There’s been so much interest in the foxes I wrote about last month that I figured an update (with more photos) was in order.
To begin with, there are a few more foxes visiting the yard than I realized. If you read my previous blog, The Christmas Foxes, you already know some of the dramatis personae, to wit:
PATCH: a handsome, very red fox with a bare spot on his right shoulder. Patch appears to be a more mature fox than the others who’ve visited my yard; he’s bigger, with a beautiful brushy tail and a full coat. At first sighting I thought the bare spot was mange, but on closer examination, I believe it may simply be the remnants of an old wound, as he’s not showing any other signs of mange. I’ve also determined Patch is a male, as he is constantly lifting his leg to mark territory in the yard. Fox pee is rather rank, as is fox poo, and it seems to be a habit for foxes to literally “shit where they eat” – in other words, to mark areas where they’ve fed. Fortunately it’s been extremely cold lately, and it’s easy to flick away the rock-hard bits of frozen poo.
WISP: a mangy and rather down-at-heel fox, sex undetermined. Wisp is more or less denuded from the ribcage down, with a naked tail that gives it a ratlike look. Wisp is looking a bit better these days- I’ve seen her/him eat the medicated food, there’s a lot less frantic scratching going on, and in general the shaky, unthrifty look is gone although Wisp is still a straggly creature. I have my fingers crossed that he/she will survive the abnormally low temps we’ve had for the past week.
HOP: a fox with a very bad limp. His/her left hind leg is either broken or very badly dislocated; in any case, it can’t seem to bear much, if any, of the fox’s weight. Hop also has very distinctive “half-moon” muzzle markings.
SHINE, aka KINK: For a while I thought these were two different foxes, but now I think they’re one and the same. I’d remarked in the previous blog about Shine’s very bright coat; Kink has the same vivid, pale red coat, but on closer examination has a distinctive kink about two-thirds of the way down her tail. (I say “her” advisedly, as I initially thought I’d glimpsed male genitalia on Kink, but she and Patch are always together these days, and I am wondering – since fox mating season is nearly upon us – if Kink and Patch are a pair. They have certainly been playing together like a pair, as you’ll see in the video below.) I’m going to stick with the name Kink for this fox – it’s more specific.
HOT MESS: I’ve only spotted this fox once, and only then because it was captured on my new trail camera – a Christmas gift from my husband. Even though I’d like to spend all day watching for foxes, it’s just not possible, so the motion-triggered camera lets me keep an eye on the critters without my being glued to my deck window all day. All night, too – its infrared lens capability lets me film them after dark. Hot Mess is not only mangy (although the fur loss isn’t as advanced as Wisp’s), s/he also has a bum left rear leg. In the video Hot Mess is painful to watch: the halting gait and the furtive air makes me so sad. I am hoping Hot Mess will make another appearance so I can determine how to help him/her.
The most frequent daytime visitors to the yard have been Patch and Kink. I feed birds (I usually have about a dozen feeders going at once), and that means that I also feed squirrels, whether I want to or not. I’ve managed to baffle the feeder poles so the squirrels can’t get into them, but the birds usually knock out enough seed to keep the squirrels coming back (plus there’s an oak tree on the south side of our house, so even if I stopped feeding birds, I’d still have squirrels). Patch and Kink are both very fine squirrel hunters. In my previous blog I recounted an incident of seeing Patch right after he’d made a kill. I was fortunate enough to have my Samsung WB350F camera handy (it’s got a zoom lens that even an idiot like me can use), and that Patch made his kill only a dozen feet from the deck, so I was able to get some very good photos of the aftermath:
Wisp showed up in the yard as Patch was carrying off the remains of his meal, and Patch became quite aggressive, baring his teeth and physically shouldering Wisp until Wisp retreated. The following week I watched Kink stalk, chase down and kill two more squirrels, and a few days after both Kink and Patch were hunting in the yard, although as near as I could tell, they weren’t pack hunting. Kink was in the bushes at the northeast corner of the yard while Patch was about thirty feet to the south under a tree. Both were watching a squirrel feeding near the middle of the yard. Kink began to stalk the squirrel and finally rushed at it. The squirrel ran toward the southwest corner of the yard, then suddenly veered north, toward the tree where Patch was sitting, with Kink on its heels. Patch made a dive for the squirrel, but it eluded him and was able to scramble up the trunk to safety, leaving both foxes looking after it:
Right after I took this photo, Kink bared her teeth at Patch and the two separated. At this point I was still fairly certain Kink was male, but I keep seeing Patch and Kink together, and just yesterday the two of them spent nearly an hour playing together. I was lucky enough to get some footage of that encounter:
The two were in and out of the yard most of the afternoon, usually together, so we’ll see what happens – although I may not get that chance. Work began this morning on my next-door neighbor’s house (they’re putting on an addition), and I fear the construction noise may keep the foxes away. Don’t get me wrong; I want them to stay wary. They always hurry away when any humans are near, and I’ve made every effort to keep them from associating me with food, but having the opportunity to observe and photograph them has been a gift – Christmas or otherwise.
(Note: This is a holiday blog I wrote for my publisher, but liked it well enough that I wanted to repost it here, along with some photos and an epilogue.)
I am standing at my deck doors, peering through a light snowfall. Every one of my bird feeders is busy: goldfinches, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, chickadees, cardinals and titmice jostle with the house sparrows – the guttersnipes of my back yard – for seed. I’m not watching them, though. I’m looking at the very back of the yard. On a rock beneath a tree sits a chunk of hot dog and half a boiled egg. Twenty yards away, beneath another tree, is another bit of meat and more egg. They are my offerings to the Christmas Foxes.
I spotted them the first week of December: one fox brilliant red, with a fine big brush of a tail and slanted amber eyes, the other a ragged wisp of a thing, its tail a rat-like whip, its eyes puppy-vulnerable in the ruin of its face. Mange, I thought. Poor thing, it’s going to suffer when the weather turns cold next week.
The pair had just had an encounter with a gray squirrel. The squirrel had escaped with its life but not its bushy tail, which the mangy fox was eating. The other fox was still crouched, staring at the squirrel as it fled up a nearby tree, and it was then that I noticed the bare patch on the fox’s right shoulder. Ah, it’s got the mange as well. Poor things. I had a little pang of sympathy for the squirrel, too, but not much: if house sparrows are the guttersnipes of my yard, then squirrels are the thugs, stealing from the birdfeeders, digging in the deck planters, raiding my tomato plants.
The two foxes slipped into the underbrush of my neighbor’s unkempt back yard and were lost to sight, and I went to my study to research mange in foxes. I discovered that sarcoptic mange is rampant in the fox population in my area, but it’s treatable with a relatively inexpensive and easily-purchased medication. However, I also discovered that if I were to call animal control to deal with the problem, the foxes would be euthanized rather than treated because they can be rabies carriers. When I contacted a local wildlife rehabber, I was told that under local law, trapping the foxes – even by a rehabber, even to take the animals to a vet – is illegal. This Catch-22 means that the foxes go untreated. The rehabber, in rather veiled language, suggested I do a bit more research.
So I did. I learned where to buy the medicine, how to administer a dose in food, and how much and how often to dose the foxes. While I waited for the meds to be delivered, I began putting out a few bits of hot dog for the foxes, at the back of the yard where I’d first spotted them. I always put the food at the same place, at roughly the same time of day, so the foxes would get used to finding it there. Although I didn’t see them take the food, it was always gone within a couple of hours (and my omnivorous squirrels ignore the stuff, so I can’t blame them). Once I received the meds, I dosed some food and left it out. It disappeared as well, and I crossed my fingers that one or both foxes ate the treated bait. Occasionally I’d spot the foxes in the yard, and took to calling the sick one Wisp and the other one Patch.
Yesterday I walked past the deck doors just in time to see Patch kill a squirrel and sit down to eat it, right in the middle of the yard. Wisp was nowhere in sight. Patch devoured about half the squirrel, then carried it uphill into a vacant yard and settle down with it. Just then Wisp showed up, but to my dismay, rather than share the squirrel, Patch became aggressive, chased Wisp off and then carried the remains of the squirrel away. Sorry and sad, I put out a bit more food just in case Wisp was still in the area. It was untouched through the rest of the day, but in the morning it was gone.
If this was a proper Christmas story, today I would have spotted Patch and especially Wisp eating the food. If this was a proper Christmas story Patch would be sharing with Wisp. If this was a proper Christmas story the foxes might even trust me enough to take medicated food from me, in my sight, so I could be sure they’d eat it and get better and live.
But this is real life, not a story. Wild things play by their own rules. They don’t always share when they’re hungry, they don’t always take the medicine we provide, they don’t show gratitude for or even knowledge of our feeble efforts on their behalf. So I try not to judge them by storybook standards. I accept that this is the state of things, and yet I keep doing what I can to help. I buy the medicine and put the food out and stand in the window and do what humans do best, especially at this season of the year:
I keep watch.
And I hope.
EPILOGUE: I finally saw Wisp eat some of the medicated food, and s/he has been back to the yard a few times. Patch has returned, too, and I’ve spotted at least two additional foxes, a light-furred specimen with a lovely coat (christened Shine) and one with a broken or badly dislocated hind leg (called Hop). My husband gave me an infrared trail camera for Christmas, and I’m hoping to have more photos and even videos to share in the future.
In the world of gardening, you can definitely have too much of a good thing. A few years back, it was a plethora of green beans. A year or two further in the past and it was abundance of tomatoes. But here’s the thing about tomatoes and beans: in addition to being delicious fresh, they can be canned, blanched and frozen, pickled, dehydrated and otherwise stored for later use in a number of interesting and creative ways.
That’s not the case with cucumbers.
Late this spring, some damn fool gardening fairy whispered in my ear that one cucumber plant would not be enough. “The cucumber beetles always get them,” the fairy whispered. “You’ve been lucky to harvest a dozen. If you planted three cucumber plants, that would be nice. Then you’d have plenty.”
Stupid fairy. Stupid me. I listened. I planted three cuke seedlings. And here’s the even dumber thing: I planted three SLICING cucumber varieties. I didn’t even have the sense to plant some Kirbys for pickling. Nope, I planted three Straight Eights. And then, when one of them died back early on, I didn’t just shrug and say, “oh, well – that’s gardening” or even “wow, now I can plant a pickling variety.” I bought another slicing variety and planted it in the vacant spot. Can’t even remember now what kind, but it took hold like a champ.
I went off to the beach for a week in early July, leaving my garden to fend for itself. Most of the plants were fine; just kind of doing their thing at the usual pace, but the cuke vines were growing vigorously and were full of little babies when I left. When I came back, I had more than a dozen full-sized cukes ready to pick. So I picked ’em. My husband and I dined on beautiful fresh sliced cukes in lieu of tossed salad. I made tzatziki. I made cukes and onions with a vinegar dressing. Everything was delicious. But the cucumber plants were still producing, at the rate of a half-dozen every two days.
I started researching new recipes. I wondered if cukes could be cooked, and discovered that they can be sauteed. I enjoyed sauteed cucumbers for breakfast several times. A friend told me they can be stir-fried with chicken. John and I tried that one night and decided it wasn’t half bad – on the bland side, but comforting.
