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Posts Tagged ‘Wildlife’

It was a dry year, until the rains came. I had to water my potted plants and raised beds just about every day. Miss a day and someone would die. In late May, the rains came. In June, we’ve had more rain than we had in the eight previous months—since September!

I had so looked forward to June. The weather in May is as perfect as can be, pleasant but not too hot. But not for yard and garden work because of the yellow flies. Their bites are painful. They come in swarms. Some years I can’t sprint from the front door to the car without getting a half dozen bites. They thumb their noses at insect repellent. I can’t work outdoors without wearing armor. June is hotter, but I don’t mind the heat. I had so looked forward to June.

Then the rains came—seven inches one day! With the rains, mosquitoes. I diligently went through my yard dumping anything that held water where mosquitoes could breed. Yet breed they did! I have no idea where, unless the wrigglers can live in humidity alone, and there’s plenty of that. The mosquitoes are so thick I can’t sprint from my front door to the car without getting a dozen bites. They thumb their noses at Skin so Soft. Insect repellent works for barely an hour.

Even if Mosquito Control came back in my woods, I wouldn’t want them to spray. Too many other things live here. Besides, they spray at night. I don’t garden at night but the mosquitoes that bother me are out in the daytime. I had such plans for my yard. I wanted to work on the blueberry patch that inspired me last month. I had so looked forward to June.

Here in the South, we have wondrous creatures called “skeeter hawks” that fly around and devour mosquitoes. Elsewhere they’re called dragonflies. Usually they’ll follow a plague of mosquitoes and make short work of them. So be patient, I told myself. Soon the dragonflies will come and I’ll be able to go outside again. But it’s the end of June and no dragonflies yet.

The Good

Why? I knew dragonflies breed in water, like mosquitoes. A creek runs through my property and there are several ponds in the neighborhood, but they can dry up during drought, so the dragonflies likely had nowhere to breed. Even with all the rain we’ve had this month, my creek is still dry. The land was very thirsty.

When the ponds fill up, the dragonflies should lay eggs, but how long before their babies grow up and eat mosquitoes? I turned to Google. I learned that, unlike mosquitoes, their larvae, called nymphs, live in the water for months or even years before they become adults. Mosquitoes take only a few days to grow up. The nymphs aren’t idle–they eat mosquito larvae in the water, but they’re not ready to take to the air for months or more.

This isn’t the worst plague of mosquitoes I’ve seen. When my family lived in Moore Haven, they were so thick even window screens didn’t protect us. Dad always claimed one mosquito pokes a leg through the screen, another pokes a head through, and so on, then all the parts get together and make a whole mosquito. Enough body parts and you have a swarm of them. Some nights they were so bad in the house I’d sleep with a blanket over my head. In summer. In the Everglades. And we had no air conditioning. But at least those mosquitoes came out mostly at night. During the day, we could safely go outside.

The Bad

Why didn’t dragonflies keep the mosquitoes under control in South Florida? We were surrounded by water—Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee River, and scads of drainage canals. We were also surrounded by sugarcane fields. Who knows what chemicals they poured into those canals? This was in the 1960’s, long before the EPA, and dragonflies are more susceptible to pollution than mosquitoes. Also, draining the Everglades for agriculture destroyed dragonfly habitat while mosquitoes could still breed in a teaspoon of water.

According to the National Wildlife Foundation, there are 307 species of dragonflies in the US and 15% of them are in danger of extinction. The ones most in danger are the stream dwellers, due to water pollution. Who’d have thought dragonflies could go extinct? Mosquitoes are in no danger of extinction. They outbreed dragonflies.

The most dangerous mosquitoes, that carry things like malaria and Zika, are active during the day when we humans want to be outdoors. Several years ago when I was a social worker, there was an outbreak of West Nile Virus. I drove out into the countryside one day looking for a family and found a little old lady who knew where they lived. She was trying to load some things into her car and I offered to help. I stood with an armload of dishes while she rummaged in her purse for her keys and her mosquitoes chewed my ears and elbows. I couldn’t swat them without dropping her stuff.

