2013-06-19 / Columns

IN THE WILD

by Dan Stiles
Wildlife Biologist

Riding the Lawnmower

We have far too much lawn to mow out here. The riding lawnmower drinks up six gallons of gasoline by the time the job is finished. So, I have many hours to look around and think deep thoughts about one thing or another while mowing.

Before I started the mower the other day, I did hear several towhees carrying on around a brush pile about some kind of problem they were having. Towhees are really beautiful birds, ground nesters, with a pleasant “drink your tea” song repeated frequently. They are declining in population, because it is thought that their preferred brushy habitat is shrinking. At any rate, when I mowed close to where all the commotion was coming from, there suddenly appeared a too-young-to-fly panicky towhee youngster scrambling ungracefully across the lawn toward me.

I spoke to the bird above the noise of the lawnmower and suggested he return to the relative safety of the adjacent brushy area he had just left. Then the parent female bird arrived, and I suspect she spoke rather seriously to him also. Towhees out in the open are so out of place that I knew they were having a big problem, and it was clearly the huge black rat snake sliding out of the brush pile across the lawn toward me. He really was a big fellow headed for our garden. My Dad was a great one to exaggerate the truth, and I am inclined to follow in his footsteps. However, the actual, honest truth is that the snake was well over six feet long. He slid through the tomatoes, the asparagus and then disappeared under the cooling leaves of the rhubarb. I saw two more black rat snakes that day, but their length was nothing to write home about. It’s good to have black rat snakes around. Everybody knows that. They are superb rat/mouse killers, but most people would prefer them on a neighbor’s property. I understand their point of view very well.

A few minutes later, I came upon an Eastern box turtle in the middle of a field. She had piled up some fresh soil with her hind legs, and I knew what she was up to. I remember seeing ocean turtles returning in the night to the beaches in North Carolina – huge ones. They dug a sandy nest with their hind legs to deposit their eggs in. This Eastern box turtle was doing the same thing. They lay three to six leathery eggs, generally in a sunny spot, and then cover them very nicely, so that no one would ever know a nest of eggs lay a few inches below the surface of the ground.

It’s interesting to know that you can tell male box turtles from females by the color of their eyes. Males have red eyes and a low profile and the females have brown or light orange eyes and a higher domeshaped shell. They live a long time if they are lucky – thirty years is not thought to be unusual, and they live close to the area where they hatched out. They don’t grow to be very large. A mature Eastern box turtle that is eight inches long is a big one.

And, I had plenty of time to think about this year’s migrating crop of hummingbirds. The honest truth is that the first male hummers did arrive exactly on schedule on the afternoon of April 23. Our feeder was ready for them. Their arrival time coincides with the annual spring gobbler season when I’m sure to arrive at our cabin too. Maybe they also think my arrival at the same time every year is remarkable. I mull over these sorts of things riding my lawnmower.

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