Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 was quite a year for wildlife encounters

Over the past year, I have had some memorable wildlife encounters.

Bluebird, bobcat and coyote sightings thrilled me in January while one highlight of February was videotaping several crows harassing a bald eagle on its pine tree perch.

I photographed coyotes again in March along with woodpeckers, sandhill cranes and a puffed up male peacock trying his best to impress several uninterested females.

Some of my most memorable wildlife finds in April were a complete surprise. While walking through Oakland Nature Preserve just west of Winter Garden, I chanced upon zebras, wildebeests, ostriches, antelope and long-horned cattle grazing the grass at Briley Farm, a private exotic animal farm abutting the preserve.

Nesting bluebirds, fluttering butterflies and a wild beehive discovered by my 5-year-old grandson were among May's highlights while June yielded a wild turkey sighting, the discovery of a cardinal nest, more bluebird action and concern over the presence of too many seed-stealing squirrels at my birdfeeders.

July was a month filled with fluttering and buzzing. I wrote about, videotaped and photographed numerous butterflies, bees and beneficial wasps fluttering around plants like African blue basil, tropical milkweed and scarlet salvia.

Sweet little chickadees brought smiles to my face in August even as I frowned over a seemingly unstoppable invasion of tawny crazy ants to areas directly around our house.

I learned about assassin bugs in September, which despite their name, are not harmful to people. My spotted beebalm plant provided hours of entertainment as I watched a wide range of pollinators visit its nectar-producing flowers.

During my birthday month of October, I made a short movie of an immature ibis awkwardly trying to balance on a utility wire and fretted over the discovery of a large rat in one of my flowerpots after returning home from a week at the beach.

In November, I took pictures of a belted kingfisher fluffing his feathers and photographed spider webs glimmering in the morning dew.

One day, as I was coming home from town, I chanced upon a giant rattlesnake on our driveway. Seeing such a large and beautiful specimen is a rarity considering how quick most people are to kill snakes, especially venomous varieties. I left my find alone to live long and prosper in the forest understory.

November was also the month when I first spotted feral hogs on our property near Groveland. Unlike the rattlesnake, which I never considered killing, knowing that a passel of hogs has discovered our lakeside home has created an ethical struggle. Initially, I was excited to see such large mammals on our property. But as the weeks went by and more and more land was uprooted, I began to question my views on hunting.

I was distraught by the slaughter of 295 Florida black bears — hunting was permitted in October for the first time in 21 years. Killing them seemed wrong for so many reasons, but wild hogs are different. Unlike the black bear, with a small population hovering around 3,000, the number of feral pigs is huge. A half-million or more of these disease- and parasite-carrying critters roam the Florida countryside digging up land, wallowing in mud and polluting waterways such as our clear, clean lake.

Learning to coexist with nature has always been important to me, but sometimes coexisting is simply not possible. In December, I watched as a black boar swam through the water in our lake. When he stepped out on land, I realized I'd had enough. Seeing our shoreline torn up was one thing, but sharing the water in our lake with this bristly fellow and his friends was more than I could bear. The boar and I took a good long look at one another before he turned and ran away.

I've learned to live with alligators. I'm not scared of snakes. I appreciate spiders, bees and pollinating wasps. But feral hogs are singular. They pose unique problems.

According to the Chinese calendar, it won't be the Year of the Pig until 2019. And yet where I live, the Year of the Pig already happened. It took place in 2015 when a sounder of swine discovered our property. I intend for 2016 to be different. One way or another the porcine population must leave our landscape. As much as I treasure wildlife encounters, I refuse to be hogtied by a feral pig invasion.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sherry's BLFs (Best Literary Finds) of 2015

As a reader with a voracious appetite for the written word, I always find it a pleasure to discover new authors. I’m especially thrilled when I chance upon writers who have been hard at work for years, producing one novel after another.

During the past 12 months, my literary fortune has been enriched by the discovery of several new-to-me novelists. Jojo Moyes, Joseph Monninger, Jeffrey Stepakoff, Deborah Smith, and Juliet Blackwell are all contemporary writers with large bodies of work that, until this year, I didn’t know existed. How glad I am to have made their acquaintance through the pages of their books.

