It’s the tenth of August, and I can barely believe my ears. A wood thrush is singing two weeks later than I’ve ever heard one before. Such a wonderful, unexpected gift so late in the season when most birdsong has been replaced by the buzzing and chirping of crickets and grasshoppers. But then it is for the unexpected as well as the expected that I venture outside every day.
Sometimes, during the heat and humidity of August days, the forest seems as empty as it is in winter. Then, through a curtain of leaves, I watch a smaller bird silently chase an immature red-tailed hawk that is still learning how to navigate in its new world.
Behind me, a red-eyed vireo drones its monotonous song while a blue-headed vireo renders a brighter, livelier version of its congener’s song. Eastern wood pewees drawl their “pee-a-wees,” and Acadian flycatchers sharply cry “wee-see.” A flock of cedar waxwings lands on a wild black cherry tree, laden with fruit, and emit their high “zees” as they pluck and eat cherries. Sharp-shinned hawks, recently fledged from the Norway spruce grove nest, sit atop the trees and continuously cry for their parents to feed them. Eastern towhees call their names and northern cardinals sing “cheer-cheer.”
All those songs and calls are expected for August. So too are encounters with wild turkeys such as one I have when early one sunny morning, near the beginning of the Far Field Road, a wild turkey flaps off from a tree branch. Then another follows. A third clucks unseen in the tree branches. When I move, she flies off, accompanied by a gawky teenager. As I continue my walk at least eleven more turkeys flush from the treetops.
During the same heat wave, my husband Bruce and I are driving back from town at noon. At the bottom of our road, Bruce slams on the brakes to avoid hitting a young American woodcock. It continues bobbing its awkward way up the left hand track of the road until it reaches a horizontal road drain covered by open grating that it can’t cross, so it flies off in a flurry. We are both amazed. We have never seen a woodcock closer than a mile from there in the woods near our deer exclosure, and we’ve never seen any young woodcocks on our property even though a couple males perform their sky dance on First Field every March. We conclude that somewhere on our mountain we do have breeding woodcocks.
During a pause in August’s heat and humidity, I watch what I call the march of the bucks from the top of the Laurel Ridge power line right-of-way. Through my binoculars, I see a deer crossing the top of the Sapsucker Ridge portion of the right-of-way. By the way it moves, its head held as erectly as an African woman balancing her worldly goods on her head, I know I’m looking at a buck. Then he slowly turns his head to catch the rising sun, which shines on a huge rack. As he disappears into the woods, a second buck emerges on the right-of-way. His rack is somewhat smaller than that of the first buck, but it is still impressive. After he melts into the woods, a suitable distance behind the super buck, a third buck, with an even smaller rack, ambles across the right-of-way.
Such a scene proves to my satisfaction that bucks stay together when they aren’t breeding and that the one with the largest rack leads. But perhaps I am projecting my own ideas on what may have been coincidence. Still, Leonard Lee Rue III, in his classic The Deer of North America, writes that “In the springtime, white tail bucks are often solitary, or sometimes a big buck is followed by several younger bucks,” exactly what I witnessed except that it wasn’t in springtime, so what I saw still leaves me with questions about relationships between bucks.
Mammal relationships continue to interest me when I surprise three young raccoons in our stream early one August morning. They run up the slope and climb a tree. Five days later, much farther down the stream, I hear what I think is squabbling raccoons. I sit down on Waterthrush Bench, above the stream, and wait. A few moments later, mama raccoon parades down a fallen tree trunk toward the stream, followed by her three youngsters. I remain motionless and hear another squabbling outburst, but tree leaves block my view. After waiting awhile and seeing nothing more of the little family, I continue on down the road and look back up at that tree trunk. Below it is a large tree with a hole at its base, which I assume, but don’t know for sure, is the raccoons’ den tree. I also assume that those three raccoons are the same ones I saw before and that they are ranging a fair distance in search of food.
Even insects sometimes surprise me. One August evening, a New Jersey visitor shows off his powerful flashlight, illuminating a spectacular, lime-green Luna moth on a black walnut tree trunk in our yard next to the walnut tree where we saw a Luna moth, freshly emerged, 364 days ago. According to David L. Wagner, in his Caterpillars of Eastern North America, the Luna moth’s caterpillar feeds on many forest tree leaves but has “decided local preferences” which include walnuts, as well as birch and black gum leaves in our area and pecan, persimmon, and sweet gum farther South.
