Sunday Before Christmas, 2007

From my old blog from out west. The principle holds in Indiana in December, 2018.

Cloudy, 32 degrees. There are about six inches of snow on the ground. Thomas and I took our walk this morning, crunching companionably through the snow crust together.

Snow tells a tale of the mountain that’s hidden the rest of the year. It reveals the intensely, almost manically nomadic nature of deer, and records the passage of other animals. This morning we saw rabbit tracks interspersed with bobcat tracks, a drama written in the snow, but with no discernible ending. Did the bobcat get dinner? Or did the rabbit live another day?

Snow tells part of the tale, but doesn’t promise more than that.

View over the Cabinet Mountains in northwest Montana
View over the Cabinet Mountains in northwest Montana, Christmas Eve 2007

 

Snake Road

When I married my husband, I knew he’d been interested in reptiles from an early age. He was a bold kid, adept both at evading adult supervision and, thankfully, keeping himself just barely on the right side of the dirt when he did. That’s how he came to handle his first venomous snake – a copperhead – at the tender age of 9, while adventuring in a marshy area behind his childhood home in Houston that the kids called “The Bayou.” His parents had forbidden him from playing in The Bayou, probably because of the very thing that attracted him the most – the varied and occasionally hazardous reptile life that lived there.

Somehow, he made it to adulthood. Along the way, he owned several snakes, turtles, and lizards along the way. One summer, he worked with researchers who were bagging timber rattlesnakes for venom research. His job was to carry the bagged snakes down the mountain and back to the waiting vehicles. Fortunately, he’d learned safer ways of handling venomous snakes since his escapades with the copperheads.

It never occurred to me that my son might come to share his stepdad’s interest in reptiles, if only because the genetics didn’t seem to be there – his father has a straight-up phobia of anything with scales, and though I love animals of all kinds, snakes never really resonated with me. But he did develop an interest in reptiles. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. My son is obsessed with snakes, particularly venomous snakes, but any snake will do. One day three or four years ago, he asked Travis to teach him to handle our Rosy Boa, and from there he was off. Sean has studied snakes obsessively – their habits, identification, habitats, and venom. Sometime last year, Travis announced that Sean was now his superior at snake identification.

If there is any ideal I hold as a parent – and I hope there are several – it is “feed the obsession.” (Unless it’s video games, in which case my mantra is “tolerate and manage the obsession.”) Accordingly, when I discovered Snake Road, I quickly began organizing a family trip there. If you’ve read my writing about the Silver River monkeys, you know I’m a fan of idiosyncratic nature travel. This was a destination to please everyone.

Snake Road is a narrow gravel forest service road in southern Illinois, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, sandwiched between limestone bluffs on one side and spring-fed marshes on the other. In the fall, the reptiles and amphibians that have spent all summer plying the marshes leave the water, cross the road, and head up into the bluffs to find cozy dens for winter hibernation. In the spring, they come back down again.  Because some 59% of Illinois’ reptiles — and even more of the state’s amphibians — live here, the forest service closes the road to vehicle traffic for two months in the spring, and two months in the fall, to allow the animals to migrate safely.

039-2This, as you can imagine, creates a kind of herpetological paradise. Scores of people in spring and fall descend upon Snake Road to walk its 2.5 mile length, down and back, looking for migrating snakes and other critters. We went for the first time last spring, and again just this past weekend for the fall migration. On a Saturday in the middle of migration season, the small parking lot at the beginning of the road will be full, and 4 or 5 cars will be parked along the side of the road. An informational sign and the closed gate mark the start of the road.

There is a communitarian aspect to the Snake Road experience; when you meet someone, there is always discussion of the species each party has seen, exclamations over each party’s sightings, or commiseration if no one has seen anything at all. If a snake is in a particularly interesting situation and is not moving, the news travels along this informational highway like electricity along a wire. Everyone helps everyone else out – as long as a given person seems trustworthy and snake-friendly.

051This is how we found out about a young cottonmouth that had spent the night in a tree snag last spring, and was coiled up in the morning chill. And this weekend, it was how we found out about a timber rattlesnake that was basking in a tree just off the road. A man and his daughter had stepped into the woods to look for something else entirely, and the young girl had noticed the viper in a nearby tree. News of the rattler made its way quickly along the road, and before long, everyone was talking about it.

We made it to the tree at the same time several other folks did, and we all spent a long time admiring the snake, photographing it, not getting too close, but just close enough. Everyone there knew the signs of agitation that would demand we quickly retreat, but the animal gave no indication of being upset. It seemed to regard the people standing around it as no different from the other trees surrounding it.  Timber rattlers are fairly placid snakes, which explains why our friend remained calm amid the clicking shutters and whispered exclamations of admiration.

