Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Wrestling Gators

Life out among the trees is nothing if not overflowing with unexpected sights and encounters. This time a year ago I was in the habit of cataloging the different curiosities found along the Atlantic coast a few miles north of my new home under the country oaks. There it was mostly sea turtles, pelicans and pretty shells that caught my eye when not distracted by a party of tattooed septuagenarians in neon thongs. Here in the country I occasionally see barefoot oldsters in chewing tobacco stained undershirts, but the sea turtles have been replaced by gopher turtles, the pelicans by cardinals and marsh hawks and the shells by miles of green. I’ve been surprised more than a few times on walking outside, but after almost two months the surprise is momentary and followed by, “I should have expected that.” This morning I walked out the back screened porch and startled a black snake slithering past.

People like to tell stories of what’s “out there” in the backwoods of south Oak Hill and I’m still waiting to see most of them, a bit skeptical of ever seeing the giant panther with a four-foot tail that lives across the road. Still waiting too, for the first sight of a wild pig or wild turkey, but maybe one or the other will be grazing in my backyard one of these early mornings. A few days ago I left the house to pick up my mail from the box down the road, and thoughts a million miles away I suddenly looked up into the eyes of a five-foot alligator swimming past my gate not ten steps away. A big surprise, even knowing that Florida is chock full alligators. I stood watching as it leisurely wafted through the shallow water heading out to the lagoon at the end of the road. My neighbor told me later he would have jumped in and wrestled the beast to his cooking pot. That would’ve been worth a Kodak moment.

On another day I opened the slightly bent door on my rusty old mailbox expecting to find some juicy circulars, maybe a sale notice from my new favorite store, The Tractor Supply and what I discovered instead was a newly built bird nest. I told old Manny down the road about it and he said that one time his mailbox produced a baby raccoon curled up dead on top of his letter from Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.

But the biggest surprise these days is my revived John Deere lawnmower, beast of another kind that has been a plague of mechanical problems for weeks. A handful of local ‘repairmen’ tried their magic (call it foolishness) on its cranky parts, achieving either a momentary fix or further damage while I stood by watching the grass grow knee high. One thought it was the carburetor, another suspected a bad spark plug and the last pulled the whole engine apart to adjust the timing. It finally occurred to me that not one of the bunch had the slightest clue. “Thanks, fellas but I’m going to the Yellow Pages.” And as luck would have it, the first lawnmower repair listing I saw turned out to be saving grace. Two hours after my call a man picked up the John Deere, asked a couple of questions and promised to return the lawnmower the next day. True to his word, he returned the following day with a machine that now purrs. 

It cost me all my 7-Eleven scratch card winnings, but it was worth it and my grass looks like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Distant Cousin to a Toadstool

Apart from a broken well pump last week and a badly leaking hot water heater on Sunday, life in the backwoods of Florida continues to be interesting. Chores around the yard have to be kept up with, fighting the mosquitos is an ongoing battle, but some little oddity or rarity is always cropping up in the semi-wild corners of my backyard to keep me ever on my toes. Coming out onto the screened porch this morning I noticed what I thought was a single flower about four inches tall growing out of the bed of leaves just off the edge of the porch. Walking out and looking more closely I saw it was not a flower at all but a delicate mushroom of pale yellow that looked to be growing upside down with its gills on top of the cap. Too low for me to get a look at the underside without pulling it up, I left it untouched, too beautiful to disturb.

I continued to look out and admire the mushroom throughout the morning, once or twice approaching for a closer view, but as the morning cool wore off and the humid heat of a Florida June brought its weight, the fragile, flower-like mushroom wilted to the ground and within one hour was a dead and shrunken brown curl, unrecognizable from its former glory.

With no idea what kind of mushroom it was, I cruised around the Internet mushroom sites until I found what looked to be the nearest proximation. It was hard to get a solid fix on the facts of 'my mushroom' because none of the pictures or descriptions were consistent. After looking at a dozen sites, descriptions and photographs the best result appeared to be one called Pluteus admirabilis, commonly called the Yellow Pluteus.

