Category: Observations in the natural world

Observations that may lead to new chapters

The Smell of Rain

I am not a synesthete, a person who was born with a perceptual phenomenon in which the stimulation of a sensory or cognitive pathway leads to an automatic experience of a second sensation. I don’t see colors with letters or words, taste an emotion, or get an uncomfortable tactile response to hearing fingernails on a blackboard. However, I do share a cultural synesthesia with people who have a positive response to the smell of fresh rain, particularly after a prolonged dry spell, or the aroma of newly mown grass, particularly from a clover pasture or a Bermuda covered baseball outfield.

Isolated showers in Florida in the 1950’s were a very unique experience for me as a child because I clearly remember many times witnessing rain falling on one side of a street and not crossing to the other side or seeing a downpour approaching across a distant pasture that abruptly stopped before reaching me. The smell produced by those rain moments struck me as incredibly fresh and invigorating and seemed to emotionally lighten my mood no matter what I had been feeling prior to that natural occurrence. I do not witness those undefined barriers to isolated showers as often any more, but I do see the phenomenon along the Gulf of Mexico coast regularly. Storms appear on the horizon over the water, move shoreward, and dissipate without coming ashore, but that observation does not engender the same responses I had as a child on land. When I am on a golf course, showers do drift over fairways, but never really stop on one side of a fairway as if there is an impenetrable invisible wall prohibiting an advance. Did my childhood imagination create a more distinct sensation than actually occurred? I don’t believe so.

Petrichor is a word coined by two Australian chemists in 1964 for the earth smell produced when rain falls on dry land. That word does not evoke the aroma I’m familiar with at all, but I have found no better word for the physical experience either. Karl Smallwood contended in “What Causes the Smell After It Rains,” that “There are three primary sources of smells that commonly occur after rain. The first, the “clean” smell, in particular after a heavy thunderstorm, is caused by ozone. Ozone (scientifically known as trioxygen due to the fact that it is comprised of three oxygen atoms) is notably pungent and has a very sharp smell that is often described as similar to that of chlorine. Some people can smell ozone before the storm has even arrived. Before a thunderstorm rolls in, lightning can sometimes rip nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the environment to pieces. This can ultimate result in a small amount of ozone forming, which wind then carries down to ground level. Ultraviolet light in the atmosphere is also known to split O2 molecules, with the freed oxygen atoms sometimes joining with oxygen molecules for an ozone party.” His explanation has a ring of scientific truth but also doesn’t elicit my childhood memories.

From Chapter 1 of Growing Up Floridian:

Rain fell across the street, but not even a drop touched me. I saw concentric circles form as drops hit the surface of the water in the ditch 40 feet away. My five year-old mind had problems processing the isolated storm cell phenomena of Florida. I wondered if there was a barrier in the middle of the street. My family, my parents, my brother, and I, moved to Indiantown from Springfield, Massachusetts two weeks earlier after my father’s return from his tour of duty in Korea. I knew I wasn’t supposed to leave the yard, but Smokey was at school in the second grade and my mother was busy in the house. There was no one else at hand to ask why the rain didn’t come across the street. I looked both ways, saw no vehicles, and dashed to the other side of the two-lane road. The rain moved on into the woods behind the ditch and the barbed wire fence that bordered the property.

Red-tailed Hawks

After seeing two different magnificent Red-tailed Hawks on golf
courses last week being attacked by mockingbirds and crows, I was reminded of one of those spectacular moments in nature I have seen periodically throughout my life.

When I was twelve, my father, offered such a good deal that he could not pass on the opportunity, bought two horses. One, a tall rangy black gelding, he thought would make a decent roping horse, and the other, a seven-year-old bay mare, was designated as a horse my mother and I could ride for pleasure. In no uncertain terms, he said he expected me to be on the horse every day after school when my chores were done. After I milked our cow, I headed to the barn. Thrilled that the mare, Bailey, was almost mine, I dutifully saddled the horse, rain or shine, and rode the familiar pastureland of the Quarter Circle A ranch for an hour or two most days. I learned after one soaking to tie a rain slicker on the back of the saddle, and the adult size worked to my advantage by draping over the entire saddle, so I stayed quite dry even in the heaviest downpours.

