Irma Cleans Up

I have too much outdoor stuff. In twelve years I have accumulated Florida stuff. Huge plates and bowls full of shells.

Shells seem to multiply

Plants, orchids, and more than one garden gee-gaw on a stick. Hanging bells, pelicans and sea urchins. One ceramic head. About eight bird houses and the hooks and poles to hang them. Aqua Adirondack chairs. Iron plant stands I intend to paint. Growboxes for peppers and tomatoes.

My plants huddle together

Succulents in tera cotta planters. A staghorn fern. A table and six chairs. Ceramic lanterns and decorative driftwood. And gnomes. Lanai gnomes, not garden gnomes. My husband is opposed to public (yard) gnome display.

Brought inside, gnomes enjoy reading

I know that I have too much stuff because we recently had to prepare for an oncoming hurricane named Irma. Since we have no automatic shutters, everything had to be carted inside before we affixed our aluminum accordion shutters (which are a total and complete pain in the butt), necessary for protection from all flying objects. Coconuts are a big worry, for instance. Roof tiles are another hazard. And there are multitudinous trees and other debris the wind can carry.

The dreaded shutters

Once you get the shutters on the windows and doors (with nuts, bolts and sweat), the house is dark. You have no way to see what’s going on outside. The living space is filled with outside stuff, accompanied by the little lizards and things that came in on the plants. Also, you are exhausted from moving and worrying.The power is still on, and the broadcast weather people are earning their keep and then some. We know by heart when the next update from NOAA is due.

And then the power goes out and you rely on battery operated devices, like radios and flashlights. It’s really dark now. Irma’s getting closer and now everyone from the governor on down tells you to get the hell out. It’s a mandatory evacuation. We are in Zone A, come to find out, and that means a possible storm surge of ocean water way over our heads, which means trouble. A surge, as I understand it, is when the hurricane is positioned in such a way that it sucks the water out of rivers and the Gulf and then throws it back, and anything in the way in inundated. Big time. It should also be noted that most Floridians live in one-story homes.

I try to think of what to take. Not much, some sentimental jewelry, papers, our cell phones and the new puppy. We had to hurry.

We evacuated to a friends’ home (fellow birders are REALLY nice people) in Zone C. There was power. We glued ourselves to the TV news. Irma was a very big girl, and we were scared. Then they called for evacuation of Zone B, again because of potential storm surge. Another birding family moved in. We were 11 humans—with 4 dogs and 2 cats.

The gang of 11

As the storm approached. the dogs were in crates, the cats in separate rooms, and the humans ranged in age from 4 to 70. We retreated to interior spaces—the hall and utility room. A prayer was said.

Lo and Behold, Irma hit land and moved east, consequently, for us, she spent her fury on wind rather than hurling sea water around.  Lucky, we all agreed, scarcely believing it could be true.

Meanwhile, Our evac home had no shutters, but it was built tough, with a deep overhang and an industrial grade roof. Slowly, we crept out of the hall (our safe spot) and watched as rain and wind pummeled the forest and backyard pond. Palm trees bent to the ground. Cypress rocked back and forth. Pet ducks took cover and seemed oblivious to the storm.

We all survived, and thanks to the storm surge fizzle, there was lots of rain water but no salt water. What can you say? Surviving is the important part. Clean-up and water and power loss and the hot humid hell that follows are bad, but you are alive. You stand in a cold shower and appreciate life.

And I really, really, really am getting rid of stuff. Just as soon as I can find it.


The Secret Revs and a Surprise


                                         Radiator Art

Our former neighbor, Joerg came for a visit last week. He is German, works for Mercedes, and is incredibly friendly. He loves Americans and Florida. As a birthday treat, we took him to the Revs Institute in Naples. To be honest, we had never heard of the Revs Institute, but another friend, who couldn’t get in during high season, said it was an exclusive car museum known only to car lovers. (It’s been open to the public since 2014.)
“Interesting,” I said to myself, “a museum that actually turns people away.” The Revs is only open three days a week and you need a pre-arranged ticket based on time of entrance. Walk-ins are out of luck.  I immediately wanted to go, because nothing means more to Americans than rare and exclusive places or things.

