The Oasis Critter Chronicles

Richard Mojena & Cynthia Mello

mojena@uri.edu & cynmello@yahoo.com

 

 

This web page shows videos and photos of the wild creatures running around our yard and neighborhood (and sometimes in the house and lanai/pool), which include panthers, bears, gators, snakes (both benign and not), wild boar, fox, bobcats, coyotes, scorpions, spiders (wolf, banana, black widow, …), eagles, hawks, owls, deer, raccoons, possums, armadillos, squirrels, fox squirrels,  and the endangered gopher tortoise.  Photos and videos were taken with phones and a critter cam that’s activated by motion. 

We merrily call our nearly five-acre main and adjacent properties The Oasis, as a subtropical refuge from the city.  It’s located inland about 25 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and downtown Naples, Florida, in an area called Golden Gate Estates, which in the 1950s was carved out of the Big Cypress Swamp with a series of canals that drain controllably into the Gulf.  One mile to our east is the western edge of the agricultural area centered on the town of Immokalee, a truck farming region that’s the leading producer of domestic tomatoes, with substantial production of other crops such as citrus, cucumbers, peppers, squash, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, and a variety of specialty items.   Our neighborhood is densely populated with native plants, sabal palms (the state tree), palmettos, pines, and cypress, giving refuge and forage for the collection of critters running about these parts.  The animals and birds are also fond of our vegetable garden, many fruit trees, and numerous native beautyberries.  

 

 

Videos

(Patience in downloading… videos 1-6, 10 on our property, 7-8 neighbor on our street, 9 short drive away)

 

1 Florida panther

 

2 Curious bear: Who blinked first?

 

3 Bear wants to go camping? Day

 

4 Bear wants to go camping? Night

 

5 Bear in path behind house. I need food!

 

6 Neighborhood goats visit.  Mom & Kid

 

7 Two juvenile male panthers  (BIG file)

 

8 Great horned owl  (BIG file)

 

9 Panther face-off w/wild boar hunter:  YouTube

 

10 Bobcat on path in backyard May 2014

 

 

Photos

 

 

 

This shot of the elusive Florida panther was taken by the critter cam, triggered by the animal’s movement.  The video link is seen above.  It’s walking just past the side driveway to the garage.  At about 150 strong in southern Florida, this protected animal is making a comeback from about 20 in the 1970s.  It’s a subspecies of cougar and has been cross-bred with its Texas counterpart, to strengthen weakened genetics from inbreeding by a small population.  Although a large cat that can reach 160 lbs for the male, it’s smaller and less aggressive than its western cousins, the mountain lions.  Still, this magnificent creature is scary this close to the house.  Pets beware.  We sent the photo and video to the local wildlife biologist, to analyze whether this particular animal is the one that killed a pregnant mare about 5 miles away and a number of goats elsewhere in the neighborhood.  That panther was also caught by camera following the horse kill.  The answer was no, based on detailed photo comparisons.   Needless to say, farm animals, of which there are many in these parts, need serious protection.  When taken by a panther the commercial ranch owner is compensated.  A neighbor down our street recently loaded a fresh road-killed deer into his pickup truck.  Went home, planning to have it dressed by a friend the next day, had a few beers around dusk, came back to the truck and… it was gone!  Probably our friend above.

 

At left mamma and babies cross the street during their morning lesson.  They had gone through our yard near where you see the panther photo, entered our wooded undeveloped property next door, and came out where you see them.  It’s unusual for black bears to have a litter as large as four cubs.  Richard was watering new plantings when he saw them crossing the yard… and they him.  Two of the small ones immediately climbed a pine tree, as taught by mamma.  Minutes later Cynthia captured the photo at left.  At right, the  photo was taken about 2 1/2 years ago.  What we see here is two bears in the back vegetable garden, with mother and two others just inside the woods, out of view in the photo.  The four bears are actually grown cubs, probably about to leave the litter.  They’re as big as the mother.  A few minutes earlier one of the cubs had grabbed a 40 lb bag of compost in its mouth and carried it across the yard:  “Look what I found mommy… can we eat it?”  This same “playful” family at right entered an open garage down the street, raided the refrigerator, and escaped with a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs, as the owner shooed them away. We speculate that the female left is the same as the female right.  Four cubs again!  Mamma is a good teacher, provider, and protector (males often kill cubs not sired by themselves).  Florida black bears are more docile than their northern counterparts.  Maybe the heat down  here? 