As I rode back toward the barn one afternoon, I heard a high-pitched ki-ki-ki-ki overhead followed by a piercing scream and another scream a little farther off. I turned in the saddle to my right and caught three large blurs cascading through the sky going away from a stand of tall pines toward a section of flat open pasture. Two mature Red-tailed Hawks were attacking an immature Bald Eagle and driving the larger bird toward the ground. The loud screams came from the hawks, while the high-pitched chittering came from the eagle. I was surprised first by which bird delivered which sound because I had watched plenty of Western movies and Wonderful World of Disney television shows. I associated the louder voice with the eagle since that was almost always the sound played on a movie or television soundtrack immediately before or after an eagle flew overhead on the screen. The hawks were the screamers.

In the real life scene played out before me that day on the Manatee County ranch, the hawks force the eagle to land on the ground and dive-bombed the young bird for the next fifteen minutes while I sat on horseback mesmerized. The young eagle finally got enough confidence to take a couple hops and flew low over the ground before trying to ascend. Since the eagle was headed away from the stand of pines, the hawks seemed to be satisfied with letting their enemy get away but still took turns diving at the escapee until all three were out of my sight.

I rode over to the pines and found the source of the conflict. The Red-tailed Hawks had built a huge nest in the tallest pine, and three chicks’ heads peered out in different directions. The youngsters looked like they were only a few weeks old, were partially fledged, and clearly not capable of flight. I checked on the nest over the next two months and did get to see one young hawk take off on what might have been a final departure from the nest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From “One-eyed Buck,” in Growing Up Floridian:

 

Six months after my father’s lack of patience resulted in the loss of the horse he planned to train for calf roping, he made an unusual choice for a replacement: an American Quarter Horse that could only see out of one eye, his right. Given my father’s temperament and the six year-old horse’s high strung nature, the man seemed to be challenging his own self-control, but the roping partnership worked, and man and beast competed in local rodeos with some success. When the Quarter Horse was four years old, but already being trained as a competitive roping horse, the big buckskin refused to step up into a horse trailer. His owner at the time, Raymond Sinclair, had an Australian Shepherd dog that followed the man everywhere and was a great herder. When the horse would not do as he was asked, the dog ran up and nipped at the cowpony’s rear feet, causing the horse to leap into the trailer. A stiff wire that formed part of the air vent had been broken and bent in at just the wrong height and angle. The horse’s eye, injured in that accident, lost all sight as far as the veterinarian could tell.

Acrobats in the night skies…

Long before I had ever seen a print of and read a discussion about
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, I listened to and watched for real nighthawks in the 1950’s evening skies on the Quarter Circle A ranch in Manatee County, Florida. Hopper’s 1942 oil on canvas painting captured people metaphorically as nightbirds in a downtown diner late at night. The birds that entertained me during those adolescent  nights were acrobatic and curiously musical when their peent, peent preceded a roaring boom that reminded me of a distant locomotive going by in the night.

In 2005, Laura Erickson  described the common nighthawk as having “long, graceful wings marked with a crescent moon, flying in and out of
the glowing halo of streetlights.” She went on to verbally paint a picture of “the species’ characteristically erratic yet graceful flight (as) moth-like in purpose, (with) nighthawks swooping and darting through the sky in pursuit of lepidopterans and other insects.

Arthur Cleveland Brent reported the Seminole tribe of Florida called the bird “Ho-pil-car.” Other Native American tribes like the “Chippewas not only had the name “Besh-que” for the nighthawk but recognized it as a species distinct from the whip-poor-will, to which they gave the name “Gwen-go-wi-a.” Another Native American culture tale explained “why the Nighthawk wears fine clothes.”

Nighthawks featured in many cultures’ myths and were labeled as goatsuckers because “superstitious goat-herds in ancient Greece saw night birds fluttering open-mouthed around their livestock and believed the birds came out at dark to drink milk from the mammals’ teats.” A Japanese story suggests a nighthawk wanted to become as glowing as a star.  Nighthawk did become a metaphoric star via Marvel Comics.