Finally, her goodies safely deposited in the car, I could freely swat while she gave me directions. Then she said, “Did you read in the newspaper about the man who caught West Nile Virus? That was my husband.”

Whoa! Did the same mosquitoes trying to devour me bite him first? Fortunately, I escaped that unpleasant fate and lived to be bitten again.

I’ve thought about getting my yard certified as a Wildlife Habitat. https://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Certify.aspx I have everything required except a water feature. (In fact, I have so much of the required vegetation that I need to clear some out to make a human habitat.) Now I think I’ll raise my own home-grown skeeter hawks so I’ll have a head start on the next  mosquito plague. The NWF website has information on building a pond for dragonflies: https://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Gardening/Archives/2002/Attracting-Aerial-Acrobats-to-Your-Yard.aspx/.

The Ugly

Amazing how something like this can grow up to be a beautiful dragonfly! But how can I keep mosquitoes from breeding in my pond until the nymphs hatch and eat them? Fish would eat wrigglers and nymphs alike. There is a product called BTi, mosquito dunks, that kills mosquito larvae but won’t harm nymphs. I must get some. I wish I could provide a habitat for the stream dwellers, too, but my little creek dries up when there’s no rain.

 

 

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I guess I need to plant more blueberries. The other night, I dreamed I was buying organic blueberries for $3 a pint. “That’s a good price,” I said. My father didn’t think so. He was thinking 20th century prices. Behind the table where the blueberries were displayed in my dream was a poster about growing blueberries. “You really should, you know,” said Dad. I had to agree with him.

My dad was a real character. He could be cantankerous, especially in his later years. Although he dropped out of high school, he was one of the most intelligent men I’ve known, and he never stopped learning. He didn’t see much value in fiction, but he read things that interested him. He was definitely a male chauvinist. He didn’t put much stock in daughters, expecting them to marry and become another man’s responsibility, but he expected his sons to become partners in his businesses. I don’t know why—he left his parents’ farm and went his own way, to the disappointment of his  father. His sons followed suit and went their own ways, leaving only daughters to help out.

The last picture I took of Dad, with two of his farmhands (granddaughters).

He was jealous of people with a college education. He’d call them “edjicated fools.” He especially saw no sense in a girl going to college, but I went anyway. Before I retired, I told him I might go back to graduate school. He said, “Why? You can learn anything you want to know on your own. There’s always the internet.” And this came from a man who hated computers! I concede he was right on this one. Most anything I want to know I can find on my own, on the internet or the old fashioned way, in books. I don’t need more letters behind my name, nor do I want another career, except writing. Maybe that’s why I listened to him when he said I should grow blueberries.

Although he grew up on a farm, the only farming he did before “retired” was beekeeping. He liked honey and always wanted his own beehives. When I was a teenager, a swarm of bees flew though our yard and he caught them. From this first hive, he expanded to a successful honey business. The lure of farming never left him and he eventually bought a farm in Blackfork, Arkansas. Most people retire to Florida. My parents retired from Florida to Arkansas and my sister and her husband took over the bee business. Dad tried to establish a honey business in Blackfork but, no one is sure why, honeybees wouldn’t thrive there.

You’ve heard the expression, “God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now, I’m so far behind I’ll never die.” I lived by this axiom for years. Look at Dad. At the age of 80, he had more projects going than anyone knew. His parents had lived to 95 and 96 and I expected Dad to make it to 100. I also considered my prospects promising, as long as I followed his example. When talking about how busy I was, I’d say, “It’s not that I have too many irons in the fire. It’s that I have too many fires.” I too could live forever!

Dad sorely disappointed me when he exited this world at 81. The day of his funeral, the farm was suddenly full of honeybees. They must have come from miles around to pay their respects. Then they went away and never came back.

In the years since, many times I’ve wished I could talk with him. I miss calling him up and saying, “What do you think about this?” I wonder what he would think about what’s going on in the world. At times I’m glad that he didn’t live to see certain things.

Lately I’ve heard a lot about the virtues of blueberries. My property is just right for blueberry bushes. Wild ones grow in my woods. A few years ago I bought five commercial plants and three of them survived neglect, drought, and late spring freezes. A few more might make the effort worthwhile.

