Category Archives: Wildlife

Feathered Friends

Any birder would find this spot on the western shore of Lake George to be a birder’s paradise. The variety was simply endless, and at first we counted on a large “Birds of Florida” poster to help guide us in identifying the bewildering varieties on the wing, floating on the lake, flitting about and flapping and squawking overhead. It didn’t take us long to get a really BIG bird book and pull out the binocs so that we could really get down to business understanding all of the fowl that surrounded us.

At some point in the year, depending on the season, we could spot and study many water fowl, including herons, egrets, coots, Red-winged Blackbirds, ibis, cormorants, ducks, kingfishers, and kites. Besides the waterfowl, there were the woods and uplands birds, ranging from Southern Bald Eagles, Ospreys,  hawks, vultures, turkeys, Wood Storks and Sandhill Cranes, to Cardinals, Grackles and all manner of woodpeckers, including the Red-bellied, Downy and amazing Pileated varieties. Of course there were the owls, and the wrens and other song birds. And then there were the juvenile and gender coloration and behaviors to learn to identify, as well as a plethora of calls and vocalizations.

A whole new world opened to us– of bird behavior, migration patterns, of learning to recognize the difference between the hammering cadence of a Pileated Woodpecker versus, say, a Red-Bellied woodpecker. (Hint: they both call out during tree-drilling sessions, so once you have their call down, it’s pretty easy to make a good guess as to who’s doing what over on that tree, even without spotting the bird.)

We also became rather adept at recognizing birds by their silhouette and how they flew (rapid wing beats, soaring, slower wing beats and so forth). As the seasons progressed, we came to recognize where the nearest mated pair of eagles had their fishing grounds. We often watched lengthy aerial displays and fights when an interloper Osprey or an eagle that wasn’t a member of the family came into the fishing ground. Mostly the dust-up would end quickly but sometimes the battle would last for hours.

Our growing knowledge of our feathered friends and their habits came into amusing play one winter’s evening, when we were sitting around the campfire that Jack’s two buds had blazing out in Jack’s back yard. Every deer hunting season his chums, who, like Jack, were retired DEA agents, would come up to the forest from Miami. They’d unload their truck, set up a tent in Jack’s back yard, and hang out for a week or so, sometimes actually hunting, but mostly just sitting around, drinking beer into the wee hours, and swapping remembrances with Jack.

One evening we were hanging out with Jack and his pals, exchanging tales of drug interdiction in the Caribbean with stories of living on the lake. I think Jack was riffing on one of his tales of the momma black bear that often moved through the area in the early winter, and his friends were rethinking sleeping in the tent versus squeezing into Jack’s compact home. About that time there came an awful, ungodly growling-kind of screeching cacophony, very loud, and it sounded like it was all around us.

For older guys kinda relaxed on a few beers, it was amazing how quickly Jack’s pals jumped up, snatched at their rifles and, bug-eyed, went on the defensive.  Jack, Anni and I remained seated in our camp chairs, laughing our butts off as we explained that the din (which was still going on) was from the colony of nesting Great Blue Herons that surrounded Jack’s cabin.

The guys weren’t convinced that birds could cause such a racket, so Jack went into his cabin and came out with a powerful hand-held spotlight. Motioning to his friends he said “OK you two pussies, come with me and I’ll show you the Boogie Man!”

We all went out to the road and from that vantage point, Jack’s big light illuminated the canopy formed by massive loblolly pines, long leaf pines and old oaks trees just abutting the southern edge of his property. The light clearly outlined the big clumps of twigs that formed the birds’ nests among the leaves and pine needles overhead. We could readily distinguish the bird shapes as they stirred in their nests, some flapping wings, some balancing precariously on the edge of their nests.

“Well, I’ll be damned!”, one of the guys snorted. “Man, I haven’t been that scared in I-don’t-know-when!”

The howls of laughter and the teasing went on for some time, even after we all settled down near the fire again. Jack wasn’t going to let his pals get away easy for being so spooked by “a bunch of birds!”

Later, as Anni and I walked down the graded road back to the cabin, we remarked that it was ironic that two tough DEA agents could have been so frightened by the event. I mean, earlier they had told us tales of some pretty hairy stalks and arrests they had made to catch some serious drug cartel types. I was certainly convinced that these two were pretty macho fellas. Still– we concluded that the fear of the night and wild animals was just too compelling for these urban dwellers who only visited “the outdoors” once a year.

In subsequent years, that tale would be re-told and embellished, and Jack would never fail to bring it up when his friends came to hunt and camp in the wilds of the Ocala National Forest.

Great Blue Heron nesting colony.

Mouse in da House

Not that we were surprised or anything– yeah, we had mice. Our first day of moving in, Anni was eagerly inspecting the lovely antique hand carved tallboy bureau in the master bedroom. When she opened a top drawer, lo and behold! – a nest. With tiny baby mice in it, no less.

Oh swell. Now we were right up against our stated intention to live out here in the Forest with the critters, close to the land; use no poisons, kill no critters, plant no non-indigenous Florida plants, recycle everything– the whole Back to the Earth thing. But. We couldn’t leave that smelly nest where it was or Ann’s underwear would be chewed to bits!

It was warm enough that November that we didn’t worry too much about the little ones being outdoors, their momma would probably find them, right? So out they went, someplace Anni found that was “relatively” safe from predators. We hoped.

Fast-forward a few weeks to a cold winter’s night, quite late, when we were rudely awakened by a loud thumping and banging. I grabbed a flashlight and headed toward Anni’s side of the cabin, which seemed to be the center of the action.

