Monday, April 28, 2014

Loving wildflowers

A few days ago, I chanced upon an unexpected expanse of flowers as I rounded a curve on Number 2 Road in Yalaha. A huge field of perennial peanut stretched out across a hillside. The land — it had to be 20 acres or more — was emblazoned with bright yellow blooms.

Needless to say, I pulled over to take a look.

Almost immediately, I realized the property was a subdivision that must have stalled in the making. Roads and utilities were in place, but no structures other than an entry were built. Although a dark-brown stockade fence outlined part of the property, there were places where disobedient plants had strayed beyond their intended limit. Like many wildflowers, perennial peanut has a mind of its own, oblivious to man-made confines.

After taking several pictures, I stood by the fence and enjoyed the view. It was a pretty location of rolling hills with a horse farm in the distance and a tree farm across the way. Number 2 Road connects State Road 19 in Howey-in-the-Hills with County Road 48 in Yalaha. The curvy two-lane meanders by homes and small farms that run the gamut from ramshackle to ranch-style regal.

As I stood there gazing upon the blanket of floral color, I wondered what the developers were thinking. Perennial peanut is not your typical subdivision choice since it is neither inexpensive nor as easy to sow as grass. Someone went the extra mile to pick this drought-tolerant, Florida-friendly substitute for traditional lawns. Whoever did it must have shared my passion for adding color to the landscape.

In the 22 years since my husband, Ralph, and I bought the property where we live, I've wanted to cover it in fields of wildflowers. I've always wanted to be able to walk outside and step into a living palette of color. I would like to be able to pick a bouquet of phlox and blanketflower, coreopsis and black-eyed Susans.

A field of phlox

Unfortunately, it hasn't happened. I used to bemoan that fact until recently when I realized that our property actually is full of wildflowers. They are just different from those I envisioned.

Instead of a field of perennial peanut like the one I discovered in Yalaha or roadside plantings of colorful wildflowers like those along portions of I-75 or U.S. Highway 27, our property is dotted with assorted unplanted blooms. Purple passionflower vines (Passiflora incarnate) twine their way around whatever trees they can climb while red tasselweed (Emilia fosbergii) and white Spanish needle (Bidens alba) appear ubiquitously across the ground. There are unidentified pink flowers growing by the lakeside together with any number of unnamed grasses, sedges and reeds.

A Spanish needle bloom (with a red Florida tasselweed in the foreground) attracts a buckeye butterfly
Passionflower vines twine their way across the ground and up anything they can climb

Elderberry bushes grow next to thorny tumbles of blackberry brambles. Small yellow flowers called butterweed (Packera glabella) look like ready-made bouquets, while one whiff of the tiny blue toadflax (Linaria canadensis) always reminds me of daffodils on Cape Cod.

A butterweed bouquet brightens the lakeshore

Someday, I'd still like to have an expansive stretch of more traditional wildflowers. Doing so, however, requires planning, timing and soil preparation. The field of perennial peanut, probably installed as sod or plugs, must have been a time-consuming, pricey project and as much as I appreciate its beauty, I'm realistic enough to know it doesn't mesh with our priorities.

Still, a girl can dream and admire — and appreciate beauty wherever she finds it. I never know what I'll find when I take back roads. That's exactly why I take them.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Squawking catbird in sumac

Very often when I walk along the path by the north end of the lake, a catbird flies into one of the scrubby bushes and yells at me.  The other day I decided it was time to capture his squawking call on tape.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The sound of a Greater Yellowlegs

I often see the Greater Yellowlegs along the shoreline or wading in the shallow water of our lake.  It spends much of its time hunting for tiny aquatic animals and insects that it captures with its long, slender black beak.

The other day while I was walking around the lake, I noticed the Greater Yelllowlegs in calling mode and decided to record its sound.  If you listen closely toward the end of the recording you will hear a faint response from another Yellowlegs that was wading in the water a short distance away.  

