Unseen

Last night around 11:30, after posting “The Grave Dug By Beasts,” I went out for a quick, half-hour walk. The crescent moon was setting over Sapsucker Ridge as I made my way slowly up the field toward the head of the hollow.

Just past the top of the amphitheatre, I’m startled by an explosive snort from thirty feet away: white-tailed deer. We haven’t been seeing deer during daylight hours nearly as much as we usually do this time of year, and when we do they seem unduly skittish. My mother wonders if perhaps the local coyotes haven’t begun behaving more like wolves, traveling in packs and targeting healthy, adult deer. I’d love for that to be true — the ecological repercussions of such a switch would be enormous — but I’m wary of wishful thinking.

A little farther along, I hear more running sounds to my right. Five or six deer cross the trail right in front of me, all in a panic. They’re not running from me, I realize, but from something else. I wait for half a minute, but I don’t hear anything further, so I move on.

It’s a chilly night, and I’m walking quickly to try and get my blood moving. I stand for a few seconds to catch my breath at the top of the field, the spruce grove looming up in front of me — a black wall. Just then, a weird, strangled cry rings out. Fox? Coyote? Bobcat? It’s right on the other side of the grove, whatever it is, and I wonder if my presence has set it off, because the cries keep coming every few seconds, accompanied by the sound of slow, erratic footsteps in the dry grass. I feel the hair rising on the back of my neck. It was exactly one year ago that we had to shoot that rabid gray fox.

It suddenly seems like a good idea to make my way back to the house before the moon sets. I ease over into the woods as quietly as I can and pad quickly down Laurel Ridge Trail. The cries slowly fade from earshot.

*

Twelve hours later, Mom returns from her morning walk with some exciting news: she’s found the Cooper’s hawk nest in the woods on Laurel Ridge, less than 200 yards from the houses. Since I’ve been hearing the birds (and very occasionally glimpsing them) from my front porch since early March, it’s no great surprise that they’re nesting up there. But it’s great that she’s found the nest, and that it’s far enough down from the top of the ridge that we should be able to find a spot where we can set up a spotting scope later on, look down into it, and watch the chicks, as we did back in 2003 with another Cooper’s hawk nest — provided that this is the nest they end up using, and not an alternate.

I go up the trail following Mom’s directions with cameras at the ready. It’s a bright sunny morning, and the temperature is climbing into the high 40s. There are several squirrel nests that seem almost big enough and stick-filled enough to be hawk nests, but when I get to the real thing, there’s really no comparison. It doesn’t have any leaves in it, which suggests a more recent origin. And it’s a more imposing structure, with higher sides and more of a disc shape — clearly something only a bird could build.

At scattered intervals, I hear one of the hawks chattering from nearby. First it’s off to one side, then the other. The trees are completely bare, I can see for hundreds of feet through the canopy, and I am standing still and watching as intently as I can, but the bird might as well be invisible. Just as soon as I think I’ve finally zeroed in on the spot, I hear the kak-kak-kak-kak-kak from somewhere else. There! Was that a flicker of gray-brown wings? Nope. It’s behind me now.

Here it is almost noon, and I’m getting spooked again. It’s uncanny how good some predators are at staying just out of sight — if never completely out of mind.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

24 Comments


  1. Spooky indeed (you evoke it well)–but how much more spooky if they, the predators, are not there.

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    1. Excellent point. You sound like someone who’s been reading my blog for a couple of years. :)

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  2. Dave, who’s your avatar? Have you introduced him and I missed it? Might I have an introduction to your friend?

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    1. I dunno. One of the founding fathers of a nearby village, Alexandria, PA. I snapped his picture in their historical museum, on the second floor of the public library, last fall. He looks pretty much just like me, though — inasmuch as all white guys with beards look alike.

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  3. I haven’t heard the bobcats cry. One snarled at me a bit when I inadvertently ran toward it while chasing crows from the orchard. I think of coyotes and even mountain lions as night-time hunters. A predator’s stealth is one of those spooky qualities that I think about whenever we’re hiking in mountain lion country. They always come out of nowhere.

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    1. Good point. You actually are living someplace where there’s a predator that could stalk and eat you. Not the case here. Even our eastern black bears are wimps. The most health-threatening creatures in our woods are the Lyme disease-carrying deer ticks.

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  4. once again you make me want to be there

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  5. Wonderfully evocative, Dave. These small dramas that have been unfolding for so very long, yet each one immediate and fresh for the human witness, and here for the reader too.

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  6. I was woken one night in the North Cascade range by loud, peculiar moans and unsteady footsteps coming up the hill straight toward the tent. Very creepy to my ears. Turned out to be a porcupine passing through. Well told, Dave.

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    1. Porcupines do make odd noises, no doubt about it. And raccoons! To say nothing of screech owls…

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  7. Skunks make a very weird nocturnal vocalizations this time of year.

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  8. Well written, Dave. I tend to not get far from the house at night.

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    1. Thanks, Marvin. Keep in mind that we don’t seem to have any poisonous snakes on the mountain — the last copperheads and timber rattlers were eradicated decades before we got here.