The cucumbers kept on coming. I ate a lot of cucumber sandwiches. I drank gallons of cucumber water. I made a jar of hot-sweet refrigerator pickles. I made two jars of freezer pickles. The tomatoes were beginning to bear fruit, but in spite of my barrier of fencing and deer netting, my neighborhood grey squirrels were making off with the the tomatoes before they even turned green. They strolled right past the cukes without giving them so much as a sniff. The cukes kept on coming. I gave away several dozen. My neighbors started to duck inside if they saw me headed their way with cukes in my hands.
Then I had a brain wave. Since so many vegetables can be dried, why not cucumbers? I got out my trusty dehydrator and got to work, peeling, seeding and slicing cukes. I sliced some thick, some thin, some into strips, some into half-moons. I used up all the cukes I had on hand, and actually went out and picked more. Some I salted, some I sprinkled with herbs, some I dipped in lime juice or vinegar before starting the dehydration process.
And you know – they weren’t half bad. It took approximately five hours at 135 degrees to dry them. The flavor was kind of bland, and while they were fairly crisp when they first came out of the dehydrator, the crispness faded after they’d been stored in plastic bags and the resulting chewiness wasn’t terribly appetizing. I chalked up the dehydrating as a failure, but at least I’d used up all the cukes in the house.
For a while. The vines kept producing. I made pickle relish. I made cucumber and apple chutney. I made cucumber juice: coarsely chop the cukes – peel, seeds and all – and whirl them in a blender until they’re pureed. Put a mesh colander over a bowl, line with cheesecloth, pour in the puree and let it drain – you can put a plate on top and weight that down to speed the process. After a couple of hours, gather up the cheesecloth into a bag and press and wring it until all the liquid is squeezed into the bowl. Discard the solids and use the juice to flavor water, seltzer, cocktails, etc. The juice is quite pretty – a light green – and freezes just dandy.
And still the cukes kept coming. I made more tzatziki. I ate more cucumber sandwiches. I drank cucumber water and seltzer flavored with cuke and lime juice until I couldn’t stand it any more. My cantaloupes started producing and damned if the squirrels didn’t go after those, too, but they continued to turn their little gray noses up at the cukes, even when I cut up a few and tossed them into the yard, hoping to entice them away from the tomatoes and ‘loupes. No good. I made a cuke, cantaloupe and lemon smoothie. It was only okay. In desperation I threw three whole cukes right into the freezer as an experiment. (I’ll check them out in the depths of winter and see what kinds of results I get.)
And now, as we move into the final weeks of August, the cuke vines finally seem to be slowing down. I only got a half-dozen cukes in the past week, and some of them don’t look so hot. The plants themselves are turning kind of yellow-y and limp. I feel kind of limp myself – limp with gratitude.
Will I plant cucumbers next year? Probably. I do love a crisp, fresh cucumber. And some of the recipes I tried this year were pretty good. But I think I’ll just put in one vine next year – a Kirby or some other pickling variety. For now, the thought of eating one more cucumber ANYTHING makes me shudder.
When I set out for Hatteras Island the weather was overcast and a bit drizzly, which meant no sun in my eyes as I drove due east. I was grateful for that. I imagine the route I took, which is only two lanes for a good part of the drive, can be hellish with beachgoing traffic on a summer Friday afternoon, but on an early autumn Monday morning it was quiet and calming. I cranked the windows down and listened to some quiet music and craved some breakfast, but I’d already told myself I’d stop for a good lunch once I crossed the Croatan and Roanoke Sounds into the Outer Banks. Three hours later, right at lunchtime, I arrived. I knew I wanted to go to Sam and Omie’s to dine, and only had a vague idea of its location, but like a homing pigeon I went right to it. I was just ahead of the lunch rush and had my shrimp burger and onion rings in no time flat (a continuation of the ruinous eating choices I made in Raleigh). Then I got back in the car, pointed it south on NC 12 and crossed the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge onto Hatteras Island.
The northernmost part of Hatteras Island is occupied by the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and once you get past it and the towns of Rodanthe and Salvo, the view gives way to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. There’s not much to see but dunes, ponds and the occasional sound or sea view. There was a fair amount of repair work being done on NC 12, partly as a result of Hurricane Arthur’s drive-by back in July, and I had to keep my eyes open to the many, often rapidly-changing speed limits as I headed toward Buxton and the Cape Hatteras Motel, my ultimate destination. After another hour’s drive (and a stop at a grocery store in Avon to pick up a few supplies), I arrived, checked in and got my key to my second-floor oceanfront room from Dave, the friendly manager.
If you look at the photos of the property from the website link above, you’ll see a big dune and a boardwalk to the beach from the oceanfront rooms. Both dune and boardwalk are gone – casualties, I’m told, of Hurricane Isabel more than ten years ago. Beach erosion here has been quite bad, as you can see from this photo of a property right next to the hotel (note the big sandbags at the foot of the property). I’m sure the guys fishing off the deck thought it was great, but the waves breaking around the property’s foundations would have spooked me a bit, particularly at high tide. At said high tide, the porch outside my room was literally a stone’s throw from the water, and you wouldn’t need to throw that stone very hard.
That said, the view from my room was delicious, and once I opened the windows, so was the sea breeze and the sound of the waves crashing. I hauled my stuff from the car up to my room (a bit of a workout, since the motel is a typical Outer Banks mom-and-pop place and has no elevators) and put everything away. The Cape Hatteras Motel isn’t luxe by any stretch – one of my two dresser drawers was stuck shut and an armchair was so seat-sprung you couldn’t sit in it – but it was the end of the season and I was willing to put up with it for the location. There was a long counter with coffee-maker and toaster where I could prep food, as well as a small refrigerator and a microwave, so I made a pact with myself that I would eat two meals “in” each day to try to get my eating habits back on track.
