Friday, August 7, 2015

It's a jungle right here (if you're a frog)

Cheryl and I are addicted to the detective programs we get on Netflix and Google. The British ones are usually best but we also like the Swedish and Danish and Australian and New Zealand and Canadian ones. The same formulas run through all of them. Some woman is walking her dog along a beach, the dog digs in the sand and a bloody hand is revealed. Cut to the police there in their crime-scene suits, joking over their last bite of breakfast while the pathologist examines the cadaver. Special make-up people on the different programs compete with each other for the most gruesomely realistic split-open heads or maggot-crawling torsos.

Something like that is going on in our garden. We are out innocently looking for bugs and suddenly discover gory, half-eaten, and very human looking remains.

These are green treefrogs but we're not quite sure who the murderer is. Green treefrogs are murderers themselves, sticking to our windows at night to feed on moths attracted to the lights, or waiting under flowers for butterflies to approach. But they are also the main small vertebrate prey for just about everything else. Ribbon snakes for instance hunt them mercilessly and are probably their chief predator. But ribbon snakes swallow their prey whole, leaving no bodies behind.

Green treefrogs can hide or hop away, but they don't otherwise have many defenses against ambush or trap-setting hunters, no teeth or claws or poisonous skin . And, they are just small enough to occasionally become prey to invertebrates, which seems almost against the laws of nature.

For example, our backyard ponds are so dense with aquatic vegetation the surface of the water is not visible, and that vegetation is densely populated with day-roosting green treefrogs, but also with enormous black-and-yellow garden spiders, Argiope aurantia. I was observing their interactions last summer, and the spiders, after they were nearly full-grown, were feeding almost entirely on treefrogs.

But the spiders did not leave behind half-chewed remains either.

However, we had a clue. The very wet spring this year, which had led to an unusual number of treefrogs, and an unusual number of Argiopes, had also led to, we noticed earlier in the summer, an unusual number of Chinese mantises, and they had steadily been going through their instars, getting bigger and bigger. Here's one from the beginning of July, still a long way from adulthood, but already an impressive size.

This one looks like it is feeding on a roadkill skunk but it's actually a Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillar, a creature that came out in the hundreds this year and chomped all our milkweed plants to the ground (after the Monarchs failed to come).

Now the mantises are molting into adulthood, four-inch-long giants that look fully capable of catching a treefrog.

Take a closer look at the spines in the powerful grasping arms.

So there was our prime suspect, an animal with a ferocious reputation and the tools to back it up. Finally we caught one in the act. We were eating breakfast and Cheryl looked out the window and said, "There's a mantis with a frog." We rushed out with our cameras. I suppose it would have been more in keeping with the crime programs if we had rushed out with our cell phones.

So, with the snakes and spiders and mantises after them, what is happening to treefrog populations in our backyard? Well, so far as I can see, it's not even making a dent.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The month of June

When I step outside the house, even when its just for a moment, I try to remember to sling on my camera. If I don't I'm sure to see some interesting creature or bit of behavior that won't be there seconds later.  I often forget, but I often remember and get some of my best pictures. So when I recently glanced through the pictures I took in June, it was quick reminder of some of the neat things I had seen last month. Here are a few.

First, a Western Lynx Spider, a spider I was pleased to see because I thought they were strictly western and didn't occur in Arkansas. Lynx spiders are notorious for the long spines on their legs, but this one has what looks like an almost painful surplus of spines.

Except for its special status and comical spines it's sort of a dull little spider. By contrast here is a jumping spider, Paraphidippus aurantius, that is especially colorful, but very common. It has just caught a small katydid.

In folk wisdom here the very big crane flies we get in the spring are called Skeeter Hawks, and it is believed they hunt down and kill mosquitoes. The logic is obvious: they look like mosquitoes, but are way bigger. Actually there really is something here rather like a Skeeter Hawk. This very large and colorful mosquito (Toxorhynchites sp.) looks formidable to us, but in fact, as you can see by its droopy mandibles, this mosquito does not bite. It feeds innocently on nectar. But its larvae really and truly hunt down and eat the larvae of regular (i.e. biting) mosquitoes. Don't swat this one.

