Friday, April 29, 2016

Coyote eating mulberries

During the last week in April this female coyote has been coming out of the woods in the mid-afternoon to eat black and white mulberries that have fallen to the ground beneath our mulberry trees.

Each day, the coyote - a nursing female - has ventured a little farther away from the woods.  I took this video while she was eating mulberries from the tree closest to our house - a very brazen act for a normally shy animal.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Sweet! It's mulberry season!

It's mulberry season and our trees are loaded with fruit.

Granddaughter Trillian takes a break from picking black mulberries to taste

The humble mulberry was one of the first fruit trees we planted on our Groveland property after moving here in 1992. While my husband Ralph and I have appreciated these fruitful bearers for all of our adult life, there are many who don’t share our enthusiasm.

The main complaint about these mid-sized, broad-growing deciduous trees is that mulberries are messy. That’s true. While these fruit-bearing trees have many attributes, neatness is not among them.

The most common varieties produce prolific quantities of sweet, sticky, dark-purple berries that fall to the ground when ripe. Ripe mulberries squash easily, which enables the pinkie-sized fruit to spread a purple splat onto fingers, faces, bare feet and the bottom of shoes. They stain cars and rooftops with impunity and leave their mark on driveways and clothing. 

Messy?  You betcha!

Because of the mess they make, mature trees are often cut down. Long ago when we lived on Cape Cod, Ralph and I sought out mulberry trees in our town and asked for permission to pick them. No one ever refused.  Unfortunately, as the years went by, fewer and fewer trees remained. They didn’t die off – mulberry trees are hardy and rarely suffer from diseases. Instead, homeowners had them removed. People who were tired of purple-staining berries all over the ground, hired tree surgeons to cut them down.

It made us sad but it probably made wildlife sadder.

As messy as mulberries are, they more than make up for that negative trait by being a wildlife magnet, especially to birds. 

Plant a mulberry tree in your yard and wildlife will come. Cedar waxwings will arrive by the hundreds to fill their rotund bellies with sweetness. 

Red-bellied woodpecker with white mulberry in its beak

Red-bellied woodpeckers, crows, cardinals and even sandhill cranes are among the many birds that take advantage of mulberry season.

Crow trying to decide which berry to eat

Sandhill crane plucking a mulberry from the ground

Squirrels like them too and last night Ralph and I even saw a sounder of feral hogs gobble up the fallen fruit that covered the ground beneath the trees.

A gray squirrel likes to hang upside down while munching on mulberries

A sounder of feral hogs feed on dropped mulberries at dusk

One solution to the purple mess mulberries make is to plant a variety that produces white berries instead of dark colored ones. On our property, we grow many different kinds of mulberry trees but I like the white mulberries best. 

Cedar waxwing with white mulberry

When ripe, white mulberries turn slightly beige and taste even sweeter than the purple-berried varieties. While the white-fruiting trees are the ones I go to when I head out to pick, two of my children prefer the purple fruit. I suppose it’s all a matter of individual taste. 

Among life's tough choices...
Black or white mulberries?  Which will Trillian choose?

My grandkids are less particular. To them, all mulberry trees are special. They like them because they can pick them easily. The trees do not have thorns or briars. What they do have are wonderful low spreading limbs that make them one of the best climbing trees around for children. 

Even when there's no fruit yet, mulberry trees are fun to climb
as grandchildren Maya and Ella discover

While adults may dislike all the berries on the ground, it would be hard not to appreciate the pleasant shade a mulberry tree provides on a hot summer day. In Florida, berry season only lasts for a few weeks in April.  After that, the tree’s broad-branching leafy cover offers respite from the heat while adding a lush and verdant feel to the landscape.

Even in winter when they've lost all their leaves, the dense branching of mulberry trees provide shade and beauty

I wish more people added mulberry trees to their yards. Even if people don’t eat the fruit – something I find hard to imagine not doing – a mulberry tree gives back far more than so many other trees do. It’s provides shade and attracts wildlife. Birds nest in its branches and feed on the berries. Kids like to climb its strong, broad limbs and it has the right kind of branches to support swings and hammocks. Cold weather doesn’t bother a mulberry tree. It grows quickly and doesn’t get diseases.

