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

Friday, April 14, 2017

Written in sand...

Morning bike ride to see the sunrise. Ralph takes one last swim before we drive back to Groveland while I walk along the shoreline, pick up a washed ashore shell and scratch out a message in the hard packed sand. 

Our last day at the beach, at least for this trip. Each of us savoring the moment in our own separate ways.  

Monday, April 10, 2017

Mini meditations

I can't remember the last time I used the dishwasher.  It was probably when our adult kids and grandkids were all visiting and a rising tide of dirty glasses, cookware and cutlery constantly flowed over the kitchen counters.

Normally when dishes need cleaning - as they do several times a day even with just the two of us at home - I clean them by hand.  A little dish soap, a thin washcloth, a green scrub pad, drying rack and compost bin are all I need to make fast work of a messy kitchen.

Dishwashing is one of many daily activities I think of as mini meditations. Instead of bemoaning the monotony of repetitive tasks like washing and drying dishes, chopping vegetables, brushing teeth, combing hair and hand-watering plants, I try to think of them as mental gateways to mini-vacations. Opportunities for my mind to unwind.

To me, those unpopular tasks provide a means to rest and relinquish woes. They are a chance to focus instead on the everyday pleasures of doing small jobs well. Instead of regretting the time it takes to get such chores done, I try to relish the relaxation mindless activities can provide.

It doesn't always work. Sometimes my mind is too boggled to focus on anything but the patchwork of worries in my head. Ironically, those are probably the times I need mini-meditations the most.

There's an old Zen saying, "You should sit in nature for 20 minutes every day unless you're busy...Then you should sit for an hour."

I'm not sure about the 'sitting' part, but I believe there's much to gain from any quiet, introspective time we manage to carve out of an increasingly challenging, crazy world.

Doing the dishes is a simple task. Its successful completion doesn't require a lengthy learning curve or strong skill base. It's also a repetitive task in need of attention several times each day. For those reasons alone, it's the perfect vehicle for meditative contemplation.

Recently, my son Toby and I were discussing the benefits of rumination. As a young twenty-something in search of a better balance in his daily life, he has undertaken a course of online meditations and found the program to be helpful.  Each 10-minute session is leading him closer to mental clarity and direction.

I've never taken a meditation course nor have been a practitioner of yoga yet I feel like I've been meditating for years.  Sometimes I drift off into contemplative mode while out in the lake rowing or while walking through the woods. At the beach, my early morning sunrise bike rides provide a similar effect.  Pulling weeds in the garden and watering plants clears my head while the constant supply of indoor chores also provides a means to escape mental chatter.

Sure, I can use the built-in dishwasher. But I don't want to. I'd rather soak my hands in hot water and suds and attack each platter individually. One-by-one. Lather. Scrub. Rinse. Repeat. If I use the electric dishwasher, my dishes are cleaned, but if I do them by hand, my mind is too.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Sandhill cranes getting big

I recently drove by my neighbor's field and caught sight of a sandhill crane family.  Mama and Papa Crane were on different sides of the field fence with one baby tagging behind each parent.

Two cranes on one side of the fence
Two on the other

The youngins have gotten so big!  The two colts have entered that gawky stage when their legs look overly long for their still-small bodies.

I guess my photo-taking made them nervous because as I stood there clicking away one of the adults rushed over to a broken spot in the fence and scooted through to the other side with baby trailing right behind.

Heading for a break in the fence

Once Ma and Pa were reunited and separated from me by the fence, any anxiety the birds might have felt seemed to melt away as the tall birds continued on their slow stroll across the field in search of insects and seeds.

I was glad I had a chance to see the crane family - especially the fast-growing colts. What a joy it is to live in an area where viewing these beautiful birds is a regular occurrence rather than a rare experience.

Below is one of many videos I've made over the years of sandhill crane and their babies on our property.  You can find more on my Sandhill Cranes YouTube Channel

Monday, April 3, 2017

Hello crows! Goodbye eagle!

I just came in from watching several crows harass an eagle in a tree on our Groveland property.

As soon as I heard the birds' loud cawing cries, I knew something was going on so I rushed outside to see what it could be. It didn't take long to locate the source of the commotion - a bald eagle perched high on a pine bough.

Eagle shouting out a warning cry as it looks up at attacking crows 

The bald eagle may be our national symbol, but to other birds it represents a serious threat to their survival. The regal looking raptor is a royal pain in the flesh to any fish, mammal, reptile, amphibian or smaller bird it sets its sharp eyes upon. It's a skillful raptor who either catches prey in its strong talons or snatches it away from another predator. It's also not above dining on carrion.