But while seeing a Luna moth is an unexpected treat, walkingsticks always appear on the side of our house or on a screen door in August, and those same New Jersey visitors are impressed when I point one out. And any August visitors spend sleepless nights in our guesthouse, kept awake by the thrum of northern true katydids, even as we are lulled to sleep by them.
After years of pushing through the many orb webs of spined micrathena spiders and, indeed, expecting them in August, last August I saw only a few. Had their numbers crashed or was it an off-year for them? Sometimes, even the expected can throw me a curve ball.
But the wildflowers, in August, are predictable. Along our forest paths, the yellow trumpets of entireleaf yellow false foxglove (Aureolaria laevigata) blossom. On the hollow road bank, white wood asters and spikenard flower. Spikenards, which only began appearing several years ago near the bottom of our road bank, have been moving steadily uphill. Last August I found three below our big pull-off, two between the big pull-off and Dogwood Knoll, and two more between the forks and our old corral — a span of well over a mile. Their greenish-white flowers, growing in drooping, compound umbels, always seem too heavy for their stems.
Horse-balm and orange jewelweed or touch-me-not also grow along our road, but both are favorite deer foods. Many have been heavily grazed so I visit our three-acre exclosure for a view of shoulder-high jewelweed and waist-high horse-balm in the wetland corner of the exclosure. Late in August, I interrupt a small songbird migration over the exclosure and have a lovely view of a male black-throated green warbler and a magnolia warbler perched on a small ailanthus tree that overlooks the huge bed of jewelweed.
I pause, hoping to see a foraging ruby-throated hummingbird because I know that its needle-thin bill is perfect for penetrating jewelweed flowers. In fact, some ornithologists believe that jewelweed may have changed its floral biology to produce more nectar and encourage hummingbird pollinators. Sure enough, a female whirls in, lands close by on the fence to look me over, and then proceeds to nectar in the blossoms. Although entirely expected, it was lovely nonetheless.
Three days later, I am again hanging over the fence, this time admiring the jewelweed buzzing with native bumblebees. The horse-balm too is abuzz with bumblebees. The female hummingbird flies in to nectar at the jewelweed. She also tries the horse-balm several times, but she quickly rejects it and instead deftly ferrets out every jewelweed blossom amid a sea of horse-balm.
By late August, five species of goldenrod blanket our First and Far fields, and I spend hours “butterflying.” Altogether, I count nine species, including monarchs, common sulphurs, summer azures, an American copper, red-spotted purple, silver-spotted skipper, northern pearly-eye, red admiral, and dozens of cabbage whites.
I’ve never been fond of cabbage whites because they are a European species that first appeared on this continent in Quebec in 1861, according to butterfly guru Robert Michael Pyle in his book Mariposa Road. He says that the cabbage white — Pieris rapae — called the small white in England, may have arrived as pupae on a cabbage crate.
Today, it is our most abundant and widespread butterfly even though some folks erroneously call it the cabbage moth because of its fluttery flight. Pyle calls it “adaptive” and “resilient,” even resisting DDT spraying in England while its predatory beetle enemies succumbed. Its preference for members of the cabbage family has earned it the enmity of farmers.
The chrysalis of a cabbage white can be “buffy brown” or “green,” Pyle writes, but its color doesn’t necessarily match its background, the so-called “chameleon model.” Instead, Pyle thinks that the hypothesis “balanced polymorphism,” in which “populations adapt a ratio of green to brown expression that optimizes the chances of finding the ‘right’ substrate color in a given environment — more green in a wet setting, more brown in the desert, but some of each in either,” may be the answer. In other words, they hedge their bets. No wonder they are so successful.
Pyle also refuses to call the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) by its current name. he says that it’s a contraction of the Old English name — red admirable — and that it is not related to the true admiral butterflies in the genus Limenitis (the red-spotted purple, white admiral, and viceroy), but to the American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) and the painted lady (Vanessa cardui). I think I agree with him. The red admiral certainly looks more like the ladies, although its reddish-orange bands on its front and hind wings on a black body make it the loveliest of its congeners.
