Friday, September 4, 2015

Pigmy Rattler

It was pleasant out early this morning when I walked down the hill to the lake, touched the edge of the dock and started back. A few strides up from the dock, I jumped backwards with a small, involuntary scream. Stretched out in the road just ahead of me was a pigmy rattler, about 15" long and an inch in diameter, warming himself in the sun. I had just passed him on the way down, without even noticing. He coiled and shook his rattle at me. I didn't hear the rattle. Those who have heard the sound liken it to the faint buzz of an insect, and there were plenty of insect sounds this morning to compete with it. But I saw him rattling, and the message was clear; he wasn't one to be trifled with. I quickly retreated to a safe distance.

High water in the lake this summer has sent many snakes to higher ground, and this may have been one of the evacuees. There were plenty of rocks around, so I picked up a couple of large ones, weighing my options. I had killed larger copperheads with rocks, but this was a full grown rattlesnake, and he had a certain glint in his eyes that made me think that this might not be a war I wanted to wage.

Pigmy rattlers are the only rattlesnakes we see much around here, and though they are the smallest member of the rattlesnake family, they still pack a powerful punch. Only two days ago I had talked with a friend who had been bitten by a pigmy three weeks earlier, and she was still feeling the effects of the poison. "I have good days and bad days," she said. I thought she was putting a brave face on it.

The snake looked like a target that couldn't be missed, but my history with copperheads had taught me enough to know that what looked like an easy shot might not be so easy under pressure. Even if the percentages were good, I hated to take a chance. I pulled out my cell phone and called Don. "I'll be there," he said, "keep an eye on him." "I will," I assured him.

As I waited, the snake uncoiled and slithered slowly away from me into the brush at the side of the road. This snake redefined camouflage for me; when he stopped moving, I could hardly believe he was there. Fearing that my hit man would be too late, I glanced up the road. Big mistake. When I looked back, the snake was no longer in sight.

Don arrived moments later, his revolver loaded with snake shot, but there was nothing to shoot. We carefully peered into the weeds and brush and decided not to wade in after the rattler. Don drove back home, and I continued my walk, jumping every time a weed moved.

Thankful as I am that I didn't get bit, I was sorry the snake got away, but Don assures me that it was still a good outcome; I didn't miss with a rock, and he didn't miss with a revolver.

Linking with Weekend Reflections

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Mother Hen

From the other room, I hear a good tone in Don's voice as he alerts me, "Turkeys!"
"How many?", I ask.
"Nine", Don answers.
I breathe a little easier. 
For now. 
Seems I've turned into a mother hen lately, 
counting beaks whenever the brood appears out the window.

There are a lot of obstacles out there to keep little turkeys from getting big, and if one gets attached to them, a certain amount of anguish seems inevitable. At this point, I guess you could say I'm attached. When we first saw this clutch of turkey poults, eleven fluff balls with legs scurried after their mother. Before long there were nine, growing fast and learning to fly. They preened under her protection and dozed at her feet.

Then there was one awful day when seven frightened jakes and jennies appeared without the hen. Since then, the missing two have grouped back up with the others, but sadly, the hen has been gone for a couple of weeks and she is almost certainly dead. We wondered what chance the little ones would have to survive without their watchful mother.

Young turkeys are on the menu of many predators in this area. 
At this stage of growth, they could be taken by an owl or hawk, 
and they are often targets for eagles, bobcats and coyotes. 
They are not always aware of what lurks in the shadows. 

The little ones have tried to join up with two hens that frequent the area, 
and though we see them together occasionally, 
they are often running from the hens, 
who make it clear that they don't want the young birds competing for their food.

So, when they're not on their own, the jakes and jennies hang out with the crows and deer. It's a pretty good symbiotic relationship; the deer, with their keen sense of smell, pick up warnings that the turkeys wouldn't notice, and the turkeys, with their sharp eyes, warn the deer of danger.

They don't know, of course, about their adoptive mother hen watching from behind the windows.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Of Moths and Men

From the kitchen table this evening, while Don peruses the Ozark County Times, we hear the night sounds that drift through the windows; frog virtuosos perform against a background of cicadas, crickets and katydids. But tonight I'm listening for something slightly more sinister, the sound of tomato hornworms munching in my garden.

