Monday, June 27, 2016

How big is too big?

We humans have a tendency to bite off more than we can chew. Apparently birds do too.

This seagull at Canaveral National Seashore in New Smyrna Beach caught a small fish in the shallow water but although the fish isn't large, it was too big for him to swallow whole.

Watching the video you can almost see the gull's mind working:

"Shall I peck it to pieces or toss it in the air and try to get it down my throat?"

All the while, the gull cautiously scans the sky for predators eager to steal away its catch.

Such are the dilemmas of life in the wild, dilemmas we human experience as well.

How often have we bitten off more than we can chew, taken on too many responsibilities or believed sweeping promises too big too swallow?

The gull has three choices:  Swallow its oversized catch, peck it apart before eating or abandon it altogether and find a smaller fish.

What would you do?

Impulsive pause in daily routine yields unanticipated moment of Zen

There’s a little lake in downtown Clermont that I always admire. It’s name is Sunset Lake but a more appropriate moniker would be Lake Lotus because this small splash of water nestled in a hollow between SR 50, 12th St., Chestnut St. and Linton Ct. boasts a spectacular display of Nelumbo Lutea, a Florida native aquatic plant commonly known as American lotus.

The other day, instead of observing the water plants from the car window as I normally do when I’m out doing errands, I decided to pull over to see the yellow blooms up close. Since there is no public access to the pond, I pulled into the paved parking area of South Lake Animal Hospital located on the lake’s western shore. From there it’s only a few steps to the water.

Despite noise from traffic on busy SR 50, the lotus-filled lake proved a serene setting. A large white egret feeding in the shallow water flew a few yards farther down the shoreline when I came on the scene but its presence merely added to the beauty of the calm lake dotted with moss-draped cypress trees and yellow lotus flowers in various stages of development.

A Great Egret feeds along the shore of a lotus-filled lake

The American lotus likes to grow in muddy, shallow water along the margins of lakes. It’s an easy plant to identify due to its distinctive flowers, seedpods and leaves. 

The flowers, which bloom May through August and stand several feet above the water, can be up to 10-inches wide. They are a soft, buttery color with multiple petals surrounding a profusion of crinkly dark yellow stamens. Leaves growing from the center of a sturdy stem are large and round, about the size and shape of a party platter. Each leaf either rests upon the water surface or extends two to three feet above it on a tall, stiff stalk. Unlike water lilies, which are also found in shallow ponds and have a slice in their leaves, lotus leaves are completely circular without any cut in them at all.

As impressive and pretty as the plant’s lightly fragrant flowers and big circular leaves are, its seedpods are what drew me in. From my soggy-footed observation spot, I photographed American lotus seedpods in various stages of development.

Those just beginning to form were still yellow with a cone-shaped appearance while the most mature specimens were dark brown, had flattened out and were spotted by numerous large black seeds. When filled with seeds, the pods look a bit like round rainfall shower heads.

Other than their beauty, I knew very little about lotuses before my impromptu visit to Sunset Lake. Once I there, however, my curiosity was piqued. I’ve since learned that in addition to American lotus, Nelumbo Lutea is also known as yellow water lotus, alligator buttons, duck acorns and pondnut. Several of those names refer to the plant seeds, which are a valuable food source for wildlife ranging from ducks to alligators to beavers and muskrats. 

Dragonflies like lotuses too, not to eat but as landing pads!

But animals aren’t the only ones to take advantage of the plant’s nutritional value. All parts of American lotus are edible. 

Chinese pork and lotus root stirfry
(Photo credit:

For thousands of years, people have gathered lotus flowers, seeds, leaves and roots for culinary and medicinal purposes and the plant continues today to be an essential component in recipes for many Asian cultures. The lotus flower also has a long history of spiritual significance in Buddhism and Egyptian mythology.

Harvesting lotus seedpods in Viet Nam

Nowadays in the United States, we’re less likely to be eating parts of the lotus plant than we are to be receiving them from a florist. Lotus seedpods are a popular feature in floral arrangements with the dried pods adding an attractive, decorative element that suggests tranquility.

