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.

Monday, November 2, 2015

What a tweet!

At the north end of our lake a tangle of wild fox grape vines winds up and over a mixed stand of wax myrtles, willows and winged sumac plants. When I’m out rowing, I slow down quietly to pass the north shoreline in the hope of spotting one of the small yellow birds that flit in and out of the leafy wet thicket.

Immature male common yellowthroat on wax myrtle

The birds are common yellowthroats, Geothlypis trichas, a type of wood warbler that lives in moist habitats such as marshes and wetlands. 

As I approach that shoreline, my eyes scan the foliage for signs of movement while my ears hone in on the distinctive sounds yellowthroats make when they sense an intruder. It’s easy to hear the series of sharp chirps — tschat…tschat…tschat — common yellowthroats make as well as their ‘witchity-witchity-witchity-witchity-wit’ warning calls. Finding them, however, is much more challenging.

Common yellowthroats are active little warblers. If I’m lucky, I catch a glimpse of their bright yellow-feathered throats or a male’s bold, black eye-band before it flies off to another foliage-covered perch in the low branches of the tangled vegetation.

But the other day was different.

Instead of going slowly by the thicket, I decided to stop rowing. I put my oars down to rest in the still water, positioned myself comfortably on the well-padded aluminum boat seat and quietly waited for something to happen. I knew warblers were there because I heard their calls and noticed movement in the brush.

Would the birds continue to fear my presence and stay hidden, or would they decide eventually that I wasn’t a threat and go about their normal behaviors despite my presence? It took a while, but eventually, they deemed me safe.

One bird — an immature male — decided I passed the ‘friend or foe’ test. Since I apparently presented no imminent threat, he ignored me and went about the more important business of catching small insects in and among the wetland plants.

Watch this short (3:09) video I took of the busy little yellowthroat

The diet of this quarter-ounce omnivore consists of insects and spiders. Any caterpillar, wasp, dragonfly, grasshopper, bee, ant, termite, fly, beetle or small critter that creeps, crawls or flies into a common yellowthroat’s sheltered habitat is a potential meal. Rather than hunt prey in the open, this five-inch long warbler likes to ‘dine in,’ and recent observations show there’s no shortage of food in the tangled weave of shoreline plants. The little bird I watched actively pursued one insect after another.

This grasshopper on a duck weed plant had best beware lest it become a common yellowthroat's next meal

I’ve rarely experienced as much grateful delight at being the recipient of such overt disregard. Thanks to the little bird’s disinterest in me, I was able to take a prolonged peek into the world of common yellowthroats. As I sat in my boat enjoying the view, all was good. Pesky mosquitoes paid me no heed. The temperature was neither too hot nor too cool. There was no reason to rush. I wasn’t in a hurry. And best of all, for a brief moment in time, I straddled two worlds — one avian, one human.

No reason to rush...

As much as I love watching and learning about wildlife, I occasionally fret because so many of my nature encounters occur only by happenstance. I just happen to be in the right place at the right moment to catch footage of a coyote chasing a rabbit, a bobcat sitting quietly looking out at the lake or a hummingbird sipping nectar from one firespike flower after another.

So much of nature photography is being in the right place at the right time

But do I have it in me to spend countless hours watching and waiting — especially waiting — for something to happen? Probably not, but I envy those who do and admire their fortitude.

Waiting is hard. I’m an impatient person seeking patience-required results. However, the other day in a small but special way, my short bout of patience was warmly rewarded. A common yellowthroat warbler let me into his world. What a tweet!