In a previous post I showed some of the courtship of the cellar spiders that occupy my study with me. The last picture I showed was of my favorite female with her new egg sac. I can add another step to the saga now, since those eggs have hatched.

I think they're kind of cute.

Paper wasps of the genus Polistes all die in autumn except for the newly mated young females who overwinter and start up new nests the following spring. Most of those nests fail. The new queen must chew up wood and turn it into paper and start a nest from scratch, often under the eaves of our house. They have to build a few cells, lay eggs in them, and when the new larvae hatch, go out and gather caterpillars to feed them, much like a bird bringing food to its nest. The queen sallying out for food puts herself in the way of several dangers, and if something happens to her, it is all over. Once she can raise the first few up to be workers, then she can remain safely at home laying eggs while the others do the work and take the chances. But it takes a long time to reach that point. Especially with our slow wet spring it was difficult to get started this year, and I saw several attempts fail. But there is one on the edge of a window around the side of our house I have been following.  Here she is, glaring at me for being a little too nosy.

The species I think is Polistes exclamans. The first few grubs have woven cocoons. She has started some new cells and put eggs in them. If she can just get past this moment.

A day later, an important event: She has a worker.

It seems to be a good year for moths shaping up. We were up at Ninestone in the NW corner of the state helping with a bioblitz. We put out a black light and this handsome Giant Leopard Moth was one of the stars of the evening.

A few feet away we found this spectacular Promethea caterpillar feeding on a tulip tree.

The next three pictures we saw during a visit to the central part of the state.

Here is a nice wasp-mimic moth, a Grape Root Borer. This male has got all his pheromone-producing equipment hanging out.

This might be the prettiest creature we saw during the month, a Meadow Purple-striped Grasshopper.

This might be the most bizarre, Rhomphaea fictilium, a spider that often lives parasitically in the web of another spider. The long thing hanging down is its abdomen, which is flexible and bends in the middle.

And, coming back home, this might be the most ordinary. It's a Corn Earworm. We get a lot of our produce from the local farmers' market, and I don't know about you, but I don't mind a bit getting a reminder that this is unsprayed organic food.

Now, tell me, he that knows: What do people who don't love bugs do with their lives?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

What's happening right this minute.

The eastern United States is the only place you can see periodic cicadas. They are one of the world's marvels, but the catch is you can only see them every few years, and then for only a few weeks. There are three species of seventeen-year cicadas, and four species of thirteen-year cicadas. As I'm sure you all know the name stands for the number of years they spend underground as nymphs sucking the juice out of tree roots. There must be so many millions of them it is another marvel that the trees survive. They don't all emerge together on the thirteenth or seventeenth year. All those in a certain population do, but the generations are staggered. They are so well studied that all the differing populations have been named and numbered, so that biologists can say almost to the day when population XI or whatever will come out of the ground, change into adults (leaving their thousands of exuviae hanging to trees and bushes) and the males start singing to attract mates. That's still another marvel, their loud voices constantly in hearing over sometimes a square mile.

We learned early this year that thirteen-year cicadas would be emerging this summer in parts of Arkansas. So I wasn't surprised when, a few days ago, I arrived in Craighead Forest Park in Jonesboro, turned off my engine and opened the door to hear that sound. It was the first time in years.

They were some distance away, and I was in a hurry that day, so I didn't pursue them. But the next day Cheryl and I went to another area where we had seen them in the past, Lake Hogue in Bayou de View WMA in Poinsett Co. Sure enough they were singing at full volume when we arrived. There seemed to be at least two songs going, a high pitched melodic one which appeared to be constant on the same tone, and then a raspier one that surged up and down in volume. We walked a dirt road and saw them flying out from the tops of the trees like swarming bees. Their life as mating adults is so short we were already finding dead and dying on the road and picked up a dozen or so to take home and study. They were different sizes and slightly different colors. We knew there could be up to four species but we had no idea what to look for to try to separate them.

