A wild night of wind and heavy rain had flooded the paths in the oak savannah area of the refuge this week. Still, I counted myself lucky to be able to take a nice walk before the rain began again.
Thank to the storm the night before, the river was moving swiftly, carrying logs and debris. I rarely see any noticeable movement on the lazy Tualatin River. Drops from rain-soaked trees along the banks fell to the river, briefly expanded in concentric circles, then quickly disappeared before being replaced by others.
As I stood there, a single black goose flew over the river, reminding me of my ignorance in identifying waterbirds.
While walking to the river, I had seen a pair of Bald Eagles fly to the top of a tall fir overlooking a large pond crowded with ducks and geese. I’d first noticed the eagles because of the modest little chirrup sound they made as they landed. It’s a sound that doesn’t seem appropriate for such a magnificent creature. As for the ducks and geese, they didn’t appear alarmed, though I’m sure the eagles were planning dinner.
I left the eagles and took the path into the woods and out to the wetland viewing platform where I could see several ponds in the distance and a small herd of deer gathered together on the grassland about half a mile away.
On the way back, I glanced to my left just in time to see the eagles land together in a fir tree directly across the river from me. It is hard to miss the bright white plumage of the huge bird. One of the eagles seemed to be sitting low on a nest and the other sat beside the nest, tall and confident. I lingered under the dripping trees for a while just to savor the sight.
The chaos and drama of sunrise at the Tualatin River Refuge a couple of weeks ago (Celebrating the Dawn) inspired me to wonder if sunset would provide equally dramatic moments amidst the masses of water birds wintering there.
It was 3:00 PM when I parked near the highway and hiked up the hill to the visitor center.
From the observation deck overlooking the pond, I watched hundreds of ducks and geese moving about on the water.
I was fascinated by one small duck swimming into the middle of a group of geese, staying there for a few minutes, then moving on to another party of geese, seemingly introducing himself again and again, as though he was making the rounds at a cocktail party
Birds came and went from the pond in bands of four or six and sometimes in groups as large as fifty.
The prehistoric croak of a Great Blue Heron announced his short flight from an overcrowded area of the pond to a quieter spot. It’s not the first time I’ve observed that the Blue Heron seems irritated with the masses of birds wintering in his home.
I shivered as I watched birds noisily jostling for position water or gliding quietly on the surface. There didn’t seem to be nearly as many birds as I had seen rise together at dawn only a few weeks ago.
Like the frog in boiling water, I had barely noticed how quickly the temperature was dropping until my cheeks began to sting and my bare hands to ache. I’d left my gloves in the car.
To avoid the cold wind, I backed up under the overhang of the building, held my hood tightly in place, and continued to watch.
I had been so sure there would be some dramatic end to the day for these creatures, something to match their wild dawn awakening of a few weeks ago. The sun gradually dropped behind the hills, the temperature continued to drop, the cold wind grew wilder, and the birds grew quieter. My curiosity and resolve waned.
Shivering and miserable, lacking the fortitude to last five more minutes until sunset, I quit that cold, windblown place.
I was still shivering as I reached the highway, started the car, and waited for circulation to return to my fingers. On the other side of the highway I saw that many hundreds of birds were gathered on wetlands, more birds than I’d been watching at the pond. As I watched, the sun slipped away and the birds across the highway rose suddenly, and noisily, together. They spread across the sky and flew over my head to the ponds at the refuge. Many of them appeared to be landing at the pond where I had been keeping watch.
This was the main event I’d been waiting for, and I was catching it because I’d given up! There must be a lesson there.
From the warm car, I watched until every last bird appeared to have flown to the refuge. If there were birds left across the highway, it was too dark to tell.
A few days ago I took a short walk in the refuge, just a small break from the digging, planting, and painting I’m doing at the little house I hope to move to one day soon.
