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DOWN THE BRIGHT STREAM – letters to Theo

  • This is a story primarily FOR CHILDREN about animal life and other happenings at Friends Creek, and an osprey family in Maine.
Alder_pool

Stephen Day Washington, DC. U.S.A. 2013

Tadpole

Letters to Theo

September 14, 2012

Dearest Theo: This is a story about two young fish eagles, called ospreys, that were about to leave their nest.

Ospreys

We were watching them through the large window of our cottage at the edge of the sea on Somes Sound in Maine, America. The two chicks, "Fishy-Sticks" and "Fishy-Pots" were almost ready to leave their nest, flapping their wings furiously as they tried to learn to fly. The two ospreys' parents would fly backwards and forwards to their nest with wriggling small fish hanging from their claws, to feed Fishy-Sticks and Fishy-Pots - who both had huge, huge appetites!

Whenever the osprey parents returned to their nest with food, Fishy-Sticks and Fishy-Pots would start chirping ever louder and louder, and jumping up and down, flapping their wings energetically to attract attention from their parents. Their chirps sounded like "Me, me, me, over here, over here!" Then the other chick would chirp, "No, no, no - me, me over here, over here!"

Cottage_view

View from our Spindle cottage towards Ospreys

Ospreys are very good about keeping their nests clean. At quite an early age the osprey chicks learnt to stick their tails over the edge of their nest, while they faced into the wind - and then with an almighty woosh, they would 'poop' into the sea with the wind helping to blow everything away at supersonic speed!

By the time we were getting ready to leave our cottage, Fishy-Sticks and Fishy-Pots were able to fly from their nest and go on fishing trips with their parents. Both young ospreys were rather clumsy when it came to landing in a fir tree or on a boat ramp, and they had to flap their wings madly just to keep their balance as they tumbled on and off their perches. They would also fly in formation just above the water - and then, suddenly, roll on their sides and engage their claws in a rumble- tumble and, just as they were about to crash into the sea, they would let go in the nick of time.

We noticed that one of the young ospreys (probably Fishy-Pots) wouldn't let Fishy-Sticks return to the nest. This was so Fishy-Pots could get all the food from their parents. Whenever this happened, both young ospreys made a huge amount of noise with their high pitched calls. Fishy-Sticks was absolutely furious at not being allowed to return to his nest, and made many low swoops at Fishy-Pots sitting on the nest at the top of the wooden post in the Sound, where the large nest of sticks and small branches had been built.

Well, Fishy-Pots simply wouldn't budge from the nest, and every time Fishy-Sticks tried to land, Fishy-Pots would flap her wings and make the most incredible penetrating screams and shrieks that probably said "Don't you dare land on my nest. And, just who do you think you are? You're old enough to catch your own fish now - and I'll peck and peck you if you try to land. . . ."

So, Fishy-Sticks would circle the nest again, and again, and again, and finally fly over to the rail on the boat ramp, where it looked like he would perch motionless and sulk. We were worried that Fishy-Sticks wouldn't get enough food away from the nest. However, as soon as one of the parents arrived with yet another slimy slithering wriggling fish in its claws, Fishy-Pots seemed so eager to gulp every morsel down her wide open beak that she forgot about Fishy-Sticks - who had quietly returned to the nest for his share of the meal.

By the time we left Maine, both young ospreys were flying for most of the day, and they only returned to their nest at night - when family calm returned. We knew that soon after leaving our cottage, the osprey parents would push Fishy-Sticks and Fishy-Pots completely off the nest, so that they could have their own lives and territories - and who knows, probably their own osprey chicks next year.

Gotcha

Gotcha!!

September 20

Dearest Theo:

Thought I would tell you a different but related story about some recent trips to my favorite fishing stream, where I plan to take you when you come to America - hopefully soon! We will go to the small river in the Catoctin Mountains called Friends Creek in Maryland, not far from where we live in Washington. We have a lovely cabin we call the Nutshell, just above the stream. The little cabin has two beds, a small kitchen, a deck overlooking the water, and, yes, a loo - and is all very cozy, and you will love it. Now, we don’t always use the loo in order to save water. So, sometimes we pee in the bushes – but don’t tell anyone!

When I fish for trout, I use small artificial insects made out of different colored feathers, tied and glued to a hook. These “flies” look just like real insects when they are plopped on or in the water. So, by waving my fishing rod backwards and forwards, I can get, or cast, my “fly” to land on the water, without a splash, just in the right spot, and then wait for a plump trout to come up from deep below in the pool to grab my “fly” with an almighty tug on my line. Then the fish goes off just like a rocket, and I have to patiently reel it in to the bank, and eventually get it into my landing net. That is when I will really need your help to land the fish. There will be a lot of splashing about, and you may get your feet all soggy, sloshy wet - unless you are wearing gumboots.

Here’s the rainbow trout I caught (see photo showing my rod, landing net, and a very plump trout). I didn't 'bonk' this fish, but released it, so it could swim down the bright stream, below the Alder Pool. Maybe, one day soon, we'll be lucky and catch it again.

Rainbow_trout

Plump rainbow trout caught on my ‘Bloody Washington Leech’ nymph.

Well before we had our cabin all cleaned out and painted, there was a family of mice that took up residence. One night when I was sleeping there I heard a squeak, squeak, and squeak next to my left ear. “Hello,” I said, "You shouldn't be here!"

“But we should, we should! It’s our home too – and besides, you only come here occasionally, and we actually live here,” said Monty the larger of the two pale brown furry fuzzy mice.

"Well, stop squeaking so loudly, Monty. And stop nibbling my ear, Mini," I said somewhat sternly to the two mice.

At which point, off they scampered. I thought I heard one of them say "Spoil sport, fancy not liking mice!"

Monty

Monty looking his best.

I thought I must have been dreaming when I heard the first squeak, but I felt my left ear just in case I really had been nibbled.

We have lots of large trout in our stream, some rock bass fish, and little minnows that the big trout and bass eat. Also, we have crayfish (mud puppies) that look (and taste) like little lobsters, with two large claws in front which they use to catch their food by snapping those claws. These crayfish are so greedy that I have even caught some on my flies while fishing for trout. Sometimes we catch crayfish, which is lots and lots of fun. We do this by waggling a stick in front of them on the bottom of the stream, and placing my landing net just behind them. Crayfish always swim backwards, so when they see the waggling stick, they swim backwards right into the net! When you join me on the stream, you can decide whether you want to be the master "stick waggler" or chief "netter". Once we have caught a dozen or so crayfish, they make a very, very tasty meal. Yum!

There are all sorts of wild life, including large yellow and black tiger swallowtail butterflies that like to suck up salt from the sand at the edge of the stream. There is also a rather grumpy beaver, called Borris-Bodger, who doesn't like to be disturbed while he builds his dam, and will whack his tail on the water with a loud bang. Also there is a wild dark brown mink I call Moxy-Poxy, that likes to eat fish when no one is watching, and is rather shy. Earlier this year I watched Moxy-Poxy as she quietly climbed over the rocks right in front of me down by the Alder Pool. She stopped and looked intently at me, quivering her whiskers, and seemed to be saying, "Buzz off. This is my territory."

Then there are various snakes such as black snakes, which are harmless, grass snakes, and dark golden brown copperheads, which are dangerous - though none of our fishing members has ever been bitten by a copperhead over the last forty year, I believe.

On one occasion, I was climbing down onto a big rock above the swimming hole, so that I could quietly plop my fly onto the water just where I thought there were lots of rainbow trout. Once I had jumped onto the rock, I saw a large three-foot copperhead snake on the rock just a few feet away from me, eying me suspiciously...

"Yipes! There isn't room on this rock for the two of us. One of us has got to jump into the river, and it's you, Creepy Copperhead!" I found myself saying to the snake. “You better get off this rock immediately, Creepy Copperhead. Go on, now, right now! Shoo, shoo!"

"What do you mean, shoo?" said Creepy Copperhead. “I was here first, enjoying the sun, and then you jumped noisily onto my rock, and woke me up, disturbing my wah. . . ."

"I'm bigger than you, and besides I didn't see you sunbathing on the rock," I said, with a huff and puff.

