Tag Archives: Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana)

The rookery – Part 1

Farms and ranches.  Urban and suburban sprawl.  Highways and byways.  Throughout the “civilized” world, these anthropogenic artifacts have gone to great lengths in reducing the availability of natural habitat for plants and animals.  Traveling some distance from humanity seems a prerequisite just to see nature doing its thing in what little space we’ve left for it.  This explains why most people in developed areas rarely see anything more than a handful of bird species, the occasional rat or mouse or ant or wasp, and almost no flora save that planted in manicured lawns and decorative gardens.

Conversely, nature has an interesting way of taking advantage of what few opportunities we provide it.  These oft overlooked silos of life accommodate surprising diversity where it’s least expected.  And that creates an opening for discovery, a chance a lot of people won’t otherwise have.  Therein lay the seed of appreciation that can make a city dweller comprehend the beauty beyond—and the need to protect it.

As the crow flies, it’s less than four miles/six kilometers north of downtown Dallas: the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center campus, a large complex of health facilities and college buildings smack-dab in the middle of the hospital district.  For miles around, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a doctor or nurse or medical student—and winding up in court for the trouble!  Yet nestled in the middle of a bustling urban landscape and located on the campus grounds lies an example of nature’s irony and majesty.

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A small wooded area at the intersection of two major roads.  It covers approximately 3.5 acres/1.4 hectares and serves as respite for students, faculty and patients, a breath of verdant escapism outside cold stone walls.  To leave the sterile smell of the hospital for a few minutes and listen as gentle breezes whisper through the trees probably has as much a medicinal effect as any prescription drug.  (Recent studies showing the impact of nature on the human mind and body certainly agree.)

But that humble area of trees and brush also serves another purpose, one protected by state and federal laws.  It’s a rookery for migratory birds.

A great egret (Ardea alba) perched in a tree (2009_04_19_015737)

I visited the site a few weeks ago.  I’m embarrassed to admit it was the first time in my life…and I’ve lived here almost 40 years.  It seems I’ve spent too much time running here and there, always looking for the exotic or out-of-the-way opportunities, and in the process I ignored what should be a cherished Dallas landmark.

Two black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) perched in the treetops (2009_04_19_015683)

Like an imaginary world, the rookery presents as a surreal oasis in the middle of the city.  To get close to it, one must stand within a cluster of multi-story buildings and heavy traffic, yet the number of species nesting here defies belief.  Great egrets flit across six-lane roads.  Anhinga circle above the treetops.  Snowy and cattle egrets busy themselves with collecting twigs for their nests.  Green and little blue herons lurk in the shadows trying to remain invisible.  Once in a while a tricolored or great blue heron shows up.  And white ibises sometimes nest here as well, although they tend towards the middle of the woods, a forbidden realm that offers them escape from the city around them.

Two snowy egrets (Egretta thula) building a nest (2009_04_19_015774)

Then there are the robins and kingbirds and flycatchers, and the sparrows and wrens and finches.  Starlings, grackles, mockingbirds, doves, woodpeckers and an endless parade of other species likewise dwell or hunt here.  The magnitude, the volume of life in this tiny patch of land seems incomprehensible at best.  That’s never more true than when one considers that it’s a small green dot in the middle of a gray concrete jungle.

A tricolored heron (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor) perched in a tree (2009_04_19_016082)

Birds aren’t the only inhabitants.  Fox squirrels and Virginia opossums scurry about the branches and understory while trying to avoid the angry retribution of nesting herons.  If you’ve never seen a great egret wallop a squirrel for being too close to its nest, I assure you the squirrel always loses.  And it ain’t pretty.

A green heron (Butorides virescens) perched on a branch over a pond (2009_04_19_016309)

Signs around the periphery of the grove adamantly declare the obvious: “Bird Nesting Area: NO TRESPASSING.”  These manifest the university’s responsibility…but not necessarily its wishes.  Controversy surrounds this wonder, this beguiling gem amidst mundane people and their ways.  While so many pass by without noticing, even the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department pays attention.

