Sunday, September 4, 2011

Dear J's: Please Stay Out of Trouble

Northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis oreganus) with frontal portion of body sticking out of hole and soaking up morning sun.  Preggers?
This has not been a relaxing holiday weekend.  Yesterday morning, I checked if the big rattlesnake was still hanging out in the orchard.  I've been trying to decide whether I should move it or not.  The crew was up here a week ago clearing dead trees and they saw it first.  I usually move rattlesnakes which I find near the house and farm buildings because I don't want them to surprise me later and one of us get hurt.  But this rattler was about 40 feet away from the buildings, and maybe I don't need to worry about it.  It was on the big side.  All the rattlers I have moved recently have been small, so my nerves are a bit jangly when it comes to a big one.  Furthermore, this big one could be a female about to give birth as they do at the end of the summer of one to 25 young, none of which I want to have near my house.

Rattlesnake well camouflaged from the distance.  Can you see it?
Peering over my coffee cup at the flat spot by a hole where I had seen it sunning in the morning light twice last week, I saw an open and snakeless space.  Good, I was thinking, the mother of vertically-slit eyes has moved on and that is one less thing I have to do this weekend.  Then I stepped closer and saw the bank of scales just inside the threshold.  Yikes, how many times have I walked by a hole and not realized there was a snake coiled up at its entrance?  I was drinking coffee and the snake was getting a little morning thermoregulation.

On a hot day, maybe just a small amount of scaly skin exposed to morning sun provides safe thermoregulation.
But heck, it was a relaxing weekend morning, so I figured I should photograph this unique demonstration of natural phenomena.  I rigged up my 200mm lens on a tripod from a safe distance.  The whole time I was shooting, the snake did not move.  Or so I thought.  Later when I reviewed my photos on the computer, I could see the snake's circumference slightly expanding and contracting as it breathed.  Yah, that's right rattlesnakes breath. Then I noticed I could see its golden eye shining in the darker reaches of the hole.  And the eye would occasionally shift from photo to photo.  Okay, so the snake was watching me the whole time.

Can you spot the single eye of this rattlesnake?
Later in the day, something bad happened which I can't bring myself to talk about right now.  I am ashamed that there are still things that take me by surprise about living in the country.  It doesn't have to do with hanging laundry on the line.  It has to do with predators and with juveniles getting into trouble.  I sat on my patio trying to calm myself down.  Easing into the soothing view, suddenly a Cooper's hawk streaked through the backyard at ground level like a jet and I nearly leapt out of my lawn chair.

Now there are two rattlesnake eyes looking at the camera.  (Click photo to enlarge.)
I thought walking might calm me down, but I got no further than the barn and noticed one of the barn doors was unlatched. I guessed one of last week's many visitors must have got curious and gone in the unused building.  I peeked in the door to make sure nothing was amiss and discovered torn plastic bags spilling old horse blankets and a denim jacket shredded into rodent nests.  Among this mess there was an old container of rat poison.  A lot of these rat poisons have awful secondary effects on predators, so I refuse to use them.  Instead, I rather grumpily cleaned up someone else's mess.

Nightly buckeye tree roost of the juvenile great-horned owl.
I find an owl feather under this tree almost every morning.
While watching a movie later that night, I realized that the strange jungle noises were actually coming from a juvenile great-horned owl in my own backyard making its terrible screeching calls again.  When is this guy going to learn how to hoot?  I heard a loud crashing noise in the dry leaves under the buckeye tree.  I think the young owl is also learning how to hunt by itself.  Since it started screeching again shortly after the crash, either that was a quick snack or unsuccessful pounce.  This is the critical time of year when many of the juvenile animals disperse and have to start feeding themselves.

Here is a silly video of my stumbling around in the dark with a flashlight trying to find the juvenile great-horned owl.  You can hear the screeching call of the juvenile bird before it learns to hoot.

Today, I got up early to pull yellow starthistle on the hill above the orchard before it got hot.  I didn't find very much starthistle in the areas where I pulled it last year which is good.  But I found a dead bobcat. That was kinda sad but it explains what the coyote was doing up there most of Sunday.  I think it was one of the juvenile coyotes dispersing from the den I have been watching further west on the ranch.

The rest of the day got interrupted with poacher issues and several sightings of an adult and a juvenile mountain lion near a trail at another preserve.  No-one got hurt, but again, it seems like the young animals are out and struggling to get food and cover without becoming food or trouble themselves.  I understand that predators have to eat other animals and that many juvenile animals do not make it to their first birthday. I am fortunate to be in a place where I get to see these facts of life firsthand on a frequent basis.  Still, could tomorrow just be one of those days where I don't have to see a single animal kill or die?  I would like to stick to simple survival techniques like cooking a big pot of spicy beans and designing a tile pattern for the bathroom.

1 comment:

  1. Over here, our garden birds have only next door's cat and the occasional sparrowhawk to worry about. Thanks for a whole heap of perspective on the bigger picture. I hope you have a gentler day soon.


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