Like some other birds, vultures spend their winter months soaking up the sun and playing canasta with their friends in the sunny South. Or anyhow the carrion-eater's version of canasta, which seems to involve the rubber gaskets of your car windows and doors.
The park angers warn you upon entry to the Myakka River State Park: the vultures will nibble any exposed rubber on your car. They'll peck away the seals on your windshields. They'll chomp on your sidewalls.
And they are good at this: they can remove the weather-stripping from a mini-van in under an hour.
...No, the rangers don't know why these creatures do such a thing, but there it is. A vice. Among vultures.
Our annual Christmas camping trip a few years ago brought us -- Jeff and me and the small dog -- to Myakka River State Park. (It's a thing we do, hopping into the RV and nipping away for a day or two over the holidays.)
Myakka is a couple of hours south, a pleasant enough drive. It boasts 57 square miles of wilderness with an oak-canopy walk, wide river-of-grass vistas, and a whole lot of alligators.
It's rightly billed as "Where the River and Prairie Meet the Sky."
But the camping area itself is surprisingly compact, with tents and camping vehicles and portable dog kennels and such packed tightly. A crowded little island of humanity. The racket of generators and recorded Christmas songs and people shouting quickly nudged us on a long walk with the dog after sunset.
Less than a hundred yards away from the camping area, along the paved road still radiating the day's heat, artificial sound faded. We swept flashlight-beams into the trees, hoping to spot bats or flying squirrels. With the lights switched off, the dark seemed to first press in close and then back away. The stars were bright in the gaps between the oak boughs above.
When we stopped to listen, we heard coyotes in the distance, the sound incongruously dry for the marshy surroundings.
We walked on, silent, the little dog leaning, in her Boston-Terrier way, at the end of her nylon leash. The yipping and howling got a bit louder -- whether clearing some sound-break or growing closer it was impossible to say in the dark.
Then the sound of the coyotes was much closer still, and Jeff said, "This is not good."
"Don't worry," I assured him. "They are shy. Listen to them." Jeff knows about alligators, sure, I was thinking, but I know canids.
And our dog was snuffling unconcernedly at the pavement. She's a good watch-dog, our Lilly. She pipes up when there's conflict.
The yodeling, yelling, yapping cries -- continual now -- grew very loud. There were at least several different voices, all talking at once, the sound like the torment of souls.
As anyone who's been camping in Florida can tell you: an armadillo the size of a meatloaf moves through dry palmetto with roughly the same sonic footprint as a marauding elephant.
By the volume of their vocalizing, the pack could have been right next door. It seemed remarkable that we didn't hear the pack moving through the underbrush.
Then nothing. As if someone had shut off the radio, the silence stunned and absolute.
Jeff's alarm infected me. "Come on, dog," I said. I jiggled the leash and she, still unconcerned, obligingly turned back the way we'd come. Night fog was settling as we crested a small rise, and then -- as we entered the damper, misty bit of lowland -- we could smell the pack. The scent clinging to the fog was rank, musky, unmistakably wild.
"They are probably watching." Jeff said, his voice low.
We skedaddled back to the lights and the noise of the crowded campground. We listened intently for the coyotes to resume their serenade, but they kept silent. Probably watching.
The next day at the ranger station on our way out, I told the ranger. "We heard coyotes!" I recounted how while we were walking our small dog, we'd heard a chorus of them. How they'd come close, closer, then went silent. How we'd picked up their actual scent in the hollow.
"Next time," the ranger said, his voice calm as he stamped some papers. "You might want to pick up and carry the little dog."
I repeated the ranger's words as Jeff steered the RV back through the gates of the park. "Next time," Jeff echoed the phrase, consideringly. "Next time, we'll make her a little bacon-suit."
"Gah!" I replied. Then, "Hey!" Outrage rendering me inarticulate.
Keeping eyes on the road, he said, "Who doesn't like bacon?"
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