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

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)

Tales from Bunche Beach

Bunche Beach
Bunche Beach

Bunche (the e is silent) Beach is the only mainland beach in the Ft. Myers area (  All the beaches except Bunche are on outlying barrier islands.  As you might expect, given the name, it was the beach reserved for people of color. It is named in honor of Ralph Bunche, African American diplomat and Nobel Laureate. This being Florida, it, and the other beaches were integrated in 1963-4. As I understand it, the beach also spent time as a  hangout for good ole boys and a place to let your dogs run, as well as a spot for nudity and male-on-male solicitation, but now it is county property and pretty well patrolled.

Piping Plover, an endangered species
Piping Plover, an endangered species

Also, as you might expect, it’s not a great beach for swimming.  In order to actually get in deep water, you have to wade out a very long way. Other times, the tide is so high there is no beach.  It’s a mud flat with a sliver of white sand, perfect for small children and birds. No dogs are allowed, primarily because some of the birds that frequent Bunche are severely endangered, the piping plover being one.  Dogs, even on leashes, upset birds.  And, it must be said, occasionally in the off season , I am turned off  by creepy-looking old men in cars who seem to be waiting for…what I don’t want to know.

During season, Bunche is a well-used beach, kayak launch and fishing spot.

The in-season people I observe who go to Bunche fall into roughly four groups. Primary among them are the birders.  The beach is on the Great Florida Birding Trail and has the signage to prove it. If you’re lucky, during the right month (March-April) you can observe the piping plover AND a mangrove cuckoo. And a lot of other wonderful birds, on shore and among the mangroves.

The second observable group during season are fishing people and kayakers.  They could be split into sub-groups, such as Spanish-speaking fishermen/women and families and  well-covered (especially in floppy hats) white men in specially equipped kayaks. There are also wading fishermen and cast netters.

Next come grandparents and parents with small kids. There is almost no risk of being knocked down by a wave on this beach–for kids, it’s a paradise, even if there are some embedded mangrove stumps in the sand.

My last quantifiable group of humans would be first-time visitors, natives, and those who live here for the winter months. They can be sub-catogorized into shellers, walkers and readers, sunset-watchers, those who bike in, and sleeper/sunners. Oh, and busloads of elementary school children and sometimes college students who come for beach study/fun.

Good stuff from the beach in May:  the sand egg is made by the decorator worm !
Good stuff from the beach in May: the sand egg is made by the decorator worm !

Off season, like now, it’s a mix. But there are still great birds in May, beautifully colored in preparation for breeding season up north, and wild flowers and fish and interesting stuff that washes up on shore.  Lots of people still come to Bunche on the weekends.

If life is a beach, Bunche would make for an interesting journey. I plan to visit during the summer and observe what I can of both the flora and the fauna.  More Bunche tales later, and there IS drama…like the morning heavily armed police arrived and told everyone to get off the beach NOW. More later.

Willets, the most commom shorebird
Willets, the most common shorebird. Photo by John, at



Birding the Everglades: Let It Be

The Smallest Post Office

And now, to my own promised land–The Everglades. It’s 176 miles south of where I live in Ft. Myers.  Actually, it’s south of where everybody lives–the very bottom of the state of Florida.  You get there on a two lane road (the original Tamiami Trail), and we stopped a few places to bird on the way. There’s not much in the way of food or even gas as you travel south.  There’s a tiny post office in Ochopee (Smallest in the USA)  and some Seminole and/or Miccosukee settlements. About half-way down we encountered alligator road kill. One of the birders riding a motorcycle said she smelled it before she saw it.

As far south as you can go
As far south as you can go

The Everglades is amazing.  It’s flat flat flat.  The highest point is 8 feet above sea level. The Sawgrass is about waist high and browny green.   Every now and then, breaking the blue and sawgrass horizon are small groups of trees called hammocks, which are like islands for the plants and animals. (And people who get to walk the boardwalk trails.)

Legend (or not) has it the first white man said, upon viewing The River of Grass, “Let’s fill it in.”  Since then, human kind has done it’s best to wreck the Everglades, which is presently on life support. The water, both fresh and salt is precious. It’s all about the water.

Sawgrass for miles and miles
Sawgrass for miles and miles

The Everglades are not a scenic national park, like Yellowstone. It’s a biologic wonder–the largest  contiguous freshwater marsh in the world. The coastline has more than 10,000 islands. Man has damned, canalled, diked, diverted, polluted, and drunk the water from The Glades for years, to its detriment. Time will tell if the damage done can be undone.

purple ganninule
purple galinulle

The most wonderful birds still make their homes in The Glades.  Purple ones like the galinulle and pink ones like the roseate spoonbill(see slide show below), little tiny warblers and gnatcatchers and American white pelicans with 9 feet wing spans, kites, hawks and vultures that soar and ducks that waddle.  Some birds are elusive, like the mangrove cuckoo, and others appear totally unfazed by humankind, especially on the 1/2 mile loop Anhinga Trail near the Florida City entrance to the park.  Shark Valley, another entrance, features huge gators you almost trip over if you are busy watching birds.

Unconcerned gator

There are also mammals, insects, amphibians and reptiles, vertebrates and invertebrates.