Anni had the bathroom light on and was apparently talking to Cami the Siamese cat. As I turned the corner of the bathroom hallway I heard “Now you just–ugh!- no, come with me…agh!” then a loud squeal-scream sound that I had never heard Cami make. Freaked out, I bolted the last couple of steps into the bathroom and before me was a scene from a comic book, or a children’s tale, or maybe just a bad dream.

Anni was bent over the foot of the tub, her back to me, struggling with a slippery Cami, who was wriggling like an insane thing, clawing at Anni and spinning in mid-air as Anni groped for a better hand-hold. The squeal-screaming went on and as I processed that the sound was coming from someone or something besides Cami, Anni yelled “Damnit! Quite scratching me, Cami!”

One step closer to the action and I could now see that at the other end of the tub, under the faucet, was a grey field mouse standing on its hind legs, squealing at the top of its little lungs while it frantically clawed the air in front of it.

“Oh my god!” I stood rooted to the spot until Anni barked “I could use a hand here!  — Damnit, Cami!”

Somehow we managed to fling Cami out of the bathroom and close the door. Panting, Anni stood at the end of the tub glaring at the mouse as it was doing its best to try to jump up the slick sides of the tub to escape, but the sides were way too tall.

Before I could ask, Anni explained that she had heard the racket in the bathroom, came in, turned on the light, and there were Cami and the mouse down in the tub, duking it out! The cat was trying to snag the mouse, but the mouse was making a credible effort to defend itself, with squeals, screams and snarls, running in circles and finally standing on its hind feet to claw out at the cat!

If I hadn’t witnessed the mouse’s defensive stance, I wouldn’t have believed it.

We started chuckling and watched the little rodent as it pitched itself again and again at the slick tub walls, to no avail.

We decided that was one brave little critter that surely deserved to live to fight another day, so Anni put something over it (a hat, I think), caught it up, and headed outside to let it go. She was trailed all the way by Cami, who stared at Anni’s hand and meowed most pitifully.

Round Two

The winter pressed on and we soon grew tired of waking to the sound of pots and pans rattling at night in the kitchen, with little mouse turds left behind to inform on the culprits. Trying to forestall the raiding of the pantry,  we abandoned Zip-Lok bags for sturdy plastic containers to store any and all dry foods. We kept what we could in the fridge, which was not only a deterrent to mice but also larder beetles and the tiny sugar ants that would go on safari throughout the open kitchen area. Keeping up with the critter incursions was almost a full time job– one that wore thin as the seasons spun around.

By the time winter #2 was in full swing, I opened up a bedside drawer to don a favorite sweater, only to discover a mouse had made a nest using a vast amount of my sweater material, and then had the gall to piss all over the nest as well! What a stinky mess to clean up. That was it. War was declared. Forget the Back to the Earth movement, it was Them or Us.

Checking shoes and boots for spiders and scorpions was one thing. Keeping a wary eye out for the venomous snakes was OK, it was their yard and lake after all. Scraping the mold off anything leather before you donned it was understandable, as was storing anything and everything you wanted to preserve in some sort of hard plastic. I got all that. But I was NOT going to give up my kitchen to the damn mice. And their pee. And their pellets.

So, out came the Have-A-Hart live traps. Which didn’t work worth a damn. Next thing, we graduated to the glue traps. Well, OK those worked fine. Except the first night we caught a mouse, we came into the kitchen and turned on the light (middle of the night, of course) to see what was causing all that thumping. It was a field mouse, with all four feet knee-deep in the glue trap, flipping itself and the trap across the counter as it tried to gain freedom. The string we’d threaded through a hole in the edge of the trap and tied off to I-forgot kept the thing from dancing off onto the floor and under the stove or a wall, thank goodness.

We looked at each other. Well, someone had to put the mouse away in a somewhat humane manner, there was simply no pulling its little feet out of that glue. So, we disposed of it by suffocating it in a plastic bag and– no, I really can’t go on. It seemed so barbaric and awful.

Once again I cried. Jeez. This living close to the land really sucked. But damnit, this was also a question of health and safety. The kitchen was off limits. I could tolerate critters anywhere but there. We’d just keep tightening our defense tactics and keep a couple of glue traps out, just in case.

And yeah we did catch a couple more mice but then the weather warmed and the issue went away. For the moment.

MouseGlue

Google Image

Web of Life

lakeyard

Lakefront Views- sunshine and thunderstorm.

I have said many times that I felt destined to spend the rest of my life trying to re-create the experience we had living at the lake house. Living close to the wildlife, following the patterns of light and dark, the cycles of the moon, the seasons and the weather and getting to know our wild neighbors, their patterns, territories, and watching them raise their young — it was as if the only reality was life at the lake. But of course we had a business to run, bills to pay, clients to satisfy and a really large property and cabin to care for and keep up.

Somehow it all blended together, we made it work, we fit in as best we could, and consciously determined to observe and appreciate rather than encroach and threaten. The lake mellowed us, and it was easy at times to take it all for granted– that it would all be there, forever, and we would be there as well.

And sometimes things just happened that demanded attention, reminding us that there may be a price to pay for the serenity of this place, and what we viewed as a bucolic existence.

