Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tuning into nature

Simply Living
While making breakfast recently, I turned on the radio. The story: One year after the Newtown killings, still no answer as to ‘Why.’

I turn the radio off.

Sitting down to eat my oatmeal, I picked up the newspaper and scan front-page stories: Ongoing water woes…the plight of the Florida black bear…more reflections on the Newtown killings…

I put the front-page down and picked up the comics. I wanted to feel good. I wanted to laugh. Comics will do that — at least a few of them will.

It’s not that I’m opposed to hearing hard news. I want to know what’s going on in the world. I want to be aware, to be informed. What I don’t want, however, is to be inundated with bad news. I need inspiring tales to balance the sad ones.

That’s why I often turn to nature. I’m never disappointed or upset when I watch the sunrise or observe a sunset. 

I’m not depressed when I listen to an Eastern phoebe singing from its garden perch or follow a butterfly’s flight from one blossom to another.

I know nature is not free from concerns. Climate change and diminishing wildlife habitat are only two of the many problems besetting the natural world. There are struggles and challenges, but rather than dwelling on dangers ahead, I’d rather focus on what’s happening right now. As much as possible, I want to be present and aware.

As this New Year approaches, I urge anyone seeking a refuge from the day’s upsetting and stressful news to take a break by stepping outside. You don’t have to live in the countryside to experience nature. You don’t need any special gear. You can open a window and simply feel the breeze. You can give your mind a rest and let your ears pick up the songs of birds, insects and the wind rustling through trees.

If you decide to take a walk, you don’t have to go far. There are treasures in your own backyard, in your neighborhood or town. As you stroll down the sidewalk, look closely at the ground. Smell the flowers. Observe the leaves. Gaze upward at the sky. Think back in time to how you used to watch clouds as a child. Become that child again. Honor the mystery.

Moments of wonder are all around us. To make them appear, all you have to do is be open to the beauty. Take time — make time — to be aware of your surroundings.

 Despite how upsetting so much of the news is, I’m not about to stop reading the paper, listening to the radio, being on the computer or watching TV. What I am going to do this New Year is expend less energy on the negative while spending more time on the positive. If I can’t find happy stories in the media, I’ll seek them on my own. 

There’s no shortage of inspiration in nature. I promise to share.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Bad weed or good insect magnet...?

Simply Living
Yesterday, I watched three different kinds of bees fly from one red blossom to another on the small patch of Florida tasselflower in the front yard.

Florida tasselflower (Emilia fosbergii) is a weed. It’s also a pollinator magnet. Butterflies, bees and wasps are drawn to this lowly member of the aster family.

Even though most people consider this annual a nuisance, I like tasselflower. It does pop up in lawns and garden beds — places where it is usually unwelcome — but it also attracts important insects that aid plant pollination.

Although one of its common names is Florida tasselflower (other names include Flora’s paintbrush and Cupid’s shaving brush), Emilia fosbergii isn’t a Florida native. Sources suggest it may have originated in east or central Africa but quickly made its way around the world. It now grows throughout the West Indies, Mexico and South America as well as in Hawaii and parts of Indonesia. In Florida, it appears statewide except in the north and the Panhandle.

I’m not sure when tasselflower found its way into my yard but I remember taking note of it a few months ago. I was sitting outside enjoying the sunlight bouncing off the lake when I noticed a queen monarch butterfly landing on this thin-stemmed flower topped with several bristly red blooms. 

Several other blossoming plants grew nearby, but the butterfly ignored them all, settling repeatedly on this single species, going from one red flower to another. At the time, I didn’t know the plant’s name, but it was obviously the butterfly’s favorite.

Since that day, I’ve learned much about the humble tasselflower and paid attention to it whenever I see it. In doing so, I’ve been amazed by how many butterflies, bees and wasps land on its blooms. The insects come to sip nourishing nectar and, in the process, they do the essential work of moving pollen from one plant to another.

