Monday, July 25, 2016

Stress relief in a recycled bottle

A bouquet of flowers sat on my desk.

A few sprigs of red pentas rose from a recycled glass bottle along with a couple pink zinnias, some fading blooms from a walking iris and three bright-eyed Rudbeckias, better known as black-eyed Susans. I picked the bouquet at my daughter Amber’s house eight days ago.

Just-picked posies posing for a picture
before the drive home from Amber's house

After seven days, it was old but still pretty. A few of the red flowers had fallen off the pentas, the petals on one of the Rudbeckia blooms furled, and the orange walking iris blooms shriveled up but were still attached to the stems.

Same flowers.  Same vase.  Seven days later.

Although the flowers were no longer fresh, I still found the bouquet refreshing. Every glimpse, no matter how brief, was a balm of beauty soothing away tension and everyday stress.

Initially, the flowers in their makeshift glass bottle vase spent time in my car. To avoid spilling, I placed the vase in one of the car’s cupholders on the ride back to my house in Groveland from Amber’s home in Winter Garden. Rather than take the busy highways, I took back roads to have a calmer, more peaceful ride.

It probably was less busy on the two-lane roads I chose than it would have been on State Road 50 or Florida’s Turnpike, but it certainly wasn’t calmer or more peaceful. The route took me by several new housing developments under construction. Acres of woods had been denuded of trees and underbrush in the two weeks since I’d last been there. Huge homes on tiny lots were now in the process of being built.

As my eyes took in the ravaged landscape, my previously bright mood darkened. So many trees cut down. For what purpose and at what cost? What became of the wildlife that lived in those woods? Where did they go? How many gopher tortoises, Florida scrubjays and other endangered or threatened species were killed or displaced once again, thanks to the greedy demands of ‘‘progress”?

Gopher tortoises are among many wildlife and plants that lose habitat when land is cleared for when development

Seeing the land so altered on a route I had come to treasure for its bucolic appeal made me sad. It also made me mad. As anger rose like a heat within, I glanced over at my little bouquet quietly emitting waves of calmness from its cupholder stand. I felt my ire ease.

Once home, I placed the bouquet by the kitchen sink. Washing dishes and preparing meals under the smiling eyes of a backyard bouquet made the jobs more pleasant. I lingered longer and felt happier having a reminder of my daughter’s garden on the kitchen counter.

Kitchen counter bouquet of flowers from the garden

When my husband Ralph and I went to the beach a few days later, the bouquet came with us. Once again it traveled in the cupholder, holding up well during the 90-minute drive. At the beach, I put the flowers on the same desk as my computer. With all the distressing news of the past week — senseless murders, terrorist attacks, outrageous political pontificating — the bouquet’s placement proved to be perfect.

Another bouquet from Amber's garden

It eased my mind when news reports hammered away at my sanity with their repetitive messages of mayhem and turmoil. A quick look at my slightly wilted bouquet helped inflate my spirit. Even as more and more flowers began fading, I admired the bouquet’s ability to hang on.

It was only on the day we left New Smyrna Beach for our South Lake County home that I decided it was time for the bouquet to go. Initially I planned to take it back to Groveland with me, but after only 15 minutes in the hot car, even I could see that my pretty posy had done as much as it could do to provide cheer and goodwill.

If you read, watch or listen to the news, the world can seem like a mighty depressing place. Hope vanishes with the headlines. Sanity is usurped by political posturing and ugly rhetoric. Yet something as simple and earthy as garden flowers can reconnect us to what’s real. It reestablishes perspective. It’s a reminder of beauty.

I’m back home now. I just returned. The car is unpacked, food put away. I’ve watered the plants, fed the birds and started a load of wash. Now it’s time to pick a new bouquet.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Can you find the two Great Horned Owls?

There were two great horned owls perched in a pine tree the other morning.  I saw them from my rowboat across the lake and focused on the one sitting on an upper branch.

Can you find the two owls in the tree?

As I watched, the owl who was surveying the lakeshore, turned its head to look directly at me.  It then opened its mouth for a big yawn.  Not just once but twice.  Am I really that boring?

Below are a few more pictures taken from my rowboat of the Great Horned Owls in the pine tree:

The owl's feathers blend so well with the pine tree bark

So quiet and still

Such big, bright yellow eyes!

We all need to stretch sometimes

Hmm...could be prey...

