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The skill of wildlife observation is fast becoming a lost art, mostly because people nowadays are unable to do two simple yet very important things: sit still and be quiet. This is not to say that only young people are too fidgety to enjoy the wild world around them. In fact, a lot of people over 50 are unable to slow down, relax and really see what’s going on around them. Everyone seems to want to be somewhere else and to move on to the next fun thing as quickly as possible. Being worried about what’s next is why most people can’t see the entertaining things that are right in front of them right now.
Unfortunately, these days “real” life is driven by angst and stress. We drive too fast, we shop too fast, we hurry from work and to school, running here to there all day every day – and this is supposed to be fun?
I much prefer to be in the slow lane, either walking through the woods or paddling down a quiet stream, nothing on my mind or in my way except the things that naturally belong there. Wildlife observation isn’t speed reading, it’s a combination of senses hitting you all at once, making you wonder, making you think, making you imagine what went on here yesterday or last night. Lovers of nature need to know what made that track, what excavated that hole or what made that nest.
Casual or untrained observers miss 90 percent of what goes on in the woods. They are not looking for it, don’t think about it and don’t have the imagination to piece the clues together. Recently I spent a morning walking along my favorite trail with a nurse, her husband, her two college-age daughters and their dog. Only the dog seemed to be tuned into his natural surroundings – the rest were looking around but not really seeing anything.
In the span of a few minutes I pointed out moose, deer and turkey tracks, several frogs, a bird’s nest, holes in a tree made by a pileated woodpecker, a box turtle, a maze of mole tunnels and some fresh beaver cuttings. In the nearby stream I showed them crayfish, a salamander, dozens of caddis (those woody-looking things under the rocks), a scary-looking Dobson fly larvae (better known as a hellgrammite) and a gray tree frog doing his best to become invisible.
“Where does all this stuff come from?” the nurse asked.
“It’s always here,” I replied. “You just have to look for it.”
I think, overall, deer hunters are the most observant of all. Spending long hours in the woods, alert to every snapping twig, and because of this they see a lot of things other than deer. Every sound and movement must be verified, and over the course of a long day in the woods that is a lot of verification! Mice, birds, squirrels, grouse, fishers, foxes – the list of daytime visitors is endless. Deer are relatively scarce (you may see one or none all day, depending on the situation and conditions) but you can’t afford to take a chance and ignore even the slightest sound or movement. The one you ignore is the one that fools you!
This is the reason deer hunting is so exhausting – it’s all the listening and looking that goes on. Beginning hunters become bored, frustrated or stop paying attention for a moment, and of course that is when the big buck decides to show up.
Deer hunters and others who enjoy nature count any wildlife sighting as pertinent, important and exciting. Even when the target animal doesn’t show up, something else will, and we’ll rush back to camp to tell everyone about the hawk or owl or mink we saw along the brook.
Now is the perfect time to be outdoors for a little nature observation. The end of May and early June is hatching and birthing time for most of the critters that call the Maine woods home, and overnight the number of wild neighbors we might see will increase exponentially in twos, fours and 10s as deer, rabbits, turkeys, ducks and every other living creature goes forth and multiplies. This is the time of year when you will see baby robins, bluebirds and chickadees trying their wings; young raccoons, skunks, opossums and other small mammals out and about, working on their survival skills.
For the sake of all concerned, observe our wildlife from a distance. Use your cameras and binoculars to close the distance so you don’t frighten the parents or the young, or draw attention to their hiding place. Predators of all sorts are on the lookout for an easy meal to feed their children and they will follow your lead if you are not careful.
I made this mistake back in the mid-1960s when, curious and untrained, I visited the same mallard duck nest every day hoping to get a look at the ducklings when they hatched. Well, my daily path to the nest created a perfect raccoon highway, and one day I returned to the nest to find a dozen broken shells – not one duckling survived. I was fully responsible for the loss, of course, and ever since I have learned to keep my distance.
This is also a good time to remember that few wild birds and animals you see in your travels are “lost” or “abandoned.” Nature has its own rules and wild mothers will often leave their young alone for hours, even days. They are not abandoning them, they are hiding them! The best thing you can do is observe, take pictures and leave with as little commotion as possible.
The odds of an immature wild creature surviving our feeble attempts at “rescue” are minimal at best. Most suffer and die at the hands of humans, so do yourself and the wild ones a favor and look – don’t touch! If you leave them alone they will survive, but if you create a disturbance the predators out there will take notice!
Finally, to make the most of your wildlife observations, go alone or in teams of two or three. I see something new, interesting and exciting every time I go into the woods. Look, listen and focus and you will, too!
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