Monday, January 26, 2015

A bobcat wanders by...

Guess who I saw this afternoon!  

Click on the arrow to watch a short video (1:20) of a furry visitor that I happened to spy as he wandered by.

Pondering the problem of invasive exotic pests

I noticed it early one morning as I looked out the window: A large tan-colored critter with a smug grin peering out from the hole of a previously vacant birdhouse.

As soon as I saw its exceptionally large toepads, I knew what I was looking at — a Cuban treefrog, Osteopilus septentrionalis. It was so ugly, it was cute.

But cuteness doesn’t cut it in conservation circles. Cuban treefrogs have been in Florida for 84 years yet scientists consider them an invasive exotic species mainly because of their voracious appetite for native frogs. Ever since its accidental arrival aboard cargo ships in 1931, this native of Cuba, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas has been expanding its range from the Florida Keys northward. It currently inhabits 36 of the state’s 67 counties and is expected to keep spreading.

Geographic distribution of Cuban Treefrogs (by county) in Florida      Image credit: Monica McGarrity, University of Florida, 2010

Although Cuban treefrogs also eat bothersome insects, spiders, lizards and small snakes, their consumption of at least five different species of native frogs has earned them a black mark in environmental communities. Some conservationists recommend humanely euthanizing these unintentional residents of the Sunshine State.

I didn’t take that step with the Cuban treefrog in the birdhouse. As much as I appreciate the scientists’ concerns, I am no more likely to kill a non-native frog than I am to end the life of a non-native bird such as a European starling that might have taken up residence in a bluebird box.

Bluebirds driving a starling from their nestbox. Photo by Dave Kinneer

The taking of another being’s life is a complicated and highly personal matter. While there are some critters I willingly destroy — mosquitoes, fire ants, houseflies, cockroaches and lubber grasshoppers come to mind — I go out of my way to avoid hurting others. I catch and release wasps that inadvertently get into our house. I never harm snakes, anoles, bees or spiders. I’m not crazy about killing caterpillars that eat the vegetables my husband invests so much time growing. Yet, when it comes to the Cuban treefrog, there are good reasons to consider euthanasia.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, more than 50,000 non-native fish and wildlife species inhabit the United States, with approximately 500 in Florida. However, only 123 carry the label of invasive exotic pests. To earn that label, a non-native species must cause harm to native species, threaten human health or cause economic damage. In addition to the Cuban treefrog, some of Florida’s other invasive exotic pests include Burmese pythons, Nile monitor lizards, monk parakeets and lionfish.

Much of the reason I won’t kill them is because of the label “invasive exotic pest.” How many years does a species have to live in an area before it is considered a legitimate part of the environment? The Cuban treefrog has been in Florida for more than 80 years, longer than many of the state’s human residents, but it still holds the title of non-native. The Cuban treefrog eats native frogs like the green treefrog and the squirrel treefrog, but so do other non-native species such as domestic cats. No one is recommending the humane euthanizing of pets to solve the problem or the displacement of human beings who undoubtedly have the greatest impact on native plant, fish and wildlife populations.

Cuban treefrog and native green treefrog

Trying to keep the environment in balance is no easy task, and I don’t envy the job of scientists and conservationists who are doing their best to work on these complex problems. As a mere resident with an interest in maintaining a healthy environment, I have to make my own decisions on how best to manage the land on which I live. 

Despite suggestions otherwise, when it comes to the Cuban treefrog, I’m not yet ready to enter ‘capture and destroy’ mode. Alligators, opossums, raccoons, yellow rat snakes, barred owls and other birds of prey all eat Cuban treefrogs. For now, I’m leaving the control of this invasive exotic pest to its natural predators.

Letting nature take care of the invasive exotic pest problem

Monday, January 19, 2015

Bluebirds make me happy

As I rounded the bend toward home, a flock of bluebirds appeared. I thought they might.

Bluebirds seem to like my neighbor’s pasture, a broad stretch of abandoned groves, rundown buildings and open fields where a small herd of cattle graze. When the birds are not flitting about the grassy expanses in search of insects and seeds, they perch on fences, posts and overhead utility wires. Even though the unpaved road is dusty and bumpy, I often take that route home because I know seeing them will brighten my day.

January is prime sighting season for these cavity-dwelling members of the thrush family. Although bluebirds live year-round in Florida, their population swells during winter months when northern birds migrate south.

The Eastern bluebird, Sialia sialis, is related to the American robin but weighs one-third less and is about two inches smaller than its red-breasted relative. 