"You may be bigger, but if you don't move, I'll bite your leg," said Creepy Copperhead. "You wouldn't dare!" I said. "Oh yes I would,” said Creepy. “Want to find out?" he said, hissing and showing his long, ever so long, black, slithery forked tongue. "Now what are we going to do? This rock's only big enough for one of us," I said, looking cautiously at Creepy Copperhead. Creepy_copperhead_swim_hole Creepy Copperhead on the large rock above the Swimming Hole. Overhanging_rock

The overhanging rock at the Swimming Hole pool.

Alderpool2

Bottom end of the Alder Pool.

Black_snake

A non-poisonous black snake I have seen above the Swinging-Bridge Pool.

September 28

Dearest Theo:

Thought I should show you pictures of "Creepy the Copperhead" and "Moxy-Poxy," the wild mink, so you know exactly what they look like.

As I was telling you, when I jumped onto the large rock above the stream, it was clear there was no room for both of us . . . I was just on the verge of jumping - in fact I was already holding my nose so water wouldn't rush up it - since, you know, I have rather a large conk or nose - when I thought I heard Creepy Copperhead hissing angrily at me, as if to say:

"Don't see why I should jump in the stream. Was here first. Woke me up, and got me all shook-up and ‘dis-com-boobulated.’ I still want to bite you. Why don't we both jump?"

"NO, NO,” I said. “You, Creepy Copperhead can swim - I'm wearing my long rubber waders, and I would probably get them filled with water and sink like a stone."

"Jolly good,” said Creepy Copperhead. “Serves you right for disturbing me! Now, I really am going to bite you. . . ."

With that, Creepy Copperhead opened his mouth to expose two large white fangs that already seemed to be dripping and oozing with small droplets of nasty poison.

"If you try to bite me, I will have to hit you hard over the head with my landing net, and you won't like it one bit. Not one bit," I said. "

"You wouldn't!"

"Oh yes I would."

With that, Creepy Copperhead slithered to the edge of the rock, and gently dropped into the stream, and swam away.

“My gosh,” I said to myself, “Copperhead snakes really can swim quickly by using their tail in a zig-zag motion, and holding their head just above the water. Also, they will eat a trout if they can catch one that is diseased, or hurt by a heron or mink.”

Moxy_poxy

Moxy-Poxy the dark brown Mink

Just then Moxy-Poxy strolled by to watch the commotion.

"What's all the noise about? You're still on my territory, and it simple won't do," said Moxy-Poxy. "Won't do at all,” she said again, licking her whiskers.

I tried to explain what happened on the rock above the swimming hole, but I don't think Moxy-Poxy was listening.

"Have you been eating our trout....?” I asked gingerly, since she was still licking her dark whiskers.

"A mink's got to live. Besides, I have a family of six young mini-minkies to feed," replied Moxy- Poxy.

"Six?? You mean you have to feed that many - and with "our" trout?”

"Can't see how we could do it any other way. Crayfish are alright, but there's not much meat in the tail, and none in their snappy claws and heads. Besides, one raised its claws and pinched my nose, and it’s only just stopped hurting."

"Why don't you catch some rock bass, sunfish, or some of those slow sucker fish on the bottom of the stream that look like catfish?"

"Don't taste nearly as delicious as a plump rainbow or brown trout!" replied Moxy-Poxy. “I bit a large rainbow trout the other day, but it got away. Guess what I saw the next day?"

"What? I can't wait to hear," I said, rather too sarcastically.

"The trout I bit near the back of its head was caught by that slithering slimy Creepy Copperhead - and he was eating my trout. Can you believe it, my trout!"

"Your trout??" I exclaimed. “That was our trout that we bought from a local hatchery where they breed trout so we can put them in our river and then can catch them fly fishing. The absolute nerve of it!"

Moxy-Poxy went on to say she saw Creepy Copperhead open its huge mouth by doing something ‘discombobulating’ with its jaws, so that it could swallow the whole fish. It seemed to achieve this feat by dislocating its bottom jaw so that the entire fish could be swallowed, rather like a python. But Moxy-Poxy was frightened of copperhead snakes, so decided to keep her distance.

"Never saw anything quite like it. We mink nibble small pieces of fish, and aren't nearly so greedy. By the by, why do you buy trout to put in the stream, and then fish them out? Doesn't make any sense to me! Wouldn't it be so much easier just to buy the trout from the hatchery, and then eat them? On the other hand, ‘suppose if you did that, we would have to eat those nipping crayfish and those yucky tasteless scaly feisty bass!"

Creepy_copperhead

Creepy Copperhead still on the lookout.

September 30

Dearest Theo,

After leaving Moxy-Poxy mink at the edge of the stream, right over there, on a large piece of wood, resting very quietly, was Daisy the great green Darner dragonfly, who had seen everything.

Dragon_fly

Daisy Darner Dragonfly (D3)

“Do you think Moxy-Poxy mink was telling the truth, when she said she saw Creepy Copperhead eat a whole trout in one long big gulp?” I asked the dragonfly.

“Saw the whole thing. Absolutely amazing! Was catching mosquitoes in the air right above them – so yes, it’s true,” said Daisy Darner Dragonfly (D3).

“Why are you called a dragonfly, D3? You don’t look like much of a dragon to me.”

“Watch my mouth,” said D3. “See these strong jagged jaws? I can catch large insects in the air, almost with my eyes wide shut. A crow even saw me catching a ruby-throated humming bird and trying to eat it!” “A humming bird, wow! You didn’t really catch a hummingbird in the air – did you, D3?”

“Did! But was disturbed by Gronker, that noisy black crow – he’ll tell you it’s true. He made so much noise gronking and cawing away, and jumping up and down with all his friends, as if they owned the river - that I lost my grip, and ended up with just a few feathers in my mouth.”

"You were boasting about that bit about ‘with your eyes wide shut,’ weren’t you? Can’t shut your eyes, can you? Because you have so many small eyes within your two big compound eyes. Besides, you have no eyelids.”

“Got me there,” said Daisy. “Was just trying to explain that I’m considered a dragon in the sky – at least by those delicious mosquitos, especially when they are full of blood after biting YOU – sorry, I meant someone. . . .”

“How awful, it’s bad enough being bitten by a mosquito,” I said, “but to think you then make a meal of it. Yuk!”

“It’s only female mosquitos that feed on blood, and I have to eat at least ten miserable mealy male munchkin mosquitoes before I catch ONE plump female. Wow, did I just use five ‘ms’ in a row just then? How absolutely brilliant! Anyway, that’s enough chatter for now. Got to get going and lay my eggs. It’s late in the season, and I should have started migrating thousands of miles south early in September – now it’s almost October.”

“Before you leave, D3, you might like to hear that I tie fishing flies with small feathers on sharp hooks to catch trout – and guess what some of those flies look like?”

Leech_nymph

Some of my deadly Bloody Washington Leech flies (aka nymphs).

“Absolutely no idea. Not even sure I know what the Dickens you’re talking about. What small flies?”

“Well, they’re called nymphs – and what’s more they look exactly like YOU – you know, when you lived in the stream as a water dragon – before you emerged as a beautiful dragonfly.

“No way, Jose! They don’t look anything like me. Anyway, just as well you don’t use live nymphs, ha, ha! – or I’d be after you, big time.”

“Actually D3, you look much more like a real dragon as a black nymph, than you do as a dragonfly – just look at yourself as a nymph!”

Darner_dragonfly

Daisy Darner Dragonfly (D3) – as a nymph

Tadpoles

Tadpoles feeding on the bottom of the stream

“Harrumph! See what you mean – but remember beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I think I looked pretty damned cool as a nymph, don’t you? And, in those days, I could actually catch tadpoles, small minnows, and baby trout that had just hatched from eggs. Just look at my dragon- like body with all those scales - and that forked tail! Anyway, must be flying off to lay my eggs under some stones and plants at the water’s edge so that next year’s family of my dragonflies will be around – that is, unless I fall in, and am eaten by a large rainbow trout. That would be really funny, wouldn’t it? HA, HA, HA! I ate very small trout when I was a nymph – then I get eaten by a large trout when I’m a grown dragonfly. Anyway, won’t happen. Not now, no way, never, no how . . . . because I can see the trout coming. Don’t even need to move my head or eyes to see. Watch this.”