Photo credit:  Bohemian Bouquets

Tranquility is what I was feeling after my impulsive decision to stop and look at the pretty flowers growing in downtown Clermont instead of just glimpsing them yet again from the window of my car. The few minutes it took to find a place to park and to stroll along the shoreline didn’t prevent me from getting my errands done. I didn’t miss any deadlines. I wasn’t late getting home. What it did do was make me smile. I had fun taking pictures and enjoyed learning about a plant I knew very little about before. Not a bad exchange for a few minutes of my time. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Say, "Ah!"

Who knew a tongue depressor could be so intriguing? Maybe it's not to a human, but to this inquisitive sand crab, an ordinary sliver of wood close to the hole where he lives, is an urgent object in need of investigation and possibly relocation - if he can just figure out how to move it!

No need for a lawnmower when you've got a gopher tortoise!

A brief clip (excuse the pun!) of a grass-blade gobbling gopher tortoise making his way swiftly across a swath of green ground at Canaveral National Seashore in New Smyrna Beach, Florida

Monday, June 20, 2016

New mid-lake perch attracts crowd

I recently installed a new perch in the middle of the lake on our property near Groveland.

I found a dead bamboo cane in a large clump of Giant Timber Bamboo and dragged it down to the water. 

The cane, about 30 feet tall with a four-inch diameter base, tapers to less than a half-inch at its tip. I intentionally left most of the side branches intact hoping that birds would land on them.

Installing the perch didn’t seem like it would be difficult. I thought it would be a small project I could accomplish by myself.

It started off well.

Transporting the long pole from the shore to the middle of the lake worked as I hoped it would. I balanced it down the length of my small boat and rowed slowly to my destination. The bamboo slipped off only twice.

Things got a bit more dicey once I arrived.

After reaching the submerged island, I stood up in the boat to lift the bamboo cane into an upright position. Unfortunately, my pre-installation calculations didn’t take into account how heavy and unwieldy a tall, wet, large-diameter bamboo pole can be. Try as I might to drive the pole into the soft peaty soil — I gave it several wet and slippery attempts — I couldn’t push it in far enough to hold steady. Instead, it leaned this way and then that way. The harder I tried to force the pole down, the farther out my boat drifted.

I knew I needed help — I had become a human bridge. My hands were holding onto the bamboo pole. My feet were in the boat. My body was stretched over the water between the two.

I called to my husband Ralph, who was watching from the shore with a bemused grin on his face. He quickly came to my aid.

With two of us working, we completed the job quickly. Ralph secured the pole deep into the submerged peat island. Once it stood straight and solid, I rowed back to the shore, content with our accomplishment.

The new perch was in place. Now all I had to do was wait for birds to find it. I didn’t have to wait long.

The first bird I saw sitting on one of the side branches was a bluebird.
Soon after, several crows perched followed by a belted kingfisher. 
Recently, however, I’ve spotted some new and exciting visitors. A flock of swallows discovered the mid-lake resting place and have monopolized it ever since

For the past couple weeks, the swallows — possibly northern ruffled-winged, bank or tree swallows —— have been spending most daylight hours either swooping over the lake in search of insects or perched on the branches preening, chattering and pecking at each other congenially. Swallows are social birds that gather together in small flocks to feed, rest and, for some species, to nest.

I’ve counted about a dozen of the small, white-bellied, brownish-gray feathered fliers perched on different branches of the bamboo pole at the same time. However, the number of birds changes constantly. Swallows are continually leaving their resting spot to catch insects on the fly. Yet, the new perch is rarely unoccupied. As birds fly off, others take their place, often vying over which bird gets the top spot.

Including my newest addition, the submerged mid-lake peat island directly across from our house now supports five different kinds of perches. While all get used, certain species have preferences. 

Herons, anhingas, cormorants and kingfishers gravitate toward the platform perch while ospreys and eagles like to land on the top of tall poles without branches. Now swallows, as I’ve recently discovered, are drawn to perches with enough side branches for an entire flock of fliers.

My simple project turned out to be more challenging than expected. To ask for help, I had to swallow my pride. But because I did, swallows have arrived.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Whoo's that sitting in a tree? It's a Great Horned Owl!