The Everglades are home to some endangered rare things. Nesting wood storks, for example, odd and wonderful manatees, and scarce panthers. Invasive creature–pythons and walking catfish also call it home. The Everglades is water, food and habitat– we need all three to live and so do its creatures.

walking catfish--ugliest fish in the Everglades

You have to SEE The Everglades to believe it.  My husband John is a photographer.  He tagged along on this adventure and captured some of it beautifully:

Let it be.

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Me and My Chariot de Jardin or My Chariot and I


It’s summer.  While gardening, I rest frequently on my Planter’s Cart, also known as a Lawn Buddy.  But it can also be called a “Chariot de Jardin.” I prefer that name, just as I prefer gardening in the shade, since it’s now in the humid 90ties in Florida.

Upon my chariot, I contemplate weeds, lizards, the occasional black racer snake, green and blooming things, mulch that has formed a serious mat, and the last episode of Mad Men. Sometimes I think about those Selectric typewriters they use at Sterling, Cooper and Partners, and not with any fondness.  What ever else you say about Mad Men, it does make you remember, if you are old enough, the bad old days when things like typewriters actually existed. Not to mention wallpaper and girdles.


Back to the Lawn Chariot, which is really just four plastic wheels and a covered compartment to store my tools, which are important to me.  First, I could not live without Felco pruners, size 2.  As a friend once said to me, “They are better than a diamond.”  I also have a hori hori Japanese farmer’s knife, which is the sharpest tool in the box. My particular hori hori as you can see, is held together by duct tape, but that’s another story. I also have a lovely long digger from Harley Farms in Pescadero, California, given to me by my son and daughter-in-law.   There are several pair of gloves–you can never have enough  due to plants that are “armed” with thorns or spikes, some green twine, an old brass hose nozzle, and a thing that breaks up mulch mats that might be called a cultivator.  Oh, and one more trowel with a wide blade and another tool that looks lethal and is similar to the farmer’s knife, but with a hard blue plastic handle. Last, a weeder that’s slightly bent. Big weeds, here in Florida.

These are my  hand tools, and I obsessively check their whereabouts when I am gardening because I don’t want to leave them out in the elements.  When I was about five, I left some of my dad’s tools out in the yard and I got a spanking. The only one I every got from him, and I think that’s why I’m obsessive about my tools.

I wear a get-up to garden.  I am sure there are children in the neighborhood that are scared to approach me.  Big floppy, dirty hat ( I tried to wash it, but no) , a bandana headband underneath the hat, sunglasses, an old shirt, usually stained with various things like hair dye and plant juices, shorts, shoes with socks, due to fire ants, and my earbuds, the cord of which I put under my shirt. I put my nano in my back pocket. The cord goes inside my shirt, rather than out because I cut the cord to my previous ipod by mistake.

My nano makes sweating and gardening more entertaining.  Actually, it’s my second nano.  My first one I stored in my bra while gardening and it got wet, so I had to get another;  Apple was not sympathetic. It was sort of like being humiliated for tool disregard by your dad, only more expensive.

Shuffle is great.  I have whole operas and  songs with “explicit” lyrics.  Shuffle song choice is always a surprise, but I can’t fast forward during any tunes, because it would involve taking off my gloves and fishing around in my back pocket, extracting the nano, activating the screen and trying to see the skip-ahead triangle in the harsh Florida glare.  This is too much trouble, so I just have to lump it when Phil Ochs’ “Reheasals for Retirement” comes on, which is too often, due to the unknown nature of Shuffle, which is heavy on the Phil Ochs. It sometimes makes me sad because he’s dead.

Ah yes, The 1970ties.  Mad Men and singing troubadours. I think we had a stereo and real records.

I don’t know if the Chariot de Jardin was around in the 70ties, but it doesn’t matter.  I love mine. Remember, I’m the neighbor sitting on it, listening to Jay Z and Beyonce’s “Empire State of Mind.”  In Florida.

Birds and Bread

I have about ten minutes before I need to tend to the sourdough.  The leaven ripened faster because our air is so warm. It’s Florida.

Took a 45 minute bike ride around the community this afternoon before the leaven was ready.

The first thing I encountered was a great blue heron posing under an oak.  It looked at me as I rode past, and I looked back. At little farther on the canal I was riding by, I encountered a wood stork, who had his mouth open and looked as if he was panting. He still looked professorial, even if he was too hot.

In nearby neighborhoods, I spied five noisy blue jays, morning doves, grackles, starlings and mockingbirds singing their hearts out–but  as always, the mockingbirds were singing somebody else’s  song.  Then there were white ibis, mottled ducks and a cattle egret perched on a wire.

I took a private road.  Short, dirt-covered and bumpy.    At the end, a bulldozed wet area–two roseate spoonbills, two great egrets, a couple of snowy egrets, some immature blue herons and a green heron.  And me, loving every minute of the calm, beautiful birds, caught in a moment. Still and beautiful . I stopped and paid tribute. What else can a human do?

Time to add something to the dough.  Salt and water and flour.  That’s all there is in the bread I make. You have to use your hands, opposable thumbs and all, to mix it up. It feels good. Sticky. but good.

Back to the bike route- on the way home I saw five fish crows, the “Oh-Oh” birds of Florida.  And a bald eagle, flapping its wings and flying  over our house.

Like me.