Burrower

I spent a few moments with this Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) at Little Manatee River State Park last week. I felt fortunate to have that opportunity since this terrapin is considered threatened in Florida.

Consummate diggers, Gopher Tortoises are considered a keystone species as their extensive holes are often appropriated by others. Biologists have noted at least 360 other species (burrowing owls, mice, snakes, rabbits, frogs, etc) seeking shelter in their burrows.

Last note, of the five tortoises in North America, four of them live west of the Mississippi River.

Moth Eater

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Male Northern Parula, Little Manatee River State Park, Wimauma, Florida July 2020

If you ever come across a tall, blonde woman holding a camera, looking up into a tree and muttering, “Hold still, for just one second, please.” feel free to say hello, because it’s probably me.

Not only was this Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) a tiny target, measuring just under 5 inches, but he was an extremely busy one! Hopping from branch to branch and at times even doing quick loop-de-loops in the air while in search of insects for lunch.

Males sport a chestnut breast band during the summer though the rest of the year they’re less colorful and more closely resemble females. The genus name is Ancient Greek and means moth eater, but it appears that caterpillars and spiders actually make up a larger part of their diet.

Active Aerator

I am still weirdly fascinated by these armored mammals. This evening at the park I had my first close encounter with a Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) since moving to Florida.

It was a similar interaction to one I had in Texas last summer. In both instances the animals were entirely too focused on foraging to even notice me. They are known for having poor eyesight, relying instead on their keen sense of smell. This one stood up to have a “sniff” around before returning to digging. Speaking of which, note the length of those claws on the forelimbs.

Based on the diminutive size of this one, it’s safe to say it was a juvenile. It certainly was energetic in its search for food! I am particularly taken with the almost floral pattern on this one’s forehead.

First noted in the state in the 1920s, armadillos are now considered naturalized here (and other parts of the south).

Speed Demon

Sadly, my photos don’t do this handsome male Six-lined Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineatus) justice. In my defense, he definitely lived up to his name! I followed him along the trail at Little Manatee State Park for about ten minutes before he finally paused long enough for me to snap a few photos.

To be honest, it seemed that we were equally curious about each other. I think he stopped to look at me – probably wondering what the heck I was doing out there in the middle of a hot, humid afternoon. I’m pretty sure he’s giving me the side-eye in that second photo!

Turns out racerunners are exceptional, unlike other species that take shelter during the hottest part of the day, this is their preferred time for activity. I suppose there is a lot less competition and even less chance of predation if everyone else is sweltering in place.

Redhead

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Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, St. Petersburg, Florida July 2020

Talk about showy! It is easy to see how this large shrub earned a couple of its common names. The orange-red flowers of Firebush or Redhead (Hamelia patens) are clearly spectacular.

Native to the American subtropics (including Florida), it blooms for months at a time, making it quite popular with pollinators. I also learned that the red-black berries are edible, though not on the sweet side. I’ll be looking for some to try next time.

What To Do About Leonard?

There was so much to do, both inside and out, at my first new-to-me home. While the interior was far from perfect it was at least functional. My yard, however, was a disaster zone – I had tossed carpet, linoleum, fake wood paneling, tree trimmings, and weeds onto the decades of junk that Pauletta (the previous owner) had left behind.

Disgusted by the pile I rented a trailer so I could haul it all to the landfill. My first challenge was backing the trailer into my driveway which took far longer than I would like to admit. Though I am an excellent driver I am still not fond of backing up trailers!

My relief at finally maneuvering the trailer into my driveway quickly evaporated when I noticed the size of the pile compared to the trailer – it was going to take more than one trip!

Feeling overwhelmed I glanced up to see my neighbors from across the street walking over with work gloves on. After quick introductions they explained that their motive for helping me was entirely selfish – they’d been looking at this messy yard for years and they were tired of it!

After two trips to the landfill, as we shared some well-earned liquid refreshments they regaled me with tales from the ‘hood. Teri and Doug had bought into the area a decade earlier so they were a wealth of information. I laughed ’til my sides hurt at the antics of Willie Boy (Pauletta’s son).

After he lost a leg in Vietnam he returned home to live with his parents. Willie Boy never attempted an honest day’s work, though he did need money in order to support his drinking habit. According to lore, there was no limit to Willie Boy’s get-rich-quick schemes. Though some of them sounded like an awful lot of effort to me! Apparently, he was a bit like a squirrel, stashing “treasures” in special places to be used at a later date.

Doug was certain that Willie Boy had buried some items in the yard and warned me with a wink to be careful when doing yard work. Doug’s words would float into my head and make me smile every time I grabbed my shovel over the ensuing five years.

