Monday, June 30, 2014

Messing around in boats

When I go for a row, I usually head to the north end of the lake near my house. About 10 feet off the shore, a long, narrow strip of land cuts off a small cozy cove from the rest of the water. Once there, a person in a rowboat can disappear into a secret world.

I like that — hiding away in plain sight — but getting there isn’t easy. Shallow water and a tight passage create challenges.

To enter, I must navigate my aluminum skiff through a tight mass of pickerelweed. I always try to make it through with one forceful stroke of the oars — a game I play, but rarely win. Most times, my oars get tangled in the weeds, forcing me to resort to a sloppy motion best described as part poling, part rowing.

Once through, however, it’s all still water and serenity.

I let my oars rest so I can absorb the surroundings without distractions. For such a secluded spot, much is happening. Bushes hug the shore while bamboos, wax myrtles and pine trees sway overhead. Birdsongs intensify. Dragonflies dart from one bog button perch to another. 

My nose inhales the scent of flowers while my ears tune into the rustling of leaves. At one time or another, various birds, butterflies, damsel and dragonflies, bees, wasps, spiders, turtles, fish and even the occasional snake or alligator have all made appearances while I sat quietly in my boat waiting for things to happen. It’s an exciting place to be because I never know what I’ll find.

But some things are predictable.

If I’ve ventured out in early morning, around the time the sun is beginning to peek through the cloud cover, a brown thrasher probably will be singing its song. Like catbirds and mockingbirds, brown thrashers are mimics with a rich and varied repertoire of tunes. As I drift slowly along, melodic melodies float down from above.

But where is the bird?

As I scan the treetops, I play another game, this one called, ‘Find the thrasher.’ It’s not a hard game, and I almost always win. I usually find the thrasher high above the water’s edge, perched on a slender bamboo cane or tall pine bough, its curved beak wide open as it belts out a good morning tune.

Recently during an afternoon row, I saw a great blue heron a short distance away from my secret cove. The weedy island that separated us provided just enough cover to mask my presence. As I slowly adjusted my camera to focus in on the heron, the bird proceeded to submerge itself in the water, providing a splashy show of fluffed out feathers and an outstretched neck. Although great blue herons are a common sight at our lake, that was the first time I’d seen one take a bath.

When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents’ house faced a small body of water. Like the lake I live on in Florida, Silver Lake also had a shallow end. When I took my rowboat out — the same one I use now — I’d always head in that direction. I’d row to the place where logs protruded through the muck topped by turtles soaking up the sun. 

Catching some rays...

The fetid water and squishy mud kept others away, but it drew me.. I’m sure my love of secluded spots began in those dank waters. I was always excited to see what wonders I would find. What animals dwelled in its muddy depths? What surprises would I encounter? What treasures would I find?

Silver Lake in Yardley, Pa.

Fifty-plus years later, I’m still searching. The same questions enter my mind each time I push off from shore in my dented old boat.

One of my favorite places to be...on the lake for an early morning row

I love living by a lake. I love watching the water reflect the ever-changing sky, seeing fishes jump and swallows swoop low over its smooth surface. But mostly, I love going out in my boat for a slow explore. Heading to the north end of the lake to my private spot is merely the cream on top of another brilliant day. As Scottish author Kenneth Grahame sagely wrote in The Wind in the Willows, “There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Rewards of a morning row

All week long I've been trying to get myself out of bed before sunrise to go for a morning row. Although I haven't succeeded everyday, for most of the week I've managed to take a slow, steady row around the lake's perimeter. In addition to feeling good about fitting in a physical workout before breakfast, I've also been rewarded with some spectacular skyscapes.

Here are a some of my "I'm-so-glad-I-woke-up-to-see-this-sky" shots from the past week.

Today's image...June 28...Blue on blue

June 26...The sky awakens while I do too

June 24...A mauve morning, lovely seen through bamboo

June 23...more bamboo, a little later in the day.  Good morning sunshine!

Friday, June 27, 2014

If at first you don't succeed...dry, dry, dry again

Where do songbirds go when it rains?  Especially young birds just learning how to live on their own.

Yesterday, I watched an almost full grown cardinal deal with a sudden downpour.  Shortly after the storm started, the fledgling, who had been eating sunflower seeds at the birdfeeder before the rain started, made a beeline for a nearby mulberry tree.  To the bird, the tree's dense foliage must have seemed like a good place to wait out the rain.  Unfortunately, that plan didn't work out so well.

