Monday, January 24, 2011

A January surprise and a doubly sad conclusion

Mom came to me on January  9th and told me that there was a snake on the front porch. We have had snakes on the front porch in the past, but never in January. When I went out to the porch, sure enough, there was a snake, a juvenile black rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta,  about thirty inches long. It was a cold day and the temperature was just a bit above freezing.

The snake did not move when I opened the door. And at first I was not sure it was even alive. But when I touched it, it did move a bit.

Where in the world did it come from? It seemed to have some injuries on its back, and I began to wonder if one of the neighborhood cats had brought it in and the cat owner had dropped the snake off on our porch. Some people in the neighborhood seem to think that the snakes are all mine.

After taking some pictures, I moved the snake into my most protected cold frame. Because there are rodent tunnels there, I assumed the snake could easily get out of the frame when the time came for it to do so.

Yesterday I went out to see if the snake had moved. I had placed the snake in an open plastic bag when I moved it into the frame. The bag was still there, but when I touched the bag I immediately realized that the snake was not. My first thought was “Great, it has moved on.” But then I took a closer look: something under the bag had caught my attention. It was the skeleton of the snake, picked clean of almost all skin and fleshy matter. I assumed some rodents had had a feast. 

As it turned out, there is more to the story. The presence of rodents in those frames disturbed me. So I set four mouse traps, expecting to catch some deer mice. When I came back the next day, I had caught something to be sure,  but it was not a mouse. It was a short-tailed shrew, Blarina brevicauda. That explained the neatly cleaned snake skeleton. This only added to my sense of distress: the shrews are a gardener's friend. The shrew would have been the solution to the snail problem in the frames. Was this a solitary individual? Are there others in the immediate area? And if there are no more shrews, will mice move into the tunnels? 

A Winter Visitor

On December 24 I spotted an unexpected visitor among the birds feeding on our deck. At first glance, it looked like one of the white-throated sparrows thronging the food scraps. But then I noticed the beak: that was not a sparrow's beak. And then I got a look at the breast of the bird: lots of big spots. The bird then flew up to the deck railing, facing away from me. It cocked its tail, and not only did I notice that tell-tale movement but I also noticed the slight rusty color of the tail. Does any of that ring a bell? Our visitor was a hermit thrush, Catharus guttatus,  a bird of passage in this area, and a bird most of whose relatives are probably in Central America at this time of year.

I saw the bird again on the next day or two, then I was away for several days. When I returned, I did not see the bird. Then it was back again, and it's been a daily visitor since. When it sees movement in our kitchen, it flies up from the shrubbery in which it seems to spend its time. If I move toward the sliding glass doors, the bird comes closer. When I open the door and toss out a raisin or two, the bird comes up to within two yards of me.

It let me take its picture the other day - that's it, above. 

Winter in Washington

The new year arrived with unseasonably warm weather.  I heard that the last of December and the first of January were the warmest days we’ve had since early December. Sad to say, it didn't last: and we are once again in the grip of enduring cold. 
I was up early January first, but didn’t get out to walk Biscuit until about 9 A.M. We took the “long”  walk, a walk which takes us over to the other side of the creek and some nice views of surrounding woodland and ball fields. Our immediate neighborhood is a cul-de-sac, with Rock Creek Park on one side and the old B&O Railroad line on the other: this happy accident of planning gives our neighborhood a sense of integrity if not of isolation. It’s almost as if we are a little village of our own.

As we turned at the bottom of the hill out of our “village” to walk down to the bridge over the creek, I watched the crows picking at something on the ground nearby. Before West Nile virus arrived, crows by the thousand used to gather in the trees in the woods behind our houses each evening throughout the winter. Their hoarse calls were an evening event. Just before dark they would take flight and move on to their roost which was about a mile away. If you waited quietly after their departure, there was often something else to see: that’s when the Cooper’s hawks bolted from their cover and moved on to their nighttime roost.

But that morning there were only a few crows, and the only other signs of bird life were the muffled knocking of a woodpecker high in the branches of the oaks we walked under. The quiet was interrupted by the sudden passage of a group of bicyclists. The whirr of the bicycle wheels startled me, and just as suddenly brought back memories of the days when I used to ride regularly. On at least one occasion I rode from home down to Mount Vernon and back, and on numerous occasions I rode from home down to the C&O Canal, out to Great Falls along the tow path, and then (the bad part) in traffic for the third side of my great triangle.

Those days are long over for me, but before I realized it another powerful memory or two had been evoked. For one, I found myself remembering scenes from the movie Breaking Away (a coming of age story with strong bicycle themes). To this day I can’t hear Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony without having mental images of the seemingly effortless flight-like movement of cyclists. Bicycles, birds, slightly longer days, a hint of spring in the air: suddenly I was channeling Louis Halle’s  Spring In Washington.

If you have never read Halle’s Spring In Washington, try to find the time soon to do so. Right now, as the days are just perceptibly longer and bird life is just barely beginning to pick up, is the perfect time to begin reading this book. It’s a short book: if you are a quick read you might finish it in a day or two. Or, maybe better yet, read a bit now and then try to time your reading to match the progress of the season.

I’ve reread this book many times over the years, and every time I pick it up again I immediately experience exhilaration and a sense of passing into the light. The drawings Jacques  made for this book are certainly a part of that: they have the clear lines, the sure vision of the Greatest Generation: you can sense the confidence of the times with its eager anticipation of a brighter future.  

In the half-century since it was written, the greater Washington area has changed prodigiously. Yet much of what Halle saw back then can, with a bit of luck, be enjoyed today. Dyke Marsh is still there, as is Rock Creek Park, and if you’re up to it you can still ride a bicycle down to Mount Vernon.

Give this book a try: it’s the perfect spring tonic for those of you who are confirmed readers.