Monday, December 29, 2014

Thanks to readers, mystery solved!

Last week’s column (Sometimes found treasures are best left in place) about the small urn-shaped nest I found in a wax myrtle tree, generated numerous comments from readers speculating what it might be.

My mystery "nest" is a mystery no more

Although I was uncertain what kind of structure I had found — I thought it might be a hummingbird’s nest — a pre-K teacher at Children's House of Learning in Sorrento had a ready answer.

Dr. Marnell L. Hayes wrote to say, “I believe it's a polyphemus moth cocoon — Google it, and you will be able to find many pictures. I'm a retired professor teaching pre-K part time, and I found such a cocoon in one of the trees in the playground — still intact.

“I placed it in a net butterfly-raising container, and the children enjoyed checking it every day ­— until we found a rounded hole, exactly like the one in your photo, in the cocoon, and a gorgeous moth with a six-inch wingspread drying its wings at the bottom of the container. The children were thrilled to see it flutter away to wait for nightfall to become active when we released it.”

The polyphemus moth that hatched out at Children's House of Learning
(Photo credit:  Tammy Tyler, Director at CHL/Sorrento)

After receiving Hayes’s email, I immediately looked up the polyphemus moth and, sure enough, the pictures online looked exactly like the “nest” I found on my walk.

The polyphemus moth, Antheraea polyphemus, is a beautiful silk moth with a 4- to 6-inch wingspan and an eyespot in the middle of its hindwings. It is named after the giant Cyclops of Greek mythology that had a single eye in the middle of his forehead. 

Polyphemus, the Cyclops of Greek mythology

The polyphemus moth’s eyespot, which resembles the eye of a great horned owl, acts as a defense mechanism against predators like birds and squirrels that might be scared away by owl eyes.

In a follow-up email, Hayes wrote to share an experience she had with her young students.

“Sherry, I forgot to mention that just last week my 4- and 5-year olds summoned me on the playground to identify a huge green caterpillar — sure enough, another polyphemus looking for a spot to spin one of those lovely, champagne-colored cocoons.”

Polyphemus moth caterpillar
(Photo credit: Doug Collicutt,

It turns out I’ve seen those same caterpillars on plants around the lakeshore where I live, but it’s a good thing I haven’t discovered them in my husband Ralph’s garden. During that stage of its life, a single polyphemus moth caterpillar can consume in less than two months 86,000 times what it weighed at emergence. That amounts to considerable chewing of leaves, an activity at which polyphemus moth caterpillars excel. Not only do these clever insects devour the entire leaf, they then sever the leaf from the stalk so it will fall to the ground leaving no evidence to potential predators that the caterpillar had ever been there.

While Hayes and others enlightened me about the correct identification for the urn-shaped nest, other readers wrote to inform me of a law prohibiting the removal of songbird nests from the wild.

“The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits anyone from possessing, transporting, buying or selling any part of a migratory bird, even a feather, an egg, or a nest thereof. Penalties can be severe,” wrote Ross Hawkins, executive director of the Hummingbird Society.

“All sixteen species of hummingbirds that breed in the U.S. are classified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as migratory, as are most hummingbird species that wander north across the Mexican border,” he wrote.

I guess it’s a good thing the “nest” I found didn’t belong to a hummingbird after all, since I broke it off from the thin branches that attached it to a tree and took it home to add to my collection of other nature finds. Yet, I’m a little disappointed it had not been a hummer’s nest. I don’t want to break any laws, but I would have liked to have a least seen a hummingbird nest in the wild.

Maybe that will happen in the New Year. If this past year is any indication, 2015 also should be rich in nature experiences. Hayes said, “What glorious science lessons we have, right on the playground!” But I would broaden her statement to include the world outside our door — and sometimes inside as well.