I worked hard on my corner lot: sculpted the former lawn into a series of water-retention basins, planted attractive native plants and shade trees, finished the block wall in the backyard, laid a brick walkway and patio, and designed a small water feature for the birds. In other words, I did a lot of digging.

As predicted, I often found things while excavating but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them treasures; the head of a Barbie doll, plastic beads, and an old wooden toolbox with a couple rusty tools are a few of the items I remember. Their only value was to remind me of my home’s original owners and their quirks.

That all changed one morning in the fall of 2004. There was only one spot left in my yard that I hadn’t disturbed because that’s where Pauletta’s irises grew. I had no idea how long ago she’d planted them but their vibrant blooms cheered me every spring. It was finally time to separate them.

I watered them thoroughly to moisten the soil, knelt down, and went to work with my trowel. The weather was still warm so the sweat was trickling down my back when I hit something solid. I couldn’t budge it with my trowel so I fetched my shovel and kicked in hard.

After another ten minutes of grunting, I pulled a heavy, metallic, rectangular box from the ground. It wasn’t like anything I had ever seen before. I turned it over to see if I could open it but it didn’t have any hinges. Finally, I washed it off. As the mud squirted away I noticed the bottom was engraved, leaning in I was able to partially read, “cremains of Leonard…” What the hell?! Yes, I’m ashamed to admit, I dropped the box. Sorry Leonard!

I was flummoxed. Pauletta or Willie Boy had buried their dear husband/father in the front yard and forgotten him? Who does that?! Needless to say, I didn’t finish separating the irises that day!

I didn’t know what to do with Leonard; I didn’t want to bring him in the house, too creepy. So I placed him on the front porch under the bench where he could enjoy the yard. Thoughts flitted through my head; it was illegal in the city limits to bury anyone on your property (for obvious health and safety reasons), he should be buried but I couldn’t afford that, and I didn’t have any way to contact Pauletta.

Who could I ask for help that wouldn’t hold me financially responsible? I called Teri and Doug and asked them to come over, I had something to show them. Doug erupted into laughter which was sacrilegious, but contagious. Besides, just what exactly would have been the proper response?

Once we regained our breath Teri provided some background information. After all, she was the neighborhood repository for juicy tidbits. You know, the one who doesn’t repeat gossip so you better listen closely the first time.

Apparently, Pauletta and Leonard’s relationship had soured in its final years. In the late 1980s Pauletta discovered that her husband had an affair with someone in the neighborhood. Shortly afterward, Leonard had a sudden heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital where he lingered for a few days but didn’t recover.

The scuttlebutt was that Pauletta had helped Leonard on his way. She was known to dabble in black magic and had a reputation in the neighborhood as someone to turn to when you needed an unorthodox solution. Teri wasn’t sure that Pauletta had caused his death but she was certain that Pauletta had left Leonard behind on purpose!

Somehow it was reassuring to learn the history but it still left me with a conundrum, what to do about Leonard? That actually became my private joke when dealing with difficult problems, “What to do about Leonard?” No one understood me but it made me smile! I greeted him every morning as I stepped out my front door before finally moving him into the garage for the cold winter.

Leonard still had a surprise in store for me. I almost fell over when I picked him up because the box was so much lighter than before. The box was still intact, so what had changed? Then I realized the difference; I had watered the irises before I started digging that fateful morning, so Leonard had gained water weight. Sorry, Leonard, but that was hysterical!

A year later it was time to sell my house and move. I knew I couldn’t leave Leonard in the garage for the new owner, so under the cover of darkness I buried him in the utility easement, just north of the garage. I felt comfortable with this decision as the land still technically belonged to the house so Leonard would get to stay home and there isn’t any reason to dig around back there. Hopefully, no one else will ever have to wonder, “What to do about Leonard?”

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The House, Note the Irises Under the Tree to the Right of the Gate, Tucson, Arizona 2004

Turtle-y Awesome!

I was fortunate during the beach cleanup yesterday morning to come across this  nesting Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta). Earlier, on my way up the beach, I was pleased to note that two new nests had been staked out, but I didn’t expect to see one in progress.

Some caring people had already drawn a boundary for her in the sand and a police officer was keeping a protective eye on her until the turtle monitoring volunteers could arrive and stake out the nest.

Though Loggerheads roam the world’s oceans, Florida appears to be the preferred nesting area with over 67,000 nests recorded in a recent survey. Keep in mind, that does not equate to that many females coming ashore since each female can produce up to four clutches. That’s still a sizable number!

And in a fitting tribute, I found this sand sculpture nearby:

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