As the month draws to a close, I mark the death of the huge chestnut oak tree along the Far Field Road that has harbored many wintering porcupines in its branches. Some branches now have brown, withered leaves and others are bare. Is it a victim of drought, old age, or both? Like me, it is broken down by our many years on earth and will leave its progeny to carry on the only form of immortality life on earth can hope for.
The chestnut oak has finished its life span. I have not, but its death is a reminder to me to cherish in my life both the expected and the unexpected every month of the year.
All photos by Dave Bonta, taken on Brush Mountain.
If I had another life to live, I would be a mammalogist. But instead of going to Africa to study the behavior of animals such as elephants or chimpanzees, I would specialize in some of eastern North America’s most common mammals. Countless books have been written about tigers and lions, elephants and chimpanzees, but few, if any, about the lives of gray foxes, porcupines, raccoons, or fox squirrels. Yet, over the years, I have observed behavior in those creatures and others that I cannot verify in either the popular or scientific literature.
For instance, back on March 9, 2000, as I walked along Greenbrier Trail, I was suddenly stopped in my tracks by growling shrieks that I thought, at first, were made by an owl being harrassed by crows. Yet the intermittent shrieks did not seem to be coming from the same place as the cawing crows.
Puzzled by the sound, I sat down in a dense grove of striped maple trees just as it started to shower. Under my umbrella, I continued listening to the growling shrieks, but I still could not pinpoint the source. When it stopped raining, I resumed my walk, moving quietly as I scanned the trees above the trail.
Finally, I spotted a raccoon climbing out on a tree branch and then down the trunk of a red oak in pursuit of another raccoon perched on a branch on the opposite side of the tree from where I was standing. I quickly decided that the shrieking raccoon was the female and the pursuer the male.
More shrieking erupted and then the male climbed several feet above the motionless female and moved restlessly around on branches and tree trunk as if he was trying to figure out another approach. Slowly he slid down the trunk head first toward the female, all the time emitting calls that sounded like clicking castanets, and settled into a tree crotch next to the female. He continued to be restless, periodically moving around in slow motion, while the female, partially hidden from me by a mass of grapevines, remained still.
Frustrated by my partially-blocked view of the proceedings, I climbed up the ridge so that I could look down at the raccoons’ tree. I watched as the male descended below the female and then climbed back up above her. She shrieked several times, he growled, and finally he laid down on top of her. They looked like amorphous, fuzzy blobs in the tree, veiled, as they were, by the grapevines. Finally, he moved around, his tail up, then down, his forepaws stroking her face. Whenever he moved, she shrieked, but he was firmly planted on top of her. At the time, I thought I was witnessing mating. Later, I learned that raccoon matings are much rougher affairs and last almost an hour or, at least, the one mating ever observed in the wild and recorded, did so.
Howard J. Stains published “The Raccoon in Kansas” in 1956. Stains had studied raccoons in the field from July 1951 to November 1954. Despite devoting 2,550 man hours to his work, he observed mating raccoons only once–on February 26, 1954–and it is his work that has been cited in every account of raccoons I have read. After reading his blow by blow account, I could understand why no one goes into any detail about raccoon mating. If it was made into a movie, it would probably earn a R or maybe even an X rating. Either the raccoons I was watching had not read Stains’s paper or their courtship was much gentler than their mating.
After several minutes, the male raccoon arose and chased the female higher up the tree, she shrieking, he making purring clucks. They met nose to nose and patted each other’s faces with their forepaws. Then the female curled up in a furry ball while the male again restlessly moved around, sniffing her back side as if he were checking to see if she was ready to mate. At last he retreated a couple feet below her and settled down just as the sun appeared from behind the lowering clouds.
Because I am not a mammalogist and could not spend the entire day watching them, I reluctantly turned homeward when the raccoons quieted down, convinced that I had watched only a portion of what seemed to be an intricate courtship.
Over the next several weeks, I pored over books and scientific papers on raccoons. All of them had little or nothing to say about courtship or mating. The casual reader might even conclude that raccoons are the result of immaculate conception! Once I found the Stains paper, though, I understood why.
Finally, I found an article published in the journal ANIMAL BEHAVIOR in 1999, by Stanley D. Gehrt and Erik K. Fritzell who had radio-monitored raccoons in southern Texas during the 1990-92 mating season. They wanted to find out if different raccoons followed different mating strategies.