We had looked them up before and only found charts with roman numerals to designate the different populations and cohorts and emergence dates and it was so confusing that it made our (or anyway my) head swim, which is why we had never got anywhere trying to sort them out. But this time Cheryl made us stick to it and try to get some bearings, and we made a second trip and took photographs more intelligently and collected specimens with a better idea of what we were looking for, and we believe we found all four species. (However this was our first attempt at identifying the species, the color differences are subtle, the dead specimens perhaps changing color rapidly.)

Here's what we found, and here is our rationale, but keep in mind that our voice is very tentative.

If you have ever seen them, you will remember their dramatic appearance: big shiny black insects with bright red eyes and yellow veins on their large wings (they should only emerge during Halloween). Look at this first one.

Here the critical thing to look for is the orange spot directly behind the eye. Next let's look at it from another angle.

The underside of the abdomen is pale orange or yellowish. If we are correct, this is Magicicada tredecim, which is a more scientific way of saying "thirteen-year cicada."
Now look at this mating pair.

One is dangling unceremoniously off the branch, but after waiting thirteen years for this moment nothing is going to make them let go.  On the sitting one you see a brown spot behind the eye; on the dangling one a highly contrasting banded underbelly.

Here they have regained their position and a little dignity. You can see on both of them the brown spot behind the eye, which I think is quite different from the orange spot behind the eye of the previous example. Again if we are correct, this is Magicicada neotredecim.

Those are large cicadas. The next two I'm going to show you are noticeably smaller. First, here is an all black one. (In the hand the eyes on this one were still reddish, though the camera has not picked that up.)

No colored spot behind the eye, no yellow bands on the abdomen. This, we believe, is Magicicada tredecassini. And finally, this slightly different species, all black, but with narrow orange banding on the abdomen.

We believe this is Magicicada tredecula.

These are active in Arkansas right this minute. If you are driving through dense deciduous woods, stop from time to time to listen. If you hear them (you can't miss the sound) get out and observe them. It will be a long wait before you see them again. Only thirteen-year cicadas are out in Arkansas this year. In some other states (Kansas, for instance), I believe there are some seventeen-year cicadas around. I think our corner of northeast Arkansas might be especially good for finding all four thirteen-year species together. I don't actually know if we get any seventeen-year cicadas.

There are three species of seventeen-year cicadas, each one a sister species (some would say the same species) to one of the thirteen-year cicadas, and it is almost impossible tell between the sister species except by timing and location.

If we get them, I can't wait for a seventeen-year cicada emergence.

Monday, May 18, 2015

In, on, and around the house

In the corner of my study a big very handsome Cellar Spider has been living for the past two or three years. She seems to feed quite well on spiders that wander into the house. She can catch spiders much bigger than she is by wrapping them up carefully at arm's length, which in her case is a good safe distance away.

 Lately she had been growing quite fat, which indicated she was filling up with eggs.

The local males had noticed this as well. Last week when I looked into her web, at least four hopeful males were hanging around in it. They were nervous around this spider hunter, and probably with good reason. You will understand why, when I explain some of the intricacies of spider mating. First note the male's heavy equipment on the palps on either side of his face. These carry intricate vessels that the male fills with semen when he is approaching a female.

Now here is the female from underneath.

The dark slit near the base of her abdomen has in its center the epigynum, into which the male (the female's deadly fangs hanging over his head) must pump the semen he holds in his palps. This risky maneuver is preceded by a great deal of stroking from the tip ends of his own very long legs, while he unfurls his apparatus and tries to judge her mood.

 Suddenly he dives in, does his job in less than a second, and dives away as fast as he can.

He was successful. In about a week she was cradling her new eggs.

