Monday, August 3, 2009

Lizards and snakes patrolling the vegetable garden

Our garden rivals the best nature reserve for its varied wildlife population. We have a nesting pair of cardinals who regularly swoop low across the garden hunting for a meal, and bluejays love to perch on the fence outside of our kitchen window. We have red-bellied woodpeckers in our pine trees, and purple martins in the sweet gum tree. Our winged inhabitants aren't limited to birds, with a variety of dragonflies and damselflies in shades of blue, red and green, plus many native butterflies.

We have a big frog that has made itself a home between the black-eyed peas and okra. The frog's burrough is a shallow hole half covered with a big piece of bark into which the frog fits perfectly, it's eyes glowing from below as it watches the garden. Our frog is attractive and colorful, with a bright yellow stripe down the center of its back. We have picked it up a few times to move it out of the way. The frog is quite tame, sitting calmly in the palm of the hand before lazily hopping away when we put it back down.

Snakes seem to be having a particularly good year in our yard. I know this is a good thing since snakes eat the unwelcome visitors to the garden, but I was not entirely pleased when, wearing my flip flops, I almost stepped on a garter snake exceeding 3 feet in length in the backyard. Luckily, it quickly slithered away while I recovered from the shock. There are always small brown snakes no bigger than my index finger around the yard; they can't wait to get away from me, seeking the nearest hiding place to escape, and are so small they hardly seem intimidating. In past summers, I rarely saw even a single snake, so there must be a population explosion perhaps attributable to the unusually dry weather.

I have also surprised an armadillo in our back yard, and there are two or three neighborhood cats that seem to like relaxing on our back patio. In past years, we had a brown rabbit that appeared without fail each summer. It started out quite small, slipping under a hole below the fence, but grew bigger each year. We saw it most often at dusk nibbling on grass and clover. I was a bit nervous that the rabbit would ravage the vegetable garden, but we haven't seen it this year. Perhaps the snakes are to blame?

Like the snakes, lizards have been unusually plentiful this year. I confess total ignorance when it comes to distinguishing lizards, geckos and their relatives. Those in our yard come in several different colors and sizes, from bright green to mottled to brown. We have little lizards no longer than 2 inches, and we have some incredibly large lizards that are easily 8 inches long. The interesting thing about these lizards that I have observed this year is that each seems to have its own territory.
One lizard devotes itself to the raised bed of eggplant in the front yard. It likes to patrol the wood frame, walking back and forth, and is clearly irritated when I show up to water or inspect the plants. There are two lizards who are always on the fence in the backyard behind our pole beans. They run up and down the planks when I'm in the yard, and occasionally fight while perched precariously on top of the fence. There is yet another lizard who lives exclusively in the window box under our kitchen window. This lizard probably eats very well because we have a security light that goes on here each night, attracting numerous moths and other insects.

My step-father asked how I know that I am seeing the same lizards each day, but I have no doubt. They are each quirky enough, and specific enough in their habits, for me to recognize. We no longer have house pets, but these lizards and the other inhabitants of our garden have become part of our extended family. The kids love seeing the birds, lizards, dragonflies, and butterflies, and rush to point out the latest visitor to our garden. Observing our resident wildlife has become an unexpected reward of the vegetable garden. It certainly makes working in the yard an adventure each day, and is a welcome distraction during unpleasant garden chores like weeding and picking off the seemingly endless supply of squash vine borer eggs each day.

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