On the plus side, we got to know the locals pretty well. We could tell the section of the lake where our closest Southern Bald Eagle pair claimed their fishing rights, and we would watch for hours as they battled Ospreys in mid-air out over the fishing grounds. We knew where the invisible dividing line was between the territory of the big ‘gator that lived south of our dock, and the much smaller ‘gator that hung out on the north side of our dock. We kept track of momma otter after she had three kits, and tried to sneak up close enough for a really good photo, but she’d always shoo them off before we could get close enough.

Sometimes a big, ugly leathery Alligator snapping turtle would haul herself up on the lawn on a warm Spring morning, dig a nest in the sandy soil and deposit her eggs. We’d sip our coffee and watch, and even take a photo or capture some video. Including the morning that the raccoon came out of the woods, glanced at the turtle who was making her way back down to the lake, then promptly raided the nest. The eggs hadn’t been in the ground five minutes before they were being gobbled up.

“So much for the theory that ‘coons are nocturnal,” Anni wryly observed.

Short video- turtle and ‘coon

Then there was one summer afternoon, late in the day with rain threatening, the wind picking up and starting to blow palm fronds and Spanish moss from the trees. From down at the lake came a penetrating scream that had Anni and I flying out the back porch, the screen door slamming behind us as we snatched up broom sticks and ran down the lawn toward the sound.

We had no idea what was being attacked. Hansel and Gretel were up front near the barn, so they were OK. Maybe it was Sneaker the cat, or perhaps a wild critter. We were reacting to a soul-wrenching cry — you’d run too, if you heard it.

The screams got louder as we came to the concrete goose pond that Anni had built, and the little creek that flowed behind it through swampland at the edge of the lake. Peering through the wire fence of the property line, we tried to locate the source of the sounds. Past the fence the swamp took over, and as we stared at the greenery thrashing about, we both spotted the attack at the same time.

A large male raccoon had a small, young raccoon pinned down on a log and was viciously biting and tearing at the baby, who was screaming and writhing about, trying to get away. But the adult raccoon was easily two to three times the size of the baby, and it was no contest.

We both started screaming at the raccoon, and as Anni cast about for something to throw at the ‘coon, it just looked at us as it held the baby pinned beneath a heavy paw. The baby’s upper half was just out of the water and as it struggled I could see that it was losing what little purchase it had on the log.

We kept yelling and finally threw our broomsticks at the ‘coon, but it was too far away. We stood helpless as we watched the adult raccoon tear at the baby and finally the baby slipped off the side of the log and we lost sight of it.

The big ‘coon looked back over its shoulder at us briefly and then loped off into the woods. We stood, helpless– dumbstruck and saddened.

We agreed there was nothing we could do– the water was too deep, there was no way we’d get over that fence without getting seriously injured or cut by the rusty razor wire. We’d have to enter the lake, wade through heaven-knows-what dangers in wind-whipped shallows, and there was no guarantee we’d find the baby, even if we could figure out how to get back into that swampy area from the lake.

About that time the thunder and a slashing rain signaled we needed to get indoors.

Every time we experienced one of these events, we’d talk about it, try to learn from it, try to figure out if there was any way we had caused a situation or what we could do in the future to avoid it– but the fact was, these things happened. The tree fell in the forest and we were there to hear it so yes, it really did happen.

—-

Another time we were unpacking groceries from the car after a long day at work. It was just about dusk, and as we came into the cabin and started putting groceries away, we heard what sounded like a pack of dogs fighting in the back yard, down near the lake.

Once again we were on the run, dropping groceries, snatching up broom sticks, flying out the rear screen door with a “Bang!” and racing down the lawn.

We could see two or three dogs fighting furiously at the base of an old tree. The violence of their movements made it difficult to tell what was going on, but right away I could see that one of the dogs was our neighbor Jack’s “Lucky”, a most placid pet. What the hell would get her so riled up? My brain went right to…

“Rabies!” Anni yelled, as she came to an abrupt halt some 40 feet from the fracas. “They may be fighting a rabid animal! Run back and get the shotgun–and get a flashlight! NOW!”

I didn’t hesitate, I hauled ass back to the cabin, figuring Anni had enough sense to keep her distance. Somehow I grabbed the shotgun, a handful of buckshot shells, a flashlight, and raced back outside and down the lawn.

By now it was dark enough that I couldn’t make out who was who. Anni grabbed the flashlight from me, yelled “Is it loaded?” and as I chambered a round, she edged closer to the tumbling, snarling mix of bodies.

“I’m pretty sure the dogs have cornered a ‘coon at the base of that old tree!” Anni explained.

I couldn’t see any raccoon. “Where is the ‘coon?” I yelled above the din.

Then things got real slow, or real fast, I was never sure. Somehow Jack was there, yelling at his dog and telling me “Don’t shoot until I have Lucky out of the way!” while Anni was yelling “Get closer and get ready to shoot the ‘coon, its back is broken.”

“Don’t hit any of the dogs!” Jack yelled as he struggled to use Lucky’s collar to pull her back from the fray.

One of the remaining two dogs screamed, jumped back and ran off into the woods. The other one ran when Anni whacked it with her broomstick. Then, in the flashlight beam I could clearly see the open, bloody jaws and mangled face of a large raccoon. The thing was breathing hard and fast, snarling and growling and crying, and I stood there, unsure what to do next.

Anni said, in a surprisingly calm tone, “It’s done for, Lynn. They broke its back. You need to shoot it.”

“Where? How?”

“What do you mean?” I remember Anni sounding impatient, which somehow kicked me out of my confusion.