Gardening in the woods has its challenges—finding enough areas of sunshine and battling wildlife. I had a nice patch of strawberries once, until wild hogs plowed them up and destroyed them. The few survivors were too traumatized to live. I planted a lily bed which the armadillos dug up. So I went to container gardens and raised beds. A crop of broccoli was almost ready to harvest when the deer ate them down to bare stems. So I put chicken wire over the beds. The deer squashed that down to feast on my carrot tops. In this constant battle of wits, the dumb animals are one move ahead of me.

Other people have a problem with deer eating their blueberries. Not me.  Besides vegetables, they eat my ornamentals, even my succulents, but so far no one has eaten, dug under, or plowed up my blueberry plants.

Maybe it’s worth a shot. Thanks, Dad.

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Last month, I worried about the late arrival of the Chuck-wills-widow. Now they’re back, having trickled in. I heard one in the distant forest one night, none the following night, another the third night. Then a few more. A month later, they’re filling the nights with sound. They start calling at dusk and are most vocal in the early night hours, but I hear them in the middle of the night and early mornings before dawn.

They must have sensed my concern over their absence. As though to reassure me they’ve come home, a pair has taken to serenade me every evening in my yard. One perches in a tree north of the house and another in the south. They call back and forth, as if in conversation, and don’t seem to mind when I go out on the porch to listen, but if I venture any closer, they fly away.

Lately, the nights have been mild enough to sleep with a bedroom window open, the better to hear birds and peepers and other inhabitants of the night. At dawn, every bird in the neighborhood begins to sing. Who needs a clock radio when such music invites you into the day?

After it grows light, the concert is over and they go about their business. Still, the day is not silent. Wild Turkeys gobble. Cardinals, Wrens, and fowl I can’t identify keep the music going. I’m no bird watcher. In the woods, you can’t see the birds for the trees, but you can hear them.

Lately, I’ve heard a familiar “Cheeri-up? Cheerio!” The Robins migrated north months ago, but they passed through, leaving their songs. Our Mockingbirds mimic the Robin (as I wrote in Robin Song), but they prefer open spaces and my yard is mostly wooded, so I suspect it’s a Brown Thrasher, a close relative of the Mockingbird who prefers woods and thickets, like where I live. Here is a link to Brown Thrasher songs, but none of these recordings includes an imitation of a Robin song:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Brown_Thrasher/sounds

The Brown Thrasher’s repertoire is almost as varied as it’s cousin the Mockingbird’s.

Birds are not the only creatures making their presence known. The Carpenter Bees have invaded my potting shed. They came out in early March, then in the middle of the month we had a few 25 degree nights and they disappeared. (Maybe they went to Florida for the rest of the winter.) Now they’re back. They make nests in unpainted wood, like my potting shed.

When I approach, something like an oversized bumblebee flies at me, buzzing like he means business. This is a male trying to threaten me, but I know he has no stinger and can do no more than be annoying. His mate, who does have a stinger, is too busy to bother me, preparing a home for her babies. But even the females seldom sting. I hear them buzz their way into 2x4s, leaving a pile of sawdust behind.

This Carpenter Bee is all buzz. He can bite, but he can’t sting.

Once I sawed into a piece of scrap lumber which, unknown to me, contained a Carpenter Bee nest. Suddenly, a bee flew out. I don’t know who was more alarmed, me or the bee. The poor thing took off, never to be seen in the environs again. These Carpenter Bees are pesky, but as long as they don’t drill holes in my house, I leave them alone. Like most bees, they are important pollinators and this kind can pollinate flowers that are too difficult for others, including Honeybees, to service.

There are thousands of species of bees. I’ve become interested in native bees. Honeybees aren’t native. They’re immigrants from Europe. Many of our native bees resemble Honeybees and Bumblebees and others look like wasps or flies. Most don’t sting or make honey. Bumblebees make honey, but only in modest quantities, unlike Honeybees. While I love honey, the Honeybee is overrated as a pollinator. There are many flowers, including important food crops, that Honeybees lack the proper equipment to pollinate, but there is a native bee that has been designed just for that flower.

