Enjoy life now... it has an expiration date.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Newspaper column for May 2009

Sneaky Snakes and Gluttonous Guests

In recent years, as I’ve gotten older, and, I suppose, more mellow, I’ve become fascinated by the world of nature surrounding me. Though I’ve always appreciated the outdoors in terms of beautiful scenery, lately I’ve become interested enough in nature - birds in particular - to observe them regularly and even do a little research. I can actually identify a few birds now- besides the very obvious Cardinals, Blue Jays and woodpeckers.

Regularly visiting our bird feeder, besides the cardinals and one red bellied woodpecker, are a variety of other birds including the Indigo Bunting, a nuthatch, the Eastern Towhee, a Blue Grosbeak, one spectacularly colored Red Headed Woodpecker, plus a few others whose names I’ve yet to learn. Also congregating around the feeder are the softly colored Mourning Doves, at least one Brown Thrasher, and, predictably, way too many blackbirds, grackles and crows- those unwelcome and ill-mannered banquet crashers who descend in raucous cawing mobs to decimate the supply of sunflower seeds while bullying away the smaller, less aggressive birds. Darn pests!

A couple of weeks ago a male Kill Deer (yes, the male!) built a nest in the rocks of a ditch across from our house. The nest was really nothing more than a shallow, round depression in the rocks. The bird had used smaller pieces of rock to line the nest - not exactly my idea of comfortable or cozy. Nonetheless, in a few days three Kill Deer eggs were lying in their extra firm bed. Every time the hubby and I went for a walk we passed the nest, and though we tried to avoid upsetting Mama Kill Deer it was inevitable. At first sight of us she went into her famous broken wing routine. She quickly hopped off the nest, ran wildly down the road, and then while rolling over on her side and turning her wing at an awkward angle, she flapped the "broken" wing helplessly and squawked for dear life. It was, of course, an elaborate charade, designed to draw a predator’s attention away from her nest and eggs. The idea was that a predator would see an "injured" bird - an easy meal - and pursue her. When the predator got close, Mama Kill Deer made an amazing recovery and flew off! For a week we checked on the nest during our evening walks. After a few days, she began to relax a little- enough so that if we stayed on the far side of the road she didn’t leave the nest, although she watched us intently as we passed by. We thoroughly enjoyed watching her and hoped that she’d successfully raise her young. But we were doubtful. Last year we lost three broods of baby Bluebirds to snakes. The Kill Deer eggs, in their out-in-the open location, were easy pickings for snakes and other predators. So we continued to watch and hope for the best. One day we went to check the nest, and as we approached there was no sound or movement. Not a good sign. We were disappointed to see an empty, abandoned nest. I looked around carefully... no signs of any disturbance or broken egg shells... probably the clean work of a snake. Darn snake. What a struggle life is for birds... it seems that only a minority of them actually hatch and grow to adulthood. The next week another Kill Deer made a nest in our side yard. The nest soon had three speckled eggs clustered in the center. We watched. After a few days the eggs were devoured by a predator. Again, no signs of disturbance around the nest. Darn sneaky snake. I began to harbor exceedingly malevolent thoughts about this persistent and efficient predator, and considered ways to bring about his untimely end should he be so unfortunate as to be spotted by me. Thus far, he’s been more successful in eluding me than his helpless victims were in eluding him.

The Kill Deer are not alone in living this everyday struggle that is their life. At the same time the Kill Deer were nursing their eggs, we also had baby bluebirds in the bluebird house; a three egg nest in my tall butterfly bush (I haven’t seen the mother fly off the nest and not sure what kind of eggs they are); and one superbly built nest in the domed cover of the gauge on the propane gas tank in the back yard (photo above). From doing a little reading, I think the eggs under the gas tank gauge cover belong to a Carolina Chickadee. Chickadees usually lay between five and seven eggs, white with reddish brown markings. Bingo! We have six eggs fitting that description. For such a small bird the nest is quite impressive. Sturdily built, it slopes down from a high side on one end to a taper on the low end - a cornucopia-like shape. The nest cavity is quite deep and is lined with fine, soft bedding (baby Chickadees obviously have more cushy digs than baby Kill Deer). So far, so good on the Chickadees. We’re keeping our fingers crossed. As for the baby Bluebirds, I’m happy to report that the youngsters fledged and went their way into the world. The unidentified eggs in the butterfly bush did not fare so well- the next time I checked on them they were gone. Mostly likely that darn snake again.

I look back and am surprised that until recent years I was fairly oblivious to the life and death struggle and everyday adventures going on all around me. It’s been an eye-opener and source of wonder to stop and really observe nature. It may sound corny, but each season is now fresh and new, and every baby bird, newly opened flower, and spectacular sky is a mini miracle. Albert Einstein said, "There are two ways to live your life; one is as though nothing is a miracle, and the other is as though everything is a miracle". In my younger years I was in the first category, with a little age and perhaps a little wisdom I’m happy to now find myself in the latter category.


Jan said...

You've hit upon the reason that I so like to live out here. It's such a kick just watching what's going on, isn't it?

Today I discovered a nest with babies in a top corner of our covered porch. I wouldn't have known it was there except mama flew in with lunch as I was standing at the kitchen window. I don't know what kind of bird she is but, like you, we have a plethora of all kinds here.

At least I think these babies will survive as I don't think a predator can easily reach them.

Happy observations to you!

Cathyann said...

That was one very good read, Teresa. thank you. I am a late comer to the fascnating world of birds, too, since I live in a veritable forest. Talk about snakes!!!Just killed a water snake called a cottonmouth last week. It was in a Flower pot on my deck.Yikes.

Rosie said...

Another wonderful article, Teresa, like you the older I get the more I appreciate what is going on around me - perhaps I have more time to do it now. I've just had to google images of all the birds you mention - what lovely names they have - the colours are stunning - the indigo bunting is a gorgeous blue - great to have them visit your garden. Once I'd seen the killdeer I could imagine it doing the distraction routine you described:)

"JeanneG" said...

Wonderful column. I miss when you don't post them on your blog. I love reading your stuff. I'm not sure I could live in the country. I am so soft hearted I would probably grieve for every egg. But not for the snakes if dead. Or mice....I am not a very good country girl. (did I say girl?...that's a big stretch)

Teresa said...

Jan: It really is so enjoyable and satisfying to watch what's going on right in your own backyard... and there's always plenty going on for those who do take time to look!

Cathyann: Sounds like you're "blessed" with snakes like we are. We have cottonmouths around here too... especially when it rains a lot and the field ditches fill up. We also see a lot of chicken snakes, black snakes (neither one of those poisonous), some rattlers and an occasional copperhead. Aren't we lucky? ;-)

Rosie: I'm so glad you googled the birds....aren't they pretty? I have a bird feeder close to my kitchen window so while I'm cookin' I'm watchin'!

Jeanne: Gosh, girl, if you grieved for every egg you'd spend all your days in mourning out here! It really is disheartening though when you watch the babies grow and then lose them to a snake not long before they're ready to fledge. Bluebirds seem to be a favorite prey for snakes... and we've opened up the bluebird house several times to check on the babies and found a snake curled up in the nest...sleeping off his meal.

Laure Ferlita said...

Lovely post, Teresa. I think having time to look around and observe as well as the keen curiosity that comes of being an artist helps to shift our focus to the natural world and all it's happenings.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I can identify with that Teresa. There is always some life or death struggle going on out there.

Jo Castillo said...

I enjoyed reading this. Thanks.

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