                      The Revs Institute of Naples, Florida

The Institute itself is a big gray building in a quasi-industrial area of Naples. It looks as if there are no windows until you enter and see that the windows are in the back. Gray, black and silver predominate inside and out, and the staff, many of whom are volunteers, are very friendly and helpful. There are three floors of cars, and big, wonderful black, white and sepia photographs everywhere.

              Geronimo’s Cadillac, one of the pictures featured at the Revs

We took a two-hour guided tour, and our guide, Carl, hardly stopped for breath. There are about 100 cars in the museum, and each one has been carefully curated because it tells a story or is famous in some way. There are cars demonstrating how the auto changed the world, many racing cars, a lot of Porsches and some just plain neat looking cars.

When race cars were like bullets




...and car grilles were grand









The collector/owners, are the Collier family and many were collected by Briggs Cunningham. Amazingly, all the cars, except one, which is fiberglass, are used on the road and sometimes for racing. I have no idea who drives them, but many have a historic plate that says “horseless carriage.”

Jeorg took a lot of pictures. So did everyone else. The museum was cool and soothing, and if you really know and love cars, you could spend a day or more there. Many of the older cars and even the race cars are beautiful. Many exposed motors also were displayed, although I failed to appreciate them. Much of what Carl said was over my head. For instance, a very famous car, the 1939 Mercedes W154–the Silver Arrow, had twelve cylinders in vee formation, double overhead camshafts, two Roots-type superchargers 2962cc, with 483 hp at 7800 rpm.

I just like the way old cars look., but it reportedly could go 190 miles per hour.

                                     The famous Mercedes-Benz W154/39 142


                                                  Sometimes it’s even raced

After hours of ooing and ahhing over cars, We ate lunch at a nearby restaurant called Spanky’s Speakeasy, after one of the characters in the 1955 TV show The Little Rascals. Unlike the sleek, crisp Revs Institute, Spanky’s is chock full of all kinds of old-time memorabilia, and it has been in the same location for over 30 years.

        Spanky’s ladies room decor

When it was time to pay the bill, the waitress provided a pen, which was the biggest surprise of the day.
It was blue and silver at proclaimed “SUNY Canton Alumni.” (This pen was a long way from its upstate New York location.) My Mom, who died several years ago at age 93 in Florida, was a 1940 Canton alumna.

     A long way from Canton, N.Y.

The waitress had no idea where or when she got it. Two days earlier, I had received some photographs and documents from my cousin—including my mom’s diploma and yearbook. And now I have a pen.

Life throws you memories when you least expect them.

Car in the wall at Spanky’s

Sunday Morning Bike Mystery


I wish this could be a post about the beauties of life. Instead, it’s about my Sunday morning bike ride around my neighborhood, outside the gated community which contains my home. Florida is full of gated communities.  Not sure why…to keep people out or to keep people in? It’s a fair question.


Cute, but no actual guard
     Cute, but no actual guard

Exiting, I rode down the public street, on the sidewalk, past other gated communities. On my left, I spied a record. An album. Vinyl. Whole, untouched, cast into the grass between the road and the sidewalk.  Soon came the sleeve, and then the cover.  Then, another and another.  I rode on , thinking what might have unfolded. But it was early, and I was intent on exercise.

Later, I rode back and found the street still festooned with records. Vinyl records.  33 1/2 rpm, unscratched and pristine, so I gathered them up. They could have blown off a moving truck, I thought, but out of the sleeves? And the covers? My mind went wild. An affair gone sour? An attempt at a new life? A musical reckoning?

There were also bottles and cans that I felt sure were clues.  After arriving home and obtaining a bag, I returned to collect all the evidence. Miller Light, two cans of Red Bull and a big can of hard cider. Redd’s Wicked Apple Refreshingly Hard Ale. Not exactly a high to be proud of. But it might have worked if you needed to pitch your past.

I traced the records, sleeves and covers to a nearby apartment complex. My detection senses awoke.  Clues, I thought.  It was not the end of the month when evictions rule, but clearly someone thought it was a time to get rid of irrelevant stuff .

