Unexpected Encounters

turkey henTo encounter the unexpected is why I go out day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, walking the same mountain trails. But I rarely have a Discovery Channel moment. At most, I might find a new wildflower, an unusual butterfly, or a rare bird.

Still, I’ve had my moments. Take the day in mid-April when I heard a turkey gobbling near the Far Field Road. Immediately, I lay down against the road bank, clad in my usual jeans and navy blue jacket and, grasping my Lynch’s Foolproof Turkey Call, I rendered my poor imitation of a clucking hen turkey.

A tom turkey strode into view and walked past my outstretched legs as he peered around for the clucking hen. Although he passed a mere 15 inches from my feet, he didn’t seem to notice me. I found that surprising since turkeys are supposed to have superb eyesight.

Pausing about 20 feet beyond my left side, he spread his tail feathers and puffed his side feathers in and out like the inflating and deflating of a balloon. Then he thrust his neck forward and gobbled loudly. I had the turkey call resting on my chest and using my right hand, which he couldn’t see from his vantage point, I was able to whine and cluck with it.

For nearly half an hour he gobbled and displayed, all the while looking up the bank, below the road, and directly at me. I answered his every gobble with whines and clucks, most of which were poorly executed, because the rotten rubber band holding the scraper to the box had snapped after my first cluck. But the sometimes odd sounds I made did not seem to matter to that turkey.

Finally, he walked within five feet of me to gobble and display and I had a superb view of his six-inch-long beard, his bright eyes, and his magnificent tail feathers. He often appeared to be looking directly at me, but I never moved. Several times, he also emitted a rattling sound like castanets, which is described by researchers as a threat call before turkeys begin to fight. Was he seeing me as a male rival or, more likely, a female that he hoped to vanquish and then court? Apparently, he was more interested in what I sounded like than what I looked like.

wild turkey at close range

At last, he strutted past me again and climbed the bank above my head. Still gobbling, he tramped around in the woods, sounding like a heavy-footed human. I answered him with the call for several more minutes until he drifted away, his gobbles receding in the distance.

Only then did I move, because mindful of the upcoming spring gobbler season, I didn’t want him to associate a human with the noise he had heard. On the other hand, I doubt that any self-respecting turkey hunter would make the noise I had made. And I did wonder if I had called up the proverbial “dumb turkey.” Still, he had given me a never-to-be-forgotten encounter with a wild creature on his own turf with no blind or camouflage between him and me.

Despite being surprised by the turkey’s reaction to me, I had, to some extent, set him up by using a turkey call. That was not true of my next encounter.

On a late spring day, I was showing my husband Bruce invasive and native shrubs I wanted him to photograph for a talk I was scheduled to give. After photographing invasives such as Japanese barberry, multiflora rose, and privet on the former clearcut, I headed for a place where I knew the native red elderberry shrubs were already bearing fruit. Bruce was in a hurry to get back to his work at the computer, so I rushed heedlessly along our trails intent on finding the shrubs.

As I descended a steep section of the trail slightly ahead of Bruce, suddenly I spotted little coyotes ahead of us. I froze and so did Bruce. Instead of running away, they proceeded to silently wrestle with one another a mere 40 feet from us. Occasionally they looked up, and once a pup sniffed the air, advanced toward us, and then retreated. Altogether, I counted five little ones.

We inched closer, Bruce clicking his camera, as they continued wrestling and tumbling about, sometimes paired, sometimes threesomes, and sometimes all five piling on. They had reddish-brown coats and black-tipped tails. Their legs seemed too long for their bodies and their pointed ears too large for their faces. Although they were as cute as any puppies, their bodies were rangy rather than puppy-plump.

coyote pupsEventually they ran up an old creek bed and played a few rounds of “king of the mountain” on fallen trees before they slipped beneath two large, old tree trunks in a sea of hay-scented ferns, which effectively hid their den entrance. I waited, but they didn’t emerge again. Still, I had had the longest, closest look ever of young, playing coyotes.

And those red elderberry shrubs I’d been searching for? Once the coyotes disappeared, I found the shrubs along the same stretch of trail where we had been watching the pups. As I neared the largest of the shrubs, a male rose-breasted grosbeak landed on it and ate all the berries, a sight that would have ordinarily made my day but had been upstaged by the coyote pup sighting.

micrathena dorsal viewLooking for one thing and finding another is also the theme of my third unexpected encounter. Early on a warm August day I was watching female spined micrathenas spinning their daily webs. Because there are so many of these webs across our trails in August, I had been studying them. The spiders were said to bite their prey first and then wrap it in silk, something I had previously observed them doing. I had also been listening for their low-pitched buzz, which is supposed to be audible to humans two feet away. While the females are large and showy with spiny abdomens, the males are tiny and have flattened elongated, whitish abdomens.