 

 

 

Ok, now this is scary.  This six-foot gator that’s obviously well fed can do you in.  The culvert is at the end of our driveway.  Cynthia was walking our Chihuahua Eddy when she spotted this bad boy’s (or girl’s) red, menacing eyes within the darkness of the concrete.  She quickly grabbed Eddy (gators have surprising land speed, maxing out at about 30 mph, or 2mph faster than the fasted recorded human speed) and talked Richard (hmmm) into taking these photos.  Apparently it was on its way from a canal about a mile east to a canal about a quarter mile west.  It was mating season, after all.  Large adult gators average 13 feet and grow at the rate of about one foot per year.  If you live or visit Florida and see a body of fresh water, assume it harbors at least one gator… and act accordingly.  Way too many stories of gator/human interactions, but we’ll cite some local attacks.  Eight years ago in nearby Sanibel Island a 12ft gator grabbed an experienced landscaper who was working near a pond; she survived when rescuers eventually pulled her out, but later died of infected wounds.  Gators harbor zillions of dangerous bacteria.  Two years ago a local teenager foolishly decided to swim in a nearby canal (we’ve been there), a popular swimming hole with unusually clear water.  It was nighttime, prime feeding time for gators.  He was lucky to just lose his hand.  This year, another teen lost his right arm from the elbow down in an alligator attack while swimming in the Caloosahatchee River, about 45 minutes from here.  Last year a 90-year-old woman on nearby US29, which we drive on our way to Miami, lost her leg as a gator dragged her from the front porch, on its way to the canal a few yards away.  She was holding on to a tree branch when a good Samaritan, driving by in his pickup truck, shot the gator in the head with his rifle (yes, pickup trucks have rifles down here).  It was a six-footer.  Yeah, you have that right… same as our friend here.  Amazingly, the lady survived… they grow hardy in these parts.

 

 

 

Here we have Big Pappi, drinking water from the fountain next to our front door, taken through a window screen.  Look closely: see his rump in front of the grass; his snout is at  the bottom of the light brown patch; his forelegs reach for the water.  Satisfied, he lumbers off across the yard.  Needless to say, we’re careful when we open the front door.  He knows we’re there after taking the photo at right, as he stops and looks back.  Our bears are somewhat, but not entirely, afraid of humans.  Still, we don’t want to surprise them when up front and personal… especially mother and cubs.  If we should, we would back down slowly (never run), keeping them in site, with arms raised to look bigger than we are.  Cynthia did just that with the family crossing the street in above left photo, primarily because mother stopped and looked at her.  Back to Big Pappi: he’s been our favorite bear, but sadly we haven’t seen him in a couple of years.  Died from old age or a bear fight?  Killed by a car or illegally by a homeowner?  Guns are legal in the neighborhood, including their discharge within the homeowner’s property. Still, it is illegal to harm or even harass bears. 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Pappi again.  Left he had just knocked down the bird feeder that was high up on the palm to his right (it’s the small white object on the ground) and was leaving after his feast.  He climbed up the tree for his dirty deed, leaving huge gouges in the bark.  The photo shows him leaving the scene of the crime.  Just before this photo, when we first spotted him, he was flat on the ground, on his stomach, eating sunflower seeds one by one!  In the semi-darkness, we thought that he was dead or injured.  When we opened the front door to take the shot he got up and very slowly left his beloved seeds, periodically stopping to look back at us (or the remaining seeds).  Subsequently, we hung the feeder on a high fishing line between two palms.  Squirrels still get at it though, four feet over four feet upside down along the line from the palm to the feeder.  It’s a struggle and our squirrels usually get the best of us.  At right he’s at it again, trying to open our trash can.  He gave up after a while, unsuccessful because the lid is bolted down and bungeed.  We rigged the lid after numerous problems with bears getting the trash and scattering it either at the scene or in the nearby woods.  Monday and Thursday nights are buffet nights, as trash on our street is collected the following mornings, very early.  Trash delivers lots of food to the local bears, judging by the mess in the neighborhood on trash days… not healthful for them and makes them less fearful of humans.  Waste Management doesn’t supply bear-proof cans.  The problem turned dangerous in the nearby Ave Maria development, when a rogue bear ate trash, looked in shop windows within the commercial center, during business hours, and threatened people… a sheriff’s deputy fatally shot him as the bear came after the deputy.  The association now provides bear-resistant cans and lectures that emphasize having pet food dishes outside is a bad idea… ya think?

