Wild Ideas: Life goes on

Nature is amazing and endlessly fascinating but not always pretty. Within it lie the forces of destruction as well as creation, as I was reminded of recently, repeatedly.

Late one night last week, I heard a sort of intermittent bleating, like the sound of a lamb, but shorter — a single, short “ba,” rather than “b-a-a,” coming from just inside the forest beyond my backyard. I thought it sounded more mammalian than aviary, so I rattled off a list of what could be making the noise at that time of night — bear, coyote, bobcat, skunk, raccoon, opossum, deer — but none seemed to fit.

A harvestman drags a struggling eight-spotted forester moth to a suitable dining spot.
A harvestman drags a struggling eight-spotted forester moth to a suitable dining spot. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Then I remembered an injured fawn I had found years ago; in its distress, it made a similar noise. But why would it be calling in the night? At this time of year, it could only be a few weeks old and should be hunkered down with its mom. When fawns are very young and can’t keep up with their mothers when the latter go off to browse, they lie absolutely silently in one place, usually screened by grass or forest undergrowth. Their silence, lack of smell and spotted, camouflaging coat keep them from attracting predators. If a fawn was calling so frequently, it had to be in distress.

Over the next two days, I heard the same sound several times, moving low across the forest in a swath about 100 yards wide and only a few yards inside the forest, tantalizingly close but always obscured by thick vegetation.

Suddenly on the second day, the calling got louder and more urgent. I grabbed my digital recorder and headed outside quickly, dressed only in shorts and flimsy shoes, determined to find out what was making the sound — or at least record it. I was so determined to solve the mystery that I tried to make my way through the mess of briars, poison ivy, uneven terrain, downed trees, logging debris, a collapsed outbuilding and entrances to animal dens to finally solve the mystery.

A few yards into the tangle, I could see something rustling around on the other side of an overgrown pile of logs. It was brownish, covered with fur and waving around what appeared to be a short tail. It seemed to have more body parts than would belong to one animal. Was I witnessing two animals fighting or mating?

Finally, I could make out enough details to see what I hoped I wouldn’t find — a fawn, actually twin fawns. From what I could make out, they were only a few weeks old, at most. Knowing that their continual calling likely meant they’d been separated from their mom for the last two days and that, at that age, they had no chance for survival without her, I contemplated what to do.

It’s easy to think about deer as a management issue. There are too many of them — our fault, not theirs — and they’re destroying many of our native plants and domestic crops, and causing collisions on roads. However, when you’re eye to eye with a tiny fawn, it’s hard to keep that lofty perspective. There are few things cuter or more helpless than a young fawn.

Still, I tried to be logical. Even if it were possible to rescue these two fawns, then what? Sometimes it’s best to just let nature take its course. Looking more for moral support than advice, I contacted someone whose opinion I value at the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, who agreed. Maybe the mom would come back and, if she didn’t, likely a predator would resolve the situation quickly, and benefit from it.

A large female nursery web spider carefully carries her egg sac with her fangs. She’ll guard over the young that hatch out through their first larval stage, when they will be ready to go out on their own.
A large female nursery web spider carefully carries her egg sac with her fangs. She’ll guard over the young that hatch out through their first larval stage, when they will be ready to go out on their own. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

The next day was silent with no sound of the fawns. I hadn’t heard any sounds of their demise from a predator, so I had a faint hope that their mother did finally came back and rescue them. Already in a funk, I had been thinking about some other helpless babies that may have met their demise — phoebes that should have hatched out in the last day or two. I hadn’t seen the phoebe mom on the nest for the last 24 hours, so I decided to check it. It was empty.

The nest is pretty unreachable except by a bear or winged predators, and if a bear managed to reach that high, it likely would have torn the whole nest down. Instead, it looked empty but otherwise untouched. Whatever happened, the mom is still around, and it may still be early enough for her to start another brood, though probably not in the same nest.

Toward evening, I headed back out in the yard, hoping to put a more positive spin on the day. I’ve found watching and photographing bugs to be a good antidote for almost anything. Invertebrates offer endless diversity in appearance and behavior, and there are more species of them in my yard than I’m likely to ever see, so endless surprises wait for me in the Lilliputian world just outside my door.

I quickly found a very pretty little eight-spotted forester moth . . . being carried off in the jaws of a harvestman (aka daddy longlegs). The moth was fighting for its life. Once the arachnid got to what it considered a safe location, it chowed down on the hapless insect. Not exactly the life-affirming experience I was looking for, but I learned something.

Harvestmen, except for their long, spindly legs, have quite small bodies, less than one-half inch. Having never really done much research on their diet, I always assumed they consequently ate small things — gnats, maybe a fly or two, other spiders. This moth, although it was small, was bigger than the arachnid, so like its spider cousins, the harvestman obviously can take on prey larger than itself.

Another arachnid finally provided me with the uplifting experience I was looking for at that point. In the forest edge, just a few feet from where I’d seen the fawns, I spotted a lovely nursery web spider. She was carrying her cocoon-like egg sac, which was bigger than her body, underneath her, grasping it in her fangs. When the young are ready to hatch out, she will weave leaves together into a “nursery web,” into which she will transfer the sac. She will then stand guard until her young hatch out and go through their first larval molt. Not bad parenting, for a spider.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”