The albums were: Sweet Freedom by Uriah Heep, Elton John’s Victim of Love, Supertramp’s Famous Last Words and the Edgar Winter Group’s Shock Treatment. These are not hit albums. But they might have been important to the thrower. Say around the the late 70ties and 80ties.

Suppose that person wanted to start anew? Throw out old vinyls and move on. A Victim of Love who is now enjoying Sweet Freedom? At least, that’s what I think.

Uriah Heep


Bird of the Day


Equipped and ready to Bird
Equipped and ready to Bird

I belong to a bird club.  This is not news, lots of people enjoy birding with others because, as my friend France says, “more eyes=more birds.” (See her blog at Bird Tweets at )

The Caloosa Bird Club was founded a long time ago (1958) in Lee County, Florida. Every Monday morning members meet at a pre-arranged spot.  High on caffeine, many of us have been up before dawn.   We quietly creep out of our homes loaded down with binos, scopes, water, sunscreen, hats, notebooks and iphones (with birding apps).  Anticipation is in the air.  It keeps us going–who knows what we might see and hear?  For a birder, that’s key–we live now but there’s always tomorrow.

Vince McGrath, lifetime member of the Caloosa Bird Club
Vince McGrath and Georgia Nef, lifetime members of the Caloosa Bird Club

This particular Monday in November one of our leaders was Vince McGrath, one of the best birders in Southwest Florida.  Vince is a master naturalist and has been watching birds since he was 12.  He’s now in his 50s and has not slowed down or lost his enthusiasm. He  can whistle many bird songs and recognizes chips and churps that the rest of us ignore.  He keeps one eye on the trees, another on the beach and a third on the sky. And he walks fast, sometimes urging folks to keep quiet and walk faster. This trip there are 25 of us.

Birding the Beach
Birding the Beach at Little Estero

We looked for birds in an area called Little Estero Lagoon on Ft. Myers Beach, and  headed for lunch around 11:30. We picnicked under a huge strangler oak at the Mound House, a historical site on the Bay Side of the island. The oak is majestic, the shade welcome and there were enough tables for the whole group, plus restrooms.  (Such amenities, my friends, are birding heaven.)

Mound House Tree
Mound House Tree

As is the club’s custom, we eat and then complete the bird list.  Many of us also list individually on ebird, but the club list is kept internally. Each of us has a sheet to check off the birds we’ve all seen. And so we began: “mottled duck, wood stork, magnificent frigatebird…”finishing with the warblers, which are always last.  Today, we log mostly shore birds, 52 species  overall.

A Semi-palmated Plover
We found lots of Semi-palmated Plovers

Last, we vote on the Bird of the Day.  Vince announces that we “have not yet seen the Bird of the Day. ” In fact, those of us with cell phones have just received texts about a Franklin’s gull on a beach to the south of us , and we speculate that we might be going there, which would be a deviation from club protocol, but possibly worth it. “Yes,” he said, pointing up, “it’s in this very tree…a great horned owl.”

“No,” you’re joking with us,” a member responded, joined by others, who, to our amazement, find we have been sitting directly under the owl.  The owl was content to watch with all-knowing eyes, swiveling his head and then taking a snooze. He was big and brown and high in the tree–to a casual observer, just a bunch of leaves or a squirrel nest.  But not to Vince, who discovered the owl while he was eating and kept quiet for 15 minutes.  Many who know Vince were also amazed that he could keep quiet about a bird for that long!

A great-horned owl at the beach?  That was our Bird of the Day.  Who knows what we’ll see next? That’s the fun of birding.  Our motto:  Keep Looking Up

Owl at Mound House
Owl in the Tree

(To watch a video of Vince in action:



Otter Morning

Otter Morning

Last Sunday was special.  We didn’t go to church so I rode my bike for eight miles.  Came in sweaty and tired.  Looked out the back of the house and screamed at my husband,  “John, get your camera.”  He looked quizzical.  “Don’t stop. Just do it…there are four otters on our dock.”

We bolted into the bedroom, which has a window that faces the dock.  Lake Iona was sparkling and the otters were lolling about.  John tried a few shots through the glass but there was glare.  “I’m going out the front and try to sneak around the side,”  he said, tiptoeing out the door.

