July 2, 2001
ONE BRIEF MOMENT IN TIME ...
My “wild friends” and I live on a half acre of pure heaven. Running along the eastern edge of my property is Pennataquit Creek, home to a magnificent pair of great blue herons, a snowy egret, swans, geese, a family of muskrats and many species of ducks. It is also a part of Long Island’s extensive eco-system of protected tidal wetlands, which encompasses many small rivers and creeks, mostly brackish, all of which empty into the Great South Bay and, ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean.
I bought my home, a Dutch colonial with a gambrel roof, built circa 1917, almost ten years ago. With a few exceptions, the property was devoid of shrubs and trees and any semblance of wildlife. The house was totally surrounded by spreading yews and, with its white exterior and black shutters, it seemed that its former owners were quite successful in their apparent attempt to emulate the favorite landscaping design of our local funeral homes! Trying unsuccessfully to compete with the weeds and the killer vines, were a big old leggy lilac bush and an overgrown old shrub rose. I clipped and pruned, and I fertilized and, then, I pruned some more, and slowly, over the years, my lilac and rose began to look like the beautiful shrubs that they were meant to be. As with anything that is cared for and loved, they have truly rewarded me and, now, much to my delight, I am inundated with beautiful blossoms and marvelous fragrances and, in the fall, rose hips for my birds. During those early years, I planted and I researched and I worked very hard to create my own wildlife sanctuary. My dreams have now almost become reality and, this summer, I fully intended to enjoy every minute of it.
But, unfortunately, my husband had other ideas. He wanted to add another room to our home, a great room which would overlook the creek and all the plantings I have added and which would enable us to really enjoy our wild visitors, especially during the cold winter months. So up came the multi-level deck and out came my Japanese dogwood and my stewardia and lots of shrubs and perennials, all lovingly dug out, put aside and mulched, ready to be replanted when all the construction is finished.
My songbirds and squirrels adjusted to their moved feeders with a minimum of fuss, as did the Canadian geese. My female muscovy ducks who usually nest alongside my house, good-naturedly looked elsewhere this year. Some of my males, however, were extremely upset with all the chaos of the new construction and one, in particular, wandered around in a daze as if he was homeless. All he needed was a cardboard box!
But, no one was more upset than Misty Blue, my one year old blue merle collie. She definitely did not like any of the changes that were taking place in her yard and she wasn’t too thrilled with the workmen who disrupted her territory and who brought all those big yellow, noisy machines that ruined her somewhat peaceful and serene puppy existence.
One day, completely out of the blue, Misty became fascinated with the bottom step of my cedar staircase. I just couldn’t keep her away. I thought that one of the workers had spilled soda on the step and I kept hosing it down and shooing her away. But, every time that I succeeded in chasing her, she ran right back, constantly smelling and licking the step. Nothing I did seemed to work. Misty stubbornly kept going back to the exact same spot. Finally, the next day, I decided to have a closer look to see just exactly what was so fascinating to the “little Mist“. I bent down to look more closely at the step and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Between the planks of cedar, I saw something move. At first I thought that one of my nesting girls had become entrapped, but, then, I realized that I was looking at soft gray fur not dirty white feathers. And what I saw enchanted me … several pairs of sleepy brown eyes curiously looking up at me … It seems a little opossum family had taken up residence. I could see the babies cuddling and climbing all over their mother. And, best of all, no one minded me watching!
I was so excited. I had never seen an opossum “nest” before. I wanted to watch the babies grow. I wanted to leave food for them. I wanted to make up to the little opossum family for my unwitting destruction of their habitat.
While eagerly beginning my mental preparations, I was suddenly shocked to discover that I really knew very little about opossums. I, of course, knew that opossums are marsupials and just like kangaroos and koalas, the infants stay inside their mothers’ pouch to nurse and develop. I also knew that they are primarily nocturnal, play dead when threatened, forage in the uncovered garbage cans next door, aren’t the cutest of my evening visitors … although, probably, precisely for that reason, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for them … and, finally, that my opossum mother most likely lived underneath my deck and, due to the construction, was probably recently dispossessed.
What I didn’t know was that the little babies are so small when they are born that twenty can fit into one teaspoon, a discovery which made me realize that most of the members of my new little opossum family, whose ancestors, astonishingly, shared their world with the dinosaurs, were already teenagers!
I also learned that, unlike my ducks who make a nest and then occupy it for two months while waiting for their eggs to hatch, opossums make no “nest” because they rarely stay in the same place for more than two or three days.
Furthermore, I didn’t quite realize how beneficial opossums are to our environment. They love all types of bugs and insects. Snails and slugs are an absolute delicacy. It’s no wonder that opossums are known as “nature’s little sanitation engineers” since they help keep our neighborhoods clean and free of unwanted, harmful garden pests and rodents, some of which might carry diseases. And, in addition to all of this, in the fall, they even clean up all the rotting fruit under our trees!
The more online research I did, the more captivated I became by my little family. Late at night, whenever I took Misty outside, I constantly looked for them and, one dark night, I was rewarded by the remarkable and unforgettable sight of my little mother carrying her babies on her back. This is the time when she begins to teach them their basic survival skills such as how to find food and how to avoid predators.
I diligently began to listen for the little sounds they make and, sure enough, on another of my nightly forays, I could tell by their little clicks and sneezes that they were running around in my shrubs. Enthralled, I stood very still listening to their lively, animated conversations yet not understanding one word of them.
And, so, from such a fleeting encounter, I now find myself looking each and every night for the cute little opossum family who blissfully inhabited my world for such a brief moment in time, hoping, just hoping, to catch one more glimpse …
Godspeed, my little wild friends … Please come back!
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Copyright (c) 2000, (c) 2001, (c) 2002, (c) 2003, (c) 2004 by Maria's Duck