Midsummer. Japatul Valley, south of Alpine.
Too hot to sleep indoors.
Warren Storm-thunder snoozes in his hammock. He has slung it under trees down by a creek bottom near his isolated valley home.
Then, around midnight, sounds.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
It’s the press of heavy paws on leaves and twigs, right beside the creek bed, heading downstream. The creature passes under him. Stormthunder doesn’t move. He knows what it is: a mountain lion.
He falls back to sleep.
Four hours later, as night gives way to daylight, he hears the same crunch, crunch, coming back upstream. He lies still. Once again, the crunching passes beneath his hammock, then fades.
“It was our resident mountain lioness,” he says. “I pretty much knew she was going down to Loveland Reservoir to hunt deer. Then she’d come back up about dawn. It was like a daily commute.”
Stormthunder says he has also seen a jaguarundi — a smaller, black, jaguar-related big-cat species about three feet long, with a tail about as long. “He had the characteristic raked stance, longer back legs, shorter front legs. He was 25 feet away, in the tall grass of the meadow.”
Come on, black jaguars, even small ones, in San Diego County?
Stormthunder has no doubt. He says this exotic maybe could have wandered west from Texas or Arizona, which are their extreme northern habitats, or escaped from captivity. “There’s nothing else that size that’s black and with that rake.”
Also in Storm-thunder’s world: bobcats. “Lots around here. I’m constantly hearing them coughing up fur balls.”
That’s not all. San Diego is being repopulated by crows, feral pigs, exotic plants, golden beetles, parrots, seals, sea lions, coyotes, jack rabbits, llamas, foxes, bats, tarantulas, pythons, guinea pigs…even mammoths are turning up, though these are very long dead.
What’s happening? Is Mother Nature nibbling around the edges of San Diego, waiting to take her back? San Diego, the next Palenque, the Mayan city that the jungle claimed back, a thousand years ago?
If this sounds a tad hysterical, my awakening to the issue had a pretty hysterical beginning.
∗ ∗ ∗
Late on day, I’m lying in bed, sweating from the flu. Second-floor apartment, Coronado. Outside, the canopy of a ficus tree shelters the roof of the neighbors’ outside patio. Something must have fallen from the sky. Now I think I hear scratching, muted mewling, squeaks. Something in extremis.
I sit up, stumble to the half-open window, look out.
There, below me, with hooked beak hauling out the guts of a stunned pigeon, talons levered against the pigeon’s neck and tail, a peregrine falcon crouches and pecks, wings spread to cover its prey.
Death in the afternoon! I stand fascinated as the falcon works, flicking through the feathers, pulling out all the best bits. I’ve heard falcons can dive-attack at over 200 miles per hour. This pigeon never stood a chance.
It’s about 20 minutes before the falcon scuffs his beak against the bark and lifts on out of there, leaving a surprisingly small pile of feathers and blood.
Man! I’d wondered why the pigeon population in town seemed to be diminishing. There was a time when you couldn’t sit outside at the bakery without food-fighting pigeons landing on your morning muffin, picking it apart with their beaks, and strutting all over your plate. It was pretty disgusting.
But then, mysteriously, their numbers began to drop, and I kind of forgot they were even a problem. Soon there weren’t enough pigeons to weigh down the power lines near Orange Avenue. Those direction-finder flights the whole flock would take? Didn’t seem to happen much anymore. The birds that remained appeared more skittish. It was as if some Lone Ranger Bird Man had ridden in to clean up this town.
Could this wild creature from the desert be it?
Well, not so much bird-man as lady-bird. I soon found out from an exotic-bird vet that my hunter was a huntress. A mother falcon who had hatchlings to feed in her nest somewhere in the steelwork of the Coronado bridge.
Once you start looking, you can’t help becoming aware of the wildlife in San Diego. Jackrabbits at sunset on the beach, the wings of a falcon or golden eagles overhead, the ringed red snake — a California Mountain King snake? — I spotted once, warming itself in the morning sun in upper Mission Valley.
My friend Jason saw a tarantula being dragged away by a tarantula hawk — a two-inch black wasp with orange wings — to her wasps’ nest. She had paralyzed the tarantula so she could lay her eggs inside it. Her little wasps would feed on the giant spider and eat it alive, from the inside out. Nice.
Sometimes, the wildlife comes to you. My wife Lita and I were about to do some late-night laundry when I heard chirrup-grunts, like a cat might make. The ghostly, toothy, button-eyed face of a possum looked up at us. It sat resolutely outside the open laundry-room door, spitting out these little calls. Finally, from inside the laundry room, a tiny mouse — no, wait, a baby possum! — came squeaking out, jumped on the mother’s back, and hung on for dear life. This had to be the Mrs. Possum we were sure had been living under the house in front of us. She kept grunting, and a second baby came out and hoisted itself aboard. Then a third, and a fourth. The mom kept calling until seven baby possums sat in a row on her back. She then turned and waddled off into the bushes, as her offspring swung back and forth like a loose mohawk hairdo. It was like she was introducing the family to us, one by one. We were enchanted.
It turns out the city looks favorably on these invaders because, for one, they eat snails and baby rats and garbage — a free cleanup brigade. Of course, they also clean up any cat food you may leave outside.