Tag Archives: snake

First Spring at New House

“I haven’t seen many trillium so far,” Nancy commented. It’s our first Spring at New House, and what will come popping out of the ground is still a mystery. At Old House, we had a couple of sections of woods that were almost carpeted in trillium. 

I replied that I had seen a few, all in our paths, being trampled by our feet and The Goat. (More on The Goat later.) “Maybe we have a rare subspecies, path trillium.” That was many weeks ago, and we are indeed blessed with trillium, in woods and meadow and, yes, even in the paths. Trillium and so much more! 

First came the crocus. Spring begins for me then, when the crocus push their thin green leaves up through the winter brown, six weeks or so ahead of calendar spring. I am not one of those gardeners who keeps records of the what and when of emergence and bloom. Not even in my head do I remember the order, and there are so many plants, even ones Nancy has long cultivated, whose identities I can’t recall. Regardless, Spring is always one “Wow!” after another, from crocus emergence until well into summer. Our first spring at New House has been a delight. 

We have had an abundance of Spring’s showy flowers. Daffodil and redbud and dogwood and azalea and rhododendron. Even the carpet of violets in The Meadow was stunning. I could never make up my mind about the violets in the yard at Old House: Were we aiming for suburban lawn or wild meadow? Here at New House, the choice for wild meadow is clear. 

As exciting, however, are the more subtle plants. The aforementioned trillium. The unfurling umbrellas of the mayapple. Wood hyacinth. Bloodroot. 

Nancy first noticed the white blossoms of bloodroot peeking from the edge of a leaf pile. We are still trying to figure out what to do with the bounty of leaves our trees drop in the fall. Some of my choices in the rush of last fall were … well, it won’t happen again. I had to move that pile of leaves to unburden the bloodroot. 

Have I mentioned that our new place is steep? Take an already steep hillside—it falls seventy feet in three hundred. Cut a bench for driveway, house, and garage. What do you get? Escarpments above and below the bench. We live at the top of the lot and much of our gardening will take place below. We have not found a way to get from bottom to top without some forty-five degree climbing. (Nancy’s father will testify to how steep it is. He experienced a pacemaker event after climbing back to the house.) Lugging tools and materials is a challenge. So we bought The Goat. It’s a four-wheel-drive electrically-powered walk-behind cart. Not a toy, it has a ten cubic foot bed and a flat land capacity of 750 pounds. On our 1-to-1 slopes, it has no problem controlling heavy loads going downhill and hauling tools and trash and rock up. So, The Goat and I moved that huge pile of leaves from beside the driveway to the bottom of The Meadow.

(“The Goat,” by the way, is our nickname for our more prosaically-named Overland Cart. We wanted to convey the idea of a sure-footed beast of burden. Kawasaki had co-opted Mule; Yak and Llama are too exotic. I’m not being prudish, but The Ass does not roll off the tongue, although The Donkey almost does, despite the extra syllable. The Jack? The Jenny? Nah! So we are back to the gender-neutral Goat.)

What’s missing from our normal spring sensory feast is the mating calls of the frogs. Nancy hasn’t yet replaced the frog pond we left behind at Old House. While the new occupants of Old House occasionally send a photo, and we can sometimes hear frogs in the distance, it’s not like having that cacophony just beyond your picture window. 

In other wildlife news, we have a pair of crazed bluebirds who have been flying against our windows for the past two months. As happened last year at Old House, this jealous pair is more interested in attacking their reflections in the windows than in settling down to raise a brood. So far, they have inspected and rejected the woodpecker hole in our house siding and the bluebird boxes that I put up for their convenience. Nancy had tacked a long fluttery piece of plastic sheet to the side of the house to drive off the woodpecker. It worked on the woodpecker, but is no deterrent for the bluebirds.

If there is a downside to spring, it is poison ivy. Would Tennessee still be “the greenest state in the land of the free” without poison ivy? We are “blessed” with the stuff, and with English ivy as well. We have declared war on both, a statement that will draw laughs from all who hear it. We will keep you posted. 

Nancy has been finding four-leaf clovers. She has a facility for seeing that pattern in seemingly casual glances at the ground. I have always found it a remarkable skill, having never found one myself without her first pointing out a general location. But it occurred to me just a few days ago that I have a similar facility for finding poison ivy. A nearly subconscious part of my brain will register the distinctive pattern of leaves (or patterns, plural, as the plant has lots of variety), then I stop and consciously search it out so I can spray or pull or step over. In a recent episode of “On Being,” Krista Tippett’s guest talked of the 500,000 generations of mankind as wild animal before civilization (the invention of agriculture) a mere 500 generations ago. Is it that wild animal part of our brains—the sub-conscious, pre-conscious part—that recognizes the pattern of the four-leaf clover or the three-leaved poison ivy? Occasionally, as I am walking, it will come to me that, for instance, the ball of my right foot will land on a particular sidewalk crack five steps from now. It is not a trick I can consciously replicate, nor is that insight always present. But when it comes, it is invariably correct. Useless in the current context, but not hard to imagine the survival value of sensing where your foot is about to land, or distinguishing a copperhead’s pattern in the leaf litter. 

