It’s not a bird, it’s not a bee….

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Although the days are still incredibly hot, I’ve noticed in the past week or so that once the sun sets the air cools quickly.  As soon as we are able to each evening, my husband and I go around the house opening up shades that have been closed against the sun all day, hoping to flow fresh, cooling air from the lake through the stifling house.  (Tonight the lake air smells of cow poop.  I’ll tackle that one another day.)

On two sides of the house we have flowers and shrubs and tonight my eye was drawn to movement in the bee balm.  I thought I was looking at one rather large bee and so I decided to grab the camera and go out to capture a shot.  Once I got my camera focused I realized that what I was looking at was not a bee.  Turns out I had a hummingbird moth in my bee balm.

Want to learn more about these moths?  See http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/hummingbird_moth.shtml

I’m not certain whether I saw a hummingbird clearwing or a snowberry clearwing.  Bragging rights to any one out there who cares to spend the time making the detailed analysis and comparison necessary to call it one way or the other.  Me – I’m not doing it.  I’m just glad to have seen a new outdoor friend today.

I Swear I’m Not Making This Up

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.)

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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.

DSCN4433I 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.

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I went back out tonight to sit near the little stick house and see what I might see.  I found a lovely dusk.

 

Late breakfast….

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Great Blue Heron
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Little green frog

The best adventures are the kind that nearly require you to call 911.  Such was the adventure I had today.  Highlights include a battle to the death that sounded like the worst cat fight you’ve ever heard at 3:00 am, a pitchfork, and one enraged ten pound rodent CLINGING TO MY KAYAK PADDLE, teeth bared.  As one of my favorite authors, Dave Barry, would say, “I swear I’m not making this up.”

So the pictures above were taken many hours after my heart stopped pounding  hard enough to cause me significant concern.  (My heart has been on the fritz lately, but nothing too serious.)  The heron landed about twenty feet off my left shoulder while I was staring into the dense underbrush where the incident had occurred, trying like the best detective possible to piece together the facts.  The little green frog was nearly under foot on an ill-conceived but well-executed tiptoe through pucker brush looking for animal tracks in the muck to help me identify which of the creatures in my backyard got inadvertently bonked on the head with my paddle and came up ready to bite.

The story is such a good one that I am going to wait until I am actually awake to write it.  I’m also going to attach the only photos I have that give clues (or red herrings) as to what sort of animal I was dealing with.  I already talked the details through with a friend who knows Maine wildlife better than most of us ever will, and he’s putting his money on a fisher being involved.  Stayed tuned, folks.  Tomorrow night is only 24 hours away.

Turtle in the fast lane

The distance from our boundary along Annabessacook Lake to the base of our septic field is easily 275 feet.  The slope to the water is significant – perhaps running at a 45 degree angle – and it is strewn with trees, brush, loose dirt and decaying leaves that are incredibly slippery both wet and dry.  Finally, there is a an old rock wall that runs the length of the property, dividing our 5.6 acre lot into an upper lot where our house sits in a mowed field, and the lower half, this wooded slope that we take to get down to the lake.

I mention these details because I find it remarkable how many turtles are trekking up the slope this month (and last June, and the June before) to lay their eggs.  Last night I got home from work to find this little lady busy at work.  By the time I had taken the dogs out and back in again, she had finished laying her eggs and was making her way toward the rock wall.  I grabbed my camera, excited to have the opportunity to find out where exactly the turtles are climbing over the rock wall.  I found that at least some of them are making their way over the wall in a low-lying section about two feet wide, a spot where a rock has either fallen aside or was never placed to begin with.  The prospect of poison ivy prevented me from researching this point further.

Water-lilies and pond weed (Or, Is That a Giraffe in Your Lake?)

On Wednesday night this week I spent two hours in a high school biology lab learning to identify invasive milfoil.  Yes, this was as dull as it sounds.  And also vitally important. Maine depends on healthy lakes for a healthy economy, and native plants and animals depend on healthy lakes for their lives.

The instructors mentioned in passing that lakes in other states are so thoroughly infested with invasive (non-native) aquatic plants that the people there have given up on trying to prevent infestations – because they have already lost this battle – and instead they MOW – yes, I said mow – their lakes, and take similar startling measures to cope with the fact that plants that do not belong in our ecosystem have nonetheless made their way here.  So what?  Well, non-native species of plants and animals do not have natural predators, which means they can go wild, grow wild, run amok, overrun, overtake and choke out the life of native species.  (This is a gross oversimplification but I’m only a citizen scientist, after all, and besides I bet your eyes glazed over three sentences ago.)

Thursday morning, armed with scant knowledge of how to identify the type of milfoil that has taken root in at least one part of Annabessacook Lake, I trotted myself down to the water, ready to look for trouble.  Okay, who am I kidding?  The sun was out and the water was calm and I was itching to see what I could find through the lens of my Nikon.  Happily for my budding efforts at learning to distinguish invasive milfoil from native look-a-likes – or the bad plants from the good plants – the water was clear to a depth of four feet.

I’ve attached some of my photos.  The startling giraffe-neck looking thing is the root system for some of the many lily pads that camp out in my muck.

Osprey nestlings

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It is late, and I should be sleeping, but really some things must be done to keep one’s soul from getting too ragged.  So I’m sitting at my desk with the lights off to keep the bugs out, since they manage to work through the screens so that they can dance on my computer screen.  I have opened the window that is closest to the lake side of the house quite intentionally – I want to hear what is happening.  Loons are calling to each other intermittently, and once again I promise myself that as soon as I find those extra fifteen minutes in a day I will commit to memory the meaning of each call.

I wonder about the loon I watched this morning.  Is she back on her nest?  It was while I was watching that loon this morning that I captured the pictures of the osprey feeding its young.  Take a close look – you’ll see nestlings with their tongues reaching for more, more more food from the adult who brought home the morning meal.  I’ve provided the photos in the order they were taken.  The juvenile appear to be listening for the adult to return:  note the cocking of the head to the side, and then the open beak, which was in fact the juvenile calling out for the parent (or so I surmise).

Gavia Immer’s Morning Paddle

A beautiful hour and a half on the lake this morning.  Sun, clear water, and this darling, the common loon, who after an hour of not budging an inch from what must be her nest, slipped into the water and paddle vigorously past me and out toward open water.  The scientific name for the common loon – Gavia immer – strikes me as quite a fitting mouthful of fancy-sounding-ness for this beautiful bird.

Egg laying

 

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This snapping turtled climbed out of Annabessacook Lake, traveled 250+ feet up slopped, wooded terrain, clambered over a farmer’s rock wall, then hiked another 75+ feet to our septic field, where she has spent the past four hours in the rain laying her eggs.  I don’t have the heart to tell her that skunks, crows, raccoons and probably a few other creatures I haven’t even thought of will likely have gobbled up her hard work by noon tomorrow.  We’ve seen this happen for several summers now.  A few seasons ago some eggs managed to hatch, but the babies didn’t make it back to the lake, I’m afraid.

Ever seen a turtle crossing the road and wondered if it will make it to the other side?  You aren’t the only one.  For information on several breeds of rare turtles in Maine, as well as turtles and road crossing issues, check out Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s Factsheet.