Nature is forever offering bountiful gifts. It’s our responsibility — and pleasure — to open our eyes, ears and hearts to those gifts of plenty.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Green lynx spider takes unexpected dip in lake

When I'm rowing through shallow water along the edge of the lake, I'm careful to avoid disturbing wetland plants like pickerel weed, duck potato, yellow-eyed grass, St. John's wort, red root and various other water-tolerant flora.

Today, however, I was distracted when a yellow-rumped warbler flew by and I inadvertently rowed over a tuft of yellow-eyed grass.

No big deal.  The resilient plant rebounded and I wouldn't mention it at all except this particular tuft of yellow-eyed grass happened to be home to a green lynx spider.

If he looks mad, it may be because I just rowed over him

By the time I noticed the spider - a cool-looking creature with a face only a mama spider could love - the boat was already in the process of flattening the plant with the suddenly desperate arachnid.  I felt terrible as I watched him futilely search for safe purchase.

Seconds later, it was over.  The boat passed by.  The plant bounced back to its original shape and the spider, amazingly, seemed none the worse for the dunking it got due to my distracting rowing.

I like happy endings.

Slight damp but unharmed, the spider survived a sudden dunk underwater

Friday, December 26, 2014

My rescued Christmas cactus

In June when one of our tenants moved away, he left behind a large container filled with Christmas cactus.  I took the container home and set it by the house.  In early December, it began to bud.  

Below are a progression of pictures, beginning with the most recent, that show how the cactus has changed over the past month.  I think it likes its new home.





Wednesday, December 24, 2014

I'm calling it a gift to myself

After doing an errand this morning, I took the long way home through back roads in Howey-in-the-Hills.  The road I took rambles through a rural area with homes on acreage, often with horses or cattle grazing.  I felt confident I'd see something interesting.  Sure enough, I did.

As I rounded a bend, I came upon a fenced pasture and noticed a flock of turkeys in the distance.  I pulled off the road, took out my camera and zoomed in to focus on the birds far across the field.

Even from several hundred feet away, the turkeys seemed to know I was watching them.  I was photographing the turkeys but later noticed two small yellow birds on the ground.  Can you find them? 

Two female turkeys pecking for bugs, seeds or bits of grain

What a surprise to see a red-bellied woodpecker when I uploaded this picture

So much was going on in that field.  Here's one of several killdeer I saw on the ground

High up in a cypress tree overlooking the field with the turkeys was a white ibis

And just down the road this tricolored heron was hanging around a plant-clogged pond.  The pond might be full of weeds but the heron caught himself a good sized fish while I watched from the car.

Wish I'd taken a better picture of its catch

And one final picture - three bored looking turkey vultures with their bright red faces, looking resigned to dine on whatever carnage they can find.

Although I'm not big on holiday gift-giving, I am enjoying this present to myself. While others are unwrapping the latest this or must-have that, my present was a quiet ride through the countryside capturing images of animals in the wild.  

Like all great presents, it's just what I wanted

Monday, December 22, 2014

Sometimes found treasures are best left in place

I might have done something I shouldn’t have done.

On a recent walk around the lake with my husband Ralph and a couple of friends, I spotted what I suspected to be a hummingbird nest attached to the thin branches of a grapevine entwined in a wax myrtle tree.

My discovery...but what is it?

Shaped like a miniature urn, the inch-and-a-half long structure has a small opening of about a half-inch diameter at its top. The nest was hanging from the slimmest of twigs by a weaving of threads — silky, golden filigree — that look as though they came from the web of a banana spider, also known as a golden silk orb weaver (Nephila clavipes). Affixed to the structure’s tan surface by more glimmering fibers were five shriveled brown grape leaves. Like so many insect and bird nests, it was an architectural gem — a sturdy and organic formation, beautiful in its functional simplicity.

Hummingbirds often incorporate the golden silk from a Nephila clavipes web to add strength to their nests

As soon as I spotted the structure, my immediate reaction was to take it home with me. I have a collection in my porch of abandoned bird nests I’ve found over the years but until then, a nest made by a hummingbird was not among them.