Cousins:  Bluebird on left, Robin on right

These compact bundles of blue, orange and grayish-white feathers are easy to spot, especially when perched on a fence post or flying from tree to ground in search of insects. Both sexes share the same attractive colors, but the hues are more subdued on the females.

Similar looking but different:  Male bluebird on left, female on right

My neighbor’s pasture provides just the kind of habitat Eastern bluebirds prefer — acreage close to water with open fields and minimal undergrowth bordered by woods with a scattering of dead trees. The dead trees are important because snags attract wood-drilling birds like woodpeckers. Since a bluebird’s beak isn’t strong enough to do the drilling itself, it must seek out pre-drilled homes to raise its young.

Many critters, especially those such as bluebirds with specific nesting requirements, suffer when dead trees are cut down or when land is cleared for development. That’s what happened during most of the 20th Century. Bluebird populations declined because of habitat loss plus increased pesticide use and the competition for nesting sites from two non-native birds, the European starling and the house sparrow.

Fortunately, bluebirds were lucky. They’ve made a comeback due, in large part, to the installation of nesting boxes on public and private land.

In March 2004, 10 bluebird nesting boxes were installed at P.E.A.R. Park in south Leesburg through the combined efforts of the Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society, the PEAR Association and Boy Scout Troop 254 of Howey-in-the-Hills. Since then, more boxes have been added, resulting in scores of fledglings making their way into the world. And P.E.A.R. Park is not alone. Individuals and volunteer conservationists have installed bluebird nesting boxes in many places throughout the region.

There aren’t any bluebird boxes on our property yet, but I hope there will be soon. Building one doesn’t look difficult or expensive. A single box can be built from a 52-inch long one-by-six cypress board, although pine or red cedar wood works too. Pre-built boxes and do-it-yourself kits also are available online and at many retail outlets.

Once a nesting box is obtained, it should be mounted on a post between four to seven feet above ground in an open area six feet away from limbs or fences with the entry hole facing north or northeasterly. Protecting the nest from predators by installing a guard around the post is important, as is cleaning out the box annually.

The Eastern bluebird is an uplifting creature. Observing bluebirds on my neighbor’s land makes me happy, but I’d be even happier if I knew they were nesting on land in my control. I can follow the park’s lead by putting up nesting boxes that will encourage bluebirds to set up residences. I may not be able to stop the bulldozers from knocking down dead trees and destroying habitats, but I can help provide at least one species with the ability to survive.

I know it’s just a little step, but I appreciate the value of small beginnings. Something tells me that bluebirds do, too.

Monday, January 12, 2015

'Hooked' on hemp, marijuana's healthful cousin

Eaten any hemp lately? I have — for lunch. I sprinkled hemp hearts, which are raw, shelled hemp seeds, on top of a sweet potato. It was delicious.

Hemp's nutty, buttery flavor blends wonderfully with the soft, smooth texture of a cooked sweet potato. My husband Ralph has been enjoying this highly nutritional food for years, but I have only recently begun to realize what he's been saying all along: Hemp seeds are a delectable addition to so many of our meals.

Hemp hearts atop a cooked sweet potato

Some people may be concerned because hemp seeds are related to marijuana. Although both products come from a cannabis sativa plant, the illegal drug comes from a different variety of cannabis than the healthy seeds. It's like comparing a sweet pepper to a hot pepper, two varieties with completely different properties and uses.

The mind-bending component of marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Edible hemp seeds contain only a minuscule amount of THC, so eating the seeds won't result in a failed workplace drug test. Research by consultants for the North American Industrial Hemp Council show that people eating the equivalent of a half pound of shelled hemp seeds every day for 10 days — far more than even an enthusiast ever would consume — tested at less than 5 parts per billion of THC. Most employers, including the federal government, require 50 ppb or less.

In short, you won't get high by eating it. Not even a little. What you will get is a hefty serving of plant-based proteins and heart-healthy essential omega fatty acids. Hemp seeds are low in carbohydrates and are gluten free. They are high in Vitamin E and minerals like iron, phosphorous, thiamine, zinc, magnesium and manganese. Because hemp hearts are seeds, people who are allergic to nuts can eat them.

In addition to sprinkling hemp hearts on sweet potatoes or adding them to smoothies, stir-fries, baked goods, salads, soups or cereal, there are many other ways to reap the benefit of this healthy food. The Whole Foods Market website lists hemp products such as milk, oil, granola bars, a breakfast cereal, protein powder and fiber powder.

Also available in the marketplace are a variety of hemp seed products, including a "nut" butter to use as an alternative to peanut or almond butter, tofu and frozen waffles containing hemp and ice cream made from hemp milk. The Swiss even make a beer from hemp blossoms. While none of these cannabis products provides a buzz, each does pack a powerful nutritional punch.