About the same time the eggs appeared, Cheryl and I were outside and noticed what at first looked like a small ant walking along on the lid of our garbage can. But when we looked more closely, we saw it was a kind of jumping spider (Synemosyna formica) which mimics ants (no one knows exactly why, but perhaps it's because ants are known to be full of formic acid and therefore not very tasty to predators). This one walked along on six legs with an ant-like gait, and since, being a spider, it had eight legs, and no antennae, to complete its mask it carried its second pair of legs in the air and waved them like antennae.

On top of the lid near it was an ant just the size and color of the spider and so similar in appearance we decided this was the model the spider was imitating.

(This ant apparently led a warrior life; note the decapitated head of another ant which still has its jaws locked on this ant's antennae.)

From there we walked around the corner of the house not twenty feet and saw a completely unrelated spider (Two-banded Antmimic, Castianeira cingulata) which appeared to be imitating the same ant (only this time waving its first pair of legs like antennae).

And a few minutes later we had another nice observation. I went to check a chrysalis that was hanging on the back wall of my study, and a Question Mark butterfly had eclosed. It was so fresh it still had a number of delicate tints on its wings that would soon wear off.

Not a bad day, and we had scarcely stepped outside the house.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Anelosimus studiosus

Last summer I noticed a messy scraggly spider web in some holly bushes down at the end of our driveway. It was three-dimensional, like a sock that had been pulled over the end of the branch, with a hollow space inside where the owner of the web could live.

I peered through the webwork to see if there was anything living inside. Finally I spotted a tiny spider (ca 3 mm.) and took a picture of it. With the picture downloaded I saw what I would not have seen with my bare eyes. The tiny spider was accompanied by a baby spider.

The tiny spider looked so much like a spider common in the garden (though not in such a big complicated nest) that I didn't pay much more attention to it. But in the middle of winter when things were quiet I was looking through pictures I had taken during the summer and studied this one more carefully and realized it was something new for the yard. According to my books, it was Anelosimus studiosus. So I changed the name on the caption, and was pleased to have a new species.

More time went by, then as I was reading a new book a friend had recommended to me, Biology of Spiders by Rainer F. Foelix (which says something about the kind of friends I have), I learned something amazing about this species. Now, as everyone knows, spiders are solitaries. They live separate from each other, and if they meet they fight to the death. Even during the times they have to come together for mating, the (usually smaller) males come with fear and trembling, and run for it afterwards as soon as they can. Well, it turns out that, of 40,000 named species of spiders in the world, only 31 species are considered to be "social," which is scarcely even enough to prove the rule. Anelosimus is one of them.

To call an insect or spider social in the technical sense, it's not enough that they live together without killing each other. For example, a number of kinds of spiders do live together, even sharing webs, peacefully, in sort of what might be called colonies, but that is not enough. You need to cooperate in keeping up the web, in helping the others kill food which is larger than any one of you could catch alone, you need to help with feeding the young, and you must be ready to give your life defending the nest.

All species of ants and termites are social in this strict sense. A handful of species of wasps and bees are social in the strict sense (thousands of species of bees and wasps are solitary). We are familiar with these social insects, but just the idea of social spiders seems amazing. We know something about bee and wasp hives and termite mounds, but how do spider societies operate?

I feel like I missed an opportunity to study these spiders last summer, because I did not realize they were something special. This summer I am going to make an effort to learn something about them.

I started this spring by searching our yard, and finding half a dozen nests. All the ones that were there last summer are still there, and are still being kept up. But I have found a particularly large nest in the backyard, and I am going to try to keep it under close observation. It won't be easy. The spiders are so tiny it is hard just to see them, let alone make sense of their behavior. The inside of their sock-like web is so full of sticks, dried flower stalks, dead insects, and other debris they can easily conceal themselves in it. Any photography I do is through the web, which obscures things. Also to photograph such tiny things I can get very little depth-of-field, so, when there are several spiders together its hard to get more than one or two in focus at a time, making the rest ghost-like out-of-focus apparitions. But I will try my best, and report my findings here.