Hoping to spot a male courting a female in a web, I instead found what looked like an egg sac, hanging from a single silk thread and spinning in mid-air. I fumbled for my hand lens in my fanny pack and went down on one knee, like a petitioner, to try to catch the swaying white sac, which was about a quarter the size of my littlest fingernail, in the lens.

It looked like the egg sac of a spined micrathena, especially through the lens, but I wasn’t certain. I was focusing intently on trying to keep the swinging sac in view when I heard a slight noise behind me. Assuming it was my son Dave out taking photos and trying to startle me, I paid no attention to the sound.

Then something nudged me in my rear end.

In the same instant I dismissed Dave as the culprit, I spun around, still on one knee, and came face to face with a large porcupine. porcupineI stumbled and fell forward as I half turned around and tried to scramble out of its way at the same time, all the while hoping it wouldn’t fill my posterior with quills. My second attempt to get to my feet was successful and I quickly moved down the trail.

But the porcupine seemed to be as startled by the encounter as I was. After all, porcupines don’t see very well and this one had clearly blundered into me.

It turned and shinnied 25 feet up into a fork of a large chestnut oak tree. Its nostrils flared out as it sniffed my scent, and it bared its orange front teeth, full of bravado now that it was out of harm’s way.

These and other adventures in nature I have had over the years keep me out in all kinds of weather like hunters stalking their prey. Only I’m stalking stories that I can tell. Before there was civilization, preliterate humans sat in small family groups around campfires and told stories of what they had seen while hunting and gathering and living out among the wild creatures. Some still do in remote areas of the world. And, as I’ve discovered, some of our hunters are also superb story tellers, not only telling stories of their hunts but of the other wildlife they have watched while sitting in their tree stands.

I admit that many hunters have called in turkeys and may have had similar experiences to mine with the tom turkey. And I’m certain there have been folks who have seen frolicking coyote pups.

But is there anyone out there who has ever been poked in the rear by a porcupine?

All photos were taken by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow, except for the photo of the coyote pup, which Bruce took. The first turkey photo is of a hen in the field, that had small chicks with her; the second is a close-up of a jake (two-year-old male) shot by one of our hunter friends during Spring Gobbler Season in April 2008. The spider is a female spined micrathena.

As a bonus, here’s a video Dave shot with his digital camera last July in the spruce grove.

From the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

April Journal Highlights (2)

Close encounters of the avian kind

April 18. The sun warmed the Far Field, and as I walked Pennyroyal Trail, a towhee sang, a flicker called, and a ruby-crowned kinglet sang. I stopped to “pish,” hoping to entice the kinglet into view, and I did. He flew on to a tree branch, erected his ruby-crown, and sang, giving me my first look at what I had been hearing for weeks.

I went on to the woods beyond the Far Field where a brown-headed cowbird sang and a ruffed grouse crept off into the underbrush. I imagine he was the drummer I stalked back in early April. Sitting still on a moss-covered, old log, I also heard a red-bellied woodpecker, eastern towhee, and northern flicker as the dead leaves rustled in the wind.

The sun quickly disappeared, and I picked my way through the woods until I encountered two excited white-breasted nuthatches on a tree trunk. At first I thought they were courting, but then I realized that they were drinking from sap wells. They were quickly driven off by a male yellow-bellied sapsucker.

As soon as he disappeared higher in the tree, the female nuthatch returned for a few furtive sips. Still, the sapsucker quietly worked on new wells, sipped from old ones, and chased off a ruby-crowned kinglet. Occasionally the male sapsucker flicked his wings as he worked or flew over to an adjacent grapevine as if to rest. Surely there is no tasty sap in a grapevine. The irrestible sap wells are on a pignut hickory, as usual, and it is encircled up its trunk with old sap wells.

The nuthatches returned, calling softly, as they drank from the lower sap wells while the sapsucker worked high in the tree drilling new ones. At last I left the relatively peaceful scene, two species sharing one resource.

April 20. I used my turkey call as I sat in the spruce grove and called in a hen turkey. She came close to my hiding place at the edge of the grove and then retreated back to the edge of the woods along First Field Trail, clucking all the way. I’ve never called in a hen before, but according to one of our turkey hunters, that’s not unusual. Still, experts disagree on why they respond to a hen call. Is she already setting on eggs and defending her territory? Is she a scout for a male turkey or trying to keep rivals from joining “her” gobbler? Is she recruiting more hens for “her” gobbler? Is she merely curious? Are there reasons that we can’t even imagine?