As I watched, the cardinal fluttered from one branch to another. "Would this perch work?" he seemed to be wondering   "No?  How about that one?  No, that branch isn't dry enough either."

Back and forth the bird flew, rustling leaves and branches as it searched for a safe and dry perch.  I don't know where the youngster finally settled, but I do know finding the right spot didn't come easy.

I had always assumed birds instinctively knew where to go and what to do when rain comes pelting down.  But the juvenile cardinal proved me wrong.  Just like with people, sometimes birds also make many mistakes before finally figuring out what works and what doesn't.

With all the rain lately, my little cardinal friend should have many opportunities to perfect the art of waiting out the rain.  Stay dry, little fellow.

Peeking through the trees

If I need a reminder of why I like living where I do, I just have to step outside.  Yesterday after a late afternoon thunderstorm darkened the sky, I took this picture of the lake through a curtain of white crepe myrtle limbs and damp sycamore leaves.  No matter what the weather or time of day, I'm surrounded by beauty

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A fleeting flower

It's a lily. Crinum jagus...
I don't remember where my first crinum came from - I probably saved it from an abandoned homesite.  Crinums are an old-fashioned flower, found in the garden beds of many Florida homesteads. 

Even now, I know of an abandoned homestead on Route 27 in North Clermont where several purple crinums continue to put on a showy display despite the lack of attention they've received for years. Whenever I pass it on the highway, I have a strong urge to pull over and dig up the bulbs.

The crinum by my house began blooming about a week ago.  Because it's such a weighty flower, it has difficulty withstanding wind and rainstorm.

Below are some pictures I took of the blooms.  Where I live, it's a fleeting flower, showy and beautiful but to be enjoyed for just a brief bit of time.

(Special thanks to Marty Whatley who correctly identified this crinum)


Full bloom

Bending with the weight...

An explosion of white

Adding brightness to the landscape during daytime...

or night

Monday, June 23, 2014


When a chickadee came to my birdfeeder the other day, I was ecstatic. I had been waiting a long time — 25 years — to see one on our property in Florida.

Of all the birds I love — and there are many — the humble chickadee holds a special spot in my heart. My fondness for this feathered flier goes back to my days on Cape Cod shortly after my husband and I began sharing our lives together.

In the early 1970s, we lived at an old farmhouse in Orleans, MA. Although the two-story wood-shingled structure had been in Ralph’s family for generations, we were the first in a long time to live there year round.

It was an easy life in those days. We worked just enough to pay for the few items we needed. We had few responsibilities and even fewer cares. Ralph focused his attention on tending and expanding the already lush gardens that dotted the property while I read one classical novel after another from the amazing literary collection that filled every nook and cranny — and there were many — in the wood-frame house.

One summer, after working my way through several Dickens and Henry James novels, I took a break from books to concentrate on birds. Several acres of woods surrounded the farmhouse. Birds constantly flitted from tree to tree. Although I knew little about birds when I first arrived on the Cape, my knowledge expanded day by day. Before long, I could distinguish different species by the way they looked, how they flew, the songs they sang and the type of nests they built. While my passion for observing nature didn’t exactly begin on those lazy summer days, the hours I spent walking through the oak and locust tree woods fanned the flames of my burgeoning flora and fauna fascination.

Of all the birds I saw during that period of my life, the one that I most enjoyed watching was the little black-capped chickadee. The chickadee is a chipper bird with an easily recognizable call and distinctive features. Its bold nature and fearlessness always impressed me. I admired its curiosity. Like the much larger Florida scrub jay, the little chickadee is not shy of people. The small songbird — tinier than a sparrow — will even land on the outstretched hand of a person offering seeds.

I wanted to be that person.

I spent hours that summer perched on a chair outside the farmhouse’s back door where I sat very still and quietly, my outstretched hand filled with sunflower seeds. I don’t recall how many days it took before I gained the birds’ trust but eventually, I did. At some point during that summer of my early 20’s, nature believed in me. Birds ate out of my hand and I was ecstatic.

Fast forward 40-plus years. Instead of living on Cape Cod, my home is in central Florida where my husband Ralph and I have worked hard to create a semi-tropical oasis that’s not only beautiful to look at but a haven for wildlife. For the most part, we’ve succeeded. Our once-barren land is now lush and green, and we share it with a wide range of critters. But until recently, chickadees hadn’t discovered us.

Now they have.

Two chickadees came to the birdfeeder that a pair of cardinals believes it owns. Instead of being black-capped chickadees like the ones I fed in Massachusetts, these southern songbirds are Carolina chickadees, a name given to them by John James Audubon during his time in South Carolina.

