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Charmed Life

Creature Feature

Christopher Myers

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 8/6/2003

If those nature channels on cable television ever get tired of covering sharks and African watering holes, they could come to Baltimore and do a fine feature on urban wildlife. The metropolis seems to be crawling with photogenic fauna this season, thanks, no doubt, to the spring's incessant rain, which recharged the entire food chain. Whatever the ecological circumstances, I've had several critter sightings lately that made me wish I'd brought along my camcorder and an Australian guy to do the voice-over. Lacking those resources, here are the stories:

Story No. 1: I'm sitting on the steps by the sidewalk in front of my house, talking to my daughter, who is standing astride her bicycle. Suddenly she tells me to look behind me: Under a forsythia bush, beside our porch, a small bird of prey is busy dismantling some other feathered creature. The predator is concentrating on its victim, so we creep closer, and soon a small crowd of neighbors gathers to watch.

It's a peregrine falcon, brown with a speckled breast, probably related to the famous nesters that settled atop the Legg Mason tower downtown. Aside from the fact that this little drama is playing out in my side yard, this sighting is remarkable because not so long ago peregrines were considered an endangered species.

This particular creature looks more dangerous than endangered. From where we stand, the bird is neatly silhouetted, displaying the sharp, streamlined features that have made falcons and their kin such popular symbols with automobile makers and paramilitary thugs. It's well into its meal, tugging at stringy body parts while its talons brace what is left of the carcass. As we watch, a passing squirrel toddles up right behind the falcon, oblivious to the gory scene in progress. Suddenly the falcon turns, with gaping jaws, lifting its wings in a fearsome display. The squirrel, terrified, flattens against the ground and holds deathly still until the bird returns to its meal. The squirrel slinks gingerly away.

The falcon finally flaps off, and we inspect the remains of its prey, which don't amount to much: pigeon feathers and a single, pink snippet of gut. Even the bones are gone.

Story No. 2: A small group of us, members of the Herring Run Artists' Network, are walking the bike path in Herring Run Park through steady drizzle, scouting out possible sites for a project that we want to do: outdoor sculptures using natural materials--ideally such unwanted foreign plants as bamboo and honeysuckle, which have invaded the park. Near the neighborhood sledding hill, now green and damp, we come to a locust tree covered with blossoms that look like small chandeliers. From one branch dangles something dark and heavy: a swarm of honeybees. There seem to be a thousand bees packed into a shape like a fat Christmas stocking, about three feet long and eight inches thick. A cloud of active bees hovers and swoops around it, but the swarm itself is sluggish. I'm aware that honeybees do this when they outgrow an old hive, but in nearly half a century I've never seen the phenomenon firsthand.

Later on I get in touch with my brother, Mark, who studied beekeeping in college. He suggests that I call the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association. When I reach the group's past president, Jerry Fischer, he wants details: Where are they, exactly? How close can he get with a truck? I point out that the swarm is in a public park. No problem, says Fischer, he's a state bee inspector. He's on his way. My brother, meanwhile, heads over to see the swarm for himself. When he gets there, Fischer is in the process of nudging the torpid insects into a sack. Finally, they drop in a couple of clumps, and Fischer takes them away to a new home.

The next day, feeling a bit guilty about instigating this bee-napping, I ride my bike by the site to see if there is any trace of the swarm. A few yards from the locust tree, in a tamarack tree, I find four more swarms, each about football size. I feel better. And, I remind myself that honeybees, like honeysuckle, are an invasive species. English colonists brought them over; Native Americans called them "the white man's fly."

Story No. 3: The last of my wildlife sightings takes place not in Baltimore proper but just inside the Beltway on the Goucher College campus, about a block away from Dulaney Valley Road. It's dusk, and I'm driving past a sloping lawn surrounded by dense woods. Half a dozen deer are scattered around grazing, and at least two of them are sporting newish antlers still covered with "velvet" and only slightly branched. I pull over for a better look and notice a much smaller animal at the feet of the nearest male deer. A fawn, curled up in the grass? No, it's a fox--and a pretty big one. The fox and the buck are barely a yard apart from each other, and the scene is weirdly reminiscent of the Biblical lion and lamb. Both the fox and deer are eating grass. Or so it appears. I've never seen a fox eating grass before, but I consider several alternative theories: that it's really eating bugs stirred up by the deer, that it's licking salt or water from the grass, or that it is actually eating the grass, the way dogs sometimes do, for a little self-medication. The fox does look a little sickly, with a big patch of gray hair on its flank.

I'm somewhat surprised that nobody else pulls over to look at this strange sight. That's what they get for keeping their eyes on the road. When I restart my engine, both deer and fox prick up their ears and trot unhurriedly away.

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