Speaking of snakes, one day, as Nancy was going up the hill from The Meadow while I was still below, she called back a question: Do blacksnakes try to “rattle?” She’d seen it and was confident it was not a rattler. It turns out that they do try to emulate that hair-raising sound. We have not seen it again. We are glad it is nearby, though would prefer to only see it at a distance. All the more reason to roll that rodent-friendly ivy farther from the house.

It is nearly Summer now. Spring’s yellow and white and magenta and red and purple have mostly morphed into the deep green of a Southern summer. The early morning tapping of bluebirds on the window has waned. We have some vegetables in the ground, and some wildflower seeds sprinkled in The Meadow.

There is “a ton” of work still to be done, in our house and on our grounds and at church. But we wake every morning thankful that we find the work is mostly play as well, and that we have the capacity to do it and the opportunity to choose that day’s agenda.

It was a wild and wonderful spring. Anne Lamott says there are only three prayers: Help! Thank you! and Wow! So, “Thank you!” and “Wow!” Amen.

Add One Snake

“There is a snake in the pond,” Nancy informs me.

DSC03559I watched for a while before noticing a different kind of stirring of the water. Then, the head appeared. Alert. Curious. Tongue seeking clues on the wind.DSC03573

DSC03630It’s a garter snake. We watched it slide out of the water, more than two linear feet of it before the tail finally emerged. It hid under a nearby fern, then later was back in the pond.

We have noticed no frog-sized lumps in its sleek length, so speculate that it  feeds on eggs and small larvae as it hoovers along the edges of the pond, in and out of the gaps between stones.


DSC03629

DSC03612

Life Around the Frog Pond

Dragonflies returned to the frog pond today. They were the first we’d seen since last summer. Nancy grabbed her camera as she spotted a female dragonfly, hovering and periodically dipping her tail to deposit eggs on the water. Last year, she’d been watching a similar ballet through the viewfinder when the fly disappeared in a sudden splash, into the maw of frog who’d been watching from underneath.

Dragonflies Mating
Dragonflies Mating

Today, two frogs were on the surface watching as the female fly performed her dance: hover, dip, hover, dip. Meanwhile, her mate flew above her. Protection? No, waiting until she’d deposited that lot for his turn to fertilize another batch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a chipmunk approaching the pond from under a fern. Suddenly, one of the frogs leapt for the dragonfly, missing and startling the chipmunk back into hiding.

As the dragonflies continued their work of procreation, we saw another type of insect land on the surface with a light splash. Surely not an intentional move. It would rest for a few seconds, then flutter its waterlogged wings in a desperate attempt to rise and escape, creating tiny ripples and alerting the frogs to another potential dinner. The second frog waited several minutes, apparently preparing for the leap—and missed. How could it miss a helpless drowning insect while in its own habitat? Here is the second, successful, leap.

As if the insect-amphibian drama were not enough, a hummingbird came to the nearby feeder. And then a goldfinch arrived to drink from the ant moat above the feeder. In short order, a male bluebird and a purple finch joined the party. Red, blue, yellow, within inches of each other. Their combined presence was fleeting and the photo attempts failed. But here is a cardinal splashing in the pond just a few minutes later.

Cardinal Bathing
Cardinal Bathing

All this action took place within a span of fifteen minutes—an astonishing compression, but just a small part of the life in and around the pond. Two nights ago, I was in the living room, awake in the small hours, when Mona had a fit at the dining room window. A raccoon was visiting the pond, reaching into the water with sweeping upward splashes, apparently trying to bag a frog. I turned on the outdoor light. It was not fazed and continued the hunt. I didn’t want to wake Nancy, who, as it turned out, had been wakened by Mona’s bark and was lying in bed thinking, “Surely Brent will tell me if it’s the raccoon.” Furthermore, I did not remember that her camera stays on the dining table, ready for action around the pond. And so, I failed a photo opportunity that I’ll probably not see again.

Phoebe Nest on Ladder
Phoebe Nest on Ladder

Later this afternoon, I chanced to look out our upstairs window and saw a blacksnake moving toward the back of the shop. Nancy was out, so I grabbed her camera and went to investigate. On a ladder suspended underneath the eaves of the shop was a phoebe nest. I watched the snake try to find its way up to the nest, then give up and move back into the woods.