 

 

From the 3rd chapter, “Nighthawks,” in Growing Up Floridian:

Nighthawks took to the sky as the bees left the clover. Flashes of white from their underwings reflecting the setting sun’s last rays signaled their swooping arrival in the air above me. First the repeated “peent” calls bounced back and forth, sometimes echoing off the thick tree line behind me. The dominant sound, however, was like loud blowing on the mouth of a bottle or a distant train whistle that lasted for only a couple seconds when one dove almost to the ground. The dives were steep, and the birds would pull up just in time to miss impact with the ground in a similar steep ascent. I heard the birds referred to as “skeeter hawks” several times, because, as I was told, they were supposed to eat their weight in mosquitos nightly. Whether they were chasing insects or showing off for mates, their display was far better than the grainy images on a black and white television screen that brought shows in via an antenna that stood ten feet above the roof of the house. A red-bellied woodpecker hammered on that television antenna for several mornings in a row once, driving my father to consider borrowing a shotgun. Fortunately for the bird, trees enticed him more than aluminum, and he gave up beating on metal.

 

 

Dragonfly afternoons…

What we, as humans, do not know about dragonflies, which have been around for more than 300 million years, is substantial. According to an NPR report on the studies of Martin Wikelski, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University in New Jersey, “Dragonflies are long-distance fliers that travel similarly to migrating birds,…build up fat reserves, wait for favorable winds, take rest breaks, and reorient themselves when they lose their way….(and) radio-tagged dragonflies (have been recorded) traveling 100 miles (160 kilometers) in a day.”

Science Magazine reports that”…the winged wanderer,…a mere 4 centimeters in length…may make migrations of 14,000 to 18,000 kilometers as it searches for pools to lay its eggs.”

As a boy growing up in Manatee County, I observed many different dragonflies and damselflies, but did not know there were over a 100 different species in Florida and 331 species in North America. I enjoyed the lilting flight of the Ebony Jewelwing as much as the power dives and slashes of the green Eastern Pondhawk. Catching a few to take a closer look at them became an obsessive challenge for a couple years.

From “Dragonflies,” the 16th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

Sneaking up on a dragonfly is much harder than one might imagine. I spent quite a few hours of my youth on the ranch perfecting stalking techniques with limited success. Dragonflies perched on the top strand of the barbed wire fence that set the boundary between our yard and the surrounding pasture. I wanted to catch the crafty fliers to examine the different species and simply take on the challenge of catching them by hand. Trying to use my pillowcase butterfly net was not realistic. The dragonflies were far too fast and agile in the air. I already knew how to catch butterflies by hand, so I taught myself how to sneak up on a dragonfly that was perched on the fence and grab one wing in each hand simultaneously. Many attempts failed, but once I caught the first one, I knew hunting success was possible, and the challenge of snatching an elusive dragonfly never failed to motivate patient efforts.

Fox squirrel or skunk…which?

In Florida, the Eastern Fox Squirrel and the Striped Skunk can be mistaken for each other, particularly if the squirrel is one of the dark color variations. Both species have an habitual behavior of walking through grass in an ambling fashion with their bushy tails arched up over their backs to the back of their heads. Both have fairly pointed, narrow heads and inquisitive dark eyes. Although Eastern Fox Squirrels are most active during the day, and Striped Skunks are more active at night, both animals can be seen searching for nuts, berries, and insects in the early morning hours.

My mother, who had an easy affinity with all kinds of animals, hand fed chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, and skunks at my grandfather’s house in Moultonborough, New Hampshire as a young woman and had a scurry of fox squirrels she fed on the Quarter Circle A ranch in Manatee County ten years later. The chipmunk picture was taken on a 2016 on a visit to my grandfather’s former residence, and little guy is likely a direct descendant of those clever little beasts my mother used to hand feed.