Meanwhile, I watched the river otters, who seemed not quite full-grown–teenagers, perhaps–cavort on the deck.  The scratched on the floor boards, rolled around and commenced to groom as if they were dogs or cats, scratching behind their ears.  They even groomed each other.  At this point I presumed these otters were more than just friends.

But I had friends, mostly neighbors who needed to see this! I calling around and soon there was a small crowd of seven — representing three generations — in the bedroom.  (I told everyone to come to the front door, and then I just herded them in.)

You have to picture this–John creeping around from tree to tree in the backyard with his camera, and meanwhile, in the master suite, an unmade bed and darkness.

Everyone likes to look out the back window
Everyone likes to look out the back

Only one window was open to the sunlight so we could see what was going on outside. Various gasps and giggles could be heard, since the otters were nothing if not entertaining.  Tales began to be told–one of the neighbors said he was just leaving the house, his family was already in the car when he heard the tail/tale end of my message (sorry about the pun).  “Something about otters and a dock, ”  he told his family. His wife knew instantly what the message was about, ” Oh, we must go to the Swanks,” she said,  and in they hurried to see our show.

I also told the story of a previous otter visit when an otter swam by our house and picked up a dead fish, killed during a cold snap.  The otter grabbed it, took it out into the lake and then changed his mind.  He swam back to the same spot and REPLACED THE FISH WHERE IT HAD BEEN! John and I stood there with our mouths open in disbelief.

Back in the bedroom, I heard one of our newish neighbors introduce himself.  I assumed everyone knew everyone else, but I was wrong, and glad to provide a venue for neighborly introductions. At that point I turned on a light and everyone could actually see everyone else. Apologies all around and then back to otter viewing.

Our otters stayed for about 40 minutes and did not spook even when John came fairly close.  They were just chillin. The humans, on the other hand, had a rare otter morning. Here’s John’s video.  It will make you smile.

(John’s blog, which contains many other photos of Florida is at

Backyard Dreaming: Formerly, A Day After a Colonoscopy

My sweet Ground Dove
My sweet Ground Dove

I am having the most wonderful morning sitting outside with a cup of dark hot chocolate, made with water, 100 calories. It serves as my chocolate for the day, although it is a shame to consume it all first thing in the morning…

My over-producing orchard hung in the Shady Lady tree
Over-producing orchid hangs in the Shady lady tree in back yard

Our small backyard is so entertaining. It faces west, and we have trees, and flowers and the yard slopes toward Lake Iona, which is 11 acres big.

First off, the very proud and industrious kingfisher posts himself on our dock.  He announces his presence, as always, and this morning his crest is extra puffed up. He is glad to be back in the Southland .

Kingfishers are notoriously hard to photograph--this one came from Audubon
Kingfishers are notoriously hard to photograph–this one came from Audubon



The tiny but mighty palm warblers are also chipping away, happy to be cleaning no-seeums off the screen of our lanai. They arrived two days ago from Canada, where they nest and breed in the summer. And just why are they called palm warblers. you might ask, but that question will never be answered, at least not by me.

A woodpecker sounds– throaty,  loud and here he comes — the Pileated’s crest outdoes the kingfisher’s by an inch or two.  And it’s really, really red. Ah, he is interested in our coconut palm stump. We lost two adjacent palms in a lightning strike several years ago, and like all things in the south, time moves slowly especially when it comes to digging things up . So there it sits–a foot high stump just right for the alienated. (I typed pileated, but I like the way it came out instead.)

Now, I hear a single note squacky call and two green herons take off across the lake.  They come by the dock often, jockeying for positions on the posts and displaying their crests, as do snowy egrets, great blues, little blues and tricolor herons, with the occasional great egret, anhinga and eagle thrown in.

River otter pays a visit
River otter pays a visit

And don’t forget the river otter, who comes by to rest when he’s in town as do fish crows and grackles and red wings and once a kestrel stopped to survey the territory.  Ducks and pie-billed grebes also frequent the Lake, and just this morning one of my favorite birds, a timid little ground dove landed just because (above).