One of Carpenter Bees’ nature enemies is woodpeckers. Although I haven’t noticed any reduction in the number of bees, Pileated Woodpeckers have taken up residence at my place. They probably like it here because I leave dead trees standing, as long as they’re not close enough to fall on my house. I hear woodpeckers drumming on trees and occasionally their large wings flapping through the woods. Here is a recording of a Pileated Woodpecker:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/sounds

Today I saw one on the pine tree just outside my living room window. He gave me time to get my camera, but when I stepped near the window to snap a picture, he took off with loud flapping wings.

These are big woodpeckers.

Here’s something few people know. While birds eat seeds, they must have protein from insects in order to reproduce. Folks will put out all kinds of bird feeders to attract birds, then spray every bug they see. Pesticides are unhealthy for birds (and people) as well as insects. Learn to live with a few bugs in the yard. Let the birds eat them. Nature is not always convenient.

Earlier this spring, a house wren took up residence on my front porch and raised a brood. Every time I stepped onto the porch, she startled me—I swear they can fly faster than a speeding bullet! They nest in hanging plants, under eaves, and in my shed. One spring a wren nested on a window sill when I left an awning window open during a warm spell. When cool weather returned, I had to leave the window open so as not to disturb her nest. Fortunately, these birds don’t take long to raise a family. One morning, I heard the most joyous singing. The wren perched on the edge of her nest announcing motherhood. In no time at all, the babies grew up and flew away so I could close the window again.

House Wren singing.

As I said, nature is not always convenient, but it’s always wondrous.

https://marieqrogers.com/2015/02/28/robin-song/

https://marieqrogers.com/2017/03/31/finally-the-whippoorwill/

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I had almost given up. I wasn’t worried that spring would never come, but that something had happened to the whippoorwills. Had they forsaken this troubled planet?

They’re not really whippoorwills, and they don’t even make the whip-poor-will sound, but that’s what we call them here in rural Florida. If I told a neighbor I heard a Chuck-wills-widow call last night, I’d get a blank stare that would last into next week. If I say I heard a whippoorwill, I’d have full understanding.

You can’t describe their call as a song. It sounds almost like they’re spitting out, “Chuck! Will’s widow,” or something like that. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak.” You can find a recording here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chuck-wills-widow/id. On summer nights, I can hear several in the woods around me, calling ceaselessly through the night, the same call over and over. Sometimes one comes close to the house, but if I go outside to try to locate it—immediate silence.

Chuck-wills-widow. (Photo courtesy of Dick Daniels)

I’ve never seen one clearly enough to recognize it. They are active mostly at night and are so well camouflaged they blend in with dead leaves and tree bark during the day. Sometimes, driving down the road at night, a bird will suddenly shoot up from the roadway and fly off. That’s a Chuck-wills-widow that has been picking up grit from the road. I suppose they sometimes get hit by cars. I read that their numbers are declining—the usual story— pesticides and loss of habitat. They must be too shy to stick around when their forests are taken over by housing developments. They don’t build nests, but lay eggs on the ground, which puts them at risk despite their camouflage. They’re vulnerable to pesticides because their diet is mostly insects, although they’ve been known to eat small birds and even bats.

I hear them only from March through July. They winter in the Caribbean and Central America, but I don’t know what they do in late summer and fall.

I wasn’t too surprised they were late this spring. We had another weird winter. Winters in Florida are typically weird, but these last two were worse. Not hard winters, but warm for the most part, and late. My dog fennel, loyal predictor of the first frost, has been dead wrong two years in a row. No frost in November, as predicted. Not until after Christmas.

Last spring I still had nearly a full cord of firewood left over. I usually stock up before my firewood man goes away for hunting season, but I didn’t run low until after the first frost. When I called him, he delivered right away and said I was lucky to catch him before he took one last trip to his hunt camp. After the second frost, it appeared my supply would last me again into the next fall.

Our tomato plants

A few weeks before Spring Break, I had the school kids start tomato plants and told them that after the break we should be past the threat of frost and could set the plants out in their gardens. Boy was I wrong! After the children returned to school, we were hit with the coldest spell of the winter. I woke to a half inch of ice in the bird bath.