It was easy to snap the thin twigs with my fingers and take it back to our house. I was pleased with myself for finding it and excited about the opportunity to examine it more closely in the comfort of home with the computer close by for research help.

But that’s when my good feelings began to fade. The more I learned about hummingbird nesting habits, the more I realized the mistake I might have made.

As it turns out, some species of hummingbirds repair and reuse the same nest year after year. By removing the well-camouflaged structure from its vine-entwined location, I may inadvertently have prevented a hummingbird from raising young in that spot again and hampered the nest-building efforts of a female hummer.

It takes a long time for a mother hummingbird to construct a secure spot to incubate eggs. She starts by selecting a location that is sheltered from predators and the elements and not too far from water and food sources. She then spends about four hours every day for a week — approximately 34 trips per hour — gathering materials such as lichen, silk from spider webs, leaf hairs, dryer lint and cotton fluff to mold with her body into the proper shape to house the eggs she will soon lay. It’s a substantial effort, and I hate thinking my eagerness to possess the result of her hard work thwarted a chance for her to reuse it.

Hummingbird gathering cattail fluff for its nest
Photo credit: www

Then again, the structure I found might not be a hummingbird nest at all. Worldwide, there are 338 species with 16 found in the United States and three inhabiting Florida. Of those three, Ruby-throated hummers are the most common and their cup-shaped nest looks different from the urn-shaped structure I found. Nor does it resemble the nest of Florida’s two other species, the black-chinned or rufous hummingbird, either.

Cup-shaped Ruby-throated hummingbird nest
Photo credit:

So what exactly did I find on my walk around the lake? Was it a hummingbird nest or something else? When we saw it, my friend Pam’s first reaction was that it belonged to a wasp, and Pam might be right. However, none of my research has yielded any wasp, caterpillar or other insect that builds a cocoon or nest like the one we found.

Despite not knowing exactly what it is, I admire its beauty. It now hangs in my office to the left of my computer where I can see it every day. I may have mistakenly made life more difficult for a hummingbird mama but in the process, I also gave myself a reminder: Nature is full of unexpected treasures. It is as wondrous as it is mysterious, as marvelous in its minutia as it is in its magnitude.

This experience taught me something, too. Next time, I’ll take a picture, leaving my discovery in place. While nature may be full of marvels, I don’t need to ‘own’ each one.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Birds and 'boo

Our resident pair of sandhill cranes spent most of the day yesterday in our front yard.  I went a bit crazy with the camera, especially when the cranes hung around two large stand of bamboo.

Below are two birds by bamboo - can you find them both?

A sandhill crane's neck is just about the same thickness as a cane of Giant Timber (Bambusa oldhamii) bamboo.  In the photo below, the crane's neck is hidden behind the 'boo.

A good time to do a bit of feather preening is when you're in-between the lake and a thick clump of bamboo.

Sandhill cranes are beautiful birds and bamboo is a beautiful plant. But when you put the two together - birds & 'boo - ah, what a picture it becomes!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Furled beauty

We often speak of a butterfly's beautiful wings. But another part of a butterfly's anatomy is also attractive.

A butterfly's proboscis is the thin "drinking straw" through which butterflies sip nectar.  To my eyes, the furled shape of a butterfly's proboscis is especially appealing.

Butterflies siphon nectar through a food tube in the center of the proboscis.  Small muscles on both sides of the food canal control the butterfly's ability to coil or uncoil its proboscis.

When its proboscis is unfurled, a butterfly is able to siphon nectar from flowers

Below is another picture of a butterfly with a furled proboscis:

Duskywing on rain lily

The furled shape of a butterfly proboscis is found throughout nature.
It's can be found in the emerging flower of a succulent or of a moon snail's shell. 