047.jpg
Timber Rattlesnake in a tree, Snake Road, Shawnee National Forest, Illinois

Sometimes, though, you can walk endlessly along the road seeing nothing at all – or at least, you don’t think you do. Halfway down the road Saturday, I was walking along, looking for snakes along the expanse of the road, when my son cried out “Mom! Stop!” And there, right in front of me, was a Cottonmouth, head perked up with interest, that had blended so well into the gravel that my gaze had passed over him. I now have the distinction of almost stepping on a venomous snake because I was too occupied with…looking for snakes.

006.jpg
Unstepped-on Cottonmouth.

I was wearing heavy, high hiking boots, so the danger was probably mostly on the cottonmouth’s side. After staring at me resentfully for several seconds, the snake scurried across the road, back from where it had come, perhaps to try the crossing later. I spent the rest of the day looking exactly in front of my next step. I began to wonder how many snakes our eyes simply passed over without seeing.

Last spring, we saw eight snakes in one day and four during the next half-day. This weekend, the weather was cooler, and we saw only four on Saturday and two on Sunday (the latter being a baby DeKay’s Brown Snake, a species we’ve never seen before). That’s nothing like the estimates I’ve heard along the road of people seeing up to forty snakes a day, but it’s more than we would see walking along any other road. That, along with the cave salamanders a couple of teenage boys showed us, and innumerable frogs, made for a great weekend.  It’s difficult to plan a trip to coincide with the best time for maximum snake-spotting; I suspect it’s too much a matter of immediate weather patterns to plan ahead.  Perhaps next spring we’ll have more data.

Late-to-the-party book review, hummingbird edition: Fastest Things on Wings

IMG_1834My favorite nature writers are the ones who ground themselves in the rational, but stay open to the mystical. Too much rationality and all you’re reading is dry, scientific observation. Too little and you’re reading overwrought nonsense. Terry Masear hits the sweet spot in her memoir Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood, about her experiences as a hummingbird rehabilitator in Beverly Hills.  (The book was published in 2015; thus its qualification for my “late to the party” designation.) I loved this book – really loved it, so much that I read all but the two final chapters last fall, and simply set it aside because I couldn’t bear for it to end. This week, with the hummingbirds due back in less than a month, I decided to read the whole book again. And this time, I would face the truth that all good things must come to an end, and finish it.

Masear began her adventures in hummingbird rehab in the spring of 2003, when her Abyssinian cat walked into her house one morning and gifted her with a nestling, depositing the unharmed baby gently on the floor in front of her. After calling around, Masear located Jean, a longtime hummingbird rehabilitator who would become her mentor and colleague, and brought the infant bird to her.

The following spring, fate called again. Late to teach a morning class at UCLA, Masear stepped out in a downpour on the way to her car, only to catch sight of a hummingbird chick dangling by a single claw from his wind-destroyed nest in a nearby ficus tree.  Back to Jean’s she went, baby in tow.

This time, the hook stayed in. Masear began working with the hummingbirds herself, pausing her teaching each summer to focus exclusively on hummingbird rescue. Fastest Things on Wings loosely follows the 2008 hummingbird rehab season, and features two particular hummingbirds, Gabriel and Pepper – the former a familiar-looking male who collided with a limousine during a courtship flight display, and the latter a wounded female who was found in a chafing dish during an outdoor luncheon.

The narrative is not linear, and jumps back and forth in time, as one rehab experience calls to mind another from the past. But it works, and if you can hang on as the story darts about like, well, a hummingbird, you will absorb more information about the species than you ever imagined, as Masear brings the reader into a kind of fascinated intimacy with the tiny birds.

We learn about hummingbirds’ outsized intelligence, and their astonishing memory, both geographic and temporal – they’re known to return to the same spot, within feet, on the same date every year – as well as the hummies’ astonishing physical abilities. Masear shares the stunning feats of migration achieved by hummingbirds, including the ruby-throated’s all-at-once, eighteen hour trip across the Gulf of Mexico twice a year, and some rufous hummingbirds’ seven-thousand-mile round trip from Central America to their breeding grounds in Alaska, and back again.

But it’s the interplay between the birds and people that takes the story to its deepest places. Human beings are both a blessing and a curse to hummingbirds; their populations have skyrocketed thanks to human adoration, resulting in countless backyard sugar feeders, and even gardens planted solely to attract hummingbirds. But at the same time, the human world is gravely hazardous to the tiny creatures. Masear recounts stories of hummingbirds trapped in houses with skylights, stranded in swimming pools, and caught under windshield wipers.

Even when people try to help hummingbirds, they often fail them unintentionally, through simple ignorance. Dirty feeders can cause agonizing deaths by fungal infection; delicate claws can be ripped out by the loops in the terry-cloth towels people too often use to pick up an injured bird; rescue birds fed the wrong thing – or the right thing for too long – can die easily.

