Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 was quite a year for wildlife encounters

Over the past year, I have had some memorable wildlife encounters.

Bluebird, bobcat and coyote sightings thrilled me in January while one highlight of February was videotaping several crows harassing a bald eagle on its pine tree perch.

I photographed coyotes again in March along with woodpeckers, sandhill cranes and a puffed up male peacock trying his best to impress several uninterested females.

Some of my most memorable wildlife finds in April were a complete surprise. While walking through Oakland Nature Preserve just west of Winter Garden, I chanced upon zebras, wildebeests, ostriches, antelope and long-horned cattle grazing the grass at Briley Farm, a private exotic animal farm abutting the preserve.

Nesting bluebirds, fluttering butterflies and a wild beehive discovered by my 5-year-old grandson were among May's highlights while June yielded a wild turkey sighting, the discovery of a cardinal nest, more bluebird action and concern over the presence of too many seed-stealing squirrels at my birdfeeders.

July was a month filled with fluttering and buzzing. I wrote about, videotaped and photographed numerous butterflies, bees and beneficial wasps fluttering around plants like African blue basil, tropical milkweed and scarlet salvia.

Sweet little chickadees brought smiles to my face in August even as I frowned over a seemingly unstoppable invasion of tawny crazy ants to areas directly around our house.

I learned about assassin bugs in September, which despite their name, are not harmful to people. My spotted beebalm plant provided hours of entertainment as I watched a wide range of pollinators visit its nectar-producing flowers.

During my birthday month of October, I made a short movie of an immature ibis awkwardly trying to balance on a utility wire and fretted over the discovery of a large rat in one of my flowerpots after returning home from a week at the beach.

In November, I took pictures of a belted kingfisher fluffing his feathers and photographed spider webs glimmering in the morning dew.

One day, as I was coming home from town, I chanced upon a giant rattlesnake on our driveway. Seeing such a large and beautiful specimen is a rarity considering how quick most people are to kill snakes, especially venomous varieties. I left my find alone to live long and prosper in the forest understory.

November was also the month when I first spotted feral hogs on our property near Groveland. Unlike the rattlesnake, which I never considered killing, knowing that a passel of hogs has discovered our lakeside home has created an ethical struggle. Initially, I was excited to see such large mammals on our property. But as the weeks went by and more and more land was uprooted, I began to question my views on hunting.

I was distraught by the slaughter of 295 Florida black bears — hunting was permitted in October for the first time in 21 years. Killing them seemed wrong for so many reasons, but wild hogs are different. Unlike the black bear, with a small population hovering around 3,000, the number of feral pigs is huge. A half-million or more of these disease- and parasite-carrying critters roam the Florida countryside digging up land, wallowing in mud and polluting waterways such as our clear, clean lake.

Learning to coexist with nature has always been important to me, but sometimes coexisting is simply not possible. In December, I watched as a black boar swam through the water in our lake. When he stepped out on land, I realized I'd had enough. Seeing our shoreline torn up was one thing, but sharing the water in our lake with this bristly fellow and his friends was more than I could bear. The boar and I took a good long look at one another before he turned and ran away.

I've learned to live with alligators. I'm not scared of snakes. I appreciate spiders, bees and pollinating wasps. But feral hogs are singular. They pose unique problems.

According to the Chinese calendar, it won't be the Year of the Pig until 2019. And yet where I live, the Year of the Pig already happened. It took place in 2015 when a sounder of swine discovered our property. I intend for 2016 to be different. One way or another the porcine population must leave our landscape. As much as I treasure wildlife encounters, I refuse to be hogtied by a feral pig invasion.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sherry's BLFs (Best Literary Finds) of 2015

As a reader with a voracious appetite for the written word, I always find it a pleasure to discover new authors. I’m especially thrilled when I chance upon writers who have been hard at work for years, producing one novel after another.

During the past 12 months, my literary fortune has been enriched by the discovery of several new-to-me novelists. Jojo Moyes, Joseph Monninger, Jeffrey Stepakoff, Deborah Smith, and Juliet Blackwell are all contemporary writers with large bodies of work that, until this year, I didn’t know existed. How glad I am to have made their acquaintance through the pages of their books.

