Saturday, August 20, 2011

Critters in the secret garden

HALLIE EPHRON: We live ten feet from neighbors on either side, two blocks from a Burger King and a 7-11, and an easy walk to the subway into Boston. Not exactly country living. And yet when I'm in my backyard I feel like it's a secret garden.

Out bird bath attracts sparrows, juncoes, cardinals, blue jays, mourning doves, and last spring when I went out to to fill it I found this--a single blue egg. When I checked again, later that morning, there were only pieces of broken shell. Before I could get back out with my camera, even those had mysteriously vanished.

We had much excitement later when a red-tailed hawk tried to build a nest in a tall nearby pine tree. Spectacular cartwheeling, choreographed to fierce catcalls from the hawk, ensued as it was set upon by blue jays who'd have none of it. Then, as I was drafting this post, I heard a hawk scream again. This time it was a sharp shinned hawk (smaller with a beautiful black and white banded fan tail) fighting for turf with 4 crows on my other across-the-street neighbor's front lawn.

We had lots of excitement this spring when, for days at precisely dusk, we'd hear a mournful bird call coming from somewhere in the front of the house. My husband kept going out with a flashlight, trying to suss it out.

Then we found it. An owl was sitting in a hole about 20 feet up in a maple tree across the street. Our neighbors' little boys have a bedroom that's about 15 feet from that tree and just opposite the hole. They'd had it spotted for weeks but their parents didn't believe them. They named it Mikey. I snapped this photo of him. Or her.

At about 30 minutes before dusk every day, that bird appeared from inside that tree, rising up like a hand puppet. He'd just sit there, blinking out at the world. Twenty minutes later, whoosh. Off he'd go for his night of hunting, we presumed.

My husband got out the bird book and identified it as a screech owl, though its call isn't at all screechy.

For weeks we went out every day to see that bird. We invited friends over to see the bird. People from all over town flocked over to see it, too. We called it the Mikey Show.

Then, one day back in June, Mikey was gone. Just gone. Two weeks ago we thought we heard his call again. Went out, and there up in the tall maple tree in our yard were a pair of baby raccoons. Cute as could be. It's been years since we've had raccoons -- not since a rabies epidemic about 10 year ago wiped out all our locals.

So while I was glad to see them back, I'm even happier that they've since disappeared. Baby raccoons are darling; grown ones not so much.

Besides, we want Mikey to take up residence next spring in that tree. The welcome mat is out and we're waiting...

Has your summer been visited by welcome and unwelcome critters?


  1. I've sighted a groundhog a couple of times--a first for this year. We live in a fairly populated area, but there are more cats than dogs, and I'm pretty sure the groundhog could take on a cat.

    Your owl story reminded me that when we lived in Swarthmore, periodically in the fall we'd be visited by a pair of great horned owls. Since they announced themselves after dark, I never managed to see them, but I could sit on the porch and listen to their distinctive duet (my daughter thought I was crazy).

  2. This is the fifteenth summer we've had fawns born on our acre and a half in suburban Cincinnati, half a mile from the city limits in two directions. Twice, we had triplets; this year only twins. There is a creek in the front third of the property with trees and bushes that make a sort of woods. That's where they like to hide. And then their mother teaches them to eat up all my flowers, the imps.

    Love the screech owl call! It's spooky, isn't it? So cute that the neighbor kids named the owl.

    We've had barred owls nesting across the road, but we have not heard them this year, or last year, either. I hear them at the farm, once in awhile. I miss that call: WHO COOKS FOR YOU? WHO COOKS FOR YOUUUU ALLL.

  3. Our big achievement for the summer has been to get hummingbirds coming to our feeders--one on the front porch, one on the back deck. We always have hummers in our garden because we have a lot of native hummingbird and butterfly-friendly plants, and over the years we've hung some pretty art-glass feeders. Which the hummers completely ignored.

