it’s a jungle out there

…no, really, it is!

When Rhett Butler left Scarlett O’Hara, he told her he was…

(c) carol joy shannon 2019

“…going back to Charleston. Where I belong.”

When I moved to Charleston in 1991, I was coming back to the South, where I belong. I’d been too long away from the blackwater swamps and spartina grass.

And when I moved back to the Lowcountry, again, in late 2014, from some time back in Europe and some around my husband’s roots in Raleigh — we moved into a little jungle.

my favorite spot

We live in a tiny town at the edge of the ACE Basin, and if you’ve never heard of the ACE Basin, there is a link below.

300 years ago there were thriving rice plantations all around, and people traveled up and down the rivers, rather than roads. We are surrounded by water. And even though the rice fields are no longer always flooded, the estuaries — fresh, brackish and salt — teem with life.

It really is a jungle. Vines the size of my thigh hold up ancient trees, some dead and fallen away, and support nests and other flora. Squirrels, possums and raccoons run up and down them. Armadillos and nutria skitter around the banks of the creeks. Alligators can’t be ruled out.

giant grasshopper (Floridians know these guys, too)

I don’t like all the wildlife. I have a friend who is an Albert Schweitzer about wildlife. But you can’t kill all the stuff you don’t like, either. Some of it is just too prevalent, plus it has a place in the ecosystem.

However, when the gigantic grasshoppers start eating my pepper plants, they have to go. But they are hideous to kill. They’re as large as mice. And they watch you. If you catch them unaware and try to knock them out of a plant, they hang on like demons.

And armadillos are disgusting. They’re like huge, armored rats. And they smell. And dig up the yard. So those have to go, but they’re even more trouble to get rid of than the gigantic grasshoppers.

The raccoon that has established our yard as his personal buffet is a pain in the neck, and fearless. So I porch the cat at night because of him (and the foxes), but I admire the racoon’s tenacity and ingenuity. They really are clever, and they have thumbs, so…they are amusing.

this is 3 feet from the porch – no fear

The foxes have multiplied. I’ve seen one fox, since we’ve been here, passing through the yard now and again, usually after storms. But this summer I’ve seen two, together. And they may have made a den in part of the woods just off our yard. There are fewer stray cats around, too, so….

…I will be watching for cubs… we all know how cute those are….if they survive the hawks.

There’s been a nesting pair of red-shouldered hawks nearby since we moved here, too.

They may be responsible for the disappearance of our beautiful snowshoe cat the first year we were here, though my husband blames a bobcat. But, I am sure the hawks are the reason I only see the occasional rabbit.

baby anole – they’re cute, but they eat the morning glory leaves and the green bean leaves…..:-(

The birds are my favorites, even so. There are now 3 hawks, and 3 woodpeckers, including one of the giant ones that rock the neighborhood when they’re mating and pounding their bills into trees. (Easily 18″ from head to tail.)

The smaller pair — red-headed or downey, I can’t decide — even come to my feeders.

And when they do, the other birds move to the branches. Even the bossy bluejays.

The woodpeckers hang off the feeder and dart their heads in. Some of the little tree-climbing birds don’t like to perch. They’d rather hang upside down.

And I recently learned that hummingbirds can’t walk! They can perch on the tiniest branch of the most fragile tree, and they can hover inside a flower, but you’ll never see them strutting down the street like a crow.

We have been blessed with a family of painted buntings for at least three years now, and for the last two years there have been two couples. They are just the sweetest, most brilliantly painted birds this side of parrots and macaws. Tiny little bursts of color that you don’t expect. The males, that is.

The little “wives” are lush, tropical green. All over. Even their breasts and bellies are a pale version of it. They seem to be social and, like I said, they’ve come back, to our yard, for at least 3 years. That just thrills me. Because they migrate across the Caribbean. And in Cuba they trap and sell them. So it is no small thing for them to come back to this little green corner of South Carolina.

Hummingbirds migrate, too — down into the Caribbean and even across the Gulf of Mexico. Individually. Imagine that.

A flock has elements of survival built in. The safety of numbers, and the “draft” of the group as a unit in flight.

A hummingbird flies alone.

In their normal lives they eat every fifteen minutes and their wings beat ridiculously fast. I can’t even imagine what it takes to cross the Gulf of Mexico. You might stop to rest on a ship, like I’ve seen birds do countless times, but there aren’t going to be dishes of nectar there, or flowers.

