Picking up where we left off yesterday….
So mid-morning yesterday I am in my backyard with my oldest dog, letting her pretend to pee for the third time in an hour. Really she wants to sneak behind the woodpile and through the raspberry bramble to the drainage pipe outlet. (As mentioned in Downy in the forest, one of my dogs has been interested in culvert inspection since an early age.)
So off we are headed for the PVC pipe (PVC not to be confused with premature ventricular contractions, incidentally) and suddenly my brain is registering a cat fight in the woods. Only this cat fight includes more than hissing and high-pitched screeching: one of the participants is growling savagely – as though saving its life or ending another life is already a foregone conclusion and the growling is some sort of awful finishing blow.
I look toward the sound and see an animal about the size of a ten pound dog climb down from one of these trees and amble away as quickly as possible. (Its movement reminded me of the several times I’ve had the opportunity to watch a porcupine move through this same patch of woods.)
I pick up my dog and jog her back to the house, then turn and run back towards the half of our lot that is wooded – this is where the sounds are coming from. Before entering the trail that leads from lawn to lake I grab my husband’s pitchfork, which he has leaned up against a tree trunk at the head of the trail. (Pitchfork, you ask? I’ll tell you another day.)
Pitchfork in hand, I am running over slippery dirt and roots (of the sort mentioned in Turtle in the fast lane) toward the sound of killing. The terrible sounds have moved into the thicket of underbrush that covers our shoreline, so I cannot easily move closer to the sound, though I try. I am stopped by a huge pine that is difficult to get over or under, and I am further hampered by the slip on clogs I have on my feet. I also have a healthy dose of “You idiot STOP moving in the direction of those animals” racing through my head. This is smart for two reasons: (1) Whatever is being attacked is by now either dead or very badly hurt and would almost certainly be better off dead, and (2) assuming neither my neighbor’s dog nor somebody’s infant is being killed, I really should mind my business because animals eat each other every day.
Yet still I find myself determined to understand what I am hearing, so I grab my kayak, abandon the pitchfork, and launch myself into the lake.
I quickly paddle close to shore in the direction that the sounds have been coming from. I have no plan. I expect at best to see something awful from a distance. What I do not expect is to smack a an already frightened and/or angry creature on the head. But this must be what happened, because within seconds of being in the water my arm muscles tell my brain there is an odd weight on the left hand side of my kayak paddle; my ears tell my brain something is screaming at me; and my eyes tell me that a really angry rodent is literally clinging with both paws to my paddle, teeth bared, screaming mad at the world.
I am concerned that this furious creature will climb the paddle or simply jump at my face and bite me, so somehow I have the presence of mind to dunk this clinging creature back into the water. I simply redip the paddle into the water and then keep paddling. Thankfully he has had the presence of mind to let go. Once I’ve moved off by a few boat lengths I turn and see that the scared little guy has swum to the log that lies at the front of the stick lodge pictured above. He has climbed onto the log and he is hunched up and making these pathetic cries that for all the world sounded like he has lost his mother.
Twenty feet away this little creature’s twin is similarly hunkered up on a mound of cattails and marsh grass, also making the same sad crying sound. But the second creature is much closer to the sound of the hidden skirmish, as I sit in my boat and watch him he paws and noses at an opening in the dense stand of vegetation and then disappears in the direction of his interest.
Here are some photos from trees that are located on our shore and not more then ten feet away from the lodge (or den or feeding hut) that the first creature swam back to.
Here’s the thing: I have seen muskrat on this lake from ten feet away, as noted in Ondatra zibethicus (Or, Mr. Muskrat). These two animals did not look like muskrats – at least not to my frightened and untrained eyes. Their coloring was too varied – though maybe wet fur and the play of light and water are throwing me. I didn’t get a look at a tail, so that is no help. I remember numerous small sharp teeth, not huge front teeth – so no beavers The more I talked this through with my husband last night, and thought about the form of movement I saw on the earth, and the postures I saw on the log, and the coloring, and the shape of the face that was screaming at me, the more I want to identify these creatures as raccoons. But why would two baby raccoons be swimming around a muskrat lodge? And who came down from that tree?
Now, it is possible that the creature being killed was already in the dense vegetation. Many ducks and geese have been nesting in these areas. And though I can not describe for you here and now the full vocal range that was involved in the attack/fight/resistance, there are two occasions at least when I thought I was hearing a duck die. (A chick or gosling or duckling, perhaps.) And maybe the predator was winged – an owl or eagle? And the animal running out of the tree got caught in the cross fire?
I have no idea. I plan to spend the next few months watching and listening and looking for clues that could help put some of these pieces together.
I went back out tonight to sit near the little stick house and see what I might see. I found a lovely dusk.