Saturday, February 28, 2015

15 birds of February

February may have been a short month but there was no shortage of bird sightings on or around our Groveland homestead.

The highlight for me was seeing so many bluebirds right here on our property.

Below are three of many pictures (I'm embarrassed to say exactly how many I took...) of male and female bluebirds checking out the nesting boxes Ralph installed on Valentine's Day (best gift ever!)  More about that in my upcoming Simply Living column to be posted this Monday, March 2nd.

When it's not chowing down on insects, this little Carolina wren has been a frequent visitor to a suet feeder hanging just above the lantana on which it is perched.

A catbird perched in a sumac bush always mews at me when I pass by its territory in my rowboat.

So many chipping sparrows came to my birdfeeders this month.  These small brown-capped biddies with a black stripe going through and a white stripe above their eyes travel in flocks and supplement their diet of grass seeds and insects by filling up on the millet and other smaller seeds in a general birdseed mix.

In addition to the chipping sparrows, other regular visitors to our property were a pair of sandhill cranes.  Although the lake is too high for nesting this year, a pair has nested here in the past and it's very likely that they're the ones returning to search for bugs and birdseed that on the ground.

When they're not on the ground pecking for seeds, collared doves like to sit high up in the branches trees like this sycamore.

I took this picture of a great egret a few miles away from where we live in a small wetland where the nesting sandhill crane (pictured above) was sitting on her eggs.

A solitary pied-billed grebe, swims through the morning mist in the calm lake water.

On my way home from town one afternoon, I noticed several killdeer skittering across a nearby field.

The bright red plumage of this male cardinal looks especially against the yellowy color of a clump of Asian Lemon Timber Bamboo on the west side of our house.

I saw this American robin and several of its friends in a feeding frenzy gobbling down the fruit of a Chinaberry tree off Grassy Lake Road in Clermont.

I haven't seen any male redwing blackbirds at our feeders but quite a few females have become regulars this month.

A sweet little phoebe is well camouflaged among some older gray canes of bamboo.

No turkeys on our property during February (at least none that I saw) but I did notice a small flock feeding in the side yard of a house along Hwy 19 in Groveland.  I was so taken aback by their appearance in this less semi-urban setting that I had to turn the car around and go back for a second look.

And finally, a picture - not my best shot - of a bald eagle preening its feathers while perched on top of a snag across the lake from our house. A few minutes after I took it, two crows dive-bombed the eagle. Please visit my YouTube channel to see a short video of that encounter as well as several other wildlife movies I've made over the past couple years.

Thursday, February 26, 2015 or catbird?

From the safety of a brier thicket, a gray catbird calls out a series of sounds warning me to stay away.  I did stay away but I also took this short video of the mewing bird.

Crows harassing bald eagle

A bald eagle sitting atop a dead tree is trying to preen its feathers. But no matter how well groomed an eagle is, a couple of crows don't want it in their neighborhood. Although it doesn't seem to faze the eagle, the crows attempt to scare the large predator away.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A small wetland: One egret and a nesting crane

If you are driving on busy Rt.19 just north of Groveland, you might miss it. With all the semis speeding up and down that narrow stretch of two-lane highway, taking yours eyes off the road can be a risky move.

But, for those of us familiar with that thoroughfare, there are treats to be found in the still-rural area.

Groveland resident and acclaimed duck artist John Harris, told me about the sandhill crane nest he noticed in a small wetland area just north of town.  This morning as I headed south on 19 from my house, I made a point of looking for the spot he mentioned and found it practically across the street from our bamboo nursery,

The great white egret is fairly obvious but see if you can find the sandhill crane's nest...

This particular swath of moist ground is a beautiful place - a small watery area surrounding a fairly large island where egrets often roost in the evening. This morning, however, in addition to one great white egret, I also found a sandhill crane sitting on a nest just as John said I would..

A closer look at the crane on her nest

Even though I know that's where they like to roost, I always find it surprising to see large birds like herons and egrets perched atop bushes or tall tree branches

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pucker up!