I explained that I couldn’t see where it had a broken back, and both Anni and Jack assured me the ‘coon was a torn up mess. They’d seen it as it had dragged itself into the hole among the roots of the tree, using its front paws and dragging its rear legs.

Jack offered to shoot the ‘coon if one of us would hold Lucky, and I took him up on the offer. No sooner than I had Lucky in a firm grip, I heard “Bang!” followed a few seconds later with another “Bang!”

“Well, that sure did it,” Jack said, sadly. He handed me back the weapon and I turned Lucky over to him.

The next day or maybe that night, I really don’t recall, Jack and Anni buried the ‘coon right where it ended up. They covered it with a lot of lime and soil and then stacked big limestone rocks to keep animals (“Those damn dogs!” as Jack said) from digging up the remains.

It was a sad, traumatic event. Dogs will be dogs and ‘coons will be ‘coons and when they mix, neither walk away unharmed.

I guess Jack and Anni and I talked about that event quite a bit, and the conclusion was that folks with dogs need to keep them fenced in and on their property: which was an absurd notion, considering we were living out in the Forest, where everyone kept dogs, and where bears and coyotes and ‘gators and ‘coons and all manner of critters lived, and unless people were just going to go away and never live on the shores of a big lake in the Forest, we weren’t going to solve the issue between the three of us.

We did agree that it was a good thing to keep firearms, ammo, flashlights and broom sticks handy and to learn to act quickly and decisively.

CabinSunCrop

The Bob Cat

After one of our Rhode Island Red hens had been mauled by something in the woods, we were keeping a cautious eye out for Martha and the Vandals, as we called these large and handsome chickens. Of course, we worked during the week in Ocala, and couldn’t watch them during the day, but the chances of anything successfully taking one of the Girls during the day was pretty slim, and we were careful to pen them up at night.

Anni had also picked up a used .410 shotgun that, in light of recent events, we decided would be useful as a “just in case” weapon, especially if we needed to dispatch another mortally injured critter.

One breezy Saturday afternoon Anni had gone into Ocala for something, and I was puttering around the house when a commotion out by the barn alerted me to a situation unfolding. It seemed the yard around the barn was emptying quickly of scattering,  squawking chickens, and even the geese were running from the scene, flapping their wings and trying to get air-borne.

Looking out through the front screen door, I snatched a glimpse of a what I thought might be a Bob Cat just as it darted around the back side of the barn.

I snatched up the .410 leaning against the fireplace and a handful of snake-shot shells we kept around for discouraging varmints, chambered one of the rounds, clicked on the safety, and headed toward the barn, trying to be as quiet as possible so that I could surprise whatever was out there.

I stood quietly and listened, but the wind coming off the lake was making enough noise in the tree canopy that I couldn’t pick out anything unusual. As I came to the corner of the building, I slowly peeked around the wall and through the hurricane fence that formed a small enclosure behind the barn and there, standing some 30 feet away, was a full-grown Bob Cat! She (for it was a she, I saw her full teats) was very still, staring away from me into the edge of the woods.

Bob Cat-Google Images

Bob Cat-Google Images

I held my breath, slipped the safety off, and slowly raised the barrel to aim just behind the cat’s hind-quarters, where I figured a well-placed scattering of pellets would give her a good scare and dissuade her from coming after our chickens again. The problem was, I had to lean back a bit to swing the barrel up to position while avoiding hitting the fence, and of course the minute I moved, she spotted me.

Memory is a funny thing, but the best I can recall is that I leaned back, swung the barrel up, took aim well to the rear of her rear-end and squeezed the trigger, even as she sprang up and out from her standing position. “Bang!” went the rifle, and the cat reacted by jumping straight up. As soon as her paws hit the ground, she was gone, like that. She simply disappeared into the wall of vegetation.

I stood there, listening and looking at the woods, and it dawned on me that she was likely the culprit who had been picking off the little Bantam chickens–and she also likely attacked one of our Rhode Island Red hens during a party a couple of weeks earlier. It also dawned on me that she was a momma, and likely had at least one kitten somewhere. Finally, it dawned on me that maybe I should trail her into the woods and make sure I hadn’t actually hit her with a smattering of the scattered shot.

I think I was still in an adrenaline fog, or I would have realized as soon as I thought it that following a pissed-off, full-grown Bob Cat into dimly-lit thick woods on a cloudy afternoon was probably a foolish notion. I wasn’t going to see much at all, and as I penetrated the wall of vegetation and walked a few paces, I realized that I wasn’t going to hear a damn thing either. There was so much wind that the trees were thrashing about and I couldn’t even hear my own footsteps as my feet crushed dry twigs underfoot.

Well at least I had the presence of mind to chamber another round as I retraced my steps. I was glad to get back into the yard and get some distance between myself and the woods line.

As it turned out, neither of us ever spotted that Bob Cat again, but we did continue to lose chickens at an alarming rate, and before a year had passed, the flock of 20-some Bantams would be whittled down to two, and then none. Sadly, before the Bantams would disappear, Martha and The Vandals, all four of them, would be long gone, with nary a feather to mark their passing.

One Determined Snake

Just one of many!

Just one of many!

Early one Spring morning I was in the kitchen getting a cup of coffee when I heard a thump and a grunt from Anni’s bedroom. Pretty soon she stepped up into the great room, and came stomping past me, muttering to herself as she unlatched the front Dutch door, threw open the screen door and headed outside.