Despite the wide variety of edible hemp products, the only one I've had personal experience with is hemp hearts, which are soft tan-colored seeds about the size of sesame seeds. Until recently, we used to roast the seeds in a cast-iron pan over low heat on the stove. Roasting released a wonderful aroma not unlike the pleasant smell of roasted nuts or popcorn. It's one of those smells that draws you into the kitchen.

The just-roasted morsels tasted so good, I often ate the warm seeds by the spoonful. But after a while, we got lazy. Although I enjoyed the process of roasting them, Ralph didn't. He had other things he wanted to do with his time besides standing over the stove slowly stirring the seeds as they browned. Eventually, he began spooning them directly on food and, as usual, I followed his lead.

The hemp hearts we eat come from a Canadian company called Manitoba Harvest. They are available online, at health food stores and at some grocery stores. The seeds sold for consumption are hulled and "sterile," and they will not grow if planted.

That's because a law passed in 1937 made it illegal for farmers in the United States to grow hemp or to import seeds to plant. The 78-year ban on growing a beneficial food product — not to mention the vast array of non-edible hemp products such as paper, fabric and rope — began to change last February when President Obama signed the 2014 farm bill, which included a provision allowing hemp to be grown in some states for research purposes. 

The United States is the only industrialized nation where hemp farming is outlawed. Hopefully, the farm bill is only the first step toward returning a useful crop to American farmland.

Times have certainly changed. Legislation passed in 1619 by the Assembly of Jamestown Colony, Virginia, made it compulsory for every farmer to grow hemp to use for the production of clothes, ropes and sails. The need for twine, rope and other industrial fibers during World War II prompted farmers in the United States to grow about a million acres of hemp, subsidized by the federal government.

It's important to revisit old ideas, and cannabis sativa is an old idea long overdue for a complete reexamination. A good place to begin is at the kitchen table by sprinkling some hemp hearts on a fresh baked sweet potato. But be forewarned: Once you taste it, you might get hooked by the nutritious flavor of a good-for-you food that has been unfairly maligned for far too long.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Progress. Or not...?

Another pasture bites the dust.

Over the past couple years, development where I live in south Lake County has increased dramatically. New subdivisions have appeared on fields where cattle once grazed and Florida scrub jays (our state's only endemic bird) once flourished.  Trees have been cut down and land resculpted to accommodate roads and retention ponds and homesites packed so closely together neighbors can practically reach out side windows and touch each other's hands.

A few weeks ago I drove down Grassy Lake Road in Minneola, a quiet back road that I often take to photograph cattle escaping the heat beneath broad oaks, wildflowers growing in the fields and scrub jays standing guard atop scraggly trees.

This time, however, instead of birds or blooms, a herd of cattle or a slow-moving gopher tortoise, I passed a cadre of heavy equipment parked alongside scattered piles of freshly dug dirt.  I didn't have to read the sign posted by the trucks to know what was happening.

Another field fell victim to progress.

I understand that land owners have every right to sell their land even if that means cutting down all the trees and reshaping the contours to meet the needs of developments.  I understand that people need places to live and the allure of a newly built house. But just because I understand these things doesn't mean I have to like them.

It makes me sad to see so many parcels of open land - especially land where threatened animals like the Florida scrub jays and gopher tortoises live - be destroyed for wildlife habitat in order to accommodate the needs of people.

We humans call it progress.  But what would the dwindling population of scrub jays and other animals say about the depletion of land on which they can live? Progress for some is not progress for all.  For those of us who care, it's just upsetting.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Bluebirds of happiness

I never get tired of photographing bluebirds.  There's something especially endearing about their bright-colored plumage, sweet expressions and pretty poses on fence posts and wires.

Below are a few new bluebird pictures that I took yesterday just outside our property as I bounced along the unpaved back road home from town.  I often take that route home, especially when I need something to perk up my mood. Needless to say, after watching the birds frolic about I felt much better.

Female Eastern Bluebird

Male Eastern Bluebird

Male and Female

A pose I can relate to:  Female is looking up at the male while he's looking the other way...  

The male and female bluebirds stayed close together.  Perhaps they have formed a pair bond and are preparing to mate.  


Monday, January 5, 2015

Weed-eating fish cleaned our lake

Our triploid grass carp must be happy. All the rain we had in December made lake levels rise, submerging stretches of grassy shoreline in shallow water. The carp, which eat only plant matter, have been munching on this newfound fodder ever since it entered an aquatic state.