Then, walking back on the Far Field Road, I scared up a gobbler. He, of course, saw me and ran, but I did get a quick look at his long beard. Was he still searching for hens? If only I had tried the hen call along the road. Oh well! It’s obvious that the turkeys are restless and have perhaps not gotten together yet due to the cold.

Above the barn on Butterfly Loop at dusk, the woodcock called, turning around to direct his call in all directions as we watched from a respectable distance.

Gray squirrels and masked shrews: social behavior

April 21. At least three young gray squirrels were born in the black walnut tree nest hole beside the driveway. Today they emerged for the first time, or at least two of the three did. I sat watching on the veranda as first one emerged and stayed out, exploring nearby branches. Then the second emerged more briefly and stayed closer to the nest hole before going back into it again. Each squirrel chewed about the hole entrance, hanging upside down before emerging. When both squirrels were out, a third one peered timidly out of the hole, but stayed inside. All their climbing about, peering in and out of the hole, even their chewing was silent. But scolding from a distant adult squirrel sent them all back into the den hole with one looking out. Three adults harvested black walnuts on the lower lawn.

The first six-spotted tiger beetle gleamed bright green on the driveway.

April 23. The gray squirrel family, even the shy one, played in, out, and around their nest hole as we watched from the veranda.

April 24. I heard a black-throated green warbler in the woods near the powerline right-of-way singing both his songs. As I stood listening and watching, a masked shrew dashed in and out of the leaf duff along an old, barkless, fallen tree. I sat quietly, watching for the shrews, and heard the first blue-gray gnatcatcher of the season. As I continued on the trail, a pair of mallards flew past on the powerline right-of-way, heading toward the First Field. Were they the same mallards Dave saw earlier in the morning? Had they gone back to Sinking Valley? Who knows? But at least I saw them.

More masked shrews chased in the woods on the other side of the powerline right-of-way. They crossed right in front of me for several minutes so I sat down on the trail and watched as they dashed back and forth across the trail, always using the same pathway at my feet. They were tiny, grayish-brown, with peculiarly-shaped snouts that identified them as masked shrews. I counted half a dozen or more chasing about. They were silent to my ears except for the rustling in the leaves. The books say that they are looking for food, but I only see this phenomenon in April and sometimes in July and I think it has to do with mate-chasing. None of the books say anything about their sex life. I suspect they have two broods a year, but I can’t prove it. Finally they stopped and I continued my walk.

The return of the wood thrush

April 27. Sitting on the veranda reading near dusk, we heard the first whip-poor-will of the season singing above the garage at dusk.

April 28. A pair of northern flickers checked out the black walnut tree squirrel den. Were they waiting until the young gray squirrels leave so they could take over the nest hole?

April 29. I stepped outside early to listen for the wood thrush, but the towhees were so loud they blocked out more distant sounds. Still, I did hear a faint portion of a wood thrush song. I stopped and gave thanks that another spring had come and with it wood thrush music–three months of heavenly singing before they once again leave us.

On Dogwood Knoll a rose-breasted grosbeak sang. And then, as I descended the knoll on a path of blooming dwarf cinquefoil, I heard the singing of a Louisiana waterthrush above the dark place. Halleleujah! We have at least one singing male. I sat on Turkey Bench to listen to his ringing tones.

Down near the bottom of the mountain I heard the “tick-tick” scolding tones of another Louisiana waterthrush. I rested on a moss-covered log beside the stream, still hearing but not seeing the waterthrush.

Bruce came down the road and a small, black, white and orange moth spun around his hat and landed briefly on it. Then it landed on my hat and Bruce photographed it. It was a grapevine epimenis, Psychomorpha epimenis — an early, day-flying moth whose caterpillar feeds on grapes. Truly a beautiful little creature.

In mid-afternoon, Steve pointed out a black vulture sailing over First Field.

April 30. At breakfast I watched a northern flicker throwing to the wind the remains of the squirrel nest in the walnut tree. Those flickers had been checking on the den every day, evidently waiting until the squirrel family dispersed.

Walking up Guesthouse Trail, I finally heard the wood thrush singing clearly. Wild black cherry and striped maple trees have leaved out and already my view into the woods has diminished.

See also my post at the Plummer’s Hollow blog, Spring wildflowers: back on track.