redux: “tree frogs/are ignoring their ladders”

Note, 4 years later: another dry May. I’m sitting at my desk, sleepless (because I’ve just returned from Ottawa and my body’s clock has yet to find its coastal sequence), looking out at stars and the waning flower moon. A quick walk around the garden when we got home late yesterday afternoon revealed an almost scary jungle out there, roses and poppies blooming, and evidence of a bear’s visit.

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We’re promised a hot dry summer here on the west coast of British Columbia and I believe it. Almost no rain for the whole month of May, plants three weeks ahead of themselves, the tomato vines laden with blossom. I think of W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic poem, “Barometer Reading”, with its beautiful opening lines:

Nothing can be inferred

from the forecasts

Tree frogs

are ignoring their ladders…

Here’s yesterday’s tree frog, climbing the railings to settle among the honeysuckle:

P1120003And a further prediction of the hot summer to come — an abundance of the northern alligator lizards, basking on rocks, scuttling from woodshed to cool border, and even mating on top of the old kindling pile (it lasted hours!):

more than friends

Reading the Lone Pine Field Guide to the Mammals of British Columbia

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Weasels have an image problem: they are often described as pointy-nosed villains, and the name “weasel” is frequently used to characterize dishonest cheats.

This morning, a face at the bedroom window, a tawny curious face, with bright eyes. The weasel was stretched along a cable of trumpet-vine, as surprised to see me as I was to see it.

Despite its abundance, the Short-tailed Weasel is not commonly seen, because, like all weasels, it tends to be most active at night and inhabits areas with heavy cover.

The other morning, on the patio, darting in and out of the wood-shed, climbing the laundry stoop (as I have climbed it hundreds of time, with baskets of sheets and towels). And is this the animal I’ve heard for weeks now, at night, racing across the roof just under the eaves by my bed? Sometimes I hear mice but this wasn’t a mouse. And it was too swift for a raccoon, too grounded for an owl. The sound too loud to be a Little Brown Bat waking from its roost between the fascia boards and the wall.

Habitat: The Short-tailed Weasel is most abundant in coniferous or mixed forests and streamside woodlands. In summer, it may often be found in the alpine tundra, where it hunts on rock slides and talus slopes.

Or on homesteads on the Sechelt peninsula where it can be found on blue metal roof-tops, on trumpet vines reaching across the expanse of bedroom windows, in wood-sheds where the family barbecue waits for the next party and where some fir logs are stacked, fragrant with pitch, the bin of kindling split from cedar shakes salvaged from the old roof an occasional trap for mice and lizards.

Food: mice, voles, shrews, chipmunks, pocket gophers, pikas, rabbits, bird eggs and nestlings, insects and even amphibians. They often eat every part of a mouse except the filled stomach, which may be excised with surgical precision and left on a rock.

Three blue eggs, almost ready to hatch, from the robin nest above the beam carrying the wisteria across the patio to the porch. And, oh, where was the tree frog that usually greets me at the hot-tub in the morning, the one I’ve moved (for its own good, I tell it, knowing, even if it doesn’t, that chemicals aren’t good for creatures with such porous skins, skins needed for their respiratory processes) – moved to an old bathtub pond, moved to a trolley of verdant kitchen herbs, to a bowl of water growing scouring rush, to a collection of potted roses with damp soil. (“These weasels are quick, lithe, and unrelenting in their pursuit of anything they can overpower.”) A small green tree frog, poised on the edge of a hot-tub, its pale grey throat pulsing?

Young: In April or May, the female gives birth to 4-12 (usually 6-9) blind, helpless young that weigh just 1.8 grams each. Their eyes open at five weeks, and soon thereafter they accompany the adults on hunts. About this time, a male has typically joined the family. In addition to training the young to hunt, he impregnates the mother and all her young females, which are sexually mature at two to three months. Young males do not mature until the next February or March – a reproductive strategy that reduces interbreeding among littermates.

I remember a tiny dead weasel, left at the sun-room door many years ago, how its tail was tipped with black, and its eyes were closed, as though sleeping.

