Tuesday, June 02, 2009

What we have here

1. I spent many hours cleaning up the shed. Late in the afternoon, I am sitting quietly, admiring the fruits of my labor, when the empty Sigg bottle suddenly topples down from its place on the shelf. Puzzled and curious, I pick it up to return it, and see that it was knocked off the narrow ledge by that large electrical cable that is draped in through the window...the cable that at this moment is slowly moving up onto the ledge above the window opening...wait a second...

2. I clear the new spring growth from the lower end of the trail with a brush cutter attachment on the strimmer. I spend twenty-five, thirty minutes slowly walking the trail, occasionally shooting sparks when I accidentally let the blade strike the bare rocks. As I return down the trail to where I began, I note the fawn curled up in a tiny little bundle, a mere foot or so off the trail I just cleared. I had no idea it was there.

3. Birds make many sounds, and among those sounds, alarm is unmistakable once you have heard it. As we worked in the warm sun one afternoon, I began to take note of the shrill and persistent cries of alarm in the background.

I walk over to where a pair of wrens flit back and forth agitatedly from the mouth of a growtube. A growtube is a translucent plastic tube about the length and diameter of a man's arm, used to protect newly planted saplings from extreme weather, dehydration and browsing animals. In this particular instance, the growtube was protecting an apple tree sapling.

Cautiously, I looked down into the growtube, and saw what I expected to see: the back end of a black snake, coiled downward, face into a pine-needle bird's nest. The nest still held several nearly-fledged wren chicks; one chick was already fully in the snake's mouth.

I pondered the circumstances for a few milliseconds/an entire lifetime. We created an artificial situation by placing the growtubes; the wrens, in their foolishness, exacerbated the situation by building a secure, sheltered, warm cozy nest—in the very bottom of a slick-sided tube their babies could never, ever, hope to fly out of .

I did the only thing I could do: I slowly pulled the tube upwards; the snake flopped out awkwardly, and chaos ensued. The wren parents fluttered about screaming ferociously; the snake writhed about in confusion, and two fledglings fluttered away from the now-exposed nest.
I picked up the snake and figured things were about fair at this point, with the snake having had a decent meal at the expense of the foolish wrens—but at least it was not a total loss for the wrens. I carried the writhing snake off to the edge of the nearby woods, and gave him a gentle (but firm) toss.

The snake landed in the pine needles, regained his composure, and slithered off with great dispatch into the deep cover of the woods. Delighted at my little role in this passion play, I returned to what I had been doing in the garden.

Within a few short moments, the wren wruckus wresumed. I walked back over to the scene, and sure enough, the black snake had returned; by the time I get there, it has already grabbed the sole remaining chick, one that for whatever reason, was less mobile than its siblings. This time, I grab him and walk him further away, to the very edge of the clearing. I toss him into the underbrush, and this time, I watch him carefully to ascertain his motives. To my satisfaction, he heads directly into the undergrowth, away from the wren nest.

For a moment.

Then he slowly begins a right turn.

For the next few minutes, the snake gradually heads back towards the wren nest. Anytime he senses my presence, he diverts slightly; but the net result is always back towards the nest. Within ten minutes or so, he has found his way back, in an arc of about fifty feet or so. When he arrives, the chicks are gone; he spends several minutes nosing the remnants of the nest apart, meticulously searching for some trace. Once convinced there is nothing left in the nest, he begins to track the scent left by the fleeing fledglings.

The young birds are capable of some semblance of flight, but are not truly ready to be on their own; they can get airborne for a few feet at a time, but fly with the grace of frogs, more bumping along than actually flying. Their parents are valiant—but somewhat hapless—coaches in this respect. But their ferocity in the face of this menace cannot be disputed. They light within six inches of the monster, squawking and feignting to distract him from their offspring, flying off just as he strikes. At one point, a wren screams at the snake from a fence rail just above it; the snake began to rise up and rear back; and at the very last instance as the snake struck, the wren flew off, out of range.

But the snake has now attained the fledgling's trace in earnest—he follows their course relentlessly and mercilessly through tufts of grass, weeds, and across the wide gravel drive, into the cemetery.

At this point, we take pity on both the vulnerable fledglings and their agitated parents. Mary finds one of the chicks hiding in a thick clump of grass, and as she tries to pick it up, it flops awkwardly onto her shoe.

She walks it to the edge of the woods where it might be safe (having not left a trail for the snake to follow) and releases it into the good graces of its parents, who shepherd it along a safe distance into the forest.

Mary's action was correct; by picking up the chick and moving it, the trail has been interrupted and the snake has nothing to follow.

Or so we thought.

Mary stands in the driveway, as we both watch the snake consider its next move. Slowly, deliberately, the snake begins moving—directly towards where Mary stands. Tongue flicking, it moves this way and that, tasting the warm air for a hint of baby bird. It continues towards Mary, weaving back and forth in consideration. To our—shock? horror? amazement? the snake crawls directly—DIRECTLY!—to the very spot on Mary's shoe where the chick lighted so briefly. It samples the air at that spot with its tongue, seeking so desperately that morsel of chick. It reconnoiters, and for a moment rears back to look up at Mary, not sure if this is an unbelievable windfall or its worst nightmare. We both are horrified for an instant, expecting the snake to begin crawling up Mary's leg...

At last, discretion seems to be the better part of valor, even for snakes, and it begins to head off. We decide this represents the end of the wren event, and if there will be an epilogue, we do not want a part in it. As far as I recall, we did not hear any further calls of alarm that evening.

4.)The boulder wall was in need of remodeling; we knew when we first constructed it that it was a prototype, and was subject to later revision. As we rolled one large rock onto its back ,we both simultaneously made the same comment:

"THAT'S a copperhead!"

A beautiful, unmistakable creature; elegant in color, markings worthy of a moorish palace, and the distinctive head shape that is burned into the DNA of any higher animal. This particular individual was not as long as my arm, and moved with an admirable quickness that few snakes display. Copperheads are equipped with a hemolytic poison, based on a protein common to many animals, that destroys cells and causes sure death in smaller animals and terrific pain in larger ones. Unfortunately, this individual decided to move from where it had been quietly and comfortably resting (under one rock) to under the bigger rock where we planned to work next. So for the remainder of afternoon, we worked...delicately...to say the least.

And this evening, when we went out to survey the boulder wall...there he was.

5.) A fawn almost ran me over this morning as I left for work. I didn't even have the chance to get that metallic taste in my mouth; it was very matter-of-fact, over in half a second, done and gone. So there you have it.

6.) Addendum: Late this afternoon, torrential downpours amid ferocious lightning and thunder; the greyhound is beside herself with nerves. The porch gutter is clogged with pine needles, and I get a ladder to help reach the downspout to unclog it.

As I climb the ladder, I place my hand on the roof to steady myself—directly onto the head of a very peeved black snake. The snake pauses a brief moment to glare at me, then ever so gently, curls about and crawls majestically up the roof and back into the steamy sunshine.

1 comment:

Madeline said...

I really do miss that place, and the bizarre, magical, horrifying, awe-inspiring dramas it fosters. Every one of these vignettes is powerful.