And with that, Daisy the green Darner dragonfly remained motionless looking at everything and nothing in particular, and then flew off.

October 5

Dearest Theo:

Weather cooling down, days are shorter now, some leaves are down, long shadows cross the water earlier, and everything seems quieter on the stream. Most crayfish, having laid their eggs, quietly slip away to die so that the next generation of crayfish can emerge late next spring. It’s just like clockwork. Nothing lasts forever. Everything goes in cycles.

Hermione, the huge great blue heron, was having a field day standing absolutely still in the shallow water gobbling down those aging soft shelled crayfish that had laid their eggs - finding this much easier than waiting patiently for a trout or sunfish to swim past her long legs.

Crayfish

Just look at those crayfish pincers!

Just then, Moxy-Poxy, the brown-black mink appeared with five cubs.

“Hi-ya. What ya all up to?” asked Hermione. “Thought you had six cubs?”

Moxy-Poxy stopped and took several sniffs, with quivering whiskers. “Very sad, actually. Very sad, indeed. We’re all absolutely devastated. The last of my litter, Mini-Minkie #6 was born with a deformed back leg, and couldn’t keep up with the rest of my cubs. One day, while I was about to catch one of those yummy rainbow trout in the stream, I heard my dear little cubs let out loud screeches on the other side of the bank. My heart stopped when I saw Zoltan, the red tailed hawk, swoop down and sit on top of Mini-Minkie #6. Zoltan had his claws in my little cub’s lifeless body, and then spread his wings and flew off to goodness knows where. It all happened so quickly, there was simply nothing I could do. Besides, my useless mate, Magnus Mickalmus-Mink, was not around, probably up to no good again - off chasing another female mink, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“Gosh, golly, how absolutely awful,” said Hermione. “I’ve had my own run-ins with Zoltan. Thinks he’s Lord of the skies with all that soaring, twirling, and flashing that big red tail of his - and he had the nerve to almost collide with me as I was soaring way above him in a warm updraft. Shouted something about herons being too big and clumsy to catch the wind and soar like eagles, and to get out of the blinking something way. He didn’t know that we herons can soar way up into the sky by catching one of those warm thermometer whatnots, I think I mean thermals. The absolute cheek of it! But I’m truly sorry to hear about Mini-Minkie #6. Where did that happen?”

“Bottom end of the Alder Pool.” With that, Moxy-Poxy gathered her remaining five cubs and crept quietly along the bank, heading upstream.

Meanwhile, Hermione the great blue heron continued standing absolutely still at the water’s edge on a rock. Just then, she saw a dark shadow in the water moving her way. “Probably a trout,” her instincts told her, as she bent her head forward and to one side, ever so close to the water. Zap! In less time than a mouse can blink, or fart, Hermione struck at the fish with her razor sharp beak, spearing the trout just behind its head. There was a bit of splashing as the rainbow trout moved its tail backwards and forwards trying to escape – but then it was all over. Hermione pulled the eleven-inch rainbow trout out of the water; turned the impaled fish up towards the sky, until she could gobble it down her bulging throat in one huge gulp.

One of the mini-minkies squeaked, “Look, you can still see that trout wriggling in her throat!”

“Amazing!” said Moxy-Poxy, who had stopped with her cubs to watch this incredible performance. “But do you think it wise, Hermione, to keep eating the trout that the fishing club has just stocked?”

“You can talk, Moxy-Poxy! I’ve seen you catching trout in the long Alder Pool and up by the Swinging Bridge Pool. And I’ve even seen Creepy Copperhead eat a trout near the Swimming Hole Pool. Besides, there are some horrid people - I think they’re called poachers by fishing club members - who catch many more trout using worms on sharp barbed hooks, and who keep everything they catch, and leave empty worm tins on the bank. So, wouldn’t worry too much about us. All humans do is to disturb us - and it’s just not that easy for a heron like me to fly up between the trees, particularly after gorging on a large trout – or two!”

“Still, I think we should all be careful, because one of these days you never know what might happen,” said Moxy-Poxy. “I thought I heard one member mention something about cooking a heron in an oven, with bacon slices on its breast, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts and wild mushroom morels - with a heaped helping of cranberry sauce, and a glass of decent pinot noir red wine – if he catches you!”

“You didn’t,” exclaimed Hermione. “How could anyone think or do such an awful thing?!”

“Just kidding, Hermione, but there is one fishing club member who might give you a try.”

“Well you’ve got me all shook up, but I don’t think that’ll stop me catching trout – it’s in my genes. I can’t stop. Besides, trout are easier to catch than those damned scaly ricocheting rock bass, and much better eating than those yucky sucker fish - which taste just like mud. Anyway, must fly off. I think I hear someone coming.”

With that, Hermione the great blue heron flapped her large wings, left her perch on the nearby rock, and ran along the edge of the stream, pedaling her legs as if riding a bicycle as she slowly rose into the air. She flew very low downstream along the river, as she gently flapped her wings, with her long legs drawn up behind her like a broomstick, slowly gaining altitude, before disappearing above the trees.

The great blue heron must have seen me, as I walked along the bank of the stream in my waders with my fly fishing rod and tackle, and the long metal staff I use to keep myself steady when I cross the stream, over very slippery moss-covered rocks. One time recently, before using my metal staff, I lost my balance while I was reeling in a large brown trout, and sat plonk-down in the water. Most embarrassing! As my waders filled with cold water, all I could do was to sit in the middle of the stream and laugh out loud. Just as well Hermione or the family of mink didn’t see me, or they would have howled with laughter. But, actually, they were watching, and I can just imagine their comments.

“Did you see that? Did you see him trip over himself and sit down in the water?” Hermione would have croaked.

“And he’s the one who might have liked to put you in his oven, Hermione - as roast ‘Heron à la Friends Creek,’” mischievously joked Moxy-poxy, the black mink.

“Yes, ‘Heron à la Friends Creek,’ la-la, la-la . . . la-la,” the five mini-minkin cubs sang in high pitched unison.

“I’ll La-La you all with my sharp beak, if you don’t all pipe down,” Hermione croaked back to the cubs.

“He looked like the village idiot, sitting in the water laughing away. Did everything except blowing bubbles,” Hermione continued with her harangue.

“He’s forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air” the mini-minkin cubs sang in unison. With that, Moxy-Poxy gently picked up the smallest of her cubs in her mouth, and she and her entire litter disappeared into the undergrowth.

Moxypoxycub

Moxy-Poxy carrying away the last of her cubs.

Hermione the great blue heron was still thinking about what a ridiculous sight it was having seen me lose my footing and then sitting in the middle of the stream - when a dark shape moved in the stream right below where she was standing.

“Hello,” she said to herself. “Looks like another of one those delicious trout.”

Sure enough, one of the smaller brook trout with white-edged fins that the club stocks occasionally was swimming right within range of her sharp beak. Hermione kept absolutely still, just like a thin tree trunk. Suddenly, she thrust her beak down into the water and, by instinct, calculated exactly where the trout was located (because water changes the shape and position of an object under water, through something weird called optical refraction). In the blink of an eye-lid, the heron had speared the ten-inch brook trout right behind its head. Well, that was that, and in less time than you can say abracadabra or Kalamazoo, the brightly colored trout with green, blue and pink spots had disappeared, wriggling down Hermione’s throat.

“Saw that!” said Gronker, the handsome black crow, who was perched high up in a nearby fir tree, and had seen everything. “Y’a know, they won’t like it. Not one little bit - no, not one bit,” he cawed. “If they ever catch you Hermione, you’ll be toast! Heard one of them members shouting something like, ‘Let’s first kill the herons.’ Sounded like something straight out of William Shakespeare’s play, King Henry V!”

“William who?” asked Hermione, completely dumbfounded. “Never heard of him! Must have been referring to those damned know-it-all Washington lawyers who come up here - and catch all my fish. Besides, didn’t you know we are fully protected?”