Here are a few early attempts at photography (I hope I will improve).

This larger nest has at least six spiders living in it (I have seen that many at one time). All of them seem about half grown. I will be interested in seeing them work together to attack large prey that gets tangled in their communal web, and especially interested in seeing them feed their young. This varies among different species, from catching prey and letting the babies come together to feed on it, to regurgitating food into the babies' mouths, to, in the most extreme case, the mother slowly digesting her inner parts and offering them to the babies until nothing is left of her.

Their patterns are different enough from each other that I might be able to make a chart of how many different individuals there are in the nest by comparing the photographs, and then perhaps I can know which ones I am  looking at so that I can see if they differ in behavior. Termites and ants have carried sociality up a notch by evolving a caste system. There are huge muscular soldiers, medium sized workers, smaller minims to feed and raise the children. With the spiders in this group (there are other species of Anelosimus plus some near relations) individual spiders tend to be bold, and others timid. You don't see any difference in appearance, but the bolder ones (which biologists are now calling "warriors") are first to to come forward to capture prey, or try to drive off predators or parasites, and the more timid (called "nannies"), tend to stay behind and care for the young. I think it would be fascinating to actually observe that.

I already feel like George Schaller studying his lions or gorillas.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Ahimsa (up to a point)

Ahimsa, a Sanskrit word ('noninjury') for the Buddhist doctrine of avoiding harm to any living being.  In the year we spent in Thailand where I was an exchange teacher we often visited Buddhist monasteries because the grounds were, by default, wildlife sanctuaries. We could see even from a distance, driving up to them, trees filled with stork nests or sleeping giant fruit bats. But even devout Buddhists had to face certain practicalities. As, for example, when microscopes were invented, and people learned for the first time that the water they drank was filled with microscopic living creatures. They had to wonder: When I take a gulp, am I destroying millions of living things? They sensibly decided they were only responsible for things they could actually see.

Ahimsa: Reverence for Life. It's an important doctrine for us, too, in our sort of secular Buddhism, but we also have had to face practicalities. I don't remember if it was The Shadow or some other of the crime fighters I listened to on radio when I was a kid, whose motto was: 'Friend to those who have no friends, Enemy to those who make him one.' I have added that motto as a footnote to my use of the word Ahimsa. It gets us past chiggers and ticks and mosquitoes and fleas. Well, add yellowjackets and the big red paper wasps, whose nests I don't allow in the yard since they tend to attack us. But otherwise we are tolerant of the arthropods that live in our neighborhood, in fact we do all that we can to attract them to us.

What about mammals? Well, we love mammals too. When, some forty years ago, we moved into our little house out in the country, we thought our place had it all: it was on an acre of land, a dirt road in front, fifteen or twenty healthy oak trees about forty years old, railroad tracks across the street perfect for elevated walks for miles through fields and swamps, and across the tracks a twenty-or-so acre untouched woods also forty years old (the deed to the house showed us the area had been clearcut forty years ago). Lots of mammals were present. Coyotes denned in the row-crop fields behind our house, and when the trains sounded their whistles, the coyotes howled in return. Voles and shrews had tunnels under the leaf-litter, cottontails were numerous in the yard and chewed up the saplings I was planting all over, but a wire cage around each shoot solved that problem. Beautiful fox squirrels came over from the woods to share sunflower seeds with the birds at our feeders. When we moved in, our house was not very rodent proof and in our first winter house mice invaded in droves. We could hear them in the attic chewing the insulation on our electric wiring. That made them an ENEMY. I set out snap traps and caught them by the dozen, and we sealed up the house better.