I took this video of a great horned owl while taking an early morning row in our lake.  I noticed the owl in a distant pine tree thanks to persistent cawing from a flock of crows. Crows are constantly monitoring their territory for owls, eagles or other potential predators. When they find one, they harass it until it flies away. That's what happened to this owl.  Shortly after the video ends, the crows - you can hear their cries throughout the video - chased the owl away.

Below is another video of an owl made while walking through the woods last November. This one is a barred owl sitting in a tree on a different part of our property.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Fledgling leaves mailbox home

A pair of Carolina wrens nested in an old mailbox placed under our house's eaves.

The other day while I was sitting outside, the baby birds fledged. Although I missed seeing the others, I managed to capture the last baby bird to figure out how to leave the confines of its metal home and make its way into the world.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Birds fight over in-demand house

Ask any Realtor if some houses attract more interest than others, and the answer will be yes.

Potential residents can be attracted by the floor plan, the structure’s condition, its location or a combination of those factors. Often it’s price. The same things are true for birds — with the exception of price.

In our yard, we have several birdhouses. However, one nesting box more than any other attracts considerable attention. Last year, our in-demand birdhouse was occupied by a pair of bluebirds who moved in and raised their young only to have the babies stolen away before maturity by a hungry crow. 

It was sad to see that happen, but the bluebirds moved on and eventually so did I. This year, the bluebirds returned but after careful consideration — maybe recalling their previous catastrophe — they decided to nest elsewhere.

Shortly after the bluebirds left, a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers landed at the scene. 

Watching the woodpeckers check out the wooden structure filled me with confidence that new tenants had been found. After all, the location was great. It’s only a few feet from three feeding stations, including one with a suet cake that the woodpeckers had been frequenting for months. It’s also close to several fruit trees that red-bellied woodpeckers also seem to enjoy.

For several days, the pair poked around the nesting box. They went in and out of its single-hole entry and surveyed their surroundings while perched on its slanted wooden roof. They even went so far as to make a few modifications, a sure sign, I felt, that a decision to move in had been made.

While I’d be upset if a person interested in one of our rental houses took it upon himself to modify the front door, I wasn’t upset when the woodpeckers decided to make the entry hole in the nesting box bigger.

I also wasn’t bothered when I noticed the male bird spending a good part of an entire day cleaning house. The bluebirds must have left behind quite a mess because hours sped by as the woodpecker diligently tossed twigs, leaves, fluff and other debris out the box’s newly enlarged hole.

After all their hard work, I was surprised one morning when a bit of commotion above the nesting box caught my eye. Two pairs of birds were involved in a short but heated aerial argument. The red-bellied woodpeckers that had been so close to taking up residence were engaged in a territorial battle with a pair of great crested flycatchers.

The flycatchers won.  

It has now been three days since the battle ended. During that time, the male and female flycatchers have been busy making the nesting box their own. Although quite a bit of posing on top of the wooden roof has taken place as well as considerable investigation of the interior, most of the flycatchers’ work has been centered around bringing in nesting material to the fill up the space that the woodpeckers so recently cleaned out. Go figure.

It’s always exciting when a vacant home attracts interest. Birds may not have to pay rent or put down a deposit when they move in, but that doesn’t mean they’re home free. It doesn’t matter if you’re a person or a bird. Looking for a place to live always takes work. Competition can be fierce, but in the end, finding a place to settle in and raise young is worth the effort. There’s no place like home.

Below are two short videos of the great crested flycatchers:

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Video of tree swallows in the rain

A flock of tree swallows attempted to fluff up their feathers after a recent downpour. Unfortunately, more rain ensued.  But the rain didn't seem to bother the birds.  They continued preening while perched contentedly on their special mid-lake bamboo pole sitting station.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Seeing a bright spot in faded flowers

The fields of sunflowers that I planted four months ago have faded.

Thick stalks — once so straight and tall — now bow beneath the weight of burgeoning seedheads. Instead of smiling at the sky, the few remaining flower heads turn their attention downward as if scanning the ground for fertile loam, a sprout-supportive home for future plants.