Bald eagle with freshly caught fish

The eagle I saw was being attacked by a flock of crows, which is called a murder. A murder is an appropriate name for birds that so ruthlessly defend their territory against perceived dangers. Here on our property, I think of crows as the avian equivalent to a pack of Rottweilers. They're loyal watchdogs with commanding cries.  They won't quit until the threat is gone. I can't tell you how many times the cackling calls of a murder of crows has drawn me outside to witness one wildlife drama or another.

Crow cawing

Below is a video I took a couple years ago of several crows dive bombing a bald eagle.

Although crows are always around, I've been seeing them more often than usual now that it's mulberry season.  When the crows are not busy patrolling the property, they take turns dining on some of fruit growing in our orchard.

Crow with fig

Since we no longer have a dog to warn us when something unusual is happening, I'm glad crows are here to take up the slack.  I like knowing that while I'm in the house working on a project, a murder of crows is out there watching over our shared territory. Some people might find the sight of so many crows frightening, but to me they're an invitation to adventure. Thanks to crows, I've been privy to fascinating wildlife encounters I might otherwise have missed.  

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Learning to get along....

In a recent post (Pelican and dolphin - Playing together or vying for food?) I pondered the possible symbiotic relationship between two animals in search of fish - a bottlenose dolphin and a brown pelican.

The two critters I wrote about were interacting with each in a small cove off Indian River Lagoon in Bethune Beach.  It was the second time I'd observed the same behavior between a dolphin and a pelican in that location.

Below is a video I took the first time I saw it happen.

In the above video, I'm not sure if the dolphin was trying to catch a fish that the pelican stole away or whether it happened the other way around with the dolphin being the winner in the hunt for dinner. Either way, some sort of symbiotic relationship was taking place, which got me thinking about another encounter involving pelicans that I noticed last November when Ralph and I were biking along the shoreline in New Smyrna Beach.

On that occasion, a seagull was using the pelican to gain an easy meal by stealing fish right out of the bigger bird's mouth.

This type of behavior by seagulls is not unusual.  Pelicans hunt by collecting several fish at once in the large pouch attached to their beak. When their expandable sac is full, they need to shift their catch around before swallowing, a process that usually involves tossing a fish slightly into the air.

Seagulls flying overhead are on the lookout for just such action. When gulls notices a brown pelican about to eat its catch, they swoop down in an attempt to steal the fish away from the larger bird's pouch just as the pelican is about to maneuver it into position for swallowing. Sometimes a gull will even land on the pelican's head - like it did in the above video - in order to get as close as possible to a potential meal.

Although I doubt if pelicans enjoy being harassed by a colony of gulls, especially when one lands on its head, they seems to accept the behavior as an inevitable part of the process.

There are three kinds of symbiotic relationships in nature: mutualism, commensalism, or parasitism. In mutualism, both animals benefit from the relationship. In commensalism, one member benefits and the other is unaffected, whereas in parasitism, one species generally gets hurt, such as when fleas infest a dog's coat and feed on its blood.

The relationship between cattle egrets and bovines is an example
 of commensalism symbiosis because the egret benefits by eating insects
that bother cattle while bovines are unaffected by the piggybacking birds.

I'm not sure what type of symbiotic relationship happens between a dolphin and pelican or between pelicans and seagulls.  In both cases, no animal is hurt although it could be argued that by having food stolen away, one animal suffers.  More likely, both are examples of commensalism symbiosis.

All I know for sure is that the interconnectivity between organisms is an essential part of life for all creatures on our shared planet. Like the cow that tolerates the cattle egret standing on its back or the pelican enduring the squawks, jabs and thievery of seagulls, we all have to learn how to tolerate stress.  In order to live successful, fulfilling lives, people as well as animals need to get along with each other, even in those cases where interdependence is difficult or detrimental to our individual health.

If a hungry pelican can tolerate a gathering of annoying seagulls trying to steal away its catch, it seems like we humans should be able to endure the slings and arrows of our own adversaries.

Of course, even a pelican has its limit. When it has taken all the abuse it can take, a pelican will spread its wings and fly off to fish elsewhere.

Yet another lesson from our feathered friends. Breath in...breath out...move on.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Pelican and dolphin - Playing together or vying for food?

There's a place on the Indian River side of Bethune Beach where I go to see dolphins, manatees and shorebirds coexisting in a small cove of brackish water.

Pelican and dolphin:  Friends or foes?

On a recent visit, a lone brown pelican was hanging out in the cove along with two manatees and one dolphin.

I didn't see the pelican catch anything but it looked like it was trying to fish in conjunction with the dolphin. Bird and mammal stayed close together - one floating on top of, the other swimming through the briny wash.

The cove is big enough for each animal to swim in separate areas
but that's not what they did. For some reason (food?)
they seemed to always be in close proximity to one another. 