HAH. I was in the land of fried and broiled seafood, not to mention HUSH PUPPIES, which are like crack to me. I stayed in the first night, creating a nutritionally-responsible dinner from my personal stores and enjoying the experience of writing right by the window with the waves roaring just outside (it was a particularly windy night). I was also a good girl the next day and made breakfast and lunch in my room, since I mostly hung around on the motel’s beach, although I did make a short jaunt to Hatteras Lighthouse in its new location. I’m well-acquainted with the structure, having visited it many times in the past and climbed it with John and Margaret on my last visit (when it was still perilously close to the surf line due to beach erosion), but it was nice to see the old girl in a safe place. I drove out to the lighthouse’s previous location and did a little birdwatching (a Double-Crested Cormorant and a Great Egret, neither of which were new to me but were nice to observe all the same) then headed back to the hotel, showered, changed clothes and went to The Captain’s Table for dinner. I don’t remember what I had – a glass of wine and a broiled seafood dinner of some kind which was good – but I made a pig of myself on the hush puppies and then waddled back to my hotel room and wrote for a while, with another glass of wine and some totally unnecessary munchies to keep me company. I went to bed early as I hadn’t slept well the night before (never do, in a new place) and because I was getting up early to go to Ocracoke Island in the morning.
Since Ocracoke is only accessible by air or boat, I did what most folks do and took the ferry. Since I love ferries and was still feeling nutritionally reckless, I stopped at the Orange Blossom Bakery and Cafe and bought one of their famous Apple Uglies, a ginormous apple fritter which cost, I think, all of $3.50. I put it aside while I drove to the ferry station at the very end of Hatteras Island, although the urge to pick at it during the trip was almost more than I could stand. I pulled into the line for the ferry and with about twenty minutes to kill, chowed down on the Ugly. IT WAS DELICIOUS. Kind of insanely delicious, and every bit the size of my whole hand, fingers and all. I ate two-thirds of it and forced myself to wrap up the rest of it up. I washed it down with a Diet Pepsi (OF COURSE) and fortunately had some water to wash the sticky goodness from my greedy digits. About then the folks running the ferry starting directing us aboard, and I was lucky enough to get a front-row position. As instructed, I put the emergency brake on, shut off the ignition and watched as they chocked my wheels.
It was a gorgeous morning for a ferry ride, but I was glad I’d brought my jacket as it was windy on the water. It was a bit too rough to birdwatch – my binoculars kept jiggling from the chop – but I saw the usual Brown Pelicans and Herring Gulls and more cormorants and lots of other seabirds, and just contented myself leaning on the rail and looking. Other ferry passengers came up to enjoy the view and several of them got splashed when the occasional wave broke over the ferry’s nose. The trip took about 55 splendid minutes – if one could travel in a straight line it would take a fraction of that time, but because of the shoals the ferries have to describe a route that’s like an inverted U – and then we were landing at Ocracoke. There’s not much besides the ferry station at that end of Ocracoke Island; you have to drive another dozen miles to get to Ocracoke Village, passing through more of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Ocracoke Village is quaint and rather charming, particularly in the off-season when many of the tourist-y places have closed for the season. Many people park their cars and rent golf carts to get around, but as the village isn’t that big and I have two perfectly functional legs, I didn’t see the point. I parked near the southern ferry docks (where you can take a ferry to Cedar Island or Swan’s Landing), paid a quick visit to the Ocracoke Preservation Museum (where I learned, to my surprise, that figs are HUGE in Ocracoke – another thing to love about it) and then set out walking to the Ocracoke Lighthouse.
It’s a squatty little structure, nothing like its towering cousin on Hatteras, and you can’t climb it, but it still looked pretty in the morning light. Did I mention it was a beautiful day? As it got warmer, I stripped off my jacket to enjoy the sun, but nearly put it back on as I made a side trip through Springer’s Point Preserve, which is a maritime forest and reputedly once a hangout of the pirate Teach (better known as “Blackbeard”). I was beset by mosquitoes a short way down the trail and was grateful I’d brought bug spray, although I wished I’d had the foresight to apply it before starting my walk. The trail empties out onto a soundside beach, and I sat on one of the thoughtfully-provided benches and took in the view before heading back.
I walked back through the village, finally ending up at Books to Be Red and Deepwater Pottery, where I indulged myself in two books about local history, two bars of scented soap, a pretty cuff bracelet and a nice conversation about Snowy Owls with the lady running the shop. Apparently two of the birds visited Ocracoke during the winter and were quite the media sensation. The lady was kind enough to invite me behind the counter to look at the shop’s Facebook page on her computer, where some wonderful photos of the owls were posted.
By the time I finished at the bookstore, it was just after the lunch hour and I thought I’d better find myself something to eat. Many restaurants were closed for the season, but I stumbled upon Dajio, which was open, lucky me. I had one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches of my life there: manchego and Vermont cheddar on country white bread with bacon and green chile chutney. It was so good I could have eaten it twice.
Lunch devoured, I went back to my car and headed back to the northern ferry dock. Along the way I stopped at the Ocracoke Wild Pony pasture viewing site and was treated to a view of a half-dozen or so of the horses, one of which came to a nearby pond for a drink while three Killdeer squawked in the grass close by, as if upset about the pony’s incursion on their turf. Back at the dock, I forced myself to toss away the remains of the Apple Ugly (stale or no, I would have continued noshing on it Because It Was There) and then enjoyed another ride back over the waves to Hatteras. I had dinner in the room, along with more wine, and then enjoyed a solid night’s sleep after so much fresh sea air and sunshine.
