Category Archives: outdoors

Walk through the UCF Arboretum

Last weekend, we took a walk through UCF’s Arboretum after doing some work in the garden. We’re still in spring (or we were until the last few high-80’s days), so it’s been pretty dry.

Arboretum trail.

Arboretum trail.

The arboretum is on the northeastern side of campus- when UCF was built, the surrounding land was basically farms, so the campus is quite large. There’s a network of walking trails through this undeveloped part of campus. There were some flowers blooming- like most subtropical areas, Florida doesn’t really have an overwhelming amount of giant blossoms. Flowers are generally small and seasonal.

Reticulate pawpaw (Asimina reticulata) in the flatwoods.

Reticulate pawpaw (Asimina reticulata) in the flatwoods.

Reticulate pawpaw.

Reticulate pawpaw. These have a nice scent.

Part of the Arboretum is open oak woodlands, but most is a variety of pine flatwoods. There are also some boggy areas. Again, Florida is so flat that even a few inches of elevation change can make a dry pine flatwoods into a boggy little marsh.

Light through the live oaks.

Light through the live oaks.

Yellow bachelor's button.

Yellow bachelor’s button & pipewort (with the small white flowers).

A little marshy area held some pipewort and pink sundews, as well as long-leaf violets.

Long-leaf violet.

Long-leaf violet. Those pretty purple lines help guide bees in to land.

Pink sundew.

Pink sundew, with trapped insect.

We didn’t see too many birds- the buzzing calls of Blue-gray gnatcatchers and alarm chirps of Northern cardinals were pretty ubiquitous, though. There were a variety of warblers, vultures, and a few raptors, though.


I’m pretty sure this is pennyroyal.

It’s a bit odd to be able to look through the trees and see the new stadium- while this part of campus is undeveloped, the surrounding area is rapidly being built on. There’s actually an abandoned dump in one part of what’s now a semi-protected area. But it’s a nice place to take a short walk near campus.

UCF arena through the pines.

UCF arena through the pines.

Hiking Wekiwa Springs SP

Last week, we took advantage of a warm day to do some hiking in Wekiwa Springs State Park. The park has a pretty varied landscape- aside from the eponymous spring and spring run, with its riparian swamp, there are oak savannah & pine flatwoods communities. We ended up hiking about 4 miles round-trip from the main parking area by the spring to the tiny Sand Lake.

Ferns and other plants were sending up new spring shoots.

Bracken ferns and other plants were sending up new spring shoots.

Once you get out of the swampy hammock near the spring, a few feet of elevation difference is enough to make the landscape very dry. I’ve heard peninsular Florida called a desert with a monsoon season, and we’re definitely in the dry season now (though it’s ironically raining as I write this- but the first rain we’ve had in over two weeks).

Pine-palm savannah.

Pine-palm-oak forest.

We did see a few flowers blooming, but I think the majority of the floral action happens a bit later in the year. I wasn’t able to ID these plants, but they soften this log in an interesting way:


Spring wildflowers in the flatwoods.

The trail runs pretty close to the road- other trails do go into the parts of the park where you can’t drive, and I think we’ll explore those next time we come here. Wekiwa Spring itself is endangered by excessive water withdrawal and nutrient pollution from fertilizer use and poorly-regulated septic tanks in the area. When you’re walking on dry, sandy soil like this, it’s sometimes hard to remember that only a few feet underground there’s a shallow but wide groundwater system. Any change to that water affects the spring.

Sand Lake on a cloudless day.

Sand Lake on a cloudless day.

We saw a fair number of birds, given that it was fairly late in the day- there was a lot of warbler & gnatcatcher activity in the trees overhead. We also heard a barred owl that was probably roosting near the spring area, and saw several swallow-tailed kites soaring gracefully overhead. I’ve seen kites dip down in flight to drink water from the river at Wekiwa before- a pretty neat sight.

More Sand Lake.

More Sand Lake.

One thing that would have made the experience more enjoyable was bug spray- the mosquitoes aren’t out yet, but we were unpleasantly surprised that the population of no-see-um’s was going strong already. Though at least no-see-um bites don’t itch.

Yan walking through pine flatwoods.

Yan walking through pine flatwoods.

We saw several other people on the trail, including a few people walking their dogs. Noe is definitely not the type of pet that can go on hikes with us- especially with all the aerial predators and who knows what lurking in the underbrush.

