Nature in the Backyard: Black Rat Snake (again)

I walked down a path in the woods behind our home when I felt an urge to look at the old pine tree to my right. On the rotten stump of a broken off limb, the black rat snake we saw a week ago in the backyard was quietly watching the world go by. It doesn’t seem to fear us and it is fascinating to be eye-to-eye with such a large reptile. I hope it realizes it is safe on our property and stays around.

Nature in the Backyard: Black Rat Snake

This black beauty visited our backyard recently. It was about 6 feet long and very relaxed. I don’t know if it is the same snake that visited two years ago (here’s the link: Nature in the Backyard). I can’t tell one six foot Black Rat Snake from another, but this one was very mellow and the other one wasn’t. The other one seemed thicker, but that could have been the big meal it had just swallowed. I hope it stays around, it’s always a pleasant surprise to see such a large reptile.

Fast Food Kitten — Sweetie Wildcat Arrives

Look at the photo below. See the downspout in front of the car? Now imagine a thunderstorm dumping heavy rain on this place — water is gushing out of the downspout. Visualize a tiny orange kitten hiding under the downspout, trying to get out of the rain. Her mother has been killed and she’s all alone, scavenging for food scraps because she is starving. Our story starts here.   

On June 26, 2005, our neighbors, Chris and Leigh Ann, had stopped at a fast food restaurant on the way home from church. They were at the drive-through window when Chris spotted something out-of-place under the downspout near the front of the car. Chris told Leigh Ann what he was seeing, and she jumped out of the car, in the rain, and approached the downspout. A kitten ran across the parking lot and climbed a small tree. Chris parked the car and joined Leigh Ann at the tree. Chris was able to grab the kitten by the scruff and pull her off the tree. She was hissing, spitting, biting, and scratching. They took her to the car and put her the cargo area of the SUV. As they drove home, she ran around in the back of the SUV, trying to find an escape. A feral kitten, she had never been handled by humans. Leigh Ann started trying to tame the frightened little cat.

Ann and I had just returned from a vacation in the Jackson Hole – Yellowstone National Park area. It was the first vacation we had taken together in quite a while because we wouldn’t leave our old cat Scooter alone. Scooter had passed away the previous month, after 23 years of wonderful companionship. On this Sunday, Chris and Leigh Ann stopped by on their way home after church. Chris came in but Leigh Ann had stayed in the car. I went out to say hello to Leigh Ann. 

When the tiny cat had calmed down enough to be held, Leigh Ann emerged from the car holding her cradled in her arms. She was wet and exhausted and she looked pitiful. Leigh Ann brought her into our home where Ann helped Leigh Ann dry her off. Ann remembers how small she was and that her tongue was hanging out. After she had been toweled dry, we could see that she was a very cute striped orange kitten.

Leigh Ann took her to a vet on Monday for a checkup. The vet said she was about seven weeks old. Leigh Ann knew how to tame feral cats and continued domesticating the kitten.

We went to see her several days later. She was adjusting to life with humans well, playing and purring. Chris and Leigh Ann were going on vacation the next weekend, so we agreed to take care of the little wild cat while they were away. Leigh Ann dropped the kitten by our home on Friday.

Strangely enough, we were cat-less for the first time in 23 years. For almost two months, our home had felt empty and lifeless. I had never been around a kitten — Scooter was nine when I met Ann and I had never associated with cats prior to meeting Scooter. Ann and I had planned to get two Siamese kittens late in the summer.


By the time Chris and Leigh Ann returned from their vacation, I wanted to keep this orphaned kitty (fortunately, Ann agreed).

The Sunday that the kitten was rescued from the parking lot was the day after the worst birthday I had ever had (that’s another story). I felt that this little orphan, who had come to us through a most amazing set of circumstances, with a birthday gift to me. To this day, I have a special place in my heart for this cat and her rescuers, who saved her from a terrible situation — alone, seven weeks old, dodging cars in a fast food parking lot, and scavenging for something to eat.  We named her Sweetie Wildcat.

Sweetie was so small and quiet that we got her a collar and bell, so we could hear her when she was underfoot (we were concerned that we might step on her), and we could find her when she was out-of-sight exploring the house.

Having a kitten was fun when we were playing and a little stressful when she was climbing on furniture and exploring the house. I remember the first time we were sitting in the window seat in the bay window that overlooks our back yard. I was concerned that Sweetie might hurt herself if she fell off the seat. She quickly showed me how foolish I was by jumping about 3 feet off the seat onto the floor and landing on a full run. She was very fast, and I loved to call to her from the top of the stairs, just to see this little athlete dash up towards me.

I was amazed that Sweetie required no litter box training. She had never been in a house yet Leigh Ann said she immediately started using the litter box.

Young Sweetie would play with anything. One night soon after she arrived, I was in bed reading a magazine. Little Sweetie was running on the bed, jumping on anything that moved. I pulled a bingo card out of the magazine and teased Sweetie with it. She started batting it around. I folded it twice and tossed it across the room. Sweetie dove off the bed and attacked the folded card. Then, much to my surprise, she picked it up and ran towards the bed. She leaped onto the bed and dropped it beside me. I tossed it again and she retrieved. She retrieved it about a dozen times before she ran out of energy. (For a small kitten, jumping onto a bed is quite an impressive feat — it must take a lot of energy.) Here’s a video of Sweetie playing with a plastic bag:

Sweetie has amazing athletic skills. I saw her running down our stairs, hang a claw in the carpet, spin around, unhook the claw in mid-air, land and turn around and continue running — in a split second. (I doubt that slow and uncoordinated cats last very long in the tough world of feral cats.)

After Sweetie had been with us about a week, we decided to let her sleep in the bed with us. In the middle of the night I was awakened by loud purring. (Sweetie had a very loud purr, even then.) As I awakened, I felt her licking my ear. Then she started sucking my ear lobe! She must have missed her mother. It was not conducive to good sleep, however, and Sweetie spent the next several months sleeping in our guest bedroom at night. Here’s a video of her purring:

Sweetie learned how to ask for food in the kitchen very early. She still asks for food, five or six times a day — she eats an amazing amount of food (I wonder if she’s still affected by scavenging in the fast food restaurant parking lot). Here’s a video of her asking to be fed:

Adopting Sweetie forced us to revise our plans to add two Siamese kittens to our family in several months. We immediately began a search for some Siamese kittens that were the same age as Sweetie that were available immediately.

Two weeks later, Ann fell in love with a half Siamese-half Himalayan kitten and brought her home. We named her Blue Star. Sweetie was not pleased. I’ll describe that meeting in another story.

Nature in the Backyard: King Snake

Kingsnake_1 This king snake showed up on Sunday near Scooter’s grave. It stayed in the sunny spots under the dogwood trees and didn’t seem to be bothered by our walking nearby and my photo-taking.

I hope this handsome reptile sticks around. The black rat snake that came for lunch a week ago seems to be gone, and we like having wildlife around, even the ones that slither.

Nature in the Backyard: Black Rat Snake

On Sunday I was in our side yard when I heard birds screaming in our back yard. The bluejays were the loudest, but all the birds were shrieking. When about a dozen bluejays were started screaming Blackratsnake1ain unison, I decided to investigate.

When I stepped into the back yard, I expected to see a Coopers hawk. I didn’t see a hawk, but I did see several cardinals diving into the climbing roses on a trellis against the back of our home. As I walked towards the roses, something appeared out of place.

I saw what appeared to be a black tail hanging down at the bottom of the trellis. (Look at the red outline in the first photo – double-click for a closer view.) As I got closer, I saw a large black snake curled around a bird’s nest in the roses.

Blackratsnake2a_1 I called Ann and we looked closer. A black rat snake, about five feet long, had climbed up the trellis and feasted on the baby cardinals in the nest. Not only was it long, but it was thick – about 3 – 4 inches in diameter. A big snake! (You can see it’s head in the red circle in the second photo – double-click for a closer view.)

I wanted to get more photos when it came down, so I checked on it often. I expected it to move away from our house, across the yard, and into the woods. Wrong!

I spotted the big snake coming around the corner of the garage, towards the the front of the house. I walked over to get a closer look and a photo. It paused for a moment, and then started coming right towards me! Instead of moving onto the driveway where we were standing, however, it went into a hole under the driveway.

I was so caught up in the excitement I had forgotten to turn my digital camera on! When it was finally ready, I got a photo of it’s tail as it disappeared in the hole (highlighted in red in the third photo).

The next morning I went out and looked at the hole. The snake was about a foot out of the hole. It immediately withdrew into it’s sanctuary.

This large snake shows up four days after Scooter is gone. Can predators detect an opening in the ecosystem, an opportunity for upward mobility?


Nature in the Backyard: Coopers Hawk

Hawk2 I walked into the bathroom after our Siamese alarm clock woke me up. Suddenly a number of blue jays in the back yard started screaming – not their usual yelling and whining, but full-blown war screams. I looked out of the window and saw a Coopers hawk crouching in the yard while the blue jays dived bombed it and shrieked. I ran downstairs, grabbed the camera, and ran to the bay window overlooking the back yard. I snapped several photos, which didn’t turn out as well as I hoped because I was shooting through a window and the light at 7:15am was not sufficient. The first photo shows the Coopers hawk trying to avoid the diving blue jays. You can see the a bit of the prey under the hawk. Hawk3 The hawk has changed position in the second photo. When it flew away, I could see why it changed position: it had killed a Brown Thrasher and it repositioned the dead bird so that it was aerodynamic (head forward) so it would be easy to transport. Scooter and I went outside. All the birds were making noise and squirrels were clucking. The wildlife were alarmed. Is a Coopers hawk that eats a Brown Thrasher cannibalistic?

Nature in the Backyard: Coyote

I walked into the bathroom at 10am and glanced out of the window into the backyard. A large coyote came out of the woods into our backyard, running at half speed. He cut across our backyard and headed towards the street. I lost sight of him as he passed on the east side of our house.

I ran to the garage but I didn’t get to see where he went. Based on his direction, he ran up the walk way in our backyard and between the driveway and the garden. I wonder how often this occurs.

It could happen several times a day and we wouldn’t see it very often. I just don’t know if I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time or if it’s a commonplace occurrence. The path the coyote used is a place where Scooter often goes when we take him out.

What would have happened if Scooter had been on the path when the coyote came by? Would I have been able to intervene quickly enough to prevent Scooter’s demise?