Most often I walk in the early morning, when the songbirds are loud and cheerful. On a hot July afternoon they quietly hide from the sun. I only knew the birds were there because of a soft rustling in the bushes and the occasional burst of Chickadee song, though I never saw the singer.
The bunnies barely seemed to notice the heat, or my intrusion, as they nibble on the undergrowth.
The herons didn’t move at all as they napped on their feet at the edge of the pond.
A couple of large nutria were unfazed by the heat while they dived and played in the pond. They reminded me of a morning two weeks ago when I’d watched a young family exclaiming over a couple of beavers. There are beavers at the refuge, so I didn’t risk disappointing them by telling them they were watching nutria..
The water sparkled with reflected sunlight, deep pink water lilies covered much of the surface, and goldfish of all sizes casually toured their own little kingdom. After a few minutes of relaxing and talking quietly, Laura and I noticed something stirring on the other side of the pond. Two adorable little noses poked out from under the Japanese Anemones. After a moment, two cheerful little creatures hopped up on a large rock overlooking the pond.
They were only 20 feet away, directly across from the bench where we sat. Our presence didn’t worry them at all. They looked at us and went on about their happy business. In fact, they seemed to be smiling when they glanced our way.
They began taking turns diving into the pond. First one would dive in, swim down a foot or two, then nimbly hop back up on the rock and shake it off. Then the other would take a turn while his mate watched and waited.
Sometimes the little animals stopped for a moment and watched the pond, exactly as Laura and I had been doing. During those quiet moments they would touch noses and stand very close to each other. I don’t think we were imagining the bond between them.
They ignored us and focused on each other, reminding us of honeymooners. Their shiny little eyes glittered with pleasure and the joy of a hot day playing together in the water. Again and again they dove, and smiled, and played. We were enchanted.
We set about trying to figure out what sort of creature these cheerful little souls were. They had charming little rounded ears, big bright eyes and comical faces. They were not squirrels. Though they seemed nearly squirrel size. Maybe they were something visiting from Kellogg Creek. We’d had Jeremiah the bullfrog living with us for a while. He came from the creek. Whatever they were, they were certainly welcome to play in the sun in our little habitat.
After watching them for fifteen minutes one of the little guys turned sideways. This is what we saw:
“Wait! They can’t be rats! That looked like a rat when it turned sideways!” I said.
We watched for a few more minutes. They were rats, in broad daylight on a hot sunny day! They showed no fear of us. They were perfectly at home!
Right now you are telling yourself that you would have known they were rats from the first moment. Chances are you have seen rats slinking along a wall or running in front of your headlights at night. Maybe you once saw a rat in broad daylight in your own back yard; but if you did, the rat probably flew across the lawn and out of sight the minute it saw you.
Think about what we saw that day; a pair of sleek little creatures in broad daylight, seemingly relaxing at Club Med, flirting with each other, frolicking poolside in the sun, enjoying vacation in every way just short of ordering a Pina Colada, If you saw the same thing, you might not be so sure they were rats at first.
When you did realize they were rats, your prejudices against the creatures might be just a little bit shaken. When you look at a rat’s face head on, the nose isn’t so pointed and the little round ears and bright shiny eyes are darn cute. For just a moment you might wonder why calling someone a rat was an insult!
Friends have occasionally whispered that they had a rat problem. It’s one of those shameful things people don’t like to admit. The truth is, there are rats all over Portland and the suburbs. I’ve seen them in the ivy outside my doctor’s fancy office and running in front of my headlights at night.
The adorable little creatures visiting our pond that day were ordinary Norway rats, the plague of our cities (where food is readily available), and once the carrier of the fleas that spread the plague. Judging by their obvious affection for each other they were likely to live up their species’ reputation of producing fourteen litters a year!
Now that we knew, we could not allow them to stay.
A day or two later I found their den –a convenient hole directly under the bird feeder. I was feeding black oil sunflower seeds at the time, a perfect lure for rats. Even if seeds hadn’t been falling to the ground, I learned that the smell of sunflower shells alone attracts rats.