A big pine had fallen across the path and split this sapling.

A big pine had fallen across the path and split this sapling.

One interesting thing we noticed was that in places near water, the moister air was really evident. So it’s not just the soil that has large moisture variations-it’s the air as well.

Crossing a tiny stream.

Crossing a tiny stream.

I find the oaky areas generally prettier to walk through than the drier plant communities. Though obviously this is an aesthetic preference. I like the dappled light through the branches and their clinging lichens.

Afternoon sun on the trail.

Afternoon sun on the trail.

Aside from birds, we saw a few arthropods and the ubiquitous gray squirrels. We didn’t see any fox squirrels, though they’re supposed to live in the park.

Cup-shaped spiderweb in the forest.

Cup-shaped spiderweb in the forest.

The day’s bird list: Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Swallow-tailed Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Mourning Dove, Barred Owl, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, Palm Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler

All in all, it was a nice short hike. Definitely a place to return to and explore further- both by foot and by canoe.

December gardening

We just returned from vacation (hence the posting silence), and weren’t sure what the condition of our garden would be. Since our plot is in a community garden, it was watered while we were gone, and we asked some of the other volunteers to feel free to harvest things- mainly the pak choy, collards, and misome.

The mint is starting to act invasive...

The mint is starting to act invasive…

It looks like they did harvest at least the first two, though maybe the misome is unfamiliar enough that people weren’t sure what it was and whether to take it. The pak choy is pretty much gone (except for 3 plants that are going to seed). But the collards and misome are still going strong.

The former gardener planted this violet, and it was just too cute to remove.

The former gardener planted this violet, and it was just too cute to remove.

A few weeks before we left, I planted some seeds, so now the turnips, onions, and radishes are coming up. The onions haven’t gotten much bigger (they’re under the mulberry tree), but the other two are growing nicely.

Yay, turnips!

Yay, turnips!

The collards are overshadowing the new radishes, so we have some competition for photons. Of course, that’s easily managed by harvesting some more greens (which we did).

New radishes.

New radishes.

It didn’t quite get down to freezing while we were gone, though it probably got very close to that. At any rate, the basil, green peppers, tomatoes, and amaranth are not doing well. The tomatoes may survive at the bases, but the basil and peppers are smaller, and unlikely to last the winter. It’ll probably briefly freeze a few times over the next few months.

Poor little pepper... the Italian parsley looks fine, though.

Poor little pepper… the Italian parsley looks really good, though.

The cool weather seems to have fooled a few things into thinking it’s spring. Our violet is blooming, and so is a cherry (or plum?) tree in the corner of the garden. The tarragon has finally stopped, and I gathered a bunch of seeds from it. Now sure how many I’ll actually plant, but I can always give them away.

Thinks it's spring.

Thinks it’s spring.

There’s lots of dill and cilantro coming up, as “volunteers.” I guess they like the cooler weather. The mulberry tree is also fruiting like crazy, and I’m surprised no birds are going for it yet. I did see a Carolina wren and palm warbler hanging around today, and heard some cardinals lurking in the bushes. There are also a bunch of robins around. Also, butterflies!

Long-tailed skipper?

Long-tailed skipper?

It’s definitely nice to see insects flying around in the winter- at least beneficial ones like these. I have to say the fire ants were still a nuisance- I was bitten a few times, but seemingly less venomously than usual. Maybe they’re lazy with the cooler weather. Though I still think of them as malevolent critters.

Zebra longwing.

Zebra longwing.

Random emu

While birding at Oakland Nature Preserve last weekend, I had an unexpected emu encounter.

Not quite like seeing one in the wild for real, but interesting nonetheless.

The property next to the preserve is owned by a ranch that raises exotic animals: zebras, emus, long-horned cows, and several types of antelope. I’d never seen them right next to the fence, though. So it was interesting to watch the emus walking around, foraging under the oak trees for food. My cell phone camera’s not very good, so you’ll have to take my word for it that they were pretty close to me. Pretty neat.

Also, I should add that hearing peacocks calling while birding the swamp by Lake Apopka is an interesting experience.

Birding Fukushimagata Wetlands, Niigata, Japan

One of my day trips out of Niigata was to the Fukushimagata wetlands for birding. Fukushimagata is a park a bit northeast of Niigata City that provides habitat for birds- large numbers of waterfowl visit on migration and in the winter, but I was there at an “off” season and only saw a few species.

