to seeing fish jump out of the water, but in the early evening when dragonflies and insects are buzzing about, large fish are especially active.  Small fish are too.  I’m always surprised to see schools of minnows hopscotch over the water as I row by.  They’re probably fleeing from predators but I like to think they share my contentment and are leaping for joy.

Dragonflies and damselflies are busy at dusk

At the south end of the lake, a dead sumac bush taller than any other lakeside plant is the preferred lookout post for a contingent of shrub-nesting catbirds and cardinals.  As I stroke steadily toward them, one or more birds is always there to greet or (more realistically) yell at me.  

“Stay away!”  I imagine them saying.  “What do you think you’re doing, coming so close to our nests?”

A catbird patrols its territory from its lookout post on a dead sumac bush

Farther inland, a screech owl occupies a dead pine tree.  When I row by the point closest to the snag, I stop to use my camera’s zoom lens like a binocular.  If I’m lucky, I’ll catch a glimpse of the big-eyed predator peering out at the darkening world from its hollow tree home.

A screech owl surveys the landscape from it pine snag home

The entire time I’m rowing, bats and birds fly overhead.  Swallows come out in the evening to do their aerial dance, soaring and swooping over the watery surface.  Killdeer appear with a wing-fluttery whoosh while bats dip and dive in their erratic search for insects.

Nocturnal critters come alive when the sun sinks low but many others retire.  Diurnal birds like ibises, egrets, sandhill cranes and cormorants head home to roost.  

Birds heading home to roost
When I look up from my row, it feels like I’m watching a plumed parade.  Some birds fly in flocks, others go solo but all seem to travel in the same northeastern direction.  No matter how often I watch their flight, I always wonder, “Why northeast and just where are they all going…?”  It’s one of many mysteries to ponder as I row...

The other day, a brown thrasher serenaded me.  Its exuberant missive filled the air but as much as I looked, I couldn’t find the bird anywhere.  When I reached the north end of the lake, I rested my oars and scanned the treetops for the source only to locate the thrasher on the uppermost branch of the tallest pine on the property.  

Serenaded by a brown thrasher

How happy it sounded.  It sang with such gusto, its song so full of life.  Was it broadcasting its territory, calling for a mate or simply singing a song to celebrate the day?

There are many ways to celebrate life, to find calmness and joy.  Some people meditate; do yoga, bike, garden, walk or even bake.  Other people pop pills.  I push my 49-year-old aluminum skiff off the shore and go for a relaxing row.  

For me, steady stroking through still water works wonders at dissipating worries, woes and complaints.  A once-around in my dented rowboat exercises muscles, uplifts my mood and fills me with a sense of contentment.  It’s hard to stay stressed, overwhelmed or scattered when surrounded by so much natural beauty.

Monday, May 6, 2013

What happened to the cranes?

The last time I saw the crane family on our property was when the baby was 8-days-old

Simply Living

The day after I wrote last week’s column, the cranes disappeared.

Before eating breakfast that morning, I scanned the lakeshore with my binoculars. When I didn’t see the birds, I didn’t worry. I knew the cranes — two adults and their 9-day-old baby — had been taking longer and longer walks as the days went by. I figured they were exploring inland, farther away from the shore.

After breakfast, I looked again. Still no cranes.

I was busy that morning and in the afternoon, too. There were errands to attend to in town and work in my office to complete. Even so, I made time periodically to step outside with the binoculars to scan the property. Yet every time I looked, I came up blank. I couldn’t find the cranes anywhere.

By evening, after returning from a long walk around the lake, into the woods and out onto the marshland, I was edging on frantic.

“What do you think happened,” I asked Ralph. “It seems unlikely that they all were killed by a predator and the baby’s too young to fly yet so they couldn’t have flown somewhere else. And besides, why would they? Their nest is here. I just can’t figure it out.”

The next morning, the first thing on my mind was to look for the birds. Once again, the cranes were nowhere in sight.

When I searched, I saw many other birds on the lake, but no sandhill cranes

After breakfast, I took another walk, this time paying closer attention to details. When walking past a section of field fence hidden behind a hedge of bamboo, I noticed a slight break in the fence where it met the ground. It was a gap too small for an adult sandhill crane to fit through but just the right size to accommodate an inquisitive chick.

When I returned home, I told Ralph about my discovery.

“What if the baby crane discovered the hole in the fence and wandered through it,” I proposed. “Then, what if the parents flew to the other side to join the baby but couldn’t figure out how to get back? Do you think that’s possible?”

Ralph looked at me as if was slightly mad. Was I becoming too obsessed with all things sandhill crane?

Indulging me, he said, “I suppose it’s possible.”

The next day, Ralph seemed more enthusiastic when he came into my office to tell me he had just heard the cranes bellow.

“It sounded like it was coming from the other side of the fence.”

We knew we had to check it out.

Donning long-sleeve shirts and long pants for protection from briers and barbed wire, we made our way through the bamboo and brambles until we reached the fence. Then, being careful not to cut ourselves, we climbed over the wire fencing onto the rambling acreage.

The property abutting ours is a mix of narrow canals and open upland uninhabited by people but grazed upon by a small herd of impressive looking longhorn cattle. Careful to avoid cow patties as well as the bulls that left them, Ralph and I traversed as much of the land as possible. In the process, we startled a pair of wood ducks, surprised a heron and disturbed several cattle egrets but we didn’t see any cranes. Disappointed, we returned home.

I found this bull's long, pointy horns rather intimidating

I began to accept the fact that the family of sandhill cranes was gone. Although I had no idea where they went or what had become of them, I tried to stay optimistic.

“They have to be here somewhere,” I insisted. “I just can’t believe predators got them all.”

Days later, I finally saw them again.

“I found the cranes!” I exclaimed after returning from a walk around the lake. “Just as we expected, they’re on the other side of the fence, all three of them together!”

During my walk, I heard noises coming from behind the bamboo hedge so I stopped to investigate. I wedged myself into a narrow space and peeked through the canes. Sure enough, there were the birds, walking close enough to where I was standing for me to see that none of them looked harmed.

The crane family - safe and sound on an abutting property

“I wonder if the baby crane did wander through that small break in the fence,” I said. “Maybe it did get through and because it couldn’t figure out how to get back, the whole family decided to stay there.”

The reason for their disappearance will always be a mystery, but you know what? It doesn’t matter. I’m happy just knowing the cranes are still alive. Although they no longer live on our property, I’m relieved they’re nearby. I’m even hopeful. Baby cranes can fly when they are 70 days old and that’s not too far off. One day I might look outside and see the three of them digging for grubs in my front yard.

With wildlife, as I’ve come to discover, anything can happen.