We tried driving them out from under the bird feeder. We ran water full force directly into the hole. It didn’t matter. Our little lovers were still openly entertaining themselves in the yard. They had become used to moving about in daylight – and they did so love the pond.
A little bit of research convinced me I had done everything possible to make our honeymooners feel welcome.
Dave and I removed all the spent sunflower seeds under the feeder, bought a new feeder with a central cone, and moved the feeder to the center of the lawn. We filled the cone with shelled sunflower seeds to prevent sunflower shells covering the ground. The cone kept the seeds in the feeder and off of the ground. As a bonus, the cone also keeps the food dry in wet weather.
The metal skirt we had already installed on the pole had kept both squirrels and rats from climbing up to the feeder. With no shells and no seeds on the ground we had cut off the rat’s food supply
Just the same, it wasn’t long before they were digging under the feeder at the new location. They hadn’t had time to do much excavating, so we forced them out. Laura stood over the new hole and poured water from the hose, full force. After a few minutes up popped a dripping wet little face wearing an accusing expression that seemed to say, “What in the devil do you think you’re doing!” They gave up on that hole.
Since making changes, to the bird food and the feeder, the neighborhood rats have disappeared. Maybe not truly disappeared, because rats are all around us all of the time. What they have done is return to their nocturnal secretive ways. With no source of food, they will struggle to survive, as wild creatures must.
It was easy enough to stop feeding and encouraging the rats, but we learned something else. We saw them once without prejudice, with clear eyes. They are clever, opportunistic, and sentient creatures, like us. Given the opportunity they will become a genuine problem.
Just the same, if a single pair of them silently crosses the yard to the pond one hot summer night, plays for a minute on the big rock by the anemones, and decides to enjoy a midnight swim, I won’t mind.
If the fish in your backyard pond kept disappearing, you’d get tired of replacing them. You’d start focusing on getting rid of the character who was eating them, most likely a raccoon.
That’s why Debbie and Jerry bought a large Havahart live trap, set it up near their pond, baited it with tuna fish, and waited. Several mornings later Jerry stepped out the back door, saw they had something in the trap, and was immediately disappointed to realize they had apparently caught someone’s black and white cat.
Fortunately, Jerry was approaching the trap from the rear when he realized what he really had in that wire cage.
The back end was all Jerry could see of the little skunk. That was good. It meant the skunk could not see him.
Quietly, Jerry backed away from the cage. He would much rather have dealt with a thirty-pound snarling raccoon than a five-pound skunk. He needed advice.
Clackamas County Fish and Wildlife said, “You have to release it. Take it five miles past the Oregon City limits and let it go.”
“Don’t you have someone who can come out and help me?” Jerry asked.
It’s a skunk in a large wire cage. I won’t be able to get anywhere near it!
“We don’t do that, sir. You have to take it out of town.”
How about a humane way to get rid of it without getting close?” Jerry asked.
“No! You are required to take it five miles out of town.”
Jerry was running short of patience by then, “How about I take it to your offices and release it there?”
“No! Do not bring it here, sir and do not do anything to that skunk! We may send a officer out to your house and make sure you properly release it!”
Jerry had to work that morning but he came up with a plan.
Debbie grew up on a farm in Colton. She knows skunks and she says, “If a skunk can’t see you, it won’t spray you.”
Holding up a large tarp so the skunk couldn’t see him, Jerry tip-toed quietly through the tulips, past the pond and right up to the wire cage. Still hidden, he carefully covered the entire cage with the tarp. Then he used several bungee cords to make sure the tarp was tied down tightly. Next, Jerry lifted the large cage to the back of their small Chevy pickup. The skunk was quiet.
Jerry planned to park the truck in a shady spot at his office and then, after work, take the skunk out of the city and release it.
Sailing down I-205, with the skunk in the back of his truck, Jerry was feeling pretty confident.” So far so good,” he thought!