Meet my 6 new BLF's (Best Literary Finds) of 2015

Moyes is a British author with 13 titles under her belt while New Hampshire resident Monninger has written 22 books including one memoir, two non-fiction titles, many young adult books and three wonderful novels for adults that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I liked Moyes’s work so much that after reading the first book I picked up – One Plus One, which was released in 2014 - I went on what I call a ‘JoJo Jubilee.’

Since January, I’ve read six more of Moyes’s novels and enjoyed every one. Because Moyes writes with a British accent, her stories include many phrases, terms and colloquialisms that were unfamiliar to me, but I liked that about her stories. In addition to positive outcomes, relatable characters and captivating plots that kept me turning pages late into the night, I enjoyed learning new terminology and being transported through print into different cultures and ways of seeing the world.

While Moyes writes from a British perspective, Monninger’s three adult fiction books come from a New Englander’s viewpoint. The first Monninger novel I read was the deeply touching Eternal on the Water (2010), which is set in Maine. From there I went on to read his two other fiction titles as well as two of his young adult books.

Monninger, who lives in New Hampshire and teaches English at Plymouth College, infuses his novels with his deep passion for nature. His characters are kind, sensitive and attuned to their surroundings. As a former New Englander myself, the settings in Monninger’s stories were familiar. I could easily imagine canoeing down a river in Maine (Eternal on the Water), skating over a frozen river (The World as We Know It) or gazing out of a farmhouse window at the falling leaves (Margaret from Maine).

Although North Carolinian Jeffrey Stepakoff is the author of four novels with over a million copies published in 20 languages, he is perhaps better known for his decades-long career in film and television as a screenwriter, producer and developer of television series, films and major motion pictures. Some of his notable work includes shows such as Dawson’s Creek and The Wonder Years and movies like Disney’s Brother Bear and Tarzan.
During the past year, I read three of Stepakoff’s four novels and found myself especially taken with his 2010 novel, The Orchard, a love story with an unexpected romance set in the north Georgia and Carolinas countryside.

Like Stepakoff, author Deborah Smith also bases many of her stories in the Appalachian Mountains where she was raised and still lives. As the author of 35 novels in romance and women’s fiction, Smith calls her novels "big, romantic, southern family stories."

I appreciate her portrayal of strong female characters overcoming obstacles and often defying societal conventions. Of the three Smith novels I’ve read so far this year, my favorite was Sweet Hush, the story of a southern apple farm and the ‘bushel’ of trouble that suddenly surrounds it.

Author Jenny Colgan, who has written 20 novels over the past 15 years, divides her time between homes in France and England. 
Both countries are reflected in her 2013 book, The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris, which was the first of four novels I read last year by Colgan. In this book main character Anna Trent relocates from northern England to work in a small but famous chocolate shop in Paris.

As Trent learns more about her new trade, I too found myself absorbing knowledge not only about the making of chocolate confections, but also about French life in present times as well as during the last century. 

Juliet Blackwell is the author of 22 books but so far, I’ve only read one - her 2014 novel The Paris Key, which I discovered last month. Like so many of the other wonderful stories I read this year, I couldn’t put it down. I found myself staying up late at night to read just a few more pages. 

Blackwell skillfully combines French history with architectural facts. She mixes in numerous French phrases – which I enjoyed asking my husband to interpret for me - and included fascinating facts about locksmiths and the importance of keys to unlocking the secrets of not only of rooms but of life itself. 

Any book that teaches me about subjects I previously knew nothing about while also serving up generous helpings of plots, different cultures and determined female characters is a book that warrants reading and sharing with others.

As 2015 nears its end, I’m grateful for the talented writers whose printed words have taken me on so many imaginative adventures as well as the public libraries where I found most of this year’s reads. If you have favorite books from the past year, please share! Together we can begin 2016 with a reading list of our own.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Beachcombing in the woods

It was a perfect late December day.  Cool enough for a fleece vest but warm enough to go without a hat, gloves or socks.  As I walked the path along the lake, brightly colored leaves lay on the ground. I picked up several and put them in my pocket.  My collection grew until I came to the stump.  It seemed like the perfect place to arrange a display.

From bottom center going clockwise:  

The heart-shaded, yellow leaf in the bottom center fell from one of the ubiquitous fox grapevines that grow throughout the woods.

To its left is a small, crisp, brown oak leaf.