I stood at the door, puzzled, and watched her tromp up the driveway, past the barn and out to the front gate. She unlatched the gate, threw it open and walked across the road. I think I saw her toss something into the woods, then she came back through the gate, trailed by Hansel and Gretel, who were apparently as puzzled as I was.

“Want some coffee?” I asked as she came back inside the cabin.

“Yeah, I could use some, after that!” she exclaimed.

“What was that all about?” I asked. Turns out Anni was sitting on the toilet and when she reached behind her to grab the toilet paper from the roll, she spotted a rat snake on the windowsill just above the paper roller.

“Man, what was that snake doing there?” I asked.

“Working on its tan,” she replied dryly, with a shrug.

“Oh my god, what did you do?”

“Well, I pulled up my pants!”

Very funny. Actually, she did pull up her pants then calmly grabbed the snake, which quickly wrapped all 14 inches or so of itself around her arm.

“Then I took it out there and tossed it across the road!” she ended, with a note of finality.

Too weird. We laughed about such a rude awakening before one has had their first coffee, and moved on out to the porch to enjoy some peace and early morning quiet.

A few minutes later we heard a “Hullo” from the front and the gate being closed. Here came neighbor Carl, strolling down the drive and up to the Dutch door. He peered through the top part of the open door and said “Hey, can a guy get a cup of coffee?”

As Carl settled on a barstool with his coffee, Anni told him the tale of the snake.

“Hmmm,” he said, with a gleam in his eye. “Was it a rat snake, about this long?”

Anni blinked. “Yeahhhhh,” she said, waiting for the rest. There was always more, with Carl.

“Well I just saw that snake moving toward the house as I was coming down the drive. Looks like it’s headed back to that sunny spot!” Carl laughed, clearly delighted at Anni’s pained expression.

“Yeah well, we’ll see about that!” Anni said as she got up. We stood at the Dutch door and watched her walk up the driveway, scanning the ground. Soon, she stooped down, snatched at something and, muttering, she started walking around the side of the house, heading toward the back yard and the lake.

Carl and I laughed as we walked onto the porch and watched Anni trudging steadily down the lawn, onto the landing, out on the dock and down its full length to the T at the end.

Pretty soon Anni came back up the lawn and onto the screen porch, banging the screen door with finality.

“Well, that’s the end of that snake,” she stated.

Carl asked “Did you toss it off the end of the dock?”

“Yep. And it swam right back to the ladder, so I went down the ladder, grabbed it, and tossed it out there again!”

“No kidding!” We were amazed the snake was that determined.

“Yeah but the best part is,” Anni went on, and this time the gleam was in her eye, “No sooner had that snake hit the water than “wham”, an eagle swooped down out of nowhere and snatched that thing right up!”

“You’re kidding!” “No way!” We sat, stunned.

“Yep, I figure that eagle saw that snake the first time I tossed it and was watching and waiting,” Anni nodded. “It was sure ready when that snake hit the water the second time.”

The dock.

The dock.

Of course the story grew through its many retellings, but it always ended with Anni’s quip “The only thing is, I don’t think you can count on disposing of a snake quite the same way again!”

 

Cats, Dogs and a Gator

Someone brought us a stray black and white kitten, and we kept him inside until we figured he was large enough to dissuade One Eye or a hawk from trying to take him for lunch. “Sneaker” the cat soon became a wise outdoor cat, climbing large trees, hanging out on the roof of the house or the barn, and generally staying out of the way of the geese, and especially Hansel, who had a reputation among the animals for aggressively attacking anything that came near him or Gretel.

So there was Echo the Black Lab, Cami the Siamese (who stayed indoors except when she would escape and climb a tree), and Sneaker the tuxedo long-haired cat. And the geese and the Bantam chickens and the Rhode Island Red chickens. Then came Penny, the Golden Retriever-something mix.

PennyA rambunctious youngster, Penny needed a new home for whatever reason and somehow she ended up at Ziba Khaya, where her welcome was hardly warm: Echo found Penny annoying, Cami ignored her and Sneaker kept his distance, radiating disdain.

The first time Penny approached the geese, Hansel went into fierce attack mode and after that, Penny gave both geese a very wide berth. The chickens were just too tempting, and she initially chased them but enough humans were around to dissuade her firmly and consistently, and she soon tired of trying to play with critters that would fly or scurry away.

One afternoon Anni and neighbor Captain Jack were in the yard down near the lake when Penny came loping up to them, dripping mud and water, a wide grin on her face. Hanging from Penny’s tail was a baby ‘gator, its jaws clamped firmly on a tuft of the “feathers” of Penny’s lush Golden Retriever banner.

Penny seemed uncertain if she was frightened or delighted with her new friend, and as Anni bent down to make sure her eyes weren’t deceiving her– yep, that was a baby ‘gator, alright– Penny took off across the lawn, looking back over her shoulder at the dangling ‘gator. She’d stop, look back at her tail, and take off again, but no matter how she ran, the thing just stayed with her.

BabyGatorAnni and Jack were busting a gut laughing as they chased the dog around the lawn. Eventually Penny sat down and looked at the ‘gator, then back up as Anni and Jack approached. Finally, Jack held Penny, Anni got a grip on gator and with a yank, the ‘gator came free, along with a sizeable chunk of Penny’s lovely tail feathers.

After yelping with surprise, Penny quickly recovered and followed Anni as she walked down to the boat ramp and released the little reptile in the shallow water.

Ol’ One-Eye

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

One Eye, an imposingly large female Barred owl, clearly thought the lake house and all the surrounding property was her private hunting ground. She’d apparently taken up residence years before we moved in, according to the neighbors.

