Monday, March 30, 2015

Coyote sighting

I was about to turn off the country lane onto busy State Road 19 when a coyote ran across the road in front of me.

Instead of continuing on my way, I pulled over and looked in the direction where the animal had gone until I spotted him in the brambly woods. The tawny-furred predator was standing still — watching me watch him. The coyote blended in so well with his surroundings that I missed seeing him move when he decided to leave, even though I was looking directly at him.

I couldn’t stop looking at the spot after the coyote left. I sat in the car and scanned the woods to see if I could find any other coyotes in the area. Although Canis latrans, which means “barking dog,” doesn’t run in packs like wolves do, the fleet-footed canine occasionally does travel in small family groups.

If there were other coyotes in the area, I didn’t see them. After a couple more minutes of intensified looking, I decided to turn south on S.R. 19 and continue on my way.

Coyotes are closely related to domesticated dogs, but they’re a far cry from “man’s best friend.” Pet owners fear the omnivorous predators will eat their beloved dog or cat. Ranchers dislike them because they sometimes kill livestock, and farmers don’t want them to eat their crops.

Many people detest coyotes but I’m not one of them. I harbor no ill will toward these mammals that have managed to survive — even thrive — in our less-than-hospitable, human-directed world. Instead of feeling frightened, alarmed or angered by a coyote’s presence, I consider any encounter I have with a large wild animal to be a gift.

Coyotes are smart. They’re extraordinarily adaptable and clever. They form strong family groups and protect their young. Although coyotes act and look like dogs — they’re usually grayish-brown, between 20 and 30 pounds with pointy ears, a narrow muzzle and a bushy tail — they receive none of the respect we lavish so willingly on their domesticated cousins. It’s odd how one animal is abhorred while the other is universally adored.

This was not the first time I’ve seen a coyote in the rural area I consider my neighborhood, and I doubt if it will be the last. Late winter is a coyote’s reproductive season with new pups born in spring. I don’t know where the coyote I saw was going or what it was after, but there’s a good possibility it was looking for food to take back to its mate or young offspring.

With Florida’s open hunting season for coyotes and the ever-present risk of being killed by a vehicle, the chance of survival for any individual animal is small. Yet, despite all the odds against it and an abysmal lack of public support, coyotes still manage to secure a place in our human-centric society. While other wild mammals fail to thrive, the much-maligned coyote doggedly endures.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Another subdivision being developed....What do the sandhill cranes think?

Driving past yet another soon-to-be subdivision, I spotted a pair of sandhill cranes walking over the denuded land.

A pair of cranes wander across a denuded landscape

The subdivision, across from Grassy Lakes Elementary School in Minneola, is still in the beginning stages.  No homes have been built yet, but the trees have all been cut down, the ground re-contoured and cleared of anything green. Loads of red clay have been trucked in and piled in tall mounds.  Equipment is parked on brown ground where cattle once grazed upon lush wildflower-dotted fields.

On Jan.1, 2015 when I took the image on the right, land-clearing had just begun.  Today, almost three months later, not only has the land been further reshaped, but all the trees - including the one pictured - have been cut down.

It is across this now barren landscape that the sandhill cranes wandered.  As I pulled over to watch, one of the large insect-and-grain-eating birds walked by front end loaders and naked soil. I couldn't help wonder what it was thinking?

What does a sandhill crane think as it walks by the machinery?  Does it wonder where the grass went?  Does it ask itself why it can no longer find any grubs to eat in ground where they used to be plentiful?  Does it search for the trees that used to provide shade?

To the landowner, developer, construction workers and home builders, this development is a positive thing.  It will provide jobs and money and places to live for more and more people.

But it's not a good thing for the animals and birds who lived on the land or for the trees, wildflowers and plants that grew in that acreage.  For them this development means more loss of habitat, less greenery and more pollution.  It means less space for wildlife and more garbage and traffic by man.

A desolate and incongruous landscape...