There’s no denying that mulberry trees are messy but what’s a little mess compared to so many other admirable attributes?

If you’re looking to add a tree to your landscape, consider a mulberry but be sure to plan carefully. To avoid future problems, consider a white berry variety or, if you decide to go with a traditional dark-fruited tree, don’t plant it too close to the driveway, walkway or house.  Give your mulberry tree space to grow broad and bear fruit prolifically and you’ll be happy. So will your kids, grandkids, birds and other wildlife. When chosen and placed correctly, a mulberry tree can be a sweet and fruitful addition to any landscape that will last for generations.

Belated addition 

Since first writing this piece I discovered one more animal taking advantage of mulberry season - a female coyote who spent considerable time eating mulberries that had fallen to the ground beneath the black mulberry trees closest to the woods.  What a treat it was to watch this beautiful animal - nursing female - gobble up the berries.

Monday, April 18, 2016

My orchid tree is in bloom!

 When it comes to orchid trees, It's all about soil.

Plant an orchid tree, Bauhinia spp., in nutrient-poor soil such as hard clay, and this deciduous ornamental will struggle to survive. It might even die. On the other hand, watch the same tree thrive when the hole it's placed into contains well-drained dirt enriched with manure, peat or composted materials.

So much of a tree's development above ground depends on its underground environment. Rich, light soil encourages root expansion, and the more expansive a root system, the more energy available to produce branches, lush foliage, flowers and seedpods.

Thoughts such as these drifted through my mind while I rowed by a pink orchid tree growing a few feet back from our lake's northeastern shore. That tree has been growing — struggling to survive would be a more accurate description — for about 20 years. Yet, it has only recently begun bearing fragrant pink flowers, something most orchid trees do within a single growth season. The floral display is not as full or vibrant as it could be, but after 20 years of waiting, I'll take whatever it offers.

However, it didn't have to take this long.

If only my husband Ralph and I knew 20 years ago what we have since learned, the orchid tree could have looked very different. Before installing the tree, we should have dug a much larger, deeper hole. We should have removed the existing soil — a white clay called kaolin devoid of essential nutrients — and replaced it with a lighter, nutrient-rich mixture of manure, decomposed woodchips and peat.

Doing so would have gone a long way toward giving the roots the headstart they deserved and the boost they needed. A well-developed root system would have been able to support a flush of above-ground growth. Even without irrigation, which wasn't available at the time, the tree would have grown bigger and fuller far sooner than it did.

Instead, it spent years struggling to put down roots in the hard, white clay and because it didn't have a solid root system, the tree was vulnerable. In its early years, the few sprigs of top growth died back completely during periods of severe cold, and while the tree rebounded during warm periods, repeated losses took their toll.

However, over the last three or four years, the orchid tree finally seemed to be gaining strength. In 2013, it actually produced a flower — the first one ever — and I was so excited. Every year since, a few more flowers bloomed. This year is the best yet. A light cover of aromatic, pale pink blossoms adorns the tree, which is still small for its age. Although no one could say it's lush, to my admiring eyes, it looks mighty fine indeed.

As much as I am enjoying this long-awaited gift, I can't help but wish we had known 20 years ago the importance of essential elements. That's something trees and people have in common. We grow better in places that fulfill our needs. My fragrant orchid tree does best when grown in a partially sunny spot with well-drained soil that's neither too acidic nor too alkaline.

For people, the essential element is love. Of course, food, shelter and financial support are crucial too, but love is paramount. It's the most vital element needed to assure an individual's strong, swift and secure development into a healthy, happy and beautiful being.

Humans, like the sad little orchid tree growing along the shore of our lake, are also resilient. If we hang in long enough, we, too, can bloom. For some, it's about soil. For others, it's love. For all of us, it's about overcoming impediments and conquering obstacles.