Above to the left are four black peppervine berries still attached to the stem.  Like grapevines, peppervines creep and weave their way across the forest floor climbing upward whenever they can.

A pinecone is above the peppervine berries and the red leaf above the pinecone comes from a laurel cherry tree.  A yellow and another red laurel cherry leaf are in the middle of the picture.

I'm not sure what kind of leaf is in the top center.  It is almost black and very dry and crisp.  It might also have fallen from one of the many oak trees.

One more cherry laurel leaf - this one an orange-red color and to it's left are three Alba biden or Spanish needle flowers.

Just below the white Alba biden blooms is a pretty scarlet swamp maple leaf and below that is a golden raintree seed still attached to a very thin, papery brown sheath.

It was a good walk in the woods.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Royal tern takes a royal bath

I had fun yesterday watching a Royal Tern take a bath in the ocean. It was low tide and occasional pockets of shallow water dotted the beach. A large flock of Royal Terns had gathered next to one of those tidal pools.

Royal terns turned toward the wind on a December afternoon at the beach

While most of the birds were standing in the same position with their heads facing the wind, two terns stood apart.  I focused in on one of the birds to see just what it looks like when a Royal Tern decides now is the perfect time to clean its feathers and dunk its head in saltwater despite the fact that most of his flock is doing something different.

Who cares what everyone else is doing.  I think it's time to get clean!

Here's a short video (1:13) of a Royal Tern taking a Royal Bath

Monday, December 14, 2015

Kiss and tell...

When I leave the house, I kiss my husband goodbye. It doesn’t matter if I’ll be away all day or for a half-hour, we always part with a kiss. It’s not just any old kiss. No my-mind-is-on-other-things peck on the cheek.

The kisses we exchange are full-on, lips-pressed-together, arms-around-each-other expressions of affection. We do it because when you love someone, you want to show it. You want them to know how much you care. A true kiss given on the cusp of separation — even a brief parting — becomes a sensory-rich bookmark, a placeholder of memories until the return.

During this past year — the 45th year Ralph and I have been a couple — I’ve given much thought to togetherness. What are the threads that hold partners together? Why do some unions last while others unravel?

For more than four decades, my husband and I have lived and worked together. We’ve created businesses and carved homesteads out of our imagination as much as the wood, nails and screws that physically held them together. We’ve raised four children and welcomed four grandchildren into the world. We’ve had our share of highs as well as lows. The ebb and flow of our marriage is no different from anyone else’s. Difficult times have been endured, joyful ones savored.

Kisses help us connect with those memories. Each physical expression is a touchstone, a reminder of what’s important. While kisses alone can’t cement a relationship, they can help hold it together. Prioritizing physical contact is like sealing an envelope. It keeps important messages from falling out.

There’s a strong tendency in long-term relationships to take each other for granted. After a while, we stop listening to each other’s words and intimacy loses its immediacy. Even kissing — if done at all — becomes lackluster and boring.

Why let it? It doesn’t take much to rekindle a flame. Smoldering embers ignite when fanned with a bit of focused attention. Before long, there’s fire, a burning blaze to warm the heart.

Being mindful is important to me. I try to pay attention to nature and my surroundings. I make a point of slowing down and looking around as I go about my daily activities. I try not to miss the small things — the little flowers, the rustle of leaves — everyday wonders that can be so easily overlooked.

However, important as such awareness is, it can’t compare to the vital nature of my primary relationship. I want that relationship to be the best it can be. And so, I never leave the house without kissing my husband goodbye. I give him a loving kiss, and he gives me one back. After 45 years of sharing life, it’s our way of letting each other know how much we treasure our time together.

It’s just a kiss. A little thing. But little things matter. They matter a lot.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Look Whoo we found!

The other day, my husband Ralph and I were walking through the woods in the early afternoon on a route we call the ‘high trail.’

Twenty years ago, the high trail was a narrow path along the upper edge of a gently sloping hillside. It was the highest part of an extensive field where we used to bale hay. Every year we’d mow down and rake tall grasses into windrows before dotting the landscape with square bales of hay. Eventually, haying lost its appeal, and we decided to convert the field to forest by planting thousands of pine seedlings on the open land.

At first, it seemed like it was taking forever for the young trees to gain stature, but eventually, the tiny pines grew tall alongside volunteer oaks, wild persimmons, cherry laurels and other plants that sprouted from seeds spread by wind and wildlife.

