Friday, May 30, 2008

An Unplanned Animal Awareness Day

I was lucky enough to get several glimpses into the vertebrate animal life sharing our property today.

#1: As I was walking out in the back prairie this morning, a jack rabbit spooked up and literally high-tailed it south into the neighbor's horse pasture. It's quite a sight to see this large, gangly, rabbit-like creature racing away from you, topped by huge whitish ears tipped with black . Those ears draw your eyes like a magnet.

After the burn, I worried a bit about how barren that back 5 acres had become. Would it green up fast enough to provide sufficient habitat for the local wildlife that needs to use it this summer? Well, the last time I saw a jack rabbit was before the burn, so just short of 2 months after the burn, the prairie has recovered enough to allow a jack rabbit to feel at home again.

#2: Speaking of the burned area as recovering habitat, after the burn I found at least one bird nest (meadowlark?) destroyed by the fire. That hurt. For several weeks, I saw many birds feeding in the ashy soil and regrowing vegetation, but only recently have I seen signs of nesting birds again.

Meadowlarks and killdeer have been territorializing loudly and melodiously for several weeks now, and for the last few days dickcissels have joined the chorus. Furthermore, I've noticed a killdeer getting particularly agitated in the southwest corner of the prairie when Becker or I were near, so I started skipping that area as I did my walkabout. However, several days ago I saw no sign of a killdeer anywhere, so I ventured back into the area today to pull up some marker flags.

Image my surprise and dismay/delight when I saw this female sitting tightly on her nest near where I was working. She was obviously torn between staying still and leading me astray by distraction. I snapped a quick photo, then moved on rapidly, keeping Becker on heel until we were safely out of range.

#3 and #4: When I got ready to leave on an errand late this afternoon, I noticed a little spotted lump by my front wheel. It turned out to be a young...brown thrasher? I'm not sure what it was, to be honest. The breast was spotted like a young robin, but it had no red on it at all and it definitely had 2 white wing bars. There was a mockingbird raising a big fuss as I knelt to take the photo, so I wondered about that, but the spots have me a little confused. My memory says the baby was rather grayish, but the color in the photo looks rather rusty brown, like a young brown thrasher. Since that would coincide with the spotted breast and wing bars, I'll go with fledgling brown thrasher as my tentative identification.

Whatever it was, the little thing had a lot more gumption than coordination! It couldn't fly at all, but when I got too close for its comfort, it took off rapidly with an odd, distinctly earthbound mix of hopping, running, and trying frantically to use wings that just weren't cooperating. I didn't want to chase it, so this one photo was all I was able to get.

Getting back to the car after all that excitement, I double checked under it and behind all the wheels, managing to scare up a VERY fat toad, who proceeded to exhibit a death wish by repeatedly hopping underneath the car from one side to the other. If anyone was watching, I'm sure I presented a rather comical figure, vainly waving at some small lump on the concrete while bending over and/or kneeling beside the car doors. Finally I was able to chase the toad under some shrubs and get away before some other misguided creature decided to hunker down next to this metallic "mother".

#5: My last encounter for the day occurred at dusk while I was deadheading some Coreopsis grandiflora in the front flower bed. It's a nice sized clump, about 18" in diameter, and blooming profusely. To encourage it to keep blooming, I was chasing each spent bloom down into the foliage, to the nearest stem joint, and snipping the stem off between my thumb and finger. I'd done about 2/3rds of the blooms when the clump suddenly gave a shudder and a thick brown snake about 2 1/2 feet long shot out and shimmied into the thick daylilies about six feet away.

I didn't get a close look, but from the glimpse I got, I'd guess that it was a water snake of some sort. I definitely didn't see (or hear) any sort of rattle, so I don't think it was a rattlesnake. Nonetheless, I felt distinctly disinclined to disturb it further by chasing it down!

Days like today make me feel privileged, both to be granted these brief glimpses of other lives coexisting with us on these 10 acres and to simply be able to live here.

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