South Lake County, the section of the county where I live, is in the midst of a construction boom.  New residential and commercial developments are popping up all over the place.  As I watch more and more green spaces - fields where cattle once grazed, orange groves, forested areas and beautiful hillsides - give way to pavement, I feel the loss of what drew so many of us to this area in the first place.

While the sandhill cranes may wonder what happened to their foraging field, I wonder what it will take to make people will realize the true value of what they're destroying.  

What's the matter with this sandhill crane?

This sandhill crane behaved oddly after eating birdseed that had fallen on the ground.  It looked like he/she is trying to cough up something that might be stuck in his/her throat.  But nothing comes up.  I've watched sandhill cranes for several years and have never seen one behave like this before.  Eventually it stopped coughing and seemed fine.  I just really wish I knew what happened.  Any ideas?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A peacock struts his stuff

A male peacock in full feathery finery struts his stuff in front of a female peacock who pays him no heed.  A beautiful - if not successful - display of colorful plumage.  Taken on the outskirts of Briley Farm in Oakland, FL.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Back roads yield surprises

You never know what you'll find when you take back roads

When I drive to my daughter Amber’s house in Winter Garden, I do my best to avoid busy roads. Instead of taking Florida’s Turnpike to State Road 429 to save 10 minutes, I take my time meandering along twisty two-lane roads up and down hills, through tree-lined hamlets and along sections of untamed woods that — at least for the moment — have eluded a developer’s eye.

It’s a pretty ride filled with peacefulness and possibilities. Before ending at Amber’s house, my 30-minute trip takes me through the outskirts of four towns — Clermont, Minneola, Montverde and Oakland.

My drive through Clermont is on unpaved roads through a rural area at the north end of town. The clay roads are bumpy and give my car a perpetually dirty face, but they force me to slow down and in this too-much-to-do-and-not-enough-time world, that’s an important reminder.

Sharing clay roads with horseback riders 

On the back roads of Minneola, I pass a peach orchard where I’ve gotten in the habit of monitoring the progression of the trees from bare branch to blossom to young fruit to harvest.

Peaches just beginning to ripen

From there, it’s a short trip to scrub jay territory, where I often pause in my travels to photograph Florida’s only endemic bird.

A Florida scrub jay with nesting material in its beak

My trip through Montverde is brief, paralleling the highway, but it leads me to Oakland where I travel beneath an impressive tunnel of ancient oaks and pass by an encouraging mix of older wood-frame homes. 

A tunnel of oaks welcomes drivers entering the aptly named town of Oakland, FL

On this stretch of road — in refreshing contrast to many new subdivisions — no two houses are alike. Steeped in character and rich in history, each home reflects the personality of its owner. While driving through Oakland, it’s easy to forget it’s the 21st century. It sends me back in time to the mid-1900s.

A yellow tabebuia tree stands alongside one of the beautiful old wooden home in Oakland

Oakland gives way to Winter Garden overflowing with downtown charm. Although I usually go directly to my daughter’s house, on the trip back home, I often do more meandering, taking even smaller, less traveled side roads along the way.

I have a strong belief in the importance of taking time, slowing down and observing my surroundings. Recently, that belief was reinforced when I decided to turn onto some previously unexplored side roads in Oakland. As I rambled along the narrow dirt roads on the north side of town, I came upon an unusually tall field fence encircling many acres of well-trimmed lawn scattered with trees.

In the distance, I saw large, black-and-white striped animals grazing. I pulled over for a better look. Could they possibly be what I thought they were? Zebras? In a field next to a dirt road in the little town of Oakland? I reached for my camera to zoom in for a closer look.

A zebra?  In Oakland?  Yes!

Sure enough, a herd of zebras was grazing in the field. I’d stumbled upon Briley Farm, a privately owned exotic animal ranch where zebras, miniature donkeys, peacocks, wildebeest and a majestic-horned, ancient breed of African Watusi cattle are among the many animals roaming the manicured acreage between Lake Apopka and the Oakland Nature Preserve.

