Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Who knew a praying mantis could be this small!

I was in the garden picking basil for pesto when I noticed a tiny praying mantis on a basil leaf. I put my finger next to it and the mantis climbed up. 

The insect was so small, I could barely feel it on my finger. With the mantis still standing on my pointer finger, I rushed inside to get the camera and returned to shoot this video.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

'Where there's a Willet, there's a way' Shorebird sex on the beach video

I rode my bike to the beach early one morning to see the sunrise.

Just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, a pair of nearby Willets began to engage in what turned out to be lengthy and vigorous mating behavior.

I quickly switched gears and focussed my attention on the shorebirds. I'm sure glad I did.  Watch the video to see the show they put on!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Why I let some weeds grow

Three species of sow thistle grow in Florida — spiny sow thistle (Sonchus asper), common sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceous) and field sow thistle (Sonchus arvensis) — but none is the type of plant most people want in their yard.

Even though all three species are edible, the broad leaves of these weedy members of the Aster family have sharp prickly edges that can poke and scratch skin.

Ouch!  Sharp prickles!

Like its dandelion cousin, sow thistle also bears yellow flowers. However, instead of growing low to the ground, sow thistle grows tall — up to six feet high — and each plant produces dozens of small daisy-like flowers that are not particularly showy.

Sow thistle looks similar to dandelions but grows much taller

As springtime progresses, the yellow flowers turn into fluffy white seedheads, which contain tiny brown seeds tethered to miniature white parachutes. 

Fluffy seeds waiting for a breeze to carry them away

When wind blows, the fluff takes flight carrying the attached seeds wherever the breeze takes them.

The wind blows and away seeds go!

Sow thistle has the potential to generate a tremendous number of progeny. Each plant can produce 4,000 to 13,000 airborne seeds. Even more astounding is the fact that after landing, each seed can remain viable for up to six years. This means if a seed touches down in the wrong spot or during unfavorable conditions, it has the ability to wait until its situation changes.

If those characteristics are not enough to put sow thistle on the home gardener’s do-not-grow list, consider its root system. Sow thistle sends a taproot several feet into the soil as well as producing lateral side roots that spread vigorously underground in all directions. Combine these two extremely effective methods of propagation and you have a species with strong survival instincts and a bad reputation in gardening communities.

Sow thistle is such an invasive, fast-growing plant that people who love a well-behaved landscape usually hate sow thistle. I can understand that. My less-than-well-behaved landscape harbors a huge contingency of these botanical miscreants. They’ve popped up under the mulberry trees, around the trampoline and in the middle of the lawn, which truthfully is less lawn and more a motley assortment of green-colored weeds.

Initially, I didn’t mind the sow thistle plants in our yard, but once they started to grow tall, I knew I needed to deal with them. Mowing is an effective control, especially when done before the plants go to seed. So, that’s what I did. I revved up the battery-powered weed-whacker and whacked the sow thistles down. I chopped all of them except for two plants that I can see from the kitchen window.

The two tall sow thistle plants that were spared the mower's blade

I left those because, despite its many negative characteristics, sow thistle has positive features, too. As mentioned before, it is an edible plant. For thousands of years, people around the world have eaten the tender young leaves, which make a nutritious potherb and salad green similar to spinach. While I’ve personally never tasted them, I’ve watched wildlife attracted to the plant for food. Bees, flies and wasps gather nectar, and birds search among the leaves for seeds and insects.

The other day I photographed a palm warbler flitting around one of the tall sow thistle plants. It might have been after all the aphids on the stems or it could have been catching grasshoppers, gnats or flies. 

Warbler on sow thistle - is it after the seeds, tiny bugs or both?

Regardless of which prey it was seeking, watching the warbler hunt for food was gratifying and fun. It was even more fun a couple days later when I caught sight of a goldfinch pecking away on sow thistle seeds, fluff and all.

Both observations confirmed my instinct to save a few robust specimens of this unpopular plant from the mower’s blade. Allowing one or two sow thistle plants to grow may not be appropriate for every yard, but for my wildlife-friendly homestead, it seemed the natural thing to do.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Look who just wandered by!

