Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Wildlife Encounters

I am no stranger to wildlife, having grown up near forest preserves that are teeming with deer, foxes, raccoons, possums, and coyotes, as well as the traditional birds and squirrels. I own horses and love to ride on the wooded trails, so I've spotted plenty of critters in my time.

But Florida is home to some interesting fauna that I had never encountered before. Sure, there are plenty of familiar animals. I've come upon deer while biking in Aquila Reserve at night, and I've seen lots of turtles (mostly dead in the road) and possums (also mostly dead). But the notable new sightings are the aramdillos and the alligators, both of which can be found quite easily in Celebration if you have a little patience and very sharp eyes.

The first time I spotted an armadillo was while I was driving through town after a visit to the construction site of our new home. It was busily rooting away on someone's lawn, right next to the alley. I gleefully pointed it out to my husband; up until that time, I'd thought the little critters were found only out west. Shows you how much I know. Silly northerner!

We pulled into the alley and stopped (typical tourist behavior, but we were still officially tourists at the time). We both watched, fascinated, as the aramdillo totally ignored our proximity and continued its destruction of the lawn.

Not long after that, on our next trip to town, we spotted lots of wild turkeys strutting on the flattened areas of East Village that would soon be new homes. The poor things were probably confused as to why their habitat was rapidly disappearing and being turned into "human nests." Happily, they have stayed in the neighborhood, and I still see them in Aquila and even, occasionally, closer to my home.

My first gator encounter didn't come until later. I had a pretty good idea of where the scaly creatures were hanging out because of the photos on www.34747.org, an excellent site about Celebration that features an ever-changing array of photography. Many of the past photos are archived on Tom's neat site - click here to visit. In addition to gators, you can see armadillos. birds, and other Celebration wildlife. And contrary to popular rumor, they are not Audioanimatronic.

At any rate, I knew that a gator was hanging out in the lake by the East Village walkway. My husband and I bike there frequently, so we started watching out for the "East Village poodle snatcher," as he was dubbed in the 34747.org caption. Sure enough, one day we spotted him, looking for all the world like an innocent floating log. But when you looked closely, you could make out the cold, reptilian eyes and the little snout with nostrils protruding just above the water line. He was serenly floating around the lake, perhaps in search of unsuspecting prey or maybe just enjoying the cool water.

A few months later, there was a great photo of a gator sitting on the grass near a lake that we recognized as being pretty close to our house. The next time we were out biking, we stopped at the lake, and sure enough, there was Mr. Gator. But this one wasn't in the water. He was relaxing on the grass, just as he had been in the photo. Fortunately, he was the across the lake from us. He probably wouldn't be considered large by people who have grown up around gators, but to us greenhorn city folk he looked enormous! My husband was so thrilled that he'd seen his first gator. He didn't count the other one because it had been in the water; this one was much more up close and personal.

But more intimidating than the gators are the snakes. I know that there are poisonous snakes in Florida, and although I am not afraid of reptiles in general, I have a healthy respect for them when they might be venomous. I knew they were around, but I hadn't seen any in person. Then, one night, my husband and I were riding back from downtown on the trail that goes along the lake in East Village. I biked past some dark blobs in the path, and I could swear that one was shaped like a snake. I called back to hubby, "What was that?" He responded, "I think it was so garbage."

Not too much farther ahead, we encountered a woman and her dogs. She said, "Is the water moccasin still on the trail?" Yikes!! It turned out that what my husband thought was trash was actually doggy "potty" bags. The woman had been heading home with her dogs when a snake blocked her path. She tried to frighten it off the trail by tossing some bags at it, but it wouldn't budge. Finally, she gave up and started heading in the opposite direction. It was a longer way, but at least it was snake-free. I don't know for sure if it was a moccasin, but if it was, I shudder to think how close my husband and I both passed to it.

