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.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Look what we found at the beach this morning!

Today's bike ride to the beach took a surprising turn. Instead of watching the sun rise swiftly over the horizon, I became totally captivated by an unusual beachcombing find.

Yesterday's storm must have washed ashore a huge fishing net complete with brass rings, thick rope and numerous crabs, shrimp, shells, sponge and assorted cans and other trash caught within its woven confines.

Two other beachcombers stopped to check out the huge fishing net and thick ropes that washed ashore this morning in New Smyrna Beach 

As I got off my bike to take a closer look, several other people also stopped to check it too. Working together we freed as many crabs and shrimp as we could and separated out the trash and fishing line to take away and dispose of before any birds became entangled.  

Being the incorrigible hoarders that we are, I called up Ralph, who was still at home, and told him to meet me at the beach.

"We found a huge fishing net with a bunch of thick rope," I told him.

A short while later he joined me and together we managed to separate the rope from the net and load the entire wet, sandy mass onto my recumbent 'Fun Cycle'.

With the net and the rope on my bike there was no room for me to sit and pedal so I pulled the trike back to the 27th Ave parking lot while Ralph biked home to get the van and trailer.

Today my Fun Cycle doubled as a wheelbarrow waiting at the 27th Ave Park for Ralph to pick me up and take the rope and netting away.  

End of story:  We missed the sunrise but gained several yards of thick sea and sand encrusted netting and rope.  Not a bad trade off even if we have no idea yet what we're going to do with this latest in a series of too-good-to-leave-on-the-beach finds.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A new-to-me wildlife discovery!

When Ralph called me over to point out the turtle he’d found, I should have recognized it right away. Box turtles are not uncommon. In fact, these distinctly marked land turtles might be the most familiar terrapins in North America. And yet, my initial reaction was uncertainty.

“I’m not sure what kind of turtle it is,” I announced. “I’ll have to look it up.”

“I think it’s a box turtle,” Ralph suggested, but I smugly ignored his comment.

A box turtle? Really?

It didn’t take much research to realize he was right. The dome-shelled reptile Ralph discovered beneath the cover of a dense thicket at our New Smyrna Beach lot was indeed a box turtle. Terrapene carolina bauri is one of six box turtle subspecies found in the United States and Mexico. However, as it turned out, it was a box turtle with a difference. 

Hello there, Florida box turtle!

Like the Florida scrub-jay, an endemic bird that does not exist anywhere except Central Florida’s sandhill terrain, Terrapene carolina bauri is also a habitat-specific organism found only in certain parts of peninsular Florida. This 4 to 7-inch long land turtle spends most of its life slowly meandering across moist habitats like marshes, swamps and damp forests. Although it doesn’t swim, it occasionally spends time soaking in water.

The Florida scrub-jay is an endemic bird existing only
in certain parts of Central Florida

The Florida box turtle also differs from other box turtles by not hibernating. Instead of sleeping through winter, this subspecies continues to hunt for the slugs, earthworms, beetles, crickets, flies and spiders that make up about 60-percent of a diet that also consists of berries, moss, mushrooms, roots and flowers.

I was also surprised to learn that the sharp claws on its short, strong legs are good for climbing as well as digging. The ability to clamber over objects is an attribute I don’t usually associate with turtles but then again,Terrapene carolina bauri is special.

Another unique feature of this yellow striped, dark-shelled turtle is the way its shell is hinged so it can safely conceal soft, vulnerable body parts when endangered. Although my husband was focused on raking up debris when he noticed the turtle, he was careful not to disturb his discovery.

Later in the day when I came back to check on the progress of his project, I asked if the turtle was still there.

“It is,” he said explaining that it only moved a little deeper into the thicket from where it had been before.

That’s not surprising since the home range of a Florida box turtle is only around 750 feet. It may not travel far but what it lacks in miles covered, it gains in longevity. Terrapene carolina bauri can live 50 to 100 years!

I learned much from Ralph’s discovery of a turtle in the underbrush. Not only did his find lead me to look up and become aware of a new-to-me Florida endemic species, it also acted as a helpful reminder not to ignore my spouse. When it comes to plants and wildlife, my husband knows more than I give him credit for.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A popcorn sky with rays of light

Biked to the beach for the morning light but a dark band of low laying clouds hid the actual sunrise from sight.

But you can't hide beauty!

As the sun rose higher, rays of brightness illuminated the sky. Birds flew by. The ocean roared. The day began with a transformation of dark to light.

I find that reassuring.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What do you think these ospreys are saying?

I scanned the sky yesterday trying to track down the sound of an osprey calling.  Eventually I located it but much to my surprise, instead of finding one fish hawk screeching out a message, I spotted two.  One was calling as it circled around overhead while the other was responding to those calls from its perch in a pine tree.

Although I was unable to photograph the flier, I took several shots and a short video of the other osprey as it communicated with the bird in the sky.

The two birds were definitely speaking to each other but what were they trying to say? Were the calls an invitation to mate or a warning to stay away?  I'm guessing it was the latter since, much to my disappointment, no physical interaction took place.  After several minutes of intense vocalizing, the airborne bird flew away and the treetop osprey stopped flapping its wings and settled down.

Even without understanding the language of birds, it was exciting to simply watch and listen to such intense interaction between two large birds. As familiar as I am with ospreys - I see them regularly at both our beach and Groveland locations - encounters like the one I had yesterday make me realize how much more there is to learn about osprey behavior and actions. Fortunately, there's fun to be had in not only capturing on film special wildlife moments but also in teasing out the message each new encounter provides.

Share the moment with me by watching the video and let me know what you think the two birds were saying.