Janet Hommel Mangas: Yard work turns into wildlife hunt

Last weekend one of the hardest working young men in Johnson County came over to lend his Auntie a hand on the ranch. I forgot how fun working can be when we both headed outside after taking a water break and my nephew yelled out, “Beat you!” as he ran downstairs out one door as I raced out another and down the steps to our meeting area.

The whole evening was full of delight and surprises through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy as we worked to prepare a slew of beds for mulching.

While watering a grouping of new birch trees and two white spruce trees planted last year, Drew yelled across the garden, “Hey Aunt Janet, look over here!” I ran over and he showed me four bright blue robin eggs arranged perfectly in their nest — at eye-level for a third-grader balanced on his tippy toes. We marveled for a moment and then got back to work.

Four minutes later as Drew watered another spruce tree, I happened to look up and saw Drew quickly duck as a mother robin flew her nest — he found another nest with three more “robin-blue eggs.”

As we worked, we began our new game of tallying wildlife.

I showed him where I found a litter of baby bunnies (called kittens) tucked into a ground hole in their nest of grass and fur — they had since left their nest and were probably eating my garden.

Drew found two dead juvenile raccoons — probably caught, carried and placed by our dog Milli near the driveway as a proud reminder that she continues to be a protector or that she “still has it.”

I showed Drew the house sparrow nest that a mother sparrow made in a bright blue enamel coffee pot that I use for planting. The five pinkish brown eggs had hatched and baby house sparrows were fed profusely by the mother bird the weekend before Easter, but all had since flown the nest to find a quieter and more upscale living quarters than two feet from our back door.

“Will it pinch you?” Drew asked, when he found his first crawdad/crayfish in our creek. I shared that I saw my first crawdad at our Hommel Family reunions at the creek in Province Park in Franklin. “Your aunts, uncles and second cousins often tried to catch crawdads when we were your age.” We talked and watched the 4-inch crustacean for about 15 minutes, trying to move him gently with a stick toward the clear water — until the little guy disappeared into a muddy bank (the crawdad, not my nephew.)

Before I took Drew home that evening, his uncle Steve pointed to a group of five bats darting in the sky.

A few days later, I noticed a 6-inch dead frog in the middle of our driveway — another trophy from Milli, I assumed. And in the grassy area near the creek, I stopped in my tracks as a very long garter snake slithered by as I bent over to pick up a stick — I made a mental note to mark it on our tally.