Goodbye, “Phelps”

This post is not about writing techniques; instead, it’s about a visitor that stayed in my backyard during the Olympics. I first found him in the bottom of the dogs’ water bowl. Thinking he was one of the obese, complacent toads that live in my yard–and not certain how well toads swim–I tried to rescue him.

He needed no help from me. One huge leap shot him out of the water and across the patio with lunging, floppy desperation. Startled, I recoiled and missed a good look at him before he gained the safety of the shrubbery. That was no toad. Mine are all well-fed and rather gentle. They hop in straight lines with ponderous dignity. I am grateful to them for doing their job eating insects, and my dogs gave up hunting them four summers ago, which has been a relief to us all.

What was this thing?

The next night, he was back in the water bowl. I got a better look at his long legs and markings before he leapt forth. The evening after that, he moved to the larger tub of water that I keep for my dogs to cool off in during very hot weather. I decided our visitor was a bull frog, and because he was so fast off the mark, I called him “Phelps.”

The question then became, Where did “Phelps” come from?

I live atop a hill. There are drainage ponds several streets away–all downhill. The closest creek is even more distant, and located on the opposite side of a busy four-lane street. So I couldn’t imagine how “Phelps” had laboriously hopped to my yard from any of those water sources. And while he was good at swimming and leaping, he wasn’t very adept at crossing the lawn. His movements on land were always frantically, desperately swift, but he was also unnaturally awkward, as though something was wrong with his legs. He was so obviously a creature of the water, yet neither I nor my terriers wanted him paddling in their daily water supply.

How, I wondered, could I catch him and take him back to a pond?

Another factor entered the equation of this puzzle. A pair of young bald eagles came into my neighborhood at the same time as “Phelps.” They would circle over houses, emitting their distinctive, two-note whistle. The sun would glint off the white feathers on their heads, and smaller birds would fight them ferociously away from nests. One morning, an irate mockingbird chased the eagle directly toward my open garage door, but thank goodness the eagle flew over the gable instead of straight inside.

I am always delighted to watch eagles, and I felt sorry for this pair. Until this spring, much of my neighborhood still contained undeveloped land thick with cedar trees and brush–home to coyotes, field mice, and rabbits. Now the brush has been bladed off, with streets and lots cut for yet more new, overpriced tract homes to be built for people who typically live in them for less than two years before their corporation transfers them elsewhere. Why had the eagles come here? Had they perhaps hatched here last year and now returned? If so, how sad a homecoming. Yet I’ve never noticed eagles here before so possibly they were seeking new hunting grounds.

It’s my guess that one of the eagles must have caught “Phelps” from a drainage pond and then dropped him in my yard. Poor “Phelps” was probably injured somewhat, which would account for his ungainly flop-hopping.

The eagles did not stay long, no doubt due to the poor hunting. The last wild habitat in this location has been eradicated, and they have gone.

“Phelps” is also gone, as suddenly as he came.

Although my Scottie–also known as the Spook–will no longer hunt toads and totally ignored “Phelps,” the Spook’s brother is much more strongly hard-wired to hunt and–whenever they corner prey–has always been the one to doggy-up and bite the toads despite their nasty taste. On the last evening I saw “Phelps,” he flung himself from the water bowl as usual and shot across our lawn, but that time he crossed paths with the Executioner, who gave chase.

I did not see the Executioner pounce, but although he’s slow, deaf, and portly, it’s possible he delivered a killing bite to poor “Phelps.” I searched the grass for a frog corpse and found nothing. Perhaps “Phelps” crawled into the shrubbery before he died. Or perhaps “Phelps” found a gap beneath the fence boards and went on his way. Let’s hope it was the latter scenario. Perhaps he will end up in a neighbor’s ground-level fountain and live happily thereafter.

At least, while he was here, he did not sing.

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