That afternoon as Ralph and I walked along the shady path, we talked about how much the landscape had changed since those long-ago days. A forest that once existed only in our imagination was now a mature, dense woods inhabited by wild turkeys, coyotes, raccoons and bobcats. We were in the middle of discussing how easy it would be for wildlife to disappear in the woods when a sudden burst of motion caught my attention.

“An owl!” I exclaimed pointing toward a large dark shape flying silently through the trees. “A big owl just flew by.”

By following its flight path, we spotted the owl perched on a small bough near the top of a slash pine tree. From where we stood about 50 feet away, we could see it clearly. 

The first thing that struck us both was how big the bird was. A mature barred owl stands about 18-inches tall with a 39- to 43-inch wingspan and can weigh up to 2.5 pounds.

The second thing we noticed was its eyes — two large dark orbs set above a small yellow beak in a grey-white face. Unlike a great horned owl or Eastern screech owl, a barred owl lacks ear tufts so its round head is smooth. Its plumage is grayish-brown with tan to white edges and brown bars on its wings.

We stood watching the owl while it watched us, but it did so only briefly before directing its attention elsewhere. By rotating its head almost completely around, the owl scanned the forest in every direction.

The sighting caught me completely by surprise. I stood there fascinated, feeling like I could stand there watching the bird for hours. I’ve seen a barred owl a few times before but this was my first daytime sighting, and I hoped to observe it for as long as possible. Although Ralph initially shared my excitement, we both knew that standing still is not his forte. His body needs to be active, and so he picked up the loppers he carried along on our walk and used them to cut down some of the wild grapevines that have invaded the forest.

Grapevines climbing up and over the forest

While Ralph chopped vines, I took pictures and a short video. I was shooting the video when I noticed the owl crane its neck in the direction of some distant movement deeper in the forest. Moments later, it took off, its broad wings propelling it toward whatever prey its sharp eyes had spotted.

I lost sight of my subject when it silently flew away so I don’t know where it landed or what victim it pursued. It could have been on the hunt for a small mammal, amphibian, reptile, little bird, large insect or even a fish. A barred owl considers anything it can swallow to be potential prey.

I don’t see owls very often. Especially large owls and especially in the daytime. But the other day, that’s exactly what I chanced upon. Although I never know what I’m going to find when I take a walk or a row, one thing I do know is that whenever I go out in nature, something special is bound to happen. The other day, that something special was a rare sighting of a barred owl in the daytime. I can’t wait to see what it will be tomorrow.

Listen to Barred Owl calls:

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pileated woodpecker emerges from pine tree cavity

Early morning is a good time to see wildlife, especially birds.

Yesterday morning I went for a walk while plants were still covered with dew and before many birds had begun to sing.  As I approached the east woods, which is dotted with numerous dead pines, I kept an eye out for one of the pileated woodpeckers that I often see on the taller snags.

From a distance, I saw something poking out of one of the holes. Using my camera, I zoomed in for a closer view.  A red-topped, black and white face stared back at me!

In a tree pockmarked with numerous cavities, a female pileated woodpecker surveyed her world.  She reminded me of myself when I wake in the morning and look out the window to consider the day.

While she gazed out, I knelt down and began to take this video of my morning find.

I never know what I'm going to discover when I take a walk or go for a row but I always know I'm going to encounter something memorable. Today it was a pileated woodpecker emerging from her pine tree cavity. It made my day!

Monday, November 30, 2015

I call it my 'Let it Be' garden

On the other side of the driveway across from the kitchen window, a four-foot by four-foot patch of ground bursts with life. All day long, bees, butterflies and beneficial wasps zip from one blossom to another in search of nectar. As the insects search for sweetness in the depths of floral throats, they brush sticky pollen, which adheres to their bodies. In the process of feeding, they become inadvertent pollinators.

My 'Let it Be' garden has little order. Whenever an appropriate plant comes along, I grab a trowel, find a space and dig it in. While little thought has gone into the garden arrangement, all plants share one common trait — they must not be fussy. To have a successful 'Let it Be' garden, each plant must thrive on neglect. The only water it gets is from the rain. I rarely weed. The soil was amended with compost and manure before anything was planted but since then, the only addition has been an occasional layer of grass clipping mulch.

