The Elusive Mr. “S”

Spring is finally here …

This year, the West endured a very long, wet winter. California news was filled with stories of mudslides, floods, pot-holes and soggy, spray-sodden road conditions. Arizona even saw brief fillings of the perennially dry Salt River, a rocky dry sand bed that cuts through thr heart of Phoenix. Oregon and Nevada enjoyed picturesque snowfalls. The fabled Sierras still hold record snowpacks, heaven on Earth for skiers. Should a warm spring melt all that snow before July, we will undoubtedly have floods in major rivers and tributaries. For most of Northern California, reservoirs are filled to capacity. The drought is over for now.

For our Bears, this means bundling up indoors, where it is warm and dry. Of course, even when it is not raining, a Bear’s mission involves staying indoors. Getting one’s paws wet is a major infraction of Bear Union Rule 2.2.2, which, among other things, precludes helping with the dishes, though limited supervision is allowed. Union Rule 2.2.2 also seems to prohibit getting one’s paws dirty, or dusty, and we think you get the picture. Sitting around and enjoying life is everything. Anything that gets in the way of the mission statement is an infraction of the rules, which can be expanded as necessary to cover new situations where work, of some kind or another, might be involved.

Despite all this sitting around, and the television, and prolonged bundling under warm covers, there is also an unwritten list of approved activities, like Pillow Sliding, which have been chronicled in these pages before. These activities are designed to keep our fellers active and interested in the outside world, and the senior bears work hard to keep our little community up to date on goings-on outside the warm walls of home or apartment.
One of these time-honored activities is squirrel-watching. In the old days, squirrels abounded as a part of everyday outdoor life, and the fellers would holler whenever the squirrels started digging up the flower planter beds. These days, squirrels are getting harder and harder to spot anywhere.

Junior and Little Bear are our Driver Bears, shepherding our vehicles across the bridge daily to and from work at a Peninsula business park, where the amenities include an abundance of trees, and small patches of overmanicured lawns — all prime real estate for our squirrel friends. In earlier years, it was not uncommon to see whole squirrel families working the trees and grounds of the business park, and our Driver Bears would return home to report daily counts of “three squirrels” or “six squirrels”. In the last year or so, we are lucky to see one squirrel in a week, and we may go for spells of two or three weeks without seeing our furry friends at all.

There used to be many squirrels in the business park. Mostly red squirrels, some grey squirrels, and a strain of stunningly remarkable black squirrels. Where have all the squirrels gone?

The speculation is that perhaps they have all gone wintering in Squirrelpulco, or somewhere warm for the winter, but even last spring and summer, squirrels had been few and far between. We wonder if something has happened to them, but find no answers in the press or in our daily observations.

Our Driver Bears always keep fresh batteries in their Squirrel Detector, but it can still be a week or more before the old “beep-beep” sound signals a sighting. So, we have also taken to spotting ducks. Ducks abound in the ponds arround the homes and business parks near Foster City, and on a good day we can report “six ducks” or “twenty-eight duckies” or even, “too many to count”. But, no squirrels.

At home in this Castro Valley apartment, there has always been a family of squirrels running about the fences and trees on the grounds. Though this population too seems diminished, we can almost count on at least one sighting a week. Just this morning, C.Bear was fortunate enough to be present when we spotted a squirrel headed for his old Eucalyptus tree in the back. That was almost all the fellers chattered about all morning!

But the old Eucalyptus tree has some new residents, and in a few weeks there is going to be big trouble if Mr. Squirrel scurries too far up that tree. For, at the very top, Mr. and Mrs. Crow have taken up residence, and they are busy with nest-building activity from sunrise to sunset. They are putting the finishing touches on a new three-foot crow’s nest at the very top crown of the tree, and all of us enjoy watching their antics very much.

Crows mate for life, we’re told, and this couple seems very devoted to each other and to the nest-building rituals which lead up to a new family in the neighborhood. The fellers watch all this with interest.