(I can hear you northerners saying, “Now really, just get over it!” I know. You’re digging out from under three feet of snow. Spend a few winters here and see how soft you get!)

So, we held back on planting our spring gardens. Everyone I talked to said they hadn’t heard a whippoorwill yet, either. The next part of the conversation goes something like, “My mama/granny/grandpa always said we can have frost up ‘til Easter.” This year, Easter comes in the middle of April! Can Spring really be so late? The whippoorwills have never been this late. What’s wrong?

On mild nights, I slept with a window open, hoping to hear one call. If the night was too cool, I’d step out on the porch every few hours to listen. March melted away, but no whippoorwill.

Finally, on March 30th, I heard the call! Far away, faint, and short lived, one called. My world was set right again. I heard the promise of Spring, and it was music to my ears.

 

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I see a flock of robins beside the road, pecking in the soil, and that reminds me.

One summer, when I visited my sister in southeastern Washington, I heard a mockingbird sing. I didn’t know mockingbirds lived that far north. In fact, I was sure they didn’t. “You don’t have mockingbirds here, do you?” I asked. No, of course not. Finally, I spotted the songster—a robin!

Every winter the robins come to Florida, a happy place to escape from cold and snow. I seldom notice when they arrive. They must meander though North Florida in small numbers, seeking the balmier south. Then come February, large flocks gather on the way back to their summer nesting grounds. That’s when I see them congregate on roadsides and fields, hopping about in search of dainties. The struggle for domination between winter and spring provides a balanced diet. As the sun warms the soil, worms and insects emerge among small green plants seeking a head start on summer growth. The robins feast. Then frost nips these hopes and drives the little creatures back into the ground. Undeterred, the robins dine on seeds left by last year’s weeds and wildflowers.

The birds also assemble in berry-laden trees and shrubs. They swallow the fruit whole, then fly over wooded areas, pooping out seeds which fall to fertile ground to complete the cycle of growth. That is why I have so many beauty-berry bushes in my woods. Unfortunately, robins also gobble up the fruit of camphor trees and pyracantha, both invasive species, and spread them far and wide, so be careful what you plant. No bird will appreciate these fancy foreigners when they crowd out our native plants.

As the robins pass through my neighborhood, the mockingbirds pick up their song and sing it through summer, long after the robins have abandoned us. That’s why I associate the “cheerily carol” with the mockingbird.

Last summer I visited my daughter in Virginia. Sitting on her front porch, enjoying the mountain air, I heard a familiar, “Cheery-up, cheery-o, cheery-up, cheery-o!” A mockingbird? I knew I was within their range this time, but no, again it was a robin.

What a happy place, I thought, to have the music of both mockingbirds and robins.

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If you are a novice at photography or kayaking, or both, you could use some advice. I’ve been taking pictures since LBJ was President, but being new to kayaking, I have discovered some pointers to pass on. The following instructions are for a point and shoot camera for two important reasons. First, it is beyond the scope of this essay to cover the vast variety of cameras in use. Second, this is the only kind of camera that I know how to use. Some important considerations:

1. Choose a waterproof camera. To discover at the end of the day that all your precious pictures have been ruined because your camera got wet would be heartbreaking. Your heart may get broken anyway, but at least you can eliminate this cause.

2. Secure your camera by its wrist strap or other means. You will not drop the camera in 18” of still water. It will dive in while you are clipping along at top speed, never to be seen again. While my top speed is modest at best, had I dropped my camera it would have been easier to grab hold of a fish. At least you can bait a fish.

3. Your camera should also be shockproof. While securely attached to your wrist, it will dangle just enough to bang against the rim of your kayak as you paddle. I reduced my anxiety by tying a cord to the wrist strap and securing it to the zipper of my life vest. When not using my camera, I tucked it inside the bosom of the life jacket.

