Monday, July 7, 2014

Mother's Nature's Son 2

One thing about being known as the animal guy at school, a title I'm not sure I deserve, is that people bring in all kinds of things and ask you to identify them... or if you WANT THEM.  A few years ago, during the last week of school, one of my future second grade students came up to me with his hand cupped around a piece of tissue.  "Here," he said shyly.  He opened his palm and there was a tiny, dead, male, ruby throated hummingbird.

"Wow.  Where did you get that?"

"We found it in our garage.  It was in the window."

"Thanks for sharing that with me," I said.  "That is beautiful!"  It really did brighten my day.  I mean, how many times do you get to look at one of these beautiful animals so close?  Brandon walked away.  Maybe he looked a little disappointed.

The next day he came up to me again.  "Here.  This is for you," he said.  Ah.  A present.

"I tell you what, I have a mesh bag.  Why don't we bury it in the garden outside our window.  Next fall, when you are in second grade, we'll dig it up and see if we can reassemble the skeleton."  And that's just what we did.  It took awhile, the bones were incredibly tiny, but we glued down all the bones we could find and it looked beautiful.  It is still hanging in my classroom four years later.

At the end of this last school year, one of the instructional aides asked me if I wanted a bat.  Actually, she just dropped in with it, hanging upside down in a little bug habitat.  Turns out she found it rather traumatized after a tremendous hail storm the night before.  Of course we took it for the day and watched it carefully.  It was very still all day long.  We thought it was dead, but toward the end of the school day, we saw it stretch its wings out, one after the other, papery thin and delicate.  So, it looked like it was going to live.  I took it out to the same garden where we buried the hummer and opened the lid to the enclosure.  The next day when we came back to school it was gone.  I hope it made it.

Every year in that garden, I plant fennel and parsley to attract black swallowtail and spicebush butterflies.  It never fails.  Every year we get to witness the miracle of metamorphosis first hand.  Sometimes we even get to see the adult female light on the parsley, curve her abdomen up to the underside of the leaf and lay a tiny yellow egg.  We gather eggs and miniature larvae and bring them into the classroom where we can watch them eat, and molt, and poop, and molt and then climb to the top of their enclosure, hang upside down, attach themselves with a tiny button of silk and shed their final skin revealing a small brown or green chrysalis.  We watch breathlessly as they emerge from their chrysalises with wet and crumpled wings.  They pump their swollen abdomens to fill their wings with fluid.  After a while it hardens and they are ready to take off.  While I have seen this happen dozens of times in my life as a teacher of young kids, it never ceases to amaze me, never ceases to remind me of how beautiful life is.

Where we live there are many turtles.  In the lake, near our home, there are yellow bellied sliders and spiny soft shell turtles.  We routinely find them in the road and stop for a turtle rescue, picking them up and carrying them across the road in the direction they seemed to be going.  But my favorites are the eastern box turtles.  I used to have one for a classroom pet.  For well over 20 years, Angelo trundled around a big 30 gallon tank, my instructional aide for teaching about reptiles and animals in general.  I wrote about him a couple times.  After a while I released him into the wilds of our wooded neighborhood.  He still comes around a few times a year and when we spy him, often munching on the peaches that fall to the ground from our little fruit tree, we pick him up and marvel at his health and beauty.

He is a handsome one.  While I have never seen him mating (like the shameless two below) I hope he has sired many little ones of his own.

One morning in early June while driving to work, I saw a figure in the road up ahead.  The speed limit is 45 mph at this stretch and it was coming up fast.  I pulled over and found an injured barred owl with one wing hanging limply.  I got a little pillow from my car and was approaching it to move it off the road until I could figure out what else to do with it.  It wasn't going without a fight.  As I came closer it clacked its beak at me furiously.  I could see that it was badly injured and after coaxing it to the grassy area at the roadside, it just laid down and looked up at the sky.  While I watched it seemed to relax and breathed more slowly.  Finally it stopped breathing as the breeze from the cars ruffled its feathers.

There are many kinds of lizards near our place.  We had very few where I grew up in the midwest.   We have green and brown anoles, who constantly walk back and forth across our back fence and strut their stuff looking for a mate.  The males are super territorial and will fight violently to win over the heart of a female.  When the males see each other, they extend this pinkish red dewlap from under their chin and bob up and down.  It looks comical to me, this posturing and threatening, but it is serious business to them.  Here is a little skink that is very comfortable moving in and out of our garage.

When I was planting some flowers the other day, I dug up some tiny leathery eggs.  They seemed fine, so I put them in a little flower pot on the front porch and sprinkled them with water every day.  And watched.  After several days, I spied a tiny head poking out of a hole in the ground.  Reaching my hand in, I picked up the tiniest little lizard I have ever seen.

Still, I had no idea how that little reptile could have possibly fit into that minuscule egg which was only about half an inch long.  The little ground skink looks much nicer on a leaf in the garden where I released it.

There is one more animal worth mentioning before I wrap this up.  Under Heidi's office window there is a nest of cardinals.  We have seen the mama and the daddy coming in and out with food.  And when they do, you wouldn't believe the racket.  I am afraid that they are attracting predators with all the hunger noises they make.  I guess they know what they are doing.  I looked just a few minutes ago.  They are still there, a little larger and a little more filled out than this picture.  At this point they are the kind of cute than only a mother (and father) could love.

On a related subject, I am reading The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.  I found this gem.  Now THAT girl could write.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.” 

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