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  9. It was a striped skunk. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission website, breeding should be over by now, but maybe they stay socially active an vocal, as coyotes do, for some time past the moment of breeding.

    The PGC said this:
    Skunks make a variety of sounds, including hisses, growls, squeals, soft cooings and churrings.

    It’s been several years for us since the event and already I’ve gotten vague about just how it sounded. Alarming, queer — yes quite; astrangled cry? — perhaps. One thing I noted was that it was oblivious to my proximity until I became quite close and quite loud.

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    1. That’s interesting. Thanks for doing the online research I should’ve (and may have in the past!). As a matter of fact, I stumbled in an old skunk burrow right at the beginning of that walk.

      You may remember I posted a video of a striped skunk last March.

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  10. Pennsylvania eradicated its vipers? Copperheads seem so — ineradicable hereabouts; they must have had a tenuous occupancy in your colder climate.

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    1. No, I was talking about just our end of the mountain. Though neither copperheads not rattlers are secure anywhere in PA these days, owing to things like snake hunts, habitat destruction, and a plethora of roads — we have the greatest road density of any state. And you’re right — historically, we were near the northern limit of their ranges.

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  11. Dave I like this animal talk. Thanks for indulging me. Thanks for the vid-link, but I’m dial-up so for the time being I’ll play it in my mind.

    Road density in the warm seasons is — will soon be, once again — a horror. It seems like our tortoises (box turtles) have two periods of road crossing, a major one in spring and a smaller movent in August.

    Summertime, when it comes, will lay across the gravel road like a copperhead at dusk, when people are returning home in their cars.

    We used to have a retired neighbor who, all summer long, would ride his four-wheeler looking to kill copperheads and rattlers (and probably king snakes as well). Now, when I go to visit my father in law in the nursing home, I pass him in his wheelchair. I don’t believe they allow guns in the nursing home, but from habit my eyes seach for a fire-arm.

    There is what might be a coyote den 150 yards from our house! On the hillside nearby grapefruit-sized rocks all turned over — skunk or coyote? In the belly of a red wolf/coyote shot by a neighbor, grubs.

    You should’ve heard our coyotes this spring! I often though of you and how you would have mostly likely been rapt with attention. You could track their movements by sound. I heard for the first time a conversation take place between a solitary individual and group. We haven’t named all our hills explicitly, as you have, but I’ll say that the individual was on Berry Hill, and that minutes later it had joined the others on the ridge behind Randall’s for very rambunctious group howl.

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    1. Oh man, I am so envious! Our coyotes are few and silent — though we did have a den on our property the summer before last. They made more noise ten years ago, when they were still relatively new to the area, but I think they’ve wised up since — too many people around here shoot them as varmints.

      Turned-over rocks here are usually the work of bears, though I realize also critters also do that. (In the creek, raccoons, of course.)

      I hate to say it, but I’m glad your neighbor has been confined to a nursing home and a wheelchair. I hope that when he dies, he’ll go to an afterlife ruled by a giant tortoise. Reptiles in general and turtles in particular are site-loyal slow breeders, which makes local populations exceedingly vulnerable to extirpation. One too many roads (to say nothing of collectors for the goddamn pet trade) can doom a box turtle population — but because individual turtles are so long lived, people won’t realize that for a long time, if ever. As long as they still see a turtle once in a while, they’ll assume everything’s O.K.

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  12. We hear coyotes here but not as regularly as Bill does. There’s been speculation around here recently about the presence of a mountain lion, or “painter,” in the mountains near where I live. They are rare but occasionally one does hear about them, usually a bit northeast of here though. They have a very distinctive scream that a friend of mine claims to have heard at night. There’s a certain mythic quality to them. I hope my friend is right. And I am glad that the coyote population is growing hereabouts. It helps keep the whitetail deer population from growing inordinately, I think, for one thing.
    I was thinking too about a connection I made between the preceding poem and the power and energy of unseen beast presence in this post. Not sure what else to say about that but it did strike me.

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    1. Well, the presence of mountain lions anywhere in the East north of Florida is very controversial, mainly because reliable confirmation of a breeding population has so far proved impossible. The Eastern Cougar Foundation has recently shifted its focus away from following up on sitings. There was a very seasoned hunter and outdoorsman who swore he saw one right down the ridge from us a couple of years ago. I talked to him, and he was no bullshitter. But the reality is that it’s very hard to judge the size of animals seen at a distance. It could’ve been a large, tan housecat, for example — as many “sightings” have turned out to be. As for the screams… I’m skeptical there, too. Lots of things make unearthly noises, as this comment string as demonstrated.

      Don’t get me wrong, I badly want to believe that the big cats are on the come-back in the East. I even wrote a popular post a few years ago based on that premise. I’m no longer sure it’ll happen in my lifetime. And whether the cats are welcomed when they do come (or are reintroduced) depends on us, now — talking to friends and neighbors about deer overpopulation, trophic cascades, prey-animal behavior modification in the presence of large predators, etc. And more broadly, to work to create a culture of tolerance and respect for predators, through books, blogs, whatever.

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