I headed on a local train east to the town of Toyosaka, getting there mid-morning. Toyosaka has clearly seen somewhat better days, to judge from the state of the downtown shopping arcade area. At any rate, I walked to the Fukushimagata wetlands, which are surrounded by rice fields just southeast of town. Many of the paddies had clearly been planted recently, and some of them had people in them planting. There were not too many birds in and around the paddies- Japan is not really a “birdy” place. This is probably partly due to the seasons, though.

Farmers planting rice, along the road outside of Toyosaka.

I’d originally thought that the distance from the station to the wetlands was about 1 km, but it turned out to be more like 4. So the walk was a lot longer than expected. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to look into catching a bus. The walk turned out to be fine, through a suburban area that was in better repair than downtown Toyosaka- the houses were reminiscent of the newer developments on Central Oahu or the west side of Kauai – small houses with walls, and low flat fields right outside of the town. Though this was rice, not sugarcane.

As I was walking, I heard some really loud, croaking and buzzing birds in the reeds, but was not able to get a look at them. This was a bit frustrating. When I got to the wetland protected area, there was a river running alongside it, with a spiral-shaped observation tower/nature center, and across the street a wetland complex. I visited the river first, and heard more of the buzzy birds, but was not able to see them. The visitor center had an admission fee, so I weighed going in, before deciding against it and crossing the elevated bridge over to the wetland side.

Fukushimagata river.

I stopped at an open teahouse/shelter building to drink some tea and eat a snack- some banana chocolate covered cookies that I’d grabbed in Niigata Station. I’d assumed there would be more food along the way, but there wasn’t much apparent in Toyosaka. But it was only 11, and I was still doing okay. A Japanese man sat next to me and tried to chat- he offered some of his lunch and I think I politely declined- but then gave me some gum. I felt a bit awkward about the encounter.

View of the shelter.

I did notice one person who looked like a birder walking along the edge of the wetlands – most of the people I saw were just out for a stroll and lacked birding paraphernalia, i.e., binocs, a vest, and a furtive manner. I walked in the opposite direction, but he ended up coming the same way I did when I was trying to identify a duck.

The observation tower. It probably would have had a great view, but I was eager to get to the birds…

He tried to indicate something in Japanese, but I told him I didn’t speak the language. So he asked for my book and pointed to a great crested grebe (most bird books are organized according to taxonomy, so the order of species will generally be the same and it’s easy to jump to a specific group regardless of language). Apparently they’re rare at the wetland, so he was quite excited. Since that communication was more or less successful, I asked him which reed-warbler was all around (the buzzing bird), and he pointed to the right one (Great reed-warbler). Cross-cultural geeky communication FTW! Anyway, that interaction worked out better than the man trying to feed me.

View of the lagoon from the shelter. There was a nice view of the mountains.

So, I proceeded on at the wetlands, visiting a viewing tower on the shore of the lagoon, and then headed back. By this point I was both tired and hungry, and wanted to rest my feet and get lunch. I also felt I would have done an honorable amount of walking by the time I got back to the station. Along the way, I passed food guy going the other way on his bike. Again, a bit awkward. But I successfully made my way back to the train station, Niigata, and onigiri and melon pastries.

Bird-viewing tower.

My bird list for the day:

  • Mallard, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Green-winged Teal & Greater Scaup
  • Little Grebe & Great Crested Grebe
  • Great Cormorant
  • Gray Heron, Great Egret, Little Egret & Black-crowned Night-Heron
  • Black Kite
  • Eurasian Moorhen & Eurasian Coot
  • Oriental Turtle-Dove, Carrion Crow, Sky Lark, Barn Swallow, Great Reed-Warbler, Narcissus Flycatcher, White-cheeked Starling, White Wagtail, Oriental Greenfinch & Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Starting a garden

Gardening has always been important to both sides of my family, and it was a big part of summers when I was growing up. Dad’s family comes from rural West Virginia, and Mom’s comes from small-town Austria and Romania, so gardening was always an integral part of how they got their food. When we were growing up, Mom and Dad made a big garden with a raised bed that took up a big chunk of the back yard- but that was nothing compared to the entire half of the backyard that my grandparents’ garden extended. So gardens (or more realistically, the yummy fresh fruits and veggies) were a pretty big deal to us kids.