A recent encounter with a rabid raccoon by a hiker in Maine reminded me of the only rabid animal I ever saw during my years on the ranch. That bobcat my father shot after the stumbling crazy-eyed animal staggered toward him in the barn one morning. Since the local veterinarian was coming to the ranch that day to tend to some of the horses, the bobcat’s body was put aside for him. The vet confirmed the bobcat was rabid on his next visit to the ranch, and spent some time warning my brother and I of the dangers we faced if we ever came face-to-face with a potentially rabid animal. Fortunately, none of my mother’s wild companions confronted her after contracting rabies, but my father did not think the practice of “making pets of giant furry-tailed rats” was reasonable. My mother disagreed…and won that argument.

 

 

 

From “Fox Squirrels not Skunks,” the 11th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

On my maternal grandmother’s first visit to the ranch, she arrived on a Friday evening about dusk and had little opportunity to see much of the surroundings before night fell. When I came out for breakfast the next morning, she was already seated at the dining room table with her back to the back door of the house that was entirely jalousie windows from top to bottom. A movement outside the door caught my eye, and, in turn, my movement caused my grandmother to look behind her. With a shriek, she bolted out of the chair and was behind me in the middle of the room in a heart beat.

“A skunk!” My grandmother shouted.

My mother, who was preparing breakfast in the kitchen, laughed, came striding across the floor with a couple of peanut butter laden crackers already in her hand, and replied “That is just one of my little friends.”

She opened the back door as the fox squirrel stepped down off the stoop and sat upright with his front paws outstretched, waiting for his treat.

“You have always had a way with animals.” My grandmother reminisced. “I’ll keep my distance all the same.”

Sailfin Mollies with blue flags flying…

Sailfin mollies can be found fresh, brackish, and coastal waters all over Florida, but most people I have pointed them out to were unaware of their existence. A minnow is a minnow to many…and if someone only
sees a group of female sailfins, he or she might easily dismiss them as slightly larger than average mosquito fish.  Their bodies are light grey or silver, and rows of spots appear in straight line patterns along the sides, back, and dorsal fin.

However, the mature male of the species displays an enlarged dorsal fin and a wide tail that are tinged with iridescent blue.  As a child wandering along the dark tannin-colored creek, I often marveled at the shimmering blue tail of a sailfin near the bank, and watched as the male darted about his harem like a sultan trying to ward off any rivals.

 

From the 4th chapter, “Minnows,” in Growing Up Floridian:

From the moment I caught my first Golden Topminnow in Indiantown, fish fascinated me. The diversity of the species in the creek, which flowed through the swamp separating the headquarters of the Quarter Circle A Ranch from State Road 62, captured my attention on the first day I wandered along the creek’s banks. The variety of shapes, sizes, and preferred habitats of the minnows was lost on my brother and others like him who focused on fish that could be caught for the dinner table. Smokey concerned himself with how big the bass, bream, and bluegill were and only gave passing attention to my captures of Flagfish, Pygmy Sunfish, and Golden Topminnows.  

Paper wasps and honeybees…

Continue reading

I’ve been “for the birds” most of my life…

 

The Pileated Woodpecker inspired one of my favorite childhood cartoon characters, Woody Woodpecker. Not only could I see examples of those majestic birds daily in the woods along the ranch’s creek as I walked to and from the bus stop on State Road 62, but I also often saw one or more of the other common woodpecker species flitting about in the shadows of the oaks and pines:  the Downy, Hairy, Northern Flicker, Pileated, Red-Headed, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

 

 

 

From “Cranes,” the 23rd chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

 

My interest in “birding” or birdwatching began at age six when my maternal grandmother made her first visit to the ranch in Manatee County from her Springfield, Massachusetts home to see her daughter and grandkids. As she and I walked along my favorite haunt, the ranch’s dark, lazy creek, a flash of black, white, and tantalizing red cast a flickering shadow amongst the water oaks and lit at the base of a huge pine tree. Gram grabbed my shoulder, squeezed, and pointed silently at the crimson crested head of a crow-sized bird who confidently hopped about the tree trunk in an upward spiral.

“That’s a pileated woodpecker,” she whispered.

“I see them all the time, but I never knew what to call them. So, I just call them big hammers. Smaller birds that act the same I call little hammers. There are four of five different ones.”