Sure enough, Gehrt and Fritzell discovered an incredible variation in the mating strategies of raccoons even within the limited population they studied. Consortship, which they defined as a “diurnal association between an adult male and female observed resting together or sharing a small den structure with a single opening,” lasted anywhere from one to three days. During 62% of consortships, one female consorted with only one male. The rest consorted with between two and four males. Those with shorter oestrous periods, between two and three days, consorted with only one male. Those with longer oestrous periods (four to six days) consorted with more than one male. But exactly what they did during this period remained murky.
The males, themselves, formed loose groups in a home range and the dominant male consorted with most of the females while subordinate males tried to find a female before the dominant male. In addition, solitary males roamed from home range to home range in search of females.
While Gehrt and Fritzell did not mention the specifics of raccoon courtship, it was obvious that the whole process is incredibly varied, and that I was lucky to be given such an intimate look at a portion of the process.
Whatever their courtship and mating strategies may be, though, the end result is the birth of between two and seven cubs 63 days later in the female’s tree den. Two years in a row, near the end of April, I heard the bird-like twittering of newborn raccoon cubs coming from a hole 20 feet up in a black locust snag. Once my husband Bruce put a ladder against the snag and climbed up to watch a mother raccoon nursing young. Later, a youngster, its eyes tightly shut, poked its masked face out of the hole.
The cubs finally open their eyes at four weeks of age and their twittering changes to churrs and growls. If the den is disturbed, they hiss, and their distress calls sound like a crying human infant.
At the same time the female begins to wean them, when they are six to nine weeks old, she also moves them from her den tree to a ground bed on the forest floor or in a wetland. By then they are playing exuberantly. A few weeks later they begin to accompany her on short, round-trip excursions. Within a week they are able to move and bed together, following their mother as she emits a constant low, grumbling purr. When they disobey, she slaps their rear ends. Once they are thoroughly weaned, at four months of age, they are more independent, trailing behind or ahead of her. Throughout the summer she teaches them to climb and hunt for food.
They spend the autumn fattening up on a wide variety of wild fruits and nuts, especially acorns, and usually den together in the winter. Raccoons are not true hibernators, but here in central Pennsylvania and farther north they tend to spend the bitter months of mid-January through February in restless sleep. Their body temperature drops from 100.6 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit, they don’t urinate or defecate, and they live on their stored body fat, losing half their body weight by spring.
One researcher found 23 raccoons, half of which were juveniles, denning in an abandoned Minnesota house. Another group denned under the pulpit of an active, rural Methodist church. They may also den in skunk or woodchuck holes and when spring comes, they fight. Our son Dave can testify to that. A menagerie of critters den under our guesthouse where he lives–a porcupine, woodchuck, skunk, and raccoons–and Dave’s sleep is often interrupted by shrieks, yells, and growls from his quarreling tenants.
Once they leave their winter dens, families disperse. Males travel farther than females, as much as ten miles or more, and one radio-tagged male raccoon went 26.7 miles.
Raccoons are ecological opportunists that range from Panama to Canada. They eat both animal and vegetable matter such as grasshoppers, earthworms, snails, spiders, birds and their eggs, small mammals, frogs, fish, wild grapes, beechnuts, apples, and corn, although their favorite food is said to be crayfish.
A wide body of folklore has sprung up around them, beginning with the Indian tribes that endowed them with all sorts of magical powers. The Siouan tribes gave them names that meant “one who is sacred” or “one with magic” and the Aztecs referred to a female as “she who talks with gods.”
Both their masked faces and their dexterous forepaws fascinated native Americans and early settlers. Another Dakota Sioux tribe referred to a raccoon as the “sacred one with painted face.” Algonquians called them “arakun,” meaning “he who scratches with his hands,” from which we get the name “raccoon.” But it was the Hurons who named them “ee-ree-ah-gee” or “big-tailed” ones, for their long, furry, ringed tails. That name was later shortened to “Erie.” So both the great lake and the city were named for raccoons.
Lately, researchers have tested their intelligence and have found them to be at least as smart as cats. Certainly, their behavior is endlessly fascinating and endlessly varied which is why I continue to watch these common, but still mysterious mammals as they go about their unique lives.