An American robin (Turdus migratorius) standing in dirt looking for food (2009_04_19_015993)

I contacted UT Southwestern about the rookery.  I asked for more than the usual press release: I added several specific questions related to historical treatment of the area and what plans exist for the future.  I have yet to hear back, although I hope to include their response in future installments of this miniseries.

A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) looking down from within a tree (2009_04_19_016229)

Meanwhile I’m left with a sense of awe and intrigue.  I’ve seen alligators and crocodiles, killer snails and killer snakes, rodents larger than most dogs and rodents smaller than a thumbprint, whales and wasps of many stripes, and countless birds that fill every niche of nature’s womb, yet still I find myself beguiled by the bounty of life that finds home and safety in a wee bit of woods hidden within a concrete jungle.  It’s a testament to life that many hundreds of nests will be built there—again.

The rookery calls me back while the spring nesting season continues.  I intend to return as often as I can to document this marvelous dichotomy, a simple little spot that reminds me of what Rachel Carson penned in The Sense of Wonder:

For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind.  One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?'”

Indeed, what if…

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] Great egret (Ardea alba)

[2] Black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax)

[3] Snowy egrets (Egretta thula)

[4] Tricolored heron (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor)

[5] Green heron (Butorides virescens)

[6] American robin (Turdus migratorius)

[7] Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana)

[cross-posted to The Clade]

From the living room to the back door

I’ve unfortunately been too busy with work and last week too sick with the flu to do much walking at the lake, let alone to do much in the way of photography.

That vexes me, yes, but things could be worse: I could be unemployed.  Now’s hardly the time to complain when it comes to being overworked and underpaid.

All the while, I’m back on call this week (what a familiar refrain that’s become).  There’s no chance of getting out for more than a visit to the patio.

But the patio’s not at all bad considering where I live.  So much life flourishes at White Rock Lake that living here makes it all but impossible to not see something of interest even if the length of my walk is from the living room to the back door.

A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) perched in the tree (2008_12_17_002590)

A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) perched in the tree is a familiar vision.  A veritable horde of this species lives nearby, so they make for constant companions throughout the year.

But these are not brave birds, I’ve discovered.

A cardinal need only hiss to frighten the sparrows away, and even a Carolina wren can chase the sparrows off.  Having seen both events recently as many species vied for a bit of the birdseed bounty I put out, I laughed each time: surprised to see a male cardinal be so forceful and shocked to see a tiny wren send the sparrows fleeing for their lives.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) perched in a tree (2008_12_17_002579)

Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are as ubiquitous as they are fearless.  When all other birds flee, at least one mockingbird will be around to keep an eye on things.  When a predator moves in, at least one mockingbird will sound the alarm and launch the first assault.  When other birds invade territory that somehow is sacred—nesting season or not, the mockingbirds sweep in and attack.

How beautiful their diverse repertoire of song, though.  The other morning I thought one of the local monk parakeets had landed in my tree; the mockingbird offered a perfect copy of the bird’s sound.  Only when it launched into a complete musical presentation full of various songs and sounds did I realize I had been fooled, and joyously so I will admit!

A friendly fly (a.k.a. government fly or large flesh fly; Sarcophaga aldrichi) sunning on the patio fence (2009_01_07_004240)

The friendly fly (a.k.a. government fly or large flesh fly; Sarcophaga aldrichi) looks like the common housefly; the only difference is that it’s noticeably larger than its pesky cousin.

In the midst of a winter that has been overly warm, I discovered this friendly fly grabbing a bit of sun on the patio fence.  Hot enough for me to be in shorts and a tee shirt and quite to the fly’s liking, we spent a wee bit of time together as it warmed its wings.

They’re called friendly for a reason, you know.

A green anole (Anolis carolinensis) sunning on the patio fence (2009_01_09_004279)

Green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) began leaving hibernation in the middle of December.  That worried me.  A winter that wasn’t much of a winter provided enough warmth for the lizards to seek heat and nourishment.  Only one of those commodities was in abundance.