Meet my 6 new BLF's (Best Literary Finds) of 2015

Moyes is a British author with 13 titles under her belt while New Hampshire resident Monninger has written 22 books including one memoir, two non-fiction titles, many young adult books and three wonderful novels for adults that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I liked Moyes’s work so much that after reading the first book I picked up – One Plus One, which was released in 2014 - I went on what I call a ‘JoJo Jubilee.’

Since January, I’ve read six more of Moyes’s novels and enjoyed every one. Because Moyes writes with a British accent, her stories include many phrases, terms and colloquialisms that were unfamiliar to me, but I liked that about her stories. In addition to positive outcomes, relatable characters and captivating plots that kept me turning pages late into the night, I enjoyed learning new terminology and being transported through print into different cultures and ways of seeing the world.

While Moyes writes from a British perspective, Monninger’s three adult fiction books come from a New Englander’s viewpoint. The first Monninger novel I read was the deeply touching Eternal on the Water (2010), which is set in Maine. From there I went on to read his two other fiction titles as well as two of his young adult books.

Monninger, who lives in New Hampshire and teaches English at Plymouth College, infuses his novels with his deep passion for nature. His characters are kind, sensitive and attuned to their surroundings. As a former New Englander myself, the settings in Monninger’s stories were familiar. I could easily imagine canoeing down a river in Maine (Eternal on the Water), skating over a frozen river (The World as We Know It) or gazing out of a farmhouse window at the falling leaves (Margaret from Maine).

Although North Carolinian Jeffrey Stepakoff is the author of four novels with over a million copies published in 20 languages, he is perhaps better known for his decades-long career in film and television as a screenwriter, producer and developer of television series, films and major motion pictures. Some of his notable work includes shows such as Dawson’s Creek and The Wonder Years and movies like Disney’s Brother Bear and Tarzan.
During the past year, I read three of Stepakoff’s four novels and found myself especially taken with his 2010 novel, The Orchard, a love story with an unexpected romance set in the north Georgia and Carolinas countryside.

Like Stepakoff, author Deborah Smith also bases many of her stories in the Appalachian Mountains where she was raised and still lives. As the author of 35 novels in romance and women’s fiction, Smith calls her novels "big, romantic, southern family stories."

I appreciate her portrayal of strong female characters overcoming obstacles and often defying societal conventions. Of the three Smith novels I’ve read so far this year, my favorite was Sweet Hush, the story of a southern apple farm and the ‘bushel’ of trouble that suddenly surrounds it.

Author Jenny Colgan, who has written 20 novels over the past 15 years, divides her time between homes in France and England. 
Both countries are reflected in her 2013 book, The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris, which was the first of four novels I read last year by Colgan. In this book main character Anna Trent relocates from northern England to work in a small but famous chocolate shop in Paris.

As Trent learns more about her new trade, I too found myself absorbing knowledge not only about the making of chocolate confections, but also about French life in present times as well as during the last century. 

Juliet Blackwell is the author of 22 books but so far, I’ve only read one - her 2014 novel The Paris Key, which I discovered last month. Like so many of the other wonderful stories I read this year, I couldn’t put it down. I found myself staying up late at night to read just a few more pages. 

Blackwell skillfully combines French history with architectural facts. She mixes in numerous French phrases – which I enjoyed asking my husband to interpret for me - and included fascinating facts about locksmiths and the importance of keys to unlocking the secrets of not only of rooms but of life itself. 

Any book that teaches me about subjects I previously knew nothing about while also serving up generous helpings of plots, different cultures and determined female characters is a book that warrants reading and sharing with others.

As 2015 nears its end, I’m grateful for the talented writers whose printed words have taken me on so many imaginative adventures as well as the public libraries where I found most of this year’s reads. If you have favorite books from the past year, please share! Together we can begin 2016 with a reading list of our own.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Beachcombing in the woods

It was a perfect late December day.  Cool enough for a fleece vest but warm enough to go without a hat, gloves or socks.  As I walked the path along the lake, brightly colored leaves lay on the ground. I picked up several and put them in my pocket.  My collection grew until I came to the stump.  It seemed like the perfect place to arrange a display.