Beyond that, the same human love that has enabled the growth of hummingbird populations can be hazardous when taken to an extreme; indeed, Masear notes that managing the emotions of the people who call her is an enormous, and taxing, part of her job.  Callers are routinely hysterical and must be calmed down, especially if they share some blame for the hummingbird’s predicament.

Worse still are the people whose emotions cannot be managed, like the social worker who, abandoned by her own mother, became convinced that the female hummingbird who nested in one of her trees was “not a responsible mother.” The caller refused to be persuaded by Masear’s patient lecture outlining a hummingbird mother’s modus operandi: leave the nest when the chicks are a few days old to deter predators, and return every half hour to feed the growing nestlings. Insisting that she knew better than Masear, and no doubt projecting her own trauma onto the baby birds in her yard, the woman cut the nest for no reason, and delivered the chicks to rehab. Her refusal to manage her own emotional life thus deprived an adult hummingbird of her chicks and added unnecessarily to Masear’s already crushing workload in the middle of rehab season.

Masear’s struggles with the human element are a constant in her journey as a rehabilitator, particularly the public’s decidedly non-scientific view of her charges. In one breath she marvels at how everyone seems to think hummingbirds are messengers from their dead relatives, but then acknowledges the serendipity and mystery of her own introduction to the birds. But to Masear’s credit, though she is open to the unanswerable, she never wavers from the view that the observable, quantifiable hummingbird universe offers plenty of wonder on its own. There is no need to turn them into spiritual messengers, or anything other than what they are.

In the third chapter from the end, Masear finally works out the human obsession with hummingbirds: they are, she realizes after an agonizing discussion with a distraught caller, a mirror for our own mortality and vulnerability. “Their deaths,” she writes, “as small and insignificant as they seem, have the power to drive the hard truth of our own mortality straight home. Because in the end, as much as we work to deny it, our fundamental condition is not so different from theirs.”

Fastest Things on Wings isn’t just a beautifully, expansively, and humorously written memoir, though it is certainly that; it’s a book that feels necessary to anyone who loves hummingbirds and undertakes to feed or observe them. As Masear explains in the book, hummingbirds are increasingly a primary player in the world of urban nature. Having drawn them in, we ought to learn as much about them as we can in order to minimize the risks we pose to them. Fortunately, Fastest Things on Wings is a delightful and absorbing way to gain that education.

Skunked

My husband and I closed on a new home at the end of July, and we love it. We have an acre and a quarter of land. There are dense trees on three sides in the back, with a seasonal creek cutting through what we call “the back forty”.

The night we got the keys, we stood in the large, glass-walled sunroom looking out at all this, and saw a deer bedded down between the trees. Later on, a great-horned owl stopped by. The next night, a red fox zipped through the yard. And a week later, a white skunk trotted through, tail aloft.

We were thrilled, as you can imagine. “There’s so much wildlife!” we exclaimed. And we do like wildlife. I spend a lot of my time photographing wildlife.

The dog likes it too.

Last night I was out with my cousin for a late evening snack. She has been staying with us for a few days on her autumn vacation, and as we do when we visit, we had repaired to a restaurant to eat and talk and discuss our lives, problems, and goals. We left my husband to the Astros game and my son to his Xbox, and began driving toward a local deli.  After an hour or so of conversation, I visited the ladies room and she began idly scrolling through Facebook. “Um, Travis posted on Facebook,” she said before trailing off with a wince.

Oh shit, I thought. My phone is dead. She turned hers to face me.

While I had been eating tomato bisque and discussing current events, the dog had engaged in a little light diplomacy with a yard intruder near the lettuce patch; specifically, the skunk.

We abandoned ship quickly and called Travis, who asked us to please bring home something “stronger than Rosemary-Mint Suave.” After careening into the parking lot of a pet store one minute before closing and prevailing upon the good will of the cashier, she directed us to a bottle of “Stinky Dog Shampoo.” From there, we screeched out of the parking lot toward home.

The path home involves a right turn about half a mile away from the house, and the smell hit us like a wall about two feet from the stoplight. “Oh my God,” we exclaimed in unison. This was half a mile from the house.  Nature, in all its terrible efficacy, has created a creature capable of befouling such a huge territory that the remaining wildlife has made a tightly-enforced pact to avoid it. Thanks to this pact, skunks are the merrily-striped assholes of the natural world, trotting arrogantly across the landscape with utter impunity, tails aloft, just as a reminder of its power.

But that pact does not apply to domesticated dogs.

Before last night, I had only smelled skunk spray in a diluted fashion – along the road, and temporarily, as I drove through it. It’s an unpleasant odor that makes you wrinkle your nose, but it’s not overwhelming.  It won’t ruin your day.

But when your lettuce patch is ground zero, and the smell T-bones you like a semi half a mile away, the stench becomes something altogether different.  As I entered my home – my new, formerly fresh-smelling home – I realized that up close, skunk doesn’t smell so much as it simply burns. What there is of smell calls to mind a combination of highly concentrated perm solution mixed with rotten eggs and death.  And this makes perfect sense; the chemicals in skunk spray, called thiols, are sulphur-based compounds present in perm solution and putrid flesh.  This smell will literally curl your hair.

When I entered the house, Thomas didn’t greet me as usual, electing to remain on the floor looking dejected, traumatized, and wet. Because it was the first really cold night of the season, Travis couldn’t bathe him outside. My husband limped over to us, his spine twisted like a question mark from lifting a panicked and flailing 75-pound dog into our tub with only the help of a protesting teenager. Afterward, my son had locked himself in his basement bedroom.

All so the dog could mark off a bucket list item in his eleventh year.

This is an animal that was once so well-trained I was able to call him off a black bear on a remote trail in West Virginia; who had once left behind a snarling raccoon on my stern command; who spent a lot of time on our Montana property without any such incidents. But there comes a time in every old man’s life when his supply of shits to give about anything runs dangerously low. And that time, for Thomas, was last night.

22519183_1799073893436617_5876076900097843257_n
Skunks are a young man’s game.

For your future reference, I can tell you what worked: Stinky Dog shampoo was a winner, even though the second bath of the night almost caused lasting injuries to both arthritic dog and humans. Boiling vinegar for an hour or so removed most of the ambient stench in the house. Soaking his collar in a combination of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and detergent worked like a charm. (But don’t keep this around, because it can explode in a closed container.) For my bedroom, which the dog had tried to hide in and was too far away from the vinegar steam, a friend with previous Skunk-And-German Shepherd experience recommended a few drops of vanilla in a small bowl of warm water. This worked surprisingly well, given the mellow scent of vanilla.

Do not use tomato juice, because it won’t work and your bathroom will resemble the shower scene in Psycho.

As it turns out, skunks carry enough spray in their glands only for five or six shots. After that, it can take up to ten days for the little stink goblins to replenish their supply. I have no idea how many shots Thomas took. So it could be out there still, locked and loaded. And lurking. Meanwhile, our entire neighborhood probably hates us, the skunk-provoking newcomers.

But, hey;  we love the wildlife!

Tiny deer, big storm

I have a lot of ties in south Florida and the Upper Keys particularly, so when Irma came though this weekend, I watched in horror, like so many did. In addition to the places I knew so well, I was particularly worried about the Key Deer.

Key Deer are a seriously endangered subspecies of white-tailed deer that lives only in the Florida Keys. They are tiny little things, probably only slightly bigger than my dog. They are the smallest species of North American deer.

The first mention of Key Deer in the historical record is, I believe, from the journals of Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda, who was shipwrecked in the Keys as a young teenager in the mid-1500’s, and remained a captive of the Calusa Indians for the next 17 years. His memoir contains references to “large bears” on the islands and a fox-like animal thought to be a raccoon. He continues:

But what was a great wonder to the captives who were there, and to those of us in other places, was the existence of deer on the Islands of Cuchiyaga, the town of which I have spoken. 

The Key Deer, once numerous, now only number in the few hundred. In the middle of the 20th century, their numbers were truly dire, dipping down into the double digits, but they have rebounded since. The National Key Deer Refuge was established in the 1960’s. Last year, though, a parasitic infection killed 135 of them before it was vanquished, a number the species could ill-afford to lose.

And then Irma. Although Key Deer have been living through hurricanes for centuries, their numbers are low enough now that conservationists were concerned. Last week on Twitter, I had an exchange with someone who also thought to mention the Key Deer. Yesterday, someone tweeted this video, taken by some journalists on Big Pine Key, in response:

 

Some of them, then, made it. We’ll have to wait to see how the larger population has fared.

Wandering with the monkeys of Silver River

There is a colony of feral rhesus macaques living on the Silver River on the outskirts of Ocala, Florida. I try to visit them once or twice a year, because why not? Although I didn’t spot any monkeys on the two trips prior to my most recent one, a paddle down the Silver River is a treat in itself. I’ve tagged along with otters, alligators, scores of birds, and tiny turtles on the Silver.  So I love it regardless of whether the monkeys are out.  The river draws me back every time; if I were a wind-up toy, I’d head to the Silver as soon as you let me go. That’s my wanderlust.

This time, I saw a monkey almost immediately, and he was contemplating a swim. Here is the process, from consideration, to alligator scan, and finally, launch. Too bad when he got to the other side, another monkey shoved him back in the river.

061-3FL17

 

068-FL17

074-FL17

More on the monkeys — and how they got there in the first place — here.

Co-pilot

On a backpacking trip in early spring, I noticed a group of swallowtails puddling in an area on the ground where something had recently rotted. I was photographing one of them when I noticed it had a co-pilot. We all need our minerals, I suppose. Surprise.

_DSC0033