The first anole I saw showed ribs through taught scales.  Others who followed worried me with the same presentation.

As December gave way to January and the springlike winter continued, more insects showed up and the anoles filled their skins a bit more until finally they looked healthy again.

And notice how this one has matched the paint color on the fence.  Chameleons change color to control body heat and to communicate.  Anoles, on the other hand, change color to control body heat, to communicate and to act as camouflage.  I’ve seen them match colors no chameleon could touch, and I’ve seen them do it with blazing speed and precision.

A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) eating cat food on the patio (2009_01_19_005240)

One of my neighbors enjoys the local Virginia opossums (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) about as much as I do.  She told me one day that someone walked by and saw her snapping photos in the dead of night—photos apparently focused on something quite mundane: a tree.

She was taking pictures of a juvenile opossum who’d climbed the tree in response to an approaching dog.

I do love opossums, love their personalities, their singular claim to being a marsupial in North America, their gentle dispositions, their methodical approach to movement that keenly hides an ability to move rather quickly when the need arises.

Finding this one early one evening as it enjoyed some of the cat food on the patio made for a pleasant discovery.

A Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) standing on a gardening glove (2009_02_02_006025)

I absolutely adore Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus).  The busybodies of the bird world, they look like a bunch of Chatty Kathy dolls marching along beneath the shrubs as they gossip and bicker and jabber throughout their search for a bite to eat.

Like mockingbirds, they also lack the overwhelming fear of people that most species (should!) have.  I can’t begin to count the number of times one has perched on the fence next to me or hopped on my foot as it made its way across the patio.

A gardening glove that blew in during a powerful wind storm provided the perfect scale as this one bopped along in speckled sunlight between the fence and the photinias.  Not large at all, these wrens make up with attitude what they lack in size.  How delectably enjoyable!

I know what people say

The Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) is ugly, it’s a scavenger, it looks like an overgrown rat.

Perhaps they say other things, these people, but it all boils down to the same problem: The opossum seems not to have a great many friends, at least not as many as, say, the fox or hawk.

A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) standing behind a tree looking at me (2008_12_19_002635)

For me, though, I’m hugely in love with opossums.

Cute as the day is long, I’ve watched them these many years grow from tiny lumps held in mommy’s pouch to adults so large that few would believe it to be an opossum.

A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) walking around outside the patio fence (2008_12_19_002638)

I’ve saved a handful of babies spilling from the marsupial pouch after their mother was hit by a car.

I’ve screamed and laughed as a baby no larger than my fist scampered across my foot as it made its way from one end of the patio to the other, and as another equally small baby crossed the patio before returning to a buffet of goodies I left out.

I’ve watched adolescents grow into teenagers and into adults, each generation still visiting so long as they live.

I’ve smiled many times as I spoke silly things to the latest one to climb my tree and wait for nightfall or a dog to pass or a car to drive away or me to go back inside.

I’ve surprised more than my share who didn’t hear me heading for the door and certainly didn’t realize I was coming outside.

I’ve watched with wonder as they climb down trunks headfirst, a gift few animals have.

I’ve chastised myself and later snickered at myself for standing beneath a tree when an opossum fell out of it and on me, one I would have seen had I checked the tree before I leaned against it.

A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) standing outside the patio fence (2008_12_19_002616)

I know they don’t see well, but by golly they can hear and smell with the sense of a great predator.

I’ve tested that theory and enjoyed the game of seeing how close I could get without causing fear, a game punctuated with standing still and moving slowly and making no noise, a game I always lose but love nonetheless.

I used a stick once to reach through the fence and pet one while it cleaned up the cat food left by the neighborhood felines.

It never flinched.

It stood there and let me pet it while it crunched away at kibble.

No, I wouldn’t have chanced my hand in the encounter—these are wild animals—but sharing that brief moment of contact-by-proxy touched me and thrilled me and left me wheeling with glee.

I’d hardly call them ugly.

A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) giving me a sideways glance (2008_12_19_002627)

There’s just something about the innocent manner in which they turn their heads away to look at me indirectly…

One need not leave the patio…

…to enjoy a bit of the natural world.

This weekend I have spent my time doing the on-call thing for work.  Right now I feel drunk, although not from alcohol.  From lack of sleep, yes.

I’ve had perhaps two hours of rest since five in the morning on Friday.

Needless to say, it’s been a hell of a weekend.  And not in a good way.

Still, my want to take walks and snap photos suffers no lasting damage from such times, for it is with a great sense of gift that I can stand outside on my own patio and get a fix for my need.

Nature comes to me, you see.

Clance standing outside the patio fence (20081005_13300)

Clance[1].  For some time I thought I would never see his cross-eyed face again.  He disappeared for more than a year with but one or two minor visits in early 2007.  I hoped for the best and feared the worse: that he had been adopted and that he had died, respectively.

Then he suddenly reappeared maybe two months ago.  Now he comes running when he sees me on the patio and he purrs and meows as he speaks to me with trust and affection.  I’m thrilled to see he’s alright.

A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) perched on the patio fence (20081005_13353)

A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus).  Whilst kneeling on the patio floor trying to snap photos of a lizard, I heard the tiniest bit of noise beside me, something much like a dry leaf rustling against an old log.

Slowly I turned and looked over my shoulder.  There hardly an arm’s length from me perched this little bird.  He clung to the fence and glanced about as though he’d lost something.

In truth, I put birdseed out every day.  The sparrows join the cardinals, the blue jays, the mourning doves, the rock doves, the Carolina wrens and a litany of other species as they each vie for their bit of the bounty.  My little sparrow friend probably wanted to make sure no threats lurked about before he dove to the ground for a bite to eat.

A friendly fly (a.k.a. government fly or large flesh fly; Sarcophaga aldrichi) standing atop the patio fence (20080516_05296)

A friendly fly (a.k.a. government fly or large flesh fly; Sarcophaga aldrichi)[2].  It sat atop the patio fence soaking up sunshine.  If I approached too closely, it scooted off in one direction or another, but it never flew away—at least not until it was ready to do so.

I enjoyed watching it, appreciating its behemoth size and dazzling contrast of colors.  And the fact that it was so tolerant of me made it even better.

A male green anole (Anolis carolinensis) challenging me from the tree with this throat fan fully displayed (20080613_06520)

A male green anole (Anolis carolinensis).  He spent a great deal of time challenging me as I stood and watched him climb down the tree rooted just outside the patio fence.  Having been confronted by my share of anoles, I thought nothing of this contest save that it made for a good photo opportunity.

What I didn’t know would be discovered later.  He defied me only because he meant to woo a lady of his kind who hid in the branches above him.  Minutes later I returned to the patio and discovered his display had so impressed her that she had succumbed to his ways.

Yes, the two of them stood on the side of the tree and consummated their meeting in a public display of affection that would so offend James Dobson and his bigoted ilk that they—the lizards—likely would have found a new constitutional amendment being passed to stop reptile procreation altogether due to its immorality.  But I found the exhibition mesmerizing and educating.

A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia) looking away (20080202_01690)

A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia).  Ancestor of all pigeons, this species, despite the unwarranted disgust by many humans, brings a profound beauty to its surroundings.  The iridescent feathers, the amber eyes, the tolerance for our ways and our places…  Well, I find them intriguing and beguiling.

A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) eating cat food outside the patio fence (20081102_14542)

A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana).  Part of the cleaning crew, in fact, as you can see this one readily went to work on the cat food I had just put out for Clance.  After the cat had his fill, he walked away.  That’s when, much to my surprise, this opossum scampered around the corner, ambled up to the table so to speak, and began munching away.

Oh, and the marsupial knew I was there.  I knelt next to the fence only a yard/meter away, so every sound and movement I made set off alarm bells for this small juvenile (not as small as the baby, though).  But I know something about them: their eyesight is relatively poor, although they can hear and smell like a top predator.  Staying downwind of the little cutie and not making a lot of noise meant it only looked at me with suspicion if I moved too much or accidentally sounded my presence with some clumsy racket.

A male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched atop a leaf (20080620_07043)

A male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus).  My favorite insect in all the world, and a most gentle and placid leviathan if ever there was one.  The huge colony of these beasts that surrounds my home thrives only for a brief period before falling under the heels of time’s onward march.  But during that short life they captivate me to no end, and they give of their calm nature the companionship made possible only by two disparate lives sharing a clear understanding: we can be friends.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] Many would argue that domestic cats are not natural.  I beg to differ.  The wildcat who gave life to this species has been pushed to near extinction by humans.  What can fill that ecological niche if not the very children of the parents put to death by the march of our intelligent advancement.

That said, I don’t like the idea of outside cats, I don’t like seeing them outside fending for themselves and being exposed to all manner of illness and danger, yet the humane side of me—the part of me that knows what it means to be human—likes even less the idea of seeing them go hungry and without compassion.  I put lots of money into no-kill shelters each month in hopes that some of these lost souls will find a home; meanwhile, I have no intention of turning my back on them when I can afford to offer a meal, a bit of attention and friendship, and a kind soul to whom they can speak.

[2] Amazingly, this is not a macro shot.  I stood some distance from the fly and zoomed in to take the picture.

[3] The photo is bad, I know, but I took it in very poor lighting and with the camera on the wrong settings.  I was more intrigued and enthralled with the opossum than I was with making a piece of art.  So sue me.

One in the tree

After taking a walk to enjoy our touch o’ the frost on Wednesday, I returned home to see what photos I had captured.  Because windows surround my desk, I often catch sight of the various creatures sauntering about the area.  Digging through the photos I had captured while at the lake could not keep me from noticing just such a moment.  Something strolled by the window as it made its way under the bushes and around the patio.  Being the wildlife nut I am, I grabbed the camera and headed out to the patio.  I made it in time to see a juvenile Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) climbing the tree.

While it was still daylight, it had been cloudy all day, an appropriate accoutrement to the cold temperatures and ice-covered ground.  I did not feel it unusual to see the little beast out before dark since opossums are generally nocturnal but not necessarily only nocturnal.  The clouds kept it moderately dark anyway.

So I quietly stood against the fence and grabbed a few photos of the wee creature as it climbed into the tree and found a comfortable spot to wait for…  Well, I’m not quite certain what it was waiting for, but wait it did.

This has to be one of the several babies I watched grow up last year, and probably it’s one of the tiny bundles I saw Momma Possum carrying in her pouch as she foraged one night last summer (after seeing her very pregnant the previous April).  This tot certainly is not an adult yet.  It’s perhaps half to two-thirds the size of a full-grown opossum.  It’s still as large as a small cat, but I suspect it’s going to get much bigger—if it lives long enough.  Opossums in the wild generally don’t live more than two or three years (they can survive many times that long in captivity).

But listen to me prattle on!  I promised some possum pictures.  Let’s get to it then, shall we?

At first, it had tucked itself in amongst the branches.  My moving about to find a good spot didn’t help it relax.

A juvenile Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) hiding in the tree (167_6744)

The longer I stood still, the more comfortable it became.  They don’t see well at all, and their hearing isn’t impressive either.  They mostly rely on acute smell and touch.  That meant the longer I stood still and silent, the more difficulty it had determining if I was still there.  Eventually it began making its way down.

A juvenile Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) hiding in the tree (167_6771)

It finally climbed into the lowest part of the tree.  It was so near I could have reached out and touched it.  But I know better.  Unfortunately, it was also close enough to smell me despite a favorable wind direction.  It froze and stared right at me.  Although I knew it really couldn’t see me and I wasn’t moving, its eyes fixed in my direction as it waited and watched.  I realized then I was interfering with its plans, so I snapped a few final pictures before going inside.

A juvenile Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) hiding in the tree (167_6765)

Before I even reached the desk, it had climbed down out of the tree.  I walked directly to the windows and saw it already on the ground and heading along the patio fence toward the lake.  It was gone in an instant.

[as usual, let me point out those creepy little hands in the last photo; I just love those!]