Temptation in the Apple Trees

Last week, I spent an afternoon in the old apple orchard to check out the bird nesting scene. The cows found this fascinating.

Watching me watch birds.
Watching me watch birds.

The chickadees mostly ignored the cows under their tree and carried on with the hard work of feeding hungry hatchlings.

Chickadee nest
Chickadee nest

After a while, I followed the flight path of a red-naped sapsucker to another tree on the edge of the canyon.

Red naped sapsucker on apple tree
Red naped sapsucker on apple tree
Heading out
Heading out for more bugs

About three feet above the sapsucker nest, nuthatches tended their young.

Pygmy nuthatch

Then I glanced into the branches above and saw this:

Bull snake
Bull snake

My initial thoughts went something like: “oh cool, what a gorgeous snake. And in a tree! What snake around here climbs trees? I feel like I’m in some tropical jungle.” Then, I realized why the snake was in the tree.

Uh oh. From an avian perspective, there never has been a Garden of Eden.

But from an ecological perspective, it’s a pretty cool example of how the system works — and it’s not about cuteness.  I feel bad for the baby birds (though I never saw whether the snake succeeded in eating one), but I suppose I should feel equally sorry for those still-live bugs being stuffed down baby bird gullets.  Or for the calves destined for human dinner plates.

That reminds me: while watching birds, I should look around now and then to see if a cougar is stalking me.

(Note on the cows: although I don’t object to raising animals humanely and sustainably for meat, the cows don’t belong to me.  They belong to our neighbor and visit our pastures for a couple weeks every summer).


  1. Elizabeth, this is gorgeous! I love every one of the photos. Am struck by your line, “It’s not about cuteness.” The same exact words I wrote in the chapter I’m slogging through at the moment. My dilemma was a red fox kit that was euthanized at a rehab center I worked at because he could not be released back into the California wild to threaten the habitat of native gray foxes. It wasn’t about cuteness–and yet the law seemed peremptory, somehow off. Am trying to write my way toward understanding. Not sure I’m succeeding…. I love your post title too.

  2. Thanks Priscilla. I’ve never put much effort into photography but am trying a bit harder these days. Im especially pleased with these.

    I love that you used the cuteness line in your chapter. I struggle with those issues a lot too. There’s a poem by Mary Oliver that comes to mind. Can’t remember the title or details but something about having compassion for prey and predator. I look forward to reading your book some day. I also hope we get a chance to meet at some point. I’d love to have a good chat about all this.

  3. Love the post! Great shots. Did you stick around to see whether the snake succeeded?

    I got a very similar shot of a nuthatch peering out of their tree nest this week!

  4. I didn’t stick around for that, Mike. For all I know the snake might have already eaten and was busy digesting. The nuthatches are gone now. I assume they fledged. The baby woodpeckers are still there and, judging by the deafening loudness and frequency of their cheeping doing well.

  5. love the title and the pictures! must have been a fascinating afternoon 🙂

  6. Thanks, Arati. It was a wonderful afternoon. The snake was an unexpected treat.

  7. A thoughtful post, illustrated with nice photos. It’s hard to resist cuteness, as we all know. But I am partial to red-heads, and snakes. 🙂

  8. Wonderful photos. You are lucky to be able to find the nests. Our woods are so large, we don’t stand much chance of finding them unless we’re really lucky. The snake is a reminder that life in the wild isn’t so wonderful at times.

  9. Thanks, Deb. I’m a sucker for cuteness in many forms — snakes as well as birds. A red-headed snake would be adorable.

  10. Thanks, Joan. We have extensive forests too but they’re ponderosa pines with open canopies so wildlife is easier to see. And these apple trees have so many holes in them that they’re a favorite for species that often nest in nearby pines too.

  11. JA JA JA JA, now I also think that I should look around to see if a cougar (or a jaguar… I live in Panamá) is stalking me while birding!

  12. Great post – I usually don’t hear about bull snakes/gopher snakes climbing trees, but I guess the nests were just that tempting.

  13. Jan – I tell myself that cougars would probably rather eat elk and deer, but I figure they know where I am more often than I know where they are.

  14. Thanks, Bernard. I was surprised too but did find some online references to occasional tree climbing.

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