Monday, April 27, 2015

I'm a gluton for...fruit

It has happened again: A period of gluttony has arrived.

Some people lose the ability to control their eating habits during holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving, but my time of culinary indulgence begins now as blueberry season commences. I find it difficult to refrain from overeating when Florida’s fruitful season begins.

On our property, blackberries, mulberries, peaches, nectarines, plums, figs, Surinam cherries, papayas, bananas, starfruit and avocados are all either producing fruit now or on their way to developing edible crops in the weeks ahead. 

A bucketful of homegrown peaches, plums and nectarines

As if that were not enough to whet my appetite, six u-pick blueberry farms are within 10 miles of our home.

Ralph and me picking blueberries at Lake Catherine Blueberries, one of the six u-pick farms near our home

I admit it: I’m a blueberry addict. I lose all self-control when it comes to those marble-sized orbs of blue packed with antioxidants, vitamins and anti-inflammatory compounds. Most people pick berries to make pies, pancakes, muffins or cakes. I pick them to devour by the handful — one after another until the last berry is gone. Then I go back and pick more.

In addition to fruits we grow ourselves and the ones available at nearby u-pick farms, during upcoming weeks an abundance of other Florida-grown foods will be available at the marketplace. Watermelons, cantaloupes, mangoes, lychees and guavas all come into season when temperatures rise. Although these delicacies are imported year round, I try to wait until local crops ripen. I find anticipating their arrival and eating foods seasonally not only makes them more special but means a more flavorful product.

When it comes to vegetables, my husband Ralph is in charge. Ralph has large gardens where he grows a variety of vegetables and herbs. For the next couple weeks, we’ll still be eating broccoli and parsley, but both of those plants prefer cooler temperatures. As their production begins to peter out, other veggies are set to begin. Asparagus, tomatoes, sweet peppers, pole beans, basil, chives, rosemary and oregano are among the many vegetables and herbs Ralph will be harvesting in the weeks to come.

One of Ralph's many gardening successes - a large head of broccoli 

As if that weren’t enough to fill our larder, my husband’s gardening efforts supply us with a continual crop of Asian greens. The five easy-to-grow greens he favors — tatsoi, yokatta-na, Chinese cabbage, joi choi and purple pak choy — produce nutritional leafy greens all year. Unlike lettuces or kale, the sweet-flavored plants he grows can handle the heat as long as they’re given some shade in the summertime. Ever since he began growing them a couple years ago, they’ve become a dietary staple in our household.

Rinsing off a handful of just picked Asian greens

Ralph’s garden doesn’t include corn but there’s a plentiful supply from nearby commercial farms along with zucchini, summer squash, sweet onions and garlic. As summer progresses, I’m sure I’ll be supplementing our meals with whatever local veggies are currently available.

While most addictions are not desirable, I like to think of my dependency on fresh fruit and vegetables as a positive craving, providing more benefits than disadvantages. The only thing is, like any compulsion, it leaves me with an insatiable desire for more — especially, more blueberries. One look in the fridge at my depleted stash lets me know it’s time to head out to the closest u-pick farm to replenish my supply. After all, the season of gluttony has arrived, and I intend to take full advantage.

Blueberries for breakfast...Yum!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Exotic animals A to Z

I had a chance today to take Amber to see the exotic animals at Briley Farm in Oakland today.  We parked at Oakland Nature Preserve,which abuts the farm's property and from there it was just a short walk to the farm's border where we could look through a tall field fence to see the animals.  We really hit the jackpot because all sorts of critters were out in the field grazing today.  We literally saw animals from A (antelope) to Z (zebra)

A mother Blackbuck Antelope feeds her calf

A pair of wildebeest graze in the field

An ostrich pecks the ground for food alongside a smaller emu

A pair of Ankole-Watusi cattle graze alongside a calf

A field filled with antelope and long-horned cattle graze beside spreading oaks

We saw peacocks

and  zebras too!

Briley Farm is a private farm and is not open to the public but anyone interested in viewing the animals from afar can see them from Oakland Nature Preserve.  Below is a list of all the domestic and exotic animals at the farm. If you go to the farm's webpage and click on each animal in the list it will take you to a picture of that animal.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Six ways to celebrate Earth Day

With Earth Day just two days away, I’ve been thinking about how to celebrate. While planting a tree is a traditional and excellent way to commemorate the holiday, not everyone is in a position to add plants to the landscape. Therefore, I offer six suggestions — six no-cost, easy ways anyone can participate in the celebration.

Start the day by going outside to watch the sunrise. On Wednesday, April 22, the sun rises in Central Florida at 6:54 a.m. It’s the time of day when most of us are either still snug in our beds or busy getting ready for work, making breakfast or preparing the kids for school. On Earth Day, however, take a break from that hectic routine. Brush the sleep from your eyes, and treat yourself to a morning sky show. Welcome the day with a silent salute to the sun — the giant star that gives our planet life.

