Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Mysterious Case of the Moving Bread

I didn't work today, and so I can report the tale of the piece of Italian bread I watched move repeatedly for no visible reason. Though that would certainly be a reason to take a day off work, I didn't know it was going to happen. No, I took the day off for the final meetings of my Minnesota Wildlife and Nature Writers classes. (And I'm taking Friday off because I got an offer of a ride down to St. Paul and can sell a few boxes of books while making more money and having a much better time than I would at work--you have to ease into this working thing. Or ease out--I just read the official local unemployment rate was 9.9 % for January and I assume it's gone up since then.) At some point in the future I hope to write a bit about nature writing definitions, styles, philosophies, and purposes, because the instructor and I have very different preferences--but not today.

I have to try to set a complicated scene. I've written before about the little wild spot across the alley from my windows: chokecherry and mountain ash trees provide food for birds, squirrels, chipmunks; a brush pile has provided the roof of a home for successive rabbits and hibernating chipmunks. All of this is on a hillside and wrapped around a one story parking garage for another apartment building; coming from the parallel street higher up the hill, you can walk onto the roof of this garage--from that street only the garage's skylights appear above ground level, while from my apartment I see the complete building. So the farther something is from me, the higher it is, with the top of the snow-covered brush pile well above my sight line. Can you picture that?

Last Thursday we got a few inches of snow. Saturday or Sunday morning I woke up and noticed the snow around the brush pile and garage had been heavily disturbed. From my angle, I thought the tracks were human and assumed a drunk or kid had jumped/fallen off the garage onto the snowy brush pile. I cursed that my pretty scene had been disturbed and didn't investigate it further.

Today I climbed up there and now realize they weren't human but large canine tracks along with what seems to be some digging down into the snow at the top. The terrain, snow depth, days passed and resulting effects of weather, along with my own lack of tracking skill all make it hard to tell who this visitor was. If I were to go only by the current size of the tracks, I would guess wolf. Wolf tracks have been seen within Duluth's city limits and I'd love to think one was a few feet away, but I doubt if they've been in this heavily populated an area. But for all the dogs I've seen running loose on city trails, I've never seen one running loose in this neighborhood. So combined with the evidence of digging, I'm going to split the difference and guess coyote.

You're probably wondering why I decided to look today after ignoring the scene for several days. And what about that bread? Well, this morning I threw few chunks of stale bread out my window for whichever critters came along. Maybe the skunk I smelled during the night?

After I got back from class, I looked out the window to see if the bread had been taken. Suddenly the chunk closest to the brush pile began to move through the powdery snow. You can imagine that it took a couple looks to believe this, checking to see that a big wind hadn't started blowing. By this time I was standing with binoculars at the window hoping to see a paw or head. The bread moved about a foot to the left near a small tree trunk and stopped. Then back to the right, then rapidly to the left again, repeated several times, obviously trying to be fit through a hole too small.

Eventually, the bread disappeared from my view and that's when I headed out and got distracted by the canine tracks. Though below the level of the surrounding snow, the bread was still there at the entrance of a tunnel.

What was going on? In reply to a question in class a couple hours earlier about what will happen in nature this month, I said the hibernating chipmunk across the alley will come out. And though s/he didn't come out to my sight, I think the forceful movement of that bread indicated a muscular chipmunk rather than a mouse, perhaps a chipmunk woken a little early by a hunting coyote.

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