Friday, August 18, 2017

Savor the moment

I've always thought of myself as a lake person more than a beach nut. Yet, over the past few years, my fascination and enjoyment of time spent by the ocean has grown immensely.

I look forward to the time Ralph and I spend in New Smyrna Beach with eager anticipation. I love my early morning bike rides, combing the beach for treasures - and I always find something - new birds, crustaceans, plants and animals to discover, learn about and appreciate.  Together, they add up to complete joy and excitement.

This morning, as I try to do whenever we're at the beach (and we're here more and more often each month) I got up early, made myself a to-go mug of hot, buttered coffee, packed my juggling clubs, camera and towel into my improvised bike carryall and pedaled off to the ocean to catch the morning light.

This was my view when I got there

A sight worth getting up early for

The sun was hidden behind a bank of low-lying clouds but rays of light appeared nonetheless. I'm always encouraged by old Sol's ability to penetrate even the darkest sky. Inspiring determination!

It was almost dead low tide, which meant there was a flat, expansive stretch of hard sand - perfect for riding on with my three-wheel recumbent.  Waves were gentle, almost non-existent.  I rode steadily along anticipating a relaxing swim once I'd pedaled a couple miles.

A shadow-selfie of me in my fun cycle

Once I was south of Hiles, I stop biking, sipped some coffee - still hot! - and took out my clubs.  My club juggling has definitely improved thanks to these early morning practice sessions on the beach. There's something about juggling on the beach that I really love. Especially at sunrise when the only ones to see me make mistakes are a few uninterested snowy egrets, pelicans, royal terns and the occasional walker, biker or beachside jogger.

The birds don't seem to mind if I drop clubs while practicing my juggling

After juggling for a bit - got up to 50 throws this morning - I went for a swim.  The water was absolutely perfect!  Warm and gentle and delightfully salty.  I almost hated to get out.  But I did and I'm glad I did because if I hadn't, I might have missed seeing the hermit crab crawling across the sand inside the biggest moonsnail shell I've ever seen!

Below are two short videos of the moonsnail-occupied hermit crab making its way across the sand:

When it comes to shelling, New Smyrna Beach is no Sanibel Island.  Sure (shore?) there are a few shells here and there but usually none of them are anything special. But sometimes - maybe because of the tide or weather - many kinds of pretty shells wash ashore.  That's what happened this morning.

A few of my morning finds

Thanks to all the shells I kept spotting from my low-riding recumbent (a perfect bike for shell-spotting) it took me much longer than usual to make it back home to Ralph. Usually he joins me but this morning he needed a little extra time to rest before starting the day.  But that's okay. We'll have another chance tomorrow and if there's one thing I've learned about being at the beach it's that everyday there's something new to discover at the ocean.  Can't wait to seer what the next day will bring!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

How to tell good eggs from bad

How to tell good eggs from bad

A bad egg will float.  Throw it away.
A good egg will sink to the bottom and rest on its side.
A so-so egg will sink to the bottom and stand on its pointy end. Use it soon!

Whenever Ralph brings back chicken and duck eggs from our neighbor's flock, I clean them off in the lake. I put them in a colander and set them in the shallow water by our beach to soak while I settle down beside them.  

A colander full of eggs fresh from our neighbor's farm sits in the lake waiting to be scrubbed clean

As soon as I arrive, I'm surrounded by a school of curious minnows eager to check out this potential new source of food.

Minnows are especially interested in a glob of dried yolk on one of the chicken eggs 

Before scrubbing the dirt and feathers off of the eggs, I test them out individually by placing them one at a time in the lake.  If an egg lays on its side on the bottom it's fresh.  If it stays on the bottom but points upward instead of resting on its side, that means it's getting old and should be eaten soon. However, if it immediately floats to the top, that tells me the egg is too old and should not be eaten at all.  Two of the eggs from this batch were floaters.  I threw them out into the deeper water knowing that some critter - maybe an alligator or a raccoon - would find the eggs and gobble them up.

Maybe a young gator will eat the rotten eggs

To clean the eggs, I use a brush given to me by my friend Maria Moniz. Although the brush, made by Full Circle, is actually meant as a potato scrubber, it also works extremely well at cleaning the dirt off eggs.  Before long I had a bowl filled with brown chicken and white duck eggs ready to take inside.

Clean eggs ready to refrigerate until used

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Best pineapple ever!

What's bright yellow, sweet and juicy? The best pineapple ever, that's what!

And I grew it myself!  

Wahoo!  Look what I grew!

This wasn't the first pineapple I've grown - far from it - but it was certainly the biggest, the juiciest and the sweetest one yet.

A bowl full of sweetness!

What makes one pineapple better than another?  Each one I've grown has come from store-bought fruit.  Just your typical grocery store pineapples.  It could be the soil or location, weather conditions or a combination of those factors that enabled this most recent pineapple to develop into such a large and tasty fruit.  I suppose I'll never know for sure.  What I do know, is the delight I've found in growing (and eating!) my own pineapples.

