Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Twin Baby Raccoons and the Return of the Toe Toad

We had a late night last night. Around one, the tiny raccoon showed up on my bedroom porch. I lay back on my pillows, watching her patting the ground for seeds in the glow of the yellow porch light. Then I saw a movement off to the side. I grabbed my husband and woke him up, deeply concerned that a predator might be ready to harm the little raccoon. He grabbed a large flashlight and we crept toward the door. I noticed something dark moving on the trellis, and my first thought was that this might be the rat snake. My husband flashed the light onto the thick blanket of ivy leaves and there was saw one of the cutest sights I have seen in a very long time--two teeny baby raccoons climbing up the vines. The baby raccoon we've been watching each night is not a baby after all. She is very, very small for a raccoon, but she's a momma!

Raccoons are usually about 20 inches long and weigh around 20 pounds, but she is no where near that big, and her babies are so tiny. They are smaller than my chihuahua. At first, I thought she might be the big sister because related females often live together in raccoon families, but it was very obvious that this was their mother. She has appeared once before on our porch with a larger raccoon, and that could have been her mother, or grandma. Most raccoons have between two and five babies, so twins is normal. Sadly, most wild raccoons only live between two and three years because of hunters, but they live more than twenty years when kept as pets.

The twin baby raccoons reached the shelf where I keep more seeds and corn cobs for the squirrels. I hang these on the upper shelves so the squirrels will have a more secure place to eat in the daytime in case they don't hear my (incredibly noisy) dogs run onto the porch. The baby raccoons immediately started munching on the corn cob and finished every bite, then they climbed back down to join their mother. They both darted up to her and touched her nose with their noses as if they were kissing her. My husband tried so hard to get a picture of this, but there just wasn't enough light! Then they started patting the ground like momma, checking the sunflower shells to see if there were seeds left. When they walked, they arched their backs and almost looked like they were hopping.

They knew we were watching them. In fact, I opened the door twice and tossed out more sunflower seeds and bread crumbs. The first time I did this, the momma scooted off the porch as the babies watched silently from the shelf. The second time, the momma scooted behind the ivy and the babies darted behind plant pots, but just like little children, they only hid their heads and their chubby little bottoms and fluffy striped tails stuck out in the open, which was really rather funny to watch.

So, today, feeling rather sleepy after last night's raccoon watching, I walked out the back door and immediately realized Mrs. Toady, the plant pot toad, was missing. She is always very close to the back door, watching me as I come and go, but she was gone. I checked every plant pot on every porch and both ponds. Fearing the worst, I started for the back yard where she does, on rare occasions, venture out during the day time. As I walked by the back door I remembered last year's toe toads, the two toads who slept in the toes of my garden shoes each day. I have often thought there was something familiar about Mrs. Toady, and wondered if she could possibly be the same toad who used to creep into my garden shoes. I knelt down on my knees and looked inside. Deep inside the toe of my shoe was Mrs. Toady. As I softly told her how glad I was to see her, she slowly lowered her shimmering golden eyelids to blink at me. I think this is her way of saying howdy. I am so happy--my toe toad has returned!

Monday, July 27, 2009


I found one of the neatest little creatures slithering across my driveway this evening. I was watering the garden when I saw what looked like a silver worm move out of the dirt and onto the driveway. It was still over 100 degrees outside so naturally I felt compassion for this little creature, put down the water hose and walked over to see if he was okay. It is only about five inches long with a silvery-gray body, darker head and dark eyes. As it raised it's head to look at me, I realized I was looking into the eyes of the smallest snake I have ever seen!

I ran back to the house for my husband and my camera. When I returned, the snake had slithered beneath the truck. I crawled beneath the truck to take pictures, but he kept right on moving as if he wasn't the least bit bothered by my presence. He left the shadow of the truck and I once again worried for his safety since the pavement was even hotter than anything else around it.

My husband put a quarter down so we could make a size comparison in the picture you can see to the right. Then he put his finger down on the ground and the snake slithered up his finger and onto his hand. He seemed very happy on my husband's hand and sat quietly until I finished watering the garden, then my husband placed him back on the dirt and the snake slithered into a hole beneath a plant and disappeared.