One Eye was one of many Barred and other owl species that made the woods surrounding the house their home. We soon learned that owls were active during the day, as we’d often spot them sitting quietly on a tree limb, and we certainly heard them calling during the day. Here’s a great video snippet (not mine!) of a Barred owl calling

During the Fall and Winter, the Barred owls in particular would get to hooting and setting up such a cacophony of racket at night that we were hard-pressed to get to sleep. Their calls went far beyond the typical 8-note territorial call to a far more strident caterwauling (Google the sound, it’s amazing).  I soon became pretty adept at mimicking their standard call and more than once an owl landed in a tree nearby to check me out!

Anyway, our owl certainly had her one eye on our chicks, and one night we raced outdoors, chasing yet another chicken alarm call, to see One Eye perched about 30 feet up on a massive limb of the oak tree near the front door, a baby chick grasped in each of her talons.

Even as our hearts fell for the fate of those tiny chicks, we couldn’t help feeling awed by the presence of this mature, large owl. She was simply magnificent, sitting heavily on that limb, the porch light picking out the highlights on her feathers, the dark orange of her scary-looking talons and the glint in her one remaining eye. When she lifted off the limb and flew silently away, her wing-span was easily five and a half feet across.

We’d often come across One Eye as we worked around the property or walked to and from the dock. Sometimes she’d be sitting on a limb of the magnolia tree, eyeballing us as we sat in the shade reading books and watching the geese and the chickens moving around the lawn and the ever-present aerial display of eagles and ospreys as they headed out to their fishing ground or battled over the fish successfully caught.

Sometimes scenes like this would strike me as bucolic and also a bit macabre. All around us critters were eating and being eaten, stalking and being stalked, hunting and hiding from the hunters. No matter how much you may read about such realities, when you become a part of the landscape for hours and just observe, without disturbing anything, it’s amazing what you take in and, I guess for me, how much that may form or change your fundamental outlook on Life. Pretty heady stuff perhaps, but ultimately the moments seldom lasted because practical matters would inevitably intrude and, once again, we’d find ourselves in “protection” mode.

We talked and talked about the problem we were causing by introducing domestic fowl into this ecosystem. It didn’t matter that we hadn’t started it, we had willingly taken on the responsibility of protecting the chickens, and now the geese, and in the case of the chickens, we were failing. Different folks had different opinions, and many a beer was consumed out on the dock or the porch or sitting on the stools around the kitchen bar as we weighed options, pros and cons.

Ultimately, we recognized the hard truth was that all our efforts to grow the flock were only succeeding in growing more fodder for the wild critters. We knew the whole issue was going to come to a head at some point, even as we dreaded the inevitability of the outcome.

Chicken Battles Snake

In spite of having our “guard” geese on the property, the flock of Bantams was slowly being whittled down by the incessant  attention of predators. These ranged from the hawks during the daytime (past masters of chicken-snatching) to coons and owls that would pluck the chickens from their night roosts in trees, to snakes that would steal eggs in the odd places where they were laid, any and all the time. We simply couldn’t keep enough biddies hatching in our hand-crafted, snake-proof incubator, nor could we be around every second of the day or night.

We did our best to ward off the attacks, when we were aware of them happening. Which usually occurred at night, when it was 40 degrees or lower outside and we were huddled by the fireplace or, worse, rousted from our beds to find ourselves rushing outside in our underwear, brandishing a big spotlight in one hand and an old mop handle in the other (we kept a lot of those nearby, mostly to keep Hansel at bay when he got too frisky.)

One such night there came such a thumping and screeching from the roof that it drowned out the TV. Our response was instant and unspoken. We hit the drill, snatching up our respective spotlights and mop handles, flipping on the porch light, lifting the latch of the front Dutch door and flying out to the cold and windy night.

WhiteMommaWhite Momma, our very best “settin’ hen”, had been roosting up on the roof, just under an overhanging eve, and we could hear a series of choking squawks coming from that spot. An extension ladder was leaning conveniently against the roof and I dashed up it, stick and spotlight in hand. I quickly grasped the scene: there was White Momma, frantically pecking at and dancing around a writhing snake, which clearly had one of the biddies in its mouth. In fact, it had most of the baby chick in its mouth and the poor baby wasn’t moving.

As I clambered onto the roof, I yelled to Anni what was going on and asked her to come up the ladder and shine her light. After that it was all a blur: somehow I set down my spotlight and approached the snake, which was obviously a large rat snake. I managed to shoo White Momma out of the way and used the mop handle to wedge the snake’s head, hard, down on the roof surface, trying to get it to spit out the baby. After a bit of a tussle, the snake released the biddy, which was dead.

I called out to Anni “Here comes the dead baby,” and I shoved the poor thing over the edge of the roof. We quickly decided I’d flick the snake over the roof too, so at least it wouldn’t be near the nest. As I turned back to get the snake, damned if it didn’t have White Momma in its mouth! She was putting up a real fight and I was so afraid for her, but I was mad as hell at that snake now. It wasn’t gonna get our best hen! So I chased it as it wriggled off, and thank goodness Anni was there with the light. I finally wedged the snake against the eve and thankfully it let White Momma go. She took off like, well, like a wet hen, squealing all the way.

I pounded that snake over the edge of the roof and clambered down the ladder, ready to cut off its head with the ax or the hatchet or the machete or the hoe– we had a lot of tools and weapons at hand. But Anni restrained me, and talked me out of killing that damn snake. We watched it slither off into the darkness past the wash of light from the porch. I know we both cried, standing out in the cold, looking down at that poor dead little chick.