Rain is the only water my 'Let it Be' garden gets, except when our grandkids are visiting

Yet, despite such neglect — or maybe because of it — this garden has thrived. The small rooted cutting of African blue basil that my daughter Amber gave me has grown into a sprawling mass of dark blue flower spikes covered with a continuous array of pale pink blossoms. This Florida-friendly plant is a true pollinator magnet. Not only does African blue basil attract a constant stream of nectar-seeking insects, it is also an edible herb that can be used to make pesto or any culinary preparation that calls for basil.

Another plant in my garden is easy-to-grow tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. This prolific bloomer is a nectar source for all butterflies, including monarchs. 

But in scientific communities, controversy hovers over whether this non-native plant is beneficial to monarch populations. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants and when the eggs hatch, caterpillars eat the leaves. 

Queen butterfly caterpillar chewing its way through a tropical milkweed plant

Unlike native milkweeds, tropical milkweed leaves regenerate quickly after defoliation. Critics fear such a ready supply of food upsets monarch butterfly migration patterns, theoretically leading to diminished populations.

In keeping with the garden's theme, my take on the tropical milkweed controversy is to let it be. The orange and yellow flowers of this self-pollinating beauty attract many other butterflies in addition to monarchs. I've seen skippers and zebra longwings, swallowtails, queen butterflies, viceroys, sulphur butterflies and gulf fritillaries all fluttering in and about the tropical milkweed flowers. 

Gray hairstreak butterfly on African blue basil

Bees and beneficial wasps like it too. It is a fast-growing, no-fuss plant to have in a butterfly or wildlife garden.

Pink rain lilies, some dark colored coleuses and a low-growing plant called Asystasia gangetica, are among the basil and milkweed. Asystasia, commonly known as Ganges primrose, Chinese violet and creeping foxglove, was new to me so I had no idea how hardy it was or how well it could handle a very limited amount of human attention. It turns out Asystasia is quite the trooper. It's holding its own beneath taller plants like the tropical milkweed and seems to attract a variety of moths and small skippers.

Hummingbird moth on Ganges primrose

Other cultivars in my 'Let it Be' garden include a volunteer cluster vine, which has climbed up and over a shepherd's pole from which a birdfeeder hangs, and a few millet plants that sprouted from seeds that fell out of the feeder.

A volunteer hairy cluster vine (Jacquemontia tamnifolia) climbs over the shephard's hook

Yesterday I noticed one new addition to the garden. An armadillo has excavated a deep hole beneath the dense cover of the African blue basil plant. My 'Let it Be' garden proves that if you choose the right plants, you can have a productive, wildlife-attracting space without having to do much work. The secret is not really a secret at all. Simply, let it be.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Remember others...

On this Thanksgiving day, remember that holidays are not joyous times for everyone.  There are many reasons why some people find it difficult to cope on days of celebration - especially those days that traditionally involve family gatherings.  

So, on holidays like today, be extra kind and attentive to others.  You don't have to do much to make a difference.  A warm smile, a tender touch, even a friendly face can ease the gloom in someone else's life.  

It only take a moment to be kind to another, but the effect of a caring gesture can last forever. 

The world can be a lonely place
If but for a friendly face
A few words said with kind intent
A smile, a hug, a compliment
Can brighten up a cloudy day
And chase the loneliness away 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hay-art always makes me smile

Hay-art created by a sod farm along SR 44 west of New Smyrna, Florida. Photographed on our way home from the beach yesterday.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Little things that mean so much...

The things I’m thankful for are little things. A granddaughter’s tight embrace. A stranger’s smile when we pass each other in the grocery aisle. An unexpected letter in the mail with words of appreciation from an adult child.

I get up each morning and am grateful for the day. I’m thankful for dewdrops on pine needles and cobwebs glimmering in the morning light. I’m thankful that my old rowboat still manages to carry me across still water. I’m thankful for each surprise I find along the way.

This morning I chanced upon a soft-shelled turtle while I was rowing through the shallow water along the eastern shoreline. Surprisingly, the turtle, whose flat, gray shell was about the size and shape of a serving platter, didn’t swim away on my approach. Instead, it stayed still, and so did I. We watched each other for a few minutes until it swam off, and I rowed on. For a brief moment before it left, our two worlds overlapped. I’m thankful for that and for the many other times when my encounters with nature have helped me better understand how other beings live.