Zebra longwing butterfly on tasselflower

Yet, despite the ability of this pretty little wildflower to attract pollinators ­­— insects that are disappearing at an alarming rate — most people want nothing to do with tasselflower. They want it out of their yard, and they’re not averse to using herbicides to get the job done. After all, they reason, tasselflower is a weed, not a grass. Sure, it’s colorful and doesn’t have thorns or prickly burrs, but it grows taller than grass and that makes a neat lawn look messy.

If the object is to have a weed-free, all-one-level, green-only lawn, I suppose the appearance of volunteer tasselflowers can mess things up. But so can the spraying of herbicides. 

Wildlife that eat sprayed plants can be poisoned or even killed by toxic chemicals. Other plants can be harmed by over-spraying and runoff can have negative effects on groundwater.

It seems to me that if volunteer plants such as Florida tasselflower can satisfy the needs of beneficial insects like bees, wasps and butterflies, I should do my best to keep those flowers around. I may not live on the neatest, most manicured property but that’s the way I like it. 

Apparently, wildlife likes it too.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Litter hurts...

Simply Living
Turning onto the paved road from my driveway, I wasn't surprised to see a dead armadillo. In Florida, armadillos are one of the most common victims of highway mortality.

I didn't think about the dead armadillo again until I was on my way home and noticed a contingent of vultures surrounding the road kill. I pulled over for a better look, which of course caused the wake — that's the name for a group of feeding vultures — temporarily to disperse.

What I saw was almost nothing.

The animal's tough armored skin, long tail and clawed feet remained, but its innards — all soft, edible parts — were completely gone. In less than three hours, the vultures had not only scored a meal but also cleaned up what would have become an unsightly, smelly mess.

Most of us don't think of vultures as emissaries of aid but, really, that's what they are. These large, less-than-pretty birds are nature's clean-up crew keeping our roads, yards and public spaces free from animal remains. Vultures transform stinky decaying matter into life-sustaining nourishment. If that doesn't earn them our thankful appreciation, I don't know what will.

Vultures feed upon a wide range of recently killed animals

As I stared at the empty shell of what had only hours ago been an active warm-blooded mammal, I was impressed by nature's efficiency. In addition to vultures, numerous flies buzzed about, busy with their own form of carcass decomposition.

Most people wouldn't give such a situation much thought. After all, neither vultures nor armadillos are beloved animals. Armadillos are despised because they dig holes in yards and burrow under structures. And vultures? Well, they're ugly and eat carrion. What good are animals like these?

Armadillos aren't the most popular animals

The answer is, "very good." Despite the fact that their beneficial acts generally go unnoticed and unappreciated, the work both animals do make the world a better place for human inhabitants.

The pesky armadillo rooting through the Saint Augustine grass isn't digging up lawn divots just to annoy people or for sport. It's foraging for food. The comical looking, nearly blind armadillo picks up the scent of ants, termites, beetles and lawn-damaging grubs, devouring them with a voracious appetite.

Armadillos keep the insect world in check in much the same way the ungainly vulture keeps decomposing matter under control. Both animals help people by doing the dirty work of everyday life.

Wouldn't it be nice if people were as diligent at cleaning up their messes as the animals we dismiss so casually?

Piles of litter mar the landscape along the same stretch of county-maintained road where the bald-headed birds feasted on the unfortunate armadillo. Remnants of meals carelessly tossed from car windows have come to rest alongside used tires and construction detritus. Reminders of human indifference dot the roadside like pocks on nature's face.

It took less than three hours for vultures to eliminate most evidence of the armadillo's existence, but the litter along my quiet country lane will remain indefinitely unless some Samaritan decides to take the time to pick up the trash.

The process of carnage-hungry critters consuming a dead animal is a marvel of the natural world, while tossed-aside trash along the roadside merely exemplifies the blatant disconnect some people have from any life but their own. It demonstrates disrespect and ignorance, along with a lack of compassion and connectivity.

Vultures may be ugly, but humans can be stupid. We're also not very good at cleaning up our own messes.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

This mushroom stinks!