Clint the Snake Man ( identified the little creature immediately as a flat-headed snake, tantilla gracilis, a nonvenomous snake that lives underground and is rarely seen. The snake can be many colors, including tan, brown and red, though this one was clearly a silvery-gray. It's distinguishing characteristic is the dark smudge on top of its head. They generally slither away in the opposite direction when approached, so I am even more surprised that this one moved right up my husband's finger and sat so long on his hand.

The largest a flat-headed snake will generally grow to be is ten inches. They are most often around eight inches, though this one was only about five. They are most active between March and October and generally found in forested areas, which makes sense as our house backs up to a forest. They usually lay one to four eggs in the spring, but their eggs don't hatch until September, which is a long time to wait. They lay the eggs under pieces of wood, so I now know I should be careful when digging in this area. The flat-headed snake eats grubs, ants, and scorpions, though I don't see how since it's such a tiny creature! What a wonderful gift from God to have in the garden!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Snakes, Scorpions, Squirrels and Dragonfly Skeletons

I have a habit of saying "mi casa es su casa" and apparently the rat snake has taken me seriously. It appears as though he is now a regular visitor. I let the dogs out after dark--which I do not often do--and as Holly walked back into the garage, the rat snake dropped on her head. Holly shook him off and kept walking, then glanced back over her shoulder as if she was only mildly curious. The rat snake slipped into the garage and beneath a wall-sized cabinet. I decided it was best not to pursue him for a picture. It was too dark anyway, and I have a feeling he was already shook up from dropping onto the dog's head. I think he was trying to climb across the wall again, most likely moving along the trim above the back door.

As I stood in my bathroom last night brushing my hair I heard a scratching noise on the floor and looked down in time to see a scorpion scrambling across the room. This has become a daily occurrence. We found one behind the bed the night before. They are always the tree bark scorpions and are not deadly unless they cause an allergic reaction.

I have heard all kinds of stories about these scorpions. Some people say they follow the walls, but I've found them all over the place in our house, from the middle of the room to the top of the stove. Some people say they only come out at night and only move around in the dark, but I rarely see them in the dark. I think my next door neighbor's guess about these little creatures is most accurate. She suspects they are in the ceiling making babies and climbing around in the vents. I am deeply concerned that one of them might sting one of the dogs or the cat while they are sleeping. I know I'm not allergic to them, but one of my pets might be, and it could become a dangerous situation if something happens while my husband and I are out of the house.

The little one-eyed squirrel was on my bedroom patio again today and I prayed for him while he ate his sunflower seeds. Of all the squirrels in my yard, he seems most comfortable with my presence. He still jumps if anyone moves too quickly, but that's understandable considering his vision problems. I still wonder if he can see at least partially through his injured eye. It appears as if he can. He seems to like the sound of my voice, too, which is interesting. When I talk to him after he's been spooked, this seems to calm him. He is growing larger and stronger and has a beautiful, thick coat, so I think he is thriving in spite of his vision problems.

I don't know if any tadpoles made it out alive in my pond. Once again, a dragonfly laid her eggs in the pond. I watched her do it. She was large and red and beautiful and skipping across the water. At first I thought she was getting a drink, then I noticed it was her tail that was skimming the water's surface. I think she must have seen the tadpoles and realized they would provide food for her young. Dragonfly babies look like little roaches that scramble around the rocks on the bottom of the pond. They eat the tadpoles, bugs, and each other, and only the largest and strongest survive. When they are ready, the crawl from their roach-like shell like a butterfly leaving its cocoon, then they fly away. I actually found three dragonfly skeletons yesterday. It took me a few minutes to recognize the shape. I wish we could have baby toads and frogs around here. I love the toads and frogs, but I also think the dragonflies are lovely. They do try to bite, but their mouths aren't strong enough to break the skin. I've seen them in all sizes and colors around here, but mostly the iridescent blue and the deep red. Some dragonfly species are considered endangered, just like some of the frogs around here, so it's best to just let them battle it out in the pond and wait to see who survives.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It's a Texas Rat Snake!

I have a positive identification on my snakey visitor! According to Clint the Snake Man ( our friend is a Texas rat snake and non-venomous. They will bite, and bite hard, if they feel threatened, but this one obviously didn't feel too threatened by me or it would have reared up. Apparently, they raise the front third of their body like a rattler, hiss, shake their tail like a rattler, and snap with a hard bite. I'll give him his space in the future, but I do hope he returns. They are known as snakes with an attitude!

These snakes can get as long as eight feet, and after looking closer at my pictures, I suspect that my original estimates of the length of this creature were a bit short and that it was possibly as much as five feet long.

Rat snakes are also known as chicken snakes because they sneak into chicken coops and eat the chickens. They generally eat rodents, though, and we have plenty around here, which may explain why I only see the mouse on my bedroom patio at night. He probably waits for the rat snake to go to bed!

The Texas rat snake also eats lizards and frogs, and I suspect this is why the toad and frog population has been a bit low this year. I have seen more snakes around our house in the past six months than I have seen in my entire life!

Although our snake is black and gray, many rat snakes have lots of color on them, which can make it difficult to distinguish them from venomous snakes. They even have albino and orange snakes in this area! Unfortunately, many people capture these snakes and keep them as pets. I hope this one lives a long, happy life in the wild and he is welcome to come back and visit, though I do hope he leaves the other little creatures around here alone!

Snakey Visitor!

I was walking into the garage this morning and saw the large, black snake with gray markings moving slowly through my garden. I recognized him as the one I saw by the pond last week. I ran for my camera, but he was hiding beneath the aloe vera plants. I decided it was best to try and identify him. If he is poisonous, we will need to call experts for a catch and release, but he wouldn't come out from beneath the aloe vera.

I sprayed water nearby and the snake came out, but instead of slithering across the ground, he went up the rock wall of my garage! It was very cool to watch. He was moving between the protruding rocks, stretching thin, then bunching up. He finally reached the roof and started east across the trim above the door, where I got a good picture of his length. He is about four feet, black, with grayish-white markings. I sent the pictures to a local expert and I'm waiting for identification. His picture is to the right.

The important thing is that this snake was not threatening in any way, even after I spooked him. He never turned to hiss at me. He seemed intent on getting away from me. In fact, he pooped on the door, which made me feel very sad because I think I literally scared the poop out of him. I am hoping he is not poisonous so he can stay. He is a rather attractive snake, and they are very beneficial for gardeners.

As long as he stays away from the kangaroo mouse! I have a kangaroo mouse who likes to eat standing up on his hind legs. He cleans up the corn crumbs when the squirrels are through. He stands at the back door holding the corn between his paws, watching my cat. I suspect that he is giggling at the poor cat who is trapped on the other side of the glass door.

There is a squirrel lounging inside my bedroom patio. He is lying on his belly, enjoying the shade. He looks very content. I am out of corn cobs so I put a handful of seeds on the shelf and he is lying on his belly, munching on a pile of seeds beneath his chin. He is watching me. Once in awhile he will tip his nose over the side and glance down at the cat, who is curled up at the base of the glass door, sleeping. I think the squirrels think I am a fish in a fish bowl.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Racoons, Birds, and Baby Lizards

I am watching the raccoon on the back porch right now. He moves very slowly when he creeps onto the porch, which is rather funny because he sees me. In fact, I walk right up to the door and talk to him. Nevertheless, he still slinks about as if he's not sure if he should stay or run. I can stand and talk to him the entire time he's eating and it doesn't seem to bother him in the least, but if my husband walks up to the door and starts talking, the little fella will slink back out the opposite door. I think it's my husband's deep voice that makes him nervous. It is funny to watch him slink, though. He's so cute, but he thinks he's very sneaky. It goes well with his black mask.

Today was baby lizard day at my house. Every time I left the house I saw a baby lizard scooting across the picnic table or scampering up a plant. I saw three baby lizards on my bedroom patio. They must have been having a conference. One was a creamy color, almost translucent. Another was the gray variety with scales, the ones that look like dragons. The third was an anole and very, very small. In the afternoon, I walked to the back door to take the dogs out and something leapt onto the screen. I took a step back--it sort of scared me!--then realized it was yet another baby lizard! He had jumped onto the screen and was watching us through the door. His picture is to the right.