Before going back inside, pause for a minute to listen to birdsongs.

There are 510 birds on the Florida state checklist, and many will lend their voice to the morning serenade. Listen for the uplifting lilt of cardinals, Carolina wrens, bluebirds, chickadees and mockingbirds as well as the less melodious calls of bluejays, redwing blackbirds and crows. 

Savor the sound of the birds around us. In addition to being beautiful to look at and lovely to listen to, birds are an important part of the ecosystem. They disperse seeds, act as pollinators and help to keep insect populations under control. Take a few moments out of your day to appreciate one of earth’s most exquisite gifts. Spare a few moments for the birds.

As the day progresses, many of us will find ourselves inside buildings. We’ll be on our computers, at work, school or our homes. We’ll be doing tasks that let us forget there’s a day out there with wind and rain and sun and shadows. On Earth Day — at least for a little while — turn off the air conditioner and open the windows. Listen to the breeze whisper as you go about your business. Let the movement of air act as a reminder that life is not always the perfect temperature. In a world so well insulated from the wild, it’s important to occasionally be grounded — to feel the heat or cold or wind or wetness. To be reminded that we are a part of the rest of nature’s creatures.

It’s likely that sometime during Earth Day, most of us will be getting in or out of our cars. Unfortunately, wherever it is we’re going, there’s bound to be litter. Take a moment on this special day to pick up some trash. It doesn’t have to be more than just one or two items — a plastic bag blowing through the parking lot, dropped paper, an empty bottle or can. Whatever it is, instead of walking by with eyes conditioned to ignore other peoples’ messes, make an effort to see what’s there and clean it up. Do it for Mother Nature. Consider it a gesture of kindness to the earth.

Before it gets dark, pick up a pair of scissors or a garden clipper if you have one and pick a bouquet of flowers. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a garden. In the middle of April, there are flowers everywhere. You might have to walk a little farther but the extra steps will be worth the effort. Clip off a magnolia bloom and bring it inside to let its perfume fill the room. Even weeds can be beautiful when put on display. Snip off wildflowers growing by the wayside or the blooms of lilies, irises and daisies. Gather a posy of roses, and bring the outdoors inside.

One final way to celebrate Earth Day starts much as the day began — with the sun. It sets at 7:55 p.m. Go outside again, and watch the sky. Marvel at the transition of colors, patterns and shades of light and dark. Look up and notice stars beginning to twinkle. From sunrise to sunset, absorb the enormity of the entire day.

Earth Day is celebrated once a year, yet the existence of every day is cause for celebration. We only have one earth. Each person only has one life. At the very least, take a moment to appreciate the gift of living on this amazing planet.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What is this flycatcher trying to say?

In this short (0:52) video, taken on a windy morning at our Central Florida home, a great crested flycatcher sends out high-pitched calls while perched on an uppermost branch of our white mulberry tree.

Is the bird telling other birds about a new food source it found?  Or maybe warning other birds away?  Whenever I hear vocalizations like this I can't help but wonder what message the bird is trying to convey and who exactly he/she is trying to reach.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ready to ride

I have a new bike — new to me, anyway. It’s actually old, but then so am I. The way I figure it, we’re a perfect match.

Although I’ve always enjoyed riding a bicycle, I haven’t been biking for 23 years. I gave up on pedaling after we moved from Kissimmee to Groveland. As wonderful as it is to live in a secluded rural setting far away from city streets, the bumpy, unpaved roads are not conducive to two-wheeled romps around the neighborhood.

Like most kids of my era, I spent countless hours on my trusty one-speed. During my elementary years, my bailiwick was limited to one road: Orchard Way. Our family lived at the bottom of that dead-end street, and I was allowed to bike to the top of the road and coast to the bottom. Although generally an obedient child, when it came to bicycles, I found their promise of freedom impossible to ignore. I often ventured beyond permitted boundaries.

I can’t recall what kind of bike I had in high school, but it was probably a three-speed because I remember long rides through the countryside. I believe my passion for exploring back roads began on the seat of a bicycle as I rode farther and farther away from my home.

Much changed after my 19th birthday. I was in college, living away from my parents, discovering new areas and meeting new people, including my future husband Ralph. One of our first purchases together was a pair of his-and-her Peugeot multi-speeds, fancy wheels that would take us on long rides around Long Island, N.Y., until I finished college, then on to Cape Cod where we settled and built our first home. We put many miles on those road bikes both before and after we started a family.

Our Cape Cod property abutted an extensive bike trail and was a short ride away from a state park. After our first two children were born, I carted them behind my Peugeot in one of the first models of bike buggies to hit the market. That bike buggy was a lifesaver. Taking the kids for a ride was a surefire way to get them asleep, thereby guaranteeing me at least an hour of much-needed alone time.