It’s not Christmas, but I’m standing beneath mistletoe.

I’m not waiting to be kissed but I am wondering: Mistletoe? In the sycamore tree? Is that even possible?

It is. Finding this Florida native plant in deciduous trees is common in winter when circular clumps of mistletoe stand out against bare branches.

Green mistletoe is easy to see when a tree is no longer covered in leaves

That’s how I noticed the mistletoe. For several months, I’ve been watching the seasonal flutter of falling leaves. While many land on the ground, a substantial number of the large, brown, leathery leaves also end up in our gutters. My husband has agreed to clean the clogged gutters but not until the last leaf has finally left the tree.

Sycamore leaves everywhere

His procrastination turned me into a relentlessly diligent leaf monitor. However, as fewer and fewer leaves remained, I became aware of a patch of greenery that didn’t belong.

The greenery is mistletoe, a parasitic evergreen plant that grows in the upper branches of deciduous trees. Mistletoe has an unusual way of landing in those trees.

Mature mistletoe plants, Phoradendron laucarpum, bear small, showy flowers that attract pollinating insects. A pollinated flower can take a year or longer to develop into a white-fleshed berry that contains one extremely sticky seed. 

Mistletoe berries beginning to form

A bird eating a berry — the fruit is toxic to most animals except birds — will either excrete the seed while sitting on a branch or rub its beak against the limb in an attempt to dislodge the sticky seed from its beak. Either way, feathered fliers act as inadvertent mistletoe propagators, transferring the plant from one location to another.

By rubbing its beak against a branch, birds like this chipping sparrow help spread mistletoe to different arboreal locations

Once deposited on a branch, the sticky mistletoe seed germinates in the sun and sends a feeding organ similar to a root into the tree bark to absorb water and nutrients from underlying tissues in the host’s branches. The feeding organ called haustoria, can penetrate only thin-barked trees such as sycamore, laurel oaks, water oaks, chinaberry and elms. Although this harms the tree — a tree covered with too many clumps of mistletoe, can lose enough water and nutrients to die — it benefits the mistletoe, enabling it to thrive independent of soil.

Parasites are like that. They suck life from their hosts to gain a foothold on life itself.

Before I began monitoring the tree to let my husband know when the last leaf had fallen, not only was I unaware that mistletoe grew in Florida, I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of parasitic plants. Now that I have, the thought of kissing someone under a parasitic mistletoe plant seems rather unsettling.

But I’ll do it. I will. As soon as those clogged up gutters are finally cleaned out, I’ll be standing beneath the sycamore tree — right under that clump of green mistletoe. Let the smooching begin!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Bathing behind the 'boo - A sandhill crane takes a bath

From the upstairs window, I watched a sandhill crane indulging in a little afternoon delight. 

(No, not that kind of afternoon delight!)  

She was taking a bath in the shallow water along the shoreline while her mate stood guard nearby, doing a bit of preening of his own.

The video is 2:04 minutes long.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Open wide!

The sandhill cranes are back, not to nest - the lake level is too high for that - but to visit the birdfeeders and poke around the ground in search of fallen seeds.

Almost every day, sandhill cranes arrive.  Sometimes just one crane. Other times, a couple. On one occasion, two pairs arrived separately until the second arrivals chased the first pair away. I guess Ralph and I aren't the only ones with territorial feelings about the property.

I took this picture yesterday of one crane making what looks like a squawking motion with its mouth.

Sandhill cranes often open their mouths to bellow at other cranes flying overhead but they're usually looking skyward at the time.  This crane wasn't looking skyward and wasn't even making a discernible sound.  It might have been yawning or just stretching its jawbones.  Or maybe it was trying to get my attention.  If that was the case, it succeeded.  I was totally riveted.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Letting nature sow (most) of the seeds

I've always wanted a field of wildflowers and now I have one.  Below is a picture of an expansive stretch of Fumaria officinalis, commonly known as earth smoke.

