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The art of observing

4 Oct

“Don’t think. Just observe.”

My first lessons in the ‘field’ were before I was taught any biology, physiology, ecology, any -ology. An old trapper/tracker in Maine was my human mentor. He was short on words and usually answered my questions with another question. Or a quick shrug of his shoulders. He spoke more with his eyes than he did his mouth.

When I asked him to teach me this or that, he swept his arm and hand out at everything before us and said, “That’s your teacher. I’m just an old man.”

It was almost a year before I started to realize what he meant. It came to me during the fall when a secret signal tells the maple trees to start turning orange and red. And when hair on several of the small mammals begin to change color. Leaves on many  annual and perennial plants turn yellow, shrivel and fall off while seeds mature and catch a ride on the winds or by clinging to your pant cuffs and socks.

It becomes harder to walk quietly in the forests on dried leaves and twigs that crunch and snap. You learn to step on tree roots and rocks thrusting above the litter. You might glimpse a deer walking in the forest and see how they slowly place a hoof on mossy spots or bare places in between the leafy carpet. Instead of pushing your way through branches, you twist half your body sideways or bend to move in the spaces in between.

During winter you might find animal tracks in other animal tracks. Or in your tracks. Blazing new trails costs energy; go where someone else has moved the snow. Perhaps you’ll remember to follow the game trails after the snow has melted.

It was a year before I could sit, or lean against a tree or boulder, and not think. I learned to watch and observe; save the thinking for later. I learned to be still. The more still I was, the more silently I moved. The more I didn’t think, the more I learned. With the dismissal of expectations and preconceptions, the more aware and attentive I was. Actually, I became less, and more like my surroundings.

And everything spoke to me. Not in words, but in just being. My environment was my final mentor.

French philosopher Simone Weil wrote:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of that though, but on a lower level and not in contact with, the diverse knowledge we have acquired, which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain, who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.

In other words, don’t ask or think……….Watch and observe.

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An encounter with a young hawk

29 Jul

I heard a nearby truncated shriek. A familiar sound, but lacking the usual power and strength. Scanning the area around me, I saw a silhouette that, again, was a familiar shape.

Underneath the wide umbrella canopy of an old tree, sheltered from the sun, sat the form of a raptor. My first thought was one of the four raven fledglings that constantly explore the air and ground around the refuge headquarters and resident area. But the shape of the head, attentive and looking around, was not that of a raven.

Most of the buteos have a sloped skull that flows into the downward slope of their hooked beak. The bony ridge over the eyes of a buteo gives the profile of their familiar hooded eyes, which can be piercing.

A raven’s skull is shorter and rounder than a buteo’s. Ravens also lack the boney ridge over their eyes, which are like round black buttons. The long and fat raven beak is the key difference. Thick and long, it might be compared to a tapered black banana.

When the bird awkwardly took flight from the ground, white feathers of the short leggings and underwings confirmed that the mystery bird was a buteo, or hawk. What also caught my eye was that its talons were taking a meal for a ride.

Red-tailed hawk

Red-tailed hawk

The hawk flew into a nearby large and ancient cottonwood tree, where it couldn’t seem to find its balance on a branch. As I walked closer, perhaps about a hundred and twenty-five feet away, the bird gave up flapping its wings in amongst the branches and finding a place to perch. It flew down to the ground.

Now quite curious, I retrieved my binoculars out of the travel trailer and walked back to where I was. Scanning the weedy grass and rabbit brush, I could not see any sign of the bird. But occasionally I would hear a sound like a short and high-pitched bark. An odd sound for a raptor!

Walking slowly and carefully through the dried weeds and grass, I chose a direct path towards the sound. After 20 feet of noise with every foot-fall, I stopped and returned to the chunky gravel and decided to try my luck along the edge of the gravel refuge road.

Recalling what I was taught decades ago when learning to track animals, every footstep was slow and light. Any audible sound of the gravel rearranging under my feet was muffled by the strong breeze and moving tree leaves. Keeping my upper body as motionless as possible, I slowly shifted my weight with every carefully-placed footstep. Moving sideways, without moving my head and arms independently was a bit tricky, trying to keep it all a fluid motion. I made a mental note that I needed to get back into Tai Chi to improve my balance and proprioception.

With the binoculars held up to my eyes, I spotted first the raptor head, then the neck. Moving closer, I could monitor the bird’s eyes through the binoculars. Whenever its head and eyes moved in my direction, I froze; sometimes with a foot suspended above the gravel while waiting for the head and eyes to turn away from my direction.

It seemed to take forever for me to approach near where the bird was on the ground. Perched on a large branch lying on the ground and in the shade of the tree was a young hawk. A few features informed me that it was immature. The color of the eyes (iris) were grayish with subtle yellow. Adult Red-tailed hawks have dark brown irises, which often blend in with their black pupils.

The white breast feathers were typical of a red-tailed hawk. However, its white patch was smaller than most others I have seen on juveniles of this species. Below this patch were soft, almost downy variegated feathers; white with wide bands of medium to light brown, and many of them blowing in the breezes sneaking under the canopy of the tree. It’s cere was large and bright yellow, the brightest coloration on this mostly dark bird. Little white showed on the top of the wings and head. Below its white softly feathered leggings betrayed the presence of knobby legs and gray-yellow talon. This bird had not gone through its first molt yet.