Two toddlers, one baby and a stuffed animal fast asleep in the bike buggy
(Circa 1983)

When our family relocated to Florida in 1987, we settled in a quiet residential community in Kissimmee with paved roads and minimal traffic. Around that time I also became the owner of a girl’s banana bike. It had one speed, small wheels, tall handlebars and a seat — its best feature — that was long, soft and comfortable. My 5-foot 3-inch frame fit comfortably on the bike, which probably was meant for a child. It was the perfect vehicle for pedaling out to get the mail, to cruise over to visit a neighbor or to hop on at night for a leisurely ride around the block. I might have looked silly, but I sure did love riding that rusty red bike.

Like that long-ago relic, my new-to-me bicycle is also comfortable, fun to ride and lacking in bells and whistles. Ralph and I each purchased simple, inexpensive, wheels to use at the beach to ride on hard sand and pedal around a seaside town we enjoy visiting.

Looking forward to biking at the beach

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved riding a bicycle and for the past 23 years, it’s something I’ve missed. They say absence make the heart grow fonder — it will be nice to get back on a bike again.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Feathers fly as three cranes fight

A display of dominance? A territorial dispute? Are two males fighting over the single female? It's hard to tell what's going on as three sandhilll cranes engage in a feathery confrontation at our Central Florida property. Watch the 2:08 minute video and tell me what you think is happening...

Monday, April 6, 2015

Where will the cranes nest?

I’ll be back in a few minutes,” I told my husband Ralph as I grabbed the camera. “I’m going to row out to see if one of the cranes is sitting on the nest in the reeds.”

The pair of sandhill cranes that has been raising young on our lake for several years is once again in reproductive mode. For the past few weeks, I’ve watched the couple — sandhill cranes are monogamous and mate for life — scout out potential nesting sites.

Checking out a potential nesting site on a misty morning

The Florida sandhill crane, Grus pratensis, is a non-migratory breeding resident of the Sunshine State. It’s a subspecies of the migratory greater sandhill crane, Grus canadensis, which arrives in large flocks each winter before returning north to breed in late spring and summer.

Flocks of greater sandhill cranes gather in a field.  Unlike Florida sandhill cranes, the northern migratory birds feed and roost in large groups.

All sandhill crane species return to the same nesting locations year after year. Their preferred spots are tufts of dry land surrounded by shallow water where they can raise young with reduced threat from land predators such as coyotes and bobcats. However, thanks to a rainy winter, most of the small islands in our lake are now submerged. With previous years’ nesting sites underwater, the cranes must either find another spot around our lake or move to a new lake.

This tiny island on which the cranes nested in 2013 is now underwater

Because I’ve grown attached to “my” birds and hope they’ll stay, I pay close attention to their search for alternative locations. I’ve watched as the long-legged, red-capped cranes have explored several soggy spots along the lake perimeter. In one of those places, they did more than just explore. They actually built a nest by stacking wetland vegetation in a mound surrounded by mucky puddles of water. I discovered their construction one day when I was out rowing. The location, hidden by tall weeds, is visible only from the water.

I felt optimistic as I pushed my rowboat off shore that afternoon that maybe the cranes had finally settled on a place to nest and would be staying on our lake. But my confidence waned as I stroked closer to the spot where I’d noticed the nest. The mound was still there, but no bird was upon it. Saddened, I continued on, rowing further around the lake instead of returning home as I’d planned.

Built but abandoned, a nest well hidden by the tall marsh grasses

It was a beautiful afternoon. Despite my disappointment at not seeing the cranes nesting, I enjoyed the ride. There’s something special about being on water. The soothing croon of oar strokes cutting through water combined with the warm sun on bare skin eased away my concerns and worries. Songbirds serenaded me from the treetops interspersed with the raucous cawing of crows. The farther I rowed, the more relaxed I felt.

A soothing row in the lake

By the time I entered the final lap around the lake’s circumference, I’d almost forgotten about the sandhill cranes’ plight. Instead of fretting over where they might raise their young, I simply delighted in the pleasure of being outside on the water on a warm and sunny afternoon.

It was then that I spotted the two cranes partially hidden in yet another section of reedy wetlands. Fearing that I’d scare them away if I approached too close, I kept my distance. From where my boat lulled in the water, I couldn’t tell if the birds had built another nest. All I knew was that they had not given up on our lake yet. They were still trying to find a place to settle down and raise young.

More than an hour passed before I returned home.

“You were out a long time,” Ralph said when I came inside. “Did you find the nest?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied, “But the cranes are still here. They might be nesting on that spit of land that extends off the south end of the lake. I saw them there but didn’t want to get too close.”

In a few more days I should be able to tell. If the cranes have decided to nest, only one will be poking around the ground in search of seeds and bugs while the other stays behind to incubate eggs. I’ll also be watching from the water — a safe distance away — but eagerly watching nonetheless.