Monday, August 18, 2008

Bird (and other Animal) Tales

I’m not sure why I decided to eschew my beloved crew rowing this summer, for I rise just as early (5:30ish) to take early morning solitary bird walks. Mostly I walk in Riverview Cemetery adjacent to my neighborhood – a large field with shrubs, copses of trees and edged on the west by a strip of woods buffering the Rivanna River just above the Woolen Mills. I always have company on my many walks – mostly birds but also rabbits, a turtle, deer and several times foxes.

The birds abound: Usually I count easily 20 species in a half hour – a pair of young but primeval-looking pileated woodpeckers with their red crests and pinkish faces drilling into snags of dead trees at the top of a steep bank above the River. Bluebirds flitting about the cemetery. Red Shouldered and Broad Shouldered Hawks hassled by crows and other smaller birds as they settle in to look for their breakfast of mice or other small game. Eastern Pee Wees with a sing-song whinny, orange crested chipping sparrows bright and chirpy with the morning sun. One morning with the cacophony of sound and flitting of birds, I notice a large oval mass on the ground slowly moving from the woods toward the gravesites – a very large turtle about 12 - 15 inches in diameter – I'm not sure whether it's a snapping turtle or an especially large box turtle.

But the first time I noticed tails on my walk, I thought I was seeing a large cat. Yet the tail was unmistakable – gray and bushy – and the legs longer than those of either cats or dogs. And the first creature was followed by a second – two young red foxes gangly as human teenagers and just as curious. They crossed the cemetery road that was my pathway, gamboling down a hill from a small knoll where a family mausoleum and some of the oldest graves are located – underneath a large cypress tree.

The first fox and I froze and just peered at one another. I wondered if maybe he had never seen my species before. The second fox followed, oblivious to my presence, and the two crossed and slowly made their way across the field to the woods where they slunk out of sight.

A couple of days later, I saw the foxes again as they were chasing each other in the field next to the woods and then wrestling like puppies. This time, I made a wide circle around them to approach them from behind so that I could take their picture before they saw me. One had entered the woods, but the other saw me as I snapped – and while I got a fuzzy image, he quickly disappeared into the woods.

My hummingbird tale is even closer to home. For several years I’ve had a hummingbird feeder filled with sugar water in the front yard. However, the hummers also enjoy the butterfly weed that abounds in the sideyard between my house and my neighbor’s. Still, the hummingbird must like that sweet sugar water . . .

Several times I have forgotten to replenish the feeder with its sweet water. Each time, a hummingbird has flown up to the side yard window and hovered until he has gotten my attention – at which time I have replenished the feeder. The only time the hummers have appeared at that window is when the feeder is empty.


Recently at a Monticello Bird Club walk, the leader said he’d always heard that mockingbirds don’t sing in August. “Balderdash,” I thought, recalling how loud the mockers in the cemetery and my yard have been this summer. But I took note when I returned home (this on August 2). I’ve not heard a mockingbird sing since then although I continue to see them flutter about and chirp at each other noisily. Do the “dog days” affect the mockers also?


A birdbath sits in the center of my very sunny front yard. The other day, while I paused at my computer, I gazed out the study window and saw eight House Finches (small brown and rosy brown birds) splashing and cavorting in the bird bath. Just about this time, my daughter was leaving the house:

“Oh dear, what’s wrong with this cardinal,” she called out

The cardinal half lying on the path from the front door, his crest awry and his feathers seemingly matted was most decidedly bedraggled.

But then he up and flew away – the cardinal had succumbed to the pleasures of Birdie Spa and had gotten his elaborate headdress very very wet.


Maybe I will live to regret this statement: Deer remain my favorite four-legged creature.

One morning I saw a young buck crossing the cemetery grounds. He had only one antler, the other one probably already molted. In the early morning mist, this one-antlered deer strode mysteriously across the field like a modern day unicorn and then majestically disappeared into the woods.

Another day, as I returned from my walk, I looked into my neighbor’s backyard and saw a beautiful young doe. Staring at her also, with his back to me, was a small rabbit – the rabbit and the doe of the same golden brown in the early morning light.

I froze, the doe stood still, and the rabbit sat – as in contemplation. For those 10 seconds I felt at one with the animal world. . .

Memories of Bambi: my favorite movie when I was a very young child. I loved the animals cavorting with one another across species – Thumper the rabbit and Bambi the fawn for example.

Last summer, at Ivy Creek Nature Center, I saw a skunk chase a groundhog and I imagined the same kind of inter-species friendship. Of course, because it was a skunk, I was glad I was on the other side of the creek.

But usually the animals are not playing but preying.

Just before the sunrise, I spot a newcomer to the cemetery – a long legged heron – I’ve never seen any member of this species in that area although it is probably no more than 50-100 yards above the Rivanna, a likely spot for members of this family of birds.

I memorize the heron’s features – no real tail, stout beak, long neck, brownish feathers (probably an immature of some kind), when a third being emerged from the woods. The red fox . . . it goes after the bird, like the proverbial fox in a hen house, at which point of course the heron flies away.

The fox and I are left staring at one another. I am within 25 yards of him. Frozen to the spot, I silently count the seconds of our confrontation, thinking only briefly that should he approach, he was probably rabid. Not to worry – after 20 seconds, the fox slowly and regally turns and disappears back into the woods.

Returning home, I am greeted by a more domestic animal, my neighbor's cat, Ziggy, who likes to laze beneath my peonies and rose bushes in the garden. His total relaxation reminds me of all I love about the summer.

Here endeth my bird and other animal tales.

No comments: