Monday, June 24, 2013


It's interesting how a word can have different meanings depending on your vantage point. Take the word "ground" for example. "Ground" (noun) can be many things--it's the surface of the earth; soil; land designated for a specific purpose, e.g. burial grounds or parade grounds; the land around a building; you can hold your ground; grounds are a foundation for something; background; underlying condition--grounds for dismissal; a subject; sediment, such as coffee grounds; we ground wires to limit buildup of static electricity. Almost every sense of "ground" (noun) is positive, basic, foundational. Earthy. Healthy. Connected to the Good Earth.

"Grounded" can be used as an adjective. An internet search gives us this: [more grounded; less grounded] -- used to describe a person who is sensible and has a good understanding of what is really important in life. Sensible and down-to-earth; having one's feet on the ground. "She's trying to stay grounded despite all the fame and praise. She and her husband have a very grounded family." It's good to be "grounded" (adjective). I like to consider myself this way. I try to choose my path carefully, avoiding (when possible) the material things, the petty and plastic things. I'm not always successful, but this is my goal. I pride myself on being close to the earth and connected to nature. I like being "grounded" (adjective).

One could also be "well-grounded" (also adjective). Merriam-Webster says: [more well-grounded; most well-grounded] 1: having good training in a subject or activity. "She is well-grounded in Botany and Lepidoptery." I wouldn't mind being well-grounded in any number of subjects or activities that I love. Photography, birds, travel, literature, gourmet food, Florida History, wildlife ecology, music, art...I could go on.

"Ground" can also be used as a (verb) [+ obj]. You "ground" something. Bring it back to the earth. Back to reality. Sometimes punitively.  You can "ground" your theories on solid fact.  You can "ground" a kayak on a sandbar, or "ground" an airplane because there is some danger, such as lightning storms in the area. You "ground" an electric wire for safety. Or in baseball, "ground" the ball right to the shortstop. Or "ground" the football to avoid a tackle. It's curious that "grounding" (verb) a child is a form of punishment. I say curious, because it should be a good thing to help children connect with the earth. Children who spend time in nature (closer to the ground, closer to the earth) do better in school and are happier and more "grounded" (adjective). But for a child, being "grounded" (verb) is torture. Especially for teenagers, who probably need help being "grounded" (adjective) more than anyone.

This week, I find myself "grounded" (verb) in the airplane safety sense. I've been forced to stay indoors for a while to avoid annoying and irritating allergens, aggravated by summer heat and humidity, and it's driving me crazy. In my mind, I am "grounded"(verb) in the punitive sense. I really want to go out to collect more bird sightings for my June Challenge bird list, or check out the summer flowers and bugs in my favorite ditch. But I will regret it if I do. So if I can just change my point of view, I might instead be happy to use the time indoors to work on my home "grounds" (noun). Or I could work on becoming more "well-grounded" (adjective) in one of the many subjects and activities I want to work on. I'm trying to stay "grounded" (adjective), to be sensible, with a good understanding of what's important in life. I should appreciate the opportunity to read, clean, cook and organize. But I can't wait to get my feet back out on the "ground" (noun). Sigh.


Monday, June 17, 2013

The Power of Names

I recently returned from a trip back to my hometown of Salt Lake City. When I first made my plans, I thought I'd be able to fit in much more exploring than I actually had time for. I was hoping to take a trip to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on the north end of the Great Salt Lake, and maybe also fit in a trip to Antelope Island in the middle of the lake. But I was there on family business, and as it turned out, there was little time for exploring. Still, I managed to squeeze in a few nice walks and photo sessions and that took care of some of my yearnings. I took my journeys at points in the week when I really needed a break or relief from stress, and they really helped. I came home to Florida feeling like I'd reconnected a little bit with my birthplace, which felt nice.

California Gull--State Bird. I knew this one. (And I know people make fun of Utah for having a California Gull as its state bird, but there's a whole story behind it. Read here and you will understand.)
I found it interesting that although I was returning home, when it came to the specifics of birds and plants and butterflies in Salt Lake, I felt as much a tourist as I ever did in South America. I had to look up almost everything I saw. The Utah mountains, landscape and smells felt so familiar, but I was looking with a different degree of attentiveness than I ever had when I lived there. As a child, I knew Robins and Seagulls, but had no awareness of other birds. They were dots in the sky--sparrows, every one. As for flowers, I knew the yard plants--roses, tulips and lilacs, and also Sego Lilies, the Utah State Flower that I learned about in elementary school, but have still never actually seen. I caught Mourning Cloak and Tiger Swallowtail butterflies and pinned them to a styrofoam cooler lid after killing them in a jar with a turpentine soaked rag, but had never seen a chrysalis. I knew Black Widow spiders because they lived in our basement, and the Box Elder Bugs because of their yearly infestation of the tree outside my bedroom window, but for the most part, I didn't pay attention to the details or the names of things around me. I don't know why--maybe it was that they were all too familiar, or maybe I just didn't know how interesting they were.

Magpies were so common when I was growing up. I miss them here in Florida. 

California Quail run through yards and streets, often with their chicks following in a row
I moved away from Utah when I was 19, and only started really being interested in knowing plants and animals a few years later when my husband and I moved to the mountains outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. We built a tiny cabin in the woods (maybe I'll write about that some day...) and we had much of the forest to ourselves. On our walks I found marvelous red, tubular flowers that I later identified with a field guide from the library as Scarlet Penstemon. Soon I identified the Blue Lupine and hot orange Indian Paintbrush that lit up the stark red dirt landscape, and I learned that you could smell the vanilla scent of Ponderosa Pine a lot better if you hugged the trees tight. Knowing what to call things made me feel like an insider, like they were part of my sphere. When I knew their names, I knew them. My introduction to naming the birds and other animals came several years later while camping in the Olympic Peninsula with family friends who pointed out the Cormorants, Murres and Porpoises. The same friend told us, when we were living in Wisconsin and struggling to identify the large hawk hopping around on our lawn gobbling earthworms, that if it had a red tail, it was a Red-Tailed Hawk. "But it has fluffy legs!" we complained. "Does it have a red tail?" he asked. "Yes." "Then it's a Red-Tailed Hawk." It seemed so easy for him. He knew the names.

Baby Robin gets a meal

I didn't even know there were Monarch Butterflies in Salt Lake when I was a kid.

Or Squirrels. How could I have missed squirrels?

Some Kind of Cottontail Rabbit 
Then we came to Florida 16 years ago, and this place was so unlike any other place we'd lived in. I was determined to learn as much as I could about our new home because it was all new to us. First I learned to identify the Azaleas and Live Oaks and other plants in the yard, and those were quickly followed by Palmetto Bugs, Banana Spiders and Black Racer snakes. Then the wildflowers caught my eye, and the butterflies that sat on them, nectaring, came next. As I learned the names of the plants and animals in our new home, the more observant I became. I learned their habits. It was as if I had new eyes that looked for the details that would help me get to know them better. I quickly came to appreciate and love the beauty of Florida. Later on I learned that there were names, and then there were names. This was when I was introduced to the power of the scientific names for organisms. I have given up learning the latin when it comes to animals, but with plants, I am a willing student of the botanical names because the names tell me about their lineage. Not only can I know who they are, but I can also know the clans that they come from. It all starts to make sense!

Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
But the more I know, the more I know I don't know. I'm on a first name basis with many of the natural inhabitants of my city and county. The ones I don't know, I can usually figure out after a while with some detective work because they look familiar. (And also, I have a ton of my own field guides now.) But when I venture away from home, I get lost. I don't know the names, or even their families. Things look familiar, but I'm just not sure how they fit together. And some are not familiar at all and I don't even know where to begin. I feel unsure and tentative, aware that I am in foreign territory. That's how I felt in Salt Lake much of the time this past week, despite growing up there. I didn't know where to look or what to look for. But once I got looking, I saw a lot. And now I have the basic identification tools and know where to start to name what I see. It's a challenge, like a great puzzle. And this makes every trip, whether it's to another county, to another Country, or back to the state where I was born, a great new adventure. When I add a new name to my list, I know that plant or animal and I feel a new connection to that place. That's the power of names.

I knew the American Goldfinch because they come to my yard feeders

The Great Spangled Fritillary looks similar to the Variegated Fritillary in Florida

I know this is a Crescent Butterfly, but I haven't figured out which kind yet

Black Chinned Hummingbird

Black Capped Chickadee

Black Headed Grossbeak

Spotted Towhee (I knew it was a Towhee from its call, but it sounded so strange!)

Lazuli Bunting, male (I gasped when I saw this one. So pretty!)

Lazuli Bunting, female

Friday, June 7, 2013

Thoughts on Stepping in Cat Poo While Walking Along My Garden Path

At the risk of offending friends and neighbors, this is an open letter to all the people out there with "outside cats":

Dear Cat Owner,
Before you judge me as a cat hater, let me assure you that I am not. My husband and I are the loving owners of one cat, two dogs, and numerous fish. Our previous cat just died at age 16 and we cried a lot. We take good care of them and feed them all high quality pet food, buy them cozy pet beds, keep them up to date on vaccinations and flea and heartworm preventatives, and exercise and play with them. When we go out of town, we hire someone to stay at our house and to make sure they are all cared for, but also to keep them company because we don't want them to feel sad. I love pets. I'm sure you also love pets, or you wouldn't have one.

