FIELD NOTES: SKUNKS, BIRDS AND SOLITUDE – November 2013

Jack ThumbnailBy Jack McShane

Why talk about skunks, the ones that can really stink up a place, not the human kind? When I was a kid if you were lucky enough to capture a very young skunk, although illegal, you could take it to a caring veterinarian and have the scent gland removed and wind up with a very person-friendly pet. Only I and a few natural-world-interested friends thought this was really cool. I was never able to capture one, only to hear stories of others who had and how they could get them trained like a cat to use a litter box and come and lie down on their lap. We don’t see skunks very often as they are very nocturnal in their wanderings, and it appears they are very well respected by other wildlife that might otherwise prey on them. I did catch on trail cam, at a baited site, a coyote going about his business ignoring completely a feeding skunk about five feet away and, another time, watched a neighbor’s dog trail one, keeping a safe 20 foot distance. I presume in both cases this was what might be called “olfactory respect”.

A perfect example of this is a well told story of an observation by my friend, Fred on Holiday/Berry Brook Road, another avid watcher of wildlife, “Several weeks ago I turned on the spotlights around 11 and saw the strangest patterned skunk I have ever seen grubbing around a stone wall that borders our driveway. This skunk had an all white tail and an all white head. The white on its back was also excessive and like a triangle starting at head’s width and widening to virtually its entire back at the tail. While watching this oddity, a large bear appeared from the shadows of our apple tree and stopped about 5 feet short of it. With this the skunk looked briefly up at the bear, but quickly returned to its grubbing, totally ignoring this huge critter. The bear just stood there for a short period and then slowly squatted down lying completely on the ground and continued to peer at the skunk. I should have let this drama go on but instead opened the window and yelled and the bear quickly departed while the skunk proceeded to its appointed task.”

Great sighting and story, Fred, a perfect example of  “olfactory respect”.

One afternoon a good neighbor knocked on my door to say that he had arrowed a deer and that it wound up dead in my woods opposite the driveway and that he would remove it and dress it out elsewhere. I said dress it out where it lies. He did and I then placed a trail cam covering the entrails. To my delight I was treated to a confluence of avian currents attracted to a free meal. A female sharp shinned hawk encountered crows and ravens in drive-off mode. The Sharpy actually did attempt counter attacks which were somewhat successful only to then be attacked by numerous blue jays leading to an exodus. Two turkey vultures sat solemnly high in a tree apparently enjoying what could have been called an avian circus. The cam that I had inadvertently set a little too high caught the backs and heads of all the species mentioned at the buffet except of course Sharpy. At night a red fox appeared for a nocturnal meal of the remaining offal.

photo satiated turkey vultures (1)A quick review of other avian activities: while enjoying the mountain-view from my Adirondack chair one evening the honking voices of conversing Canada geese broke the solitude. They arrived relatively low, a skein of fourteen going the wrong way – northbound. Four peeled off, began to drop, the others seemingly reluctant, followed and the whole flock dropped down into what we call the upper pond. Later as I was about to leave my respite they all rose and continued north – weird or what? A near calamity occurred when a great blue heron lofted out of the Tremperskill and came very close to colliding with my car as I passed over the bridge. I have often commented about the amount of road kill calling our roads toll roads, but there are also the toll windows. These windows have a fatal attraction to our migratory birds, the latest being a beautiful migrating veery,  one of our thrushes. One day I flushed two drakes and a hen mallard from a small pond. They rose in great haste leaving a pair of wood ducks that preferred to waddle post haste into the surrounding forest. I guess that is why they are called wood ducks. They are quite happy and feel safe in the woods; also they nest in tree cavities and even sometimes in my many wood duck boxes especially built to their likings.

There is something to be said about slowing down especially in life. This can be through determined effort or just by getting old. For me it is the latter. I often take a trek, if it can be called that, on my six wheeler to a very preferred destination at the top of my hill. I am so lucky to have such a haven, where as the sun sets on this thin soiled old field, I sit quietly with a cold beer and a hand rolled cigar, bought for me by a good friend when on a visit down to Arthur Avenue in the bowels of The Bronx. The sought-after silence is not always there. There seems an almost constant, although distant sound, emanating from some human activity: an unseen airplane, a truck, a chainsaw, someone’s dog or even something unknown. But eventually there are those few moments where an incredible sound of silence exists, broken only by sounds from nature; a blue jay’s cry, a distant raven, a hammering woodpecker, or, very rarely, a falling limb. All these are OK and even pleasant. The only other place I have experienced such silence was in a deep wilderness of New Zealand. My buddy and I being dropped in by a single engine aircraft on a remote stream bank and thought later that the pilot owner was the only person on the planet that knew where we were, and if something happened to him, what would happen to us? No fear, we were young. At night there was absolutely no sky. There were so many stars that the sky was unseen, blanketed by the stars and total almost unbelievable silence! The pilot did return two weeks later and picked us up along with an arrowed fallow deer.

“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” Albert Einstein  ~