Look who wandered by on this rainy afternoon!  Mom and Dad Sandhill Crane and their two babies (about 8-day-old) meandered through our front yard today.

Watch as a parent tried to get one of the youngsters to eat a grasshopper.  Baby tries but it isn't easy to swallow or, from the expression on the young bird's face, all that tasty either.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Squirrel conquers feeder in under 3 minutes

Squirrels are clever and persistent critters.  When they want to eat seed in birdfeeders they usual figure out a way to do it.  I have a supposedly squirrel-resistant feeder that the little gray squirrels on our property have consistently conquered.  The other day after moving the feeder to a new location, I decided to time how long it would take one of the squirrels to find a way to the sunflower seeds.  Turned out to be not long at all.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Gardeners by nature

Is there such a thing as a gardening gene? If there is — and personal experience proves it likely — three of my four kids have inherited it from their green-thumbed dad.

My husband in his element:  In the garden, tending to his veggies

My husband Ralph has always had a way with plants. I might scatter seeds in the ground and a few will come up, but when Ralph does the same thing, the soil explodes with a flush of vibrant new sprouts. It’s as if each seed knows exactly what my husband expects and responds accordingly.

“He wants us to grow,” I imagine them saying. “So grow we must!” The result is a bed of the happiest, healthiest plants they can be.

Happy gardener, happy plants

The notion of a gardening gene came to me following a recent visit to our daughter Amber’s house in Winter Garden.

“Where’s Amber?” I asked my son-in-law after he and our grandchildren greeted us at the front door.

“She’s out back in the garden,” Scott replied, a phrase I’ve used many times myself referring to Ralph when visitors came to call.

We made our way through the house and out the back door into Amber’s suburban expanse of flowers, herbs and vegetables. The word lush only begins to describe her colorful assortment of floral displays.

One small part of Amber's colorful backyard
flower garden (photo credit: Amber Boas)
Tall perennials flank the wooden privacy fence separating their yard from neighbors to the rear and on both sides. In front of these colorful and often fragrant perennials are smaller, equally impressive blooms. More plants — ornamentals, herbs and pollinator-attracting specimens — grow along the house’s exterior wall. Orchids hang from tree branches while bees and butterflies hover nearby and birds flit about above. In the middle of the yard to the left of the kids’ play set are a pair of freestanding wooden planting beds that Scott built for Amber’s vegetables.

My four-year-old granddaughter Trillian tugged me toward the vegetable plot while Ralph and Amber, oblivious to Trillian’s high pitched plea to show me the sugar snap peas, already were engaged in an intense session of shop talk: How much fertilizer did you use? What kind of soil mix? How often are you watering?

After Trillian and I sampled a few sugar snaps and she showed me the carrots that are growing — an impressive patch — we meandered over to the swings to join up with my grandson Atom who seemed more interested in what neighbor kids were doing in the front yard than what was going on in the garden.

Trillian and carrot

While Amber’s knack for gardening impresses me every time I visit, she’s not the only one in the family who has a way with plants. In Western Massachusetts, our daughter Jenny and her husband Brett grow enough cucumbers in their fenced in plot to fill their pantry with pickles.

In autumn, they harvest greens, broccoli, carrots and other veggies to satisfy their family’s needs for a good part of the year.

When you're little, a vegetable garden can seem like
a jungle. Maya and Ella wander through
their family's garden in Florence, Ma.

Our son Timothy shows an equally remarkable aptitude for gardening. When he used to live at home, he always had a garden, and the plants he grew rivaled those grown by his father. Even when he is wandering the globe, as he is so often doing, he travels with a gardeners soul, spending considerable time hunting down exotic locations where he can pick jackfruits, mangosteens and coconuts directly from trees.

The only one of our children who seems to lack the gardening gene is our youngest child, Toby. While our 24-year-old son appreciates homegrown food, he’d rather eat someone else’s harvest than grow it himself.