Friday, April 25, 2014

Portrait of a special bird

The Florida Scrubjay is a special bird.  The only place it lives is in Florida and even then, its only found in parts of the state that meet its very specific habitat requirements.

To survive, the Florida Scrubjay must live on acreage that is not covered with trees.  It needs a scrub habitat that burns frequently so the few trees that are there remain stunted

These highly social birds live in extended family units. Adults males and females mate for life and offspring stay with the family for two or more years to help raise the young.

Breeding doesn't begin until the Florida scrubjay is at least 2 years old, often not until it is 3 or 4 years old

Acting as a sentry is an important part of Florida Scrubjay behavior.  The sentry poses on the highest branches of the tallest tree in its territory to watch for predators and defend its family unit.

In addition to acting as a lookout and protector, the sentry also helps feed young scrubjays

Acorns are the mainstay of a Florida Scrubjay's diet but it will also eat seeds, berries, frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, insects and even mice.

Munching on rosary peas, which are poisonous to people but not harmful to birds

Since the land need by these special birds is often developed or overgrown by trees, Florida Scrubjay population is waning.  Currently there are only about 6000 birds left.  Yet, even though people are mainly responsible for their lack of habitat, the Florida Scrubjay remains one of the friendliest birds around.  Instead of shying away from humans, these blue-and-gray birds will allow people to get very close. And, although feeding Scrubjays is not recommended because the birds then become dependent upon the food, a wild bird will even eat raw unsalted peanuts out of a person's hand.

Even though people are responsible for much of the destruction of scrubjay habitat, wild birds remain surprisingly willing to interact with humans

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Two butterflies

My patch of Spanish Needle (Bidens alba) attracts so much wildlife.  Bees are always flying from one flower to another but today so were butterflies.  Below are pictures of a Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) and a Checkered White (Pontia protodice), two butterflies that couldn't get enough of the small daisy-like blooms and the surrounding grassy weeds.

The Buckeye would land on a flower then slowly turn around until it made a complete circle.  At that point it would fly off to another flower and repeat the process.

Drinking nectar from the Bidens alba flower

Adult Buckeye Butterflies only live for about a two weeks

A female Buckeye can lay several hundred eggs in her short lifespan

The Buckeye ignored the red Florida tasselweed in the foreground, focusing entirely on the Bidens

The large colorful 'eyespots' on the Buckeye's wings help to scare away predators who are fooled into thinking they're looking at a face 

In between drinking nectar from Bidens alba plants, the White Checkered Butterfly spent considerable time resting on blades of grass.  

Another name for this butterfly is Southern Cabbage

I like the slightly blue color of this butterfly's body

Although a common butterfly, the Checkered White - especially the more heavily marked females like this one - are beautiful to behold

Monday, April 21, 2014

Video of waxwings eating white mulberries

The feast continues!

Mulberry versus waxwing theory put to the test

My husband Ralph has a theory: If we plant enough mulberry trees, at some point there will be more mulberries than the birds can eat.

I didn’t think it would work.

Cedar waxwing about to swallow a white mulberry

The birds are cedar waxwings, feathered bandits that fly in annually to strip our white and black mulberry trees of fruit a day before they’re ready to pick. It's uncanny how they know exactly when to arrive until you realize how waxwings work.

A select group of birds takes on the role of scout. About a dozen or so scouts then fly by potential feeding sites ahead of time to check on their status. After surveying the situation, the scouts report back to the flock — how they do it is an avian mystery — so their hungry friends will know exactly when to time their arrival.

When the berries are just about ready to pick — about two weeks after the scouts’ check-in — a large contingent of ravenous birds descends on the source. Suddenly, a quiet afternoon is shattered by the unrelenting high-pitched chatter of several hundred flying mouths intent upon devouring each almost-ripe berry dangling from the limbs of heavily-laden mulberry trees.

Hundreds of waxwings arrive at once to land on the mulberry tree and devour berries

And this year, our trees were more heavily laden than ever.

We grow both black mulberries like the ones pictured and a white variety that is slightly sweeter.  The birds like them both.