In the spirit of Earth Day, find a tree you like and plant it. Maybe plant two. But whatever you do, don't forget the soil. Give those trees a good start in life, and the entire planet will be rewarded far sooner, far longer, with fewer worries and cares. On April 22 — and every other day as well — nurture nature and let nature nurture you

Monday, April 11, 2016

Wake up wild hogs!

Aha! I figured out where they sleep!

I’m talking about pigs — specifically, the wild pigs that live on our property.

For more than a year, feral hogs have been mucking up the shore of our lake. Black, brown and rust-colored swine have made quite an impression on both me and our acreage.

Only a few small swaths of shoreline remain untouched by the critters’ dirt-disturbing snouts. I’ve watched hogs unearth soil in search of edibles. I’ve heard them grunt while wallowing in mud puddles and squeal while devouring a meal. I’ve listened to annoyed boars stomp the ground with cloven feet when they’ve wanted me and my camera to go away. One time, I even spied a pig swimming from one side of the lake to the other — quite the surprise.

However, until lately, I had never seen wild hogs sleep or watched a sow nurse babies.

That changed on a recent morning when I made myself wake early, get out of bed and climb into my rowboat for a pre-dawn paddle. My motivation for such early-hour action was a long-held suspicion about where the feral pack spends their nights.

Near the south end of our lake, clumps of cogon grass have encroached on a narrow but long stretch of land wedged between the water on one side and a dense grove of running bamboo on the other. The bamboo provides shade and protection while the cogon grass, a non-native invasive plant that chokes out other species and spreads rapidly, provides a soft place to sleep once the bodies of several 150 to 200-pound animals lie down and crush its long, sharp blades.

Compacted cogon grass was my first indication that the hogs were spending at least some time in that area. Once flattened, the tall, grassy mounds resemble large nest-like structures that I could easily envision enveloping the bodies of bristle-haired mammals seeking a protected place to rest. It’s also a safe spot. The entire area is practically impenetrable by people unless they enter wearing thigh-high boots armed with heavy-duty loppers or machetes. If I were a pig in search of a safe and secluded place to sleep and raise young, I’d go there too.

My instincts were spot on.

On the morning of my row, I drifted in slowly toward the shoreline in question. At first, I heard rustling sounds but didn’t see anything other than squashed mounds of cogon grass. However, the longer I stayed quietly in place, the more I began to notice movement. The movement wasn’t of the animals themselves, but the snapping, waving and crunching of bamboo shoots and cogon grass blades. I didn’t quite understand what was going on until a pig — quite a big pig — poked its head from beneath a blanket of amber-colored blades. A discovery: Cogon grass not only provides padding for pigs to sleep on but also provides a blanket-like cover when they tunnel beneath it.

I remained a couple feet from the shoreline for a long time. I was there long enough to watch a sow move from her hidden slumber spot to the smashed grasses. Immediately after, her greedy litter followed, tumbling up and over each other in a frantic search for a place at the feeding station, a.k.a. their mama’s teats.

Amazingly, I watched all this while standing up in my little aluminum rowboat less than 10 feet away from a family of feral hogs, and they didn’t notice me. To say I was awed would be an understatement.

It also complicated things.

Now that I know where they sleep and have observed a mother pig nurse her young, the question of what to do about the situation has become as murky as the lake’s shoreline.

In Florida, feral swine can produce two litters a year of 1 to 13 young a time. I have friends who have offered to hunt the wild pigs, but do I want to be responsible for the demise of a sow and her piglets? Should I send friends to that spot for an easy shot at a sounder of hogs or do I allow my maternal nature to take over and save the babies? There are already more than a half-million wild swine in the Sunshine State. Would it be irresponsible to add to that number by ignoring an opportunity to reduce their population when I can?

Having wild hogs on our property has certainly been challenging. It has also been thought provoking and exciting. It has provided me with opportunities to observe large mammal wildlife behaviors that I had never before seen. The one thing it hasn’t been is boring — or, should I say, boaring? In complex situations of decision-making, it’s important to maintain one’s sense of humor.

Watch a video of the sounder of wild hogs

Monday, April 4, 2016

Oh, what a beautiful morning!