 

Last year’s doe…

John called down, “There’s a deer right below my window,” and looking out, I saw her, arching her body to pee on the soft moss. I’m pretty sure it was last year’s doe, the one who came most mornings with her fawn,

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pausing to nibble grass, the tips of roses, the clumps of daylilies (which, sure enough, were eaten in the early hours). And looking again, I saw that fawn, now a yearling, reaching up to eat the new leaves, just buds really, on the Japanese maple. I went out the back door and chased them off. I love to see them but I haven’t quite finished lifting all sorts of plants — iris, daylilies, and other things these visitors feast on — to replant inside the deer-proof fence that surrounds the vegetable garden. More and more, the garden has to be contained or else elevated to save it from the deer. We used to have dogs. They lived outside — there’s a cedar-sided insulated house John built for Lily, with its own sign — Cave Canem (Forrest was studying Latin…) — and she loved it but Tiger was claustrophobic and would only sleep in the open or, in cold weather, on little nests of dry grass under the house (ours is built on footings, on rock…). If we tried to make things more comfortable for her by putting blankets under the house, on boards to keep them — and her — up off the ground, she’d wait until we went away and then she’d drag them out. She wanted a bed of her own making. Like Lily, Tiger slept with one ear open for animals and we’d hear her barking at dawn, as the deer came near, or else in the night when the bears inevitably came for crabapples.

So no dogs means deer in abundance, or at least in the years when they are abundant. (When they’re not, it’s one sign that cougars are around.) And a bear, last year, grazing on sweet grass and, later, the crabapples. One night this winter, I went out on the deck to look at stars and surprised two deer at the foot of the grapevine growing up over the trellis. Not far from here, as the crow flies, the poet Tim McNulty has written beautifully of deer:

And the nights I sat at my desk unknowing,
and the lamplight
found its way through the frost-lit trees,
what, if anything, did it mean to her
–nipping at her winter coat
to make a bed for the fawns,
sharing our water for a time.

— from ‘Three Poems for Deer”

I’ve just come in from the vegetable garden where I mulched the garlic bed with compost

garlic

and saw a tiny tree-frog nestled among some dead leaves and straw, almost exactly the same colour as the straw:

tree frog

It’s the time of year when things happen so quickly. A few days ago, I noticed some clumps of primroses in bud. Today they’re in bloom.

primroses

I don’t know what kind these are — I bought them years ago at a community plant sale where (mostly) elderly gardeners brought divisions of irises and old roses and rhubarb and to them I am grateful for my old-fashioned and unnamed moss roses and vigorous horseradish roots — but they remind me of the wild primroses growing in the fields in Ireland when I lived there nearly 40 years ago. There was so much folklore associated with them and I remember various stories about their magical properties, as well as their medicinal ones.

Guard the house with a string of primroses on the first three days of May.  The fairies are said not to be able to pass over or under this string.’

–From the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin. NFC S.455:237. From Co Kerry.

There are lots of myths associated with deer too. Long associated with Artemis (we all know what happened to Actaeon), they were also credited with nursing abandoned babies and would-be saints, had powers of divination, were spiritual guides, and were considered emblems of decorum and kindness.

Though, until this morning, I’d never seen one pee.

 

red in tooth and claw

I’ve always loved tree frogs. They remind me of jewels, such a beautiful green — when they’re green; sometimes they’re brown or as it turns out grey when they’re tucked behind the umbrella nest of paper wasps (Polistes spp.). In an earlier post, I said I thought that one of the several who live on the upper deck had actually eaten the caretaker wasps of the two nests in a little corner where the sunroom meets the exterior wall of John’s study. And cleaned out the cells of the larvae too. There’s still an active nest above the door to the sunroom —

P1120142but for how long? Today there were two frogs on a tomato pot, resting (or digesting) behind some of the leaves. Just now I was watering another deck and this little frog climbed out of the wicker planter where nicotiana is growing:

killer frogIs it just coincidence that the paper wasp nest by the sliding doors out to that deck is empty? Hmmm.

When the vines began to climb the side of our houses, the Rosa canina, the trumpet vine, the honeysuckle, the wisteria from John’s grandmother’s garden in Suffolk, we woke early on spring mornings to the sound of tree frogs (these are Pseudacris regilla). At first we heard just one. We called him Luciano because he had such a big voice. Then we realized there were more so we called him — them — The Tenors. One night I got up to pee and while I was washing my hands, I saw that one was clinging to the mirror above the sink — this was before we kept the sunroom door closed, before the weasel came in and raced around the house, before the cat brought a huge garter snake into our bedroom where we found it curled and frightened in a corner below some bookshelves, before the mice, before the bats came in to hang from the curtain rod and then fly around in the night like something out of a horror film. Anyway, there was one on the mirror and as I gently coaxed it into my hand to take outdoors, I asked it if it was my prince. (I didn’t kiss it.)