I’m no bleeding heart but really, that was a shocking scene. Plus, we were so frustrated at our inability to protect these free-range chickens, who, we were told, would not come into a coop and if we put them there forcibly every night (oh yeah, not an easy task), they would die. The whole situation of caring for these critters was turning more complicated than we had first thought.

Then, of course, there’s the disposal of the baby chick. You’d think this would be a fairly straight-forward thing, but we were both upset. Anni suggested we put it in a Ziplock bag and out in the garbage collection in the barn, ready for the next trip to the green box (dumpster.) I argued it was dead anyway and so we should toss it out in the woods to feed some other critter. We agreed on that logic, or maybe we were just anxious to be done with the trauma. In any case, the little chick body was consigned to the deep woods and we went back inside, sad and deflated and not a little worried about White Momma tangling with that same snake again. After all, chickens were somewhat creatures of habit, and snakes truly have terrific memories and will return to the scene of the crime, again and again.

I told Anni that if I saw that same snake again, anywhere near the house, it was gonna be a dead snake. She didn’t argue the point.

Geese and Chickens

Chix n geeseWe had agreed to look after K’s flock of free-range Bantam chickens. On the face of it, this seemed to be a fairly simple task. All we had to do was feed the 20-or so hens and roosters cracked corn ever so often, and keep a wary eye out during the day for the many hawks that lived around the property. K’s wife had used a slingshot to pop away at hawks that dared to land on trees around the yard, and the presence of K’s old red-tick hound also helped to discourage these efficient predators from swooping down to snatch up the unwary chick.

Well, we didn’t have a sling-shot and K’s hound had gone off to live at the farm in Ocala. We had Echo, Anni’s black lab, to defend the flock. Turned out Echo was basically an indoor dog, more given to relaxing on the cool cement floor of the porch or hanging out in front of the fireplace than in chasing hawks or, luckily for us, chickens. Also, we went off to town each work day, which pretty much left the flock to their own devices.

For the first couple of months, all appeared well. We’d be sitting out on the screened porch, enjoying an early morning coffee, quietly watching as the flock of hens, roosters and chicks would move through the tall lawn grass, muttering chicken nonsense to each other as they rapidly snapped up insects perched on the tall grass-blades. The flock would form a kind of skirmish line, beaks darting left and right as they made their way steadily down the lawn toward the lake. Only when they reached the old concrete boat ramp and the headland beyond it that anchored the dock would they turn around and go their separate ways, dispersing toward the tree line, the large bamboo stand and the wall of greenery at the outer edges of the lawn. Here they spent the day, safe from the marauding hawks, protected by  the dense canopy of greenery offered by the massive magnolia tree, the water oaks, hickory trees, pine trees and the odd palm tree, all festooned with old-growth Spanish moss that waved like giant flags from limbs and boughs as the morning easterly breeze came on, building force as it crossed the width of the lake, dispersing the mosquitoes, flies, gnats and who-knows-what that had settled in the lawn overnight.

As the winter dusk drew in, the chickens would find a nest out in the barn to stay warm. Hens would cluck encouragement to their tiny chicks as they’d usher them up the trees whose branches grew near the chimney.

At some point we noticed a couple of the hens were missing. We counted beaks and, sure enough, we were shy two adult hens. When we shared this disturbing news with friends who lived on a farm near Ocala, they recommended that we get a pair of geese.

“Wonderful property guards, geese,” we were told. “They’ll go after anything, they’re fearless and they hang close together and mate for life, so you wanna get at least one male and one female. Raise them by hand when they’re goslings, they’ll imprint on you and make you part of their set. But- they live a long time, like 30 years, so it’s a commitment. And, if you ever need to find a second home for them we’ll take them in, they’ll do fine with our geese.”

Sounded good to us, so we went off to yet another farm to get two baby geese. That began our education in goose-keeping, the first lesson being, geese aren’t easy to “sex”, or determine what gender they are, until they’re pretty much grown. Hmmm. We took the advice of our goose-provider, who found us two lovely tiny, snow-white Embden geese. The goose-woman was “90 percent sure” that one was a male and the other a female, but truly only time would tell.

Of course we named them Hansel and Gretel, and bundled them off to the cabin in a cardboard box.

BabyGeese1

Off we hied to the library, checking out any book we could find about raising domestic geese. Thankfully, there were tomes available, and we dug into the research, reading out loud to each other interesting bits as we sat on the couch before the fireplace, sharing foot space with Cami-the-Siamese and Echo-the-black-Lab, who insisted on taking up the best spot where the heatilator blew warm air.

Between the books and observation, we became more knowledgeable, and more enamored of our two lovely geese. It didn’t take long for the differences between the two youngsters to become apparent. One was growing up to be a bit larger than the other, with a dark orange beak. The smaller bird had a pink beak and seemed to be far more mellow, perfectly content to sit on a lap.YoungGeeseSwim2In about 3 months, the geese grew from tiny goslings held in the palm of our hand to the size of large cats, albeit with large wings. We were entranced by their soft mutterings, the way they enjoyed cracked corn with gusto, and their signature flat-footed stomping gait as they would race toward us when we stepped from the house to greet them or bring them a tasty bit of lettuce, a favorite treat.

Before long, we determined that the larger bird was indeed a gander, and the smaller bird a goose. Now we knew which was Hansel, and which was Gretel. A small triumph, and likely more important to us than them.