Our dock, I might add, is totally useless except to sit on and as a wildlife attractor.  I had a kayak for awhile, but as all fools know you cannot get into a yak off a dock. There is so much to learn here in Florida.

So my cup of hot chocolate is gone. I did re-learn a lesson this morning; one I knew all along.  It is my usual habit to get up and view my Instagram feed, full of gorgeous national geo photos and chickens and flowers and sheep and other stuff I follow.  But today what was happening in my own yard was wonderful. And I got to be in the moment, as all the gurus say.

My Green Heron Guru
My Green Heron Guru


Crested Caracara Week in Florida

For Lauren, who loved all Florida birds


The Magnificent Crested Caracara
The Magnificent Crested Caracara, photo by Dan Pancamo


In Florida, the last week in January was Crested Caracara week. I declared this week myself because I wanted to discover some of these magnificent birds.  My Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America indicates you can find them in the central part of southern Florida.  Also in some parts of Texas, and definitely in Mexico, where they appear on the national flag, sitting on a cactus, holding a snake. (Some say it’s an eagle, but I prefer the caracara interpretation.)

Note the Toupee-like Crest

A crested caracara is big–almost as big as a vulture, black and white, and has long yellow legs. Its bill is blue and it has a patch of featherless skin just behind the bill.  This patch of skin is like a mood ring,  changing from pale yellow to bright orange, depending on whether or not the bird is relaxed or stressed. As I understand it, if this patch of skin is pale the bird may be resting, orange it’s under threat, or eating, or choosing a mate.  Something exciting. Pink skin behind the bill means the bird is a juvenile. Completing the crested caracara’s appearance is a top knot of black feathers that looks sort of like a toupee. A bad one. To see a caracara is to love one.

A Handsome Bird
A Handsome Bird, photo by E.J. Peiker

My friend France and I went to Felda, Florida, about 45 minutes east of Ft. Myers. There, the land is orange trees and pasture and not much else.  But sure enough, there were some caracaras  sitting in a tall Australian pine tree just waiting for their week in the sun.

Usually caracaras hang out with vultures. Even though they are classed as falcons, they prefer carrion. Dead stuff, although they will eat anything they can catch or steal. Admittedly, I had seen caracaras before,  feeding or waiting for something to be killed on central Florida roads.  However, these sightings usually occurred when we were flying along at high speeds, tailed by trucks. I would yell, causing the husband-driver apoplexy, and by the time we could turn around, the caracaras had disappeared.

But today the crested caracaras were just sitting…until about 9:30 am or so, and then the show began. Pairs of them, and they are big birds,  would take to the sky and fly together, almost wing tip to wing tip or stacked up vertically.  It looked to me that they were flying just to see if they were coordinated enough to join up, if you get my drift.  Sometimes they did the talons locked thing and took an awkward tumble or two toward the ground. They also made noise, a chucking sound, not pretty, but effective, at least for them.

The Pair Perform
A Pair Perform, photo by M. Brummermann

After the sky show, they grabbed adjacent fence posts and rested. For longer than they flew around.  It was not a magnificent aerial show, like say, eagles, but we humans were thrilled. It was time for bird love among the caracara, and we got to witness it.

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If you are not a bird nerd, like me, you probably don’t know how birds actually mate.  It’s called a cloacal kiss, and sometimes it takes less that a second.  I’m not making this up.  Birds don’t need any outside appendages like penises slowing down the flight, so it’s all tucked inside. While they are sitting somewhere, the male gets on top from behind and the female adjusts her position and they rub their cloacal openings. Sperm goes in,finds an egg and this results in actual eggs–fertilized, laid, incubated and hatched. The cloacal opening is used for all things–defecation and egg laying too. A neat and tidy system.

Resting up for the real business of Spring
Resting up for the real business of Spring

Sorry for the lecture on bird sex, the point is I can only hope that these caracaras nest and raise young so there will be more of these wonderful birds in Central Florida, where they are listed as endangered.  And we can celebrate Crested Caracara Week again.

Special thanks to my friend and extraordinary birder France Paulsen and my talented husband, John Swank for some of these wonderful pictures. Their blogs: and

(Other photographs were obtained on the internet and the photographers are named, thanks to Google Image Finder)