The mother plant behind me has two more suckers on it
that might develop more fruit 

If you haven't tried growing one yourself yet, give it a try.  Pineapples are among the easiest fruit to grow.  Simply cut off the top of a store-bought fruit and place it in a scraped away spot of soil.

Lobbed off top ready for planting

Pineapples can be grown in a sunny spot or in the shade.  I've successfully grown them in both.  The pineapple top doesn't need to be buried deeply.  It doesn't need any special soil. Pineapples, which are in the bromeliad family, are no-fuss plants.  Once one has been set in the ground its only requirement is to be left alone.

To learn more about growing pineapples, check out my post from last August:

Pineapples - easy to grow, yummy to eat

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Birds or pesticides? Which would you choose to control pesky insects?

Scroll down to watch video of a downy woodpecker eating insects on bamboo

Poisonous sprays aren't the only way to prevent small sucking insects like mealybug, aphids and scale from damaging plants. Birds can eliminate insect infestations too.

As long as plants are not treated with noxious chemicals, birds like this female downy woodpecker will take care of plant-bothering bugs for you.

Female downy woodpecker feeding on miniscule insects

Mealybug, aphids and scale all excrete a sticky substance called honeydew that quickly becomes infected with the sooty mold fungus. Insect-eating birds like woodpeckers are attracted to this ready supply of food and will consume.

In the video below, watch how diligently this female downy woodpecker circles the stalk in order to devour as many tiny bugs as possible on this young shoot of Blue Timber (Bambusa chungii) Clumping Bamboo.

Since bamboo is such a fast-growing plant, it's able to outgrow any insect problem. Nonetheless, some people still insist upon using chemical controls. While there are products recommended for sooty mold, I prefer to let woodpeckers have at it. What about you?

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A celestial two-fer!

Biking south at sunrise in New Smyrna Beach. 

To my left, watching the sunrise... 

To my right, watching the moon set...

A celestial two-fer. Double the pleasure!

Friday, July 7, 2017

How many butterflies can you find?

Scroll to bottom for video 

A young planting of Mexican Flamevine, Pseudogynoxys chenopodioides, has been attracting so many butterflies to our yard lately.

Zebra Longwing, the official state butterfly of Florida, sips nectar from a Mexican Flamevine flower

The vine, in the same family as daisies, Asteraceae, is native to Mexico, Central America and the West Indies. My plant came from small cuttings my daughter and I snipped off about a year ago from a sprawling stand of Mexican Flamevine growing along Lake Minneola.

Quite the climber!

Since my garden history includes many times when my love of vines has outweighed common sense, I was understandably conflicted about adding yet another potentially overly-aggressive plant to our landscape.  I knew Mexican Flamevine would be an attractive addition to the yard if I could only figure out the right place to put it.  I also knew that due to my lazy nature, no matter where it was planted, it would probably get out of control.  Hmm...what to do?

Amber looking rather pleased with our find

My 'must-have-another-vine' me was the winner. Unable to resist the incredible color of the plant's bright, daisy-like flowers, I took home a few cuttings, stuck them in some of Ralph's potting soil, placed them in a shady spot where they'd be watered regularly and then basically forgot about them.

What a color!!

It turned out that one of my cuttings survived.  Unfortunately, I didn't realize it at the time because I foolishly neglected to label it. (Remember what I said about me being lazy?)  So a few months ago, when I decided to install a potted Beach Sunflower (Helianthus debilis) - another rooted cutting that was growing without a name tag - in the sandy soil next to our trampoline, I mistakenly planted my rooted cutting of Mexican Flamevine instead.

Oops! Took the wrong plant 

By the time I realized my mistake, the Mexican Flamevine had begun to thrive.  It had extended new stems and leaves and multiple flowers had begun to bloom.  From the kitchen window, I look right at it.  While washing dishes or working on the counter my eyes are constantly drawn to the brilliant orange blooms.

Apparently, I'm not the only caught up in the plant's allure.  Butterflies aplenty have been coming to visit!  The Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Longwing have been the most frequent visitors so far but other flutterers, bees and pollinators check it out as well.

Here's a short video I made of several Gulf Fritillary butterflies fluttering around the bold blooms on a hot summer afternoon. 

How many can you find?

I don't know yet where my Mexican Flamevine will end up, but I doubt if it will stay in the place where it's currently growing.  I only hope that at some point I'll figure out an appropriate spot for it to go. Somewhere where it can thrive without growing out of control.  Somewhere where I can see it often and enjoy the show.  Somewhere that will make us all happy - plant, pollinators and lazy gardener me. 