Now we can move on to other considerations. Back in the 20th Century, when cameras still had film, all you had to do was press the shutter button and it would snap the picture. I’m sorry to say those days are gone forever. When I reluctantly joined the 21st Century by purchasing a digital camera, I found myself no longer in control but at the mercy of a gadget smarter than I am. My camera turns itself off to save battery power. That’s fine, but when I push the button to turn it back on, it will argue with me:

Camera: Are you sure you want me to turn back on?
Me (pressing the button for the second or third time): Yes! I want to take a picture!
Camera: Oh, all right.

Finally, camera ready, you aim at your subject, push the shutter button, and…nothing happens! A few seconds later, after either the kayak or the target has moved, it takes a photo. That’s a minor problem on solid ground if shooting a stationary object, but bouncing around in the water trying to photograph a bird in flight will result in many images of empty sky. Don’t give up. If you take enough pictures of the sky you are likely to find a bird in at least one of them. Here is one example of digital technology’s superiority to the old fashioned stuff. Can you imagine how expensive it would be to have all that film developed?

Motion can be an issue when you are a passenger in a moving vehicle, but it is even more so when you need both hands to paddle. You also need one or two hands to operate the camera. How many hands do you have? Read these instructions carefully before you attempt kayak photography:

1. You are happily paddling along, enjoying the sun and the wind and the water, when you spot something you want to photograph. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say it’s not a bird in flight but something sitting quietly on the bank minding its own business. Carefully set the paddle down across your lap so you won’t lose it (and find yourself up that proverbial crick).

2. In your excitement you fumble the camera and drop it into your lap, but since it’s shockproof and securely tied, it’s fine. So you pick it up again and have the usual conversation with it before it consents to turn itself on. You take aim, but by now one of two things (or maybe both) has happened – you have overshot your mark and/or the wind has blown you sideways. As you twist around in your seat you realize that, encumbered by a life vest, even a contortionist could not reach the angle necessary to take the proposed picture.

3. Tuck the camera back into your bosom, pick up the paddle, turn around, return to the place where you spotted your photo op, and try again. By now the camera has turned itself off. Repeat #s 1 and 2.

4. This time paddle further back so you will have time to turn on your camera, set it down, pick up the paddle, re-position the kayak, set down the paddle, and pick up the camera in time to snap the picture. If you are trying to photograph an inanimate object, you may be successful. But if it is a living creature, by now it has stopped wondering what that nut is up to and has decided to have nothing more to do with you. If you are fast enough, you may catch its hind quarters as it disappears into the brush. If not, you can file it in your memory bank of photos not taken.

If you are under the age of 40 you may elect to skip this next section. (You may want to read it anyway, as your day will come: your eyeballs will lose their flexibility, and you will have to hold things across the room to read them.) Mature photographers will need reading glasses to see to operate the camera. Otherwise the pictures may be sadly out of focus. (They may be out of focus anyway, but that’s not my fault.)

In addition to the paddle and the camera, you need to manage your reading glasses and it would be wise to secure them in some way. I just use a cheap pair from Wal-Mart which would be a small loss and tuck them into my bosom beside the camera. The procedure is the same as above with the addition of a few extra steps:

1. Same as above. When completed, take the reading glasses out of your bosom, put them on, and proceed to #2.

2. Same as above, except that you can’t see distance clearly through the reading glasses, so after you realize you are not ready to take the picture, take them off and put them back in your bosom.

3. Same as above with the additional task of putting on and taking off your reading glasses. Avoid taking the camera out of your bosom first as the reading glasses will come out with it and try to jump into the water. Then you have to grab for them, which wastes time and disrupts your concentration. You may need to repeat the previous steps a few times.

4. Same as above with the addition of the reading glasses. If your victim has not disappeared by now, you are all set, except – you have splashed water on your reading glasses and still can’t see clearly.

5. Try to find something dry to clean your glasses with and repeat #4.

6. Download your pictures at the end of the day. The memory card will be full of photos of empty skies and retreating wildlife, but there should be some good pictures as well But wait, as you download the images, you find that a number of them have a curious blur in the middle where water had splashed on the exterior of the lens and you were taking pictures through a bubble.

7. Take a deep breath. Clean the lens. Tomorrow is another day. Begin again with step #1.

DSCF2633
This one didn’t get away.

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