If you’re a regular reader of The Morning Porch on Twitter or elsewhere, you know I’ve been following the progress of a northern flicker nest in the dead elm tree on the other side of the yard. I first noticed the presence of a pair of flickers around the house back on April 30:
Two days before my friend from England arrives, my inner voice sounds like a tour guide: Those are flickers. Hear how they croon their name?
— Dave Bonta (@morningporch) April 30, 2012
And then on May 5, three days after Rachel’s arrival, I spotted a flicker doing more than the usual tapping:
Thin fog. A flicker is excavating a den hole in the dead elm on the other side of the yard, his head almost disappearing into the tree.
— Dave Bonta (@morningporch) May 5, 2012
Male and female took turns excavating. A week later, they were still at it — not surprising, given that flicker nest cavities are said to be 13-16 inches deep, widening toward the bottom.
A muffled knocking from inside the dead elm. A flicker's head pops out of a hole and flings a billful of wood chips into the sun.
— Dave Bonta (@morningporch) May 12, 2012
I was reminded of the lines from Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks:
I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door.
I’ve been knocking from the inside!
Rachel posted some photo documentation of the flickers to her blog twisted rib on May 15. Sometime shortly after her departure on the 17th, they finally stopped excavating. The following week, the 5-8 eggs must’ve been laid, because by the last week in May they were beginning to take long shifts inside the cavity — a sure sign of incubation. Subsequent Morning Porch updates gave evidence of a fierce territoriality, as they chased off a pileated woodpecker, a downy woodpecker and another flicker from the vicinity of their nest hole. Were they being over-reactive, or was their den really so highly coveted?
Given the incubation period of 11-13 days, I figured they’d be hatching sometime this week. Yesterday morning, both parents were outside the tree at the same time for up to 15 minutes, so I thought perhaps the blessed day had finally arrived. Around 3:30 in the afternoon, I went out on the porch to read and again noticed both parents outside. The male sounded agitated, but then woodpeckers always sound agitated. The female sat on a dead branch of the elm a few feet above the hole. I was already looking forward to breaking the happy news to Rachel when I noticed something sticking out of the cavity. I got out the binoculars and saw this:
And then I realized why the Carolina wren had been making so much noise earlier. A black rat snake had somehow figured out that a succulent meal awaited it 25 feet up the nearly smooth bole of the dead elm — and had then managed to climb it.
As I watched, the snake stuck its head out farther, some ten inches, and looked all around as if trying to decide whether to descend right away or digest its meal for a bit. After a few minutes, it looped back in.
This morning I had to go in town to run a few errands, and when I got back at 10:30, the snake was just leaving the hole. There was an unusual thickness to its body about 18 inches back from the head, but not the distinct bulges one sees in a snake that has just swallowed eggs or nestlings a short time before.
I watched for the next 50 minutes as it ever so slowly descended the tree, studying all the alternatives each time before moving to a new knot, branch or other protrusion where it could gain some purchase. (I want to say “foothold,” but that’s not right, is it?) It used a tall lilac limb to transition from the trunk to a dead branch that arched up from farther down the tree, then followed that branch to a lower spot on the lilac:
Much as I regretted what had happened to the flicker brood, I couldn’t help admiring the snake’s resourcefulness, especially given that it could only slither in one direction, forward. It was hard for me to imagine, for example, how it could have back-tracked once it was all the way out on a narrow, downward-bending branch with little purchase. And in any case, there’s something so inexorable and irreversible about a large snake on the move — it’s almost like watching time itself.
I’d thought that was the end of the show, but around three in the afternoon I came out just in time to see another snake climbing the elm tree. This one was longer — about six feet to the other’s five — and much speedier. It climbed the last ten feet to the nest cavity, poked its head in a little way, and in less than a minute gave up and began its descent. It too went into the tall lilac limb beside the elm trunk, but it didn’t mess around with the dead branch. It let its latter half fall into the lilac in its haste to get back down to the ground. What took the shorter (and much fuller) snake nearly an hour took it all of five minutes.
Do newly hatched nestlings give off some uniquely alluring smell that draws snakes? It’s hard to know what other signals they might’ve been following. Perhaps there’s a snake equivalent of a Russian hackers’ website where directions to vulnerable sites are posted?
The Google tells me that “Black Snake Moan” was also the name of a band and a 2006 movie, but I just know the original Blind Lemon Jefferson song. Here it is.
Where, wonder where this black snake gone?
Where, wonder where this black snake gone?
Lord, that black snake, mama, done ruined my darling home.