When I go for a row, I often see the carp tugging at the stems and stalks of leafy weeds. The fish are so intent on feeding, they often don't realize I'm close until I'm practically on top of them. Then they startle, making big splashes in the process, as they swiftly swim away from my aluminum skiff.

Too busy munching on weeds to notice me approaching in my rowboat

Triploid grass carp have been eating wetland plants in our lake since May 2006. We purchased our stock during a period when the 12-acre pond was so clogged with floating weeds we couldn't swim without becoming entangled in stringy plants.

Although other methods of ridding the lake of weeds were suggested — removing them by hand (impractical), hiring a company to mechanically remove weeds (expensive) and using herbicides (environmentally questionable) — we opted for the carp. The idea of stocking the lake with an adequate number of plant-eating fish seemed like a practical, affordable and environmentally sound approach.

The grass carp, Ctenopharyngodon idella, are members of the freshwater fish family Cyprinidae, which also includes the minnow, goldfish and golden shiner. They are native to rivers in Siberia and China that flow into the Pacific, but now more than 90 countries around the world raise grass carp for aquatic weed control and aquaculture.

The fish's introduction to Florida's lakes began in the 1970s as a means to manage the extremely invasive weed hydrilla. Although grass carp were successful at controlling hydrilla, their voracious appetite for herbaceous plants raised concerns. If they reproduced in the wild, they might destroy valuable wetlands, swamps and waterfowl feeding grounds. Because of these concerns, scientists developed a means to genetically manipulate grass carp chromosomes so they have three sets rather than two, resulting in the production of sterile fish. Today, triploid grass carp is one of only two exotic fish in Florida — peacock bass is the other— that can be legally stocked in fresh water once a permit is issued.

To begin the process of procuring the carp, we contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which sent a representative to assess our situation. The FWC approved a permit for 75 triploid grass carp. We drove to a hatchery in Center Hill to pick up our stock of 10- to 12-inch-long fish placed inside several water-filled plastic bags in cardboard boxes. 

The hatchery in Center Hill

My older son, Tim, helping to unload the boxes with fish

When we arrived home, the three of our four children who were there at the time helped carry the boxes down to the lake where we opened the bags, releasing the fish into the water.

My youngest child, Toby, hefts a bag filled with fingerling carp to the lake while his sister watches

Five bags of fish ready to be opened to release the carp to the water

Looking back on pictures I took that day, I'm struck by the passage of time. In 2006, our youngest son was 14 and still looked like a gawky teen. He now is a tall, lean 23-year-old on the cusp of completing graduate school. Almost as impressive is the growth of the fish themselves. Our once small fingerlings are now aquatic behemoths approximately 36-inches long with an estimated weight of 40 pounds. 

One of our 'big guys'

Over their expected lifespan of 10-plus years, triploid grass carp grow extraordinarily large. The biggest one ever recorded weighed 99 pounds with a length of 4-feet, nine-inches. When I look at the size of the grass carp in our lake, it's hard to believe they're related to minnows.

Not unlike cattle or manatees, triploid grass carp often grass in herds

It's about time to contact the FWC again to renew my permit. It's going on nine years since we introduced our stock of triploid grass carp. I don't know how many of the original 75 are still alive — probably not many — but even those fish that have survived the ospreys, otters and alligators will soon be reaching the end of their natural life.

It may not be the right answer for every situation, but in our lake, triploid grass carp proved to be the perfect solution for an aquatic weed problem. Not only did these underwater grazers enable us to swim again by consuming the plants that clogged the water, they've also given us hours of entertainment in the process as we've watched them grow big on a diet of weeds.

I hope our carp are happy because I'm sure happy we have them.

Two grass carp swim along the shoreline in search of more weeds to eat

Read more about our experience with triploid grass carp here:
Grass carp eat lake weeds for 17 months and grow huge

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Coyote sighting!

I'm sitting in the kitchen reading.

A coyote wanders by.

Fortunately, my camera is close at hand.

Unfortunately, the coyote moves much faster than my excited hands can manipulate the camera's settings.
I snap off a few shots.  The first one - where I have the closest, clearest view - comes out blurry.

What a thrill!

The coyote moves off behind the mulberry trees.  I take more pictures.

A coyote, obscured by the bare branches of a mulberry tree

The coyote spots my husband working in the garden and, for a moment, stands still.  Then he takes off through the woods.  By then I'm outside but the animal has moved too deep into the forest to follow.

A coyote eyes my husband before darting off into the woods

Nonetheless, I'm elated.  I saw a coyote today, just outside the kitchen window!