A field of wildflower

Interspersed among the earth smoke is pink sorrel, cow thistle, some Spanish needle and a scattering of sunflowers that are just beginning to sprout above the other flowers.

Spanish needle (Alba biden) attracts many butterflies including this zebra longwing

Of all those plants, the sunflowers are the only ones I planted. Nature took care of the rest.

Although earth smoke has been growing throughout our property for years, I only recently discovered its name thanks to Malory Foster who responded to a post by Joanne Zimmerly Wilson on our Facebook page Florida Flora.

Joanne posted a picture of the plant with its delicate purplish-pink flowers and asked if anyone knew what it was.  Malory quickly replied with an ID.  By doing so, she answered one of my longtime 'what-plant-is-it?' mysteries.

The following are few links with more information about Earth Smoke:

Monday, February 16, 2015

Bovines, birds and longtime friends

Pass by any pastureland with grazing cattle and you’ll probably notice numerous birds accompanying the herd. The birds are cattle egrets, ­Bubulcus ibis, stubby white critters with small blots of buff-colored plumage on their underbellies and crowns.

Although the cattle egret is native to tropical and semi-tropical parts of Asia, Africa and Europe, its territory has expanded throughout the world. It has even adapted to the frigid climate of Alaska.

My interest in this common, less showy member of the heron family grew a couple weeks ago during a visit by two childhood friends, Sharon Marcello LaRossa and Mary Ann Sircely.

The three of us grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania, and while Sharon still lives in that area, Mary Ann relocated a few years ago to Orcas Island off the coast of Washington. In addition to sharing the same hometown and K-12 memories, we’ve developed into adults with a love of nature and a common interest in photographing birds and other wildlife.

Mary Ann, Sharon and Sherry

On the second day of their visit, we decided to tap those shared interests by doing some exploring. We visited a nearby tract of yet-to-be-developed land to see Florida scrub jays and followed that up with stops at two new nature preserves near Ferndale. From there we headed toward Trout Lake Nature Center in Eustis with a stop in downtown Eustis for lunch and a walk along the waterfront.

The Florida Scrub jay - the state's only endemic bird

It was a relaxing trip on back roads with frequent stops whenever one of us spotted an unusual bird — a loggerhead shrike in a field or a hawk soaring overhead. 

Loggerhead shrike

As we rounded a bend in the Sugarloaf Mountain area of Clermont, a herd of cattle captured my companions’ attention. Actually, it was the mixture of birds and bovines that made my friends grab their cameras and spring from the car.

Who's more curious, the cows or the tourists?

Cattle egrets and the animals they often accompany have a symbiotic relationship. The birds that stand on the backs of bovines pick off parasitic bugs like ticks, fleas and flies while egrets on the ground try to catch grasshoppers or other insects disturbed by the movement of the cattle.

A cattle egret ready to pick insects off its host's back

Because I’m so used to seeing cattle egrets, I’ve come to take them for granted. But a little research after my friends’ visit shed new light on a common sight.

In addition to bugs, this year-round resident of the Sunshine State eats moths, worms, frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, eggs, small mammals and the occasional fish. As an opportunistic feeder, it will feed at garbage dumps as well as in fields. Cleverly, it also satisfies its palate by catching insects blown out of the grass by departing airplanes and by flying toward smoke to find bugs fleeing from wildfires.

One of the most common sightings of cattle egrets doesn’t involve cattle at all. They often trail behind lawnmowers in yards to capture insects disturbed by the mower.

Egrets attracted to insects disturbed by mower
Photo credit:  Bob Couch,

Although my friends and I saw many birds on our daylong romp, the highlight was watching the cattle egrets and livestock interact with one another. Sharon expressed it well when she said, “For me, it was very unusual. Before our trip to Florida, I had only seen a cattle egret once and I had never seen them with cattle. I thought it was just incredible that the cattle and the egrets were so very comfortable with each other. When the egrets were coming closer to us, it seemed like the cattle moved closer, almost to protect them. They are a good example of how we should all live together and take care of one another.”