Crows are accomplished fliers, and we like to watch them turning and wheeling around the nest in formation, doing lazy-eights and steep banks to add a little sport to the workaday business of gaining and losing altitude. They know just how to rush up to the nest or intended perch at a furious speed, putting on speed brakes at the very last minute for a perfect, two-point landing.

The nest was mostly built a week ago, with the main structure completed much as it appears today, so most of the activity appears to revolve around finding and lovingly placing suitable crack fillers and soft linings, such as the piece of styrofoam cup borrowed today from Burger King way down the boulevard below.

Nonetheless, just mid-week we spotted Mr. Crow lugging an impossibly oversized branch up to the nest while Mrs. Crow prettied up the place. Due to the weight and cumbersome length of the branch that Mr. Crow carried in his beak, he could hardly gain any altitude, though he tried. He found a resting place halfway up the Eucalyptus, and then, flapping furiously, circled the tree with his branch, gaining only a few feet of altitude for his efforts. He rested some more, and with a herculean effort managed to get his burden up to and into the nest at the very top.

We suspect that Mrs. Crow was NOT pleased. “Where are we going to put THAT?”, she might have said. “I send you off to pick up some liner twigs, and what do you come back with? JUST like a man!”

Just before last twilight of that evening, I broke out the binoculars and spotted this same giant branch swinging in the wind several feet below the nest. It had caught itself on some other branch and was swaying back and forth like a kid’s swing. No doubt Mrs. Crow had just pushed it over the side in annoyance. The next day it was gone, carried by the wind and gravity past the layers of canopy back down to the ground below.

We don’t know much about this Audobon business, but suspect it might be some weeks before the actual egg-laying begins, as more storms lie off the Pacific. This crow’s nest is wonderful for its view of predators from above, and its distance from marauding egg-stealing troublemakers from below, but it is completely exposed to the elements. A good storm would completely soak and chill the nest, its precious contents, and its proud protectors.

Spring officially began last Sunday, and this weekend promises fair weather. It is about time. And best of all, the fellers think this has signalled the return of Mr. Squirrel, the “Elusive Mr. S.” — Beep-Beep!

Our household is undergoing Chemotherapy – an established treatment for, among other things, rooting out tiny metastasized cancer cells that may be lurking after Bob’s successful radiation therapy last year. We are optimistic, of course, that this carefully orchestrated search-and-destroy mission will get us past this, as it has for many millions of others. I say “we”, and “our household”, for this is truly a community project, involving the research and effort of a wonderful and supportive clinic and staff, and our many true friends who have followed this from the beginning. Everybody lends a hand or paw, where they are able.

We call it “ChemoBearapy”, recognizing that our supporting group of friends includes one hundred and fifty Bears in two states, lead of course by their fearless, redoubtable and caring leader, our own C.Bear.

It is true that many households will “circle the wagons” at times like these, and ours is no different. You might be inclined to speculate that all this squirrel-watching and crow observing is part of a very human effort to counter times of trial with celebration of the many free blessings life has to offer. It is not so much a business of “going back to basics”, as a refuelling of the lifelong desire to embrace all of the world, not just those small carefully delineated corners of it marked off as “ours”. As we said, squirrel-watching is one of those much older rituals, going back many years with us. The arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Crow confirm what we have known all along: there is hope, joy and renewal everywhere, if you know how to look for it.

Just half an hour ago, we sighted three or more squirrels in the court below: an older fellow with a big bushy red tail, and at least two juveniles (sighted at the same time, and so not double-counted) plying the bushes and gardens trade. We certainly would not consider cheating on a squirrel count, and so we report only four sightings for the day, as of this instant — not a bad day for sighting Mr. S.

In fact, this makes this week the best of the year — so far. And, as always, we’re optimistic that the weeks will keep getting better and better. It has been a long, wet winter, but Spring is finally here. Not a moment too soon, if you ask us. If you ask the fellers, they will tell you the same thing.




© Alex Forbes, March 26, 2005

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