I finally got a picture of one of the striped lizards with pink tails and you can see this to the right, as well. I have tried so many times, but they are very fast. We have two large ones living beneath the wisteria bush. Every morning and afternoon they make a complete trip around the house, searching for bugs. They stop at the pond for a quick drink, but I also set out dishes of water near the back door in case they get thirsty. They aren't particularly shy. Sometimes they walk right in front of me, their heads flipping from side to side as they search for bugs, but by the time I get my cell phone out and the camera ready, they have moved into the rocks or up a tree.

When I was looking out the bedroom window at the pond this morning I saw the most beautiful gray bird. Her chest was a soft bluish-gray, and her back feathers were much darker, almost black. She had a little bit of yellow on her beak. She was alone and seemed to be enjoying the solitude. There was something about the way she stood that made me think she was very relaxed and enjoying the shade and the cool drink. It was almost hypnotically peaceful to watch. She filled her beak then tilted her head back, letting the water drip down her throat. After a few minutes I tried to get closer to the window so I could see her better. I moved too quickly and she saw me. She hopped up into the tree so I left, hoping she would hop back down when she realized she was once again alone.

The tiniest squirrel was on the back tree again this morning. He has a late morning habit that is really cute. He likes to pull a piece of corn off the cob then lie upside down on his belly on the tree and nibble on it. It looks so cute to see him lying upside down on his belly, but he seems perfectly comfortable in this position. I think it makes him feel big to be looking down on everything.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Strong Squirrels, Determined Frogs, and Hummingbird Wars

I saw the cutest thing a few days ago. When I changed the corn feeder for the squirrels there was still a few rows of corn left on the cob, so I left that cob on the picnic table assuming the larger birds would take care of it. As I was bird watching out the window I noticed the tiniest male squirrel checking out the corn cob. He tested it a few times, grabbing it with his teeth and sliding it along the table, then decided it was worth the try and knocked it to the ground. He dragged it across the leaves and twigs and to the tree, then tried to lift it in his mouth, but it appeared to be a bit too heavy. So, he jumped onto the tree and clung to the bark upside down, grabbed onto the corn cob with his teeth and tugged the cob all the way up to the tallest branch. He hesitated a bit as he debated his next move, then decided to take the chance and bit the corn cob in the middle, held it into the air, then leapt onto a nearby branch. He made it! I was so happy for him that he didn't fall! That tiny squirrel somehow managed to carry that corn cob through the twisted branches of the sprawling backyard oak, onto another tree behind our fence then deep into the forest. I am assuming he managed to tuck it into his food pantry at his home.

I also noticed that our hummingbird usually has only two birds at a time feeding from the tiny flowers. Hummingbirds are very territorial. They are such teeny, tiny creatures, but always scrapping for a fight. So, on a hunch, I decided to buy three more hummingbird feeders and I set them up on opposite sections of the house. This morning, I walked quickly from window to window to see how they were doing and counted fifteen hummingbirds flitting about. I love these tiny creatures. They are not shy. If I walk outside when they are ready to feed, the eat anyway, often buzzing by my head.

It's a strange feeling to be buzzed by a hummingbird. You can actually feel the flap of their wings. Their wings move at 90 beats per second! They can also fly backwards, which they do surprisingly often when approached a food source. It's sort of a backward/forward motion as they test the area to see if its safe and decide if they want to land. Although it appears as if they suck the nectar up with their beak, they actually have a grooved tongue, like a trough, and kind of scoop it up and sometimes tilt their heads back to let it drip down their throat. Hummingbirds feed on bugs, too, which is nice for gardeners.

