Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hummers and Snappers

Every season seems to bring with it an obsession.  One year it was a rogue sunflower seed that had become embedded in a cut log.  Rather than dying, it sprouted a shoot right out the side of the wood.  One summer it was fresh peaches, which were so delectable I almost didn’t want to eat anything but.  Last year it was art, or my version of art.  I took a class, set up a second desk for my non-writing work.  I tried to make things.  I had fun being bad at it.

This year, starting in late spring and continuing to date, my attention is split.  On the ground, I’m in love with snapping turtles.  In the air, hummingbirds have invaded my consciousness.

These aren’t new interests, exactly.  I’ve loved turtles since I was small, and started being interested in hummingbirds when I lived in Arizona.  But this year both the birds and the turtles are more there.  I don’t know why the snappers have suddenly materialized, but I spot one almost every day.  In previous years I’d be lucky to see just one – more often, it’d be none at all.  The hummers have been ever-present since Leigh bought me a canister-style feeder which she hung outside my study.  Each May a couple of birds adopt the feeder as their own.  This year, however, we have four birds.  I don’t know if they’ve paired up, but they are fierce.  One will zip in, begin to drink.  Another will zoom close, buzz the first, and hover.  It appears to be a challenge, and sometimes the first bird will ignore the challenger and fly away.  Other times, however, the two will go breast to breast, appear to almost bounce off each other.  I can hear their wings tangle, and then they retreat.

The turtles are significantly less flashy.  I’ve observed two primary behaviors: lumbering (moving) and waiting (not moving).   The ones I’ve encountered close up have been rather large – imagine the biggest dinner plate you’ve ever seen, then extend it by a few inches.  A friend recently came across one in a pond; she said it was two feet across.  She doesn’t tend to embellish, so she may have been lucky enough to see a turtle that was quite old. 

For all practical purposes, I leave the hummers alone.  About every 3 days, I fill the feeder with a sugar/water mixture and then listen to them battle and court one another.  All day, every day, I hear their buzz through the open window as I sit at my desk.  They’re so close it sounds like an active beehive.  Once in a while I swivel around and watch them for a few minutes.  Sometimes all four are trying to get their licks in, but more often it’s just two.  I see them in the yard, as well, darting their long tongues into a flower or just speeding from one resting site to another.  Sometimes one will execute a series of deep, swooping arcs – part of their courtship ritual.  I watch, I marvel, but I don’t talk to the hummers, don’t attempt to interact, nor interfere with their antics. 

I don’t bother the turtles, either, in large part because I take their name seriously.  They can snap, and I don’t want to get snapped at or on.  I’ve read that they will latch onto a finger or hand and hold tight.  Even if they’re not attempting to take a piece of me as a souvenir, I don’t like pain and would prefer not to mess with a snapping turtle jaw. 

What I do, with the snapping turtles, is usher.  I have become a turtle crossing guard.  Whenever I see one in the road, I stop my car, get out, and direct approaching vehicles around the turtle until it has safely reached the other side.  It gives me a certain amount of pleasure to be a good Samaritan in the turtle realm, but I mostly do it to avoid the alternative: dead turtles.  So far this year I’ve encountered four, all hit by cars.  One morning, right down our road, I saw a big snapper. I stopped, made sure it crossed okay.  That evening, as I headed out for dinner with friends, I saw it on the side of the road, quite near where I’d earlier observed it.  It looked like it was resting.  On my return trip, it was in the same spot and I realized it wasn’t resting.  I felt broken-hearted --- I’d enjoyed that turtle.  We’d spoken a bit, as I waited there in the road for her (him?) to make the journey from one side of the road to the other.  That morning, she’d decided to pause mid-way, settling down to think or rest or just see what this human was up to…  After a few minutes she grew bored with me and headed west, into a swampy and wooded area.

I don’t know if she ever made it to her destination or if she was, perhaps, making a return trip when she was hit.  I do know that the road is flat and straight, and any driver paying the slightest degree of attention would have spotted the turtle at some distance and could have easily driven around her.  When there’s something in the road here, you notice it.  It’s almost always an animal – a snake, a frog, a darting chipmunk.  Every once in a while a squirrel will do what I call a suicide run – dash halfway across the road and stop, then suddenly change direction.  I’ve accidentally hit more than one – just about anyone who does a lot of driving out here will say the same.  Deer sometimes leap across the road, too, and again, if I asked thirty people, I’d probably find at least one who’s had a vehicle/deer collision.  They can be dangerous, even deadly. 

But there are reasons those animals are hit.  Snakes and frogs can be almost invisible; chipmunks and squirrels and deer are fast and unpredictable.  They flash out of the brush and are in your path in an instant.

Turtles are visible.

Their movement is so slow as to be nearly 100% predictable. 

They are easy to drive around.

We live in a rural area; there is virtually no traffic. 

So why do snapping turtles end up crushed in the road?

Because some drivers think it’s fun to run over them.  Something about the prospect of a crushed carapace turns them on, or maybe they like the bump beneath the tires that a 40-pound turtle would cause.

This might be a good place to say that I don’t understand many things that lots of other people think are fun.  Farcical comedy, excessive alcohol consumption, getting a tattoo, high-risk activities like skydiving, low-risk activities like golf.  The list goes on…

But I really, REALLY don’t understand what could be fun about getting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle and intentionally hitting a snapping turtle. 

A friend – the same one who saw the giant snapper in the pond – recounted a story from her childhood.  She was riding her bike down the road and saw a snapping turtle.  She stopped to admire it, made sure it traversed the road safely.  When it was just about all the way across, she headed off.  A pick-up truck passed her a minute later.  She stopped her bike and looked back down the road, wanting to make sure the driver went around the turtle.  He didn’t.  The truck swerved toward the shoulder, hit the turtle, sped off.

That was over forty years ago.  She hasn’t forgotten.  I won’t forget this summer’s turtles either. 

Right now, however, I am preoccupied with wings – wings nourished, at least in part, by sugar I’ve stirred into boiling water, cooled, carefully poured into canisters and hung.  The hummers’ throats are alit, they flash ruby-feathered brilliance in my eyes which yes, tear up with happiness.

                                                                                                                                               --for MB


  1. Beautiful. Keep up your job as turtle crossing guard. It's an important one. And keep filling through hummer feeders.

  2. Brilliant. Touching. I admire you... just as I always have. - JK