That being said, I'm over you and your laissez-faire cat ownership. Your decision to let your cat roam free is not just your business. It affects the entire neighborhood, and indeed, the ecosystem of our neighborhood and beyond. I have gone to considerable effort to create a wildlife habitat with bird feeders and a pond in my yard and really enjoy the results. But I am so discouraged when several times every day I have to shoo well-fed, collared and ID-tagged cats away from the feeders and the pond. I pick up the feathers of the birds that were eaten by your cat and mourn the chicks in the nests that were eaten during the night. When the chicks fledge, I dread finding little puffs of feathers--leftovers from cat snacks. It's just a matter of time. I watch the brown thrasher that struggles to balance and fly because it is missing its tail feathers--most likely due to a cat. As we walk with our dogs through the neighborhood, we pass house after house after house with sweet and cute cats sitting on the sidewalk, under cars, and stalking birds and squirrels. They are everywhere. Some have homes, others are feral. We have a lot of students living in our neighborhood, and sometimes when they move, they leave their cats behind. Many of the neighborhood cats are not spayed or neutered, either. Our own cat is living proof--he was a stray, 5-week-old kitten that showed up in our yard, crying, hungry, full of worms, covered in fleas and with terrible ringworm. Being a stray is not a good life.

Cats in the Streets
I know what you'll say. You'll argue that it's cruel to cats to keep them locked inside because it's part of their nature to roam and hunt. But you could say the same thing about dogs. How would we feel if there were dogs running in packs, eating cats (and occasional children), pooping in yards and chasing bicycles, just because it was part of their nature to run in packs and be carnivorous? We don't allow it because it's dangerous and annoying, and so it's illegal to let your dogs run loose. We shouldn't allow it of cats, either. Domestic cats are not native to North America. They were brought here by European settlers. They come from outside of the existing ecosystem and have become invasive, exotic killing machines that murder birds and small mammals with such ferocity that it's startling. Recents studies have found that cats kill billions of birds every year and are contributing significantly to the decrease in songbird populations worldwide. If your cat is a pet, you probably feed it well, and yet it still has an instinct to hunt. I know mine would hunt if he could. Most cats that hunt don't need the food--they just want to catch birds and mammals. Cats that live outside do not live as long as indoor cats. In their roaming, they get in fights with other cats, get hit by cars, and are preyed upon by wild animals, dogs, and even bad people. They are more susceptible to disease and can even cause disease to spread to indoor cats when diseases are brought into the house on clothing and shoes. I'd say it's much less cruel to keep your cat in the safety of your house. When I see a dead cat on the road that was hit by a car (a pretty common event, I might add) I feel sorrow and anger at the same time. Unless it was a pet that ran away, it was an entirely preventable death.

Cat in the Park
You'll probably say that you hate to clean litter boxes and don't like them in your house because they smell bad. Well, thanks a lot. I just stepped in your cat's mess in my front yard. I got to clean up after your cat. Luckily I noticed it before I brought it inside and smeared it on the carpets and floor. I hate to clean cat boxes, too, but I know that this is what comes from having a pet. My cat is happy and safe indoors. He wistfully watches the birds through the window blinds as they feed and splash in the birdbath. He wants to be outside. But we don't let him go outside because we know that he will do what cats are born to do--hunt and kill. And we love him too much to risk his being hurt or lost outside.

Dedos in his Bird Watching Spot

I didn't always keep cats inside. I didn't know about the harm they did or the danger they were in. When I was younger we had to get a new cat about every 2-4 years. They died from disease, car accidents and one even fell off of a tall porch. But when I learned the facts and stopped to think about it, it made good sense to keep our cats inside. As I mentioned before, we had our last cat for 16 years. I probably won't change anyone's mind. Most people who let their cats run outside have heard this already. But please do some thinking. PETA says you should keep your cats indoors. ASPCA says you should keep your cats indoors. Vets say you should keep your cats indoors. The Audubon Society says you should keep your cat indoors. KEEP YOUR CATS INDOORS. You're not doing anyone any favors by letting your cats roam free.