The next day I mostly loafed on the beach, reading, taking photos, strolling around and watching the surf roll in and out. I didn’t see any dolphins, which was a wee bit disappointing, and most of the shore bird life was comprised of Sanderlings, Sand Pipers and Willets – all familiar to me. In my rambles I stumbled across the remains of someone’s sand castle, which made a nice photo.
After a shower and change of clothes, I went to dinner at Diamond Shoals Restaurant, which was so close I could have walked to it (but I drove, lazy me). I had a delicious broiled grouper filet with a side of very good green beans and MORE hush puppies, and I was such a pig that I asked for seconds of those. I went back to the motel and packed up most of my gear so I wouldn’t disturb anyone when I left in the morning – the motel, which had been largely empty through most of my stay, was starting to fill up with weekend fisherfolk. I got the car partially loaded and then read for a while before turning off the light and enjoying my last ocean lullaby before I dropped off.
I woke up before my alarm went off and was able to catch a final shot of the beach at sunrise (I’ll share it with you to conclude this post). I dropped off my key at the motel’s still-closed office and drove north back over the Bonner Bridge. I stopped at the Charles Kuralt trail at the Pea Island National Refuge and did a little birdwatching, where I saw a White Ibis, Louisiana Heron, White Egret (all familiar to me) and a Lesser Yellowlegs (which was not, and got added to my birding Life List). I also got chewed up by mosquitoes and had a near encounter with a confident young racoon when I got off the main trail. I stopped for a few minutes at the Bodie Island Lighthouse on Nags Head and then continued on home, refreshed and rejuvenated, my little ten-day solo jaunt a rousing success.
I’m sorry to report that the vegetable garden this year has been almost a total bust.
Right after John and I got the garden planted, I had to go to Tennessee to help my mom get re-situated in her house after several months in rehab recovering from a broken hip. I was away from the garden the entire month of June, and when I got back it just didn’t look as vigorous as I’d hoped. It may have been the weather, which was cool and pleasant for the first part of the month and then soggy with rain in the second. It may have been that I wasn’t there to keep an eye out for stressed plants or bugs or whatever. More than likely, it was just the Will of the Garden Gods.
But I’m blaming the deer.
I’m accustomed to losing part of my garden to gray squirrels and chipmunks. There’s no way I can keep the little buggers out of my yard – I have oak trees, after all, and oak trees mean acorns, which scream “BUFFET!” to my rodent neighbors. But this was the first time I had to deal with deer.
We’ve had ’em in the yard this past fall – pretty things, but they kept eating the hosta and our baby fruit trees. Then we had a long spell of not seeing them, and I assumed they’d moved out of the neighborhood. Silly me. I first realized my error when the fifteen lovely Italian green bean plants I’d put in were about four inches tall. I had come home from my show on a moonlit night and had stood for some time looking at the plants, thinking it was time to stake them. The very next morning I walked out the back door and discovered all but five of them had been bitten off short, with a lovely clear deer hoofprint to show just who the defiler was.
They moved in on my tomatoes next, elbow to elbow with the squirrels and the chipmunks. Even my beloved birds got in on the act – I looked out my kitchen window one morning to see a Northern Flicker clinging to my Black Cherry, pecking one of the beautiful, just-short-of-ripe fruits. I scared it off and picked what I could (delicious – the bird had good taste), but it was a foreshadowing of things to come. I think I’ve gotten less than a dozen tomatoes off seven plants this year.
Every morning I’d come out to find plants uprooted, bitten off and broken. I had a brief rush of lovely little cucumbers and baby patty-pan squash, and several big spaghetti squash ripening on the vine, but then the deer moved in on those, knocking the fruit down and taking big bites before rejecting the rest. Then some kind of wilt carried off all three plants, and that was that.
The one bright spot in all this misery have been the collards. This was my first year planting collards, and I guess the deer don’t like them because they’ve left them alone, along with the brussels sprouts (which may change now that those plants are starting to put out buds). I finally got around to harvesting some collards a couple weeks ago. I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat them all, so I cast around on the interwebs for how to freeze ’em, and now I pass that on to you.
First, go out and pick your collards. You can just snap off the leaves and leave the plant in the ground; it’ll keep producing well into the fall (I have a friend who says he’s harvested collards he had to shake snow off of). Pick a LOT of leaves, because they cook down a lot. I probably got about a peck from my three plants without stripping them. Then you’ll want to give the leaves a good wash, because there WILL be dirt and outriders on them. I filled one of my sinks with cold water and gave the harvest a good soak, then ran each leaf under running water before stripping out the center stem.
Some people use a knife to cut out the stems; I don’t see the need. Just fold your leaf in half, grab the stem and strip it out, like so:
The process goes fast, and in no time you’ll have a pile of stems and another of leaves ready to process. I tossed the stems in the compost bin , then piled the leaves up on a cutting board and chopped them into biggish pieces – about palm-sized, because I like big pieces, but you can cut them as small as you like. Some people cut the leaves up after they’ve blanched them, but to each his/her own.
Set a big pot of salted water to boil. Make a place for your blanched greens to dry; I covered a couple of baking sheets with clean dish towels and then placed a layer of paper towels on top of that (to keep the greens from staining them). Have more paper towels ready to lay on top of the processed greens.
Once the water’s at a brisk boil, drop in your greens, a handful at a time, then set a timer for three minutes. (Other greens take only two minutes, but collards are tougher and need that extra minute.) Once the three minutes are up, take the greens out of the boiling water and spread them on your drying surface. I used tongs for this, along with a flat mesh strainer to catch the smaller bits.
Cover the blanched greens with a layer of paper towels and pat them down to blot up the excess moisture. Leave them for a bit so the water will soak into the towels and the leaves will cool down. I let mine sit for about thirty minutes.