I haven’t grown tomatoes for several years now, since the year I cut 57 hornworms in half with scissors. (I still shudder at the thought.) That may seem extreme if you've never encountered those small monsters. Apparently, they take about 3 weeks to mature, but when I first noticed them, they were already the size of Muhammad Ali's fingers, and every bit as strong. It seemed that they had eaten through most of my tomato plants, leaves, fruit, and stems, all overnight. 

After I had time to come to terms with the loss, I felt pretty bad about the executions, but not nearly as bad as I did when I learned that those green eating machines morph into lithe and lovely sphinx moths. Who knew?

Last year, we watched with great interest as caterpillars spun cocoons, and emerged as monarch butterflies. Wouldn't it be just as fascinating to see the hummingbird moth emerge? So this year, I had a plan. I'd plant and enjoy tomatoes, and if and when the hornworms came along, I'd watch them. It seemed like a no-brainer, a win-win situation. That was, of course, before I tasted the tomatoes. 

Juliette grape tomatoes

I just planted one tomato plant in my little raised garden that Don built out of railroad ties. It's a grape tomato called "Juliette". In my small plot, I planted everything pretty close together, before I looked up “Julliette” tomatoes on the internet. According to Bonnie Plants, “Vines are long and vigorous, so give the plant room to tumble over its cage.”  No kidding.  One vine rambles over 7 feet, and it looks like it’s just getting started. The garden is now a jumbled mix of flowers and vegetables with cucumbers climbing up butterfly milkweed and sunflowers, and spreading out over the cantaloupe, all the while vying for space with the tomatoes. 

The tomatoes, despite their crowding, are sublime. We eat the sweet, delicious morsels in salads, and straight off the plant like candy. Chipmunks seem to relish those ruby treasures as much as we do, but so far, there have been enough to go around.

That could all change if the early signs I'm seeing are accurate, the telltale signs of tomato hornworms, the brown curled leaves, the half chewed leaves, and the browned cavities in the tomatoes. The voracious insects are hard to spot until they grow large, and by then, it's often too late for the tomatoes.

bee on raspberrry blossom

I got out the spray bottle of insecticide that had been gathering dust on its shelf in the garage. Then I recalled another distinct pleasure of the garden, the morning visits when the bees are working their way from flower to flower, pollinating tomatoes and and raspberries, cucumbers and cantaloupe, making the harvest possible. The garden might be worth the trouble just for that, let alone the delicious produce. The bottle went back on the shelf.

So I'm left with my little dilemma, and in the large scheme of things, it's not very significant. But if everybody used their scissors and the hummingbird moth went extinct, I, for one, would miss them. On the other hand, if there were no more tomatoes in my garden, I'd miss them, too.

It's a complicated world.

Linking with Saturday's Critters

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Ozark News

Lately, at the fringe of the mornings, 
when the wild creatures are not afraid to congregate near the house, 
we've been seeing a family of turkeys. 
It's easy to spot the mother. She watches over her clutch of poults with great vigilance.

The little ones run over the ground in a smooth, synchronized motion, like a school of small fish, 
turning and pivoting for the pure joy of movement, anticipating the day they will fly. 

It won't be long. 
When we saw them first just over a week ago, they were earth bound, 
but this morning out on Don's loading ramp a few of them were flapping their wings, 
and graduating from small hops to tiny flights. 

I'm counting on them to grow up and eat lots of grasshoppers out of the garden. 
We certainly get the other kind of help.

   This year the daylilies were beautiful, and I thought the big, bossy doe we call Lily 
had seen the error of her ways or had found greener pasture, 
but she's back, and she has her technique down to a science. 
She stretches out into her giraffe pose until she has located the right stem...

...and when it's in reach, it only takes one or two bites before it's out of sight.
Judging from the hoof prints in the green beans, the daylilies must have been desert.

At least the rabbits are smart enough to look in the window and see if we're home 
before they raid the garden.

By the time the first light slants down through the trees, 
rabbits have hunkered down out of sight to sleep until evening 
and deer and turkeys browse in the shade of the woods.

And that's the news from the Ozarks, 
where the deer are well fed, the turkeys are vigilant, 
and the rabbits are way above average.

Linking with Saturday's Critters