YoungGeesePool1Concerned that the geese might make their way into the lake, where large gators roamed at will, we set up a kiddie swimming pool, much to the birds’ delight. We’d spy out the windows and laugh at their antics as they frolicked in the pool, splashing in with abandon, frantically swimming about squawking and flapping their wings vigorously, causing small molted feathers to fly every which-way. With such wild activity, they soon learned to take turns, sliding in over the pool edge on their breasts, flapping and splashing about, then clambering out awkwardly, sometimes landing beak-first.

After a few such rounds, they’d stand off a few feet away, spread their ever-growing wing-spans, and flap vigorously three or four times, their heads stretching straight up as first one then the other would let out a loud “Arrrrk!”, which ended on a high note. It looked to us like they were having the time of their lives playing in that pool.

In the depth of that first winter, the pool froze over. We hadn’t really thought about the consequences, assuming the geese would stay out of the pool until things warmed up. However, after an overnight hard freeze, I happened to look out the window and there was Hansel, stomping toward the pool with his usual brisk, flat-footed gait. As I watched, he approached the pool, turned his head so that he could eyeball the surface, then carefully placing one broad webbed foot on the edge of the plastic and spreading his wings to get a bit of lift, he launched himself off the pool edge, landed breast-first on that slippery ice, scooted across the surface, and slid ass-over-teakettle right out and over the other side, landing in an ungainly heap on the frosty dirt.

My hoots of laughter brought Anni to the window lickety-split. While I was choking with laughter as I described to Anni what I’d witnessed, Hansel was prancing around the pool, his wings fully extended, head on high, and squawking like a banshee. Gretel had witnessed the whole thing and kept approaching him with her head level and extended toward him, cooing reassuringly, but he would have none of it! “Skuaaaaawk! Ark! Agggggh!” and other crazed vocalizations accompanied him as he stomped off a few feet, flapped his wings vigorously, and finally tucked them in, wiggling his goose-butt in a most emphatic manner.

“They’ve outgrown that baby pool,” Anni observed dryly. “We’ll make them a better goose pond in the Spring. And the new one sure won’t freeze over!”

Puzzled, I asked what she meant and Anni went on to describe a design she’d obviously been toying with, one that would combine a bit of digging, some cement, and the clever use of the constant flow of 72-degree water from the aquifer that provided an unlimited supply of fresh water to the house.

Fast-forward to the Spring and the unveiling of the new goose pond. A couple of neighbors and friends gathered round, beer cans in hand, as Anni carefully swiveled the PVC pipe that routed the flow of the spring and water cascaded down into the cement pond. The geese were standing by, and soon approached the scene of wildly splashing water as the pond slowly filled.

GoosePond

The crowd-pleasing moment arrived, as the geese unhesitatingly jumped right into the pond and began excitedly swimming around in circles, flapping their wings, dipping their heads, and shaking their goose-butts with abandon. It was a moment to remember, marked by triumphant geese honking and the hoots of the delighted humans.

Video snippet: Anni with our geese in the pond

Video snippet: Geese greet Anni

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A Shot in the Dark

Another nighttime chicken emergency: once again, loud squawking outside the front door had us out in the dark, in the summertime, in our underwear. Flashing our big spotlights into the trees near the house, we spotted a large Barred owl as it took off from a tree limb and flew out of the light. A Bantam rooster soon tumbled from the limb, sprawled on the ground near our feet and started running in tight circles. Its head was strangely cocked over its back and flapped in an alarmingly non-natural way.

“I think it’s neck is broken,” Anni breathed. I stood there and tried to say something or react in some useful way, but I couldn’t think of what to do. I’d never seen the proverbial “chicken running around with its head cut off” and I must admit, it was a horrific sight.

We finally got organized and decided we needed to put the poor rooster out of its misery. Anni suggested that we whack it with a shovel and she headed over to the barn. I called out for her to bring the hoe instead.

So then we had to decide who was gonna do the deed. We each had perfectly good reasons why the other needed to be the executioner. Meanwhile, the rooster was still scrambling around, even as its vocalizations were getting more faint.

We had to act fast and quit talking about it, the poor rooster was suffering. I said I’d do it but only if I used a pistol. So Anni went in and got the old .22 revolver I’d been given by a family member. The thing was horribly inaccurate and as I popped away at the rooster, shot after shot went astray. Seriously, you could stand four feet away from a paper plate, aim and miss the thing.

The more I missed, the more I got pissed. Anni wasn’t helping with her dry observations about the usefulness of my Army weapons training and my fancy shooting badges. The situation was getting grim. Luckily, the rooster was getting weaker and moving slow enough that I could get closer and place a shot point-blank.

It fell to Anni to dispose of the rooster as she saw fit, I was done for the night. I took my shaky self into the house and went to bed, after making a mental note to clean that crappy pistol the next day. Or maybe throw it away.

We kept several weapons on hand. Target practice was a good idea and fun too.

We kept several weapons on hand. Target practice was a good idea and fun too.

The whole issue of our “failure” to protect the domestic fowl on the property was coming to a head, but we honestly didn’t have a ready answer for it. My frustration level grew each time we experienced an incident but, beyond rounding up all the flock and giving them away, we were caught up in a paradigm. And it didn’t help that K would call us several times during the year to inquire about how his wife’s chickens were faring! We felt like we had to hang in there, to do our best and after that, well, it was up to the lake gods.