5. Some Animals
I’ve seen deer on our land a few times now. The first time I glimpsed a couple across the little gully down below the cabin, sleek and brown with long necks and elegant ears. Black-tailed deer. They hopped like kangaroos, then were suddenly gone, their rustling passage coming back to me for a few moments longer. Now I always peer into the forest whenever I hear rustlings – the forest is usually quiet so small noises are noticeable. Often it is just the big leaf maples dancing in the breeze, but sometimes you hear definite footfalls at night, thudding softly in the grass below the cabin.
There are often signs of these large but fragile looking beasts: deer trails cross our land, and they leave their distinctive two pronged footprints on the road when it is muddy. They are not so shy or rare here, as there is much contiguous forest for them to roam in. I have seen them grazing around houses, and sometimes crossing main roads, taking mincing steps across the bitumen like teenagers wearing too-high heels for the first time.
More rarely these days are the yips and howls of coyotes in the night. The first time my breath caught: T said that there was a fair sized pack of them, by the sound, and I felt afraid. But he promised me they shunned humans, and we would never see them. Still, I was thoughtful, heading out through the darkness to the outhouse, and I watched the night hard.
A little more comforting at night are the orderly calls of owls. They are more complicated than the “boo-book” I am used to in the hills of Adelaide. I’m still learning them. Are they saying, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all!”, in which case it is a Barred Owl, according to my book. Or is it, “Whodoo whoo whoo…” – this is the Great Horned Owl, a fearsome hunter, capable of carrying off herons and skunks.
I haven’t seen any hummingbirds yet, despite hopefully hanging out a feeder. Too late in the season for them, I’m told. Perhaps we need to plants some flowers to attract them first, and next summer we will see them, like flying jewels around the house.
Most birds are strangers to me yet, their songs unfamiliar – though the high shrieks and whistles of raptors are identifiable, and the shrill twittering of wrens, even though they are dressed differently here. There was one bird that I could recognise instantly, even though I’d never seen it before: the Pileated (redheaded) woodpecker. I was washing dishes outside on the porch and gradually became aware of an almost regular echoing sound, like a drumbeat, or footsteps on hollow boards. When I stopped to look for the source of the sound, my eyes snagged on his red head, his jerky, almost mechanical movements full of grace and strength.
Not at all as I imagined, from cartoons of childhood. All those cheerful critters: Woody Woodpecker, Bambi, Yogi Bear, Chip ‘n’ Dale, Wile E Coyote… It is a little embarrassing to realize that my sense of most North American animals come from cartoons.
Walt Disney et al never made much of insects not other small fry, and I was not prepared at all for the beauty of the banana slugs, huge to me, as long as my hand. They are too interesting to be repulsive. There are plenty of flying insects I don’t know, long legged flappy things that rollick around the lamps at night, but in the daytime, high up under the fir trees, they are miracles of precise flight. There are dragonflies and butterflies to admire, and a few mosquitoes to dodge. But the skeets (not mozzies here) are easily confounded by the smoke from mosquito coils – a token of familiarity from Asia.
In the daylight rustles might herald a visit from the squirrel, or chipmunk – they make more noise than you’d think. Much quieter are the delicate garter snakes that can appear by your foot without a sound, their elegant longitudinal stripes in rippling motion, and disappear just as suddenly.
Other animals stop by to visit too, ones that are attached to the human residents along our road. These include horses, ridden at breakneck speed along the road by fearless teenage girls, a friendly dog or two. There are also a couple of goats, Stickers and Elroy, who can be induced into the yard to nibble on blackberries by rustling a packet of Doritos. But they are nosy and brave, and must be watched or they’ll eat books, newspapers, rubbish, anything that looks interesting. Their owner is away at present, so N has a part-time job: as a goatherd.
He must feel a very long way from Hong Kong.