 

Mad Max is one of our favorites, an endangered and very protected gopher tortoise that’s classified as a terrestrial turtle.  Note the cracked shell, top left side.  Cynthia found him in the front yard nearly four years ago, aiming toward the street.  He apparently was run down by a car and obviously likes the street, so daughter Yara named him after the Mel Gibson character in the road warrior movie by the same name.  We immediately called the local wildlife rehab center, who asked us to bring him in.  We got him back two weeks later, with an epoxied shell, identified as a male, and instructions to place him exactly where we found him.  And so we did; he picked up just where he left off, running onto the street, and into the woods.  He is definitely a mature turtle, judging by the very large shell, about 18 inches.  They live in deep burrows, up to 10ft deep and 40ft or more long, are vegetarian, and have life spans over 100 years.  And get this: the burrows also provide shelter for many other creatures, some 360, such as snakes, mice, and frogs.  For this reason, this tortoise is labeled a keystone species, as its demise has implications for the survival of many other species as well.  We recently read a newspaper article stating that a gopher tortoise had dug its hole right in front of the front steps of a house.  And guess what:  it’s illegal to fill the hole, as long as it’s in use.  Back to Mad Max, we didn’t see him for a year, until we saw him zoom past our garage on the way to our back property… and we mean zoom, for a turtle.  Sadly, we have not seem him the last two years and hope he’s fine.  Update May, 2013: He’s baaack!   Spotted him in the front yard and followed him all the way through the back property until he disappeared in the woods, about an eighth-mile trek.

 

 

 

 

This nasty-looking creature is one of our neighborhood wild pigs (boars).  We found him on the main street that leads to our side street.  Looks like it fell off the hunter’s pickup truck.  The feral pig’s ancestors in North America are escaped hogs, originally introduced by Spanish colonizers in the 1500s, although true wild boar were introduced for hunting purposes in the 1900s.  This one is a female, so no tusks, which can inflict nasty wounds from these aggressive animals.  Their genetic adaptation is nothing short of amazing, as the escaped farm pig starts changing its look within the same lifetime, by growing fur and elongating its snout for better foraging.  They’re given quite a bit of respect by locals who pick palmetto berries, as the plant provides shelter for these animals.  Surprise one up close and it’s trouble.  We have yet to see a live one, although our mailman has spotted several.  Thankfully, the large matriarchal groups have not been seen in our immediate neighborhood, as they can totally trash a yard.  In Florida they’re considered invasive, nuisance wild life, and can be hunted without licenses, anytime on private property and seasonal on public lands.  We recently talked to a resident several miles away who was selling baby “pigs.”  Turns out they were trapped feral pigs that he was feeding with corn, to tone down their gaminess.  Pig roasts are common in these parts.  We thought of doing one last year, went to our favorite butcher, Jimmy P’s in downtown Naples, and asked to see a baby pig for purchase.  Too cute, too pink.  We passed.  We still eat them, though, if given the chance… A roast is coming up across the street in an open pit with rotisserie; Richard will provide the mojo.  Ok, guilty, you’re right… we’re chicken and hypocritical.

