Sunday, February 05, 2017

Sandhill Cranes,Get Em While They Last! ... A Walk Through Payne's Prairie.

Everyone who has ever been to the Alachua Sink entrance of Payne's Prairie State Preserve knows that this park is one of the very best places in the state to see wild gators, lots of them, in a short period of time.

They're just everywhere, and they're awesome... in a don't bother us, or we'll eat you sort of way.

Still, at this time of the year, they are not the big attraction.

That would be their dinosaur cousins, the Sandhill Cranes, or as science chimps like to call them,
"Grus canadensis".

Here is a little background on these Cranes courtesy of our very own United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

  • Sandhills are the most abundant cranes in the world with a population over 600,000.
  • There are 6 subspecies, ...Greater, Lesser, Florida, Cuban, Mississippi, and Canadian.
  • The Florida subspecies is nonmigratory, so while some of these cranes I saw will migrate north, the Florida cranes will hangout with us... these are probably the ones who walk around my daughter's yard and the ones who hog the sidewalk at the University of South Florida.
  • They mate for life.

How primeval is the scene above?
Am I the only one who sees a dino-dust up in that shot?
It's okay if I am, 'cause I'm used to that, but damn ...

I would have missed that scene if Sara N. Dippity had not guided me here to Jurassic Park, and left me standing on an elevated earthen berm in this freshwater marsh we call a wet prairie.

The situation ...
A day of science teacher training in Gainesville at a training center only a few miles from Alachua Sink made this a no-brainer. 

As soon as the training ended, I pointed the JEEP towards Payne's Prairie, 21,000 acres of soggy savannah.

Once off the highway, the way in to this park is through a residential neighborhood and you might think, "This can't be right".
Just hang in there, trust your GPS and suddenly, right on the edge of a typical suburb, the entrance appears.
You'll need $4.00 to drive in so have it ready.

You can hear the cranes the moment you get out of your car at the park entrance, long before you can see them.
The sound is constant and unique ... these cranes just don't sound like ... well, anything else in the Florida wilds.

I often hear them flying overhead at Pure Florida HeadQuarters, and usually they go sight unseen, but I always stop and look up, hoping for a glimpse.

But at Payne's ...they are in a crazy, constant crane cacophony.

The crane population at Payne's has dropped, but it could be due to milder winters and more abundant food farther north. They like corn fields and corn is not a major crop in this area... and certainly not on the prairie. 
The estimate this year is between 1000 - 2000 birds.

So far, I can only imagine the hundreds of thousands that congregate in Nebraska, but seeing that would actually be a reason to go visit poor oceanless Nebraska.

In the meantime, I will content myself with scenes like the one below.

Above, wild "Cracker Ponies" sharing the prairie with hundreds of Sandhill Cranes, alligators, bison, white pelicans, wild ducks, waders, raptors, ... they were all there Friday, even if I could only squeeze in ponies and cranes in this shot.

Payne's Prairie will never disappoint the visitor, but if you want to see and hear hundreds of cranes at one time, you should go now before the migratory cranes head north.

For most of my visit, the cranes were ground-bound, feeding and socializing.
As the sun got lower and the light turned softer, small groups of a few to a dozen cranes would lift off and fly over the trail berm to join the main flock.
That is how I left the prairie that day, a golden setting sun and constant flocks of noisy cranes flying over me as I walked out.
And yes, it was magical.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

How To Make America's Tea... Yaupon Holly Tea.

As soon as I finish this delicious cup of Yaupon Holly Tea, I'll show you how to make it.

As always, Pure Florida was ahead of the curve and I actually published a post about Yaupon Tea back in 2008, almost exactly 9 years ago.
Now there are some commercial Yaupon Teas available and I even received some store bought Yaupon Tea for Christmas.

It was good with a smoky deep roasted flavor, but come on, this stuff grows wild all over my 10 acres.

I am always willing to make something myself if I've got what it takes, and in this case, I'm loaded with what it takes.
So here is all it takes to make a delicious cup of America's Tea, Yaupon .
First ... and this is pretty important, KNOW YOUR PLANT BEFORE YOU CONSUME IT!
Also we are only working with the leaves.
Leaves, people, LEAVES.

Every wild holly is not Yaupon. Also, invasive Chinese Privet looks similar, but doesn't have the leaf serration you see above.
IF you are sure the bush in front of you is Yaupon Holly, just grasp a twig as shown and pull towards your body. 
The leaves will come off easily. I carried a colander in one hand and stripped with the other.

Don't strip the entire bush, but you can be aggressive. Yaupon responds to pruning or cutting with a vigorous outburst of new growth.

It's a tough as nails native.
There's a lot to be said for that.

Rinse off all the bird poop and frass.
(What, you think birds don't poop on your store bought teas from foreign lands?)

After rinsing, let the leaves dry off before roasting.
I just patted mine with paper towels, they were not totally dry, but not sopping wet either.

Spread the leaves out on a baking sheet and place in a 
350F  degree oven for at least 15 minutes. 
You can play with the time and go for longer darker roasts if you like. I checked them at 15 minutes, but chose to keep them in for about another 8 minutes ... so about 23 minutes.

Above, they are out of the oven and nicely browned.

You can crush them by hand, but I love this little Black & Decker whacker for a job like this.
I processed them just enough to break them down into small pieces, and then I forced those through a strainer.

After mooshing them through the strainer, I had ready to use Yaupon tea as seen below.

Store it in a airtight container and you are good to go.
I use 2 Teaspoons of the Yaupon tea in one mug of tea. It's loose leaf tea, so of course you will need a tea strainer of some kind.

I found that even with a seemingly tight loose leaf teaball type strainer with fine mesh, I still had tea particles escape from the strainer and into the "tea".

They quickly settled to the bottom though, leaving a beautiful clear tea. The crystal tea cup turned out to be perfect for this situation as the cup stem acts like a catch basin for the tea leaf that escaped the strainer.

To me, Yaupon tastes like the best green tea ever and I am a green tea lover.

Like my coffee, I don't add anything to my tea ... no sugar, honey (which is just sugar), milk, pumpkin spice, etc.

Research shows Yaupon is about 0.65-0.85 % caffeine, while coffee is 1.1% and tea is 3.5%.
So the caffeine is perky, but not overwhelming if that is a concern.

It's also packed with some antioxidants to protect your cells and you ARE your cells so give it a try.

In closing, if you are a history buff, you may have read the the native tribes of the Southeast drank Yaupon, as a purging agent before warring upon each other.  The ritualistic purging before battle was observed and described by Spanish colonists, but Yaupon leaves do not cause nausea. 
It only takes a few fingers in the throat to purge, so while fasting, drinking lots of strong black drink (yaupon tea), and purging were recorded, it probably wasn't the tea that caused the purging
.Also there could have been other items in the black drink too.
We really don't know.

So don't let the scientific name, Ilex vomitoria scare you off.

Here is a really good article about the history of Yaupon from the Gainesville Sun.

My plan this spring is to locate promising Yaupons in my woods and offer them both fertilizer and the trimming of nearby oaks, etc. so they get all the light and food they need.
I'm not "leafing" my supply of delicous, free Yaupon Tea to chance.