Sunday, June 23, 2013

Notes from the desert

Several mornings this week, when I’ve gone out early to uncover the bird-feed block, I’ve scared away not only the usual rabbits and quail but a young coyote, who trots off into the desert, pausing for a reproachful glance back at me.

We cover the feed-block at night because of the deer.  The drought has emboldened them.  Over the winter and spring they ate what they could of their favorite vegetation, and even ate away what they could reach of the cypress and Afghan pines, leaving the cypress looking naked for their first six feet off the ground.  Sometimes I race out in the middle of the night shouting at them, and they bound off for a moment, but soon return.

The hummingbirds are back from their Mexican vacation, buzzing the feeders and chasing each other around.  The ocotillo bloomed a little late for their annual date with the hummers, and we’re still collecting what we can of their wispy seeds.

Yesterday one quail couple brought half a dozen hatchlings around to check out the feed-block and the shallow water dishes we keep filled for them.  Friday night when six of us sat out back of some friends’ house over in Picacho Hills, we frustrated a pair of swallows trying to get back to their nest under the roof over part of the terrace.  They kept swooping toward us, then putting on the brakes as suddenly as Wiley Coyote or the Roadrunner. Once when everyone else happened to be inside, and I sat contemplating my wine-glass, they did return; and once it got dark they settled down – she on the nest and he inches away, sitting on some convenient pipe or nail – as if darkness stripped us of all power to harm their young.

Sunday, when we shaved off all my hair for summer, I felt guilty about doing it so belatedly.  Last year we did this in very early May, and immediately saw birds snagging snatches of the hair and putting it to use in nests.

The snakes have returned: the desert patch-nose digging holes everywhere; several small western ground snakes, each sporting a bright red stripe; a handsome bull snake who eventually disappeared into a prickly pear patch; and a king snake curled among the columbine in the little garden around our front door, enjoying the moist coolness there and supposing himself well-hidden because we couldn’t see his face.  (Many of these Dael reports to me, as she wanders around doing useful work and I waste time indoors on columns and such.)  I’ve watched patch-noses dig holes, using their necks like shovels, and even videotaped one bursting back up from the ground with a lizard in his mouth. The bull snake looks somewhat like a diamond-back rattler, as if he’d evolved that resemblance to intimidate.  He actually eats rattlers on occasion.  The king snake was an exotic-looking black fellow with a yellow pattern.

We also share the property with a rattlesnake who moved in around June 1st.  So far he has proved so lazy and almost amiable that instead of moving him a couple of miles away, we’ve left him undisturbed.  Sometimes we don’t see him for days.

We moved several rattlers last year after a neighbor fashioned a snake-noose for us.  I’d get the thing
around the snake, near his head, tighten it just enough to pick him up, drop him into a plastic garbage can, cover it, and drive him to a spot miles from human habitation.  In the process I noticed that rattlers seem to differ in their relative aggressiveness.  Some ignore a footstep dangerously close to them, others are coiled and rattling when you’re twenty feet away.

So we’ve taken a chance on this one, though we’ll look into whether the venom antidote the vets sell for dogs will work for cats – and we’ll walk even more carefully.  Sunday he spent most of the day napping under a Texas sage just outside our living room window, occasionally moving a few feet to enhance his protection from the sun.  So far he has ignored our photographic intrusions, but he did get a bit worked up when the cat sat intruded on his solitude with characteristic feline curiosity.  Will we regret our tolerance?  Stay tuned.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the roadrunner was around yesterday, sitting on the shed roof.  (Nearby a cactus wren complained loudly, either because the roadrunner had just eaten part of the wren’s family or because it seemed likely he’d soon try.)  Roadrunners too have a taste for rattlesnake.

I went out back to photograph the roadrunner; and after awhile when he stepped toward the front of the shed, I went through the house and out the front door to continue.

Then I got distracted.  Our garden includes not only cactus and ocotillo and yucca, but also a gargoyle, random pottery from friends and various found objects such as the toy figures left by the children who lived here before us – and a Saki bottle, shaped like a Japanese bullet-train, that someone gave us when we were in Osaka last year.   After the roadrunner got bored with posing and wandered off, I photographed a tiger whip-tail lizard as she climbed onto the train, looking very much like the destructive star of some 1950's Japanese monster movie.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 23 June.]

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