I don’t do much traveling yet I feel like I span distances every time I look closely at the smallest creatures. The worlds of spiders, snakes, little green tree frogs, anoles, bees, wasps and butterflies are full of fascinating facts and behaviors. I love watching and learning about often-overlooked creatures and I’m glad I take time — make time — to get to know them better.

A few nights ago, I couldn’t sleep, so I got dressed and went outside. It was a moonless night, but the sky was bright with billions of stars. It made me realize how rarely I go outside at night and when I do, how rarely I look up. But the sky — oh, my! — the sky was amazing. I’m thankful that my restlessness led me outside. I’m thankful that I looked up to see such an inspiring sight.

The world can be an incredibly wonderful place. It can also be scary and, at times, unbearable. News of terrorist attacks, environmental changes, loss of wildlife and destruction of plant habitat can have devastating effects on people who care.

A few months ago, I lost a friend to suicide. Although I may never know why she took her life, I know she was a sensitive person who deeply cared about environmental issues. I miss her and wish she was still here.

With Thanksgiving just a few days away, many of us will be thinking about things that make us grateful. Good health, secure work, a safe place to live, food on the table and loved ones to share it with are all big and important reasons for gratitude.

But they’re not the only reasons. There is gratitude to be gleaned from a spider spinning a web or the sun setting over the horizon. There is peace to be had listening to a bird song or wind blowing through the leaves. 

When the woes of the world are too much, nature offers a release. I’m thankful for the little things because they play a big part in putting life’s troubles in perspective.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Wild hogs are back!

On Monday, I wrote about the wild hogs that have been tearing up the land around our lake.

Although evidence of their presence was obvious - long stretches of dug up ground is hard to miss - at that point I had only seen the porcine perpetrators once and that was at dusk.

This morning, I saw them again.  In the daylight at 6:45 a.m.

Two of the dastardly diggers returned to their most recent excavation to search for more roots, grubs, small critters or whatever it is that wild hogs find in the upturned muck along the lake's edge.

Anyway, this time I captured them on camera and video.  Below is a brief clip taken before they startled and ran back into the wood.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Morning treasures from a November row

My favorite time to row is early in the morning.  Especially before sunrise when the lake is calm and thick with mist.  Dew still clings to pine needles and wetland plants wear gossamer veils.

Below are a few photos I took the other day - so many beautiful surprises!

Dewdrops clung to pine needles on pine trees growing along the shoreline

Rowing along the lake's perimeter, I was amazed by all the spiderwebs! Almost every wetland plant boasted a gossamer display, a dazzling sight amid the morning mist.

Peelbark St. John's wort plant veiled in webs

I saw beauty in the spiderwebs but the spiders that wove them were after function, not art. A stong, well-positioned web = food, and food = life. Function, art and beauty seamlessly interwoven.

I hope all the spiders that built those webs caught many insects.  Who needs pest control when spiders are on the job!

Cicada entangled in a spiderweb

Speaking of spiderwebs...look at what I found shortly after I cast off from shore!

I'd wear that...

Sometimes I have to row for a while before I see something interesting to photograph but that's not what happened this time.  It took no time at all to find another amazing spiderweb.

This one reminds me of a doily on the arm of a couch in my mother's house when I was little...

It was dark out when I took the previous two pictues but by the time I rowed to the north end of the lake, the sun had broken through the mist and was beginning to brighten the sky. Light reached the pickerelweeds where spiders created a mass of billowing webs.

And this one, woven among the pickerelweed leaves, is billowing in the breeze

My morning row was filled with treasures. So much happens outside at night while I'm inside in bed.  I may miss the night magic but I'm glad at least some traces remain for me to find at dawn.

Monday, November 16, 2015

This little piggie (and all his friends) were busy digging up our yard

I was excited the first time I saw a wild hog, about 13 years ago. My son Toby and I were taking back roads home from Clermont. As we rounded a bend on Cherry Lake Road, a large, husky, dark-haired animal emerged from the woods and ran along the grassy strip next to the road. It all happened quickly. The pig darted back into the woods as my son and I drove on.

I was glad Toby was with me because without corroboration I doubt if the rest of the family would have believed me when I told them what I saw. At that point, our family was well settled into our little lakeside haven. Yet, in the 10 years we had lived there, no feral pigs had discovered our chunk of rural charm.