Such a large bird

One tree.  Two owls.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Willets Gone Wild!

This is the second time I've encountered two willets engaged in what could either be a mating display or a dispute over territory.

I'm guessing that the two birds in this video are vying over matters of power rather than procreation.  Either way, chancing upon them at New Smyrna Beach the other morning was a delight.  They put on a good show for which I was an eager and appreciative audience.

Want more?
Here's the first Willets Gone Wild video I made

Monday, July 18, 2016

Who's hiding under my boat?

A frog has taken up residence under my boat. Over the past week, I’ve startled it several times when going for a row.

When not in use, my aluminum skiff sits a few inches above the ground on a rack my husband Ralph built out of 2 x 4s to keep the boat off the sand and away from ants. The raised rack has succeeded at making it more difficult for fire ants to join me on my rows. It has also had the inadvertent benefit of providing a suitably damp, sheltered hideaway for a Southern Leopard Frog, a type of frog I’m unaccustomed to seeing.

A recently exposed, mud-covered Southern Leopard Frog eyes me warily from beneath the boat rack

Until now, the Southern Leopard has not been one of my amphibian “regulars.” During daylight hours, I see plenty of little Green Treefrogs resting quietly on plant leaves as well as Squirrel Treefrogs and invasive Cuban Treefrogs. 

Little green treefrog on duck potato leaf

At nighttime, when my gardener-husband is out hunting for the snails and army worms that nibble vegetable leaves, he often sees tiny Little Grass Frogs protecting his plants.

Frogs protecting broccoli plant
(They must have recently eaten because they look stuffed)

But the Southern Leopard Frog is more elusive. Rather than frequent the garden or woods where it might be more easily seen, Southern Leopards spend their time in fresh water or under the wet leaves of aquatic plants.

A Southern Leopard Frog 'hiding' beneath blades of grass along the shoreline

Florida is home to 27 native species of frogs divided into three categories — aquatic, terrestrial and arboreal. The categories describe the types of habitats in which the frogs live — in water, on land or on plants. Of the 27, Central Florida is home to 16, along with three non-natives — the Cuban Treefrog, Greenhouse Frog and Cane Toad aka the Bufo Toad.

Note the large toe pads on this non-native Cuban treefrog

Only five types of aquatic frogs live in Central Florida, and the Southern Leopard is one of them. This category, which also includes the American Bullfrog, Bronze Frog, Pig Frog and Southern Cricket Frog, all spend most of their lives in the water. I like to spend much of my life in or around water too but I almost always do so during daylight hours.

Enjoying some time on the water with Ralph

Florida’s aquatic frogs are nocturnal critters that rest when the sun is out and become active after sunset — unless, that is, they are startled from their slumber by the removal of their shelter, which is what I did when I pushed my rowboat into the lake.

The first time I saw the frog under my boat I was probably as startled as the frog was. I’m pretty sure I was more excited. I reached for my camera and managed to snap off a few shots before the water-loving amphibian hopped away.

The second time I saw it, I was better prepared. My camera was out and ready to go before I gave the boat the slightest push. And yet, despite my focus and forethought, the Southern Leopard was difficult to follow.

It’s a large frog — about five inches long — with a black-spotted, brownish-tan-colored body that has two raised ridges and a green stripe going down its back. The patterning and coloration of its body provides an effective natural camouflage. As long as the frog remained on the sandy beach, I could see it easily. As soon as it leapt into the weedy water along the shoreline, which it wasted no time in doing, it blended in so well with its surroundings that it essentially vanished from sight.

The Southern Leopard's natural camouflage isn't as effective when the frog is on a sandy beach

Knowing that I might see a new-to-me critter when I move my rowboat has certainly motivated me to take more rows. Not that I need much encouragement in that department. Spending time on or around the water is almost as attractive to me as it must be to my new insect-eating friend.

Discovering the Southern Leopard has motivated me to look harder for other aquatic amphibian species and while I haven’t been able to make any definitive identifications, I recently observed one other type of aquatic frog and heard the possible calls of a third.

I noticed this large frog while rowing.  The frog hopped into the water before I could fully see its body and because it stayed partly submerged the entire time, I wasn't able to make a positive ID.  