Although the only other critter I saw besides the zebras was a brightly feathered male peacock strutting his stuff behind a ‘Peacock Crossing’ sign, I had no reason to complain. Seeing the zebras — zebras! — was more than enough to make my day.

A peacock perched in a tree behind a 'Peacock Crossing' sign on a back road in Oakland

There are times when the need to get somewhere in a hurry is paramount. There are times when it’s important to stay on schedule. But there are also times when throwing the timetable away makes the most sense of all. My no-hurry route home yielded an extraordinary discovery — proof that you never know what treasures await around the next bend.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The sound of a woodpecker drilling bamboo

Every morning for the past week I've listened to a downy woodpecker pecking away at one of the older canes in the middle of a large clump of Giant Timber Bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii). The sound is so loud, I can hear it even when I'm inside the house with the doors and windows closed. This morning I decided to take a video to share the sound with you. If you enjoy it, I'd love it if you shared it with others.

Monday, March 16, 2015

What would you do if you saw someone littering?

Although there’s so much litter in Lake County, I never actually see anyone throwing trash out a car window. I’m on the roads a fair amount. I know the trash is there because I see it all the time. What I don’t see is anyone making the mess.

Until yesterday.

I was taking my usual back roads home from town when I noticed a spiffed-up yellow sports car stopped in the middle of Fosgate Road alongside Grassy Lake Elementary School in Clermont. I had just turned off Turkey Farm Road onto Fosgate so the car was right in front of me. It was a quiet afternoon with no one else around, and since I wasn’t in a rush, I slowed down to see what was going on.

Upon my approach, two lanky, well-groomed teenage boys got out of the car and spoke to the driver before the car sped away leaving in its wake a large bag of trash. The kids, each one holding a soda in his hand, sauntered toward the sports fields behind the school with that ‘I-know-everything-there-is-to-know-about-everything’ air assumed by so many 14- and 15-year-old males. The paper sack, which obviously contained heavy objects like empty bottles and junk food detritus, stood out on the road like a looming brown wart.

I knew the bag of trash came from the car. After years of fretting over litter, picking up other peoples’ trash and writing repeatedly about my frustration with this seemingly insurmountable problem, I finally caught someone actually littering.

An opportunity had arrived to take action. But what should I do?

Several options sprung to mind: A) I could ignore the situation entirely and continue on my way. B) I could pull over to the side, get out of my car and pick up the trash to take home and throw out with my own garbage. C) I could confront the boys about their behavior.

I chose the third option. I know it can be dangerous to confront strangers who are breaking the law but the boys I saw didn’t look frightening. They reminded me of my own sons when they were that age, a bit cocky and maybe full of themselves, but not intimidating or threatening.

“Excuse me,” I called as I leaned across the seat, “is that your bag of trash in the middle of the road?”

The boys looked at each other incredulously before one of them managed to utter the single word, “No.”

“It came from that car though, didn’t it?”

Another look passed between the lads before the same boy who spoke before muttered, “Yes.”

“Well, pick it up,” I demanded, in my strongest ‘mom’ voice.

I told them to put the trash in a receptacle and tried to make them understand the irresponsibility of their actions and the effect littering has on the environment.

The boys did as I said. I’d be lying if I said they did it with any great enthusiasm or understanding but, nonetheless, they removed the bag from the road and hopefully deposited it in a nearby receptacle.

I’ve repeatedly wondered what kind of person litters. How can anybody be so thoughtless and unconcerned about the consequences of his behavior?

Even though I had just encountered a couple of teenagers littering, the problem is far too widespread to blame on any single group of people. However, in order to solve any problem, you have to start somewhere. Choosing to confront the two kids may not have been the smartest option to take in these dangerous times, but at least I acted. I spoke up and took a chance to make a difference.

The causes of littering include apathy, ignorance and a disconnection with the environment. Rolling down the window and speaking out is one way to say, ‘Enough!’ For me, it felt like the right decision, but it may not be the right choice for others. What would you have done?

Monday, March 9, 2015

Fresh grown veggies taste best

Anyone who has ever gardened knows how much tastier homegrown veggies are than their store-bought relatives.