Friday, June 30, 2017

My antidote to the daily news

This week at the beach has been the perfect mix of productivity and playfulness. In addition to getting much weeding, clearing and planting done at our property, meeting with workmen and dealing with design changes, Ralph and I managed to get ourselves up and on our bikes everyday but one and this morning, when Ralph needed a little extra sleep-in time so I went out alone.

I don't mind solo rides. As much as I enjoy our rides together, there's a special pleasure in being on my own.  This morning, instead of biking along the beach from 27th Ave. to Hiles as we usually do, I took Saxon south. It was early.  No cars at all.  It only took about 10 minutes to bike to the beach. By then, the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon but low-lying clouds blocked it from view. I decided to take a right and bike south. It was dead low tide. Perfect for beachside cycling.

Sun hidden behind clouds

There was little wind to keep sand fleas away. They didn't bother me when I was moving but when I stopped to take pictures the tiny bugs became annoying.

Too many sand fleas hovering about to stay still for long

A quick dip in the surf solved the sand flea problem. Not only was the water delicious but by the time I came out, the sun had risen above the cloud cover.

My post-swim attempt at a selfie with the sun

The rising sun wasn't all I saw as I biked north along the shoreline.  Part way back to 27th Ave., I came upon a cool crab.

Smaller, redder and with a more rounded shell than a ghost crab

Hard to be crabby on such a sunshiny morn

My knowledge of crustaceans is limited but expanding. The more time we spend at NSB, the more fun I have learning about unfamiliar critters and plants, including many different kinds of crabs. The one I saw this morning didn't look at all like the ghost crabs I usually see on the beach.

Ghost crab looking...crabby

A little farther along, I stopped for a second swim then pedalled until I came upon a fellow who had just caught a fish.  He seemed so proud of his catch even though the fish was quite tiny indeed.

Proud fisherman

A few minutes before arriving at 27th Ave., the shell of a small horseshoe crab caught my eye so I picked it up and took a couple shots before returning it to the waves.

Even an abandoned horseshoe crab is fascinating

Below is a video I made late last summer when Ralph and I watched a much large, LIVE horseshoe crab make its way back to the ocean through the shallow water.

Today's adventure was different than usual in that I was biking alone, but it was the same as always by being so rich in discoveries.  No matter what weather, time of day, season or tide, when I'm at the beach something - usually many somethings - catches my eye. Being at the beach in the early morning is a great way to start the day!

Yesterday's early morning skyshow
My antidote to the daily news

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sunrise bike ride yields surprising find!

During this morning's sunrise bike ride, Ralph and I came upon freshly made sea turtle tracks.  

Two roads diverged on a sandy beach... 

The tracks on the right were made when the female sea turtle came out of the ocean to lay her eggs.  The ones on the left, closer to where Ralph is standing next to our bikes, were made after she finished burying her eggs in the soft, dry sand and had headed back to the ocean.

Tracks made as mama turtle returned to the ocean

Below, you can see the slightly mounded area where the turtle laid her eggs and buried them before making her way back to the ocean.

I wonder how the eggs will fare...

The nest was about 20' south of nest #A32 about halfway between 27th Ave. and Hiles.

Nest #A32 marked and cordoned off by
volunteers from NSB turtle trackers

Shortly after Ralph and I began biking toward Hiles from 27th Ave., we passed a NSB turtle tracker truck. Volunteers from New Smyrna Beach Marine Turtle Conservancy patrol the beach every morning during sea turtle nesting season (May to October) to mark new nests and check the progress of existing spots where young turtles will hopefully emerge.

Photo credit: NSB Turtle Trackers

The truck we passed was on its way back from completing its morning route, which means the sea turtle must have come out of the water, laid her eggs and returned to the ocean after the volunteer's truck had passed that spot and just a few minutes before we got there. If we had only been a bit quicker at pedalling or if I hadn't stopped so often to take pictures of the sunrise Ralph and I might have seen mama turtle in action as she followed reproductive behavior as old as the ocean.

Photo credit: NSB Turtle Trackers

While her labor may be an instinctual effort, it is not without dangers. After laying about 100 eggs, a process that can take up to 2 hours, the buried eggs must avoid detection by a wide range of predators during their two-month underground incubation.  In addition to being disturbed by humans, turtle eggs are liable to be dug up and eaten by coyotes, raccoons, birds, dogs and ghost crabs.

A clutch of sea turtle eggs
Photo credit:

However, once eggs hatch, they have many more obstacles to overcome. They must then survive predation by birds, sea animals and human-made threats like fishing nets and garbage.

Although sea turtles can live 40 to 60 years, only one out of 1,000 eggs make it to adulthood. To improve the odds of having her offspring survive, each female sea turtle will lay between 3-5 nests during the nesting season.

Photo credit: Bill Curtsinger VIA National Geographic

Our was an almost-encounter that some might call a missed moment but that's not how I choose to see it. I was excited because we came closer this morning than we've ever come before to encountering a sea turtle on the beach and I know that one of these mornings on a sunrise bike ride, there's a very good chance our timing will be spot on.