My husband’s mother was an amazing gardener and while Ralph may have absorbed some of his mother’s expertise by osmosis, I truly believe his ability to grow such incredible plants is an innate part of his nature.

My mother-in-law, Mary Boas, was an
accomplished physics professor, textbook author
and amazing gardener

Nature or nurture is an age-old question, and while no one knows for sure if a gardening gene really exists, to some of us, it’s a moot point. Anyone whose family history includes several generations of expert gardeners knows that some people are simply born with the ability to bring plants to life.

Our family is lucky because we have several such people. As for those of us who weren’t born with those proverbial green thumbs, we’re lucky too. We reap the benefits of our soil-digging relatives. We live next to edible plants, sweet aromas and beautiful flowers. While our thumbs may not be green, there’s no dirt under our nails either. It’s not a bad trade at all for a side dish of broccoli florets or a pretty bouquet of flowers.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Happy Spring!

My first day of spring bouquet:  Red bottlebrush, purple pickerelweed, fragrant white sweet almond and Dracaena, better known as 'Lucky Bamboo' even though it's not a bamboo at all.  Happy spring!

Tiny treasures

I was outside taking pictures when I noticed a very small fly hovering around the sow thistle plant.  I didn't know what kind of fly it was but later, after looking at the image on the computer, I was awed by its beauty. Such colors in its thin, transparent wings!  Its two reddish-brown eyes are huge and it has such an amazing pattern covering its abdomen and thorax.

After doing some research, I found out the 1/4" long insect is called a Syrphid fly -  Allograpta obliqua - and it is one of the good guys, a beneficial insect that preys on aphids.  If I hadn't taken the time to look closely at a prickly plant that most people would rather avoid, I wouldn't have noticed the Syrphid fly at all.

So often, I've found, it's the small, unexpected wonders that fill me with pleasure.  They are treasure for the taking, if you take the time to look.

You can learn more about Syrphid flies at the Growing Produce website

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Watching a watersnake

Just as I was about to launch my rowboat, I noticed a water snake in shallow water by my boat.

It must have noticed me too because it stayed very still - still enough for the minnows to come over to check it out.  But after a while it had enough of being looked at and swam off into the weeds where it completely blended in with its environment and disappeared from sight.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Snake turn ahead!

It has been pointed out to me (thank you John Harris!) that I misidentified the snake.  Instead of a rat snake, this is a Florida pine snake, another of the 'good guys' that dine on a diet of moles, rabbits, mice, rats, squirrels, lizards, and other snakes and their eggs. It is not dangerous to people.  Learn more about Florida pine snakes on this link to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pine tree sex

While rowing along the shore of our lake, splashes of purple caught my eye.

During the month of March, pinecones are forming in Central Florida, and on our property, several thousand slash pines, Pinus elliottii, are presenting purple displays of what can brazenly be described as pine tree sex.

All conifers are monoecious, which means the plants contain separate male and female reproductive parts called gametes. A gamete is the male or female cell that contains half the genetic material of the organism.

In the case of slash pines, the female seed parts develop into the familiar brown conical structures known as pinecones. However, none of those woody brown cones would form if not for their male counterpart — the purple-colored pollen cones that recently have caught my attention.

Unlike plants with flowers, pine trees don’t rely on bees, wasps, butterflies or other insects for pollination. Instead, conifers depend upon the wind to do the job of transferring genetic material from one location to another. Male pollen cones grow on the lower limbs. When wind blows, it carries pollen from male gametes into the air. Each tree produces millions of pollen particles with the hope that some will land on the female gametes growing on the upper limbs.

Of course, not all pollen particles reach their intended target. Most land elsewhere. Much to the annoyance of car owners, pine pollen settles on vehicle roofs and windows. It blankets shallow lake water with a yellow film. In people with a propensity for allergies, the arrival of pine pollens floating through air makes breathing difficult and aggravates sinuses.

But none of those results are the intended purpose of a male gamete’s springtime journey. Its aim is to find female gametes on the upper limbs. Once male pollen settles on its female counterpart, the pollen grains sift among the scales of the female cone to land directly on the unfertilized seeds, and the process of developing new pine trees can begin.