Once the leaves have cooled and the excess water absorbed into the towels (the leaves won’t be completely dry), put them into freezer bags, press the air out of the bags, seal, label and freeze. I got four quart-sized bags of blanched collards out of this harvest – enough for several servings, although I’m perfectly capable of eating the entire bag myself. I do love collards.
I love them so much that I kept back a handful of fresh greens to cook for a quick snack. I sauteed some garlic and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes in some olive oil, added a little chicken broth and brought it to a simmer, then put in the fresh greens and tossed them in the cooking liquid until they were limp, about four minutes. I put them in a bowl, hit it with a shot of vinegar and then enjoyed a bowlful.
Those deer don’t know what they’re missing.
It’s the corner of our guest room, and it’s the site of the final confrontation between a home intruder and me.
The first skirmish occurred last night. I was not involved. I had gone to bed but was still awake, reading, when my husband came in from the living room. “I saw a mouse,” he said. “It was running across the top of our living room drapes.”
“On TOP? Of the DRAPES?” I responded, with my usual keen grasp of the situation. “How could it be on TOP of the DRAPES? Maybe you imagined it.”
“I didn’t imagine it,” John said, with some asperity. “I was laying on the floor and I heard something jingling overhead and I looked up and the mouse was looking down at me.”
“Well, where is it NOW?”
“I don’t know. It ran off. I checked the trap downstairs and it’s been sprung, but there’s nothing in it.”
This is not generally the kind of information one wants when one is tucked up in bed for the night. We keep a pretty clean house and are usually, mercifully, vermin-free, but we do get seasonal incursions – ants in the spring, the inevitable stink bug in the summer, and the odd mouse when the weather turns cold. (There was also this little incident some years ago, but that wasn’t in the house, exactly.) A little more than a week ago I was in the basement and thought I’d heard one between the floors, so John had set our usual trap in our usual spot, and it was this trap that had been sprung. We agreed that we’d pursue the matter in the morning, turned off the light and went to sleep.
About 8:30 this morning I was awakened by a loud, inarticulate shout from my husband – something along the lines of “AUUUROWRGH!” John talks and hollers in his sleep at times, but this shout had a slightly more insistent timbre and was followed by him sitting up. “What the heck are you doing?” I asked, or words to that effect.
“A mouse just ran across my face.”
“ACROSS your FACE?” I was still half-asleep and therefore querulous. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”
(I don’t know how he kept his temper; when one has been awakened by the scuttling of mousy feet over a portion of one’s anatomy, one can hardly appreciate one’s experience being questioned – and this was the second time in less than twelve hours that I’d suggested the mouse was All In His Head.)
“I wasn’t dreaming. A mouse ran across my face.”
That woke me up competely. “WELL WHERE IS IT NOW?”
“I don’t know. I flicked it away.”
We both got up, threw on some clothes and started looking around. John got a flashlight to look under the bed as I picked up shams and decorative bed pillows off the floor. A dark shape scuttled past my feet and I emitted a sound kind of like this and jumped back on the bed. A certain amount of chaos followed; we were pretty sure it had gone under the bed but as we store the extra leaves for our dining room table under there, encased in special zippered covers, visibility was limited. John went off to get a broom for chivvying purposes and I continued to shift things around. I moved the curtains near my bed and once again did the Goofy Yell as the mouse ran past. Again, I didn’t see where it went. We rattled around the room some more but couldn’t find the mouse. Hooray, it’s gone. We baited a couple of traps and put one in the usual basement spot and one in the living room and got on with our day. Since I’m between projects at the moment (actor-speak for unemployed), I was tasked with pulling everything away from the bedroom walls and vacuuming the place thoroughly while John was at work.
I was making my morning tea and John was showering when I realized the house seemed awfully cold. I checked the thermostat, which read 64 degrees, along with the statement SYSTEM MALFUNCTION CALL TECHNICIAN. Great. I inform John that something’s wrong with the HVAC system and place a service call. They’ll be right out – huzzah. John and I swap places in the shower; he decides that he’s going to telework today but he has to fetch his computer from the office about ten minutes away, and will get a couple more mousetraps while he’s out. I’m dressed and already vacuuming by the time the technician arrives. John leaves, the tech gets to work in the basement, I fold some sheets in the laundry room and carry them upstairs. As I’m on the approach to the linen closet, I look into the bedroom and see THE MOUSE, sitting up pert and unconcerned, on the freshly vacuumed bedroom rug. I squawk and it turns, squeezes under my sliding closet door and disappears inside.
I confess to being completely skeeved out by the thought of the mouse amongst my clothes and shoes. I call John on his cell and he tells me to get the baited trap from the living room and put it in the closet. “I don’t want to,” I tell him. I have visions of opening the closet door and having the mouse run over my hand. He tells me to butch up and do it, and I do. Nothing happens. The mouse is lying doggo (oh, look it UP).
I am poised in the bedroom doorway, broom at the ready, fully expecting to hear the sudden snap of the trap at any moment, when the tech comes upstairs to check the thermostat. “Screw on the flame sensor backed out,” he says. “I tightened it and she fired right up.” I know I look wild-eyed and explain about the mouse. He is sympathetic as I sign his work form and see him out the door.
I head back to the bedroom and see THE MOUSE ambling out into the hallway. I let out another Goofy Yell and it darts next door into the guest room, which I have already partially prepped for vacuuming. The bedspread is turned up on top of the mattress, which is a Good Thing because even though I am hollering and brandishing the broom, THE MOUSE is making vigorous attempts to CLIMB UP ONTO THE MATTRESS. Stymied, it runs underneath the bed. Stored beneath the bed is one of those Space Bags – those things into which you stuff your out-of-season bedding, use your vacuum cleaner to suck the air out of and then shove someplace out of the way only to discover later that the damn thing has somehow expanded again and is now jammed tight into the spot where you shoved it. The mouse tap-dances around the edges of the Space Bag but can’t get over it as it is firmly wedged between the floor below and the box springs above. It disappears into the darkness behind the Space Bag. I notice it isn’t moving very smoothly and surmise that perhaps it’s stunned or maybe injured from being flicked off the bed early in the engagement. I grab my cell phone and call John again.