I only hope the mama sea turtle timing is spot on as well.

One of these mornings, I'll capture a photo of the sunrise
shining on a sea turtle heading to or from the ocean

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Here a gator, there a gator

Every year just before the summer solstice, a young alligator appears in our lake.  If it happened only now and then, I'd consider it an anomaly, but instead, time has proven the appearance of a sub-adult alligator to be a normal seasonal event.  May and June are the months when alligators mate in Florida and on our property it's also the time of year when a young gator  - seldom more than one - makes an appearance in Hour Lake.

The yearly sighting always has similarities such as the alligator's size, which hovers between four- and five-feet long, a size corresponding to a 4- or 5-year old reptile.  A gator of that size has not yet reached sexual maturity but is too old and large to remain with its clutch of reptilian brothers and sisters. It is ready to go out on its own in search of new habitat and feeding grounds.

Although the immature gator may still be about a year away from being old enough to mate - alligators mate when they reach about six-feet in length - it is big enough to be taken seriously, especially if it shows signs of acting aggressively toward people.

Over the past 25 years, we've only had to call in licensed Florida trappers on three or four occasions and each time, the hunters have been successful at capturing and removing abnormally aggressive animals.

Licensed trapper removing a captured, aggressive gator

Fortunately, most alligators that have frequented Hour Lake have not paid us much attention. Although some have seemed curious about who we are and what we're doing swimming in "their" lake, their reptilian focus has usually been more centered on the fish and turtles that provide them with sustenance than we humans, who are really their only natural predators.

However, especially with our young grandchildren now playing in the water as well as Ralph and me taking the occasional dip, that doesn't mean we should let our guard down.

Young gator checking me out as I check him out

During May and June I am especially attuned to alligator movement.  When I'm here and I spot one, I go out and watch it, waiting to see if the toothy critter swims away when it sees me or glides closer. Most alligators that come toward people don't do so out of instinct to attack but because some foolish person has fed them in the past.  Like any wild animal that has learned to equate human beings with edible handouts, an alligator that has been fed by people replaces natural reticence with abnormal aggressiveness.

Yesterday, as I was sitting down by the lake in the early evening, the young gator that I've been watching recently left the mid-lake peat island where it had been resting to glide slowly toward the shore.  Fortunately, it glided away from me instead of directly toward where I was sitting - a good sign that it is probably not going to be a candidate for removal.  Nonetheless, I resisted going for a dip to cool off.  Sometimes it's better to err on the side of caution rather than tempt fate by throwing caution to the wind - or, in this case - to the water.

A photo from years gone by of my son Timmy, who was about
15 at the time, showing off his teenage strength by holding up an
aggressive young gator that a trapper had captured

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Bluebird babies survive attack by crow

Over the past month, I've had the pleasure of watching a pair of Eastern bluebirds return to the same nesting box where they have attempted to raise young for the last three years. The wooden nesting box is affixed to a post next to the lake about 30' from our house. I can easily see it from my favorite sitting spot by the kitchen table.

A pair of Eastern bluebirds that return annually
to raise - or try to raise - young

Previously, the pair hasn't been all that successful. Twice before, crows swooped in to grab the baby birds just before they were ready to fledge.

Big, hungry crow first lands on top of the box then
flies down, sticks his long, sharp beak into the hole
and tries to grab a meal to feed his own babies

This year, the babies managed to survive despite attempts - at least two that I saw - by a hungry crow eager once again to steal away one or more young birds. On both occasions, I only noticed the attack after hearing the parents' loud screeching as they repeatedly dive-bombed their opportunistic enemy.

Fledged bluebird perched on a fig tree branch
not far from the nesting box

Once the bluebirds succeeded in convincing the crow to search for easier prey, the adult bluebirds returned to their parental responsibilities of standing guard and finding food to feed their hungry brood, tasks shared by both. When one of the adult birds was off catching caterpillars, flies and beetles, the other entered 'protector mode,' scanning the skies diligently from atop the nesting box or nearby tree branch.

This fluffed out female Eastern bluebird combines
preening with sentry work from her nesting box perch

In the video before, before the female Eastern Bluebird feeds her babies inside the nesting box, she spends considerable time on top of the box checking out her surroundings.

When she's sure it's safe, she flies down to the box opening, quickly passes her catch off to the nestlings and flies away.  I waited to see if any baby birds would poke their little feathery heads out to beg for more, but none did. By the time I panned back out, the father bird had flown over to take his place as sentry on top of the wooden box.

The next video is about dad's turn. Like mom, he too spent considerable time surveying the area before deciding it was safe to fly down to the nest.

If you enjoy bluebirds as much as I do, click on

to see some of my other photo- and video-illustrated essays