It’s 11:13 in the morning and I’m still in the kitchen sitting at the table looking out the window. Although there is no shortage of things I could be doing - many things I probably should be doing - I’m ignoring them all. To do them, I’d have to leave my kitchen window post and so much is going on outside in the yard. If I left, I might miss something important and I don’t want to do that.

Right now, a bluejay is greedily stuffing itself with sunflower seeds at one feeder while a dainty Carolina chickadee just flew onto a different station only to fly away moments later with a single seed in its beak. Two birds with such different styles of eating. 


From the sycamore tree, I hear the plaintive tones of a tufted titmouse announcing its intention to land on the feeding station as soon as it’s unoccupied. The little gray titmouse is a patient bird, preferring to wait until other birds have taken what they want before it flies over for quickly plucked seed.

Suddenly, overhead – gosh, look at them come! – a flock of cedar waxwings has just arrived to scope out the ripening mulberries. Darn those masked bandits of the sky! Waxwings, which arrive in the hundreds, have the uncanny ability to know just when fruit is ripe and to land en masse when it is. Within hours, a flock of these berry-devouring birds can decimate an entire crop of fruit.

As if that was not enough avian activity to satisfy a devoted birdwatcher’s dreams, a palm warbler just landed on the sow thistle plant to nibble on insects while a red-bellied woodpecker positioned itself upside down on the suet cage to break off a large chunk of seed-infused fat.


Can it get any better than that? Yes, it can!

A pair of bluebirds is chattering away as they check out the nesting box closest to our house while off in the distance a lesser blue heron just hopped off another nesting box to catch some unfortunate snake or frog in the weeds.

I hear crows cawing overhead and a nearby flash of red that means a male cardinal is about to make his entrance on the scene.


But that’s not all!

During the last week, a family of sandhill cranes has been wandering around our front yard. As I sit now in the kitchen sipping my morning cup of PG Tips, mama crane, papa crane and their two fluffy yellow baby cranes – they look less than 10 days old - are poking the ground in search of insects, grubs and fallen seeds from the birdfeeders. The adorableness of the scene is off the charts. 


Add to this bucolic picture the fluttering wings of yellow sulphur and gulf fritillary butterflies around the tropical salvias, the buzzing of bees on the African basil and the statuesque poses of green and brown anoles sunning themselves on plant leaves and any chance of my leaving the room dissolves in a puddle of pure delight.


Forget the chores and errands I intended to do this morning. The wash can wait a little longer to go into the drier. I can go to town later in the day and still check off all the chores on my to-do list.

When my kids were little, nature beckoned and I tried to listen, but even when I did, moments of nature-infused pleasure were fleeting at best. My family’s needs took priority, which is as it should be when one’s children are young. But those days are over. My kids are grown up with kids of their own. I’m older now and time is different. Instead of being chained to a clock or to someone else’s schedule, I exist in more permeable space flowing in and out of whatever activity catches my interest.

This morning I was captivated by the world outside my window. Getting older has its drawbacks but being free to enjoy life’s little pleasures whenever and wherever they appear isn’t one of them. It’s almost noon and I’m still in the kitchen sipping tea, looking out the window. I love how this day is turning out!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Cedar waxwings have arrived

Cedar waxwings have come to call.  More accurately, they've come to eat, to devour the fruit on our mulberry trees.


I was outside when hundreds of the masked bandits landed on the sycamore tree to rest before flying over to the nearby mulberry trees and flitting in and out of the branches. They were after fruit that's underripe from a person's point of view but perfectly fine from an avian perspective

The same thing happens every year.  The berries begin to ripen and I watch with conflicting emotions.  On one hand, I'm eagerly anticipating the sweet flavor of ripe mulberries.  On the other hand, I'm anxiously expecting the birds to eat the entire crop.  Either way, I guess I win. I may not eat many mulberries but my appetite for birdwatching is always sated.

And here is another video I made a few years ago of the cedar waxwings on the mulberry tree.  On this one, the mulberries are riper than they currently are and the waxwings waste no time gobbling them up:

You can view several other videos of cedar waxwings as well as other birds, animals, insects, etc on my YouTube channel