Danger On The Home Front

Blossoms of hydrangea and purple loosestrife, summer-green Japanese maples hinting red, and acorns subtly plopping to the ground — all familiar hunt and harvest harbingers. Likewise, yet slightly different in my travels was a road-crossing bear, a hooting neighborhood owl, questionable mushrooms, a snarling garden snake, and an aggressive woodchuck on his or her hind legs, playing out what could have been a fatal last stand from a most vulnerable position.

Yes, it’s been a weird week or two in the neighborhood. Stuff’s happening as fall approaches. What’s next?

The mast crop, hard and soft, appears to be bountiful this year. I heard my first acorn drop in front of me two weeks ago on my daily rounds along the hardwood lip of an ancient river cut, or escarpment, overlooking riverside flood plain. It’s the type of terrain that trappers used to work for fox and coyotes, raccoons, mink, otter and you name it. Not anymore. Legislation removed trappers more than 20 years ago, leaving one less predator for furbearers to fear. Plus, it was an open invitation to beavers wishing to repopulate old haunts, places where landowners hadn’t seen them in decades, if not centuries. Call it progress, I guess.

Black bears, rare in my early life, are no longer so. The shiny midday example my friend and I saw on our way to a potential edible mushroom he had spotted on a familiar old sugar maple alongside a dirt road he often travels, ran in front of my truck and into an overgrown state Wildlife Management Area I often hunt during pheasant season. Not long ago, my friend had witnessed another crossing at the same spot. Usually there’s good reason for repeat sightings. This was no exception. Though we didn’t get out to investigate, I later told him I’d bet my house and its contents that the two or three apple trees I routinely pass during pheasant season are full of fruit. They’re within 50 yards of the road. I’ll know the answer soon enough, am confident my hypothesis is sound. There seems to be fruit everywhere this year.

The serpent? Agh … nothing to fret about. Just a garter snake sunning itself along the edge of a hayfield. The dogs passed it and, lo, I then proceeded to step right over it before, after the fact,  noticing something underfoot. Turning to double-check, I discovered a partially coiled, foot-long snake. I playfully poked it lightly with my handy chestnut crook cane, attempting to send it slithering off into the brush. Uh-uh, no such luck. In no mood for shenanigans, it aggressively struck at the rubber-capped base of my cane, which can come in handy when unsuspected threats appear. I moved on. The snake stayed put. I know not why it held its ground. Maybe something in the air.

What about mushrooms, you ask? Not an oyster, it was the same white mushroom that had once fooled a friend of mine who inspected and advised against eating it. Recognizing it immediately, years ago his wife had eaten some and suffered disruptive consequences. She was in the room to verify his tale, and agree against eating it. My buddy was stubborn, though, not deterred. He took the mushrooms home, prepared a panful and ate a generous sampling that night. Aware that mushroom hunters had harvested it in previous years, he was confident it was edible and suffered no ill effects.

I guess, mushrooms will affect different metabolisms different ways. The rest of the five-pound bag is now sliced up and in my buddy’s freezer. Me? No. I trusted my pal Killer and will stick to the few mushrooms he taught me: hen of the woods, chicken of the woods and oysters. I’ve also eaten what they call “stumpies” and would pick them if someone taught me the identification keys. I’d never advise anyone to experiment with mushrooms by trial and error. Not a smart move.

The woodchuck? Oh yeah. A wacky woodchuck it was. Chub-Chub disappeared one day on our daily walk and didn’t return after a couple of loud whistles from my lanyard. Finally, my spirited springer spaniel responded to an audible warning from his electric collar and came racing back. First, I heard him rustling through the woods. Then he appeared with a woodchuck dangling from between his jaws, his grip on the back of the chuck’s neck firm but not injurious.

“Drop it,” I commanded when he got to within 10 feet of me. And drop it the dog did, out in the open, mowed hayfield, 50 feet from a brushy edge. The uninjured woodchuck knew running was not an option. Instead, the mature beast stood and audibly clattered his or her teeth while standing on two back legs in an intimidation dance.

