Saturday, 30 June 2012

Close encounters

The first time I visited my now-husband in England, we took a road trip to attend a picture-perfect wedding on a lovely rural Welsh estate. Some time after dinner had finished but before the dancing began, we went for a stroll around the grounds. I was mostly concentrating on keeping my high heels from sinking into the incredibly soft soil, but Sasha was paying attention to something else: the silence. There were no sounds of crickets or tree frogs or owls or any other night animals punctuating the stillness. I was more than happy to have finally found some peace and quiet, since, at the time, I was living in an apartment that overlooked a busy street. But now that I live in the UK full-time, I have come to understand Sasha's desire that the wilderness be a bit more...rambunctious.

 (The Cornish countryside)

There's no denying the beauty of the British countryside, and Cornwall is especially spectacular. But, in comparison to the US, it is a bit tame. For example, I've only ever seen one snake the entire time I've lived here, and the person I was with when I saw it said it was the first one he'd seen in five years. As far as I can remember, I've never seen a British turtle, frog/toad, salamander, or fox, and Heaven knows I've never seen anything larger than a badger, because such things don't exist here any more. That's a thought I find particularly incomprehensible: There are no longer any large predators in this country because they've all been hunted to extinction.

The contrast between my new home and my old one was particularly evident during my most recent visit to the States, since I went at a time of year when wildlife is especially active and visible. I was surrounded by critters at every turn:

(I know, this is a terrible picture, but you'll just have to trust me that it shows several bats snuggled up together in the rafters of a picnic shelter at Strouds Run State Park, Athens, Ohio. I was there taking photographs of the lake and kept hearing the high-pitched twitter of bats chatting to each other. I followed the acoustic trail and found these guys tucked away in the shade.)

(Wee grasshopper on a touch-me-not leaf.)

(This is a female black widow spider that I encountered on my cousins' hot tub in North Carolina. Specifically, she had built a nest right next to the control panel, so I had to very carefully reach around her in order to turn the water jets on and off. My excitement over seeing my first-ever black widow was somewhat tempered by the threat she posed to my hand. I have since been told that she's been relocated to a less dangerous spot.)

(Also at my cousins' house was a resident pair of eastern bluebirds, raising their four chicks in a bird box on the porch. I got there just in time to see the nestlings on their last day before fledging. I could tell they were anxious to leave because one guy kept sticking his neck out of the box entrance in order to see what awaiting him outside.)

SIDE NOTE: To be fair, I guess I should point out that one thing the UK has no shortage on is birds--even in the middle of Falmouth. We routinely have wagtails, pigeons, and gulls landing on our balcony, and I see/hear many other species during my daily commute between school and home. I even sometimes have close encounters with baby birds, such as these blue tit nestlings I photographed in Cosawe's Woods the month before my trip to the US:

Okay, back to the American fauna:

(An eastern box turtle, the state reptile of North Carolina--where this specimen was found near my cousins' house. A couple weeks later my cousins sent a photo of a turtle that had dug a nest in the hard clay of their front yard, deposited her eggs, and camouflaged the whole area very neatly before departing.)

(Snail on a beech tree leaf. I think this is actually the first and only snail I have ever seen in the eastern half of the US.)

(A lightning bug. When I was in college, I was highly amused by the amazement of one of my West Coast friends the first time he encountered lightning bugs. I got to see things from his point of view this summer, since I'd been away from these delightful little creatures so long I'd forgotten they even existed. I made a comment to this effect on Facebook one evening, only to discover that a high school friend who was also in town had shared almost exactly the same thought at almost exactly the same time!)

(Three pleasing fungus beetles--that's their actual name, not my opinion of them. As you can see, the two in the background were, uh, working on the next generation of their kind.)

(A toad that I encountered one night in my parents' garage. Its eyeshine makes it look a bit demonic. Of course it was necessary to pick this guy up, but once I had finished my examination I had a hard time convincing him to leave my hand. I'm just glad he didn't pee on me, since that is usually what happens in these situations.)

(Daddy-long-legs, or, as they call them in the UK, harvestmen. I saw loads of these while I was home; the top one was at Hocking Hills, the bottom one was in Chapel Hill.)

Ironically, on the very day that I went to publish this post, I encountered a tiny little silverfish in my bathtub. Not that I find silverfish particularly exciting--in fact, they can be a real pest species and eat just about every type of material in your house--but this one was a sign that unexpected encounters with animals can occur in Britain, after all. Maybe next time I'll run into something a little more exciting--like the Beast of Bodmin Moor, or the Mawnan Owlman. Talk about rambunctious wildlife!

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