November 27, 2012

Island Living: Hatteras gone wild

By JOY CRIST

We’ve all been there. You’re trying to relax on a desolate winter beach, sifting through shell piles or strolling along the ocean wash trying not to get your toes wet, when suddenly you are attacked by a giant demented pelican.

Yes, it happened to me.

I was just minding my own business, rooting through one of those big gross piles of wet seaweed -- because the good shells are always hidden in the most disgusting of seaweed piles for some reason -- when a pelican approached me on foot, slowly at first, and quietly watched me from a few feet away.

Those suckers are pretty big up close, and it made me a little nervous, so I drifted a little farther down the beach and found a new nasty seaweed pile to root through.

Well, the pelican never took its eyes off of me as it tiptoed closer and followed me down the shore and stood, vigilant, a few feet away.

We repeated this dance a few more times over the course of 15 minutes or so, and I started feeling more comfortable around the big guy. He wasn’t doing anything aggressive, just following me around as I picked at the seaweed, and he watched me with big and seemingly curious eyes.

So I relaxed and thought to myself, “Well, huh? This pelican is awfully friendly. Maybe he wants to be my friend!  Cool!”

Oh, but I was way off.

Because just as soon as the idea of having a pet pelican came into my head (And how awesome that would be?), the pelican suddenly shot his wings out to his sides, opened his mouth as wide as it could go, and made a crazed running beeline in my direction.

Now, in case you’ve never been chased by a pelican before, a crazy running pelican looks like a baby pterodactyl with a fuzzy bald head and big webbed feet, which you would think would be the cutest thing in the world, but you would be horribly, horribly wrong.

 It’s actually quite terrifying.

So I ran. I ran all the way to my Jeep parked up the beach, jumped in, locked all the doors -- yeah, I have no idea why I did that either -- and fled the scene.

That pelican followed me for a good half mile as I drove down the beach until we both finally stopped. I poked my head out of the window, with trepidation at first, to see if it had abandoned the pursuit. The bird had, but it stood tall a couple dozen yards away and stared me down, as if to say, “You want some more? Huh? Well come on back, big girl. I’m waiting.”

So the pelican won, and I left the beach, and for all I know it probably sifted through all those gnarly seaweed piles and ended up with a beak full of beautifully intact Scotch bonnets. Jerk.

And it seems that somebody told all the deer, possums, feral cats, pelicans, and all of the other critters on the island that at this time of year, they outnumber the humans, and, ergo, they can get away with pretty much anything they want.

The territorial pelican is not the only bossy animal we’ve encountered lately – not by a long shot.

We have a local opossum, that in a stroke of creative brilliance I named “Mr. Possum,” who has been frequenting our front porch for weeks and helping himself to the dry food I leave out for the feral cats. If I lapse and neglect to put out cat food, he responds in kind by digging up our potted plants on the porch and tossing them off the deck. Thanks a lot, buddy. Point taken.

We also had a deer a couple months ago that would swing by and help itself to the newly ripened tomatoes in the garden. I tried everything I could think of to scare it away, from putting up fencing to making a pathetic scarecrow out of a couple of sticks, a T-shirt, and a pair of hot pink jelly shoes that I haven’t worn since the early ‘90s, but to no avail.

Finally, the day arrived when I spotted the deer out the window, munching away, and I reasonably figured that catching him in the act would surely scare him away for good, so I ran out to the front deck and started waving my arms and screaming, “Hey! HEY! HEY!!!” In deer-speak this means, “Quit eating my tomatoes, Pal, or else I will wave my arms frantically at you! Take that!”

The deer was not impressed. It looked at me as if I were mad, tomato hanging out of its mouth, and slowly chewed and watched my erratic behavior. I think he was amused and actually enjoyed the Stupid Human Behavior Show.

And, as if that’s not odd enough, there seem to be clusters of deer hanging out and taking up island space anywhere we go. We see them everywhere nowadays – grazing on the side of the road, running behind the Food Lion, trotting across our neighbor’s lawn, jumping across Highway 12 in Buxton, or standing in line in front of us at Subway.

Okay, I made that last one up, but, obviously, Hatteras Island has gone wild for the winter.

Now, I used to think spotting random animals out and about on Hatteras Island was charming, but this recent onslaught of bossy critters taking my tomatoes, my cat food, and my potential Scotch bonnet score has ruffled my feathers.

How many times have you been driving in between Avon and Salvo after 7 p.m., which in the winter is known as “late night,” only to see a cluster of deer apparently playing chicken and daring each other to run out in front of your car? Or at least that’s what I assume they’re plotting.

And how many times have you had a morbidly obese possum or raccoon waddle up your front steps and stare through your door, expecting you to magically make food appear that their girth would suggest they don’t really need?

The funny thing is -- besides the mental image of someone being chased by a pelican, which my friends assure me is actually really funny -- the summer folks will never see this. This is a weird slice of off-season island life that islanders and the rare winter visitors get to experience.

Are the deer and possums at play still running the show when summer rolls around? Heck, no. The traffic is heavy, humans are everywhere, and the now-audacious wildlife seem to retreat back into Buxton Woods and other wooded areas to plan all the cool things they’re going to do in the winter when all the darn people are gone.

And when everyone is gone, they come out in full force, having seemingly made intricate plans to hang out in the bank parking lot or torment my cats.

I will admit, the first time I saw the deer and our neighborhood opossum, it was a pretty interesting, if not pleasant, encounter. Mr. Possum and I are almost on a first name basis now, after all.

And there have been times when I’ve been driving around and unexpectedly come across a marvelous photo op of a couple of pretty little deer grazing in front of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse -- usually when I don’t have my camera.

And my dog loves to have new and exciting things to bark at.

And finally, I bet the poor folks who get to come here only once a year in the prime season would love to see a deer shoot across the sand dunes or spot a turtle slowly -- deliberately slowly in my opinion -- making its way across the highway while traffic in both directions waits, or even have a pelican show them so much interest as they wander down the beach.

My expert friends -- whom I define as “people who are smarter than me,” which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of them -- have told me that the reason the crazy pelican chased me is because there were probably baby pelicans nearby. This makes total sense because if I had kids and some big strange woman was romping around next to them, I’d probably go pterodactyl-crazy too.

And truth be told, I never eat all my tomatoes.  In fact, I usually let them rot on the counter for a few days while musing that I should do something with them or give them away to fellow gardeners who already have enough tomatoes on their hands.
So given this, I suppose I should feel lucky to have a perspective that’s so different from our summer folks. Sure, they might see a feral cat, a stray dolphin, or a bait fish or two, but they will never suffer the onslaught of Hatteras Island wildlife inhabitants that locals get to enjoy.

So I’ll continue feeding Mr. Possum, and I won’t buy a shotgun as a last resort to deal with Mr. I’ll-steal-your-tomatoes deer, and the next time I’m at the beach, I’ll try to respect my pelican shell-hunting or baby-protecting neighbor.
And, who knows? Maybe I’ll enjoy my wildlife overrun winter and just remember to keep a camera handy at all times.

And what about piping plovers, you ask?  Well, that’s a whole different story all together.

(Joy Crist and her fiancÚ are spending the winter at their newly purchased property in the mountains of North Carolina, though she insists she is not fleeing Hatteras Island’s wild critters.  She says she will be back one of these days. Meanwhile, she may occasionally write about island life from her new perspective.)

comments powered by Disqus