Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Detours: Wildlife

We've had an incredibly wet summer here in Central Texas--over 40 days of rain so far, and it doesn't look as though it will stop anytime soon. This is good news for the drought; our lakes are finally filling back up, the aquifer is replenishing, and the best news is that we haven't had to deal with the miserably hot days that usually stretch endlessly before us in June, July, August, and September.

All this rain is not such good news for my DP, who is a homebuilder and is now behind schedule on all her homes. Nor is it good news for some of us who live close to nature. We're in a suburb, and the only thing that separates our backyard from a greenbelt and a creek is a wooden fence. Normally this isn't too troublesome; occasionally we hear a small animal screaming at night and know that a more powerful animal has attacked. An armadillo once wandered into the garage where I was sitting; I politely but firmly told it to go away, and surprisingly, it did. Another time, we were spectators to the sight of a hawk swooping down on a squirrel in one of our trees and carrying it off. I'm not sure I'll soon forget the sound of that small animal screaming. Then there was an episode with a possum that I still can't bring myself to talk about.

Over the last couple of weeks, though, we've had entirely too many encounters with wildlife. We're usually notified of the presence of something non-domestic by the dogs. They get excited, they run through the yard with their noses against the ground, they lead us to the intruder and, depending on the threat level, either attack it or notify us of the need to attack by barking verociously. That was the case recently, when our little Lhasa Apso, who once tracked and cornered an armadillo as big as she is (with 6" razor-sharp claws), let us know that something wasn't right at the corner of the house. I peered into a small hole and realized I was staring at a huge, coiled-up black snake. I screamed and ran, and I'm pretty sure the neighbors thought another small animal was being abducted. When I went back to peek a few minutes later, the snake was gone. It took me hours to get over the willies.

Unfortunately, I was running late the next morning and went flying out the door and almost stepped on the snake. This time he looked much bigger. I hoped that was because I was much closer, and not because he was growing at some astonishing rate. He slithered off into the bushes and hasn't been seen since, but I'm still paranoid--I peek out the door before opening it, then run to my car.

At least the snake incident was short-lived. We've recently discovered that we get to be surrogate moms to lots of babies in our backyard. Somehow, the air vent on the bbq smoker got left open, and a pair of finches built a nest inside. The vent is low to the ground, and our 3 dogs are fascinated by the sound of baby birds screaming their little heads off. I have no idea how long it takes finches to grow up, but I hope they do it quickly.

The other morning the dogs ran out into the yard and immediately had their noses to the ground. I knew something had been there during the night, and I prayed it wasn't the snake. They sniffed and trailed and wandered in circles, and then they found something and were frantically pawing at the ground. DP and I yelled at them and ran to see what it was; 2 tiny gray rabbits were lying in the grass. One was injured and one was dead (no doubt both the victims of the dogs), but there was something still moving in the hole they had dug them from. We glanced in and there was another little head waving around, it's tiny baby ears still plastered back on its head. We covered the nest back up, put the dogs in the house, and spent the rest of the day fretting about baby bunnies. What if the mom didn't come back? I checked the Web and found out that it's almost impossible to keep baby bunnies alive without their mother's milk, since there's no good substitute. I noted the signs of starvation and hoped we wouldn't see in our babies. I also calculated they were between 7 and 10 days old, since they get fur at 7 days (check) and open their eyes at 10 days (not yet!).

The next day, the furry little critters (we now saw that there were two) were packed tightly in their nests, and they didn't show any signs of starvation. We were fairly certain Mom had stopped by to feed them. It seems that the mother rabbits don't stay with the babies, since this might draw predators. Instead, they typically hide out of sight, but where they can keep an eye on--or at least get to--their young. Sure enough, the dogs were nosing around the storeroom, which is about 30 feet away from the nest. I think she's staying under there for now.

So, two sets of babies, a missing snake, and three dogs that have to be watched carefully every minute they're outside ("get away from those babies!") and watched carefully every minute they're inside ("get away from that plant!").

I'm exhausted.

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