 

The predator to your left; the victim to your right.  This snake is the southern black racer, very common around the house.  It’s nonvenomous, thankfully, and territorially aggressive, a key reason it’s reputed to keep away our local rattlers.  Several have stood up to us, ready to do battle.  Before we found and plugged small holes in two corners of the pool cage, a couple had slipped into the house, one slithering around the pool deck and another in the closet of the guest bedroom. (The pool area is open to the house in the winter.) Speaking of rattlers, we have two types in the neighborhood: the eastern diamondback and the pigmy.  The latter is especially dangerous, more potent, and it’s hard to hear its quiet rattle.  We have yet to see either, but… a neighbor a mile away has seen plenty.  A pigmy bit one of their dogs, the husband was also struck, after which he shot it with his gun, before driving off to hospitals, human and veterinarian.  Both survived.  We also have cottonmouths (water moccasins) and coral snakes, both highly venomous, not sighted by us, but truly by neighbors on the next street.  And to our right we have our cute cricket frog, so named because its call resembles that of a cricket.  They are all around the house, especially in the gutters, and in our pool deck area and lanai.  We tolerate them, because they eat bugs and are too cute, and often rescue them from our salt pool, were they would otherwise drown.  The lanai also harbors brown (Cuban) anole lizards, aggressive bug busters that entertain us with their hunting and romantic antics.  They are amazingly fast and effective at capturing ants, beetles, and the occasional roach… but also are prey for the snakes.  We recently saw a slightly venomous ringneck snake (about six inches long) pop out of the pool deck gutter to snare a hapless baby lizard.                                                                                                                                                                                         

 

 

And now for the arachnids, everyone’s favorites.  To our left is the local scorpion, smaller and much less venomous than the western variety, and very dead in the bottom of our pool.  Still, we’re told they hurt… and a neighborhood small dog was stung and ended up dying after several painful days.  We haven’t seen one in a year now, but when we first moved in there was one in our silverware drawer, another in the pantry room, and two came in on Richard after he had finished cleaning up some palms (they live in the palm boots).  And about a year ago Cynthia terminated one in the master bath.  Center stage is the wolf spider, a frequent visitor to the house.  These solitary ground spiders do bite and are slightly venomous, although not a medical threat to humans.  Still, wolfies are menacing, rear up in defense, and are very fast.  They  haven’t been in the house much the past couple of years, an occasional one every couple of months or so.  Cynthia abhors them with a passion, and mercilessly hunts them down.  Occasionally we swat one with zillions of hatched babies on her back, followed by a mad scramble to crush the little @#^%#*$.  To our right is a banana spider that we found in one of our jasmine plants (we have banana plants too).  These consummate weavers are venomous as well, having a neurotoxic venom similar to the black widow (which we have as well), but not nearly as potent, with no threat to humans.  They have beautiful markings and impressive webs, and do look intimidating given their size.  An Australian specimen is reputed to have eaten a small finch!

 