Since then, I’ve spotted wild hogs a few more times but never on our property. Most sightings took place along roads, especially along more isolated stretches of highway in the late afternoon.

However, in the past couple years, things have changed.

My neighbors mentioned seeing wild hogs, and I began to notice the distinctive footprints made by porcine creatures on trails around our property. Despite such evidence, I didn’t take it seriously. So there are wild pigs, I thought. What’s the big deal?

I soon found out.

“Ralph!” I bellowed, one morning as my husband entered the kitchen. “You’ve got to see what happened down by the lake!”

I was up early that morning, drawn outside to admire the dawn skyscape — beautiful colors reflected in the lake’s still water. All was lovely and serene until I looked at the ground along the shoreline.

Calling it “ground” might be inaccurate. It used to be ground — a green expanse of wildflowers, weeds and tall grasses that abutted the water. Now, “mudbath” would be a more accurate description. An approximately 75-foot by 8-foot stretch of once-green lawn was transformed into a lumpy length of black glop. The snouts and wallowing bodies of wildlife had found our property. They had dug into their discovery with abandon, leaving no sod unturned.

Was I excited by this sighting? Not exactly. I was more puzzled than anything. Considering what a mess they made, at least a dozen wild hogs must have been digging in the dirt just 30 feet or so away from our house. How could I possibly have missed seeing — or at least hearing — such a mammoth explosion of feral tomfoolery?

One evening at dusk, I saw several wild hogs on the other side of the lake and managed to capture this distant and blurred picture.  It was the only time I've actually seen them on our property even though the evidence of their presence proves they've been here quite a lot. 

Wild swine have been digging up dirt in the Sunshine State for more than four centuries. Estimated populations topping 500,000 of these large mammals — a mature feral hog can weigh up to 200 pounds and be 5 to 6 feet long — roam throughout all 67 Florida counties in groups of 2 to 30 animals.

With a diet consisting of both plant and animal material, these intelligent and fast-reproducing critters cause havoc in just about every possible habitat. Beginning when she is just six months old, a female can produce two to three litters a year, each with up to five piglets. That’s a lot of little piggies mucking up the ground in coastal, inland, wooded, wetland, agricultural and suburban habitats.

When I wonder why, after 23 years of living on our homestead, we’ve only now begun to see wild pigs, I needn’t look further than a publication posted on the University of Florida IFAS Extension website entitled “Wild Hogs in Florida: Ecology and Management.” Author William M. Giuliano stated, “…hogs prefer large forested areas with abundant food, particularly acorns, interspersed with marshes, hammocks, ponds and drainages. Good hog habitats have plenty of cover in the form of dense brush and limited human disturbance to woods, fields and wetland.”

Our property didn’t fit that description 23 or even 10 years ago, but it sure does now.

Now that the cloven-hoofed cotillion has snorted, rooted and wallowed its way onto our private domain, a perpetually disturbed landscape might be in our future. Once wild hogs find suitable habitat, they tend to stay. Why leave, after all, when you’ve found a place that has everything you need?

Thirteen years ago, I was thrilled when I spotted a wild pig running along the road. Fast forward a decade or so and, despite the destruction they’ve caused, I’d still be excited if I saw one or more feral hogs today. I may not be happy with what they do, but I can’t help but be awed by the very presence of so many wild animals managing not just to survive but thrive in this sadly wildlife-unfriendly human-centric world.

Maybe it’s pigheaded of me to say, but I don’t really mind if wild hogs are here to stay.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Belted kingfisher: Perch and preen

Preening is important business for birds and this belted kingfisher is taking its job seriously. Set to the music of Scott Joplin and photographed while perched on a bamboo pole in our Central Florida lake, this belted kingfisher does a thorough job of fluffing out and cleaning its feathers.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A rattlesnake encounter

So exciting!  

A snake - and not just any snake but a really big Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake - was stretched across the driveway when I came home.  

Of course, as soon as I saw it I stopped the car, reached for my camera and began taking pictures.

The rattlesnake turned toward me and took a good look....

...before deciding to turn around and slither back through the bamboo hedge into the woods.  
Below is a short video I took of the snake just before it disappeared back into the forest. 