Perhaps the pelican was waiting for the dolphin to herd fish its way with the intention of stealing the sea mammal's catch.  Twice the animals seemed to collide when the pelican dove, presumably right into the dolphin's path.

The entire interaction was exciting to watch. But eventually, the pelican flew away, leaving the dolphin alone to fish or play or do whatever dolphins do when they're swimming through brackish water in the late afternoon without a pelican to play with or vie with or fight off when it tries to steal away one's food.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Disappointment turned to delight

I thought I'd be warm enough Thursday morning when I biked to the beach, but I really wasn't.  A cold wind was blowing off the ocean. Masses of foam and reddish-brown sargassum seaweed had washed ashore.  It was high tide just before sunrise. Really high tide. Too high on the beach for any bike riding.  Too cold.  Too windy.  And, the sun that would soon be rising, was hidden behind a tall, dense band of dark gray clouds.

I was a little disappointed.

Many clouds. No sun but we could see the moon!

Ralph was by my side. On previous mornings, he'd been too sleepy to join me on sunrise bike rides but this time we were both up and read to go together. However, since it was cold, windy and cloudy, I assumed he'd prefer to be back in bed snuggling instead of remaining at the beach in the hope of catching the sunrise. So I said, "Let's go back home."

But my husband surprised me.

"Since we can't ride on the beach," he said, "let's go down those back roads you're always telling me about."

So that's what we did.  Together on our separate and very different types of bikes - Ralph's ElliptiGo, my FunCycle - we meandered south from 27th Ave toward Hiles.

Ralph on his ElliptiGo on a morning when
the tide wasn't as high as it was today

Me on my Fun Cycle zipping across the hard sand at low tide

It was a lovely ride through older neighborhoods.  So many different landscape styles, types of fences and interesting home designs to look at and learn from.

A creative as well as welcoming entryway

When we arrived at Hiles Blvd., it was only a little after sunrise so we decided to head over to the beach to see if the sun had broken through the clouds yet.

I'm glad we did because just as we rounded the corner, rays of light streamed through a small break in the clouds.

Rays of light break through the clouds

We stayed at the beach for quite a while, enjoying the view and chatting with a couple of other early risers who were also savoring the moment despite the windy chill and cloudy sky.

Thursday's early morning bike ride to see the sunrise turned out to be quite different than expected.  I expected to ride on the sand but due to the high tide, we wound up riding on pavement instead.  I expected my husband to want to return home right away when we realized we hadn't dressed warmly enough for the weather.  Instead, he was happy to continue on and do a little exploring, which is usually my billiwhack. Because of all the clouds, I didn't expect to see the sunrise, yet streams of light broke through just as we approached the Hiles beach ramp.

One lesson I learned from Thursday's experience is an old one: Expect the unexpected.

Another is that even after 47 years of living with someone, surprises, like rays of sunlight, can break through assumptions.

My earlier disappointment vanished with the sunrise, turning instead to waves of delight.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Which picture do you like best?

It was practically perfect at the beach this morning. Sun rising over an unruffled ocean. Gentle breeze. Calm waves. Smooth sand firm enough for bike riding. Not many birds. Fewer people. Most people waved or nodded as we passed one another.

As usual, I took many photos but found myself playing around with one shot in particular. Below are three interpretations of the same image (#4). I'd love to know what you think of each effort.

#1 Wings of light

#2 Shades of blue

#3 Askew

#4 Original

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Who says you can't grow raspberries in Florida!

We've always called them 'black caps' but most people know them as black raspberries.  

When Ralph and I lived on Cape Cod, picking (and eating!) blackcaps was one of our favorite things to do when the fruit ripened in early summer. Black caps canes grew wild all along the edge of wooded areas. To protect ourselves from the plants' prickly thorns, we'd don long-sleeve shirts and jeans before heading out to the woods to gather our bounty.  

And what a bounty it was!  Small but sweet with slightly tart overtones, wild black caps were the perfect fruit to usher in the start of Cape Cod's short but welcome warm weather season.

Look what I picked!

Fast forward several years.  We moved to Florida in 1987 and found ourselves needing to learn a whole new way of gardening. We were told by experts that so many of the plants we loved in New England would simply not grow in Central Florida's semi-tropical climate.

Including black caps.

For a long time we believed the experts, but that changed about four years ago when a friend who knew how much Ralph missed his berry fix suggested we try planting Mysore raspberries.

Mysore raspberry is a large scrambling shrub native to the lower Himalayas that has adapted well to Florida's limestone or acid sandy soil. Our friend gave Ralph a young plant to begin with and in just one growing season that small start sent out many new shoots and grew considerably taller.