A Simply Extra
I smelled it before I saw it...an emerging stinkhorn mushroom on the path around the lake.

Look close and you'll see a fly on the mushroom's gooey, black interior. The black goo is where the spores are. The stinkhorn emit a foul odor that attracts flies.  As flies enter and poke about, they pick up spores eventually dispersing them elsewhere.  It's an effective albeit odoriferous method of fungi reproduction.

To read about another stinkhorn encounter, check out my column entitled, "If you don't know it, don't kick it."

Monday, December 9, 2013

A squirrel that looks like a weasel and runs like a fox

Simply Living
I don't usually think of squirrels as particularly noteworthy animals. 

These ubiquitous rodents live in our trees, invade our birdfeeders and annoy the heck out of gardeners. When they enter a house or car, they can create a dangerous and costly mess by shredding insulation and gnawing through wood and wires. I think of squirrels as rats with tails and generally don't pay them much heed unless I'm scaring one off a fig tree or porch screens.

The other day, however, I had a different kind of squirrel encounter. More accurately, I encountered a different kind of squirrel.

It was midday and I was almost home from town when I pulled off a dirt road to photograph a flock of bluebirds. 

On one side of the road, a small herd of cattle and a family of sandhill cranes were grazing an open range. Across the road, a freshly-mown field abutted several acres of pines.

While trying to capture pictures of the colorful birds, I noticed movement in the field. Some dark-colored animal was out there but was too far away to see clearly. I pointed the lens at it and zoomed in for a closer look.

My camera revealed a bushy-tailed, black-faced, white-eared Sherman's fox squirrel stretching up to get a better look at the odd-looking creature watching from across the field. The squirrel's front paws — they looked like white gloves over black arms — held an unidentifiable morsel. After our mutual stare-down, she continued nibbling while I clicked away on my camera.

I recognized the animal because I'd chanced upon a Sherman'sfox squirrel on two other occasions, both in the same general area. The first time — before I even knew such a creature existed — I mistook the animal for a weasel or mink, an easy mistake to make since they share similar body sizes, shapes and colorings. Their very moniker hints of a similarity to foxes because of their fox-like gait.


Another reason Sherman's fox squirrels often go unrecognized is their relative rarity. One of four subspecies of fox squirrels in the Sunshine State, they live in open pinewoods with scattered oak trees in parts of central and north-central Florida. Stands of longleaf pine cones and seeds provide their main food sources, but they also eat fungi, fruit, flower buds and acorns from turkey oak trees. They build their nests in oaks too, lining the structures with leaves and moss. Sherman's fox squirrels reproduce in late winter and mid-summer with a litter of two to three offspring each time.

Scientists estimate that more than 80-percent of the species' native territory is gone — developed for commercial, agricultural or residential use. Often territory is degraded by lack of fire, which is necessary to control undergrowth.

Because of their depleted habitat, Florida's Endangered andThreatened Species Rule lists Sherman's fox squirrels as a Species of SpecialConcern. Under Florida law, they cannot be hunted.

While observing the female fox squirrel in my neighbor's field, I found myself comparing her to the common grey squirrel. Although grey squirrels are too ordinary to be special, they're admittedly cute, especially when they stand upright on their rear haunches. Sherman's fox squirrels are even more adorable because of their color and size.

Weighing in at two to three pounds, these bushy-tailed beauties are up to three times heavier than grey squirrels and about 10 inches longer. Their strong hind legs allow them to leap longer distances, and they spend more time on the ground than their tree-loving cousins.

My fox squirrel encounter was a memorable experience, and I'm encouraged that, like the Florida scrub-jay, whose population is also in decline, pockets of suitable habitat still exist in our region to sustain these fascinating creatures. 