In the 23 years we have lived on our property, this is only the third time a huge rattler has made an appearance.  Many might find such an encounter terrifying but to me it was thrilling. What a privilege and treat it was to see such a beautiful and large creature.  

So exciting! 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Small skipper on a nectar-sipping mission

Yesterday I watched as several tiny amber-colored butterflies - I've been told they are a type of skipper called Whirlabouts (Polites vibex) - sought nectar in the Thunbergia erecta flowers.  

The pink petals of this low growing plant are only about an inch wide and yet the small skipper I photographed practically disappeared within the flower's depth.  

In addition to the two photos, here's a very short video of one little skipper on its mission to secure nectar.

Monday, November 9, 2015

A spider that acts like a cat

If I were a dragonfly, wasp or bee flying over a lake in search of a place to land, I’d stay away from peelbark St. Johnswort, Hypericum fasciculatum, a yellow-flowering, shrubby plant that grows in and around wetland areas.

I’d be especially cautious September through November when female green lynx spiders living on St. Johnswort plants are guarding egg sacs and young spiderlings. Spiders are always looking to catch a flying insect that unwittingly lands on the wrong plant at the right time. That’s especially true when they’re raising babies.

And there’s a lot of baby-raising going on among arachnids living on plants in our lake right now.

Green lynx spider with egg sac on peelbark St. Johnswort

The other day while out rowing, I decided to take a survey of peelbark St. Johnswort shrubs and green lynx spiders, Peucetia viridians. Of the 340 plants I tallied, more than 7 percent contained a hungry and protective mama spider. Most of the spider-inhabited plants were located a short distance away from other St. Johnsworts, and I never saw more than one adult female arachnid on any plant.

Spiders were more likely to choose isolated plants like this one on which to raise young 

Since autumn is a green lynx spider’s reproduction season, each of the 24 spiders was either protecting an egg sac or guarding newly hatched spiderlings.

A green lynx spider’s egg sac is much easier to spot than the spider itself. The sac is a slightly bumpy, sand-colored container housing up to 600 bright orange eggs that will hatch within 11 to 16 days. The sac is about an inch diameter with one flat side and one rounded. After its construction is complete, the female spider surrounds the sac with a sketchy tent of randomly woven silky threads. She then protects it further by clutching it with her legs as she hangs upside down.

Lots of bright orange eggs surround this green lynx spider's egg sac along with a captured dragonfly 

Although birds may present the most obvious danger to lynx spiders, ants are a serious threat as well. Ants chew through egg sacs and carry away eggs. They can also attack adults. Perhaps choosing to raise young on an isolated plant in a waterlogged location makes it harder for ants to harm them.

Whatever their reason, female lynx spiders continue to protect their offspring until they can fend for themselves, which happens about 10 days after they hatch. When the young spiders are ready to leave, they do so by “ballooning.” They climb to the highest point they can reach, stand up on their hind legs and produce slim strands of silk that create a sort of a parachute to float them away on their random flight for life.

Green lynx spiderlings almost ready to 'balloon'

I have yet to observe spiderlings take flight, but I’ve marveled at the progress of egg sac development through the early stages of spiderling growth. I’ve also noticed a wide variety of invertebrates captured by female lynx spiders.

Wasp held in the clutch of a green lynx spider

Unlike spiders that spin webs, a green lynx catches food by leaping onto whatever hapless prey lands nearby. As its name suggests, this predatory arachnid has a cat-like ability to run fast and jump far. It also has keen eyesight, thanks to eight eyes positioned in such a way to monitor its surroundings from multiple directions simultaneously.

I like the way a green lynx spider’s well-camouflaged body make it hard to find unless you know where to look and what to look for. I admire the diligence with which females guard and protect their egg sacs, and I appreciate the way these relatively small spiders — females are a little less than an inch long with males half that size — fearlessly pursue prey far bigger than themselves.

Although just the thought of spiders strikes fear in many people, I think these eight-legged arthropods are beautiful creatures that provide an important service by eating insects that harm plants and bother people. Of course, not all the prey caught by arachnids can be considered a problem. Some of their victims are beneficial insects like potter wasps, honeybees and dragonflies.

That’s why if I were a dragonfly, wasp or bee, I’d stay clear of peelbark St. Johnswort plants — at least in autumn on small lakes in Central Florida. Doing so may not assure my safety, but it could prevent me from becoming the next meal for a green lynx spider.