A Carolina chickadee and male cardinal separated by a wall of sunflower seeds

About an inch smaller and a tenth of an ounce lighter than their northern cousins, both species share similar traits and behaviors. They are cute, friendly and curious songbirds that will stop by a birdfeeder for a quick snack of sunflower seeds or suet in between regular meals of insects, spiders, berries or seeds. Chickadees are cavity-nesting birds that seek out mixed forests and open woods.

Maybe that’s why they are here. With the recent loss of many pine trees, our property is now peppered with snags — dead trees deliberately left standing to attract wildlife. Maybe we’ve finally created the habitat chickadees require.

Whatever the reason, they finally arrived, and I’m delighted they’re here. When I was still living on Cape Cod and feeding black-capped chickadees from my outstretched hand, I wrote a song about the cheery little visitors that gave me their trust. As I look out my kitchen window now and watch the southern version of that familiar bird steal a seed away from a possessive cardinal, one line of that long-ago song runs through my mind:

“Other birds have sweeter songs with fancy melodies, but my chickadee’s a friendly bird and that’s enough for me.”

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Bath time for the Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is a regular in our lake.  I see it everyday stalking prey in the shallow water, resting on the mid-lake platform or perched atop a tree along the water edge.

One of the 'regulars' at our lake

About to eat a snake it caught

Resting on the mid-lake platform

Perched atop a lakeside tree

But this evening while I was out for a row, I saw the Great Blue Heron do something I had never seen it do before...Take a bath!

Pretty cool!

It was such a cool moment, I had to make a video.  It's less than two minutes long and a bit wobbly at the end since I was in the rowboat at the time but I think you'll enjoy it.

A Brown Thrasher provided background music as the heron cautiously cooled off in the shallow water.  Most of the splashing begins at 0:50 and again at 1:34.

A brown thrasher's melodious song accompanied the heron's splashes

When bath time was over, the heron moved over to the tiny island where the Sandhill Cranes had their nest.  The heron stayed there for a while, presumably to dry its feathers before settling in for the night on a perch in a nearby tree.

A tiny island with many visitors

To see another large bird bathing, watch my video of a Bald Eagle taking a bath in the lake.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Right place. Right time.

Sometimes doing a little yard work pays off in unexpected dividends.

I was weedwacking the edge of the walkway by our front garden when a newly hatched Monarch Butterfly landed on the pavement right in front of me.

Of course, I put the weedwacker down and ran inside to get my camera.

Although the new butterfly wandered off into the garden before I could catch the complete unfurling of its wings, I was glad to have been there to see something I had never seen before.

Nature never fails to surprise me.  I went out to trim back the weeds and came in with a new memory.  Right place.  Right time.  Another magical moment captured by chance.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

It's not easy feeding yourself...

I've been watching this young male cardinal come to the bird feeder for several days now.


He has always been with his father, begging to be fed as young birds do. 

"Feed me, Daddy!  Feed me!"

But today was different.  He came alone.  And not just to the feeder but to the crepe myrtle tree too.  I had fun watching him pluck off dried seed pods with his beak.  

"Got one!"

For the most part he was successful at maneuvering the seeds into his mouth.  But every so often...he lost his grip.

Whoops!  Is that one going to make it?  I don't think so...

and dropped the seed pods to the ground.  Poor baby.  Learning how to feed yourself is hard work.

Looks like another seed bound for the ground...

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Echinacea flowers attracts monarch butterfly

A few days ago I watched a Gulf fritillary butterfly gather nectar from one echinacea bloom (purple coneflower) after another.  Yesterday a monarch butterfly did the same thing.

Monarch butterfly on purple conflower

As a species, monarchs are famously migratory, flying thousands of miles every year to escape cold weather.  But some monarchs never migrate at all. Those are "resident butterflies" living in Florida's warm climate year-round.

Butterflies can't fly if their body temperature falls below 55 degrees 

Regardless of where monarchs live, during their caterpillar stage, all monarchs feed (devour would be a more accurate term) exclusively on the leaves and stems of milkweed plants.

Hungry monarch caterpillars feast on a milkweed plant.  Milkweed is the only thing caterpillars eat before turning into butterflies

Nutrients from milkweed not only nourish the caterpillars, they provide a natural defense against predators.  Caterpillars ingest toxic chemicals in the plant when they eat milkweed leaves.  Those chemicals stay in their system during the pupa stage as they become butterflies. Birds, frogs, mice and lizards that prey upon butterflies learn to stay away from monarchs because the chemicals in their body make them taste terrible.