Since I live in an apartment today, I don’t have a backyard in which to garden- and it seems that the screen on out patio is coarse enough to let in pesty insects, but fine enough to keep out their predators. Onions grow pretty well, but that’s about it. We also have the issue of a ravenous herbivore who is excellent at finding and uprooting vegetation. So everything has to be kept at above bunny-level.

But last month, a new opportunity came up-and we now have a plot at the UCF Arboretum’s community garden. They have an “adopt-a-plot” program that lets community members use part of their garden, which has a deer fence and sprinkler system- both of which are really important, given its location. The arboretum provides tools, compost and mulch, and most importantly, advice from the staff members.

Our plot is the central dirt strip, which widens toward the back. The grassy strip (which we still have to mulch over) is the left border/pathway. The cardboard “fence” divides our plot from the neighbors’. We’ll probably have to come up with something more aesthetically pleasing as a boundary. The plant in the front is lemon verbena; the dirt area was just planted with bok choy seeds.

The plot that Yan and I are responsible for was previously used by someone else, so it had quite a few things growing in it already- including a lot of weeds. A lot of the plants were in bad shape or weren’t things we were interested in (the eggplant was both). But we’re keeping a few things, to see how it goes.

The first thing we did was weed, and mulch an access path. Then we aerated the dirt, and added some new dirt to even out the beds. Finally, we added a layer of compost to the top.

View from the back end of the plot. On the left is a mulberry tree, and on the right are some tarragon, a tomato, beans, and a flowering plant (I haven’t figured out what yet) that’s good for attracting pollinators. We’ve planted carrots & radishes in the left plot, and misome (a bok choy relative) between the tarragon and the beans. In the background, you can see the sprinkler system and rain catchment barrel.

I’m going to try to remember to take photos and post them, but I haven’t been good at it so far. These photos are from yesterday. I planted some seeds last Thursday, and some of them are already sprouting as of Sunday. That’s always fun to see.

Bok choy sprouts!

So we’ll see how this goes. We picked fast-growing plants so that we can hopefully avoid complications from possible freezes and harvest something early. We’re both pretty excited about getting fresh veggies out of this, and it’ll be fun to see how things do.

We’ve kept a few eggplants in the back end of the garden. There were some spare collard and kale seedlings from the arboretum staff, which we planted to the left. To the right will be a long row of carrots and radishes.

Urban animals of Japan

Because we were mainly in urban areas in Japan, we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife. Really, the deer in Nara were the only megafauna we saw; we were hiking in areas with wild monkeys a few times, but only saw signs warning of their apparent evil.

Seriously, do not mess with the monkeys! Sign from Fushimi Inari.

Of course, there were feral cats a few times, and the nutria in the Shimogamo River. But we didn’t see anything really cool like tanuki.

I did a fair amount of birding, though it was mostly opportunistic in the sense of carrying my binoculars around with me.

Birding at Kiyomizu-dera. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

The season and areas we were in weren’t really conducive to seeing a wide variety of birds, but I did see 45 different species (25 lifers).

Black-tailed Gull, Ueno Park.

The only raptor we saw was the Black Kite; there were a lot of these in Kyoto. We’d occasionally hear them calling from our hotel room window, and look out to see them riding thermals over the city.

Black Kite on right; Rock Pigeons on left.

We ended up seeing some neat invertebrates too. A wet day in Kyoto showed us a land planarian that was several inches long.

Pretty sure this is Bipalium kewense. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

I’m not very good at ID’ing insects, but we saw a lot of flying critters in riparian areas (including the giant hornet!). I have no idea what this one is (thankfully, it was not flying):

Seen near a stream in Higashiyama. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

And there were some insects in scenic places, like this caterpillar found on a jacket in the forest at Fushimi Inari:

Kind of a cute little guy. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

If we visit again, it would be nice to get into some less urbanized areas to see more wildlife. Maybe a Hokkaido trip in the future…

Fushimi Inari Taisha

The Fushimi Inari Shrine is located in Inari, a suburb of Kyoto. It’s mainly known for two things: orange torii gates and foxes (kitsune). The shrine complex covers several acres of wooded hills, with lots of paths- and stairs- through the forest. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of shrines and little memorials throughout the area.

