Rain watch

I have mentioned before that a fair number of trees in the woods around here died between last summer and this spring. The forest doesn’t look healthy. A lot of trees of all species on the mountain either never came back in the spring or barely made it out of the winter alive. Even the trees that seem less affected by the heat and drought of last summer don’t seem to have leafed out as much as in a normal year, at least to my uneducated eye.

Some trees are trying. A few pines whose needles all turned brown have come back in part. Some of the trees whose limbs never leafed out have sprouted tight bunches of leaves along their trunks. I suspect many of them will never fully recover and will eventually die, especially if we have another summer like 2016.

One of the hardest hit of species is the dogwood. As far as I could tell earlier this spring, we had only one or two dogwoods that seemed to have survived in reasonably good condition. This is one that grew just inside the woods next to our driveway.

Some vines have grown up into the crown, which makes it look like it still has leaves, but the only leaves on this tree are dead. But this is what I noticed at the base of the tree on Wednesday.

It’s coming back from the roots. It looks pretty good at this point.

Here’s a maple that lost about half of its multiple trunks.

And here’s its base.

I don’t know whether the dogwoods or maples will manage to survive, despite these signs of their struggle to live.

This die-off may be a normal cycle in the northwestern Georgia forest, but I worry.

I also worry about our front yard. I finally got the zoysia seed sown. I filled the ruts and depressions as well as I could, then spread about two inches of rich topsoil. Then I raked it as level as I could, which was not very level. Then I rolled it. Every place I stepped ended up with a deep footprint. I could and probably should have tried harder to get the lawn smooth, but I was racing what I thought was a nice downpour that never materialized.

Now all we have to do is make sure the seed doesn’t get too dry. I have watered lightly – very lightly – twice so far. Our well doesn’t produce at a very high rate, so I am being conservative when I water. I am sprinkling about a third of the lawn at a time, then waiting a few hours before doing the next third. Here you can see the middle third is slightly darker than the ground on either side, a result of watering just a short while before I took the picture.

As I write this on Wednesday afternoon, there is a wide area of rain heading from the southwest up towards us. Based on our history here, I won’t be surprised if we get little or nothing from this system.

Carnage

One of the less pleasant parts of walking the dogs up and down the mountain is seeing all the dead animals that people driving cars almost always overlook. There is a little of almost everything — snails, salamanders, snakes, turtles, birds, squirrels, armadillos, possums, dogs and deer. The dogs and deer are usually murdered elsewhere and the bodies dumped along the road. The rest are victims of our transportation system.

I almost never take pictures of the deceased, but a few days ago I saw a snake that showed no obvious sign of its cause of death (in other words, it wasn’t smashed), and was such a beautiful specimen that I did it anyway.

This is what I believe to be an Eastern Milk Snake. Curious Zeke is in the image for scale. This is small for a mature milk snake, so it is probably a juvenile. According to the linked site, the Eastern Milk Snake and the Scarlet King Snake sometimes intergrade in northern Georgia into Tennessee. Make sure you have followed the link to see the picture of the king snake, it’s magnificent. The coloration of the unfortunate snake I saw here seems to be somewhat brighter than the image of the milk snake, so maybe it’s one of the intergraded snakes.

What a shame.

Snakes alive

Leah and I found a snake crossing the road last week on our way into town. It was stretched out across the centerline of the road. I passed, then turned around and came back. It was around three feet long.

Usually all they need is a little nudge to get them moving, but this one didn’t want to be nudged. He coiled and reared his head as I approached. When I got closer he began to lunge and strike. I was sure enough that it was not venomous that it didn’t worry me, but I still didn’t want his little snakey bites, so I got a collapsible umbrella out of the car to nudge him. No dice. Usually snakes just want to get away; this one just wanted me to get away.

While I was busy trying to move him, my uncle and aunt pulled up and stopped. Uncle Tommy said it was a chicken snake. After googling I found that it was a gray rat snake. Here it is at the side of the road, where it’s hard to see.

It’s actually a beautiful snake. The markings remind me of Southwestern design. I didn’t find anything online about the rat snake’s temperament, but “grouchy” seems appropriate.

Another person stopped. A young man jumped out of the car and ran up to the snake. He looked like he was going to stomp it. I told him not to kill it, but all he wanted to do was hold it down while he grabbed it and tossed it towards the edge of the road. I’m not afraid of snakes, but for some reason I just don’t like handling them. I can do it with gloves, but not barehanded. I know how to pick them up, I would just rather not.

A few days later as I took the dogs out just before dark, we found another snake on the driveway. It was too dark for me to tell what it was, but when it started striking at Zeke when Zeke was still about five feet away, I figured it was a gray rat snake. Zeke barked. I told him not to bother, but he felt it was his duty. The snake eventually slithered off into the tall grass at the side of the drive.

That tall grass is just a little bit worrisome now. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Georgia Poison Control Center says that snake bites are up 40 percent over last year, mainly because of a mild winter (what winter?). Copperheads seem to be the worst culprits. I’m not a herpetologist, but I knew the rat snake was not a copperhead. The rat snake’s head is small relative to its body. The copperhead’s head is larger, like an arrowhead.

The tall grass at the side of our drive is the result of seeds that were in the wheat straw I put all over the yard last year. I imagine it provides an ideal environment for snakes. I have been avoiding getting into that grass mainly because of ticks, but now I need to worry about snakes as well.

It was almost a relief on Wednesday to see this little green snake on the dogs’ morning walk.

This snake acted like he was supposed to. I nudged his tail and he slowly edged his way off the road.

