Friday, June 8, 2018

The Kill


The Kill
©Beth Surdut 2018
 
Fill a paper bag with a branch dressed in dry leaves.
Shake the bag hard, vigorously
That’s the sound of death wrestling with innocence.

On a day where heat drags at you like a demanding child,
The tree flapped and rustled
Leaves so dense, I saw only movement and the shadow of death in flight 

I opened the tall wooden gate and walked into the alley
over the shed from the bamboo
And the African sumac
And the tamarisk
and the dove feathers.

This is where the hawks bring their kill.

I heard the wingbeats
Saw the Cooper’s hawk fly away
without the baby dove's wing.

White-winged dove, killed two days before its sibling fledged

I returned to the tree
Where the mother and remaining baby huddled
Watching me.
The next day, the father joined them
And the day after that
The nest was empty.
White-winged dove nesting in a tamarisk tree--drawing by Beth Surdut



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Art of Paying Attention: Bats

surdut bat spotlight
Townsend's Big-eared Bat drawing by Beth Surdut
Paying Attention: Bats ©Beth Surdut 2016
When a bat flies by me, the wing beats kiss my cheek in temptation, and I hear a whispered invitation to learn the secrets of these crepuscular creatures.
My initial search for Southwestern bat encounters brought me into the Ortiz Mountains in New Mexico. Led by wildlife biologist Mike Roedel, six of us waited at the mouth of the old Santo NiƱo mine. At sunset, under a full moon in a lavender sky, I heard squeaks and rustling amplified by a large metal cylinder lining the vertical shaft. Townsend’s Big-eared bats began to fly out in ones and twos. Wings swooshed by my head as I peered and listened for the next arrivals. About 4 inches long, the bats looked like spirits…with rabbit ears.
Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly. They are of the order chiroptera which translates as hand/wing. Whether designated as megabats or microbats, the bone structure in their wings is similar to human forearms and fingers, if ours were over 9 feet long and our bones could bend. Microbats can locate objects in pitch-dark three-dimensional space by emitting high-frequency sounds that bounce back. Using this technique, called echolocation, they can figure out the texture and speed of an object. And along with these natural superpowers, bats are primary pollinators of saguaro and organ pipe cacti as well as hundreds of species of agave plants.
Unless you are qualified, don’t touch bats. Saying that, I did! After leaving a sacred monkey forest in Bali, I walked by a man working on his front porch. A fruit bat, an old world megabat known as a flying fox, hung like a large umbrella from the railing, watching. I asked in Indonesian if the bat was teman-- a friend. The man smiled, gently hooked the bat over his arm, and moments later, I had broken my rule of not touching wild animals. The bat hung from my wrist as I stroked its suede-soft wings. It seemed to be grinning toothily as it swung up towards my face to get a better look. The closeness of that furry foxy face was a little disconcerting, but oh, those beautiful limpid eyes.
Later, again in Bali, I stood at the entrance of a sacred and very smelly bat cave that looked like a view into a many-storied tenement building. Thousands of bats, tucked next to each other, stacked in rows and clusters, slept, squabbled, interacted. One, who was quite obviously a male, kept presenting to the bat next to him. As he repeatedly nudged her, she tucked her wings tighter around her and over her head as if indicating, “Not now, honey. I’m tired.”
While there is much that I will do to get to the great view, the sacred place, the animal adventure, here in Tucson, I can just go outside.
Arizona boasts 28 species of bats either migratory or year round. There are Lesser long-nosed bats who drain hummingbird feeders each night. I spoke with echolocation expert Janet Tyburec, who lives in Tucson. When I asked if she had local favorites, she said, “Pallid bats! They’re tough, wonderful, and they smell kind of like skunks and look like little pigs.” She explained to me that they could heal fractures by forming the equivalent of an internal walking cast around the damaged part. They especially like high-end neighborhoods here, where they’ll hang over the front door and porches as they eat centipedes and tear the pincers off of scorpions before eating them.
For an impressive and easy view of bats in summer flight, you can visit the migratory Mexican free-tailed bats that fly out at sunset from under the bridge at Campbell Avenue and River Road. Towards the end of July and into August, the numbers escalate as mothers and pups fly together. Tyburec described the pups as “kind of klutzy at first, like kids with learners’ permits.”
Even when you can’t see them in the dark crevices, you can tell where the bats roost by the visible and scented lines of guano droppings. I like to go before dark and wait to hear them wake up. These are social sounds and, in my opinion, a special treat, because humans are not capable of hearing most echolocation frequencies. Spotted bats echolocate between 5-10 kHz-- well within the range of human hearing.Bats change the cadence and frequency of their calls when they are approaching an object of interest and need more information quickly.
Bats have existed for over 50 million years. With summer temperatures often over 100 degrees in Arizona, we, too, become creatures of the night. Lucky us, who can just go outside, and be enhanced by the wing beats of bats in a star-filled sky.

  • Beth Surdut
Thanks to wildlife biologist Janet Tyburec for her assistance.
Want to know more about protecting bats?
Bat Conservation International
Merlin Tuttle's Bat Conservation
Arizona Game & Fish has a free "Bats of Arizona" poster available here.

Paying Attention:The Adventures of HoHum, the Great Horned Owl

The Adventures of HoHum, the Great Horned Owl
© Beth Surdut 2017
From the moment I spotted the two Great Horned Owl chicks—their big-eyed fuzzy heads rising above their bulky nest-- the larger one, would watch me. If I bobbled my head, that chick would mimic my motion. If I changed the direction, so would the bird. I named her Bobble. HoHum, the smaller one, would always be looking off somewhere, not seeming focused on anything in particular.

hohum the owl series 1
Tristan is Iseult's mate for life. (PHOTO: Doris Evans)
 
I’d witnessed the courtship of Bobble and HoHum’s parents. I named them Tristan and Iseult. Tristan is big, assured and impressive. From the top of his plumicorns—what appear to be horns, but are feathers-- to the points of his piercingly sharp talons, he is a model of his species. Except, according to statistics, he should actually be a she, because the female Great Horned Owl is usually larger than her mate. The male has a larger voice box and a deeper voice. Tristan not only has a deeper voice, but when the time came, he was not the one sitting on the nest. Funny how animals don’t read the manuals.
Let me orient you. There are three main trees in this story--sleeping tree, nesting tree, and hunting tree. The owls sometimes shift between them like a game of musical chairs.
HoHum the Owl hero 1
Iseult is the mother of owls named Bobble & HoHum. (PHOTO: Doris Evans)
 
Once mated for life, Tristan and Iseult moved about a block away into an old hawk’s nest lodged high up in the fork of an Aleppo pine tree. Tristan brought food to Iseult during the month she sat on the eggs. After the babies were born, he continued to supply rodents, rabbits, birds and anything else he could catch. As the chicks grew into fledglings, Iseult began to leave them to go hunting. Tristan would sleep each day in the pine tree where the courtship began.
One day, I arrived to find that the nest was empty. I headed for Tristan’s usual roost, but he was gone.
At first, the tree seemed empty, so I looked for clues on the ground. A dove’s egg—unblemished-- lay where it had fallen on a bed of pine needles. Then I saw some fresh white owl splashes. They almost glow in the dark. I started scanning the branches and spotted a fledgling.
hohum owl series 2
HoHum attempting to expel a pellet. (PHOTO: Doris Evans)
 
I moved a bit, so did the owl's head as it followed me. I rotated my head, then nodded up and down—so did the owlet. I’d found Bobble!
Bobble seemed young to be alone, so with more scanning I found HoHum, about 8 feet away from his sibling, gazing off into wherever, but, as usual, didn’t look at me.
I kept looking and, farther up, at a distance, but within sight of her offspring, I recognized Iseult. She is the smallest parent I've seen so far.
Each evening, Iseult would fly out and land in the hunting tree within sight of the sleeping tree. Bobble would soon follow. Eventually, HoHum would too, sometimes first making a soft alarm like a chicken squawk, a baby sound, before he lofted. Then they would fly out into the darkening sky to hunt, returning to the hunting tree to eat.
hohum owl series 3
Owls must expel pellets containing the indigestible parts of their prey before they can eat again, usually about every ten hours. (PHOTO: Doris Evans)
 
Daily, I found headless corpses, sometimes two at a time, under the hunting tree—a rabbit on its side—oh those soft little feet, a dove with twisted wings, a packrat sprawled on its belly. Owls usually eat every part and let their systems separate out the indigestible bones, beaks, fur, and feathers. I admire that efficiency. If the death of one creature feeds another, so be it. Finding the corpses made me cranky-- that sloppiness, that waste of life.
With each cycle I’ve watched, there is a time when the owls leave the familiar trees. I continue to visit the same places, feeling bereft at the absence, but eventually the cycle starts again, and I find a solo owl. This time, I heard a soft babyish alarm cry, steady, repeating in the sleeping tree. I looked up, up, up and there was HoHum.
Great horned owl  drawing by Beth Surdut
He sounded like a tired baby bird begging for food. The first time I found him alone, he continued to call as he flew to the hunting tree where he rocked to and fro like an unsteady tightrope walker. Then he lofted over to a more distant tree where he rocked again. He flew back to the hunting tree, and then returned to the sleeping tree. His cries grew softer, whimpering sounds, as night dropped its curtain on what I could see. I walked home, confused, having never heard this repetition of cries, nor witnessed this circling back at nightfall.
I visited HoHum almost every early evening before he flew out to hunt. This owl that had ignored me when his family was around, now cried softly as soon as he spotted me.
Unlike his younger days, he would watch me as I moved around under the tree where the monsoons exposed and scattered the contents of older pellets left by Tristan, Iseult, Bobble, and HoHum.
This miniature bone yard steamed with the earthy scents of rot that are usually masked by the aridness of the desert. Many of the pellets held only skulls.
dissected owl pellet unsized image
One of Tristan the Great Horned Owl's dissected pellets. (PHOTO: Beth Surdut)
 
Amidst the damp and layered dead animal parts and plant matter, I found most of a freshly killed packrat on its belly, back legs pointing in opposite directions, head and shoulders gone. The corpse was misplaced, because owls usually eat after returning to the hunting tree with prey. When I left, I could hear HoHum’s voice all the way to my house.
I called my friend Amanda Remsburg, a certified bird rehabilitator in Houston. I was curious about the headless corpses.
“So he’s practicing. He’s learning how to hunt, and so he’s going to take all the opportunities that he can to practice. He might have brought it back to his sleeping tree thinking, hmmm, maybe I’ll want this for later.” - Amanda Remsburg, Houston-based wild bird rehabilitator
I walked out to check on HoHum, but couldn’t find any owls. Then I heard two voices—one higher than the other-- hooting at dusk. At first, the calls came from the eucalyptus trees across the street from my house where I knew a family of Harris’ hawks lived.
A few days ago, I heard hooting in the area of the hunting tree. It was almost dark when I went on my own hunting expedition, looking for signs under trees. There they were—fresh bright white splashes… two pellets, and a bird skull partially coated with chewed up feathers! Just a skull. The hooting started, and then a second voice. The foliage was so dense, I couldn’t see the owls until one and then the other flew to the next tree. They were both small compared to Tristan.
It looks like HoHum found the companion he needs. I bet he never talks to me again, and that’s the way it should be.

beth surdut with raven statue unsized
Visual storyteller Beth Surdut invites you to observe, with unbounded curiosity, the wild life that flies, crawls, and skitters along with us in our changing environment. From exotic orchids and poison dart frogs to local hawks and javelinas, Surdut illustrates her experiences with wild and cultivated nature by creating color-saturated silk paintings and detailed drawings accompanied by true stories.
You can find Surdut's drawings and true stories about spirited critters at www.payingattentiontonature.com
Beth Surdut's illustrated work Listening to Raven won the 2013 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Award for Non-Fiction. Elements of her raven clan have appeared in Orion Magazine, roosted at the New York State Museum in an exhibition of international scientific illustrators. The clan has flown across the digitally looped Art Billboard Project in Albany, New York and her Townsend's Big-eared Bat hovered on its own billboard over Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Art of Paying Attention: Mountain Lion

You Should Be So Lucky-- mountain lion, drawing by Beth Surdut

©Beth Surdut 2018                                     CLICK for AUDIO

When someone tells me that they have seen a mountain lion in the wild, or even that there might be one around, this frisson of excitement sparkles through me. 
Stories come to me from all sorts of people and places. My landlord came over to work on my clogged kitchen sink.  Passing by my work table, where I was finishing a drawing of a mountain lion, he told me about being in the Rincon Mountains ten or twelve years ago, collecting leopard frog data with friends. They were walking by a pond, when a mountain lion jumped out of some reeds on the far side, and ran away. Pete was the last person in line, hanging back, because he wanted to see what was in those reeds. He waded across the pond, maybe 30 feet, thinking there might be a kill or a den. He parted the reeds, and there was a second lion, lying down, with its back to him. He was so close he could have touched it.

“I thought she was asleep. She turned her body and looked at me. The hair on my arms stood up. She had beautiful eyes,” he said, and I could hear the wonder in his voice. He backed away, slowly, and kept going. The hair on my arms was standing up, too, and, just for a second, I was with him, and the mountain lion, holding my breath.

“Lucky you,” I said to him “to experience that.”
“Yes, yes, I was,” he said.  So, I named the drawing “You Should Be So Lucky.”

Cougar, puma, panther, and mountain lion are common names for the puma concolor—the largest cat that can purr, meow, caterwaul, and yowl, but not roar. A typical adult male--6 to 8 feet from nose to tail tip-- weighs 110 to 180 pounds; females--5 to 7 feet-- 80 to 130 pounds.
Mountain lions can run up to 45 miles per hour for short distances, leap 30 feet or more horizontally, 18 feet straight up, and 60 feet down. They are beautiful, powerful, mysterious, and often misunderstood.

Dan Collins, retired from law enforcement in California, saw a mountain lion in Sabino Canyon. He volunteers at Saguaro National Park West, where he offers a presentation called Mountain Lions: Beyond the Myth. Collins said that estimated numbers in Arizona are 2500-3,000.
With home ranges of 75 to 150 square miles--and those numbers vary depending on which study you read--the cats are hard to count.

University of Arizona professor Melanie Culver is a conservation geneticist who knows her scat. She has been studying mountain lion genetics in North and South America since 1990. In a recent conversation, she said, “There have been a lot of mountain lions in Arizona, but I don’t know that is always going to be so. They are the last large predator that have this very important role.” That role is that of wildlife managers. Extirpate them, you tip the balance, creating what’s called a trophic cascade. For example, without the presence of mountain lions and wolves, deer populations soar beyond healthy numbers. While there have been 25 reported human deaths by mountain lions since 1890, 1,000 people die every year in deer collisions with automobiles.

In 1909, Ernest Thompson Seton--wildlife illustrator, storyteller, and former animal bounty hunter turned wildlife advocate, wrote this:
 "Of all that has been written or is known of the American cougar, fully ninety-nine percent deals with how we may hunt, pursue, murder, and destroy this wonderful beautiful animal.”

In 1970, Arizona was the last state to stop offering bounties for killing cougars. It is still legal to trophy hunt big cats in this state--including by hounding and trapping.

In January, 1994, on a cold clear morning—the kind that bites your nose-- my Tucson friend Vicki Nordness and her two large dogs—a 100-pound malamute and a 75-pound Husky mutt-- walked out of her house in the Methow Valley in the North Cascade mountain range in Washington State. They hadn’t gone far when they heard hounds baying, their anxious voices bouncing around the valley. The snow was so deep, that Vicki went back home to put on her snow shoes. Starting out at 2100 feet above the valley floor, she followed the sound up another 500 feet, where she found chaos.
Six radio-collared hunting dogs had treed something. The pack was baying and lunging. Two hounds were fighting with each other, wrestling and rolling down the hill towards Vicki and her dogs, who had stopped about 100 feet away. The hounds tried to engage her dogs, so she barked at the hounds to sit, which sent them running back to the tree.
Then, she waited.
A man and a boy appeared, with guns and no snow shoes. They post-holed slowly through the deep snow, their legs disappearing with each step. Vicki, 40 years old, slight of build and strong of spirit, guessed the man to be about her age, the boy about eighteen.
After introducing herself, Vicki told them, “Whatever you have in that tree, I don’t want you to kill it. Is it a cougar?”
The man said, “I hope so. We’ve been chasing a cougar and her young all morning on our snowmobiles.”
Vicki asked, “Couldn’t you just take a picture?”
The boy said, “I want to stuff it and put in my living room. I’ve been waiting 5 years to get this permit. Let’s just respect our differences.”
An older man, walking more slowly than the others, approached them. He was the grandfather.
“What’s this worth to you guys?’ Vicki asked.
“What do you mean?” said the father.
“I’ll pay you not to kill it. How about 500 dollars?”
The grandfather said, “Okay, okay, we’ll just take pictures,” and he took out a little movie camera.
They all walked up to the Ponderosa pine where the hounds had been baying the whole time.

There was the cougar, about 15 feet off the ground.

As the men finally walked away, Vicki realized that she could walk up the slope to be 15 feet away from the tree and at eye level with the cougar.
One of the men turned and yelled that she wasn’t safe unless her dogs were baying.
Her dogs never looked at the cat; they focused on the men.
So there she sat, with the cougar, in the beautiful silence of the Ponderosa pine forest, her dogs by her side.
She returned the next morning and found the cougar’s tracks where it had walked away from the tree, from the hounds, from the men with guns, and from my friend, who told me that seeing a cougar in the wild, was the thrill of a lifetime. 


For more Art of Paying Attention from the NPR series, visit my Critters page Paying Attention to Nature