“Leave it,” I ordered, as the chuck took a run at Chubby. The dog couldn’t resist, diving into the critter head-first, rolling it over and biting at its underbelly before I could again separate them. The chuck got to its feet and took a run at me and the dog before Lily joined into the “fun.” Praise the heavens I carry that chestnut cane, which I employed to keep the chuck and dogs at bay. Try it sometime. Though no easy feat, I was finally able to create enough space for the chuck to disappear over the brushy bank. Then I was able to convince two oppositional dogs eager for the chase to follow me in the other way.

Next day, I reluctantly took the same route and Chubby clearly recalled the incident, racing straight to the site where we had left that woodchuck. Quickly arriving at the distant site of escape, he sniffed around and raced south along the tree line, nose high, looking for fresh scent of the animal. I called him off the chase, got him back to me and continued on our path through the heart of the roadside hayfield before entering a hidden, one-acre Christmas tree field.

Just before exiting the tree farm on a path through a narrow patch of woods, there stood the woodchuck, lying low while eating clover. No more than 10 feet away from me while Chubby searched the woods, the chuck was likely still feeling ill effects from Chub-Chub’s mauling the previous day. The wild animal stood on all fours before turning and trotting toward me in an aggressive manner. I poked the critter with my trusty cane and rolled it over. Luckily, when it regained its footing, it ran away before the dogs knew it was there.

I have not returned to the scene for two weeks now. Why tempt fate? I have over the years witnessed similar woodchuck/dog confrontations that ended badly for the chucks. So, I can’t say I was overly alarmed. But remember, my dogs are immunized from bad stuff animal bites can bring. I’m not. Better safe than very sorry.

With that potential danger averted, more appeared closer to home. Around 3 a.m. Tuesday morning,  I was awakened by what I first thought must have been the sound of rain. Honestly, the only sound I heard at first was a faint trickling of water running down the roofline gutters maybe 10 feet from my head. Could that have really broken my sleep at that time of night, I pondered? Probably not.

It wasn’t long before the wee-hour silence was broken by another sound — that of an owl I’m not used to hearing. No, it wasn’t that familiar “who cooks the stew, who cooks for you-all” call of the barred owl. This was the more threatening hoot of another owl I haven’t heard for years but won’t soon forget. I do believe what I heard was the haunting hoot of a great horned owl, known in vernacular as “the tiger of the northwoods.”

Years ago, I learned that such an owl had nested above my upper Greenfield Meadows home situated along Hinsdale Brook at the base of Smead Hill. The rare local nest, I was told late that summer, had been built in a tall tree halfway up the hill. The big owls had occasionally been spotted by neighbors and passersby up near this massive nest.

Well, two or three months later, while out back after midnight with the dogs, sure enough, an unfamiliar owl hoot that screamed, “Take notice!” from somewhere close along the brook banks. This midnight bird of prey was obviously near, and the call was spooky. This continued nightly for close to a week, during which time my dear calico manx cat, Kiki, went missing never to return. She loved hunting out back along a brookside stonewall, where many a chipmunk met its maker. Sadly, it appears that Kiki got a taste of her own predatory medicine. Late son Rynie was sick, searching weeks for that cat before resigning to the fact she was dead.

My current Kiki, a long-tailed gray tiger and habitual nighttime prowler, survived that Monday/Tuesday overnight. She’s super cautious and knows her territory well. Even so, she’s likely no match for a hungry great horned owl. Hopefully, that tiger of the northwoods was just passing through for a one-night stand and is by now long gone. Haven’t heard a peep since.

Phew! What a weird couple of weeks it’s been. Then, just when I thought I was living in a dangerous neighborhood, I turn on the TV and watch all hell breaking lose. Mother Nature’s kind and compassionate compared to torch-carrying, gun-toting fascists marching the streets to Presdential approval. Haven’t we seen this somewhere before?

Personally, I’d rather face down great horned owls, angry snakes and vicious woodchucks any day of the freakin’ week.

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