Raccoons and opossums were common. We always had one or more cats which wandered in and adopted us. We fed them on the front porch, and sometimes at night if we turned on the porch light we would see them sitting out there with a raccoon sitting comfortably next to them. The raccoons had one bad habit though. We hung plastic cages of suet blocks up in our trees for the birds, but sometimes in the morning we would find them missing, and if we walked across the street looking for them we eventually would spot the cage hanging thirty feet up in the raccoons' den tree. We forgave them though, because sometimes the mother would bring her troop of babies into the yard and they were so comical to watch, invariably one still pottering around in the yard when the rest had left, then the mother coming back irritatedly to fetch it.

But we had our closest relationship with the opossums.

There were openings under the house to give access to the crawl space, and in our first winter an opossum moved in. One day I looked out the back window and saw him do something astonishing: He gathered together a big pile of fallen oak leaves, then wrapped his prehensile tail around them and carried the whole stack under the house. He built his nest right under the bathtub, and when we sat in the tub (which no doubt spread some of its warmth underneath it), we could hear the opossum, inches away, scratching contentedly, then beginning to snore.

But in the spring when I crawled under the house to see how things were I discovered that he had pulled most of the insulation off of our heating and cooling ducts, finding that to work better than dried leaves. He became ENEMY number two, and when he met the fate of most of his kind and was run over on the road out front, I put wire grills over all the openings.

There were other adventures, but let me come forward to last winter. On a number of occasions we began getting fairly strong whiffs of skunk, on our porch, or in the backyard. And then one night we heard scratching around under the living room floor, and realized it had moved in with us. When I looked out back the next morning, I saw where it had pulled one of the screens out a little ways then tunneled underneath it.

At first I thought, if it behaved itself maybe we could co-exist. Lately we had replaced our old heating and air-conditioning system, and now the ducts were up in the attic and the vents were in the ceiling. But the old heating and cooling floor vents still remained, though we had blown them full of insulation to block them.

Well, one day I noticed a funny smell in the living room, but couldn't work out where it was coming from. Then it got stronger. We thought maybe a mouse had come into the house, and the cat (an indoor cat) had killed it and left it under the couch. We searched every inch but found nothing. Finally we traced the smell to the heating vent. It was coming from the skunk's nest, and no matter how much insulation we stuffed in the vent, we couldn't stop it. It wasn't the skunk's defensive smell; it hadn't had an encounter with some other animal under the house. That would have been really bad. No, this was just the smell of a skunk at home, and, we learned to our surprise, they are very smelly animals.

ENEMY number three. Now you might think I could wait for it to go outside, then seal up the openings airtight. The problem is, this was mid winter, freezing temperature outside. That skunk was for the most part sitting tight. There might even have been enough mice down there to keep him going. Perhaps he only went out once every couple of weeks. So how would I know when he was out? You'll say, that's easy, put some flour out and check the opening (several times a night?) for tracks leading out, with no sign of tracks leading back in. I even tried that, but after a couple of days the flour gets rain or dust on it, and you can no longer read tracks on it.

Cheryl went on line and found a local person who removed skunks. He charged quite a bit of money for the service, and besides, he had moved to Little Rock. But very decently, he left a detailed description of his technique, so we could remove the skunk ourselves. First of all, you got a big live trap. The ones for squirrels weren't big enough. You need one at least Raccoon size. You set it outside the opening baited with marshmallows, which of course no skunk can resist. Now you might think the skunk would respond with sudden anger to being entrapped, but the expert swore it wouldn't, but would be waiting patiently in the trap when you got up in the morning. The trick was, not to sneak up on the skunk and startle it. But to approach it from a little distance in plain sight, and approach "unthreateningly," that being the secret. And then, very unthreateningly, stick the skunk and the trap in the back of your car. Now when I lift up the back lid of our small SUV, it leads straight into the car, so I would be putting the skunk in right behind me. And then just drive unthreateningly, I guess, until you are at least ten miles away, as they have a good sense of geography, sort of Lassies of the mustelid world.

I saw a lot of drawbacks. The live trap sounded expensive. The detail cleaners might have charged a lot in case of an unprecedented accident.

