Homecoming

Many four-footed and winged neighbors survive Irma, while others have yet to reappear

A rescue eastern screech owl perches near the house. At only 9 inches in height, this nocturnal species is difficult to photograph. In summer, as I eat dinner on the lanai, ‘my’ owls sit in an oak, talking to each other and, I like to think, to me. Photo by Fran Palmeri

This evening, as I was drying the dishes, I heard them softly hooting. The eastern screech owls, which have lived in my yard for many years, were back from the dead. After more than two months, I had given up hope they had survived Irma’s 80 mph winds.

In September, I packed out in a frenzy, rushing from room to room, picking up only those items I felt were irreplaceable. The little pink cottage I call home is only a quarter-mile from the Gulf and would be drowned in the predicted storm surge of 8 to 10 feet. The van packed to the gills, I said a tearful goodbye to all the neighborhood wildlife and drove north to Gainesville, never again expecting to see my house — or the menagerie that populates my yard.

On Sept. 6, I locked my door and bid everyone adieu, including this little brown bat. Photo by Fran Palmeri

When I returned, all was as I had left it. There was some roof damage, but the electricity never went off and my yard did not flood as it did during the massive rains here while Harvey was stalled over Houston. Mourning doves in the driveway greeted me. The blue jays were as loud as ever. The yard bunny (his burrow is beneath a sturdy palm) was peacefully eating his greens.

Not even a hurricane can chase the bossy blue jay from my yard. Photo by Fran Palmeri

My yard is open to all comers: There is the stay-at-home crowd — mockingbirds, blue jays, mourning doves and the cardinals — that feeds on the beautyberry by the living room window. The screech owls live in the sabal palms, which I keep untrimmed. Those animals are now accounted for; still missing are the woodpeckers — the downy who bores for insects on the live oaks; a pair of pileated, which nested in nearby pines; and the red bellied. An osprey who lived atop an electric pole at the end of the block is gone. So far, I hear no screaming of red-shouldered hawks carving out territories for themselves.

A mourning dove in flight sounds like a squeaky wheel needing a drop of oil; the noise is a result of air rustling through its wing feathers. Photo by Fran Palmeri

All day the passing crowd still enthralls me. Warblers are starting to arrive. On winter mornings after a cold front has blown through, they seek cover in the vines, their twittering barely audible. Next spring I will look for zebra longwings stopping to nectar on firebush, firespike and porterweed. They pause by the gorgeous blooms of hibiscus I inherited, but they never nectar. Hibiscus is unfamiliar to them.

Everyone (except vegetable gardeners) loves a rabbit — even grumpy old men. Photo by Fran Palmeri

The yard is as natural as I can make it. I plant native shrubs, such as wild coffee and beautyberry, and Florida wildflowers for migrating butterflies and hummingbirds. The compost pile of vegetable and fruit clippings feeds raccoons, possums and the cottontails. Cardinals love squash seeds.

Posing in the middle of the street is not recommended for squirrels, not even in this quiet neighborhood. Photo by Fran Palmeri

During “rain events” the yard floods. A few years, ago I heard a great splashing. It was too early for shorebirds to be up. As I peered out in the dim light, I saw a bulky form climb a live oak. It was a possum seeking shelter. Possums have lived here for years. The only members of the marsupial family in North America, they look fierce but in truth are gentle creatures; they would rather flee or play dead than fight. Their numbers are dwindling; so are those of other animals in South Florida. After Irma, tiny key deer have been hard-pressed to find drinking water, and the Miami blue and Bartram’s hairstreak butterflies are feared lost.

The yard in flood last August: The water stopped short of the house, even with 25 inches of rain. Photo by Fran Palmeri

Compared to most people, I am extraordinarily fortunate. My heart goes out to those still hurting. All of us live with this question: What if we have a repeat next year? My thought is not to allow fear of the future to steal the present. Channel fear into action. The fate of the planet is still in our hands.

Neighborhood ibis enjoy the wet summer. Photo by Fran Palmeri
Red saddlebag dragonflies are among the migrating species that visit the area. Photo by Fran Palmeri
Key deer have their own reserve in South Florida. Fewer than 1,000 of this iconic species remain. Photo by Fran Palmeri
A zebra longwing pauses to nectar on coco plum by the front door. Photo by Fran Palmeri
I am still waiting for the osprey to show up. Photo by Fran Palmeri

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