Many loose “pets” wander around our semi-rural neighborhood: dogs, cats, chickens, roosters, guinea hens, peacocks, goats, cattle, horses, emu.  Mother and kid gave us a visit in these photos.  They live in a pen at the end of our street, about a quarter mile away.  Kid was shy but mom loved butting and petting, following us around like we were family.  The photo at right shows them tailing Cynthia down our driveway, as she returns them to their home.  The critter cam video above captures them as they “help” Cynthia with her yard work in back. The owner was unaware they were gone and that we have a panther roaming our neighborhood.  Yet he was blasé about the danger and apparently has no plans to better secure and protect them.  Unfortunately, it’s probably only a matter of time before they disappear.   Emu story: Cynthia was driving down a nearby street when an emu, the second largest bird in the world after the ostrich, limped across the street in front of her.  She stopped as it was standing by the side of the road, holding one leg up, apparently injured.  She got out, threw it some dry dog food that we always carry (to collect strays), and called the local domestic animal services folks.  She had to leave for an appointment, but later we hear from a neighbor that the dirty and sweaty “dog catcher” and owner thundered through the woods for a couple of hours while chasing and finally catching the big bird.  Cow story: Several cows wandered off an owner’s property about 7 miles away (we have a big neighborhood, the largest development of its kind in the country).  A nearby neighbor shot one of the cows on the main drag around midnight and laboriously dragged it, with the help of a friend, to their back yard, presumably to butcher it.  The next morning the sheriff followed the obvious bloody trail, found the unfortunate and very dead cow, and arrested the criminal genius.  Nothing like covering your trail.  Did you hear the one about the drunk driver speeding down our dead-end street doing maybe 70 in his beemer and trying an Evel Knievel leap across the canal?  Made it about three-quarters of the way, the car settling in water up to its windshield.  No injuries and lucky for him our gator friend above apparently didn’t show.  Ok, so we live in an idiosyncratic neighborhood… part of the entertainment in these parts.  Our neighborhood gossip is usually about animal sightings and encounters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This handsome gray fox was caught by the critter cam in the morning, although most hunt at night, which is when we saw another sighting last year, running in front of us down the driveway as we returned home one evening.  What’s that about the fox and hen house?  The rooster two properties over disappeared.  These neighbors eat their chickens and only one is left, free-ranging around the yard pecking insects and seeds.  Its cage is not secured at night, so it’s a race as to who gets the poor surviving chicken first: the human or the fox.  The goat house down the street also had many, many chickens… in real hen houses, yet many have vanished.  Gee… let me think…  Their owner says that he has seen a bobcat carry one away, a rare confirmation as these felines are not predisposed to sightings.   Our immediate neighbor saw a young bobcat well behind his house and opposite our pool cage.  We’re dying to catch a bobcat on camera,  a beautiful animal from the photos we’ve seen.  Needless to say, we’re very aware of the danger these critters pose to our Chihuahua, our daughter Yara’s visiting mini Dachshund, and our son Joshuah’s and wife Susan’s visiting Boston Terrier.   They’re never out alone and always on leash at night.  

Now look at the other photo.  A squirrel, right? Yes, but a very special squirrel: the elusive fox squirrel, the largest squirrel in the western hemisphere.  This would be a Big Cypress Fox Squirrel, as our neighborhood was carved out of the Big Cypress Swamp and is bordered to the south and east by the management area with the same name.  This protected squirrel is so named based on its obvious coloration, large size, very bushy long tail, and its similarity to a small fox when running along the ground.  These are far less numerous than the common gray squirrel, which we have plenty of, and are in constant conflict with over our meager attempts to deny them our bird seed.  The fox squirrel loves pine nuts… and we have plenty of pine trees.  We see the decimated pine cones everywhere, but rarely see the fox squirrel itself. They also eat fungi, buds, bulbs and insects.   They sleep in tree cavities, although they are primarily ground dwellers, unlike their gray cousins.  We’ve seen them maybe three or four times in four years, as they jump on a tree, peering at us from behind the trunk.  We have several photos, but this one is the only one where we see the entire body.

 

 

                                                                                                                                                 

 