Summer is the perfect time of year to be out on the water doing the things people like to do during hot weather days — swimming, boating, playing in the water. And searching for frogs — not to eat or catch but merely to observe, learn about and enjoy. Nature is full of fascinating creatures and the Southern Leopard Frog is the most recent in a series of wildlife wonders I feel fortunate to have encountered.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Homegrown spuds for supper!

My husband Ralph recently came in from the garden, eager to show me what he’d just harvested.

“Can you use some potatoes for supper?” he said as he extended a bucket full of yellow and red-skinned spuds in assorted sizes, including one large potato shaped like a heart.

Excited by his bounty, I quickly replied, “Absolutely! Pick me some chives and parsley and I’ll made some mashed potatoes tonight.”

Dinner was delicious, especially because so much of it came from the garden. In addition to the potatoes, our meal included homegrown tomatoes, hot peppers, bok choy, broccoli and assorted lettuces. It’s summertime, and though the heat takes a toll, there’s still plenty of food for the picking.

Picking is easier than it used to be. Ralph’s back is less stressed ever since he abandoned conventional in-ground gardening several years ago and switched to above-ground growing of vegetables in containers. They sit on long platforms a few feet off the ground so he no longer needs to bend over when weeding or picking. Raised containers have also eliminated damage by critters such as armadillos and rabbits that used to bother our plants when they were in the ground.

When it comes to potatoes, container-grown plants have another advantage. During the years when Ralph grew potatoes in the ground, we used to have to use a shovel or pitchfork to dig up our harvest. Inevitably, some of the bounty would be stabbed with the pitchfork or cut in half by the shovel. With container-grown spuds, no potatoes are ever damaged. When it’s time to harvest, Ralph simply dumps the full container into an empty one while picking out any yellow or red-skinned tubers he sees.

The main type of containers he uses are 10-gallon squat pots, which have an equivalent diameter to 15-gallon landscape pots but are less tall. He also is experimenting with growing them in seven-gallon pots. All the containers are the lightweight, inexpensive type used in nurseries. They’re not fancy, but they’re functional and easily available.

He begins with a spud that has sprouted. His first planting came from bags of potatoes I had purchased from Publix and Whole Foods Market. With only the two of us in the house these days, a five-pound bag of potatoes takes a while to consume. Often, one or more spuds winds up sprouting little eyes before I get around to cook with them. Rather than cutting out the eyes, I give them to my husband who, in turn, cuts them into pieces and plants them in his garden.

“Two or three cut up pieces seems to work well in a 10-gallon squat pot,” he explained. “I fill the pot about half full with my soil mixture, then put in the cut-up pieces of potato and lightly cover them with more soil.”

As the potato plants grow, Ralph weeds around them and adds more dirt until eventually the soil level is just short of the top of the pot. As the plants mature, he also supports top growth with bamboo sticks to prevent them from falling over.

The soil mixture my husband uses is a combination of compost, peat, woodchips and perlite, but any potting soil would work. The potatoes are already eager to grow. After all, they are sprouting in the fridge. The main thing is to take them out of the cooler, cut them into chunks with sprouted eyes and put them into soil. Nature will take it from there.

The fun begins about two months after planting. By then, top growth leaves will have started to turn yellow, look a bit spotty and spent. Dump the spud-filled container into either an empty container or onto a flat surface and pick through it to find your treasure. Gather up the bounty and rinse off with a hose before bringing inside. Freshly harvested potatoes store best when allowed to cure for a week or two in a dry, dark place. We put ours in the pantry covered by a cotton cloth before refrigerating.

But don’t store them all! Cook some for supper. Mashed, boiled, baked, roasted, grated, grilled or fried. No matter how you cook them, homegrown container-raised potatoes are spud-tacular plants to grow.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Bluebirds and Butterflies

I recently added two videos to my youtube channel.  One is a montage of Eastern bluebird photos taken at or around our property in Groveland.

The second is a short video of a red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis) that I recently noticed on the leaves of one of my favorite clumping bamboos, Yin Yang Timber Bamboo - Bambusa emeiensis viridiflavus.

Because they related to the theme, I've also included some of my other bluebird and butterfly videos but you can find other wildlife and plant videos on my youtube channel. Hope you'll take the time to have a visit.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Coyote on the move

A short clip of a healthy looking coyote who noticed me before I noticed him.  I was out in my rowboat on the lake.  He was walking along the path through the forest.