At maturity, Mysore raspberries top out between 10 to 15 ft tall, which, after four years of growing, is about the height of the multi-caned plants now thriving in Ralph's garden.

A clump of Mysore raspberries growing in a planting bed
next to the compost pile

Yesterday I went into the garden to check on the raspberries.  I brought my camera with me because a few days before when I was there (without my camera) I noticed many bees on the raspberry flowers. I wanted to see if they were there again.

Sure enough, they bees were busy buzzing around the pinkish-purple blooms flying from one pretty blossom to another as I followed them with my camera.

When I finished taking pictures, I gathered a small handful of ripe berries to give my husband. Mysore raspberries aren't nearly as prolific as their New England relatives but they still provide a tasty treat for Florida berry lovers.

While Ralph loves the berries, for me it's all about the wildlife and I was more than delighted to see not only such beautiful flowers on the Mysore plants, but to find so many pollinators attracted to the bushes.

If you're a northern transplant who misses growing raspberries, consider adding some Mysore raspberries to your garden.  Below are two nurseries that sell Mysore raspberries.  If you decide to order some or already have a bed of black caps in your garden, let me what you think of the fruit and how they're doing.  Experts tell us one thing, but those of us experimenting in our own backyards are the ones who really know what works and what doesn't.

The more we learn from each other, the better gardeners we all become.

Mysore Raspberry Sources:

Monday, March 20, 2017

Save weeds. Feed birds.

Sow thistle is a springtime wildflower that pops up in lawns, fields and roadsides with abandon.  This tall, prickly, yellow-flowered plant with fluffy seedheads is related to dandelions and sunflowers. Although it is a hardy perennial wildflower, most people consider sow thistle a perennial problem.  It is usually mowed down well before it has a chance to flower and produce an abundance of white windborne seeds.

However, if left alone, sow thistle can provide human foragers with a nutritious green vegetable.

To learn about how to identify and cook sow thistle, watch this 9-minute video by Orlando-based wild plant expert, Green Deane.  

More importantly, it can also provide seed-eating birds like the American goldfinch with an important source of food.  Lately, goldfinches, seasonal visitors to Florida that travel in flocks, have been attracted to the sow thistles in our yard and I've been having great fun watching these yellow-white-and-black-feathered birds fill up on thistle seeds.

American goldfinch with a beak full of sow thistle seeds

But seed-eaters aren't the only birds attracted to this lance-leafed plant. Birds that eat insects like palm warblers and yellow-rumped warblers are also drawn to sow thistle. However, instead of targeting plant seeds, warblers are after the ants, aphids and other small insects crawling up and down plant stems and leaves.

In the short video below, a palm warblers finds a feast on a sow thistle plant.

I know prickly weeds will never be a welcome feature in most landscapes but I like to think there are others like me who see leaving a few weedy plants alone to feed birds and engage with nature without having to buy expensive nyjer seed (thistle) for our avian friends.

Instead of madly mowing down, pulling out or (gasp!) spraying with herbicides, I prefer to simply let nature be, believing that landscapes are more interesting when they're dotted with natural wonders. If birds can appreciate the positive features of prickly plants, so can I.

To learn more about sow thistle
Check out my 2016 essay:

Friday, March 17, 2017

Snapshots from the beach

Looking back through photos I took last week makes me realize how many wildlife encounters can happen without doing much more than biking, rowing and walking back and forth from the house to the car.

My bike rides either took me along the ocean at low tide or through nearby beachside neighborhoods. At the beach, the waves were wild this past week.


And sunrises were as different as they were beautiful!

And while birds at the beach were plentiful, I didn't take many pictures of them this time.

A sandpiper seeking an early morning snack

A flock of brown pelicans flying overhead

I may not have taken many pictures of birds by the ocean but I snapped off quite a few shots of herons and ibises when I rowed down the canal on the west end of our property.


Biking through residential neighborhoods also yielded some exciting surprises. On several mornings I found myself frequently stopping to photograph interesting things along the way.

In the backyard of one house in Silver Sands I saw a hawk perched on the tip of a topless palm tree.

Another day I pulled over to photograph a pileated woodpecker hammering away on a utility pole.

But not all my pictures were of wildlife.  On the same street where I saw the woodpecker I noticed a creative entry display that I just had to photograph.

As well a stone wall punctuated by bromeliads and aloes

And then there was there was the encounter I had with a snake as I was walking down the pathway from our house to the car.

If you've been reading my posts for a while you probably know that I'm a fan of snakes and so I was delighted to notice this slender rat snake basking in a ray of sun in my 'chair' garden.

Despite the cool, windy weather, the beach once again rewarded us with gifts aplenty. Wildlife, flora, beautiful sunrises and sunsets over the lagoon. Happy days.