“Protected? My tail-feathers!” cawed Cronker. “Wouldn’t stop one of those there ‘um, er members taking a potshot at you with a gun, right up the ‘kazoo’ – particularly by you know who!” With that, Cronker flew off cawing away with utter delight. “Funny that – right up the old kazoo! Caw, tidily, caw! Up the Kazoo, what a hoot!”

Blue_heron

Hermione, the great blue heron waiting for a trout.

Zoltan

Zoltan, the red tailed hawk hunting for food.

Moxy-Poxy and her five cubs watched as Zoltan, the red-tailed hawk returned to the stream the next day, and flew high above the trees on a sky-blue beautiful clear day.

“Watch out all of you! Zoltan may try and get one of you, so stick super-close to me,” Moxy-Poxy called out to her cubs with a long whistling squeak. “He definitely looks like he’s up to no good hunting again.”

Interestingly, Zoltan was using the five feathers right at the very end of his wings, just like fingers to stabilize his flight and make quick turns. He could spread or retract these long ‘pinion’ feathers to control his flight in midair - especially to better maneuver if he spotted a plump mouse, vole, frog – or, in this case, a laggard baby mink! Modern passenger jet aircraft now use a similar technique at the end of their wings, with a small ‘winglet’ that sticks up – though at present they don’t move. This helps airplanes keep steady as they fly, particularly at slow speeds and during any air turbulence. Zoltan had scoffed to himself at these ‘so called’ modern contraptions on aircraft. “Had those wingtips for millions of years, and now humans call them a major invention? Can you believe it!? Even turkey buzzards, which are not particularly bright - in fact they’re downright stupid, smelly, and totally obstinate, have been using the ends of their black wings to keep them balanced while soaring high in the sky in strong winds - and those ‘vultures’ have been around longer than we have!”

Just then, Zoltan’s sharp eyes caught sight of a small brown furry animal moving near the nutshell cabin. Monty Mouse was twitching his whiskers and on the move, hunting for food outside the Nutshell, and creeping ever so quietly along the outside edge of the ‘Nutshell’ cabin, searching for small seeds and nuts that had fallen from the surrounding hickory trees and bushes during the last storm.

Zoltan the red tailed hawk’s eyes were set ‘wide open’ for long distance sight, and everyone knows the one thing any bird of prey, such as a red tailed hawk, is good at is to spot the slightest movement. Any movement. . . .

Monty Mouse, sensing that he might have been spotted, froze. But it was too late. Zoltan folded his wings and came swooping down out of nowhere towards Monty at a tremendous rate of speed. . . .

Just as Zoltan was about to grab Monty Mouse in his huge yellow and black tipped outstretched claws, Monty heard the distinctive warning ‘thwack’ of Borris-Bodger Beaver’s tail smacking the water nearby. Monty immediately spun around and darted for cover. Zoltan had gained so much speed in the final moments of his spectacular dive that he was unable to change direction and came crashing into the side of the cabin where Monty would have been just a few seconds before.

Feathers went everywhere, and Zoltan looked as if he had been hit over the head with a frying pan, as he tried to compose himself, readjust his remaining feathers, and vigorously shake his red tail. “Suffering botherations and damnations,” Zoltan said to himself. “Nearly got that mouse. Missed it by an inch. Could even taste it - if it hadn’t been for that blasted Borris-Bodger beaver giving the whole game away. . . .”

Well, that’s how the animal kingdom works. Animals sound an alarm call if they sense danger. This universal warning system works pretty well for animals of the same kind, such as the American robins which pink for their alarm call, to beavers that whack their tails on the surface of the water. Over millions of years animals of different species have also learnt these different alarm calls, so that they all help each other to survive. Howling monkeys in South America are a typical example, and have alarm calls for different types of danger, such as eagles or snakes.

“Thanks a million Boris-Bodger beaver. Owe you a big one,” squeaked Monty nervously, hiding under several large decaying brown and yellow sycamore leaves.

“No worries, Monty. Never did like that red tailed hawk, particularly after he tried to grab one of my precious little beaver cubs while I was rebuilding my dam. But watch out. He’s obviously hungry and on the prowl - and those claws of his are super sharp.”

Borris_bodger_beaver_ap

Borris-Bodger Beaver in the Alder Pool

“Suppose you eat trout along with all the others?” asked Monty.

“Not on your nelly. Never touch ‘em. We’re strictly vegetarian. There’s nothing better than a delicious young alder sapling that I can chew on with my super-sharp long front teeth. Then there are much larger trees such as sycamores that we gnaw on, but they are to make dams with, rather than eat, if you follow my drift. You know, we cut ‘em down and then get the trees to drift over to our dams. Pretty clever pun that ‘get my drift,’ wasn’t it?” Borris-Bodger roared with laughter at his own joke.

“Terrible joke, simply awful. Not funny at all! Seriously though, don’t your front teeth ever wear out with all that munching and gnawing?”

“You really don’t know much about beavers, do you?”

“Guess not,” said Monty.

“Well, we rodents have the capability to regrow our teeth. Rats and squirrels are the same way. Guess mice are the same way too.”

“Wow, didn’t know that. Often wondered why my teeth never got any shorter,” Monty said, while pawing gently at his front teeth.

“Well, guess now you know,” said B-B, while thinking what a silly simpleton Monty really was. With that, Borris-Bodger did a mini whack of his flat tail and swam off to get on with some serious dam building half way down the long Alder Pool.

Showing_off_flat_tail

Borris-Bodger Beaver showing off his flat tail, or paddle, during a jolly good scratch.

Creepy_copperhead_monty

Creepy Copperhead intensely watching the activities, to find exactly where Monty was hiding.

Trillium

Trillium found growing near the Nutshell in late spring.

Trout_lilly

Trout lily flowering on the stream’s bank during spring – just look at those orchid-like leaves.

Yellow_violets

Yellow violets also found along the stream.

Later that year...

Dearest Theo:

Towards the end of October of that same year, I was fishing in the deeper part of the swimming hole at the top end of the Friends Creek property, when Barnaby the little Brown Bat appeared out of nowhere. It was late afternoon, and I thought rather too late and cold for bats to be about. The furry ball of a bat started flying around my hat in circles as if it was serenading me. I was getting concerned I might catch it in midair if it mistook my Washington Bloody Leech nymph for a real fly! The little brown bat was slightly smaller than a common wren; though with much longer skin-like wings which allowed it to do incredible aerial acrobatics while hunting small flying insects.

Barnaby

Barnaby the little Brown Bat showing off his teeth

Barnabybat2

Whoa - just look at my wings!

“What’s up Barnaby? How come you’re out so late,” I asked, while making another long cast with my fly rod.

“Couldn’t sleep another moment longer - and my sonar picked up a particularly large juicy insect buzzing about in the air.”

“Your sonar? What’s that? And that’s my fishing fly you seem to be chasing in the air.”

“Don’t need to see insects in the air, especially when it’s dark. I send out high pitched sound signals from my nose that you humans can’t hear, to find insects. The sound bounces off those insects and comes right back to my ears. That way I know exactly where the insect is located at any particular moment, so I can catch it. Why do you think I have such large ears, Little Miss Red Riding-hood? All the better to hear you with, my dear! By the by, I can catch my body-weight with insects in one evening! Bet you can’t do the same thing catching that many trout in ten years! Though, some of your fishing club buddies might dispute that fact!”

“Ha, ha, very funny, got me there! So that’s how you catch your food. Anyway, how come you’re out so late, Barnaby – d’you mind me calling you that, since Barnaby the Little Brown Bat is a bit of a mouthful?”

“Fine, no probs. Haven’t you heard there’s a terrible white fungus that collects around the mouths and noses of bats, that’s been killing off all my relatives while we hibernate during winter in caves, old barns, and church belfries? Some say it wakes us up way too early in the season from our deep sleep, and we die of starvation because there are simply no insects out there in the winter. Others say no one knows why it kills us. I think it’s some sort of poison that eats its way into our flesh and bodies.”

“Yuk! How simply awful!” I said. “You must be a bit worried that you’re out so late in the year. . . .”

“Wasn’t worried, ‘til you told me you were waggling that fake looking black nymph in the air to catch a fish. Honestly, people have no respect for us bats – which do so much good helping anyone who gardens or farms. There I was thinking what a plump meal that would make, and so late in the season. Should have guessed it was a blinking fake.”