We’ve been growing white and black mulberries — and battling waxwings — for a long time. We planted our first four trees shortly after we built our home, positioning them about 30 feet away for easy access during picking season. Mulberry trees grow big. After 20-plus years, the original four are now about 35-feet tall with canopies equally as broad. From those “starters,” Ralph propagated cuttings to form new trees that he planted in different places around our acreage. Some of the trees produce black-colored berries while others yield slightly sweeter white fruit. We like the flavor of both. Apparently, cedar waxwings do too.

One of our four original 'starter' trees

Cedar waxwings are highly social birds. Weighing in at just over an ounce with a 12-inch wingspan, these medium-sized, black-masked, crested beauties have tawny colored feathers on their backs and pale yellow bellies. The end of each tail feather looks as though it was dipped in yellow paint and there’s a dot of what resembles red wax on the outer tip of each secondary wing feather.

I enjoy seeing waxwings because they are so beautiful and so interesting to watch. I really don’t mind if they eat our mulberries. I just wish they’d leave us a few. We planted the trees hoping they’d attract birds and supply us with fruit. We’ve succeeded on the first, not so much on the second.

We'd like to have enough mulberries for us and the birds

Ralph began implementing his plant-more-mulberry-trees theory several years ago. He positioned mulberry trees all around our property thinking the waxwings would focus on some of the other trees instead of the ones by our house. He was right about the waxwings finding the other trees because the flock arrived in time to devour their berries just as they were about to ripen. The scouts must have added them to their mental map. Unfortunately, the feeding frenzy wasn’t limited to remote plantings. Waxwings descended on the trees near our house as well.

Not content with merely stripping the trees of fruit, the birds even picked up berries that had fallen to the ground

This year, the flock arrived on March 29th. Three weeks later, they are still here although not as often as they were in the beginning. Mulberries aren’t the only food cedar waxwings eat. Their diet includes all sorts of fruit, berries, seeds, small cones and insects. Occasionally, they even feed on the sap of trees. I’m sure the scouts are working hard to inform their companions of the latest, freshest treats available.

Waxwings eat sycamore seeds in between feasting on mulberries

Plump cedar waxwings rest in the branches of a slash pine after stuffing themselves with fruit 

What does that mean for us? It means Ralph was right. While the waxwings have been off tormenting other growers, we picked buckets of black and white fruit. I thought planting more mulberry trees would increase the number of waxwings instead of solving our problem. I don’t like being wrong, but in this case, I’m glad I was.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Another Florida Scrub Jay encounter

I took my usual back roads route to town this morning in the hope of seeing some Florida Scrub Jays in the yet-to-be-developed acreage along Grassy Lake Road in Minneola.

I wasn't disappointed.  Not only did I see a solitary sentry surveying its hilltop domain, but a second jay appeared to stand guard together.

Solitary sentry

If one guard is good, are scrub jays safer with two guards standing watch...

Shortly after, hunger must have struck because one of the two birds left its post to seek out some Rosary Pea seeds.

Pretty to look at but deadly if eaten by humans.  Fortunately, the toxins in Rosary Pea do not harm birds at all

Rosary Pea Vines are twining their way throughout the area where the Scrub Jays live.  Although highly toxic to people, the bright red and black berries are perfectly safe for birds to eat.

A scrub jay enjoys a Rosary Pea snack

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Better late than never

Someone's building a nest.  It's a little late in the season.  Most sandhill cranes in Florida already have babies by now.  But this pair finally decided to settle in on a tiny tuft of land in the north end of our lake.

It takes 32 days for sandhill crane eggs to incubate, which means if all goes well, we should be seeing hatchlings on May 18th.  I'll keep you posted.

The cranes spent all day preparing the nest site

Settling in

Monday, April 14, 2014

Renovation project yields unexpected benefits

We are in the process of replacing our house’s 22-year-old wall-to-wall carpeting with flooring less likely to trigger allergies.