Sometimes a quick stop to take pictures yields more than a snapshot of wildlife. In this case, it made me rethink the ordinary. It also made me grateful for friends who — despite the years and distances that separate us — appreciate nature in its many crazy and unexpected ways. I had no idea the common cattle egret could provide such insight.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Calling all bluebirds!

My first two bluebird boxes are installed!  Just in time for bluebird nesting season.

The first of two bluebird boxes to go into the ground

A big 'Thank You!' to Doug Spencer of Astatula who provided me with the boxes and to my husband Ralph who mounted them on posts, dug the holes and set them into the ground.

Doug Spencer in his home workshop

We placed the bluebird houses a bit over 100' apart on the edge of a field that runs down to the lake.

We put a baffle around one of the posts to keep out snakes and intend to put baffles around the others as well

During this time of year, bluebirds like to go back and forth between a nearby sycamore tree and the field as they find insects in the grasses.

A female bluebird perched in a nearby tree

Doug generously built seven boxes for us so we still have five more to install around the property and maybe also at our nursery, Beautiful Bamboo.

I can't wait to see if the birds find the nesting sites this season.  If (when) they do, you can be sure I'll be posting plenty of pictures!

Like bluebirds?
Read some of my other bluebird columns:

Monday, February 9, 2015

Overlapping holidays share the love

Valentine’s Day is about love. It’s a day to express affection for people you care about. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just fallen in love or have been together for decades, Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to let loved ones know they are appreciated.

But what if you’re not in love? For those single by chance, by choice or because of a recent loss, the holiday can be bittersweet at best.

Instead of feeling left out, there is a way to feel part of the celebration. Another holiday — Random Acts of Kindness Week, which runs from February 9-15 — overlaps with Valentine’s Day. While far less familiar, Random Acts of Kindness Week, is no less important. It may even be more significant because it provides a chance for everyone, regardless of relationship status, to share a little love with others.

Expressing love is as varied as one’s imagination. It could be something as simple as smiling at others or giving a friend a hug and telling him or her how much you care for them. Some people celebrate by anonymously paying for a stranger’s meal at a restaurant or by donating non-perishables to a food bank.

But you don’t have to spend money to participate. Words alone can make a difference. You can say something nice to the cashier at the grocery or compliment the waiter who is bringing you a meal. You can write a note and leave it in a library book or send a thank you card to someone who has helped in you the past.

One of my favorite ways to combine the two holidays is to buy a traditional Valentine’s Day gift, a bouquet of flowers, but instead of taking it home, give the flowers away, one at a time to residents at a nursing home. The smiles you receive in exchange for each unexpected act of kindness will more than compensate for the money spent on the floral arrangement.

The surprising thing about random acts of kindness is that by giving gifts of love to others, you are giving a gift to yourself as well.

Click on the arrow below to hear a wonderful song on this topic by Malvina Reynolds called "The Magic Penny"

“Kindness is contagious,” says, “Acts of kindness have a positive three-way effect: There’s the positive effect on the recipient and the positive effect on you — you might find yourself experiencing the positive emotion of the ‘helper’s high.’ But perhaps the biggest effect of all will be on a passer-by who just happens to witness the act.”

With so many advertisers these days urging us to celebrate Valentine’s Day by giving gifts of jewelry, candy, flowers or fancy meals out, it’s easy to forget the real meaning of the holiday.

Whether you celebrate Valentine’s Day, Random Acts of Kindness Week, an amalgam of the two or nothing at all, the main thing to remember is that love matters. And what matters even more is the ability to share that love with others.

It's all about sharing love with others
(Photo credit: Jenny Boas)

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Saw my first robins of the season today!

I'm not a big fan of chinaberry trees but American robins think they're grand.  