“Well, I’m truly sorry I confused you,” I apologized. “But that’s what I use to catch trout.”

Just as I was about to tell Barnaby there was absolutely no sign of any white fungus on his mouth, the unmistakable sound of all sorts of alarms started drifting up the stream. It began quietly enough, but steadily gathered strength as more and more animals chipped in relaying alarms up and down the river. Carolina wrens were going crazy giving off their ‘burring’ alarm calls, robins were pinking, crows were ‘cawing and cacophonating,’ and beavers were smacking their tails repeatedly on the water. Something bad had happened.

Bad news travels quickly - very quickly. Barnaby had a bat’s eye view because he was up high in the air and, with his superior hearing, was able to just about make out an alarm sounding like “Creepy got the mouse. Poor old Mo…….”

Just then, a rather disheveled Jenny wren appeared, looking as if she was far better built to fly backwards rather than forwards.

“It’s true. It’s true. It’s all true. Creepy Copperhead found Monty hiding under some leaves, bit him in the neck, and then ate him in one gulp” chirped Jenny. “It’s really awful, isn’t it?”

Overhead, Zoltan the red tailed hawk flew over, just above tree level, screaming “Law of the jungle! Law of the jungle! Told you so - though how I wish I’d caught that plump little mouse, rather than Creepy Copperhead.”

“I’m out of here!” Barnaby cried. It may be the law of the jungle, but we bats also have to live together in peace. And what will happen to Mini Mouse without Monty?”

With that, Barnaby, the little brown bat, made one more flight around my head and disappeared upstream.

Carolinawren

Jenny the Carolina wren – bearer of bad news

Bright_stream

Down the Bright Stream - The Alder Pool at Friends Creek.

Of all the wonderful places to catch trout, the Alder Pool is definitely the best. That’s because it’s long and deep, and gets oxygen in the water from a small waterfall over a natural ‘haystack of rocks’ at the top end of the pool. The far side bank can be a bit challenging to wade, because so many leaves settle there on the bottom as the stream’s flow slows down. Sometimes the leaves are so packed down over the years, that when I wade over them, huge bubbles of smelly methane gas come bubbling up to the surface of the water with every step that I take. ‘Baloop, plop-baloop, balop.’ No, Theo, I hadn’t been eating too many baked beans!

Last time I was there I found an old landing net deep down in the smelly leaves. The net had rotted away leaving the wooden hoop. I wondered whose it was, and how it got there.

Woodenhoop

January 11, 2013

Dearest Theo:

Snow covered the ground, and white tailed deer tracks were everywhere. Small streams were tinkling their way down the bank into Friends Creek, as the weather had rather suddenly changed, with a warm wind blowing, and the snow was quickly melting.

“Well, I’ll be darned, he’s up here again, catching more trout, I’ll bet,” said Doris Deer as she searched for some saplings to chew below the melting snow at the edge of the stream, next to her favorite crossing point where all deer tracks seemed to merge into one.

Doristhedeer

Doris, the white tail deer

“That warm wind blew his scent down the stream, so knew he was here long before I saw him waving that ridiculous wand in the air,” snorted the eight-point buck standing next to Doris. “Could smell him a mile off. That’s the thing about those humans. They can’t smell us - or much else for that matter, but they stink to high heaven with distinctly unnatural odoriferous smells!”

“Odiferous smells indeed, that’s a good one coming from you Buckaroo – especially after you’ve been in a field of alfalfa or soy beans,” replied Doris. “I thought the local goods train was rumbling past, you were making so much noise, blowing away like an erupting volcano!”

“Alright, that’s quite enough of that,” said Buckaroo, the impressive eight-point antlered buck. “Must say, it’s awfully quiet out here . . . Haven’t seen Moxy-Poxy or her cubs for quite a while, and the entire gang of copperheads, black snakes and grass snakes are all hibernating, and there’s not a crayfish in the stream. Also, no sign of Borris-Bodger beaver though thought I saw his tracks on the bank. Did see a few white moths dancing in the warm breeze that have come out way too early, and Jenny the Carolina wren was chattering away, searching for hibernating insects in the tiny crevices of sycamore trees, along with Nutter the all American nutcase, I mean nuthatch.”

“Look,” said Doris suddenly, “he’s actually caught a trout. Amazing! Did you see it just then, leap right out of the water with water droplets flying everywhere, exposing its beautiful silvery pink colors, and then ‘splosh’ as it landed like a flat pancake back in the water? Wonder what he’ll do with it? Think I heard him muttering to himself “Rod tip up. Keep tension on. Reel in line. Let the fish run. Just listen to the reel zing as the trout darts upstream. Reel in carefully, rod tip up . . . Get ready . . . Out with the net . . . Steady, STEADY. Damn! Missed it. Missed it again! What a total idiot I am! Ah, there you go, got you at last my beauty!” as the trout was placed in the net.

Meanwhile, I was thinking that the sport of fly fishing for rainbow trout just doesn’t get any better than this. Also, there’s the added benefit that an occasional freshly caught trout can be delicious smoked on buttered brown bread, with a nice glass (or two) of a dry Chablis wine. Yum!”

“Just as well he doesn’t hunt deer, or we’d be filet mignon steaks by now!” said Buckaroo, pawing the ground to expose some more alder shoots.

I was so engrossed catching and reeling in a fine 15-inch rainbow trout in the Alder Pool, caught on a small #14 Prince nymph with silver tinsel mini-wings and a bright gold bead-head, that I was quite unaware I was being watched by the small herd of deer. I certainly knew they were around because of all their tracks - and I could guess from the depth of each track whether it was probably a buck or doe. I also knew they would spot me long before I saw them. It was too early for baby fawns, but they would be born next spring when plants such as trout lilies, trillium, violets, and young hickory saplings would be up. There was definitely one hoof track deeper and larger than all the others that mingled with all the other deer tracks, which must have been those of a large stag.

“Hello – what’s that other large paw mark in the melted snow over there, not far from the deer tracks?” I asked myself. “Far too big for a dog, and obviously not a deer track. Looks awfully like a . . . well, gosh, a bear,” I muttered while turning around awfully slowly in the direction of the paw marks, and feeling more than ever that something, someone, somewhere, was watching me. . . .

Barthebear

Bart the black bear’s large footprint. My, what big paws you have!

I knew that black bears had been seen in the Catoctin Mountains where I was fishing, but I hadn’t seen one there before. Normally, black bears will scamper away if they see humans – unless the mother bears have young cubs, in which case they can be quite fierce, and best kept well away from.

“Did you see that Doris? He’s absolutely petrified that Bartholomew the black bear will leap out of the woods and chase him,” whispered Buckaroo. “What a wimp!”

“Can’t say I blame him,” Said Doris. “Black bears can climb trees and run faster than humans, though nothing like as fast as us. Besides, ‘Bart’ can be particularly grumpy when he’s disturbed.”

“Anyway, shouldn’t Bart be hibernating this time of year?” Buckaroo snorted. “Black bears always hibernate in the winter months. Bet you didn’t know they can sleep for up to a hundred days without eating, peeing, or . . . or . . . y’ know what!”

“Can’t say I knew that! Wow, imagine not peeing for a hundred days! You could fill a small pond in a hundred days, Buckaroo!”

“Now, now, let’s not get too personal, Doris. Something’s woken him up, and I’ll bet he’s as grumpy as a hot cow on a tin roof!”

“That didn’t come out quite right – did it, Buckaroo?” Doris chuckled.

“You know what I meant! Anyway, time we were off, Doris,” snorted Buckaroo. “Let’s skedaddle before he or anyone else sees us.”

With that, they both melted into the woods, after quietly crossing the stream, with Doris leading the way.

Buckaroo

Buckaroo, the impressive ‘eight-point’ antler white tailed stag.

Bart the black bear was having a bad day – a very bad day indeed. He had been woken up from a deep slumber in his warm den under a large overhanging limestone rock. First there was the noise of a fisherman climbing and then slipping off the big rock where Bart was sleeping. After that, he couldn’t stop scratching due to a severe case of fleas which had infested his den.