Monarch butterflies are poisonous to their predators but not to people.

During the chrysalis (pupa) stage, toxic chemicals from milkweed pass from the caterpillar into the developing butterfly

After leaving the chrysalis and becoming butterflies, monarchs are much less choosy about food choices.  They seek nectar from many different types of plants including echinacea.

Tagged monarch on native milkweed

Monarch on orange cosmos

Monarch on echinacea

I often have trouble identifying monarchs, confusing them with viceroy butterflies, which have similar coloring and patterns.  Both have orange and black wings with white spots and black lines.

For me, the easiest way to tell them apart is to look for an extra black line across the topside of the lower two wings.  Since monarchs don't have that line, when I see it I know I'm looking at a viceroy.

A black line that runs along the bottom portion of the wing helps differentiate the viceroy  (above) from the monarch (below)

So many butterflies are out and about now that the weather is consistently warm.  Watching the monarch sip nectar from the echinacea flowers yesterday was yet another garden treat.  First a Gulf fritillary, now a monarch...I can't wait to see what fluttering beauties tomorrow brings!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Keep your cool! Take a swim in a lake

In Florida, where temperatures linger in the mid-90s June through August, submerging one's body in fresh water is a quick and pleasant way to dial back the heat. From May through October, I'm constantly jumping in and out of a lake to cool off.

Come on in!  The water's great!

Although I'm comfortable swimming in fresh water, others aren't. Fear of everything from amoebas to alligators prevents many of my fellow Floridians from taking the plunge.

"You swim in a lake with alligators?" people ask. "Are you crazy?"

I'm not. But I am aware. Being aware and knowledgeable about potential dangers helps overcome anxieties. So does evaluating risks.

Consider alligators.

In the 65 years since 1948 when records where first kept, only 22 people in Florida have been killed by alligators. Although each loss of life is tragic, alligator-related deaths are extremely rare, happening on average once every three years.

Though alligators are large, scary-looking predators, people are still safer in water than they are on top of it. 

Boat-related accidents accounted for 818 deaths in Florida in the past 11 years. Although that's an average of 74 lives lost each year, people are much more likely to jump aboard a watercraft than they are to jump into water.

What about amoebas? The Naegleria fowleri amoeba is a single-celled organism that can cause primal amebic meningocephalitis in people, a disease of the central nervous system that often is fatal.

The amoeba lives in damp soil and the warm water of lakes, rivers, ponds and poorly maintained swimming pools. It isn't spread by swallowing water or from one person to another. It enters the body through the nose when people are diving, dunking or doing other water activities resulting in a rush of warm water through the nasal passage.

Even though such activities are commonplace, especially among children, very few people are infected. According to the Centers for Disease Control, which considers that form of infection rare, only 132 people in the entire country came down with it in 51 years, with approximately 66 of those cases in Florida and Texas. The CDC expects up to eight cases per year, fewer than half of those in Florida.

Lightning has killed 472 Floridians in the last 54 years, an average of 8.7 people per year. But being struck by lightning is nowhere near as dangerous as driving or riding in a car. 

To stay safe, get out of the water when storm clouds arrive

Florida averages more than 2,000 car-related deaths annually, which means people are far more likely to be killed on the way to the lake than they are in the water.

I understand why the thought of invisible amoebas entering a body can be frightening, just as I can appreciate how scary an alligator can be to potential swimmers. But if people would take the time to evaluate risks and educate themselves about the dangers, they'd realize how unnecessary it is to avoid swimming in Florida's beautiful lakes.

If you are scared but want to try taking a freshwater swim, I suggest going to a sandy town beach with a lifeguard. Never taunt or feed alligators because that's what makes them act aggressively and lose their natural fear of people. Swim during daytime hours when alligators are less active. Stay out of weedy water. Be alert and aware of your surroundings.

State and federal health authorities suggest wearing nose clips when swimming underwater in freshwater lakes. They also advise people not to dive or swim along the bottom of lakes or ponds, and the Florida Department of Health says to stay out altogether when the water temperature exceeds 82 degrees. Chances are 2.5 million to 1 of contracting the disease, according to health authorities.

If you take those precautions and act responsibly, you'll be rewarded with one of Florida's treasures — enjoying a swim in one of the state's wonderful freshwater lakes. We live in Lake County, after all. Go out this summer and have some wet, refreshing fun.

My husband and grandson enjoy a fun and refreshing swim in the lake

If you enjoyed this article, check out some of my other related stories: