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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw


On May 28, 2017, I was in Tillman Ravine, one of the most beautiful places on earth. Here a burbling brook, fed by a natural spring, bounces down a ravine lined with ferns, hemlocks, and broad-leaved trees. When you are deep in Tillman Ravine, you can feel that you have turned the pages back in the history book and a buckskin-clad Natty Bumppo and his Mohican foster brother, Chingachgook, are about to break through the foliage.

I've seen a porcupine here, a creature I'd never seen in the wild before, and a willow flycatcher, a new species for me. In fact, willow flycatchers did not exist in American ornithology until after I began birdwatching. Before that they were considered the same species as the alder flycatcher.

I was there early in the morning and there were no other people. All I heard was the stream hitting the rocks and hooded warblers calling from the rich understory. To me their call sounded like the repeated, urgent, "teacher, teacher" of an ovenbird combined with a final three syllable, "switcheroo!"

I followed the dirt road to Buttermilk Falls. To my right, flat fields gave way to scrubby brush. To my left the earth rose abruptly hundreds feet – but I'm bad at estimating measurements. The forest floor of this steep rise was covered with rich ferns. The rising sun was just cresting this rise and its light cascaded down the hillside as if the light were a capricious waterfall. It highlighted the tops of ferns now here, now there, turning them yellow and translucent, while their roots and their neighbors remained in dusky shadow. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

Buttermilk Falls was breathtaking. Water falling straight down the mountainside. I climbed up the wooden staircase beside the falls and scared myself, the trail was so steep.

After descending, and walking back on the now sunny road, I saw and heard black-throated green warblers, yellow-billed cuckoos, fiery Baltimore orioles, quilt-patterned rufous-sided towhees, and sleek indigo buntings – a cacophony of color. I walked through a meadow under a bright sun and watched bright, patterned prairie warblers and goldfinch and listened to the sweet song of the field sparrow, who sounds like a body feels when it surrenders to a hammock.

I reached the Big Flat Brook. A man in camouflage waders was fly fishing. I had come to this area to have a surface on which no foliage grew. I put my pack down on the road and inspected my jeans-covered legs. There they were, just as I suspected: numerous ticks. This will be a bad tick year. The freakishly warm winter provided no kill-off temperatures. I picked the ticks off my jeans. I rolled up my jeans and found one fixing to attach itself to my leg. Picked that one off, too. A day after I got back from Tillman, I saw a tick walking up the wall of my apartment. Probably had hidden in my backpack. I killed it with extreme prejudice. They are so damn ugly and diabolically efficient at what they do. It's hard to believe that they are not guilty of malice aforethought. I have to remind myself that they are little evolutionary machines, tuned to suck my blood, totally unaware of the diseases they vector.

CNN reports that on Sunday, June 4, 2017, Hoosier two-year-old Kenley Ratliff died of what doctors suspect was Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a tick-borne disease. Her family took her to a couple of doctors who did not know what she had. By the time she made it to Riley Children's Hospital, she had gone limp.

CNN reports: "The family had gone camping 10 days before Kenley's symptoms began and she was seen twice by other health care providers before she was seen at Riley…'As soon as we saw her, we put her on doxycycline. The longer you wait, the less likely patients are to respond to treatment, so it was tough to know if treatment would have made any difference in this case because she had come in in a pretty advanced state of the disease.'"

***

I and lots of photographers had been watching the red-tailed hawk nest at Garret Mountain. If you could see through the leaves surrounding the nest you'd see the Manhattan skyline in the distance. At first the chicks were mere gray and white balls of fluff, with very noticeable white spots on the back of their gray heads. By the way, the word for a hawk chick is "eyas." Just in case anyone asks.

The other day, one of the chicks was an awkward mix of baby down and an almost full set of adult feathers poking through, its body about three times the size it had been when I first saw it. Just looking at this suit of clothes made me feel itchy. The chick kept jumping up and down on the nest as if it were a trampoline. It kept beating its wings furiously. Soon enough it would take flight.

One day mama or papa hawk arrived with a cry. Red-tailed hawks sound impressive. Movie-makers often select the cry of the red-tail to coincide with bald eagle scenes. Bald eagles make a weak, trembling, crying whistle.

The parent landed on a nearby branch. She had her kids' dinner in her talons. I quickly looked away. I could see what she had. It was a decapitated chipmunk's body. I recognized the pattern in the fur. Mom flew closer and her nestlings eagerly tore the little chipmunk corpse to shreds.

When I was writing my dissertation, I used to take breaks in the backyard near a wood pile that hosted a chipmunk family. They were so cute. They would scurry out of the wood pile, stare at me, and I would leave them little bits of my lunch.

I walked on. About a mile away from the nest, as I walked through trees, something under my foot made me stop walking. It was a fresh, eyes-open, chipmunk head.

***

I was walking up a suburban road in Wayne, NJ. Overhead I saw crows being mobbed by other birds. You see this a lot. Crows prey on smaller birds' nests and nestlings. The parents were chasing the crow. But then, colorlessly silhouetted against the gray sky, I saw something I'd never seen before. Flapping. Whatever the crow was holding was flapping. Fighting for its life.

The crow dropped its lunch. Then all the birds disappeared. I waited for the traffic to ease up and I walked out onto the road. It was a baby robin. Its eyes were closed. I was horrified. I couldn't tell if it was alive or dead. I didn't want to leave it here to die slowly. I thought I should step on its head. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I went back to the sidewalk and determined to wait until I saw a car run over the little bird, so I knew it wasn't dying slowly. One car, no. Next car, no. Next – a pickup truck. Yes. That robin's suffering was over.

I walked on. As soon as I walked on, the crow reappeared, swooped down into the road, picked up its lunch, and flew off.

***

I remember walking a railroad track that ran through trees, cornfields, a cemetery, and suburban backyards. It was snowing. A flock of songbirds emerged from the flurries. And that quick an accipiter, a cooper's hawk or a sharp-shin, flew overhead, dipped into the flock of songbirds, grabbed one, and flew off. Cooper's hawks kill their prey by squeezing them to death.

Accipiters typically catch their prey with extraordinarily quick and agile flight. I once watched a house sparrow evade a pursuing accipiter in a hedge on a busy street corner in Bloomington, Indiana. The sparrow flew in, under, through, around, over the foliage. The accipiter was right behind.

Cornell reports, "Dashing through vegetation to catch birds is a dangerous lifestyle. In a study of more than 300 Cooper’s Hawk skeletons, 23 percent showed old, healed-over fractures in the bones of the chest, especially of the furcula, or wishbone."

***

I remember walking down a sidewalk on a summer day and seeing a wasp trying to drag something – I forget if it was an insect or a spider – into a hole in the sidewalk. This was probably a parasitic wasp. She'd lay her eggs in her prey, which would remain alive. The eggs would feed off the paralyzed, zombified host until they emerged from its hollowed-out shell.

***

I know. I know I know I know.

It's all part of the circle of life.

It was the baby robin that pushed me over the edge, and prompted me to write this post.



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