Growing new pine trees takes time — lots of time. A slash pine is not ready to produce pollen until it is 10 to 15 years old. About half a year after wind deposits pollen on the female cone, seeds fall to the ground and are ready to germinate — if, that is, they land in an acceptable location and are not eaten first by squirrels or birds.

Not all soil is suitable for growth. Some soils don’t have an appropriate composition. They might be too dry or too wet. On our property, many seedlings fall into areas that are under water during wet seasons, and while slash pines can tolerate wet feet for short periods, they often die if they sit in water too long.

I wasn’t thinking of the many obstacles slash pines endure in their effort to reproduce when I was rowing by the purple splashes of color. I was merely struck by a familiar beauty I recalled from previous seasons. Springtime is, after all, the time of love. Valentine’s Day may have already come and gone but from a slash pine’s perspective, the season of purple passion has just begun.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Turkey needs better potty habits

There’s a turkey in our yard — again.

For several weeks, he’s been a regular visitor, spending daylight hours meandering around our weedy lawn on a lazy search for food. Judging from the droppings left behind, he’s found plenty of bugs, seeds, fruit, frogs and anoles to eat. Apparently, our overgrown yard and abutting fields provide enough foraging fare to satisfy his paltry poultry needs.

My new feathered friend appears to be a healthy male specimen of Meleagris gallopavo Osceola, commonly called an Osceola or Florida turkey. The Sunshine State is home for up to 100,000 turkeys including the Osceola, a subspecies of the eastern wild turkey. Because the Osceola only exists in Florida, it is much coveted by hunters.

My husband and I don’t hunt, but if we did, we could have an easy meal. This particular Jake — the name for a young male turkey — frequently wanders by the porch door. I’ve watched him strut past the trampoline, poke the ground for worms, beetles and grubs and settle down to rest on our concrete patio’s leaf-strewn surface. On mornings when I didn’t realize he was there, I’ve stepped outside and faced a stare-down as we stood less than five feet apart waiting to see which of us — it’s usually me — retreats first.

My new friend strutting by the trampoline 

I can’t say he’s tame, but he doesn’t act completely wild either. This bird is a puzzlement — a bearded, bald, red-necked enigma with feathers and spurs.

A mature male Osceola is about 3½ feet tall and weighs up to 20 pounds. In addition to being endemic to Florida, the Osceola also has the distinction of being the smallest wild turkey in the United States. His predominately-black feathers have an iridescent green and red tint. His bald head is reddish, and a fleshy red wattle or dewlap stretches beneath his chin. Below his wattle and across his neck hang several knobby growths called caruncles. On his forehead, he has a pointy appendage called a snood.

While a wild turkey’s head may not be an attractive feature to human eyes, female turkeys find it quite alluring. When a female is ready to mate, she checks out a potential partner’s feather display, the gobbling sounds and drumming noises he makes as well as the cocky way he struts his stuff. She also considers the length of his snood. The longer, the better as far as the female turkey is concerned.

American wild tom and hen turkeys. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I suspect that the male turkey we’ve been seeing is in wanderlust mode, roaming about alone until he is ready to mate. I have tried to determine his age by observing markers that indicate maturity. Judging the length of the spurs on his feet and the beard extending from his chest, I mark him between 16 and 18 months, which is old enough to mate but too young to be a dominant male. During wild turkey reproductive season, March through May, females often mate with numerous partners but not all eligible males rank high enough in wild fowl hierarchy to score a mate.

Regardless of whether I’m correct about his age and status, I’ve gained substantial insight into wild turkey behavior thanks to his frequent forays in our yard. The male Osceola turkey may not be one of the handsomest blokes on the block but he’s an interesting fellow to observe.

My only complaint is the mess he makes on our walkways. If he’d just stop depositing droppings on our paving stones and patio, I’d be completely charmed. Female turkeys may appreciate his head and fancy feather display, but to me, good bathroom behavior is a far more attractive trait.