It may be just a squirrel, an animal most of us consider little more than a rodent pest, but there's nothing squirrelly about a species' need to survive. I'm rooting for the Sherman's fox squirrel to be one of nature's success stories.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A garden surprise

A Simply Extra
Ralph went out to the garden last night with his flashlight to do one of his late-night checks for caterpillars, snails and other garden beasties. What he found instead surprised him...

Wrapped around a sad looking Brussels sprout plant was a long, thin yellow-and-brown-striped rat snake.

He snapped some pictures of it while I was inside fast asleep.

This morning, just before breakfast, he went out to check the garden again.  Another surprise!  The snake was still there, still wrapped around the Brussels sprout stalk!

This time I was the one with the camera and the rat snake cooperated by stretching out so I could see more of its pretty body.

When you're a gardener, you have to be ready for all sorts of surprises.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Supporting rare birds

Simply Living
The Florida scrub-jay is a rare bird.

Unlike most other avian species, this bold and beautiful blue, grey and white-plumed bird is friendly to people — even though people are responsible for the disappearing scrub-oak habitat it so desperately needs to survive.

Because its habitat is so specific — dry, sandy upland with minimal low-growing shrubs and scrub oak trees — the Florida scrub-jay is not easy to find. 

Outside Central Florida, you might not find it at all. The Florida scrub-jay is endemic to fragmented segments of the mid-section of the state, which means it is found there and nowhere else. It is the only endemic bird in Florida and only one of 15 endemic bird species in the entire United States.

Population estimates for this uncommon creature are in the range of 4,000 to 6,000 adults but unfortunately, those numbers decrease annually. Because of their declining status, Florida scrub-jays are listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Living in South Lake County where several small populations of Florida scrub-jays still exist, I have had the opportunity to observe these rare birds on numerous occasions. Just the other day, I took one of my favorite back roads home from Clermont specifically in the hope of stopping to see and photograph some scrub-jays.

The route I took over Grassy Lake Road in Minneola is a hilly, bumpy two lane through abandoned orange groves and rural homes set on large acreage. It is land where at least one family of scrub-jays has lived for several years. Another rare quality of the Florida scrub-jay is its strong family ties. Considered "cooperative breeders," scrub-jay offspring remain with their parents for at least a year to help raise the next brood and to guard against predators by acting as sentinels from the top of scrub oaks.

At least for now, the birds that live along Grassy Lake Road are safe. Despite bumps and curves, cars speed by, but the birds seem to have adapted to the noise and fast-moving traffic. Most of the land where the birds now dwell is slated for development. Thousands of homes and commercial structures could be built where families of rare Florida scrub-jays now live.

Bruce and Cathy Brown, founders of the Florida Scrub-JayTrail in Clermont are trying to help. On Dec. 20-21 the Florida Scrub-Jay Consortium , a not-for-profit corporation, is hosting its 3rd Annual Winterfair to benefit the building fund for the development of the Florida Scrub-Jay Treatment Center for injured songbirds and wildlife. 

The family-fun event includes horse-drawn wagon rides through the wilderness, kayaking, paddleboarding and craft demonstrations.

There will also be wildlife shows, games, food, shopping and a very special Friday evening concert by another rare bird — folk legend, John Sebastian.

As excited as I am each time I see a Florida scrub-jay, I'm equally thrilled at the opportunity to see John Sebastian perform in person. Sebastian, founder of the group The Lovin' Spoonful, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. 

Some of his most memorable hits include "Do You Believe in Magic?", "Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?" and (What a day for a) "Daydream." In addition to singing, Sebastian also will share stories of the early days of folk music and his performance at Woodstock. He'll explain how those experiences affect his music.

Those of us who live in Central Florida are fortunate to have the opportunity to observe Florida scrub-jays in the wild. However, with opportunity comes responsibility. John Sebastian sings about 'believing in magic,' but it takes more than magic to save a species. It takes commitment and participation by the community at large as well as spreading the word with others.

I've already bought my tickets to the Friday night concert and hope you will too. If you come, please say hello. I'd love to see you there.

For more information visit http://www.scrubjaytrail.org or call 352-429-5566.