The young buck is eyeing the vegetable garden.  So far it looks like the numerous deer that visit us have stayed out, flummoxed by either our scarecrow or the “crime” tape el cheapo “fence” or both.  Didn’t stop the bears, though, nor the rabbits and raccoons.  One of our young olive trees is not as lucky with deer.  They like to strip the bark, killing that particular branch.  They also like young avocado leaves; we had partial success with those by positioning “Boo” at the tree, a Halloween scarecrow.  Deer, by the way, are a favorite prey of the Florida Panther, and we know we have at least one.  The acrobatic raccoon is after our bird feeder, which we have since removed from that location.  Not because of him (them), but because one of our bear “neighbors” bent it 90 degrees.  Wrought iron, ninety degrees!  Our local raccoons are smaller and less aggressive than those we encountered in RI.  A raccoon hung out on our roof when we first moved in.  It took a concerted effort over several weeks to scare it away.  They often frolic on the palm trees next to the house, as well as the squirrels.  And we often catch our masked residents on the critter cam.   The barred (hoot) owl is next to the pool cage, perched on the Vietnamese trellis that supports our dragon fruit.  We have many of these engaging, silent predators.  We named this one “Oliver” because he stayed very close to the house for days, having an obviously damaged eye.  During this time, when we had Nevi, our since gone little girl white Chihuahua, we would be very careful to have her on a leash when taking her out.  Oliver would keep a very close one-eye on her, thinking “I would love this rabbit.”  And we do have rabbits, jack rabbits, not the cute little bunnies we knew up North.   So, after a couple of days of enjoying Oliver we called the Wildlife Rehab Center (where we took Mad Max) and their suggestion was to capture him with a net and bring him in.  Right.  A big owl with BIG claws.  Actually, we did try, as Richard suited up with eye, face, arm, and hand protection.  Out for battle, Oliver had vanished, and we haven’t seen him since.  We also have spotted a rather large Big Horned Owl, with its impressive ears, but no photos, yet.  The opossum was next to the fountain, right by our front door, very vigorously protecting an expired frog in his claws.  The frogs that enjoy our fountain --along with cardinals, woodpeckers, blue jays, mourning doves,  and mockingbirds (the state bird)—are prey for our black racer snakes (confirmed) and, we suspect, owls as well.                                                                                                    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is Chester the raccoon, so named after the character with a limp in the ancient TV show Gunsmoke.  If you relate you’re definitely not a Gen X or Millennial. Chester walks on three legs, keeping an injured left rear leg up, possibly after having fallen from a tree.  It doesn’t hang or look distorted like a broken leg might.  He appears too young to be alone, so Mom probably abandoned him once injured.  And he looks a bit frail, so we’re pumping him up for now with some high-quality dry dog food (our dog eats raw).  We first saw him eating spilled ground seed under our nearby bird feeder.  He saw us too and immediately, leg or no leg, scampered up the column, plastered.  The other photo shows him just after he took a drink in the fountain next to the front door, precariously hanging over the edge with just his hind legs and rump showing.  Actually, we missed the photo when he later fell in the fountain.  He appears and disappears, as they have about a one mile range.  His favorite hidey place in our yard is a tall palm tree that anchors one end of the bird feeder, right in front of the porch, and where we place his food.  He’s also been seen by a neighbor down the street, accessing their bird seed, acrobatically we might add.  We’re concerned that he’s easy prey for our neighborhood panthers, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and owls.  So we’re in touch with the wildlife rehab folks to see if they’ll take him, a dicey issue because raccoons are a rabies vector species that can transmit the virus without showing symptoms.  Update March, 2014: A neighbor had him on camera about the same time as we did and believes he’s still around.  We think he was just eating birdseed under our feeder, which only he had done before, so we’re guessing (hoping) it was him.  The leg appears healed.

 

 

 

 

 

Neighbor Steve about a quarter mile down our street has deployed several photo and video critter cams in his empty lot.  And wow, does he have gems.  The two panthers together and owl videos above are his.  Here we have Tas (as in Tasmanian devil) on top of the water pump.  He’s the feisty runt of the litter trailing the family while crossing the street in the photo seen above, taken several months before the one you see here by Steve.  He’s obviously with us and growing!  Below him is a brother or sister, with Mom grazing leisurely nearby. 

 

And to our right, on the same popular pump, is a magnificent Great Horned Owl, so named after its prominent ear-tufts.  This character was seen by our immediate neighbor last year, standing on his driveway several feet from where a bbq was underway.  This one doesn’t stand down, hissing at Steve without taking flight, as he approached within six feet.  These raptors will take down prey several times their weight and have many choices from a very long menu: small to medium size mammals (rabbits, skunks, raccoons, dogs, cats, …),  rodents (mice, rats, squirrels, …), birds (including big ones such as herons and turkeys), reptiles (yes, including small gators), insects, and even carrion… not choosy for sure.  Their flight is silent, their hearing is acute, and their eyesight enables them to judge prey distances and heights in low light.  As with other owls, their eyes don’t move within their sockets, so we have that creepy near-exorcist-like 270 degree head rotation.  We often hear their calls at night, especially during mating season in early winter.  And we keep a very watchful eye when we take our Chi out at night, leash firmly gripped.

 

 

 

Last updated May 20, 2014

To be continued…