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March 10, 2010 > Outdoors, in suburbia

Outdoors, in suburbia

By Suzanne Ortt
Photos By Doris Nikolaidis and Steven Mazliach

A hippopotamus in Lake Elizabeth? No, what a fantasy. Lake Elizabeth, in reality, does house more than 115 species of waterfowl and birds. Add ground squirrels, gopher snakes, turtles, and muskrats to the populace. That is a good depiction of the fauna thriving there. In the midst of the lake is an island which serves as a rookery for black night herons, green herons, snowy egrets, and great egrets. Take a pair of binoculars and head there to observe. A worthwhile side trip would be walking the Stivers Lagoon trail, a 40-acre wetland.

Your locale is a habitat also, as is the broader Tri-Cities area. Picture backyards and trails with hummingbirds, goldfinches, opossums, raccoons, skunks, hawks, squirrels, turkey vultures, a myriad of birds, and, even occasionally, a deer or two. In the evening, listen for frogs croaking. Most species are welcome, others not so much.

Skunks are possibly the least popular. Routinely skunks seem to spray neighborhood dogs. If skunks share your yard, here are two natural repellants. Locate the den, usually a four-inch hole in the ground. First try sprinkling cayenne pepper around the den. (It repels garden pests, as well.) To check its success, sprinkle flour at the entrance and check for tracks in the morning. If that fails, here is the second recommendation, which is a bit more time consuming. Chop an onion and one jalapeno pepper. To two quarts of boiling water; add one teaspoon of cayenne pepper and boil for 20 minutes. Now you have a hot pepper pest repellant. After cooling, strain it into a spray bottle. Apply every three to five days around your property and the den. Put newspaper on the den to check the travels of the stinky one. The morning when the paper is still there, fill the den with dirt. Your efforts have succeeded.

Opossums are North America's only marsupials and an unfriendly species. These critters live wherever water, food, and shelter exist. (Obviously the Tri-Cities are a suitable habitat.) This non-confrontational mammal hisses or growls and shows 50 sharp teeth when frightened. In reality, they are gentle and placid, but like to be left alone. The female carries and nurses her babies in her marsupium (pouch) until the young are two to three months old. Then the mother carries them on her back another one to two months, whenever they are away from the den. They do live in trees but do not hang by their tails. Another myth "bites the dust." However, it is true that this animal "plays possum." The defense mechanism allows the opossum to enter an involuntary comatose-like state induced by extreme fear.

Stories about these wild neighbors are plentiful, some cheerful, some somber. Here is a sampling of tales told.

Raccoons live around and especially near walking trails and water, such as the Alameda Flood Control. One day a mother raccoon and five babies were crossing a backyard. The daughter of the household saw them and excitedly called her mother. The youngsters, with maternal aid, managed to get over the back fence and out of sight. But, they were on the support railing on the opposite side. Then, one at a time, the curious ones popped up until all five were visible. What an astonishing shot this is.

A jogger, on a city sidewalk, noticed a skunk in the gutter. The skunk, apparently, was as anxious about his presence as he was about the animal's closeness. The skunk escaped by going into the gutter. Very likely that caused its demise.

Runners face natural hazards sporadically. A common one is bird attacks. This occurs during birds' nesting season so, assumedly, the runner came close to a bird's nest with babies. The Union City Lagoon has one particular goose that threatens joggers until they pass by. The menacing approach is a sufficient deterrent; no bites yet.

A common phenomenon involving birds is window strikes. Birds see a reflection of clouds, sky or trees in the windows and have an erroneous impression that they are flying into open air. Estimates are at least one million birds die annually from collisions with skyscrapers and windows. This is in the United States and Canada, alone. One solution is to eliminate the mirror image. Put a screen or a shade cloth over the window which is nearest to bird activity. If you have blinds, close them slightly. White sheers also work. (Check for more deterrents.)

Sadly, one local family underwent a traumatic event when a hawk flew into their glass patio door. The impact caused such a vibration that it felt like an earthquake. Then they saw the beautifully feathered hawk, lying on the patio. It had broken its neck. The family forlornly buried it near their magnolia tree.

An out of the ordinary drama involved a snake and a frog. Frogs share our habitat but are usually heard, not seen. In this incident, a large garden snake had a frog in its mouth and was struggling to swallow it. Even spectators did not deter the snake's efforts. It tried and tried, but the frog finally escaped. The drama ended but, alas, the snake had no frog lunch that day.

California ground squirrels are rampant in parks and yards. A typical diet is an extensive array of seeds, berries, and leaves. A few have been seen eating blossoms. One frisky creature in Fremont likes avocadoes. Witnesses see this little rascal scampering atop a fence, munching on an avocado.

Hummingbirds like red. An avid gardener, on a sunny day, was pruning her vines. Her nose became quite sunburned. The next thing she knew, a "hummer" kept flying at her red nose. Since her nose was not a fragrant flower, the hummingbird flew away. It did check her nose out a few more times.

Numerous spots invite us to go out on foot. With spring approaching, walk in your neighborhood, on a trail, if possible, or sit on a park bench. Watch the incredible, natural world, from squirrels to white herons to hummingbirds and more. Enjoy it. Beware not to get a sunburned nose!

Resources: (Go to connect with nature blog for more on birds' window strikes.) skunk repellant

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