Post Script:
Right after I posted this blog, my husband and I took a walk downtown to see a free concert outdoors. As we were walking, I was telling him that I had decided to leave out another aspect to my argument against outdoor cats because it was difficult to articulate. It's more of a personal issue. Basically, when I see cats (or dogs) loose outdoors I always feel concern that they might be lost or homeless and maybe they need my help. (When I was a little kid, cats used to follow me home all the time, probably because I pet them. I was never sure if they were lost or just friendly, and then I  didnt know how to get them back where they belonged. Eventually I learned not to pet cats outside because I didn't want to encourage them to follow me.) As we were walking, a skinny orange cat with a collar and tags stepped out from behind the bushes in a yard and started meowing at us and walking towards us. We walked on and it followed us. Even when we yelled "scat!" and tried to scare it away, it kept following. It crossed two small streets and one larger one with us, following and meowing. Finally we were able to get it to leave us just before we got to the corner of one of the major arteries through town. What if this cat had kept following us and had gotten lost, or worse, if it had gotten hit crossing that busy street? We would have felt horrible. It is not fair to put strangers in the position of being responsible for the safety of your overly friendly pet just because you like to leave it outside. And for some people (like me) it causes a whole lot of anxiety.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Rosy Fingered Dawn

I'm not a morning person. Never have been. All my life I've been more of a night owl. I did an early morning stint when my kids were in middle school and I had to wake up at 5:30 to get them on the bus by 6:30 and it was very painful. I don't remember much about that time except being tired. Given my druthers, I'd prefer to wake up at 7 and have a leisurely breakfast as I read the paper and listen to the news. But now that I'm starting to hang out with birders, I may have to change. At least for the month of June. I'm participating in the 10th Annual "June Challenge" with members of the Alachua County Audubon Society. Local birders have a friendly competition to spot as many bird species as possible within our county limits in the month of June. You have to actually see the bird for it to count, so if you want to get Owls and Chuck-Wills-Widows, you need to be out when they are. This means mornings. I'm just not good at getting out early, and usually I don't have to. Flowers don't wake up at any particular time. Butterflies are active later in the morning when the sun is shining. 8 or 9 am is usually fine for my purposes. But birds get up early, and if you want to catch the good ones, you need to get out early with them.

This morning my buddy Maralee picked me up at 5:45 (such a good friend!) and we drove to the kickoff event for the June Challenge. We joined about 35 other dedicated souls at 6:15am at Longleaf  Flatwoods Preserve to get a head start on our checklists with a birdwalk guided by the June Challenge organizer, Rex Rowan.
Still Dark
Searching for Sparrows
The bugs weren't bad and we watched the rosy glow of the sunrise peek through the pines. A Chuck-Wills-Widow teased us from the edges of the parking lot, but no one saw it, so it didn't count. As the sun rose higher, dew dripped from the pine needles and the spider webs shimmered white. A layer of mist stretched across the tops of the palmettos.
Dewy Morning

Morning Mist
We called a Bachman's Sparrow and eventually, it answered, to the great delight of the whole group. You've got to love people that gasp and cheer when they see a sparrow fly up and perch on a branch!
Bachman's Sparrow
From the Longleaf Preserve, we headed to the Windsor Boat ramp on the eastern shore of Newnan's Lake, hoping to find Bald Eagles and some Gulls. In the parking lot we were greeted by 3 Wild Turkeys. But we heard a peculiar sound and high-tailed it down to the shore to investigate. It turned out to be at least 3 Limpkins! They make the strangest, most haunting call, and it was a wonderful treat to see them. They've been fairly rare in the county, due to the decline in their main food staple--the Florida Apple Snail. Invasive exotic Island Apple Snails moved in (possibly as releases from fish tanks) and out-competed the native snail. But apparently the Limpkins have adapted and are now feeding on the exotic Island Apple Snail and so we have Limpkins again. We also saw a Bald Eagle and some Laughing Gulls.

Then it was off to La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie. We pulled up in the parking lot at about 9am and already we'd seen so much! The group tried to call in a Yellow Billed Cuckoo and Summer Tanager as we gathered, but they didn't cooperate. Another Cuckoo appeared a little way down the trail and some of the group saw it. I didn't, so I can't count it. I'll have to go back later in the week. I'm a stickler for the rules!
Calling Cuckoos
The sun was shining by then and it was starting to get hot, but we walked the mile down to the viewing platform and back. The butterflies perked up in the sun we saw a lot of Swallowtail action as we walked by the tall Nuttall's Thistles. Highlights of the La Chua Trail trip were the Great White Heron, King Rail and Least Bittern. Oh yeah, and 2 Whooping Cranes. (!).
Great White Heron

King Rail

Nuttall's Thistle (Cirsium nuttallii)
So at the end of the morning, I had 54 birds on my list. A pretty good start for the month. And I had a lovely time in the cool morning air, communing with nature and interesting people. Excellent motivation and reinforcement for waking up early and getting out for the next 29 days. But who's counting?