It’s a big project, so we’re doing it in stages. We began with a room on the south side of the house that used to be my office. After removing the carpet and tiling the floor, we moved our bed there. It’s a small room, but that’s what we were after. We wanted an uncluttered space that we could easily keep free of dust and allergens. So far, the experiment is working. I’m sleeping better, sneezing less and waking up with eyes that are no longer watery.

I had hoped sleeping in a carpet-free room would help my sinuses, but I didn’t anticipate another positive change brought about by our recent room rearrangement: The view from my new bedroom is spectacular. Just outside the large picture window is a mature bottlebrush tree (Callistemon citrinus) that draws wildlife like a magnet. Birds, butterflies, lizards, bees and wasps are constantly coming and going in and out of the tree’s flower-bedecked branches.

The first thing I usually hear when I wake up in the morning is the sound of a male Carolina wren. The wren, a small bird with a loud voice that belies its diminutive size, likes to sit on the uppermost branches of the bottlebrush tree and welcome the day with his trilling tune. Although his song rouses me, rather than getting up quickly, I find myself staying in bed longer to see what other treats the tree will provide.

Although the Carolina wren seems uninterested in bottlebrush flowers, it likes to perch in the uppermost branches in the morning to sing its wake-up song

Lately, I’ve spotted yellow-rumped warblers landing on the red, bristly blooms. I’ve yet to learn whether these pretty birds are there to enjoy a sip of the sweet nectar or to eat tiny bugs caught in the sticky substance. It could be they’re after both.

The yellow-rumped warbler can't seem to get enough of the sticky sweet nectar

Cardinals also are drawn to the tree, although they don’t frequent it as often as the warblers do. When they do come, I usually see both male and female cardinals feeding together. If I didn’t see them fly in, I’d probably miss them entirely. The male cardinal’s coloring is exactly the same shade of red as the bottlebrush blooms, and the bristles are about the same length as a cardinal’s body. I wonder why cardinals don’t spend more time in the bottlebrush tree since it provides such excellent camouflage.

The male cardinal and the bottlebrush bloom are the exact same color 

In past years, I’ve seen hummingbirds hover over the blooms, but I’ve yet to see one arrive on the tree outside my new bedroom’s window. Hummingbirds like bottlebrush trees since they are such a rich source of nectar. One of these mornings, I’m sure one will appear.

A hummingbird rests on a bottlebrush branch

I may not have seen hummers yet, but I sure have seen bees. Yesterday, the tree was abuzz with pollen-gathering insects. We’ve all heard about bee colony collapse and the shortage of honeybees worldwide but in our yard, especially around the bottlebrush tree, bees are working overtime. Along with them, various wasps zoom in and out of the tree. Like bees, wasps also are pollinators, but because they lack a bee’s fuzzy hair, they aren’t as efficient at gathering pollen.

Although it is already heavily laden with pollen, a honeybee approaches yet another bottlebrush flower

One recent afternoon, I watched a male green anole try to attract a female from his perch on one of the tree’s thin branches. The native lizard bobbed up and down displaying his bright pink dewlap. However, I don’t think he was rewarded since I didn’t see any females approach. Instead of trying to attract a mate, the anole might have been marking his territory or trying to intimidate another lizard. Regardless of whether his efforts worked on other anoles, he succeeded in attracting my attention, putting on a show I was happy to have witnessed.

"Look at me!  Look at me!" says the green anole

Butterflies tend to flutter about the bottlebrush tree a little later in the season when the weather is warmer, but the other day as I was still lazing about in bed, I noticed a beautiful blue-colored butterfly land on one of the uppermost blooms. Few things motivate me to move faster than a wildlife sighting. As soon as I saw the butterfly, I jumped out of bed, grabbed my camera and ran outside. Since moving into the new bedroom, I’d gotten into the habit of keeping my camera in the room with me. I took several pictures that morning and later identified the flutterer as Limenitis arthemis astyanax, commonly known by the descriptive name, red-spotted purple butterfly.

