Wildlife Spectaculars

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Saturday 29 June 2019  

I’ve seen a lot of wildlife in my life, some in pretty spectacular circumstances. For example, I lived on wildlife refuges where, at times, I had tens of thousands of ducks and geese right in my “back yard.” Once, I saw 18 California condors circling together, when the total world population of condors was less than twice that number. But, maybe surprisingly, when I think about my most memorable wildlife observations, I don’t think of condors or waterfowl. The events I think of that are as fresh today as when they happened don’t involve large numbers or rarity. They were just the right thing to see at the right time.

   When I was about 12 years old, I walked along behind a gray fox for maybe ten minutes. It obviously knew I was there, but it was headed somewhere in particular and seemed undeterred by my presence. I’m sure it was the first fox I ever saw in the wild, which helped make it special, but there was more to it. I can still see the details of the trail we walked, and of the vegetation around us, and can almost feel the slow and steady pace we made along the hillside. Many fox sightings later, it’s the one that stands out.

   Twenty years after the fox, I remember walking cross-country through an open forest in the Sierra Nevada. Suddenly, I had a sensation almost as if the ground was moving under my feet. When I stopped, I realized that there were hundreds of rufous hummingbirds around me, moving at ground level through the late-blooming wild flowers. They slowed for quick sips of nectar, but generally kept moving off to the south in a seemingly choreographed “march.” I never again saw that kind of a migration.

   My favorite of small spectaculars occurred on a trail in the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire. As I often did when hiking with a group, I had slowed my pace and hung back from the others, hoping for more bird movement and bird song once the main human noise had ceased. Suddenly, I heard white-throated sparrows calling loudly and urgently, and at almost the same moment a snowshoe hare ran past me. It was followed almost immediately by a pursuing weasel followed by two agitated sparrows, harassing the weasel. It was over in seconds, but I could hear the sparrows in the distance, still calling urgently. And then, the rabbit ran by my feet again, still pursued by the weasel pursued by the sparrows. One more time, the cavalcade circled through the woods, the rabbit again passing almost over my boots. This time, however, the weasel came to a dead stop right at my feet, with the agitated sparrows calling in the bushes nearby. Perhaps my scent or my presence momentarily confused it. Whatever, apparently it was long enough for the weasel to lose its concentration, and the snowshoe hare to lose its pursuer. The weasel ran off, the sparrows quieted down, and I continued my hike.

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© Sanford Wilbur 2019