Lady-in-Red Hydrangea with Honeybee
Lady-in-Red Hydrangea with Honeybee

The plant world, too, is booming near the pond and in our yard. The astilbe are gone, but purple coneflowers and black and blue salvia are coming into bloom. After two cold winters froze back the hydrangeas, we finally had a mild winter, and they are in full bloom this year. We have three kinds—mophead, oak leaf, and lace cap (lady-in-red)—and from each of the matures, Nancy has propagated youngsters that this year are finally coming into their own. The lady-in-red are especially showy.

Green Frog Up Close
Green Frog Up Close

Correction: In The Frog Blog, I claimed the first frog photo was taken without benefit of telephoto. Wrong. I made a last minute substitution of photos and failed to adjust the text. But the one at right was taken at 50mm and is un-cropped.

The Frog Blog

Green Frog
Green Frog

Nancy recently sent me this photo in an email labeled, “Photo of the Day.” It is a frog in the water feature just outside our dining room. Variously called the frog pond or Nancy’s pond, this miniature stream and pond was purposely constructed to be observable from inside the house. When the stones at the head of the stream are properly “tuned” to “burbling brook,” the water feature can be both heard and seen while seated at the dining table. This is version 2. Its predecessor was a simple tub-in-the-ground kit she won in a raffle, which served mainly to whet her appetite for something more natural-looking, more organic.

The pond is a source of great pleasure for Nancy. Constructing and tending the pond and its surrounding garden and photographing the results are creative outlets. More importantly, I suspect, the pond is often Nancy’s entree into Sabbath rest. Several times a day, she can be found standing or sitting at the picture window, watching and listening. The pond is for her an invitation to put aside doing and bask in being—to be present and attentive and receptive.

Bold Green Frog and Nancy's Hand
Bold Green Frog and Nancy’s Hand

One thing we have learned from our two ponds is that if you have a hole filled with water, the frogs will come. The girl in the photos is a green frog. She’s a bold one. The others dive for the depths whenever anyone nears, but she will grant a closer look. The first photo was taken with a regular lens, not the telephoto I used here to show how close she allows Nancy’s approaches. Her suitors sound like this and their calls are punctuated by long silences.

Months ago, in late winter, the pond’s active inhabitants were the upland chorus frogs. They are harder to photograph. And their mating calls are a cacophony impossible to miss.

Based on evidence heard but not seen, our pond has also hosted American toads and Cope’s gray treefrogs.

Deer at Pond
Deer at Pond

Showing still more frog photos, Nancy joked that we needed to add “The Frog Blog” to our website. The pond and its surroundings do provide lots of material. For instance, note the sequence at right: deer drinking from pond, then

Mona at Pond
Mona at Pond

Mona rushing out and striking the same pose. We believe one or more raccoons also visit the pond and snack on the inhabitants. (Somebody’s knocking things around and pulling the filter off the pump.)

Also, this is the same dining room picture window that is the target of our deranged bluebirds. Yes, they are still at it. I was premature in thinking that Nancy’s mealworm reset had worked. Lately, we see two males and one female cavorting nearby. The female is no longer interested in the window. She’s kept busy otherwise. But one of the males seems more interested in attacking his reflection than in his real-life competition. Perhaps it is safer that way. Consider also that a favored perch of the bluebirds is the adjacent shepherd’s crook upon which Nancy has now hung the hummingbird feeder. Lots of wildlife can be observed here, less than ten feet from our dining table.

We won’t start a second blog. What we have done, however, is to begin classifying our blog entries by adding Categories and Tags. Think of Categories as section titles in a book and Tags as the index. Each blog post is assigned to one of three Categories, but can have many Tags. Most posts are categorized as “The View.” This post, the bluebird one, and future posts that are mostly nature observations around the pond are categorized “Frog Blog.” The few that have introduced our static pages of creative output (accessed from the menu bar) are categorized “The Arts.”

You will find Categories at the bottom of the left sidebar, and a Tag Cloud at the bottom of the right sidebar. Click on a Category or Tag of interest and all posts with that label will be grouped for you. For instance, if you want the full blacksnake saga, click on “blacksnake” in the Tag Cloud. Speaking of which, Nancy spotted one in the back yard just a few days ago. It is a relief to learn that the bird netting did not wipe out all our rodent protection.

So, welcome to The Frog Blog. Enjoy. Good sabbath.

