summer dramas and ballets

When you live in one place for a long time — it’s been around 33 years for us here in the house we built near Sakinaw Lake (I say “around” because we bought our property in 1980, spent as much time as possible, more than half of most weeks, here until we “officially” moved to our unfinished house in the fall of 1982) — you notice the small and large dramas of those you live amongst. Lately we’ve been watching mud-daubers fill their nests with spiders for the larvae to feed on until they become long-waisted wasps themselves. It’s a bit creepy but also really interesting. Last night we must’ve been right in the flight path as one gathered spiders from under the deck and then flew to the small nest it had built under the eaves of the deck where we eat our dinner. It kept flying right by me but they are quite benign and although I moved my chair a little, I didn’t feel threatened. Not the way I feel later in summer when the vespula wasps (hornets and yellow-jackets) come to the table while we’re eating, landing on any kind of protein. They love the skins of barbequed salmon or roast chicken and they’re quite aggressive. I know, I know. They have a place in the scheme of things (and I love to watch them eat scale insects off my lemon tree) and they mostly go about their own business until late in the season when they seem desperate for meat, even humans.

The Roosevelt elk in our area were introduced in the late 1980s, though most people agree that this was part of their range until they were extirpated in the 19th c. The idea was that the elk would move up and down the big Cheekye-Dunsmuir power line and forage on maple and other brush that was being removed at that point by herbicides. Every time B.C. Hydro applied for a permit to spray or hack and squirt some terrible toxin in what was actually watershed, people understandably got upset. It was hoped that the elk would be part of a natural solution to the problem. And I think they were but no one expected them to settle in quite so happily and make themselves at home in local orchards, a market garden, the golf course…

I don’t like it when they eat the vines on the side of our house or essentially our whole small orchard (this is partly the subject of my work-in-progress, “Euclid’s Orchard”) but it’s always a thrill to see them. They’re huge. Some nights when we’re driving home from dinner with friends, we see them crossing the highway, 20 or more, the heart-shaped yellow rump patch glowing in moonlight. Or we encounter them while we’re hiking, a long fluid line of them disappearing into the woods when they catch our scent or see us in the distance. Last week we saw two cows, one lying down, and the other standing near her. They were on the other side of the cutline but didn’t move. I wondered if there might be a calf nearby. (The females leave the herd to give birth and return 2 or 3 weeks later, once the young one is mobile enough to keep up with the herd.) Elk are creatures of the ecotone, the transistion area where two ecological biomes meet. In this case, there’s a wide grassy corridor under the power-lines, scattered with thimbleberry, salmonberry, elder, wild gooseberry and currant, ocean spray, and other deciduous shrubs, bordered on both sides by dense woods. The grass is as golden as hay right now. Where the cows rested and watched us was perhaps a quarter of a mile away.

This morning we went for a walk in that same area, early, to avoid the heat. We kept an eye out for the elk but didn’t see any. Then at one point on the gravelly trail (the Suncoaster trail system utilizes old logging roads and Hydro access roads), we saw many many recent tracks on the dusty ground as well as very fresh scat. (It was still wet and when we returned that way 40 minutes later, it was dry.) I loved the stories in the tracks. A few really large ones — the bull? — and many slightly smaller ones. And then really small ones, tiny ones, the prints of calves who’d recently joined the herd with their mothers. The air was full of the scent of elk, as pungent as horses. Had they paused to take the sun? Were they watching for predators (there are bears up there and coyotes, the occasional cougar, and sometimes even wolves)? Or was this a social moment, calves shy by their mothers’ sides, and the herd (or harem it is really) accomodating new members in sunlight while ravens circled, red-shafted flickers feeding on ants and other insects in the dry grass, and no bears or coyotes in sight? Here are some notes towards the wild choreography, the fancy footwork. And the score? Oh, something moody and sweet, featuring woodwinds, particularly the flute and the oboe d’amore!


6 thoughts on “summer dramas and ballets”

  1. Here in the heart of downtown Toronto – sparrows and skunk, many intrepid clever fearless raccoons and squirrels, and mostly crazy neighbours on all sides – the thought of elk and elk tracks is a marvel. I am listening to one of my neighbour who must originally be from New York, I can tell by the accent, jabber on the phone, as he does a great deal on his balcony. My version of exotic elk.

  2. I love that there’s someone else out there who enjoys watching the tinier wildlife as much as I do. I’ve watched the mud-daubers for years, but never yet managed to see one of their nests. We have tons of spiders too, but I have yet to see the mud-daubers gathering them.
    Some bald-faced hornets decided to construct a nest right beside my garden path this spring, and much as I’d have liked to observe them (and enjoy the reduction in crop-eating bugs), I had to remove them. I didn’t want to be responsible if someone got stung. Felt terrible doing the deed though. Consulted someone about how to move the nest, but in the end, the way it was attached to a mess of vines made that impossible. How exciting about your elk sightings!
    Love your closing image of the herd/harem gathered in the sunlight while red-shafted flickers flit and feed on insects in the dry grass. Beautiful! I can almost smell that grass. And hear the oboes too!

    1. Is that we just have more time to pay attention, do you think (and for some reason I have wonky formatting so can not use contractions…I just get weird coding instead of punctuation marks. So please excuse formality — not intended…) Today I watched at least four species of bees in the pot marjoram — we call it oregano here — which has naturalized itself all over. The bees love it. I have always watched them with interest but maybe not such close interest as now. Each a discrete and individual beauty.

      1. The bees and their kin go crazy over a sunflower species in my garden every August. I’m always amazed at how many different bee species show up together, along with a variety of flies that masquerade as bees.

      2. Today I was watching some bees on the pot marjoram blossoms while I drank my coffee. There were several species of bumblebee — or colour phases of a couple anyway; it seems that some have several different colours! — and then a huge yellow one came along. I think it was the yellow-fronted bumblebee (Bombus flavifrons: I have a field guide but it’s sometimes hard to be certain). And then I noticed that some of the bees have pollen baskets and some don’t. So there’s more to figure out! They’re so purposeful, though, that it puts me to shame.

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