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Wow – is it July already? After a long, cold spring it seemed as if summer would never come, and now we’re already into deficit daylight hours. Slowly but surely we’re losing all those precious minutes of sunshine we waited so long to gain. It will be a while before we notice a major change, but the longest day of the year is already behind us.
I’m always on the lookout for changes in the wild world around me, and lately there have been plenty of them. Most notable has been the rapid growth of the “Lucky 13” turkey poults, a baker’s dozen hatchlings that somehow have survived to semi-flighthood without the usual (and expected) losses to natural mortality. It’s a rare brood that survives intact from nest to adulthood, but these guys are definitely on the plus side now. Fast and quick to flight, they are big, robust poults that, barring predatory disaster, should survive to adulthood.
Also in recent days I’ve seen two other hens accompanying the Lucky 13, although their chicks are fewer in number and much smaller, no doubt the result of a second nesting attempt. Tall grass, abundant insects and higher temperatures mean these little turkeys should survive, that is if predators don’t find them first.
That predatory threat is very real for a number of small critters, birds and mammals. With summer now hot upon us I’ve seen owls, hawks, ravens, crows, snakes, raccoons, mink, opossums, foxes (grays and reds) and coyotes making their rounds – and all of these will gobble up a flightless baby bird no matter what species it may be. Add in a few weasels, fishers, bobcats, vultures and an eagle or two and it’s easy to realize how difficult survival in the wild can be.
Birds are not the only ones who have to keep a watchful eye out for predators. All of these critters have young at some stage of development now and they are constantly under attack as well. One mistake is all it takes to put a young animal at risk, and it’s well documented that anything out there than can be eaten will be eaten if circumstances allow. Predators of all sorts take a heavy toll on birds, chipmunks, mice, rats, red and gray squirrels, but if the opportunity arises they will also go after the young of larger animals. I mentioned here a few columns ago seeing a great horned owl with a young opossum in its talons, and not long ago a raccoon got into the swallow nest under the deck and ate the entire family before going back to the seed pile to fill up on wildlife grain and sunflower seeds. ‘Tis a vicious world out there!
It’s no different in the piscatorial world, either. I spend my summer evenings paddling around a local bass pond, ostensibly “fishing” but more just observing and reflecting. I drift close to the shoreline because that’s where most of the best fishing is, but also there is plenty of sign revealing what goes on along the bank after the sun goes down.
There is one spot off a shallow point where a rotting stump makes a perfect dinner table for an otter or raccoon – the signs indicate both. The base of the stump is glittery with the scales of fish that the otter has eaten there, and all around the stump are the empty shells of freshwater mussels that the raccoon has salvaged in the mud nearby.
Not too far away lays the head of a large bass, no doubt what’s left from a snapping turtle’s dinner fest.
I like to ease into the weedy shallows to fish for bass and pickerel but I see that I’m not the only one who knows this as a good place for the makings of an easy meal. Bullfrogs take their position under the bank and along the shore, and if you think all they eat are bugs you haven’t seen them in action on a warm summer evening. This is a good spot to pull over, sip some tea and observe nature in action, and the show is non-stop. Those big, humble-looking frogs are eating machines, and the list of possible snacks includes anything they can fit in their mouths. Insects certainly top the list, but there’s more – including but not limited to small snakes, salamanders, butterflies and even small frogs. It’s quite a primeval sight to see, these giant green frogs pouncing on others of their own kind and swallowing them with no more notice than a mosquito or deer fly. This kind of cannibalism is not uncommon among amphibians and reptiles – snakes eat other snakes and those same big frogs, but they’ll also take on large fish as well, sometimes larger than they can handle. Over the decades I’ve found a dozen or more huge, black water snakes dead on the shore with a foot-long bullhead or bass stuck in their throats. I’ve even seen a few snakes that actually managed to swallow their oversized prey, or were in the process of doing so.
Fact is it doesn’t pay to be anything small, active and edible if you are near the water. Some of the frogs and small snakes that manage to elude the bullfrogs among the lily pads make a break for open water and are snapped up by pickerel, bass, bluegills, perch and other fish, and of course the turtles sunning themselves on dry logs and rocks will go after them as well.
This predatory-prey thing can go to some shocking extremes, too. Not long ago I was paddling along shore and noticed a young muskrat slinking along the very edge of the pond just where the water meets mud. I was reaching for my camera in hopes of getting a few images when I heard a tremendous splash followed but a short, loud squeal. A huge snapping turtle happened to be burrowed into the mud precisely where the muskrat had paused to jump over a rotting log, and in less than a second the hapless muskrat became the snapper’s snack.
Small pond life is interesting but entirely too short for most participants. I’d much rather observe it than be part of it!
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