It wasn’t long before Jerry noticed honking, a lot of honking. Then the driver of a white Toyota flew by and scowled at Jerry. Suddenly Jerry picked up the powerful scent of skunk. Panic took hold of him when he looked in the back of the pickup and saw the tarp flapping in the wind. People in the lane next to him flew by as fast as they could, some of them were gesturing toward the back of the truck. Many were making obscene gestures. Those who passed carried with them the scent of a terrified freeway-riding skunk.
They say that a skunk can spray about six times in a row to a distance of ten feet. But this skunk was really terrified and Jerry swears the skunk never stopped shooting until they arrived at Jerry’s work. In any event, the ten-foot range must have been extended to hundreds of feet behind the truck – what with the wind produced by the freeway speeds.
Jerry made it to work and parked in a shady spot far away from any other vehicles. He told his work buddy, John, the tale of his morning adventure.
“Skunks have never bothered me,” John said, “I’m a single man with a cabin in the woods. Bring the skunk out to my place and let him loose. He’s welcome!”
After work, Jerry carefully tied the tarp down again and followed John out to the cabin. In a pleasant wooded spot they slowly lifted the tarp from the front of the cage.
John stood behind the cage, held the tarp in front of himself, and lifted the door of the cage. The skunk could see nothing but freedom.
He waited. And waited.
Jerry couldn’t see any reason to wait for the skunk to gather courage so he went home.
Now it was just John and the skunk.
John continued waiting for several minutes.
Since he was hiding behind the tarp, John couldn’t see the skunk but he was pretty sure it hadn’t left the cage yet.
He continued to wait.
After a while, John peeked over the tarp, just barely, he was too nervous to pull it back far enough to see the cage.
He continued to wait. There seemed to be no movement from inside the cage.
Then he thought, “Maybe I looked away for a second, the little guy ran out, and I missed it completely.”
So he lowered the tarp a little bit more, peeked further over, and looked into the shiny black eyes of one mad and disoriented skunk. Before John could think, the skunk turned, fired, then proudly waddled off.
Too late John dropped the tarp and ran to his cabin.
It’s twenty years since we built the pond and this was the first winter we’ve had a net over it. The net was great for keeping fallen leaves out, but we were mostly trying to protect our ten-for-a-dollar feeder fish from the Great Blue Heron.
This makes no sense. We built the pond for the heron, not for the fish. The fish are food. We throw the tiny things in the pond every spring and they spend a relaxing summer eating and growing. The heron always gets most of them before the next spring.
And when he does, I feel bad.
The problem is that the fish become pets. By the end of summer they have come to expect to be fed when they see us near the pond. We take pride in their beauty, their health, and their growth. Some of them have interesting and distinctive markings. This is where our priorities get confused. We start with the intention of nurturing wildlife but end up nurturing the food.
Dave wanted to protect the fish this spring and summer, but I thought we should stick to our original intent – welcome the heron and his appetite. Then we took the net off last week and I saw the fish! Tiny babies from last spring have grown. Some of the babies actually hatched in our pond. I recognized the gold one with the large black oval on his back and I saw the white fish that has been around for three years.
I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let them be eaten. The last several years I’ve been lashing four long pieces of bamboo together forming a tic-tac-toe grid. I toss several of the bamboo structures in the pond and hope they discourage the heron. It hasn’t worked so far.
I’m trying something new this year. I attached the bamboo to stakes in the ground near the edge of the pond. That way the heron can’t use his trick of pushing all the bamboo to one end of the pond while he dines.
This morning we were delighted to admire a flock of robins bathing while standing on the floating bamboo.
When the heron comes, it’s a wonderful thing to see. He makes a deep croaking sound as he stalks around the pond. It’s a prehistoric noise straight out of the Jurassic Park sound track. Once in a while one of our clever ideas slows him down for a while, but eventually he will outsmart us. He always does.
Until then, the fish are happy and the robins are loving the bamboo!