Sunflowers bend beneath the weight of burgeoning seedheads 

A field of past-prime sunflowers is not the prettiest sight. Wind and weather have taken their toll. Golden petals have faded, ripped and curled. Some flower petals have fallen off. Once-green leaves are brittle and brown. And yet, this stooped over assemblage of stalwart seedheads makes me smile. While others might look upon the aged plants and see a faded reminder of floral beauty, I see the manifestation of hope and possibilities realized.

The sunflower seeds I haphazardly tossed onto torn up ground in mid-February are living proof that difficult problems can be solved — if not completely, at least in part.

In previous columns, I have written about the problems my husband Ralph and I encountered when feral hogs invaded our rural south Lake County property. 

One of many large feral hogs that have discovered our property

Over the last couple years, wild swine have moved onto our land, wreaking havoc in the process. Before they discovered us, the only holes we had were small mounds and shallow impressions of inconsequential impact to the land made by armadillos, gopher tortoises or moles.

Feral pigs, on the other hand, went hog wild. Porcine snouts, cloven hooves and 200-pound bodies dug, rutted and rolled their way through expansive swaths of lakeshore vegetation. In the process of foraging for food and taking mud baths in the muck, the persistent porkers uprooted grasses and wetland plants, leaving behind an ugly, uneven mess.

Feral hogs have uprooted large swaths of landside wetland 

It was very upsetting. Not only did I dislike the way the disturbed shoreline now looked, I was afraid unwanted plants would take root in the exposed soil. Fortunately, a chance stop at a nursery supplier yielded a potential solution. A display of slightly damaged bags of sunflower seeds caught my eye. I purchased a discounted 25-pound bag and set to work. Instead of thinking of the wayward porkers as adversaries, I decided to consider them assistants. They would turn the soil. I would plant it.

Off and on for several days I threw handfuls of sunflower seeds on the ground. I didn't rake them in, water the ground or plant the seeds in lines. I simply stumbled over the messy mounds of exposed soil, tossing seeds here and there. At first nothing happened. Then, a couple weeks later, a flush of sunflower sprouts appeared. I was so excited — and a little worried. What if the hogs came back just as the sunflowers were starting to grow? They'd surely destroy them.

The same ground depicted above after sowing sunflower seeds:
 Flush with flowers 

After much thought I decided to let that worry go. If the hogs destroyed the young plants, so be it. I'd find another fix. Fortunately, I didn't have to seek out a new solution. The hogs stayed away. The sunflowers grew tall and beautiful. Butterflies landed on them. So did birds. Instead of looking out at damaged ground and feeling despair, my eyes rested easy on fields of sunny flowers. Their bright, cheery faces filled me with joy.

Even though the sunflowers have since faded, the joyfulness remains. So does hope. New plants will soon sprout out of seeds dropped to the ground by birds, squirrels and the by the bent-over plants themselves.

An old adage says, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade," but I have a new version. "When wild hogs dig up weeds, sow seeds!"

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Surprise visitor joins monarch butterfly in the garden

The monarch butterfly gathering nectar in this photo and in the following video wasn't in a hurry to get the job done.

Although the butterfly stayed on just one bloom of cutleaf coneflower the entire time, it moved around extensively.

While it was sipping sweet nectar with its unfurled proboscis, another critter was also in the garden.  Watch the video to find out who the surprise visitor is.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Housekeeping is for the birds

There's a lot to do before settling into a new house.  For starters, there's the mess to clean up left behind by previous tenants.

This male red-bellied woodpecker spent most of the morning cleaning out the remains of a bluebird's nest.  Bits of this and bits of that got tossed to the wind as he readied the nesting box for new tenants and a future family.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Where have all the flowers gone??

Everyone knows that squirrels eat nuts and that they like to raid bird feeders, nibble fruit and gnaw through wood.  But until I saw it myself, I had no idea hibiscus flowers were also one of their preferred foods.

Ralph and I spied this gray squirrel chewing up one hibiscus flower after another at our home in New Smyrna Beach.  We had wondered why the plants didn't have many blooms. Now we know!