That's especially true of broccoli, a highly nutritious member of the Brassica family, which — despite its reputation as a "super food" — ranks low in likability by the public. For most people, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce and corn are more welcome at mealtime than a serving of broccoli florets.

While recognized as a super food because of its nutritional value, broccoli is not considered one of the more popular vegetables

I can understand why so many people are not crazy about this cruciferous vegetable. Until I met my husband, I wasn't crazy about it either.

When I was a kid, we rarely ate broccoli, but when we did, it didn't come from the garden or even from the produce market. Like most mid-twentieth century suburban families, the broccoli we ate came in a box from the frozen food section of the grocery store.

When it was time for dinner, my mother took the box out of our freezer, cut it open with a pair of kitchen shears and plopped the solid mass into a pot of boiling water. After cooking in too much water for way too long, everyone in the family received a dollop of the dark green mushy mass, which would then ooze its way into everything else on the plate.

To my young mind, broccoli wasn't so much a food as a contaminant. I put more effort into thwarting its seepage into my mom's lamb chops than shoveling it into my mouth.

That changed when I met my husband. Although I had no gardening experience in childhood, I married a man who did. Had it not been for Ralph's green thumb, I might never have known the difference between overcooked frozen vegetables and fresh-picked edibles from the garden. Thanks to him, our family has dined on homegrown food for over four decades. Our children grew up eating fresh-from-the-garden fare, and it makes me happy to know our grandchildren are doing the same. Apparently, the gardening gene is inheritable. Ralph got it from his parents and passed it down to our children.

Our granddaughter is excited about the broccoli she helped her Papa pick in his garden

Ralph's garden currently includes 164 broccoli plants in various stages of maturity. He began planting in August, sowing new seeds of about a dozen different varieties every other month to ensure a continuous crop. 

A small portion of one of Ralph's two raised containers garden where he grows much of the vegetables we eat

Like most gardeners, my husband experiments by growing numerous varieties to find the one that will grow well in our climate, resist disease and pest problems and produce plenty of flavorful florets. His top performer so far is Piracicaba, a broccoli from Fedco Seeds that doesn't produce a big single head.

People who don't garden may not realize that not all broccoli comes in large heads like those found in the produce bin at the store. Once the main head is harvested, some broccoli varieties respond by sending up numerous side-shoots of smaller florets. Those side-shoots have thinner stems and, while more time-consuming to pick, their tenderness and mild flavor more than compensates for any extra work involved.

Instead of producing a large head, Piracicaba bypasses that step entirely. Named after the Brazilian city where it was developed, this warm-weather-tolerant species focuses all its attention on the production of multiple tender, tasty side-shoots.

Instead of producing one large head of broccoli, a multitude of mini florets grow on Piracicaba broccoli plants 

As much as Ralph and I enjoy eating all the different kinds of broccoli he grows, we both prefer the flavor and texture of small florets. Not only is Piracicaba our favorite for taste, it has not fallen victim to fungus attacks during rainy spells as have several other varieties. Neither has it been bothered by diseases or insect infestations.

Needless to say, we eat plenty of broccoli, sharing extras with family and friends. I once was a broccoli pusher — pushing the mass of overcooked goo around and around on my plate. Now I push others to give broccoli a try. The best-tasting foods are the ones you grow yourself.

If you're interested in reading more about our broccoli-growing experiences, check out these posts:

Broccoli is the beneficial harvest of March

Son demonstrates frair for growing, surprises

Saturday, March 7, 2015

When house meets tree

I'm always on the lookout for interesting trees and old buildings.  Today I found both in one location.

The house - more shack or shanty than anything else - is located on a back road in Yalaha.  Broken down and falling apart, the wooden structure sits beneath an ancient oak.

The tree's branches add to the intrinsic beauty of the tattered house. Not only is the tin roof shaded by large limbs, some overhanging branches actually rest upon the leaf-covered metal.