“Damned fleas, shouldn’t be part of the animal or insect kingdom!” Bart was getting more and more agitated as he twirled and scratched, and scratched and twirled away in his small den. Finally, an exasperated Bart grunted to himself “Can’t take it anymore. I’m out of here!” With that, a very grumpy Bart slowly emerged, blinking, into the lightness of day to find another den – any den somewhere dry not too far away.

Jumpingflea

That miserable little biting jumping flea

Bart-flea-bitten

Bart, the flea-bitten, bad-tempered black bear now on the prowl.

Fortunately, most other animals had disappeared from the stream, and those that were still around, such as Rufus the red fox and the white tail deer were all keeping their distance. Moxy-Poxy and her cubs were also keeping well out of Bart’s way in their den at the edge of the river bank, and the beavers were holed up in their own special chamber in part of the large dam of branches they had built by the side of the stream, next to a silver barked sycamore tree alongside the Alder Pool.

Bart was growling, “I’m as angry as three colicky cows, and I’m simply not going to take it anymore!” as he ambled on all fours round a sharp corner on the path near the Swinging Bridge pool - where a large rock was protruding, obscuring the rest of the path ahead. . . .

Just my luck, but I was coming exactly from the opposite direction on that same path, and the wind was blowing upstream towards me, so Bart couldn’t see or smell me, and I couldn’t smell or hear anything. Though I was aware that everything had become awfully quiet, except for Gronker and his gang of black crows who were cawing away, I was still wondering where that darned bear might be, hoping it was long gone back into the woods.

As both of us came round the big rock on the path above the swinging bridge pool, we very nearly bumped right into each other.

“Oh my god!” I shouted.

“No, it’s not God, just me,” grunted Bart, bad temperedly. “And I’m mad as a ‘bear-busted-bees’ nest’ at being woken up. Was it you who slipped, fell, and then slithered all the way down the rock just on top of where I was sleeping?”

“Afraid it was Bart, but I didn’t mean to do it, honestly – besides, I’m covered in scrapes and bruises, and not exactly feeling too happy about things myself.” I was still in total shock at almost colliding with Bart, but I didn’t want to let him know how frightened I really was. If he knew that, goodness knows what he might do.

“No room on this path for the two of us,” growled Bart, exposing two rather menacing- looking white fangs sticking out from the front of his jaw.

Since I had had a somewhat similar encounter with Creepy Copperhead on the large rock above the swimming hole last year, I didn’t want to risk my luck a second time by standing my ground.

“You have a point there, Bart. You really do have a good point!” With that, and ever so slowly, I turned around and walked back along the path.

To my utter surprise, when I peered nervously over my shoulder, I saw Bart had also turned around and was scampering away downstream on all fours. So it really was true, black bears will generally run away from humans, unless cornered or with young cubs.

“Pheeeeew!” I whistled out loud. “That was a close one, particularly since Bart was so grumpy.”

“Didn’t you hear us sounding the alarm?” Gronker the black crow cawed from his perch high up in the fir tree. “All of us saw Bart coming out of his den way too early in the season, and knew something was up. Tried to warn everyone with our cawing alarms, but guess humans are a bit slow on the uptake! There’s way too much city life, vodooeo games, iPoodles or whatever you call them electronic things, and all those other newfangled indoor distractions - and not enough getting out into the woods to be one with us, and observe nature. Doubt if most boys and girls can tell the difference anymore between a crow and a hawk, and forget about asking them the difference between a mink, otter – or beaver!”

“Good point Gronker. Sorry I didn’t pick up on your alarm signals. I did hear all of you cawing, honking, and cronking. However, was so intent watching that large rainbow trout rising to the surface, with a huge splash, to catch a few small white flies that were out hovering right over there in the swinging bridge pool - that my mind was quite elsewhere.”

“Well, if you’re out in the woods you have to keep all your senses on high alert, just like us. We know city folk have forgotten how to read the sounds and signs of the great outdoors, though we know you saw Bart’s foot print – just didn’t know where he was, did you?”

“Can’t say I did,” I replied. By the by, have you seen any sign of Mini the small field mouse - since I saw Zoltan the red tailed hawk flying around looking like trouble?”

“Zoltan is a real menace. Drives me crazy. And us crows will fly into the air, ‘cacophonating and cawing’ while we mob him to try and drive him away. It generally works - if there are enough of us, but Zoltan is sneaky, and often returns when we’re not around. As for Mini, we saw she has found a new mate, so all’s well – though Zoltan and Creepy Copperhead, and goodness knows who else will be on the lookout for them. Once Zoltan even attacked a distant cousin of mine and did him in, while he was trying to mob Zoltan. Guess he got that little bit too close!”

Zoltan2

Zoltan the red tailed hawk with the crow he caught.

“Gosh, really sorry to hear that. Didn’t know a red tailed hawk could bring down a large crow! Thought they preferred mice, voles, shrews and small birds,” I said.

“Well you know now. That’s why we don’t like Zoltan. He can be very dangerous, plus he really fancies himself as king of the skies.”

“Time I was off, Gronker, but thanks for that warning, anyway. Guess Bart will find another den, though I don’t know what he’ll do about those pesky fleas. With that I started walking back along the path towards the Nutshell. Just as I was leaving the Swinging Bridge pool, there was a loud splash and a huge rainbow trout went airborne and grabbed one of those small white flies in midair.

Rtroutmidair

A rainbow trout catching a white fly in midair.

“Wow! What a sight. Enough to make one’s hair stand on end - to see something that truly wonderful. Just look at those water droplets flying off its twirling, twisting silver and pink body,” I was thinking to myself.

“Should have been here an hour ago! Saw four amazing fish rise, and wasn’t able to spear anyone of them,” said a wheezy husky voice from the other side of the stream.

“Is that you Hermione? I thought you flew off ages ago!”

“Did! But got ever so hungry, so I’m back!”

“You have some nerve coming back to eat our trout, especially with me around,” I shouted across the stream. I still couldn’t see the heron, which must have been superbly camouflaged against a rather grey background at this time of the year.

“Can’t see me, can you!” came back the low husky croaky voice.

I thought, it’s no wonder herons are so successful catching fish. When they stand that still at the edge of a stream they simply melt into the background. And the fact that they are able to stand so absolutely motionless for such long periods of time, makes them virtually invisible to any fish. And then there’s that wickedly long sharp beak of theirs that plunges into the water at tremendous speed to spear any unsuspecting fish, frog or crayfish.

Since all wild animals are able to detect the slightest movement, if you are walking in the woods and wish to watch nature at work, you have to move ever so slowly and very quietly with frequent stops, gently placing one foot in front of the other - watching out for those dry twigs and leaves that might go ‘snap, crackle, and crunch’ under your feet.

“Might have warned me I was about to collide with that rumbling rampaging bear, Bart,” I said, still unable to see Hermione.

“Ha! Still can’t see me can you? Anyway, couldn’t warn you! Can’t make enough noise - and if I had tried to fly away, he might have put one on those great big black paws of his in the air to try and whack me with his claws. So, thought I was better off standing quite still. Besides, Gronker the black crow was sounding off the alarm like a manic witch on a broomstick with enough noise to wake the dead!”

“Oh, I see you now, right next to that patch of brambles over there next to the alder bush. Talking of the dead, it’s really a pity you didn’t try to fly past Bart!” I yelled out.

“Now, now, that was really nasty! You are the ones putting all those trout into the stream. What d’ya expect us to do, eat nuts? We’re herons, not damned squirrels. Anyway, it’s in our genes to eat fish, so we are just following our instincts, and you really shouldn’t get so upset with us. You humans have frequent nasty wars that kill and injure lots and lots of people, we don’t. That’s because it’s in your genes, and you don’t seem able to stop yourselves either, do you?”

“Well…. er, put like that, you do have a point, Hermione. I guess we’ll just have to agree to live together.”

“Good, so no more talk that I heard from a reliable source about putting me on a dish with roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce!” With that, the great blue heron flapped her wings as she ran pedaling along the edge of the stream, and she was off – but not before she croaked out “Anyway, you can’t talk. Saw you sitting down at the nutshell deck earlier this year looking all complacent and showing off like a Cheshire cat with the cream - and with a plump trout I was trying to catch!”