The unfurled shape of the stapelia gigantea flower

The coiled shape of a moon snail's shell

It can also be seen in the thin tip of a cattail stalk upon which a dragonfly has balanced

Or the curl of an anole (lizard) tail as it rests upon a succulent leaf

Nature is full of furled beauty.  If I had to choose one shape to call my favorite, I'd probably pick a swirling spiral because no matter where in nature I see it, it always makes me smile.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Morning light, bamboo, mist and osprey

Woke up this morning to a pretty sight.  Osprey perched on the mid-lake platform with the mist rising around it.

The sun was beginning to peek through the pine on the east side of the lake making the bamboo glow in the early light.

As I walked outside, I positioned myself to capture different images.

Choosing, finally, to focus on the osprey itself.  I wonder if it slept there all night?  Yesterday evening it was perched in a pine tree.  I tried not to disturb it when I went for my row.

I've been meaning to remove the upside-down trashcan lid we secured to the post.  I thought it would provide a possible nest site but all it does is look ugly in the midst of a beautiful spot.  I might not like it, but at least the osprey doesn't seem to object.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The sky...oh, my!

I was already busily ensconced on the computer when Ralph asked if I'd seen the sunrise this morning?  Knowing how quickly the sky changes as the sun is coming up, I wasted no time leaving my office, grabbing the camera and heading outside.

This is what I saw

Looking southeast through the a sycamore tree and two stands of clumping bamboo

Looking east through a stand of Bambusa chungii (Blue Timber) on the left and Bambusa oldhamii (Giant Timber) on the right

The northeasterly view with mist rising off the lake, the curve of the lake and the reflections of the trees and clouds in the still water

And one more view directly across the lake from our house.  What a sky!

I like to think I'm the one with an awareness of sunrises and sunsets but this morning my husband proved being conscious of skyscapes is not a one-person job.  Thank you Ralph for waking up early and tearing me away from the computer to share another beautiful morning sky.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Quote me!

Ralph and I had quite the surprise yesterday morning during breakfast.

As usual, we were reading while eating.  I was had just begun Ellen Airgood's 2011 novel "South of Superior" and Ralph was transfixed by the enticing descriptions, interesting factoids and attractive illustrations in the 2015 FEDCO seed catalog, which had just arrived by mail.

He was on page 49 of the 160-page tome when the first sentence of a lengthy description about the Asian green Tatsoi caught his attention.

"Look at this!" he said excitedly.

I picked up the catalog, following to the place where his finger pointed and began to read:

Tatsoi (45 days) B.r. (narinosa group)  What grows quickly, can be seeded as late as August, withstands frost and is, according to Orlando Sentinel columnist Sherry Boas "just as versatile as spinach" ?  Yes, Tatsoi, as known as Tah Tsai..."

The description continued but I didn't need to read more.

A big smile filled my face as I turned to Ralph and said, "I guess they must have seen my column."

Pretty cool to know my words are quoted in a catalog read by gardeners all around the country.  What a great way to start the day!

To read my columns about tatsoi, click on the links below: 
My husband loves his greens and What a joy! Tatsoi!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Celebrating the moment

Today is our anniversary, a 44-year partnership of loving, living and working together.  

Passing clubs together is an apt metaphor for our marriage.  Handling multiple tasks is our norm. Tossing the ball - or in this case - clubs back and forth, eases the burden, shares the responsibility and adds to a feeling of accomplishment when all is said and done.

Not to say we haven't experienced our share of "drops" over the years. We many times.  And although we continue to make mistakes we also keep trying to do better and - most of all - to have fun in the process.

So, happy anniversary to my special fellow, my juggling partner and lifelong companion. The years may be going by way too fast, but what a cache of memories we've accumulated in the process.

There's no one I'd rather pass clubs with than you, Ralph - literally, figuratively and, obviously, jest for fun!

Me - way back when...

Monday, December 15, 2014

There is nothing like a book...

Two things high on my list of life’s pleasures are reading books and browsing library shelves in search of new authors to discover.