“What is it now?” He sounds less than thrilled.
“The mouse is in the guest room now. WHEN ARE YOU GONNA BE BACK?”
“I’m at Home Depot getting traps. Then I gotta get gas. Put the trap in the guest room and I’ll be home soon.”
I start to argue with him about the trap and THE MOUSE COMES OUT AGAIN. It still wants to climb the mattress. I make an ineffectual jab at it with the broom and it looks at me like “What is it now?” “IT’S OUT AGAIN GOODBYE” I tell John, hang up and stuff the phone into my back pocket. The mouse disappears under the bed again and I stand there in the doorway, broom poised, hurling a steady stream of invective in the direction of the bed. If I go in after the mouse, I’m afraid it’ll just elude me again. I decide to stay where I am. I find that I am shivering even though the heat is back on in the house – some primal instinct has kicked in, and while I have absolutely no desire to kill the mouse, I know I have to, and I’m repulsed by the thought. My invective takes on a pleading quality – “GO AWAY! JUST GO AWAY!” – but it’s to no avail. In a few moments the mouse comes out again, this time at the far end of the room, and hesitates.
So I took its picture.
Yes, I was shaking THAT BADLY.
I put the phone back in my pocket and stand there with the broom raised. The mouse does not move. I lower the broom a little bit. The mouse does not move. I adjust my grip and angle the broom so that it will strike the mouse not with the broom straws, but with the flat plastic base. The mouse does not move. The whole time I am lecturing the mouse, telling it that if it had just stayed outside where it belonged, none of this would be happening – it would be going about its mousy business undisturbed and I would be drinking tea and writing – and the whole time my voice is scaling up and up and becoming more distraught as I realize The Time Has Come. I let out one last whimper, grip the broom tight and slam it down with all my strength.
The mouse is flattened, but only for a moment. It makes a halting, crippled run for the corner of the bedroom, under a little incidental table which holds family photos. It leaps against the wall as if hoping to find an escape. I am making awful noises as I chivvy it out and land one or two good whacks before it backs itself tight into the corner again. I can’t get at it there; the table is in the way. Nearly sobbing, I shift the family photos and use the broomstick to push the gateleg of the table out of the way. Now I have a clear shot at the mouse, but not enough room to whack it with anything but the broom straws. I think about reversing the broom and using the stick end like a pool cue, but I am trembling so that I am afraid I’ll miss and the mouse will get away. I jab hard at the mouse with the straw end of the broom instead, but it only turns its back and smooshes its little face into the corner, like a child in Time Out.
That does me in. I start moaning. I know I’ve hurt the mouse badly; I know if I leave the room to get some more effective killing implement that there’s a chance the mouse will escape and hole up someplace to die and later stink. I see a heavy plastic container in the room, grab it and put it on the floor near the mouse, then began to push and sweep the mouse toward it. The mouse makes a few ineffectual attempts to run, but it’s clearly crippled and eventually I shove it into the plastic container and clap a towel over the opening.
So now I have a partly dead mouse in a plastic container and have no idea what to do. Quivering and snuffling, I put on my shoes and walk outside in the cold drizzly morning with the idea of maybe throwing the mouse in the trash or in the gutter. It’s then that I remember the young red-shouldered hawk that’s been hanging around the neighborhood, and I decide to take the mouse to a place where maybe the hawk will get it. The hawk likes to sit in a small tree in a neighboring yard; the house is currently vacant so I have no qualms about putting the mouse there. I slog through the mud into the neighboring yard, uncap the container and pitch the mouse beneath the tree. It’s not dead; it hops a bit and falls down, hops a bit and falls down, but now I am completely undone and can’t think what to do for it and so go back to my own house crying. I call John and tell him “I got it” and he’s just pulling up to the house and is delighted until he sees how upset I am. He hugs me and tells me I’m a Mighty Mouse Hunter but I’m still a mess. He wants to see the mouse so I show him where it is and then go back inside. I see him bending over the mouse; I see the mouse hop a bit and then John comes back to the house, gets a shovel, goes back to the mouse and does what I was unable to do.
John marked the little corpse with a twig so we can train our scope on it from the deck window. If the hawk comes back and makes a snack out of the mouse, we may finally get a good look at our feathered visitor.
It seems a terrible shame, though. I guess I’m glad I got the mouse – after all, mice are vermin and can carry lovely diseases like the hantavirus – but the image of the mouse with its head tucked into the corner still harrows me. The only comfort I got out of the whole incident was the thought that a hungry young hawk might get an easy meal out of the carnage. But I’m guessing not. As of this writing the mouse is still there, but it’s dusk and we have foxes and cats and raccoons prowling the neighborhood at night. All of them would likely find a mouse corpse of interest. Failing that, there’s a good chance of significant snow tomorrow and the mouse will be buried then and out of sight.
No snack for a hawk, no comfort for me.
I first noticed it was because of the other birds mobbing it. It was hunkered down on a limb in my neighbor’s yard, and a blue jay, a mockingbird and a trio of crows were in nearby trees, screaming and occasionally swooping down at it. The hawk did not retaliate, but instead scrunched down, as if trying to disappear. Eventually one crow got too close, and the hawk launched itself heavily into the air – not to attack, but to flee. It didn’t fly further than a few trees away and then crouched close to the trunk. The other birds continued to yell and swoop as I got out the binoculars and tried to ID the hawk.