A frog has made his home on top of one of our hummingbird feeders. At first, I thought he was stuck up there. I couldn't figure out how he got there in the first place! I gently removed him and put him in a potted plant where he could bury himself during the hottest part of the day, then I went back outside a few minutes later and the frog had left the plant and returned to the feeder! Because it is filled with sugar water, the feeder also attracts flying insects and I think he's looking for food. It is beneath a hanging plant, too, so the frog is sitting in the shade during the hottest part of the day. My husband waters the planter every morning now as he leaves for work so the frog can have a drink. You can see his picture to the right.

No more red wasps. I was swarmed twice for a total of 18 stings before we figured out it must have had something to do with the lavender oil I blend into my body lotion. One good thing came out of the many red wasp incidents. When I called my husband to tell him I was swarmed, he called a neighbor who was closer to the house, and she called three other neighbors, and within just a few minutes my house was filled with neighbors checking in to make sure I did not have an allergic reaction. Because we live on such a large piece of land, I thought we were distanced from our neighborhood friends, but I guess we are only a heartbeat away. I still see a red wasp once in awhile, but I suspect they will move on to a less hostile environment.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Squirrels, Snakes and Psychic Premonitions

It's a lovely fourth of July here in Central Texas. Breezy, with clear skies. I woke up late and didn't even feel guilty for sleeping in. It's just too comfortable outside to feel guilty about anything. Then I remembered that I did not finish watering my gardens yesterday because I was stung by the wasps. So, I ran outside in my bare feet and pajamas to hook up the hose. And yes, that is a dumb thing to do. All gardeners know that you should never run through your gardens with bare feet, but in Texas, that's just plain silly.

I reached down beneath the sunflower leaves to connect two hoses and had the strangest thought. "You're about to be bitten by a snake, and that would be very funny considering the day you had yesterday." So, I stood up and thought it over, pulled the sunflower leaves to the side and saw nothing, and decided to connect the hoses. Nothing happened. Then I turned around and headed back for the water faucet and almost stepped on a three foot snake.

I looked down at my ankles and sighed. "So it was a premonition," I thought. I looked back at the snake. Running would have been another dumb move--he already had his mouth open in a hiss and was prepared to strike. So instead, I decided to take a good, long look at him. Oddly enough, I didn't feel even the tiniest bit of fear, and I could see that he didn't, either. He was warning me, that's for certain, but didn't seem too intimidated by me.

At first, I thought it was a rattler because of the pattern on his back, but he wasn't at all aggressive. The warning was more like "If you harm me, you will feel very guilty later." We stood and stared at each other for a few moments then he slithered into the shade garden. I finished watering, then looked him up on the computer. Sure enough, he is a checkered garter, and absolutely lovely. I am so grateful for this encounter because I was able to call my husband and describe the snake and warn him not to harm the little fella.

All of the squirrels are out at the same time this morning and four of them are eating on the back porch. One is on the ground sniffing the seeds to see if they are full. The raccoon pats them with his paw, which is rather fun to watch. The squirrels always prefer to eat on the table, though. I took a picture of the one on the ground and you can see it to the right. All of the squirrels on my bedroom patio were male teenagers. They're not babies anymore. One of them was the squirrel with the injured eye. I really should give him a name. I think I'll name the tiniest male Squirt. He's pretty easy to pick out. He's much smaller than the rest and spunky!

Friday, July 3, 2009


It's been a rough day. First thing this morning I took the dogs out for a walk and I was swarmed. I was tapping the ground with my walking stick to warn the snakes that we were coming through and I set off a swarm of red wasps. In the past few days, when I walked past the backyard Oak tree, I felt something slap against my face or chest and I thought it was a moth or butterfly, that I had simply walked into something. It didn't occur to me that I was being attacked. Today, I was full-on attacked. It was like a small cloud. One got into my shirt and before I could get it out it stung my shoulder seven times. I had stings on my hands and arms, but couldn't see them until later in the afternoon when the swelling went down. I couldn't raise my arm for six hours. It was limp, with shooting pain from my neck to my fingertips. I think they have a nest in the electrical post toward the back of the property. It's the females that fly, swarm and sting, and unlike bees, they can sting multiple times. Red wasps colonies have only one queen, and the rest of the flyers are her daughters. By winter, most of the colony dies off and the queen finds a secret hiding place to wait out the bad weather. This colony is obviously huge! Red wasps eat chicadas and those nasty tomato worms that eat my plants. It's too bad they're so aggressive because they are a beneficial, but they're also dangerous since they have a tendency to swarm.