A slightly damaged wing isn't enough to keep this pretty butterfly away from the flowers

When we decided to enter into a renovation project to free our home of allergens, I had no idea our efforts would result in such unexpected bounty. Not only can I now breathe easier, I also enjoy an endless array of wildlife sightings from the comfort and sneeze-free zone of my tiny new bedroom.

Bottlebrush trees bloom from spring through summer. I’ve seen so much already in just a few short weeks from my new view. I can’t wait to see what the next few months will reveal.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Enjoying the view...

Two chairs face the lake
Metal table wedged between
Wild geraniums
Tufted cushions 
Stake the claim of nature's scheme 

I came for the view - to sit a while and watch the lake.  But when I arrived, I realized it had been a while, quite a while, since I'd sat there last.  Weeds - sprawling, feathery, flower-bedecked greenery - had woven their way in between the chair slats.  

I didn't sit down.

My intention was to take pictures of the water.  I wound up taking pictures of the chairs instead.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Remembering Mary

In addition to being an academic, my mother-in-law Mary Boas was a gardener. She loved flowers as much, if not more, than teaching mathematical physics, a career she pursued well into her late 80s.

Mary Boas

Shortly after her death in February 2010, just shy of her 93rd birthday, my son dug up some of his grandmother’s favorite amaryllis bulbs and brought them back to Florida. I planted the bulbs in pots and placed them outside on a table in front of my office window. Early last month as I gazed out the window, I noticed a bulge in the developing blooms. A few days later, flowers had formed. Three showy pink and white striped blossoms — Mary favored variegated cultivars — topped each sturdy stalk.

The same amaryllises that my mother-in-law loved so much now bloom in my own garden

After looking out the window, I checked the calendar and couldn’t help but smile. In Seattle, where my mother-in-law lived, amaryllis bloom later in the season, but in Central Florida, their petals open to the world in sync with Mary’s birthday, March 10.

Who needs a calendar alarm or email notice when flowers can remind us of ones we love?

Reminders of loved ones surround me. Each time I pass the antique hat rack my Uncle Izzy gave my mother a half-century ago, I think of my favorite uncle, Isador Boxer. I inherited that elegant piece of early 20th century history from my own parents, who both died within the last five years.

An antique hat rack that I inherited always reminds me of my favorite uncle 

From my mother, I have various pieces of jewelry, shimmery broaches, bracelets and stick pins. When I was a child, she also gave me an opal ring to represent my birth month. My father once gave me a ring fashioned from a coin during his tour of duty in the Philippines in WWII. He also introduced me to Scrabble and through that, a love for language.

My father played Scrabble with me when I was young and I did the same with my children.  Above is a picture of Toby (on the left) playing in a Scrabble tournament

When people you love die, what they leave behind isn’t as important as the memories attached to those special objects.

My father-in-law Ralph P. Boas died in July 1992. Like his wife, he was also an academic, a respected author and a professor of mathematics. Although he died more than 21 years ago, I pass his picture daily in our hallway. Each time I do, I wish he had lived long enough to see one of his own grandsons follow in his academic footsteps.

My father-in-law, Ralph P. Boas, in his younger years

Like his wife, my father-in-law was a man of many interests. He loved literature and, as a youth, memorized long lines of poetry, which he recited at the slightest provocation. He also enjoyed reading aloud stories from cherished books from his own childhood. Although my father-in-law is no longer with us, we still have those books. They sit inside a glass bookcase and while their covers are not in the best of shape and the pages smell musty, they’re still usable. My husband takes them out now and then to read to our own grandchildren, the fourth generation to enjoy the stories and develop new memories from texts of old words.

Blooming flowers, pieces of jewelry, antique furniture, cherished books, a game of Scrabble — memories abound wherever I look.

The older I get, the more often I reflect on the passage of time. It seems like only yesterday when my mother-in-law was on the deck of her Seattle home pampering her beloved potted plants. Now she’s gone, but her flowers live on. Life may be all about change, but it also contains a comforting component of continuality, a sameness that never fails to lift the spirits.