I knew it wasn’t a sharp-shinned hawk. They visit the area around my bird feeders frequently enough that I can spot them without binoculars. This new hawk was much larger and heavier. A little snow was falling and the light wasn’t great, but I decided it was probably a juvenile red-tailed hawk – a pretty common bird for my area, but a first-time visitor to my back yard.
John and I had some last-minute pre-Christmas errands to run so I had to leave without a better look. When I got back it was nearly dusk, but I could still see the hulking shape of the hawk, this time in our own yard, and with its back to me. I was able to get a better look at its tail and realized that I’d misidentified the bird – that it was more likely a red-shouldered hawk rather than a red-tailed. The species are not dissimilar and the juvvies are pretty easy to mix up, particularly for someone without a lot of hawk experience. I’m not swearing by that ID – I could very well be wrong again – but the hawk was closer to the house early this afternoon, and both John and I got a better look at it. In fact, John had a fabulous sighting: the hawk landed on our deck rail and stayed there for some minutes. Talk about jealous! I was in the shower and missed the whole thing. How I wished John had been able to snap a photo of the bird, but since he didn’t, this one I found on the internet will have to do.
We’ve seen him/her several more times today, mostly at the rear of the yard or in our neighbors’ trees or on the fence line. My bird feeders have been empty since autumn – I’ve been too busy to buy more seed – but I’d fully intended to fill them up on Christmas. However, having a resident hawk makes me reluctant to do so. I don’t want to set up my little feathered friends as a birdie buffet, no matter how entranced I am by our new visitor. (If I was sure the hawk would only make off with the English sparrows and the European starlings – both invasive, non-native species – I wouldn’t have the first scruple.) John wants to feed the hawk, but unless we catch a mouse or something, I don’t see that happening. I don’t think you can buy hawk feed at the local bird supply store.
Having wild creatures in my yard makes me happy, but having a Really Wild Thing visit, particularly during the holidays, feels like a special gift. I hope the Christmas Hawk hangs around for a while – at least into the New Year.
I’m back after a pleasant few days at the beach in North Carolina – a trip that was a happy combination of idleness and activity. I’m toasted a very light brown due to the judicious application of sunscreen and much hat-wearing, I have the requisite amount of sand in my shoes, and I got my eyes, ears and nose full of beach sights, sounds and smells.
I headed south at the crack of dawn on Sunday. Since I was by myself, the drive was a good opportunity to listen to lots of music from the 1940s and have some creative thinking time. I stopped for gas and lunch south of Rocky Mount, and got into Emerald Isle about 3 PM.
The beach house, which is owned by my sister Margaret’s friend Sue, is situated on the sound side of the barrier island known as the Crystal Coast. However, it’s a really narrow part of the island, so you can walk from the sound side to the ocean side in less than five minutes. I got the car unpacked in quick time, then put on shorts and my spanking-new beach shoes, and walked down to the shore.
I’m happy to report that my L.L. Bean beach shoes performed well. They gave me plenty of support and, beyond some baby-toe blister action on the first day, were pretty comfortable. Of course, no shoe is comfortable when it’s full of sand, but all in all they were a good investment.
Since I felt kind of kinked up after eight hours in the car, I struck off at a brisk walk along the surf line. My landmark is a water tower that looms over the beach access path nearest the house; before I knew it, the water tower was well in the distance and I had walked out of Emerald Isle into Indian Beach, which is the next town north. Since the sun was starting to set, I decided I’d better double back. Round-trip, it was roughly a two-mile walk and the perfect antidote for sitting in the car all day.
As I was walking back toward the water tower, I was kept company by a willet, which spent some time walking in front of me, for all the world like a little gray dog. Next to the sanderling (those little scuttling birds that dart in and out of the surf), the willet is my favorite shore bird. They’re about the size of a blue jay and stride through the surf on long stilt legs, counterbalanced by a long beak that they poke into the sand after mole crabs and small mollusks. Pickings seemed to be somewhat slim for this particular bird; I finally stopped and looked around me and saw evidence that the beach had recently been “renourished.”
The nature of a barrier island is that it shifts and moves according to the weather and waves. This, of course, isn’t good for the people who build homes and businesses on barrier islands, particularly those who cater to the tourist trade. They refer to this natural movement of sand and shore as “erosion.” Periodically, the town fathers arrange for sand dredged from somewhere off the coast to be deposited on the beaches to build them up. This makes for a somewhat gray and shelly beach – and sometimes, a smelly beach. Because the dredged material is full of dead and dying organic matter, and because dumping it on an existing beach effectively smothers the pre-existing sealife at the water’s edge, there’s a definite downside to this practice, particularly if you’re a shore bird. For example, the willets and other shore birds frequently feed on coquina, those colorful little butterfly-shaped mollusks that you see burrowing into the sand as the waves wash back into the sea. On this visit, I didn’t see any live coquina colonies – just the occasional empty shell. I also didn’t see many mole crabs, which are another major food source for shore birds. In fact, I didn’t see as many shore birds as I normally do – just a few willets, the sanderlings, a ruddy turnstone or two and some dunlin. There definitely weren’t as many gulls.
I’m not sure where I fall on this issue, which is a very hot topic for those whose livelihoods revolve around the beach. I sympathize with the property owners, but what good is a beach without its wildlife? I also realize that, as a visitor who wants to stay on the beach and have conveniences such as restaurants, shops and groceries nearby, I’m part of the problem. I mulled the situation over as darkness fell and I walked back to the beach house. I dined on some leftover chicken I’d brought from home, read a large chunk of “Great Hurricane of 1938” and watched some television. Around midnight, I went to bed, and fell asleep to dream of dredging and birds.