It’s hard to think of them in quite the same way now that I know, or at least suspect, they terrorize the paper wasps. But then, wait, I’ve changed my mind about the paper wasps over the years. I’ve realized they’re not aggressive (though they can sting, if threatened), that they are good pollinators, and I’ve watched them clean my roses and other plants of aphids, scale insects, and other pests. They’re quite elegant, with their long legs and slim bodies. I’ve learned that they all have very distinctive faces and a highly-evolved ability to recognize the facial differences of each other. So the more you know about something, the more you are likely to appreciate its unique place in the ecosystem.

The more you know about something — that my beloved little princes are not as benign as I’ve always thought? Exactly.

“Where shall we our breakfast take?”

Some surprises today as I watered and picked a salad for our dinner:

our supper

The first was where the tree frog was taking its rest, out of the direct sun. (You can see its back and lower legs just below the nest on the right.) What on earth was it doing tucked in behind two small paper wasp nests?

a frog's breakfast

See how grey it is? And no wasps, though they were certainly there yesterday. I was curious to know if frogs eat wasps and it turns out they do. I’m not sure this one ate the caretakers of these nests but maybe it made its breakfast of the pupae. I know it might seem odd to allow nests in an area where we spend a lot of time but these particular wasps are not very threatening. In early summer, while we drank our morning coffee very near this wall, they’d pass us as they built their nest and never once showed any interest in us. Not like yellow-jackets which are kind of annoying this summer (their populations are cyclical and this year there are a lot of them). The paper wasps feed on nectar but they bring back insects to feed their brood. Aphids, caterpillars, and even the scale insects off the leaves of my Meyer lemon. And the nests themselves are architecturally beautiful — the cells are so uniform and clean and the paper itself is a marvel.

Yesterday this frog jumped out of this pot while I was watering the tomatoes. And it was deep green!

yesterday

There was a cloud passing as I watered and when I looked up, I saw these ravens circling:

three ravens

I wonder if it’s a coincidence that they’ve arrived just a day after we were visited by a doe — I think the same doe who has been coming many mornings with her twins. But yesterday she only had one fawn. There are all kinds of reasons for a fawn to die young, the local coyote family being one…And maybe the ravens are hanging around for their share, “downe in yonder green field.” I love the Child ballads and found myself humming this one as I finished the watering.

There were three rauens sat on a tree,

They were as blacke as they might be.

With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

The one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we our breakfast take?

Downe in yonder greene field,

There lies a Knight slain under his shield.

                              — Child 26

the living

On this morning’s walk, I saw signs everywhere of the living. A few weeks ago, it was the dead — the spawned-out salmon, the skeleton of an elk, even my own heart feeling emptied somehow. (Christmas over, children gone back to their daily lives, the tree undressed and put on the burning pile…) But today — a chorus of frogs loud in the woods, these woods —

these woods— and two ravens klooking loud overhead, full of intention (and possibly nesting nearby). Swelling buds in the salmonberry thickets, though it will be another three weeks (I predict!) before the first cerise petals ease themselves out of the sepals. And in the garden, the first primulas in bloom, low among the leaves,

primulaand enough shoots of fennel to flavour a salad,

fennelwhich might have a few leaves of red-veined sorrel:

saladWhile I was looking at new life in the garden, a tree-frog was singing hopefully nearby, though I couldn’t find it for a photograph. Every year they lay eggs in the old bath-tub turned into a garden pool and every year I find them among the parsley or curled up in the cool green garden hoses or climbing the window by the dining table. Here’s one from last year and it might even be the one I heard singing:

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A rose by any other name

Years ago I planted a white rugosa rose at the foot of a post supporting the little area of deck outside my bedroom window. The rose didn’t do much and when its rootstock took over, I let it. It competes with honeysuckle and trumpet vine for wall space but what a competition — the honeysuckle will begin to bloom just as the rose is finishing and the trumpet vine takes over a bit later in the season. The tree frogs love this tangle of green and often chorus away in their surprisingly big voices. (We used to refer to the one we heard as Luciano but then realized there were more so now we simply call them The Tenors…)

I think this must be Rosa canina, the dog rose. And for about two weeks in late May- early June, it’s a tumble of these soft pink blooms. loud with bees.

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