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One of the first realities any wildlife observer must learn to contend with is that the majority of encounters with birds or animals are sudden and unexpected. Most “nature” shows on TV lead one to believe that wild critters will sit still and give you all day to study their behavior, but outside of our national parks, pens and zoos the opposite is invariably the case. Few wild creatures can afford the luxury of lolling around in the sun for hours on end – only the largest of all can take such a risk. Even our high-end mammals (deer, bear, moose, etc.) are viewed as snacks or adversaries by predators or another or even members of their own species. The smaller the creature the more likely it is to pop in and out of view in mere glimpses that, however brief, remain locked in our memories for decades.
I was reminded of this just before the most recent storm hit. As is my habit, I went for a long stroll in the woods because I knew that the same forces of nature that made me anxious and fitful also affect wildlife the same way. Pre-storm activity in the woods can be surprisingly brisk among the creatures that need to find food or shelter before being trapped by inclement weather. How they know a storm is coming and how long it will last is an instinct we humans have lost (squandered?) in our endless quest for separation from the natural world. In fact the average chickadee, red squirrel or common crow knows more about pending climatic conditions than either the American or European “models,” which are pretty good at predicting the weather but nowhere near as accurate as the tiniest shrew or field mouse.
I don’t know how they know but I know they know, and so I went out before the storm to see what I could see. The woods were busy that day, as I hoped they would be, but every wild thing I saw gave me but a glimpse of their existence, enough to be noticed but not enough to capture with a camera. In the space of about two hours I saw crows, ravens, owls, red and gray squirrels, woodpeckers, robins, blue birds, finches, blue jays, nuthatches, brown creepers, a grouse and a bald eagle, plus deer, rabbits, a gorgeous red fox, a moose and several porcupines. I didn’t see any of them for very long, just a collage of mental snapshots that I know will stick in my mind for years to come. In particular, the red fox, which fairly glowed as it ran across the snow on a sunlit ridge above me. One doesn’t experience sights like that very often. I always pause and rerun the details through my mind whenever I make such chance encounters because I know how infrequent those events can be. For example, I still remember a red fox I saw running along a snowy field edge carrying a gray squirrel in its jaws. He paused for a moment near some junipers along a stone wall, and then jumped over the wall and disappeared into the brush on the other side. This happened more than 50 years ago and I recall it as if it were yesterday.
I also remember the time I was wandering the woods in LaGrange near Boyd Lake and came upon a black bear that was tearing a rotten log apart, no doubt looking for grubs. He had both front feet on the log and was tearing the punky wood apart layer by layer, feasting on the fat, white grubs that literally poured out of the rotted stump. What a sight to behold! He was only 20 yards away and had no idea I was nearby. I can still see his bright black eyes and flashing tongue as he busily lapped up the treasure trove of grubs he’d found. This little event took place in 1962! A momentary glimpse, yet one I will never forget.
More recently I stopped for a break near a stone wall and brewed myself a cup of tea. One of the trees along the wall was a huge pine that had died years ago and was now just waiting for the right wind to come along and blow it over. As I sipped my tea and considered all that has gone on since the tree was nothing but a pine cone full of potential, a pair of pileated woodpeckers came undulating through the woods and landed on opposite sides of the trunk. In a dance any Broadway choreographer would have been proud to design, the two giant birds began to bounce ‘round and ‘round the tree, moving ever upwards as they worked their way slowly to the top, laughing in their maniacal way and bobbing right and left as if they were playing hide-and-seek with each other. I’ve seen many a pileated woodpecker in my travels, even had them close enough to touch, but this was the first time I’ve seen a pair of them in action; one more indelible memory for the files.
At this time of year it’s unusual to spend long periods studying wildlife because they just don’t sit still long enough for us to make a pencil-and-paper sketch. Ducks and geese (if you are lucky enough to find them loafing in open water) may be the exception, or perhaps a flock of wild turkeys caught scratching in the exposed mud of an open field, but most critters move fast and often because food is scarce and predators are everywhere. He who hesitates is likely to be eaten, and no one understands the laws of Nature more than those who live within its confines. The wild world is a busy, treacherous place – only we humans seem oblivious to it all.
As winter slowly comes to an end our wild neighbors begin the subtle shift from survival mode to mating mode. It happens quickly and often transpires right in front of our eyes. Don’t blink or you’re likely to miss it!
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