After staring at each other for a few moments, the coyote decided to move along.  I grabbed my camera and managed to catch this short video of the tawny-furred mammal before it disappeared into the forest.

Monday, July 4, 2016

It's a good thing I can run!

I can't say I wasn't warned.

Ever since I first wrote about wild hogs discovering our homestead near Groveland, readers have emailed me with advice and warnings.

"Did you know that adult hogs are very, very dangerous?" wrote Annette Farrar in November 2015. "Boar hogs have sharp tusks which they will gore you with if they get close... A sow with little pigs will attack anyone. One once chased my mother out of the field on our farm."

A letter from Louise Turmenne reinforced Farrar's words: "Adult hogs are very territorial in nature once they establish domain. They have a vicious nature...Hogs could attack and kill a child or domestic animals within seconds."

Feral hogs are large, powerful animals that can pose a real threat to humans

Although I took those and the comments of others seriously, my own observations of the porcine invasion didn't suggest a major threat. The few times I saw one or more wild hogs — it wasn't nearly as often as expected considering the amount of land they'd uprooted — the animals always backed away first. Either that or they ignored me and continued foraging for food without more than a token snort.

Until the other day.

It was late afternoon when I decided to take a leisurely solo stroll around the lake carrying only a cell phone and camera. I was nearing the north end of the property when I noticed a large patch of freshly disturbed ground.

"Pigs must have been rooting around here," I recall thinking as I continued along on my lazy day ramble.

In a few feet, I passed another patch of disturbed ground just before rounding a corner where the pathway narrows into a tight spot wedged between the lake on one side and a field fence on the other. The fence is hidden behind a dense hedge of bamboo.

It was there I saw the wild hog.

I stopped immediately. The animal, which had been nosing the ground, stopped what he was doing too. The bristly-haired beast lifted his head to look me in the eye just as I slowly lifted my camera to snap off a shot. 

A single, shaky shot was all I was able to take before turning to leave

We were about 30 feet apart. I assumed the hog would turn around and leave as other wild pigs had done before when encountered on the property. This fellow, however, stood his ground. So I — not completely foolish or impetuous — retreated instead. I turned around to go back the way I came.

I figured that was the end of that. The 200-plus-pound animal figured differently.

Seconds after my retreat, I realized the boar was running after me. I turned to look and immediately surprised myself by emitting a loud shriek. My screech also must have surprised the hog because he skidded to a stop about 10 feet away from where I stood screaming. His pause permitted me time to get away. Running like I haven't run in years, I beelined it home.

By the time I returned to the house, my heart was beating fast, but I was safe. I found my husband in his garden and told him what had happened.

"I almost got attacked by a hog," I said in a breathless burst of words. "Far end of the lake...wild pig...chased me…ran…"

"What'd you say?" he asked while putting down the digging tool he was using and switching off his headphones. I repeated my story in a somewhat calmer fashion and this time he listened, understood my anxiety and gave me a hug.

Looking back on the experience I realize how many mistakes I made. For starters, going for a walk at dusk by myself without any protection other than a cell phone and camera was wrong. Many animals, including wild hogs, become more active at twilight. At the very least, I should have asked Ralph to come with me. At best, I should have carried a weapon.

I made my second mistake when I failed to associate the freshly disturbed ground at the north end of the lake with the imminent presence of hogs. Had I done so, I could have turned around earlier instead of foolishly plodding on.

Mistake No. 3 was not realizing that the feral pig felt trapped in a narrow spot with few means of escape. My fourth mistake was in turning my back on a large and dangerous critter who didn't like being disturbed.

Despite my wrongs, I did a couple things right. I screamed and I ran.

An old quote from British satirist Peter Cook says, "I have learned from my mistakes, and I am sure I can repeat them exactly."

Over the years, Ralph and I have reiterated those words in a variety of situations. This is not one of them.

I have no intention of repeating the mistakes I made. Instead, I've reread all my readers' advice with new and grateful eyes. If asked again if I realize how dangerous adult hogs are, I can honestly answer yes.

But I also realize how responsible humans are for our own actions. Some potentially harmful situations can be avoided if we act with less abandon and more awareness. Preparedness over impulsivity. Caution instead of carelessness. Feral pigs may be dangerous animals, but they aren't always to blame for every hog-versus-human confrontation.


Below is the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore routine referred to above!