Monday, August 30, 2010

Apology to a Small Creature

Early this morning, within my peripheral vision, something large, silent, and swift descended into one of the hydrangeas near the deck where I sat contemplating the hummingbirds at the feeder. This is the season in which hummingbirds come by twos, threes, and fours, nattering away at each other. I had intended to write about their tiny hanging feet today, but the Cooper's Hawk in the hydrangea instantly changed my focus.

A noisy rustling skirmish in the leaves under the bush indicated the hawk's success at hunting its breakfast, but then---oh terrible then---it abandoned the prey it had only maimed, spread its powerful wings, and flapped twice to perch on the back of a patio chair facing away from me, not ten yards from where I sat. I know not if it was aware of my presence when it first attacked the hapless creature below, but now it turned its head and looked me in the eye. I hadn't moved except to turn my head toward the skirmish. Was I the reason the hawk so cruelly left that poor creature to an agonizing death? I shuddered at the piteous konk-konk-konk-konking in the throat of the small dying thing, whatever it was. I could see the movement of the leaves, and hear the konks, but could not identify it---could have been a bird or a chipmunk hidden in the dry leaf cover.

After a few seconds of eyeing me from the chair, the young hawk, with horizontally striped tail and white splotchy feathers in its back, flapped to a new perch on the fence, where it stayed for several minutes before offing into the woods with only two flaps and a glide. A few minutes later, it startled me again by flap-flap-gliding past my shoulder, low and close enough for me to hear the whir of its wings against the air, though it did not return to the place of its terrible deed. Again it disappeared into the woods. Had it been stalking me to see if it was safe to return to its breakfast? Is this the same young hawk that has watched me garden?

From under the hedge adjacent to the hydrangea, where the maimed prey was somehow able to take refuge, the konking slowly, gradually, terribly, grew weaker and weaker, until it stopped after about ten minutes.

It is not to my credit that I was too squeamish to assist it to a faster death. I have neither the heart nor the stomach for such a task. But now I must live with the aural memory of those diminishing konks, wondering at my responsibility in this event.

The hummingbird feet will keep until a later post. dkm

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Beetle in Shock & Robert Frost

For too many days I've given my backyard over to the heat, the mosquitoes, and a bad mood about not getting to my real work of writing. But this morning the thermometer reads 72 degrees, offering hope. The air is cooler but the mosquitoes are relentless. So much for restoring my mood by sitting outside. I'll be driven in soon, with mosquito-slapping.

Still, the birds sing, the dogs bark, the crickets drone, the squirrels chase, the tiger swallow tails go on intoxicating themselves in the little white tube blossoms of the abelia bushes. A pine cone falls on me from the branch overhead. Whether dropped by a squirrel, or released by its branch, I know not, but it splattered, dry and brittle, on my head and arms. One of the broken pieces landed on the hem of my shirt and didn't fall away like the others. Turns out it's a small brown beetle clinging for its life to the stillness of my shirt, legs and antennae tucked under its hard dry shell, looking for all the world like a piece of pine cone, but not acting like one.

It must have been a terrifying free-fall for a beetle who thought he had found safe refuge in a pine cone far from the madding crowd. When I nudged him with my pencil his antennae and legs popped out as if to say, "What? Am I still alive?" After a moment he crawled away, but not before getting a reading from his wildly waving antennae about his new situation.

Magically, in the time it has taken to write this entry, the mosquitoes have gone away, slow breezes waft, and my bad mood has lifted. It brings to mind yesterday's NYT article about the negative side-effects of constant digital connection, and the energizing effects of a little time spent in nature.

Robert Frost wrote about it too:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of day I had rued.


Monday, August 9, 2010

My Ugly Bald Cardinal

Mites: the answer to the question of July 20's post, "What caused my beautiful father cardinal to go bald?"

According to Dr. Zinn, friend and ornithology consultant, head mites are common among cardinals. They can preen the mites from their body feathers, but not from their heads.

Like many phenomena of nature, this one is sad, true, easy enough to understand---and renders a thing of beauty ugly---REALLY ugly.

Knowledge of the presence of head mites prompts other questions and more online research, though I can't vouch for the answers I found on the blogs of other birders: Are the mites harmful to the longterm health of the cardinal? No. Will the mites die off like insects in winter? Yes. Will the cardinal's head feathers grow back? Yes. Will the eggs of the mites left in abandoned nests survive the winter and begin a new generation next spring? Yes.

The particularly frightening, bald, black-headed, mostly-red patriarch of the cardinal nests in and around my backyard, still frequents the feeder over the deck, as do his comical first-year offspring. His mate and children are all varying shades of tan with reddish tails. One tall skinny daughter with disheveled yellowish feathers hops on the deck looking quite shell-shocked. She eats only the debris on the deck floor beneath the feeder, but her more aggressive brothers, equally comedic, vie for direct time and place at the portals of the feeder. Some of them are splotchier than others as they molt to exchange their brown feathers for red. The adolescent males exercise their crest feathers up and down, strutting and prancing, discovering their male prowess, providing us with great summer theater through the window.

One of them, poor baby, is beginning to show signs of mites---that is, losing feathers about his neck and head. It's the cardinal equivalent of male pattern baldness. dkm

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Hawk Next Door

By its size and stubby tail, I know the hawk that accompanies me while I work outside in the cool of the morning is a youngster. Male or female, I don't know, but it has a persistent whistle, which I hear often, even from inside the house, and this morning, from a lower bare dead branch of the dogwood just above my head.

It's a little unnerving to weed with a hawk watching my every move. What does it want? dkm