So, I decided to work in the front yard. I put the hose on a slow drip to fill the toad-pole pond and realized I overfilled it when I saw one of the toadies floating away. I quickly rescued the critter then got down on my hands and knees to check for other swimmers and I was swarmed a second time by fire ants! It's been a hard day. I am covered in bites, on my shoulder, arm, hands, thumbs, knees, ankles and feet.

While I was working on the back porch I moved a plant pot and found a large female toad. She was a bit nervous at first and started to climb out of her pot, then decided she liked the chive pot better. I have pictures of her to the right. She is lovely. Her eyelids shimmer with gold as if she's wearing eye shadow.

Then, as I was looking out my bedroom patio door, I saw what I thought was a baby snake. I took a few pictures with my cell phone camera and as it turned its head to look at me, I realized, from the appearance of its head, that it is actually a lizard! When I enlarged the pictures I could also see that it had four legs, which rules out snake! The snakey-lizard's pictures are to the right, as well.

There must have been hundreds of lizards out today. Everywhere I looked there was a lizard. I saw three baby lizards in my rosemary garden. I also saw the window lizard making his rounds on the driveway and the two striped lizards with pink tails still make a circle around my house, just like last year, their heads flipping from side to side as they search for bugs.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Toads and Lizards and Rain!

It is raining! Texas temperatures have ranged over 100 every day for a month and it's been so dry I was worried the entire state might self-combust, but Central Texas got rain yesterday afternoon and all day today. And with the rain comes the toads and frogs. Last night I noticed our smaller pond was filled with toad eggs. Frogs lay their eggs in a nest, but toads lay their eggs in long strings draped around rocks and plants. This afternoon, when I checked on the eggs I could only find a few strands. At first I thought they were all eaten by the monstrous garter snake who has made my ponds his home, but then I noticed a bunch of teeny little stick-like forms near the rocks. It sometimes seems as if there are a billion predators for toad and frog tadpoles. I wish there was more I could do to protect them. If they survive to be much larger I will move a few into my fish tank. The other pond has quite a few fish in it and they are growing fat and sassy feeding off the mosquitoes, so I think the tadpoles are safer in the smaller pond.

The squirrels congregated on the back porch today. They like to hang out on the food table when it's raining. A little rain always seeps through, but for the most part they remain dry. Early this morning I noticed three of the baby male squirrels hanging upside down beneath tree branches. I couldn't figure out what they were doing, or why they didn't just come onto the patio and eat. Then I realized my husband was in the backyard adjusting the water drains coming into the yard--they were waiting for him to leave! The squirrel with the injured eye was also on the table today. His eye was a little damp. I will continue to pray for him. I wish there was more I could do for him. He seems to be maturing and growing stronger and larger, so it must not bother him too much.

I have noticed lately that when I work with the plants on the back porch I always hear something scampering about. Today I got a good, long look at my new back porch resident. It is a rather large lizard. I've seen him back there often, but I didn't realize until today that he had made my plant table his permanent home. You can see a picture of him to the right. He is looking into the den through the window. Now that I know where he lives I can keep fresh water out there for him. This will also attract bugs to his living area so he'll have something to eat.

There are large, deep holes beneath one of the crape myrtle trees and I don't know who put them there. They are about 1/2 inch wide, and there's about six of them. My husband suggested it might be a snake, but the snake who lives at the pond has a large hole he took over from the bunnies last year. He lives beneath a sprawling oak at the base of the front slope.

I have two gigantic sunflowers in the backyard now. They are volunteers--I did not plant them. They must have come from seeds in the birdseed mix on the back porch, or perhaps they were mixed in with the marigolds and Mexican Sunflowers growing around them. The sunflowers are butterfly magnets! However, I also noticed they attract the same caterpiller-like beasts that have been munching away on my tomato plants. I took a picture of one that I found on a leaf and you can see it to the right. It appears as if he's had a great feast!