When is a blade of grass not a blade of grass

I have been happy to learn that we have lizards around our new house, just like the old one. I have been unhappy to learn that the cats still kill them. I saved what might have been an eastern fence lizard from Sylvester on Wednesday. Sly was casually lying in the driveway, not showing any real interest in the lizard lying equally motionless about 18 inches away. I wasn’t sure it was still alive, but I scooped it up in a plastic container and dropped it near a pile of rocks on the other side of the driveway. The lizard disappeared very quickly under the rocks. One lizard saved, but since I didn’t have a camera or my phone with me during the rescue, I don’t have any documentation.

After the rescue, I took the dogs down the driveway. At the bottom I noticed a blade of grass at the edge of the pavement. It wasn’t a surprise, since there is a fair bit of tall grass that has sprouted from the wheat straw I scattered all over the yard. When I got closer I realized it wasn’t a blade of grass at all, just a green anole pretending to be one.

Dos coyotes

Wednesday night when I took Zeke and Lucy out for their next-to-last walk of the evening, I saw two ghostly shapes down in the front of the yard. Zeke saw, smelled or heard them right after I did, and unleashed an unholy uproar of barking and lunging. Leah said Sam was inside pacing and whining as this was going on.

They were coyotes. I wasn’t too surprised that they were there, but I was surprised that they didn’t immediately run away. Zeke continued to bark and lunge. I was barely able to keep him from breaking loose from my grip or pulling me off my feet. Still the coyotes didn’t run.

Ordinarily I would have dragged Zeke back up to the house but this time I wanted to scare the coyotes away. It didn’t work. They paced back and forth staring, but didn’t retreat, even when Zeke managed to drag me 20 or 30 feet down the driveway towards them.

After about five minutes I gave up and pulled Zeke back up to the house. I got a big flashlight and a sturdy stick about four feet long, just in case, and then I went back outside. The coyotes were still there, watching. I advanced on them, shouting, “Get!” which I doubt they understood. I did expect them to figure out the meaning from my tone of voice.

They did finally retreat into the woods at the side of the yard, staying just out of sight. I banged the stick against a few trees, and I could hear them running around. Despite what you might think, wild animals make a lot of noise thrashing through the dead leaves on the forest floor.

I went back to the middle of the yard and shined the flashlight into the woods. I could see the coyotes’ eyes reflecting back at me. They circled around to the front of the yard where there is a narrow border of trees between the open yard and the road, and there they stayed. I gave up and went back inside.

It was too dark to take photos, and they were too far away for a flash to work. I might have been able to finesse it given time and a lot of cooperation from the coyotes, but that was not going to happen.

In my admittedly limited experience, coyotes do not stay around when humans appear. The first time I saw a coyote around the mountain was when I walked Zeke into the woods at the top of the mountain and let him run free. He disappeared down the side of the mountain for a while, and then came back up running side by side with a coyote. When the coyote saw me, he immediately turned and fled.

Another time I saw a coyote on Fouche Gap Road ahead of me and the dogs as we walked down into Texas Valley. It also quickly disappeared when it saw me. The next most recent time was about a month ago when I saw one running across Lavender Trail near the bottom of our driveway. It glanced at me and kept going.

One reason a coyote might not flee a human is rabies. Early this month a coyote attacked and bit a runner near Atlanta. According to news reports, the coyote tested positive for rabies. How did they catch it? The runner grabbed it and held it down until the police arrived.

I was pretty sure the two I saw in our front yard weren’t rabid. There were two of them, which I assume would be unusual if one or both were rabid, and they didn’t appear aggressive, only somewhat unsettled but hesitant to leave. My suspicion is that they have a den nearby, possibly in our front yard. There is a pile of trees left from when the building site was cleared, and I have seen (from a distance) a dark area that might be a recess or an opening into the pile. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) says that coyotes den in excavated holes or brush piles. One night a month or so ago I noticed two eyes reflecting back from the woodline at the front of the yard. I couldn’t tell whether it was a fox or a coyote, but now I suspect that it was one of the two I saw Wednesday night.

Coyotes are not native to Georgia. I never saw or heard, or even heard of a coyote when I was growing up, and we roamed the woods a lot. It has been only relatively recently that they began showing up, probably around the same time that armadillos began showing up as roadside kill here. According to the DNR, coyotes are filling an ecological niche left vacant when humans killed off the native red wolf. People, especially natural-world-challenged city people, are typically afraid of coyotes when they see them. They often panic and call the police. That usually leads to having some kind of animal control official trap and kill the coyote.

Since coyotes are not a native species in Georgia, there is no closed hunting season on coyotes. Lately the state has been encouraging hunters to kill as many coyotes as they can by offering a drawing for a lifetime license. The official entry is a coyote carcass. The reason for this is to try to increase the number of deer available for hunting in the state, although it does not seem that the deer population is threatened by coyote predation. In fact, according to the DNR, the deer population in Georgia is about 1.2 million. The DNR also says, “… deer densities in some localized areas have the potential to inflect significant damage to forestry, agricultural or horticultural crops, home gardens, and shrubbery.”

I have mixed feelings about coyotes raising a litter in our front yard. I actually like having coyotes around, just like foxes, deer, raccoons (not eating cat food), possums (not eating cat food), and other wildlife. It would be neat to see the pups in the front yard. But I don’t want to have to worry excessively about having a coyote take one of our cats, as we suspect happened with Zoe, our late white cat.

Maybe I don’t have to worry about that. Maybe they aren’t denning in our front yard. Maybe they were just thinking about it, and maybe all the commotion convinced them to move. The DNR says coyotes usually mate in late winter or early spring. That’s pretty much right now. That doesn’t give them much time to find a new home.