From bottom center going clockwise:  

The heart-shaded, yellow leaf in the bottom center fell from one of the ubiquitous fox grapevines that grow throughout the woods.

To its left is a small, crisp, brown oak leaf.

Above to the left are four black peppervine berries still attached to the stem.  Like grapevines, peppervines creep and weave their way across the forest floor climbing upward whenever they can.

A pinecone is above the peppervine berries and the red leaf above the pinecone comes from a laurel cherry tree.  A yellow and another red laurel cherry leaf are in the middle of the picture.

I'm not sure what kind of leaf is in the top center.  It is almost black and very dry and crisp.  It might also have fallen from one of the many oak trees.

One more cherry laurel leaf - this one an orange-red color and to it's left are three Alba biden or Spanish needle flowers.

Just below the white Alba biden blooms is a pretty scarlet swamp maple leaf and below that is a golden raintree seed still attached to a very thin, papery brown sheath.

It was a good walk in the woods.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Royal tern takes a royal bath

I had fun yesterday watching a Royal Tern take a bath in the ocean. It was low tide and occasional pockets of shallow water dotted the beach. A large flock of Royal Terns had gathered next to one of those tidal pools.

Royal terns turned toward the wind on a December afternoon at the beach

While most of the birds were standing in the same position with their heads facing the wind, two terns stood apart.  I focused in on one of the birds to see just what it looks like when a Royal Tern decides now is the perfect time to clean its feathers and dunk its head in saltwater despite the fact that most of his flock is doing something different.

Who cares what everyone else is doing.  I think it's time to get clean!

Here's a short video (1:13) of a Royal Tern taking a Royal Bath

Monday, December 14, 2015

Kiss and tell...

When I leave the house, I kiss my husband goodbye. It doesn’t matter if I’ll be away all day or for a half-hour, we always part with a kiss. It’s not just any old kiss. No my-mind-is-on-other-things peck on the cheek.

The kisses we exchange are full-on, lips-pressed-together, arms-around-each-other expressions of affection. We do it because when you love someone, you want to show it. You want them to know how much you care. A true kiss given on the cusp of separation — even a brief parting — becomes a sensory-rich bookmark, a placeholder of memories until the return.

During this past year — the 45th year Ralph and I have been a couple — I’ve given much thought to togetherness. What are the threads that hold partners together? Why do some unions last while others unravel?

For more than four decades, my husband and I have lived and worked together. We’ve created businesses and carved homesteads out of our imagination as much as the wood, nails and screws that physically held them together. We’ve raised four children and welcomed four grandchildren into the world. We’ve had our share of highs as well as lows. The ebb and flow of our marriage is no different from anyone else’s. Difficult times have been endured, joyful ones savored.

Kisses help us connect with those memories. Each physical expression is a touchstone, a reminder of what’s important. While kisses alone can’t cement a relationship, they can help hold it together. Prioritizing physical contact is like sealing an envelope. It keeps important messages from falling out.

There’s a strong tendency in long-term relationships to take each other for granted. After a while, we stop listening to each other’s words and intimacy loses its immediacy. Even kissing — if done at all — becomes lackluster and boring.

Why let it? It doesn’t take much to rekindle a flame. Smoldering embers ignite when fanned with a bit of focused attention. Before long, there’s fire, a burning blaze to warm the heart.

Being mindful is important to me. I try to pay attention to nature and my surroundings. I make a point of slowing down and looking around as I go about my daily activities. I try not to miss the small things — the little flowers, the rustle of leaves — everyday wonders that can be so easily overlooked.

However, important as such awareness is, it can’t compare to the vital nature of my primary relationship. I want that relationship to be the best it can be. And so, I never leave the house without kissing my husband goodbye. I give him a loving kiss, and he gives me one back. After 45 years of sharing life, it’s our way of letting each other know how much we treasure our time together.

It’s just a kiss. A little thing. But little things matter. They matter a lot.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Look Whoo we found!

