Our Wild Neighbours

It was a cool, late summer evening, darkness had fallen and my loyal sighthound Lewis and I were enjoying the glow and warmth of the campfire.  We were on our own for a few days; Soldier Boy and Old Hound were still in the city.  I had my headlamp on, my feet up on the side of the fire pit, a book on my lap and a glass of wine beside me.  It was silent.  It was the kind of silent that wrapped itself around you.  The kind that invited your imagination into the story you were reading.  Just my dog and I and the crackle of the fire.

And then the silence was shattered by a piercing scream.  A blood-curdling shriek coming from the darkness.  I whipped around to face the direction from which it came.  The dog jumped to his feet and we both stared into the engulfing darkness.

I quickly doused the fire with two buckets of water and Lewis and I hastily ran inside the cabin.  We stood in the darkness, peering out the window, trying to see (and hoping not to) what had made that ungodly noise.

I didn’t find out that night.  But a few weeks later, when my brother was bringing a load of wood out, he said it might have been an owl.  Then one other night, I was walking the dogs on their last rounds for the evening and I heard it again.  The scream coming from the darkness.  This time there was no campfire for security.  I was in the middle of the woods with just a headlamp.  The dogs didn’t even want to stick around to find out what it was.  We ran.

“What’s wrong?” Soldier Boy asked, as I burst through the door, gasping.

In a strained whisper, so as not to wake up the boy, who is easily terrified, I said “I heard a scream!”  And after a moment of disbelief, we both put our headphones in and started looking online for audio clips of owls.  Sure enough, it’s an owl.  A Barred Owl, to be exact.  And this audio clip of a Barred Owl responding to elk bugling is the closest thing I could find to the sound I heard that night.  The elk (which don’t live in our neighbourhood) are pretty obvious and the Barred Owl is the scream in the background.  Just close your eyes and imagine hearing that while being alone in the woods.  (Thanks, Natureguy Studio and Nature Blurbs for the amazing recording!)

Owls aren’t the only thing we have gotten to know.  As our first year of adventures at the cabin comes to a close, we have made friends of all sorts – feathered, furry, multi-legged, cold-blooded and well, we don’t need to go into great detail about all the amazing human friends we’ve made.

The first friends we made, and the only ones we had to kill, were the wolf spiders.  This is not to say that we killed every one we saw but if it was a competition for space, they were going’ dooooooown.

Did you know that wolf spiders shed their skin?  That means that every time I found a broken shell of a wolf spider, I could expect an even bigger one to be lurking somewhere.  They are the same colour as bark so they often sat on fire wood or deadfall and I didn’t see them until I picked up the wood and saw them scurry off.  After whitewashing the outhouse, they became far easier to see in our most vulnerable of locations.  Usually, I don’t mind leaving spiders be.  But these were huge.  They grew to the point where I’m pretty sure their brains were larger than Old Hound’s was (which isn’t saying much, but still).  They were often over two inches in diameter.  There were several we saw the size of the palm of my hand.  When something reaches that size, I feel that killing it, even if it’s a spider, is quite a serious offence against nature.  But that still didn’t stop me.  Not to mention, they are one of the fastest things I’ve ever seen.  They don’t spin a web and wait for things to haplessly fall into it like most spiders.  They hunt.  They pounce.  And sometimes they even chase.  <cringe>  I got very used to them so I didn’t run away and cry like a baby every time.  And I completely respect their agility, adaptability (they live almost everywhere) and prowess.  But I’m not sharing my living or bathroom space or my car (yep, found one in there too) with them.  Nope.  Not gonna happen.

I had earlier found this guy's husk. While I was painting the wall RIGHT THERE, he decided to make an appearance. I'm surprised you didn't hear me scream.
I had found this guy’s husk earlier in the day. While I was painting the wall RIGHT THERE, he decided to make an appearance. I’m surprised you didn’t hear me scream.

We also discovered, once the weather became consistently warm, that our cabin happened to be a thoroughfare for frogs going from the woods to the marsh.  During the summer, almost every day, we saw green frogs – and a few toads – travelling towards the marsh that lay to the west of us.  Many would travel under the cabin.  Like many seasonal structures, it sits off the ground and the bottom has chicken wire attached to prevent little critters from living under there.  The frogs could fit through the holes of the chicken wire and must have used this as the safest route.  Once we built the deck, on the east side of the house, we noticed frogs hopping into the pallets that we used to build the deck and then stopping, unsure of where they were.  We then had to get a stick, get down on the ground and gently prod them forward, under the deck and into familiar territory.

One of the little travellers that we almost stepped on one day.
One of the little travellers that we almost stepped on one day.

Near the end of the summer, we were finally able to see the end of the lovely pile of “burniture” that we inherited from the previous owners.  It was a massive pile of junk wood from old reno jobs.  But we had finally had enough dry days to burn most of it.  We had finally gotten to the oldest, most rotted wood and as we picked it up, it literally crumbled in our hands.  And then we saw this guy.

The first and biggest fella we saw in the rotting wood pile.
The first and biggest fella we saw in the rotting wood pile.

He was quite large to be honest – about the length of my hand. He was very sluggish with the cold so we buried him quickly after I had taken this photo.  Then, later on, the boys found this little guy, also extremely sluggish.  Which they buried in the same pile of rotting wood as the other salamander.

The little guy we also found.
The little guy we also found.

Salamanders and frogs aren’t the only cold-blooded friends we have in the vicinity.  We also have snakes.  We’ve only ever seen snakes down near the water and I’ve only seen the ubiquitous garter snake and black water snakes.  They don’t really like us and if a dog ever finds one in the grass (because they are usually too well hidden for us to see), it certainly high-tails it out of range and into the water.  I’ve never seen one in the water while I’ve been in the water and to be honest, I’m not afraid of snakes anyway.  I actually find them fascinating.  Here’s a very short clip of one of them trying to get away from us as fast as he can.

We also have hares, chipmunks and grouse which the dogs love to chase.  But don’t worry, even though they are hunting breeds, they are pretty lazy and don’t really move fast enough to catch anything.  Except skunks.

While this next neighbour might not seem worthy enough to mention, considering their sheer numbers, I’d like to give a shout out to the kabillions of ants that not only occupy the ground on which the cabin sits but also occupy many of the crevices in the cabin kitchen.  It’s no wonder we have so many of them inside when I lifted a patio rock and saw this:

I loved watching their determination and their efficiency moving all of the eggs from the warmer top layer of their colony to the safer tunnels.  If you watch carefully, one ant is actually trying to stash a massive dead moth into the tunnel as well. You’ll also notice, if you watch it as many times as I have, that if one tunnel is full, the worker ants will move an egg from one tunnel to another.  Yes, I do realize I may be the only adult that actually crouched on the ground with my camera for several minutes, trying to hold steady enough to video ants saving their eggs.  It was fascinating and in all honesty, knowing how much they care for their young makes a little harder to kill them.

We also have a lovely little girl that we call Phoebe that we anticipate will be a yearly visitor.  She’s an Eastern Phoebe and she loves to nest in our eaves.  Even though we’ve only had one year at the cabin, you can see the telltale remnants of all her nests from years past.  She’s a flycatcher and therefore doesn’t perch very high up.  Her favourite spots were the basketball net, the lowest branches of the great pines and even the backs of our patio chairs.  She loved to dive-bomb us while we were sitting outside.  I don’t know if she was playing with us, taunting us or simply trying to catch some ever-present mosquitoes or deer flies that were always buzzing around us.  Here is a short clip of just how fast she can fly.  Sorry, I didn’t edit the video so you’ll have to watch until the last five seconds to watch her fly into her nest and out again.

First, she was alone.  We assume that it was just her and the eggs.  Then there were two of them so we reached the camera into the nest and sure enough the eggs had hatched and she’d enlisted the help of her partner to catch food for the little ones.  They quickly grew and when we came back the next weekend, the nest was empty.

I know it's an awkward shot but I was holding the camera high over my head to try and take a shot of who was in the nest.
I know it’s an awkward shot but I was holding the camera high over my head to try and take a shot of who was in the nest.

Our lake has some other feathered residents as well.  Loons.  Big, beautiful, haunting loons.  Some of the other humans have seen up to eight.  The most I’ve seen is five at a time.  I learned this year that loons have solid bones and not hollow ones like most birds, which is why they take so long to gain altitude.  They don’t look especially suited to flying.  I also learned that loons fly south for the winter, which is pretty incredible if flying isn’t exactly easy for them.  They winter along the southern Atlantic and Pacific coasts as well as in the Gulf of Mexico.  Their beautiful black and white plumage turns to a sombre grey and white.  They return to the lake they were born and raised in every year which means that the loons I saw this year will be the same loons I see next year.  I’ve also been told by a long-time human resident at our lake that the number of loons can be a sign of the health of the lake and the number of fish in it.  Now that there is quite a large family for such a small lake, the possibility of fish in the lake is quite high.  I’m not an angler so I wouldn’t be able to verify the truth to this or not.  What I can verify from experience is their incredible size, their haunting call and the playfulness.  Sometimes they are so loud they keep me from sleeping.  But they are beautiful and an integral part of the lake.  We are so blessed to have them as our neighbours.

Porcupines also live in them there woods.

This was the second time I saw a porcupine waddle along the road. As I oh-so-slowly approached him for a better photo, he stopped, turned his head and looked at the car as if to say,
This was the second time I saw a porcupine waddle along the road.  As I oh-so-slowly approached him for a better photo, he stopped, turned his head and looked at the car as if to say, “Hey!  I’m walkin’ here!”

I’m not sure it even warrants a mention since deer are everywhere in this part of the province.  But yes, there are lots of deer.  We mostly see deer along the main roads.  We haven’t seen any wandering near the cabins.  But a lot of the human residents have dogs so it would make sense that deer don’t wander too closely to the humans.

On a cold night in March 2015, we heard evidence of our most interesting wild neighbours.  Soldier Boy was out for a smoke when he called me out to listen.  This is what we heard (you might want to turn up the volume):

We knew they were coyotes.  I’m not sure if there are wolves in these parts but the howls were too high-pitched and there’s a bit of a yip in it.  Doing a little more research, comparing howls, and looking up facts of location, etc. we believe these coyotes are actually Eastern coyotes (please, correct me if I’m wrong).  Eastern Coyotes are a hybrid between wolf and coyote, combining the best traits of both animals – the adaptability of the coyote with the hunting prowess of the wolf – into a new animal, many of which also have dog DNA in them.  They’ve been in our area for quite some time but attacks on livestock and small pets have been on the rise.  If the thought of a barred owl screaming in the night didn’t make me wary enough of walking in the woods at night, the proximity of Eastern coyotes certainly does.

One of the things I have loved most about our time at the cabin is being in the same vicinity as all of these amazing creatures.  I have learned so much about our wild neighbours in only a few short months.  As Sir David Attenborough said, “An understanding of the natural world and what’s in it is a source of not only a great curiosity but great fulfillment.”

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