In the end I went to Lowe's garden section and bought a few cinder blocks and flat cement slabs, nineteen dollars worth, and a dollar-fifty bag of marshmallows. We had heard the skunk moving around and thought this might be an activity period in the midst of its semi-hibernation. I put the bag of marshmallows outside the opening by our bedroom. I closed up all the other openings with the blocks and slabs so that a wolverine couldn't have scratched its way in. Then I closed up the opening near our room except for one skunk-sized gap (but I had a slab next to it that I could use to seal it in one second). I took a thin sheet of plywood and leaned it up against that opening.

As soon as it was dark, I took up my station in the darkened bedroom, straining my eyes out the window to see if the plywood had been pushed out. The first night I watched until I had to go to bed, and even then, got up several times during the night to check. Nothing. The next night looked like a repeat, so I yielded to temptation and went out to the living room to sit with Cheryl and watch a crime thriller on Netflix. The nest was under the living room and we heard the skunk stirring. I raced out to the bedroom window and looked, and the plywood had been pushed outward. I raced out and sealed everything up and came back to the living room panting. Maybe it had just peeked out and immediately gone back in. But maybe it had stayed out long enough for me to have caught it out. We waited a couple of nights and didn't hear anything. The third day I went outside and thought I could smell his personal B.O. on the porch. I followed the scent and it made a complete circle of the house, pausing especially by each opening under the house, as if looking for a way to get back in. The problem is, its smell seemed able to drift through the walls, so maybe what I was smelling was the skunk trapped inside the house, going around looking for an exit.

A week later there was a two-inch snowfall, and there were its tracks, very distinctive with their long nails, and it indeed circled the outside looking into every former opening for a way to get in. We kept the openings blocked all the rest of the winter, crossing our fingers that we wouldn't hear it stirring in its bed. In the spring we took out the blocks and just had the screens.

It was gone. It was gone!

But the house went right on stinking. It wasn't so bad, and sometimes it was almost gone, but when temperature or humidity were right, the smell would hang in the front room like a ghost, a presence that we couldn't quite see.

This past winter had been skunk free, the lingering odor fainter and fainter. So we were suddenly alarmed to get a strong skunk smell outside, the defensive smell, but just a brief burst, like it met up with an only slightly threatening animal, or even, who knows? had a touch of incontinence. Then a few nights later we were watching our crime program in the front room when we thought we heard a scratching around from under the floor vent, and I groaned thinking, How could I have let down my guard?

It was a bitterly cold night, just when a skunk might have been seeking a winter retreat. I went out the next morning and searched around. By great good fortune we had had frozen pipes earlier, so I had put big boards over the openings, to protect the pipes from the cold, and that had made the openings as secure as the big cement blocks would have been. When I checked, they were all in place, and it seemed to me there was no possible way the skunk could have gotten in.

Here is a picture of the screened opening, vulnerable to being dug under or pushed aside, and here it is with wood in front of it to protect the water pipes from cold.

We had heard the scratching under the floor, but I told myself it might just have been a mouse. Still, I caught myself waking up in the middle of the night and listening for sounds coming from under the house. Again the snow rescued us. We had had a few inches of soft powdery snow a week earlier, and most of it was still on the ground. There was another minor confrontation and a suffocating defensive burst outside the bedroom window. In the morning I had tracks to follow.

The skunk had walked all the way around the outside of the house. I could see the four feet of its funny loping walk.

And then I got perhaps some insight into its nervous squirts. Another predator was on the scene, our neighbor's burly tomcat had been striding through our back yard. I could see its bipedal track (cat's place their hind feet exactly in the track of their front feet). Right outside our bedroom window, the two sets of tracks crossed.

The best thing I discovered was out in the front yard where I saw a regular highway of tracks leading back and forth from a big outbuilding on our next door neighbor's lot. The building was half empty and they would probably never know the skunk was there. At any rate, the skunk was our neighbor's problem now, and we eased back into our love for all living things.