My second snake encounter was in Aquila Reserve. This time, I didn't even see the snake. I had biked over and stopped when I saw some people watching a gator that was swimming around the lake. We started chatting, and a man who was also gator-watching warned me that there was a water moccasin on the trail over on the other side of the lake. I quickly decided that I would return the way I had arrived, which was via the snake-free street.

We saw a jogger heading towards the area where the snake was supposed to be. Suddenly we saw him turn quite abruptly and come jogging back out way, and at a considerably faster pace! The man said, "I warned him that the snake was there." I guess he had to see for himself. Personally, I'll take someone else's word for it.

But although the snakes can be scary, they don't even begin to compare to the sinister turkey vultures. The vultures are the morticians of the animal kingdom. Every morning, if I'm out early enough, I see them cleaning up the remains of the previous night's road kill. And the turkey vultures and big and strong! I've seen a couple of them dragging a carcass nearly as big as they are, or even bigger, off to the side of the road so they can enjoy a leisurely meal without worrying about passing cars.

Other than that, most of the wildlife is fairly sedate. I've heard that there are still wild hogs, but I've never encountered one in person. Every now and then, I find a mini-frog attached by its sucker-toes to our back door, but they appear to be harmless. There are two dogs who live behind us who like to occasionally run over and run around my legs while yapping fiercely. But I know that they're all show, and they succumb pretty quickly to petting, so I guess they don't really count as "wildlife."

Our next door neighbor has a dog and a cat. The cat loves to come over to visit, and she'll even slip inside if you're not watching. She's a very social creature, and she loves to make the rounds of all the neighbors to receive her daily dose of admiration.

One night, I was sitting out on my porch swing when I heard a rustling in the bushes. I didn't see anything, so I decided that it must be my imagination. Then, all of a sudden, I heard the rustling again and a big, white creature leaped onto the porch! Just as I was about to panic and flee into the house, I realized that it was my kitty friend. She was out making her night rounds and must have noticed that I was sitting outside. Of course, that meant she had to stop by for a little visit. She curled up on the swing with me for 15 minutes of petting before continuing her prowl.

Interestingly enough, I never see birds or squirrels around our house. My neighbor put out a bird feeder, and the seed has remained completely untouched. In the midwest, we've got all sorts of feathered friends, like robins, sparrows, and mourning doves, flocking in the yards and christening our cars. And there is always a squirrel or two skittering across the lawns or up the trees. In Celebration, that's curiously absent, at least in our neighborhood.

But there is plenty of bird life once you venture off into the wooded areas. I am continually fascinated by all the new and interesting kinds of feathered friends that I've spotted. One of these days I'm going to have to get a book on Florida's native birds so I can put a name to them.

Animals are not the only creatures that fascinate me in my adopted home state. Florida has opened up a whole new world of amazing (and annoying) insects. The summer invasion of love bugs drove me crazy for a month. They seemed to be especially attracted to the color of our house, and they invaded our porch in renewed waves as fast as I could sweep them away.

I had encountered fire ants on previous visits as a tourist and had learned how badly they can bite, so I had our yard treated proactively. Thankfully, I've never seen any of the little buggers around there, and I hope I never will. I also never want to see "saw palmetto bugs," which I've been told is Florida-speak for roaches. I know that they are very common, but in the midwest you only get them in your home if it's very dirty. Having roaches there is a sure sign that you're a slovenly housekeeper. Quarterly treatments have kept them out of our Florida house so far, and I hope that it continues that way.

Of course, there's no way to ward off the mosquitos, despite the best efforts of the abatement team. I keep a steady supply of "Off" spray in the medicine cabinet, but I always forget to put it on before I go out on the porch. Interestingly enough, my husband can come out and sit with me in the same spot for the same length of time, and they never bite him one. He goes inside with pristine skin, while I have itchy lumps and bumps and welts on every exposed patch.

I'm sure my fascination with Florida wildlife sounds silly to natives who have grown up with it all their lives. But to me it's a whole new habitat to discover, and I'm enjoying every minute of the experience.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

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