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The astonishing antics of my mountain neighbors

From courageous shrews to curious cougars -


PMG FILE PHOTO - Living in the same wooded area on the west side of Mount Hood the past three decades has provided Paul Keller a front row seat into the amazing, often times downright astonishing, behavior of his indigenous neighbors, from shrews to cougars. Walking up a path just outside my Zigzag area home one spring morning, I looked down to see a tiny snake. This little guy was no more than three or four inches long. Its girth could have been less than a pencil’s. I’m no wildlife biologist, but I’m pretty sure this was actually a “snakelet,” a newborn entry into the world.

And here came the pounding footfalls of a humongous giant.

Did this itty-bitty serpent try to hide or make a run for it?

No way.

When that humongous giant stopped and looked down at this fledgling reptile, that teensy snake halted, turned and faced the giant.

I swear, that snakelet—no bigger than my little finger—opened its jaws and flared its threatening fangs at me.

When I bent down for a closer look at my fearless friend, he lunged toward me several times, biting into the air, warning the giant that he’d better—literally—watch his step, or else.

You and I would be lucky to share just a smidgeon of that mountain resident’s fortitude DNA.

Aggressive woman

Not too long after that unforgettable snakelet encounter, I was honored to witness another such save-the-species display of bravery by a different neighbor.

This time it was a tiny shrew.

The miniature mammal was moving along the ground away from my house toward the woods when I happened to see its diminutive fur ball frame waddling through a green sea of wild oxalis plants.

I hurried over to try to get a closer look at this seldom seen critter.

As the giant’s footfalls approached, she picked up her pace. But when the giant proceeded to gain on her, this tiny mammal—not much bigger than a plum—stopped, turned around, and confronted her 6-foot-2, almost 200-pound foe.

Not unlike that brave snakelet’s warning strikes, this shrew opened her mouth, exposed her tiny sharp teeth at me, and chomped them up in my direction. I kid you not.

That would be like you or me begging to go one-on-one with King Kong.

I’ve since learned that shrews are territorial. I had obviously intruded onto her homeland. Maybe her children were nearby. Because the dictionary informs that another definition of “shrew” is the adjective “bad tempered or aggressively assertive woman,” I like to think that this certain neighbor was female.

And just like with the snakelet, her aggressive display of courage won the day.

That giant quickly ran away.

Swear words

One fall afternoon, I was making my way east through the trees along the elevated bank of a little creek near my house. Just out in front of me a ways, over on the waterway’s opposite bank, I suddenly noticed a red fox heading in the same direction.

I quickly stopped behind a large cedar tree. I didn’t make a sound. I had never seen a fox in the Cascades before. I wanted to study this animal, who continued moving east above the creek, for as long as possible.

I was in luck. Because the breeze was coming from the east, my scent was sifting away in the opposite direction. That wild animal had no idea I was in its vicinity.

Right then a stellar jay flew down and landed in a vine maple branch that extended above the creek right across from me.

I swear, that darned bird looked over toward the fox, then stared directly down at me and, quick as a sneeze, started making this earsplitting uproar.

I know that in children’s fairytales and in fictional accounts, it’s been suggested that animals can speak to one another in an oral tradition, just as we do. That day proved to me that this verbal critter communication ability might actually be true.

Whatever that stellar jay was saying, the bird’s obvious warning calls made the fox instantly stop, lower itself, and peer, defensively, back in my direction.

Busted.

As soon as the fox saw the human’s face peering from behind that cedar, the animal darted south and disappeared into the brush.

I don’t know if that stellar jay knew English, but—you better believe it—that afternoon it got a good shellacking of human swear words from an infuriated human.

High wire act

PMG FILE PHOTO - Paul Keller is a former editor of the Sandy Post.The hill and ridge behind my house is punctuated with hundreds of boomer holes. These are the burrows of the reclusive mountain beavers, popularly known by foresters and folks who work in the Pacific Northwest woods as mountain boomers.

My entire life I’ve been traipsing around—and sometimes into—these prolific 6- to 8-inch-wide holes that lead to underground boomer homes.