The other day, my husband Ralph and I were walking through the woods in the early afternoon on a route we call the ‘high trail.’

Twenty years ago, the high trail was a narrow path along the upper edge of a gently sloping hillside. It was the highest part of an extensive field where we used to bale hay. Every year we’d mow down and rake tall grasses into windrows before dotting the landscape with square bales of hay. Eventually, haying lost its appeal, and we decided to convert the field to forest by planting thousands of pine seedlings on the open land.

At first, it seemed like it was taking forever for the young trees to gain stature, but eventually, the tiny pines grew tall alongside volunteer oaks, wild persimmons, cherry laurels and other plants that sprouted from seeds spread by wind and wildlife.

That afternoon as Ralph and I walked along the shady path, we talked about how much the landscape had changed since those long-ago days. A forest that once existed only in our imagination was now a mature, dense woods inhabited by wild turkeys, coyotes, raccoons and bobcats. We were in the middle of discussing how easy it would be for wildlife to disappear in the woods when a sudden burst of motion caught my attention.

“An owl!” I exclaimed pointing toward a large dark shape flying silently through the trees. “A big owl just flew by.”

By following its flight path, we spotted the owl perched on a small bough near the top of a slash pine tree. From where we stood about 50 feet away, we could see it clearly. 

The first thing that struck us both was how big the bird was. A mature barred owl stands about 18-inches tall with a 39- to 43-inch wingspan and can weigh up to 2.5 pounds.

The second thing we noticed was its eyes — two large dark orbs set above a small yellow beak in a grey-white face. Unlike a great horned owl or Eastern screech owl, a barred owl lacks ear tufts so its round head is smooth. Its plumage is grayish-brown with tan to white edges and brown bars on its wings.

We stood watching the owl while it watched us, but it did so only briefly before directing its attention elsewhere. By rotating its head almost completely around, the owl scanned the forest in every direction.

The sighting caught me completely by surprise. I stood there fascinated, feeling like I could stand there watching the bird for hours. I’ve seen a barred owl a few times before but this was my first daytime sighting, and I hoped to observe it for as long as possible. Although Ralph initially shared my excitement, we both knew that standing still is not his forte. His body needs to be active, and so he picked up the loppers he carried along on our walk and used them to cut down some of the wild grapevines that have invaded the forest.

Grapevines climbing up and over the forest

While Ralph chopped vines, I took pictures and a short video. I was shooting the video when I noticed the owl crane its neck in the direction of some distant movement deeper in the forest. Moments later, it took off, its broad wings propelling it toward whatever prey its sharp eyes had spotted.

I lost sight of my subject when it silently flew away so I don’t know where it landed or what victim it pursued. It could have been on the hunt for a small mammal, amphibian, reptile, little bird, large insect or even a fish. A barred owl considers anything it can swallow to be potential prey.

I don’t see owls very often. Especially large owls and especially in the daytime. But the other day, that’s exactly what I chanced upon. Although I never know what I’m going to find when I take a walk or a row, one thing I do know is that whenever I go out in nature, something special is bound to happen. The other day, that something special was a rare sighting of a barred owl in the daytime. I can’t wait to see what it will be tomorrow.

Listen to Barred Owl calls:

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pileated woodpecker emerges from pine tree cavity

Early morning is a good time to see wildlife, especially birds.

Yesterday morning I went for a walk while plants were still covered with dew and before many birds had begun to sing.  As I approached the east woods, which is dotted with numerous dead pines, I kept an eye out for one of the pileated woodpeckers that I often see on the taller snags.

From a distance, I saw something poking out of one of the holes. Using my camera, I zoomed in for a closer view.  A red-topped, black and white face stared back at me!

In a tree pockmarked with numerous cavities, a female pileated woodpecker surveyed her world.  She reminded me of myself when I wake in the morning and look out the window to consider the day.

While she gazed out, I knelt down and began to take this video of my morning find.

I never know what I'm going to discover when I take a walk or go for a row but I always know I'm going to encounter something memorable. Today it was a pileated woodpecker emerging from her pine tree cavity. It made my day!