I thought of yelling something back, but she was out of range, and too far away. Oh, well, let bygones be bygones!

Nutshelldeck

Most trout are returned to the stream, BUT this Brown trout is destined for dinner…..scene from the Nutshell deck.

February 18

Dearest Theo: It’s mid-winter now on the stream, but not every animal is hibernating….

“What’s up Zoltan?” Came the quiet throaty hiss from Veronica, the large turkey vulture who was soaring way above the Friends Creek stream.

“Didn’t see you up there Veronica,” as both birds flew towards each other.

“Thought I smelt something nice to eat down by the stream,” Veronica hissed.

“Hey, watch out, Zoltan. You nearly collided with me!”

“OK, but you nearly crashed into me,” said Zoltan, rather aggressively. “Anyway, what’s all this about smelling something to eat. Didn’t think birds, and especially us raptors, could smell a blessed thing. Just use our eyes and instincts to spot a likely meal.”

“Well, the rest of the animal kingdom may call us ugly, smelly, and rather dim, but we turkey vultures can actually smell when an animal has died, so if you see a whole group of us soaring low over a particular spot, chances are it’s because we can smell a dead deer or rodent - and the older and smellier the better!”

Veronica

Veronica (V1) the Turkey Vulture flying over the stream.

“Didn’t know that. But how come you don’t get sick when you eat something that is really rotten, smelly and all covered in maggots?” Asked Zoltan, the red tailed hawk, with a great deal of surprise, and slight revulsion.

“Never gave it a thought. Guess we have a natural defense against nasty germs and bugs such as bottomulism-ism.”

“Think you mean botulism, Veronica - and yes, I’ve heard that’s a really nasty germy-bacterium that can kill almost any one of us, or make us extremely ill. Amazing you vultures don’t pick up those diseases when you eat animals that are so rotten and smelly. We hunt fresh meat, such as a nice plump mouse – or at any rate something that has died recently. Incidentally, why are you called a turkey vulture? Isn’t that a bit of an insult to a nice turkey – sorry, I meant to you? Also, some people call you buzzards.”

“For some reason those ignorant Europeans who first came to America thought we looked like turkeys when we were perching on the ground, and large buzzards when we were out flying up in the sky, so both names stuck. They didn’t use those names though for our distant cousins, the black vultures. So we should really be called Grand Vultures, since we’re bigger, grander and more elegant than those black vultures - which look as if their bottom tail feathers have either fallen out or been sawn off! I’ll give them one thing; they have a rather natty white band on their wings, but they often follow us to find their food. Simply can’t smell or spot carrion food the way we much grander vultures can.”

Blackvulture

A black vulture soaring high above, with five pinion feathers extended.

“And why do you hiss and grunt, rather than mew and screech the way we do?” continued Zoltan.

“No vocal chords, Dear Boy, absolutely no vocal chords! If you ain’t got ‘em, you do the best with what you’ve got to communicate. So we inhale air and let it out in hisses and grunts. My mate Victor is a huge grunter – particularly in the mating season, but we won’t get into any of that!”

“I should hope not!” replied Zoltan, quickly moving to change the subject. “Did you know that I heard some humans are actually using bottomulism-ism, as you call it, to put into their faces and other places to make them look younger?”

“No way! You’re kidding aren’t you Zoltan? Sounds absolutely crazy. Must make them look half freeze-dried! I knew they’re a vain lot, but that really takes the biscuit.”

“Though I can see now why botulism has had no effect on turkey vultures, otherwise all your wrinkles on your neck and bald head would have disappeared simply ages ago!” continued Zoltan rather cheekily and perhaps a little unwisely.

“Ha, ha, you’re funny!” Veronica replied. “Hasn’t any one told you that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder – and my mate Victor happens to love my wrinkles, wattles, warts and all. Says it gives me personality, and he would be terribly upset if they disappeared.”

With that, the Turkey vulture abruptly tilted her wings to one side and began a rapid circling decent to where she could smell something absolutely deliciously rotting away somewhere in the undergrowth. And it wasn’t too long before Victor and a group of other vultures began circling above that same spot, just like the picture below.

Turkeyvultures

Turkey vultures circling, circling…..

Veronica, the turkey vulture, had found a dead deer that had somehow drowned while crossing the river when it last flooded some time ago, and the deer’s carcass had been washed up next to a large boulder by the side of the stream. Maybe the deer had broken a leg or something, and got caught up in the strong current, then crashed into some of the sharp rocks. Who knows, but it was certainly good news for Veronica and the other vultures that were all starving with a winter’s appetite.

Vereonica, or V1 as she was better known, landed in a nearby dead tree from which she was able to drop down onto the deer carcass with a single flap of her huge wings. On landing she slowly folded those wings and waddled over to the deer, very nearly toppling over into the stream.

“Pooh! Wow! My, my, what a simply lovely smelly carcass! Haven’t had a smelly deer since Christmas, and now it’s half past three….” she hissed out with utter delight. With that, V1 began to yank rather large pieces of half frozen meat off the carcass ribs and gobble them down her bulging wattled throat.

Tvulturewhitetail

The Turkey Vulture having a feast on the white tail deer.

Just then, her mate Victor, or V2 flew down to perch on a half broken branch on the dead tree, which promptly broke under his weight. After much grunting, and an awful lot of flapping and hissing, and then even more grunting, V2 ‘plonked’ himself on the ground rather awkwardly next to V1.

“Budge over V1, a male vulture’s got to eat.”

“You’ll wait your turn V2, if you know what’s good for you,” Veronica hissed, unfolding her large wings for maximum effect and poking her head forward menacingly at V2.

“Did you hear that?” Gronker cawed out to the other assembled crows, from his perch high up in the spruce tree. “Won’t let her mate eat - until she’s ready to let him have his peck at the carcas. Wow, can’t say we’re exactly like that. It’s a free for all with us crows. Life is simply too blinking short for those sorts of formalities. We’d all starve if I had to say: After you Philippa, no you go first dear Lucinda, no, no I insist Lucinda, no, after you Sir Gronker…!”

It didn’t take too long before an assembled gathering of turkey vultures, black vultures and crows (who couldn’t smell anything anyway, but were extremely clever at watching and telling other crows exactly where the vultures went to eat something) were all gorging themselves on what remained of that deer carcass. Nature works well that way, leaving nothing to waste – even if it does smell simply awful to us humans! So, after all, vultures really are useful in nature as the kings and queens of nature’s flying heavy duty vacuum cleaners.

Twovultures

Turkey vulture (left) and black vulture (right)

February 26

Dearest Theo: Did I tell you about owls that are all around our fly fishing club in the Catoctin Mountains? One of the most common is a large owl called the barred owl. It’s called a barred owl because of the color of its feathers which look like bars of chocolate running down and across its front. There are no barred owls in England, and the tawny owl would probably be the closest in size. I have heard barred owls while fishing in the early evenings, and it’s quite an eerie call they make, something like eight short hoots ending in a ‘oooahll.’ Some people think it sounds like “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?”

Barred_owl

A barred owl

Of course, owls like nothing more than a plump mouse, and have extraordinary hearing and eyesight to spot exactly where mice and voles are creeping or hiding. So not only did Monty have to worry about Zoltan the red tail hawk and Creepy the slithering copperhead, and other black and garden snakes during the day but also owls that prefer to hunt at dusk or night. It’s no wonder mice have to have so many babies with the likes of all those animals that like to eat mice - and the plumper the better!

When I was a schoolboy in West Sussex, England many, many years ago, some school friends and I decided we would like to find an owl and keep it for a pet. We had the crazy idea that we might be able to train an owl to hunt pheasants, partridges, hares, and rabbits, so that we could cook the most wonderful meals in our school dormitory’s kitchen. Well, it wasn’t too long before we spotted where a barn owl was nesting in an old oak tree in the park like setting of our boarding school. We found the nesting site because; spread around the bottom of the tree was masses of owl pellets. When an owl eats a mouse, vole, or small bird, it swallows it whole, just like a snake or heron - but then the most incredible thing happens when the mouse enters the owl’s stomach; it somehow collects all the bones and wraps them in the fur or feathers, and then coughs the pellet out of its beak. That way none of the bones has to be digested or gets stuck in the owl’s stomach.