    So this year I bought two cheap clear glass/red plastic feeders, the kind with the four flower-shaped ports at the bottom, and after weeks of filling the untouched feeders with fresh homemade nectar (recipe from the Smithsonian) twice a week, we got regular customers. We're right on the eastern border for the black-chinned hummers, and have seen them in the garden some years, but all our feeder customers have been ruby-throated.

    I can watch the little guys for hours. And often do.

  4. Wow - a PAIR of great horned owls? How cool is that. Fawns and barred owls. Lovely!

    Owls really are special. They fly more like great big moths than birds. Did anyone have to take apart one of their regurgitated pellets for a science class?

  5. Oh, Debs, hummingbirds! So special. We've tried to attract them but without much luck.

    We once stayed in Madera Canyon south of Tucson one summer and the place was TEEMING with hummers. All different varieties. And in Jamaica we went to a house up the side of a mountain where you could actually feed them (they'd come and land on your finger.) Magic.

  6. I definitely want to meet Mikey, Hallie! We had a small fox trot across our front steps this week. And we have a very unwelcome woodchuck that I'd be happy to send your way...takers???

  7. No woodchucks for me thanks. I live in a Tudor style building with wood trim and the summer has brought woodpeckers to drill incessantly on the paneling. While they are attractive birds to watch from afar, the noise can be annoying. What is especially unnerving is that woodpeckers usually peck where there is a food source. So I'm hoping my building is not infested with bugs. I guess that's one for the Condo Association.
    -Bob D.

  8. We have a wood playground in our backyard and my kids giggle when they see the birds, rabbits, and squirrels playing on it. One time, this cute little blackbird was so fascinated with the slide. He would start from the bottom and scamper up and then slide back down. He did this several times.

  9. Woodchucks are such clowns, aren't they Sheila. The first summer I lived in Ann Arbor, I grew tomatoes in pots on the deck. The woodchucks ate every one. I haven't bothered since, but those silly critters continue to investigate the empty pots, turn them over and crawl inside.
    In the winter, when the trees are bare, twelve houses look down on my backyard. Come summer, the leaves hide my neighbors and give me as much privacy as does the isolation of my Florida farm. And I have almost as much wildlife in the city--only no wild boar, coyote, Florida panthers or black indigo snakes. And no turkey, turkey vultures, gopher tortoises, deer, bob cats, possum, sandhill cranes, great white herons, king fishers...Well, I guess there is more wildlife in the country. But it is more spread out and hidden in the woods. Whereas, in the city, there's something close and intimate the way squirrels, foxes, rabbits, coons and woodchucks peek at you, play in the trees over your head and chatter at you.

  10. I love watching for birds and other critters in the back yard. We had robins build a nest right outside our front window two years in a row, but the neighborhood cat got at least one of the chicks the first year and may have gotten another the second year. I keep hoping they made it away.
    Book Dilettante

  11. Early this summer we had a lot of visitors but perhaps they're all at the Cape or in the Hamptons - a pair of barred owls, a fisher cat and far too many deer. All the birds you mentioned plus a pileated woodpecker - as well as the downy and red breasted varieties. I haven't seen a hummer here in three years though. We do have lots of frogs though. I look for them everyday and I'm sorely disappointed when they're not in the little pond I created behind my kitchen.

  12. Despite the Newfoundland, the Newf/Goldie, and the lolcat, we seem to be critter central. Lots of squirrels, along with the jays, cardinals, robins, doves, wrens, kites, sparrows, and lots of other birds, including red tails. We also get the occasional skunk, possum, and raccoon. I've finally lured a little female hummingbird to the feeder outside my office window. She's even rested on the 'footrest' while she drinks.

    No owls for us! In my husband's tribal lore, owls are harbingers of death. They're cool looking but I don't want one nesting in any of our trees.

  13. oh, Silver, I forgot about the squirrels! We've got 4(!) of them in the big maple tree (where those raccoons were). They've eaten all my Alpine strawberries, but they're just out for show anyway. As long as they stay out of my attic.

  14. We have a wooly heavily vined city garden and it, too, feels like the country. No blue berries. BUT a new chair that my husband bid on in an auction nestled into the non=space. I think it's kind of amazing.