But, up until last summer, my eyes had never before held a boomer. These clandestine creatures—picture a cross between a guinea pig and a fuzzy brown football with claws—are super sensitive to vibrations. They always feel your approaching footfalls and hide.

The window above my work desk looks out onto a sloping natural amphitheater cove that is alive with sword fern, salmonberry, thimbleberry, deer fern and an abundance of similar natural green vegetation. Up on the top of this incline, no more than 75 feet from my window, a large big leaf maple stump pokes up from a crowded swath of red huckleberry bushes.

Last summer, a profusion of new sucker branches grew out from that stump. Each sucker, about a quarter-inch to one-inch in diameter and from four to six-feet long, was alive with a wealth of new green leaves.

One sunny June afternoon I looked out the window to see this fuzzy brown football with black BB pellet eyes, pintsized pink ears, and long whiskers try to crawl out onto one of those limbs. Four feet off the ground, about halfway out on that branch, the boomer began to slip off, but—I swear—managed to grab the limb with his two front paws.

Amazingly, just like a rodent gymnast, I watched that little guy continue to swing his way toward the tip of the limb hanging by the grip of those tiny paws.

After a few more seconds, due to the boomer’s weight, the bending branch snapped off. Both it and the gymnast thumped to ground.

If you’re wondering if the vegetarian boomer wanted that branch with its leaves for food and had engineered this remarkable maneuver on purpose, the answer, unbelievably, is yes.

From my nearby vantage point I had the extraordinary pleasure to watch our resident boomer repeat this same high wire food gathering act again and again.

Where are the National Geographic cameras when you really need them?

Cougar tracks

Speaking of seldom seen animals, chances are, they — from bobcats to bears — are moving right outside our doors up here where I live more than we realize.

That’s one of the benefits of snow.

One of my cherished wintertime pursuits is scouring the woods in search of tracks. I’m always amazed at the amount of critter traffic the snow reveals.

One snowy December, midway up the ridge behind my house, I came upon a fresh trail of good-sized cougar tracks. I followed them. The animal, obviously a full-grown adult, was moving sidehill between the trees toward the west. After five or 10 minutes, I came to where the cougar had suddenly halted its forward progress and decided to pace back and forth in the same small area.

A bit perplexed, as I pulled out my camera to take pictures of these extra-large tracks, I noticed a place in the snow where the animal had evidently sat down on its butt. I celebrated this find by taking more photos.

With my eyes fixated on the story of these tracks, I continued to follow them where they proceeded to the west up and over a rise. That’s when I finally looked up to notice something—now just a few feet out in front of me—big and brown.

An instant shot of adrenaline pierced my heart.

After a couple eye blinks, I realized that I was standing beside a freshly killed, partially eaten, deer.

Knowing that the last thing a human should do is intrude upon a cougar’s kill site, I slowly backtracked out of there with all my senses on save-the-species alert and beat cleats for home.

Hoof of a fawn

One New Year’s Eve several years back I decided to christen the occasion and celebrate the call of the wild by snowshoeing two ridges up behind my house to go snow camping.

When I crawled out of my sleeping bag the next morning, I was surprised to learn that, as I had slept and dreamt the night before, a cougar had circled my tent. The predator’s looping tracks were right there just a few feet away from it—and me.

That curious big cat had followed my tracks to my camp site and, obviously, checked me out up close and personal like.

Had it been summer, I’d never have known about this animal’s visit.

Another time, on an August afternoon up on that same distant ridge above my house, I once found a mound of cougar scat that held the shiny black hoof of a fawn.

I knelt down and scrubbed it with wolf moss and my own spit.

With the white face of Mount Hood peering down at me just over my shoulder and a promise of evening wind starting to rustle the nearby arms of alder branches, I clutched that tiny surprise into my palm and closed my eyes.

I wanted to remember everything.

Longtime mountain resident and former Sandy Post editor Paul Keller pens his “Beneath Wy’east” column once a month here on the News' editorial pages.