So, once we had seen so many of these pellets at the bottom of the oak tree, we knew there had to be an owl’s nest inside the tree, and when we banged on the side of the tree where a large branch had broken off, guess what? Sure enough, a large rather startled female barn owl flew out as silently as a creamy-white ghost.

Owl_pellets

Two barn owl pellets with fur covering the bones of mice. See the skulls?

Barnowl

The barn owl flying away.

The following weekend, my chums and I returned with a long bamboo cane with a sort of lasso made of string tied to one end, and a torch so we could see inside the dark hole that had been left by the broken branch. This time, when we tapped the tree with a piece of wood, the mother barn owl didn’t fly out – so we didn’t know whether or not she was on her nest or not.

Foolishly perhaps, I agreed to climb up onto the broken branch and then managed to slither face-first into the center of the old oak tree to see if there were any eggs, or whether they had hatched into young owlets. So, as I crawled gingerly toward the nest, with the torch in my mouth and the bamboo pole in my right hand, I could hear a whole lot of hissing and beak clicking going on right in front of my face! I was terrified that the mother barn owl was still inside the tree and would suddenly fly out right into my face! Fortunately, there was no sign that the mother owl was still in her nest, but I did see three almost fully grown young owls staring at me with those huge round eyes of theirs.

After resting for a bit, I pushed the bamboo pole towards the largest of the three owls, and got the loop of string at the end of the rod caught around one leg of the owl. You can just imagine the hissing, clicking, and furious jumping up and down from the owl that I had just lassoed! I waited a moment and, then ever so slowly, started to pull myself out from the inside of that tree. Once I was out, I reached for the bamboo pole and gently pulled it out from inside the tree. Guess what? Hey Presto – we had our first pet barn owl, none other than Barney the barn owl.

We tied a long piece of string to one of Barney’s legs, so that each weekend we could pull him out from inside the oak tree and see how big he was, and when he might be ready to fly. Each time we gently pulled Barney out from his nest and placed in on the ground he would make loud clicking noises before pecking and using his very sharp claws on any of us that came too close to him. Eventually, after a few weeks, Barney seemed to get used to us, and didn’t peck and claw us as much. So, we started training Barney every weekend, until he was ready to fly.

The problem with Barney was that he was an owl, not a hawk, so there was no real possibility that we could use Barney to catch pheasants and rabbits. In the end, one of my friends took Barney home in the school holidays, and my friend’s parents made him give Barney to the London zoo, not far from you. Apparently, Barney the barn owl was a great success with the visiting children, because he was so tame. As far as I know, Barney lived to a ripe old age, fed by the zoo keepers with a never ending supply of mice – and not having to hunt for one of them!

Finding those owl pellets at the bottom of the oak tree gave me a great idea for a practical exam I had to do at school, as part of an exam to go to university. After collecting six or seven barn owl pellets, I took them to our biology laboratory and put them in a glass jar with various chemicals so that he fur would be removed and only the bones would be left. Then I used another chemical liquid to clean the bones and make them absolutely clean and white.

Well, you can just imagine that all the tiny bones of mice, voles, birds were all mixed together like an mixed up jigsaw puzzle. What I did next was to lay the bones out with tweezers on a large piece of black cardboard, and put the bones back together into the skeletons of the mice, voles and birds that the owl had eaten. By placing a little glue under each bone, I was able to lay out and attach the skeletons of each of the small animals (typically two to three mice or voles and various beetles in each owl pellet) to the cardboard, and show that owls don’t munch and crunch their prey – they swallow them whole! And here’s what a mouse skeleton looks like when it’s laid out on cardboard.

Skeleton

Of course, some of these bones - such as the ones in the long tail, backbone, and feet are so small, that it is difficult to lay them all out. The amazing thing is that a mouse’s skeleton is not so very different than our own skeletons. We even have a small tail bone, which over millions of years has become shorter and shorter, because we don’t need long tails – do we?!

September 5, 2013

Dearest Theo: Thought you would enjoy hearing what we have seen this year at our cottage in Maine on the edge of Somes Sound - the only fjord in the 48 (contiguous) states of America. It was a busy day on the osprey nest on top of a pole just outside our kitchen window, when we arrived. Two new fully grown young ospreys were perched on their nest, and actually catching their own food, which I guess were herring. There was a whole lot of stomping and pooping going on. In fact, I’m naming them Super-Pooper 1 and 2. The parent ospreys were the same as last year, having booted off last year’s two chicks to find their own territories.

Well, we had a mammoth storm the next couple of days with rain, wind, thunder, and lots of lightening. The two young ospreys deserted their nest to find a more sheltered spot in the deep green spruce tree woods that cover the islands around us.

Yesterday, we went on a nature trip by boat from Bass Harbor (yes, it’s spelt differently over here) to several small islands with names like Gott, Duck, and Placentia. The last island was inhabited by a couple from California, who wanted to own a whole island and return to a more natural life. They lived there for a long time, selling most of their previous possessions – and living off the land with occasional trips in a row boat to Bass Harbor to pick up provisions. I told Gran Mamae that we could live on an island for a year or so and live off the land, if I had a fishing rod, gun and dog - though the winters are awfully long and cold. I don’t think she was convinced.

You will never guess what we saw at the tail-end of Gott Island. We simply couldn’t believe our eyes, but there, wading in the sea, was a fully grown female moose. There are virtually no moose in this area, particularly not on any of the islands.

Femalemoose

A female Moose – but this one is standing in fresh water.

Our boat captain/nature guide who has done hundreds of these trips said he had never, ever seen a moose around Bass Harbor – let alone on one of the islands. He said the last one seen on an island around here was back in 1820. Wow! We know moose have been badly attacked by ticks, which can seriously weaken the moose due to loss of blood, and disorientate them – but this one seemed in good shape and an able swimmer. I saw a peregrine falcon (fastest animal on the planet with speeds over 80 mph in a dive), and many other birds including “loony” loons which make a delightful noise like a wicked cackling, screaming witch.

Peregrinefalcon

Peregrine falcon

Also, there were all sorts of gulls such as the herring, black-back, and laughing gulls, and loads of young scampering brown eider duck. The laughing gull really does make a high pitched sound like ha-ha-ha-ha, haah-haah-haah-haah. I know you and I would also be laughing if we heard it. On a number of the small detached islands there were great pods of harbor and grey seals sunning themselves on the rocks. Some of the grey seals were quite white and silky. They all looked well fed, with no predators, particularly sharks, in the neighborhood. I thought I saw the dark dorsal fin of a shark. Yikes! But it turned out to be a black lobster pot polystyrene marker floating on its side. There were some particularly large grey boulders perched on top of pink granite rocks that appeared particularly out of place. Guess why? Yes, it was because the whole area was covered in ice from the last glacier several thousands of years ago and, as the ice moved, it carried some huge rocks and stones which were left high and dry when the ice melted.

Our captain pulled up a lobster pot he owns, while we were close to one of the islands - and guesses what? Two female smallish blue-black glistening lobsters were in the pot. One had clusters of black eggs attached to its underside, so had to have its tail clipped with a small V to identify it as a breeding lobster - so no one, absolutely no one, is allowed to keep it. The other one had no eggs and was just large enough to keep. The captain used a metal ruler (caliper) to make sure the lobster wasn’t too small (or too big, though not in this case) to keep. So, I guess he had it for supper. Some people say you can hear lobsters squeak when you put them into boiling water. Do you really believe that?

Lobser_pot_floats

Lobster pot floats. Each Lobster boat owner has his or her own design, and puts one float on top of his boat for identification.

See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8PDs7VBZOM

We also came across a group of circular floating covered plastic/wire cages in the sea where Atlantic salmon were being fattened up for market. Many of the small salmon (grilse) were leaping into the air to get gulps of air so they could fill up their swim bladders, which provide buoyancy. At least that’s what our captain told us. I thought they were just practicing how to escape – particularly because we saw a hungry great blue heron perched on the edge of one of the cages, and numerous double crested cormorants which absolutely love salmon! That’s all for now, Theo. I can’t believe a whole year has whistled by. Can you?