The experts say that the Yellow Pluteus grows singly or in a group of several on decaying wood during the months from June through September. The one map I found showing areas or regions of this mushroom’s prevalence did not include Florida, but descriptions did mention sightings ‘in the south.’ The mushroom’s cap is from 1-3 centimeters wide, the stalk from 3-6 centimeters long and from 1.5 to 3 millimeters thick. When young the cap is a moist bright yellow that fades to yellowish brown in age. Looking at the photo of the Pluteus in my backyard you can see that the yellow goes from bright to pale from the center outward. The stalk is the same pale yellow. Too early for my short-lived specimen but the scientists say the mushroom produces a pink or salmon colored spore, that sprinkle of dust we sometimes see under or around mushrooms growing in the wild. 

The most interesting part? This little beauty is edible.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Snow Birds of Another Breed

During the time of living at the beach some miles north of my present home out in the woods, I was often drawn by the sight of pelicans and other birds that make their home along coastal waters, but I have never been what you would call a bird watcher, an enthusiast in camouflage clothing with binoculars and guidebook. My interest in birds has always been best described as dilettantish. That could be changing. In this new setting where birds of a dozen varieties fill the air with song and where as many as six or seven at once congregate on, under or near the feeder off my screened back porch, birds have become the most conspicuous and audible visitors to my backyard. In the past month I have seen so many redbirds, bluebirds, woodpeckers and hummingbirds that the sight has become humdrum.

In the past week I have begun to notice a different type of avian friend, soaring majestically out of the canopy of trees twice each day—in early morning and again at twilight. This one sings a different song and surely not one to soothe the ears of squirrels and other small mammals living in and around my backyard. The very vocal Northern Harrier hunts in those soft, quiet hours of early morning and twilight, sharp eyes focused on the wide expanse of grass so favored by squirrels, rabbits and mice.   

Northern Harrier or Marsh Hawk (Circus cyaneus) is the name we in America give to the Hen Harrier, a bird of prey that winters in southern areas of the US, including Florida. A large bird, it is anywhere from 16 to 20 inches in height with a wingspan between 38 and 48 inches. It is a slender, medium-sized raptor with a long, barred tail and distinctive white rump, at close range showing an owl-like face. This characteristic is especially true in young birds. Unlike most raptors, there is a bigger difference in plumage between males and females. Females are brown above with varying degrees of brown and buff streaking below. From mid-distance the breast appears to be almost golden. Males are gray above with an unmarked lighter color below and black wingtips. Juveniles are brown above and orangish-brown below.

Because of an abundance of prey, the Marsh Hawk prefers moorland, bogs, prairies, coastal marshes, grasslands and swamps. It is the only hawk known to mate with not just one, but several females. The nest is built on the ground or on a mound of dirt or vegetation and is made of sticks, lined inside with grass and leaves.  When incubating eggs, the female sits on the nest while the male hunts and brings food to her and the chicks.

They hunt primarily small mammals, preferring voles, cotton rats and ground squirrels. As much as ninety-five percent of their diet is comprised of small mammals, but other birds are hunted with regularity as well, especially by the males. Their preferred avian prey includes sparrows, larks, pipits, small shorebirds and the young of waterfowl. Diet is supplemented at times with frogs, reptiles and insects. Larger prey, such as rabbits and ducks are taken from time to time and it isn't unusual for the hawk to subdue this larger prey by drowning it underwater.

For the past week I eagerly await the arrival of this regal hunter each morning and early evening. She doesn't frighten easily, holding her perch on fence post or branch even at those times when I creep close to gaze at her through binoculars. Sitting for a time on a fence post, she occasionally jumps down to the ground and focuses a downward gaze on I can't guess what. Then it's back to the fence post or branch where she twists her neck around to stare in my direction for an unconcerned moment. After several minutes she lifts and swoops low over the stretch of grass, hoping I imagine to surprise a chubby squirrel scrabbling for acorns.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America