Two weeks after Gram returned to New England, she sent my first copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds, which allowed me to attach accurate names to many more soaring, darting, flitting shadows that populated my rural boyhood wanderings. The pileated, red-bellied, red-headed, hairy, and downy woodpeckers, described in great detail and compared with one another in the text, became more tangible and ordered in my mind.

 

 

Gator tales

From the Bradenton Herald this week came the headline, “Nine busted for poaching alligators and taking more than 10,000 eggs” on a news story by Mark Young. The article indicated that the “Florida Attorney General’s Office announced nine individuals ranging in age from 22 to 73 were busted Wednesday on a variety of charges related to poaching alligators and illegally harvesting more than 10,000 alligator eggs.”

Recently, a fairly large alligator was photographed crossing a green on one of the golf courses I have played.

(An American alligator walks onto the edge of the putting green on the seventh hole of Myakka Pines Golf Club in Englewood, Florida in a photo by Bill Susie.)

These alligator moments brought to mind my childhood encounters with alligators and, unfortunately, memories of my father’s contributions to the decline of the alligator population in the 1950’s through his poaching practices. At the time, he could get $4 or $5 a foot for hides, so on a successful night he could make $80 to $100 because he never took more than two gators on any given night. Since he only made about $3000 a year as a ranch hand, that extra cash helped pay for automobile and rodeo expenses.

 

From the 16th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

Tanned gator hides tacked along back-porch walls, which bore witness to our father’s midnight flashlight-directed hunting prowess, dismayed us. In the outside closet off the carport where our father parked his 1958 Ford Ranchero, rolled bundles of salted gator hides waited for a visit from the quiet Cuban who showed up in the middle of the night every three or four months. Hides came off the walls and bundles disappeared from the closet suddenly every once in a while. Invariably, the next day an officer from the Florida Fish and Game Commission would drive on to the ranch and have a terse conversation with our father. We were never privy to those conversations, but we knew some cleverness had taken place when our father began grinning as the FFGC truck would disappear into the tree line. How he knew about the visit ahead of time we never found out, but he never got arrested for poaching.

Sandhill Crane population seems healthy locally

Seven different pairs of Sandhill Cranes herded offspring around the River Run Golf Course last Friday. The chicks ranged in size from about 10 inches to over 4 feet tall. Two family groups less than 100 yards apart loudly proclaimed their rights to the territory for about five minutes. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission contends the resident population of Florida Sandhill Cranes is between 4 and 5 thousand birds, while another 25,000 greater Sandhill Cranes migrate to Florida in the winter. There are six subspecies of Sandhill cranes—greater, lesser, Florida, Cuban, Mississippi and Canadian with the Cuban, Mississippi and Florida subspecies of Sandhill cranes being non-migratory. National Wildlife Federation link with subspecies info.

 

Link to Will McLean’s “Courtship of the Sandhill Crane

 

From the 23rd chapter of Growing Up Floridian :

The loud rattling kar-r-r-r-o-o-o I often heard at sunrise as a boy on the central Florida ranch immediately brought to mind the image of an elegant, gray bird of almost five feet in height that stalked both the marshes and flat open land I roamed. The long black bill, white cheeks, and brilliant red cap marked the sandhill crane as the classiest member of my favorite Florida birds. Long running strides the bird used at takeoff coupled with the powerful wing strokes that propelled the crane aloft were athletic moves which defined the stately bird as a beautiful symbol of wild Florida.

Although I often saw Sandhill Cranes on golf courses up and down the state in later years, my most enjoyable view as a child was a sunrise takeoff when several of the birds were silhouetted against the red-orange sky as they gave their rolling calls that bounced off the tree line and came echoing back. Several others wading in a marsh below, would looked up, and give an answering call. Several times in more recent years, I have observed a pair of cranes sail overhead across I-75 into the sunset as I returned to Florida from a trip north. Each of these sights was a classic National Geographic moment I have enjoyed over and over again.

Guest appearance at the Beach Bazar in downtown Gulfport

Lynn and I spent a pleasant, although rainy, Saturday evening during the bi-monthly Art Walk selling a few copies of Growing Up Floridian at the Beach Bazar.