Over the past year, my meanders through the stacks resulted in 60 enjoyable reads, including many by previously unpublished authors.

Today, this column is featuring four of my favorite books from 2014, three of which are debut novels. The only previously published author, Ruth Reichl, has written many books, including three best-selling memoirs, but her latest title, Delicious! is her first foray into fiction.

As a former editor of Gourmet magazine and restaurant critic for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Reichl approaches her novel from a background well-rooted in food circles. Main character Billie Breslin explores the New York City’s food scene from behind her desk at the iconic magazine Delicious!

After the magazine closes, Breslin stays on, only to discover a portal to the past hidden in letters written during World War I by 12-year-old Lulu Swan to legendary chef James Beard. As Breslin delves deeper into the world described by the young girl, her new knowledge alters the way she chooses to live her own life in the future.

Reichl’s coming-of-age story has an engrossing storyline, likable characters, a touch of history, a taste of mystery and a dash of passion. The author successfully dishes up a hearty stew that includes many ingredients I savor in a story.

Another story rich in mixed flavors is A Violet Season by first-time author Kathy Leonard Czepiel, published in 2012. Although I didn’t discover this book until this year, once found, I devoured it quickly.

Set in New York’s Hudson Valley in the early 1900s, the story explores the booming violet industry from the perspective of two strong female characters, a mother and daughter struggling to support their family.

I’m especially fond of historical novels, particularly ones with female protagonists breaking through the restraints of unjust laws. This captivating debut novel, which was named one of the best books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews, not only enriched my knowledge of plants, but also refreshed my awareness of difficulties encountered by women trying to survive in the pre-emancipated, heavily male-oriented world of early 20th Century America. So many of us take for granted our freedom and rights but as Czepiel’s novel so deftly demonstrates, it wasn’t that long ago when women were completely dependent on men.

While Czepiel’s novel transported me back in time, Richard Morais’s more contemporary debut novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey transports the reader across oceans, into other cultures and their kitchens.

Published in 2010, the novel, made into a movie this past summer, recounts the life of middle-aged chef Hassan Haji from his humble beginning living above his family’s modest food business in Mumbai to the elegant restaurant he created in Paris where he rose to the top of French haute cuisine.

For those of us who haven’t traveled much, Morais’s award-winning international bestseller provides a means to not only see the distant places from the comfort of our own homes but allows us to imagine the scents, spices and food of those areas as we travel through pages of the book.

Below is the official trailer for the movie adaptation of Morais's book, The Hundred-Foot Journey,which was released this past summer:

Although there’s no food focus or agricultural enterprise featured in “The Rosie Project,” Australian author Graeme Simsion’s first novel works its own magic by scripting a story around a universal theme — the search for love. However, Simsion’s story has a twist. His main character Don Tillman is a brilliant but socially-challenged genetics professor whose decision to find a wife follows a highly eccentric path. To imagine what Don Tillman is like, merge together the character Sheldon from television’s “The Big Bang Theory” with Hank, the character played by Ray Romano in “Parenthood.” The result is an endearing dork who will make you laugh as often as you sigh.

I’m far from alone in enjoying the story Simsion weaves around Tillman’s unconventional approach to love. “The Rosie Project” has won numerous awards, will soon be a movie and despite being aptly labeled ‘chick-lit,’ even appeals to men.

After hearing me chuckle my way from one chapter to the next, my husband Ralph picked up the book and took to it immediately.

Other men did the same. Bill Gates read it after he, too, heard his wife Melinda laughing her way through the pages. Gates, who calls it “A sweet, entertaining and thought-provoking book,” sent “The Rosie Project” to more than 50 people. He even included its sequel, “The Rosie Effect,” published in September, on his Top Five Books of 2014 list where it stands out as the only non-fiction title noted.

Below is a video of Bill and Melinda Gates meeting with author Graeme Simsion to discuss Simsion's books: