It was late afternoon when the raccoon awakened in the tree opening, the reeds and lily pads were bejeweled with tiny crystal beads of the light rain that had fallen while he slept.
He squirmed out of the opening and walked to the water’s edge, where there was a flurry of activity as a score of small frogs leaped away in alarm. He stood there quietly for a time, and in a few moments his gaze fastened upon the slight lifting of a bit of vegetation close to shore. He pounced upon it, grabbing and clinging with his front feet and biting rapidly through the debris. There was a brief struggle and then he let go with his mouth, and his forepaws uncovered the carcass of the small bullfrog he had just slain. He chewed it up methodically and the small bones crackled beneath his bite.
Before he had finished with it, however, a movement above him caught his attention. Other wildlife had seen it, too, and the chorus of trills from myriad red-winged blackbirds and occasional grunts and croaks from frogs were abruptly stilled as a large brown bird came gliding low over the reeds, its flashing white rump patch identifying it as a marsh hawk.
Almost at the same moment another approached from the opposite direction. Since these birds of prey posed no real threat to him, the raccoon watched them with some interest.
As the birds neared one another they began a slow, graceful circling and gained altitude gradually, all the while crying and whistling softly to one another. In a little while they were hardly more than specks against a now cloudless sky, still circling but about 100 yards apart.
As if by command, both birds suddenly closed their wings and dropped. Down and down they plummeted until it seemed they couldn’t possibly save themselves from smashing into the marsh, with devastating results to themselves. With only inches to spare and traveling at fantastic speed, their wings spread simultaneously and they shot toward one another, a pair of brown blurs. Their leading wing edges racketed through the tops of withered reed blades and occasionally struck a dry cattail left from last fall, causing it to explode in a great burst of fluffy white cotton like down.
Collision between the two birds seemed unavoidable when both angled sharply upward, still heading toward one another. They met a dozen yards over the marsh and clung together as if they were feathered magnets, the wings of the female opening to embrace the male. Their momentum carried them upward still another 20 feet or more in oblivious rapture. Entwined in a brown ball, they fell together, and broke apart only when a few feet above the reeds.
The female soared gracefully to the dead tree on the raccoon’s island and settled there high on a dead branch and commenced preening herself, but the male went wild. Up he flew and higher yet and then down in a screaming dive to smash his way through yards of dry reeds, the whole episode punctuated by the white bursts of fuzz as old cattails were struck. Again he beat his way skyward in erratic flight interrupted by breathtaking loops and rolls. High he flew, higher than before, and then abruptly paused and tumbled crazily, wings flopping disjointedly, as if all the life had departed from him. Close to the marsh he caught himself once more and climbed again.
But now, the female marsh hawk catapulted away from her perch and skimmed elegantly toward the southwestern edge of the marsh, and her adoring swain, continuing his acrobatics, followed on high.
By this time the raccoon had lost interest. He left the island and headed back through the marsh toward his den tree in the woods. In transit he caught and devoured four more frogs, and so it was early evening when he reached the firm ground just a few hundred yards from the farm yard. Heavy clouds were building up on the western horizon and a storm was evidently in prospect.
He proceeded cautiously now, sticking to cover and giving the yard a wide berth, the memory of the dog chasing him still fresh enough to bother him. He followed the edge of a field that was being restored with native prairie plants that were already taller than he. It masked his progress, and he was nearly to the woods when a large insect buzzed noisily past his head, turned and buzzed past again, even closer.
Instinctively the raccoon shied, taking it at first for a bumblebee, but then becoming very nearly panic-stricken when the insect buzzed past his head a third time, even closer, and he got a better look at it. It was a dreaded bot fly, an insect to be avoided at all costs. Then the bot fly spied a deer.
To be continued…
Peter Dring is a retired nature biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land ‘O Lakes area. To comment on this story, visit the “Outdoors” section of StarJournalNOW.com.