While taking back roads to Clermont this afternoon, I saw dozens of birds flying in and out of a chinaberry tree's branches.  Pulling off the road onto the grass, I grabbed my camera and zoomed in for a closer look.  

The birds were robins - my first robin sighting of the season - and they were in the middle of a feeding frenzy!  

One robin after another flew onto a branch, plucked a yellow chinaberry off the bunch, ate it then fly away only to be replace by another robin flying in.


I don't like chinaberry trees because I think they're ugly, messy and spread like crazy. Instead of seeing one chinaberry tree, I almost always see many. I had never thought much about that characteristic until today when I saw how voraciously the birds devoured the berries.

Birds eat. Birds poop. New trees sprout in the fertilized ground.

Although I'm not a fan of chinaberry trees, I enjoyed seeing how wild the robins were for the berries.  Watching them feed gave me a new appreciation for the deciduous tree.  But don't get me wrong, robins or not, I still don't want chinaberry trees growing in my yard.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Is Bear hunting in Florida a good idea?

In the 23 years I’ve lived in south Lake County, I’ve seen a black bear only once.

It happened two years ago when my husband Ralph and I were walking down the driveway to get the mail. The bear, which was eating acorns under a large oak, ran into the woods as soon as it realized people were near. I had my camera with me and managed to capture one picture before the bear vanished into the forest.

Ralph and I were probably the last people to see that bear alive. Later that night, a car on a nearby road killed a black bear.

More than 1,000 bears have been killed on Florida roads since 2009, according to David Telesco, bear management coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That’s a huge toll on a population estimated a decade ago at 3,000 animals, though now believed to be considerably higher.

Bears in Florida don’t have it easy. In addition to being victims of highway collisions, black bears also must contend with a shrinking habitat. A single bear ranges over 25,000 acres, yet every year more and more of the land it needs to survive is converted to residential and commercial development.

With such difficult challenges, at least Florida black bears don’t also have to contend with the additional burden of being hunted — but they might soon.

Although hunting bears has been prohibited in Florida since 1994, the ban could be lifted in light of several recent bear attacks on people. The commission is holding a hearing beginning at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday Feb. 4 at the Hyatt Regency, 225 E. Coastline Drive, Jacksonville, to determine whether to lift the 20-year bear hunting ban. A decision will not be made until at least June.

With 19.55 million residents in the Sunshine State and only 3,000 black bears, it would seem the two species should manage to get along. And most of the time, they do.

In the last nine years, there have been only 18 documented bear attacks on people. While none of those attacks resulted in fatalities to the humans, the bears weren’t as lucky. In 2014 alone, the wildlife commission euthanized 30 bears because of nuisance behavior, according to bear biologist Sarah Barrett.

When bears do misbehave, it usually is due to human stupidity. Nearly half of the 18 bear attacks in the past nine years took place when people were trying to hand-feed bears or were hitting them with sticks.

People need to learn how to coexist with wildlife. Bowls of pet food left outside, greasy barbecue grills, open garage doors and even birdfeeders all act as calling cards to hungry bears in search of an easy meal.

Instead of reestablishing bear hunting, people living in areas frequented by bears should be required to use only bear-proof garbage cans and be educated in ways to prevent bears from coming to homes in search of food.

It is so typical of humans to move into land where wildlife once lived, then condemn the very critters whose land they have taken away. A wild animal is not doing anything wrong when it comes looking for food.

Conservationists consider the Florida black bear a success story. In the 1970s, the bear population hit an all-time low of 300. Thanks to a ban on hunting and protection provided by being included on the state list of threatened species, bear populations have made a resounding comeback. However, protection was lifted in 2012 when the black bear was removed from list, and now hunting is once again under consideration.

If you feel as I do that hunting bears is not the answer to Florida’s nuisance bear problem, there is something you can do. You can sign an online letter by Environmental Action at Stunt The Hunt to let the wildlife commission know you don’t want to see the hunting ban lifted.

But act soon. The letter is being presented to the commission at the Wednesday hearing. There’s “bearly” enough time.