Observations on the End of Summer

We are blessed, this last week of August, with a foretaste of autumn weather—low temperatures, low humidity, and clear blue skies. Today was a pleasant day for weeding, and Nancy and I pulled three large trash bags full. Also a pleasant day for the dog and I to take a long walk. We have several main loops and many variations, ranging from one to five miles. Today Mona pulled me into the longest one, the one with a stretch of gated-off utility access road on which I can remove her leash and let her roam.

An earlier signal of the end of summer is the return of the goldfinches to the dead seed heads in our coneflowers. From the first of August, walking out of the house or pulling into the driveway triggers flashes of yellow as the finches chitter off into the safety of tall trees. This year they have been especially present, in the flowers and drinking from the cup of water atop Nancy’s hummingbird feeder (the ant-stopping moat) just outside our dining room window. One morning as I ate breakfast, I was treated to repeated yellow flashes, lower right to upper left (coneflower garden to neighbor’s trees) culminating in a twister-like display as two spiraled around each other up into the forest. Fighting over a mate or food source? Or just a dance of delight?

Over the weekend, as I tended the compost bins, I uncovered two small snakes in the leaf pile. With some research, I identified them as juvenile black rat snakes. Apparently, what I have been calling a black snake could be either a black rat snake or a black racer. My weekend sighting gives me hope that the snake who met his/her end entangled in my bird netting (see previous post) left progeny behind who will continue the good fight against field mice and chipmunks and other vermin.

It has been a good summer for gardening. Not too wet, not too dry, not too hot. Some plants have inexplicably died, but others have thrived as never before. The deer have been merciful, the blooms long-lasting. Cosmos and hosta are still spectacular. And Nancy seems to have found a solution to the string algae that plagued her pond last summer. A single water hyacinth has multiplied and totally changed the nature of the pond, from a scum bucket to a prolific frog habitat.

The End of Blacksnake

Blacksnake is dead. I had written earlier about the snake that briefly inhabited our attic and heating duct runs last summer, and his/her determination to be near, if not in, our house this year. Yesterday I found his mortal remains in our garden shed, entangled in a bundle of bird netting we’d had on a shelf.

I am a middle-of-the-roader when it comes to snakes. Not a hoe-wielding chopper of anything long and legless; but also not inclined to catch and play with them. Moderately creeped-out, that’s me. Grateful for their rodent-control efforts, I’d rather not spend time in close proximity. But on the snake scale, this blacksnake was much higher in my affections that the copperhead I found on our street a few years ago, a victim not of any hoe, but of its unfortunate fondness for warm pavement. I viewed blacksnake as my protector from rodents and copperheads, and will miss him or her.

The end must have been violent, to judge from the things knocked off the shelf and the twisted state of the bird netting. I can only hope it was relatively quick, strangulation not starvation. Predator did not succumb to another predator, but to a piece of human detritus. A sad and ignoble end.

Blacksnake

Our blacksnake is back.

The Snake in the Attic
The Snake in the Attic

The story begins a year ago. While running some ethernet cable, I discovered a snakeskin above the drop ceiling of our laundry room. The laundry room is on the ground floor and the bedrooms are above, so the former occupant of that skin had been between floors in the living area of our house. Weeks later, Nancy noticed some distinctive deposits in the attic above our carport, identified by our local wildlife removal guy as snake scat. This attic is attached to the house, on the same level as our bedrooms, accessed at floor level from our master bath. A few days after that, she saw the snake in the flesh while rummaging through that attic. The wildlife guy searched and could not find the snake, found (and sealed) one and only one potential entry spot. He thought the snake was gone and that it had originally entered while trying to get to some baby wrens in a nest under our eaves. That nesting perch has since been removed. We spread some moth balls in the attic and above the drop ceiling to discourage the snake’s reentry and hoped that was the end of the story.

Blacksnake skin found above drop ceiling
Blacksnake skin found above drop ceiling

Apparently not. A few weeks ago, I saw a blacksnake moving toward our house from the woods behind us. I moved between it and the house, trying to scare it back into the woods, but it scooted past me within inches of my legs, disappearing under our deck. Why was it so determined to move toward the house? Nancy speculates that the dark and low space under the deck seemed safer than a retreat into the relatively open woods. Or that it was super hungry and the under-deck is a good hunting spot for chipmunks. I wonder if it has resided under the deck (or inside the house) since last year and was sprinting to the safety of “home.” Does a blacksnake even have a “home?”

What next? Do we buy more mothballs? Do we assume that if it comes into the house, it has good reason? E.G., mice? I guess I prefer a blacksnake to a mouse. And Nancy hates the smell of mothballs. So, with reservations, welcome back, Sneaky Snake. With apologies to Tom T. Hall, if you will keep us free of mice (and copperheads), you are welcome to all of our root beer.