Poetic drama in the Caribbean

I saw this scene unfold while working on the Yankee Clipper, part of the Windjammer fleet, in the Caribbean in 1972. When I saw Don Ray’s painting, I had to get a print and was inspired to capture the battle in poetic form. The real life drama was caught on film:
https://www.facebook.com/intothebluetv/videos/1201673946572026/

 

Caribbean Collisions

(In response to Don Ray’s painting of a flying fish being pursued by both a Magnificent Frigate and a dolphin fish.)

Fins folded, the flying fish lifts,
bursts from beneath the sea’s surface
to glide at forty-five miles an hour
across the crests and rifts.

Coryphaena hippurus, chartreuse purple flashes,
agitated dark dorsal flags flying,
dart underneath in patterned pursuit
anticipating winged dashes.

Overhead, a frigate’s black wings reflect cobalt blue;
narrowed in diving descent,
his deeply forked tail alters flight
and allows hooked bill to pursue.

Adapted after a million years of predation
silver herring aircraft take off
with the lower lobe of the caudal fin whirring
in instinctive defensive navigation.

Feathered pirate, Fregata Magnificens,
descends, snaps his hinged, hooked trap,
plucks the airborne sard,
claims the prize, and ascends.

Undeterred, dorado drive pinnate prey
through waves into gusts to glide
over furrows and undulating ridges
to bank off swells in an aerial ballet.

A dance of the eons is enacted on the oceanic tide
by a triad of species entwined;
evolved adaptations of flight and fight
on a sun dappled sea collide.

M. Taylor

How do Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a buzzard, and a hummingbird come together?

On the third hole of the Buffalo Creek Golf Course, a wake of buzzards often circles overhead. Whether that action is a symbolic comment on my golf game or not, I am not sure, but any time I see a turkey vulture or a black vulture, I am reminded of the poem, “To a Buzzard Swinging in Silence.” The hummingbird connection is twofold: Lynn and I just took a trip to AZ to see my mother-in-law, Martha Bodenchuk, and to visit Patagonia’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds…and I wrote a poem in the style of Ms Douglas in response to a hummingbird.

MARJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS April 7, 1890 – May 14, 1998

Ms Douglas’ “To a Buzzard Swinging in Silence” was published most recently in Florida in Poetry, in 1995.

“To a Buzzard Swinging in Silence”

by Marjory Stoneman Douglas

I never knew how fair a thing

was freedom, till I saw you swing,

Ragged, exultant, black and high,

Against a hollow, windy sky.

You that with such a horrid gait

Lumbers and flops with red, raw pate.

I never knew how beauty grew

From ugliness, until you flew

With soaring, sombre, steady beat

Of wings rough-edged to grip the fleet

Far coursing horses of the sky —

To ride, to ride them gloriously.

Oh, brother buzzard, you whose sin

On earth is to be shackled in

To horror, teach me how to go

Like you, to beauty, sure and slow.

Like you, to slip such carrion ties

And lift and lift to high, clean skies,

Where winds and sun and silence ride,

Like you, oh buzzard, glorified.

——

In the style of Ms Douglas’ poem,

“To a Hummingbird”

I did not understand how bright a thing

was winged flight, till I viewed your skyward fling,

shimmering, motionless, then darting away,

emerald against the bluest day.

You with an elongated, pointed beak,

amid tubular flowers holding the nectar you seek.

I did not understand how sheer speed

from tiny wings could lead,

with twisting, turning, tattooed tacks

on courses flown on invisible tracks,

to flights of dreams of silver days.

To gaze, to gaze along the slant of heaven’s rays

and find the summit of ambition

in the constant ambrosia-seeking mission.

I must be taught to search like you

for life’s most vibrant enticing hue.

Like you, to taste sensual dessert,

Like you, to move in symphonic concert

and flit and flit in cloudless realms

beneath the gods’ anointed helms

where buds and blooms and aromas waft.

To you, oh hummingbird, my hat is doffed.

%d bloggers like this: