Friday, August 24, 2007

Backyard nature

It’s a Sunday morning and I’m sitting on my deck in the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C., which abuts a magnificent woodland plot. In the winter one can just see through the naked trees to a field 500 feet beyond. But in summer this space is transformed into a lush green world. Regardless of the season it throngs with life, but it seems that summer days are the busiest. I have the added good fortune of having neighbors who ply the wildlife with a smorgasbord of bird and mammal feeders, so it sometimes looks like rush-hour at Grand Central Station.

This morning I’ve been out here for an hour and as usual there are plenty of little stories unraveling. A blue jay begged noisily from a branch as another hammered at a nut between his claws, bolting back hunks with a forward jerk of his head. He gave the last piece to the obsequious loiterer, who gargled out a cry of thanks—or was it relief, or perhaps simply pleasure? A large solitary wasp alit on the rim of my birdbath, wings flitting restlessly as she descended to the water edge and daintily slaked her thirst. Her abdomen shone metallic blue-black. Little did the green looper nearby know how imperiled it was in the presence of this insect predator as it began a circuit around the rim of the birdbath. But another hazard threatened the tiny green grub. I’ve read reports of caterpillars which blindly do circuits on round rims until they exhaust themselves and die. But not this one; I’m not sure if she completed a full circuit before crawling back down the side. While checking on her progress I rescued a beetle floating on the water. It was so small that I couldn’t tell whether it was a living thing until I viewed it through my binoculars (which make a serviceable magnifying lens when used in reverse) as it crawled away over the copy of The Washington Post resting next to me. Its oval body barely filled the space inside the lowercase letter “o” printed on the page, yet it breathes, flies, and cleans its antennae.

I see that the looper has returned to the rim of my birdbath, so perhaps the “robotic march til death” theory may yet hold. The plot suddenly thickens comically as a pair of ants patrolling the birdbath bump headfirst into one another. They each take off at a sprint in opposite directions round the rim (why do ants panic like this when they’re so willing to sacrifice themselves in the interests of colony efficiency?). The looper doesn’t know what hits him as he bails from his perch, meeting the grass below before deploying his bungee-cord silk lifeline.

As I write, a robber fly collides clumsily with my laptop screen before landing on the cover of the Post’s BookWorld section, where it now perches on Gunter Grass’s cheek. Just as I think the insects have completely stolen the show, a half-pint gray squirrel plays solitaire at the wood’s edge, repeatedly practicing leaps onto a sapling’s trunk.


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