Main shrine building. The walk uphill begins near here. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

We spent most of the day at this complex. The torii stretch out over many miles of pathways and trails. All of this is set in the hilly forest so it’s all very idyllic in setting. The multitude of shrines makes it more so. It’s incredible. The site was crowded but  that didn’t really detract from anything, plus we ended up taking a side detour that had few people on it (so few we were a bit concerned about getting lost in the hills). In places the torii are packed so closely together in groups of tens to hundreds that passing through them is like passing through a tunnel. It’s an amazing effect.

Walking in the torii tunnel. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

The shrines along the way had many levels of detail and sophistication. Some were small things with basically just stones erected in an appropriate way. These often had two cute little 3″ or so clay white foxes on them (yes, we ended up buying a pair of these, but that was later in Tokyo). The main ones were quite large, with elaborate ropes, red aprons for the foxes, brightly colored platforms and posts, etc. Foxes are traditional guardians of granaries, so this started as an agriculture shrine.

Collection of shrines near a stream.

In various places, the trail was lined with shops- either tea stands, ramen spots, or ice cream stands. Most of these offered a place to sit and relax and contemplate the forest (and incidentally catch your breath). Other than these spots, there were very few places to sit. This sort of mix of commercial and religious aspects was pretty much everywhere- e.g., the Hello Kitty paraphernalia that was Kinkaku-ji and and Fushimi Inari themed. Also the wide variety of little charms that you could pick up everywhere.

Cub scouts and others taking a rest break. You can see Kyoto in the background. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

There are main paths at this complex, but also trails that are basically hiking paths that go off into the forest. We decided to take one of these on the assumption that it would eventually loop us back to the main path. (It did.) So that gave us a great chance to get into the woods, and be away from people. It was really quiet out there. The trail ran downstream along one creek and then upstream another in the next mini-valley over. We had the trail pretty much to ourselves.

A less crowded area on the trail. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

At two stops on the trail, there were a dense clusters of shrines. The shrines were sort of wedged into the hillside on whatever flat part of the streamside there was. Very nice to be able to hang out at such a place for a while and prowl around all the shrines without getting in anyone’s way.

You could buy little torii like these for a few hundred yen at the shops along the way, but the bigger gates cost thousands. Note the bonnets and aprons on the foxes.

At the end of the walk, we had some lunch in the ubiquitous commercial area at the entrance to the shrine, along with some fox-shaped cinnamon cookies. Yum.

Fox guardian holding the key to the granary. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

Friday bunnyblogging: travel edition

No photos of Noe this week. She’s done some cute things lately, but always stops doing them when we go to the the camera. I don’t think she understands how this owner-pet relationship is supposed to work. I mean, we’re not even allowed to touch her soft, spotless white tummy, but she’s allowed to climb all over us for a piece of fruit…

Anyway, we recently went to a wedding in California, and took the opportunity to do a road trip on the way. In Arizona, we stopped at Petrified Forest NP and did some sightseeing. Among the colorful badlands and neat petrified wood, we saw several desert cottontail rabbits. Here’s one:

Can you spot the rabbit? (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

Can’t make it out? Here’s a more helpful look:

This particular rabbit was feeding right alongside the trail, and seemed pretty used to the presence of humans. One of the factors that probably contributed to its placidity was the giant freaky tick hanging off its ear. Now, I try to be mature about the presence of insect life, but parasites do give me the creeps. And this one was easily the size of a dime! I had no idea that ticks could get that big.

We initially thought the rabbit was tagged or something, but later research on the internet showed us just how naive we were about the little arachnid creeps. I’m not going to link to any photos here, because it’s the sort of thing that, once seen, can’t be unseen. Especially up close through binoculars. Brr.

Honolulu Park in Florida?

After a recent bike ride on the West Orange Trail, we took a little detour to Ocoee, FL. There’s a small subdivision here with Hawaiian street names, so we thought we’d check it out.

It wasn’t terribly exciting. Indeed, some of the streets on our map had been blocked off by a new faux-Italian subdivision that was going up next door. But we did stop to take a photo at Honolulu Park.

It was hard to see why it had the name. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

The other interesting thing we saw that day at the Oakland Farmer’s Market was a food truck selling Hawaiian plate lunch! We’ll have to plan a bike ride to try it some time…