A Late Night Mystery


March 11, 2017

Issue 23: March/April 2017Last Bite

A half moon draped the yard in a veil of shadows, surreal images, and an eerie opaque landscape. Focusing my 3 a.m. eyes to investigate the backyard mystery through the patio door, I sensed a movement. Was it the fig tree in the breeze? Or was the haze of early dawn tricking my senses?

When we designed our backyard swimming pool years ago, my wife and I wanted to establish a functional lap pool that was easy to maintain ourselves. Years later we added vertical green elements to surround our little body of water, replicating a cool Mediterranean retreat. Eucalyptus papuana, tall slender ghost gum shade trees, surround the northeast corner of the pool. Ficus carica, sweet mission fig trees, adorn the southern portion while Wisteria floribunda grace our steel ramada, gnarled and lush, with lovely hanging purple flowers providing a natural shade element.

Together, flowering shrubs, grapefruit, orange, and lemon trees, and larger shade trees, enable a microcosm of life attracting pollinators, lizards, birds, and small mammals. This web of life produces a copious amount of organic material adding nutrients to the biodiversity surrounding the pool. It has evolved into a symbiotic world of cooperation and mutualism.

But with constant growth, decay, and regrowth of life in our yard, the pool also becomes a repository for all this organic matter. Floating debris finds its way into a skimmer basket, installed in the pool decking, accessible for cleaning by inserting a forefinger from each hand into the two holes of the snugly fit lid. This skimmer basket needs emptying regularly to filter the pool water.

In early June of last year, one morning I walked outside to find the lid off the skimmer basket. Thinking I had left the lid off the night before, I reinstalled it. The next morning, the lid was off again. This on-again-off-again conundrum went on for several more days.

I had to solve this mystery, so I put a two-pound brick paver on the lid one evening. The next morning the lid and brick were moved. That night, I tried a brick and a half. The next morning the lid and brick and a half were off. Then two full brick pavers. The lid and bricks remained in place. So the next night I went back to a brick and a half. Off again.

So whatever it was, it could move three pounds—and no more—and had the ability to lift the snugly fitted lid.

Hummingbirds routinely sip nectar from our Bignonia capreolata, or tangerine cross vines. Bees congregate on the puffy white eucalyptus flowers. House finches adore the figs. Butterflies navigate and quietly sample the menu everywhere. And rodents, rabbits, reptiles, and arachnids galore munch on the abundant nutrients at ground level. Did they all combine forces to pull one over on us?

Finally, late one night, I witnessed a creature eating by the skimmer basket. I could see the shape, clearly a mammal, oblong, head pointed down at 45 degrees, at least 10 pounds and two feet long with a foot-long tail. With a high beam flashlight, I shined it on the feasting creature and there it was. A coatimundi, Nasua nasua, a raccoon-like desert dweller, originally from South America, nocturnal by nature, with a keen sense of smell and a gristle-padded snout to root in soil and leaf litter. Eating. But eating what?

After he took off, I investigated the skimmer. Empty. What was he after? The next night, ensuring the skimmer lid was secure, I inspected the basket’s contents. Cotinus mutabilis, scarab beetles, also known as fig beetles or June bugs, filled the water below. Probably 30 to 50 beetles, dead and alive, were caught in the basket. No doubt they fell in the pool after gorging themselves silly on the nearby figs.

So each night the lid was on with the basket full of beetles. Morning came and the lid was off and the basket cleaned out. It astounded me that a coatimundi had the dexterity to wedge its snout in the skimmer basket finger holes and lift it up.

How does wildlife know when and where food is available? Do they let each other in on the bounty in our yard?

The figs are usually gone by July. And when the figs are gone, so too are the June bugs. Sure enough, the day came. One morning in early July, the lid no longer was askew. The basket no longer held the June bug feast. The coati was gone. But where? What was it feeding on tonight? Will it return next year to feed on the June bugs, which feed on the figs? ✜

Lorry Levine is a local freelance writer and an advocate for wild places, sustainable living, and locally brewed craft beer.

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