I have two hummingbird feeders – front and back — they are territorial little buggers. They arrive in mid to late March and stay all summer. I’m pretty sure we have several families, too. I’ve watched 2 males and two females since they arrived. And recently a single white breasted, white throated version, which may or may not be a “violet hummingbird.”

But you never see the babies, really, unless you happen upon a nest or have a birdhouse. Young birds all show up as “tweens,” like gawky 12-year olds.

We have about a dozen cardinal tweens and teenagers finding their true colors, literally. They show up looking like badly crayoned indeterminates. They all seem to start as rusty beige and then the colors fill in. Randomly. There’s an older one I call “lifejacket” because he had two vertical patches of orange on his chest for a week before the rest of the red filled in.

there is a flat feeder on the porch, but the squirrel prefers the challenge

Another started with a bright orange stripe down the back of its head, and I think that one might actually be female. Their tails often fill in color first, but it’s still deceiving, because the females usually have red undertails anyway. (A few weeks have gone by since I started this and I now know that there are 6 juvenile males and 4 females.)

The parents still feed the younger ones, once in awhile. Showing them how the feeders work. That’s pretty adorable. I see the alpha male, Big Red, feeding a skinnier version of himself. Male cardinals only feed other birds when they are mating or nurturing young. But it’s always fun to watch.

And there are mutants, now and again, too.

About three summers ago there was a bird hanging around the front yard (where there are no feeders) which got my attention, because nothing about him was like anything I’d seen before.

I looked online, and in books for weeks, to find out about this largish, rufous bird, with a bill like a cardinal, but with a tiny blue-ish head (like in “Beetlejuice” tiny).

I tried in vain to photograph it and could never get near enough. I eventually crossed it off as a mystery bird.

I learned in the process that sometimes cardinals have dark heads when moulting, or sick, so I crossed it off as that.

But then he showed up again last summer! And he did have a really tiny head, so I knew it was the same little anomaly. He’d survived, and that made me happy. We’ve been taught that “challenged” wildlife doesn’t survive, but my little oddball had come back.

And the little oddball is back this year, too. He seems to get on pretty well with the rest of the group — it’s a large gang, 3 or 4 adults and a dozen teenagers — and, although he still keeps his distance, he isn’t run off. He seems to be accepted.

The proverbial “pecking order” is a real thing. Anyone who’s ever raised chickens will attest to that! The bluejay can bully everyone away, and the woodpecker can push him out. The crows can be annoying, and if you’re too near the coast, seagulls are actually pests.

The teenage cardinals are learning about the pecking order, bullying, and other real-world skills. They’re not elegant flyers yet, and I’ve seen them grab a branch at such speed that they hung on and spun around like a ferris wheel. You don’t see Big Red do that.

Big Red is the macdaddy of all the cardinals. He and his wife, Big Mama, have been here for at least 3 years. I don’t think they leave at all. He will occasionally stand on the branch closest to the screen, where he’s at eye level with me (on the futon inside) — and stare at me.

Especially if the deck feeder is empty.

The bluejay yells at me when the feeder is empty. And they call their friends when it’s full.

And then there is the tiny Carolina wren, who fills out her little body with air — and then the neighborhood with song. I’d pegged her song to a much larger bird, until I spotted her, and saw her belt out her aria.

I haven’t rigged up an outside camera yet, and as you can see by the critter pictures, shooting through the screen is less than ideal. I have some ideas, though…

My afternoon therapy is an hour or two on the futon on the screen porch, watching the little feathered community interacting around the feeders, the fountain and the bird bath. The nuthatches who only come by for certain food. The crows, who call their friends when I put corn on the ground, or stale bread. And this week a vireo stopped by, just to keep me on my toes.

Nature is the best therapy there is, outside of prayer. I think nature is a form of prayer. If you’ve ever held eye contact with another large mammal in the wild, stood on a mountain and watched a storm cross a valley, been down a silent creek in a kayak, felt a butterfly on your arm….or sat on a bench and listened to leaves rustle above you…you know.

Walk outside. Smell the fresh air. Listen.

Even in the city. You never know what kind of wildlife you’ll observe. I saw a deer cross a street in London one evening. It was magic.

For more info about the spectacular, yet low-key, A.C.E. Basin

Here’s a couple minutes of a Painted Bunting pair in action. Not sure where “The Backyard Birder” is, but it could be nearby. Link

And then, if you’re really interested in the Painted Buntings, there is this excellent little 5 min. video. It’s in Spanish, with subtitles, but it has great maps and other info and very pleasant music. LOL

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