The abandoned house and live oak are growing together.  Ferns and vines have already begun to root on the roof. When people relinquish control, nature takes hold.

As I sat in my car snapping off pictures I couldn't help but wonder about the structure I'd found.  In the past, this house sheltered people.  Now its only inhabitants are probably small animals and plants.

I suppose that's how it should be.  We humans think we're so clever. We cut down trees and erect buildings assuming they will last. But nature knows better. It has all the time in the world to reclaim its treasures.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The 'trumpeting' sound of sandhill cranes

Of all the sounds birds make, there's nothing quite as loud, distinctive and eerie in an I-feel-like-I'm-in-prehistoric-times sort of way than the trumpeting song of sandhill cranes.  That's especially true when you're standing - as I was - only 20 feet or so away from a pair of bellowing birds.

By the way, the bamboo the cranes are next to is Yin-Yang Timber Bamboo.

For birds and people: Some decisions are hard to make

On Valentine's Day, my husband Ralph installed the remaining five of seven bluebird boxes that Doug Spencer of Astatula built for us.

Less than a week later, a pair of beautiful bluebirds was already checking out the houses!

First, the male and female sat on top of one box. Then each bird took turns looking inside before flying to another box.

At the second box, the male flew down to the entry hole while the female waited on top. 

The male stuck his head inside for a good look around. I guess the female got tired of waiting because she flew down to the entry hole shortly after, while the male was still in the process of squeezing inside the box.

A few minutes later, the pair flew out and over to the first box again, repeating the process: Sit on top. Look in the opening. Squeeze inside. Fly back out.

As Ralph and I watched, we couldn't help but wonder what the birds were thinking. The conversation we imagined them having went something like this:

Male: How about this box? It looks nice.

Female: It's too soon to tell. Let's go look at the other ones.

Male: They're all the same. What's wrong with this one?

Female: It's a little rustic. I was hoping for something maybe a little more modern.

Male: It's just a nest, dear. What difference does it make how it looks?

Female: Are you kidding? It makes all the difference in the world. I'm the one going to sit here day in and day out while you're off doing whatever it is you do. It has to be comfortable. End of discussion.                  

Male: You're right. You're right. I'm sorry. I know you're right.

Although I didn’t see the birds in the afternoon, they were back the next morning repeating the same pattern.

“I guess they’re having trouble deciding,” I said to my husband as we sat at the kitchen table. Ralph was eating breakfast, but I was too preoccupied with the bluebirds to pay much attention to food.

“At least they came back,” I muttered, more to reassure myself than expecting a response.

Surprisingly, a response was forthcoming.

“I can relate to their indecision,” Ralph said as he put down his spoon and turned toward me. “They’re probably trying to decide if it’s just too much work to fix up another place. Maybe they don’t know where to begin. Maybe they’re thinking they should just stay where they are.”

I looked at him, smiled and said, “It is birds we’re talking about, right? Not something else…?”

Ralph and I have recently been struggling over an upcoming building project. It’s such a multifaceted undertaking, we’ve been unable to decide which aspect to tackle first. Like the bluebirds, we’ve been wavering, going back and forth from one possibility to another.

“You know,” I said, “maybe I should stop watching the birds for a while. They’ll settle when they’re ready — if they decide to settle at all. Maybe we should do the same.”

For two days, we did just that. Oddly enough, the bluebirds seemed to be taking a break from house hunting as well. By the time they returned, we all seemed ready to move forward.

“The bluebirds are back,” I once again exclaimed at breakfast. “I don’t see them carrying any nest-making materials yet, but I have a feeling they’ve chosen a box.”

My husband gazed out the window with envy. Empathizing with his look of longing, I let him know we weren’t far behind.

“I’ve decided too. Let’s start upstairs and work our way down. There’s no need to rush. We can just take our time.”

When it comes to homebuilding projects — by birds or by people — sometimes making the initial decision can be the hardest part of all. Once decided, everything else falls into place.

Can't get enough bluebirds? Me neither! More stories and photos here:
Calling all bluebirds

Bluebirds make me happy