Backyard Biology

Nature stories from my backyard and beyond

Nature Stories

My Back Yard

Thursday, November 8, 2012

I just received my latest edition of Audubon magazine. I love to look at the adds for the exotic places to visit. I could spend a winters' afternoon curled up by the fire dreaming about birding in Belize, stalking lions in Africa or studying the giant tortoises in the Galapagos.

Then I realize how fortunate I am. My backyard is filled with as many wildlife adventures as the places advertised in Audubon. One just needs to spend some time in looking. Here are just a few of them.

Giant snapping turtles ply the Herring Brook in Pembroke, behind my house. These monsters can reach a size of three feet from snout to tail-tip. Mostly it is their snouts that I see, as they rise to the surface to gulp a breath of fresh air. June is the only time I see the entire creature, for it is in June that the snappers head overland, looking for a suitable place to lay their eggs.
They are truly a sight to see. Standing high on stiff legs, almost on their tiptoes, head outstretched, they lurch forward in search of a suitable place to dig their nest. The snapper generally lays 20-30 or more eggs.
This summer, a snapper dug her nest in the garden in front of our house. I could hardly wait for the fall in hopes that I might see the baby turtles hatching. baby snapping turtleAs luck would have it, the hatching was observed, but not by me. Unfortunately for the turtle, the hatching was witnessed by a young red-shouldered hawk. The hawk grabbed the turtle as it emerged, ate it and discarded the shell. All I got to see was the hole the turtle emerged from, the shell a foot away from the hole and the hawk in a tree waiting for other turtles to hatch. I can’t help wondering what the turtles last thoughts were - “Is this all there is to life?”

Often, the hawk goes hungry. Every summer, marsh hawks prowl the upper North River and Herring Brook. Slowly they soar about 20 feet overhead, first down the Indianhead River then up Herring Brook. About 20 minutes later, they circle around and do it again.
Red-wing blackbirds also make the marsh their home. While paddling the river once, I saw a flock of about 200 birds settle into the cattails, out of sight. Shortly after, along comes the marsh hawk on its rounds, sights the blackbirds, pulls its wings in to pick up speed and dives on the blackbirds - still out of sight. As one, the blackbirds take to the air. Four hundred wings beating the air simultaneously created a shock wave that I could feel! A minute after the blackbirds had left, along comes the hawk empty handed. Dinner will have to wait.

The greatest life and death struggle that I have ever witnessed occured between two spiders. One spider, I suppose the hungrier of the two, decided to eat the other. Not happy with this decision, the second spider thought to escape by lowering itself on a silk thread called a dragline. The hungry spider, not to be cheated of its dinner, grabs the line and begins to reel in its dinner.
Faster and faster, the second spider lets out more silk while faster still the hungry spider gathers in the line. Slowly the distance between the two decreases and it looks like dinner time. Then the second spider gets a burst of energy, perhaps an adrenaline rush, and increases the distance.
At this point, both spiders must be exhausted so they seem to call a truce. One spider stops descending and the other stops pulling. The hungry spider has a wad of silk at her feet, but so far, that is all she has for her efforts. Finally the truce is over and she starts tugging on the line again. But most of her strength has been spent. It seems that the second spider has been able to replenish her silk faster than the first spider has her strength.
Eventually the second spider reaches the ground, disconnects the dragline and scuttles for cover. I wonder what the spider was thinking as it lay hidden. Was it shaking with sheer terror at its near fate? Or was it wondering where its next meal was to be found. Or perhaps, it wasn’t thinking of anything at all. This is one wildlife question that I shall never be able to answer.

Sitting by the fire on a snowy winter’s day, I dream of trips to the Galapagos, Africa and Trinidad. But until that time comes, I am content to find the wildlife adventures in my own back yard.