Now at about 25 feet from the bird, I didn’t need the binoculars anymore. I held them to my chin to avoid any exaggerated movement. Standing stock still, I studied this bird and wondered why it decided to perch on a grounded branch rather than up in the tree canopy.

Slowly shifting my body a few more feet to the right I was able to see more of the story. One set of talons grasped the wood, and the other…….   All I could see was the bottom of its leg and the upper toes disappearing in the gray-rusty colored fur. These talons were deep into the hindquarters of an unidentified furry mammal with soft gray and tan-orange fur. Below the heap of fur was the bottom of a leg with some white fur and a foot. A paw, to be more exact. With the binoculars, the shape of a paw with dark tan fur had me stumped. Then another feature grabbed my curiosity.

To the right of the hawk I noticed and oddly shaped reddish branch covered with yellowish knobs. It looked like a miniature bloody chainsaw! Not until the hawk picked up its buried talons and shook the heap of fur did I see this odd reddish bar shake as well. It was attached to the heap of fur!

I realized that the hawk was sitting on a hindquarter that was still attached to the bloody spine of a mammal. After shaking the heap of fur and the rib, the hawk looked down at his trapped talons. Apparently the youngster buried those talons into the scavenged meal and was unable to remove them. Shaking it a few times unsuccessfully released it. It finally took a break and glanced around, yawning. And I continued to watch.

After a furious attempt to shake the cumbersome attachment to its talons, it managed to jump up off the fur heap and branch, and turn around with a squeal. Possibly sitting on the rib and powerfully pushing off, its talons were finally dislodged from the fur. With great dexterity, this determined bird caught the entire carnage before it fell on the ground, parked it on the branch, itself carefully perched on the wood, and began to tear off tufts of gray and tan fur. A whitish tail surrounded by gray and tawny-orange fur leads me to guess that the unfortunate meal was a white-tailed jackrabbit, a large relative of the common black-tailed jackrabbit.

The beautiful black and brown banded tail feathers confirmed the age of this bird. Although fledged for a month or so now, it was learning to hunt and feed itself on its own. Finding a partially consumed meal might seem an easy meal for this youngster, but now it needs to learn constraint on digging its talons into prey. And I thanked it for letting me share its experience.

 We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creatures through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of haven taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth. –  by Henry Beston, excerpted from The Outermost House

Where does one organism end? The art of seeing.

31 May

It began with my father telling me as a child, “If you want to talk to an animal, you have to learn their language.” So I started to learn and talk to animals. In their language. Decades later when I was in undergraduate university struggling through chemistry class, he again helped me to understand. During a phone conversation we discussed chemical bonding, which I was having trouble grasping. Again, “Think like electrons and you will see how they attract and repel. And that will illuminate how weak or strong they are in varying conditions and in relation to their neighbors.” It started to all make sense and I ended up loving chemistry.

When water from spring thaws threatened to invade my cabin where I lived in the woods of Maine, an old-timer on the farm up the road told me to ‘think like water’ and work with it rather than against it. Every spring found me constructing meandering ditches to channel water away from the cabin foundation. It became a game and it was like dancing with old friends (yes, we even had conversations).

Another time, Larry helped me build a dormer onto a loft in the cabin for a spare bedroom. He taught me much about carpentry and literature. (I never did learn why a man with three degrees in English and literature chose to become a carpenter.) While working where the dormer walls integrated with the main roof, I asked how to prevent the roof from leaking. It was déjà vu when he replied, “Think like water and work with it.”

A few years later a local trapper mentored me on tracking animals. By this time I already began infusing into my everyday perception the phenomenology of weather, plants, and soil. The old trapper was like the Dali Llama of animals and birds. The only organism I lacked any ability to ‘think like’ was human beings. Back then I had no interest, nor patience.

It was months before I was ‘allowed’ to look at animal tracks and relate them with a species identification. My first lessons were sitting or standing still, for hours. Silent. Listening. Observing. Letting go of any obtrusive thoughts that might separate me from my surroundings. I learned to meld into the tree I sat against, to become the bush that I stood in, and to move silently. I learned to appreciate silence. Not only in the woods, but also in my own habitat. It was not unusual for me to not see or talk to another human for a week or two.

I could be ‘invisible’.

Trumpet swans and cygnets

I became highly sensitized to the weather. I could smell and feel weather changes long before they arrived. Wind patterns in the upper or lower canopies of trees informed me when storms might be coming in, and where they came from. Animal movements were also predictive.

Birds and  animals began to approach me rather than flush away. In the winter, a mink was a common visitor to the porch of the cabin. It would approach and watch me as ardently as I watched it while sitting on the outdoor steps. At one point, it would come near my feet and groom itself or eat a caught prize.

I learned patience with the changes in the natural world around me, and the creatures that shared my space. I watched their behavior and learned how they interacted with their surroundings. We all learned to inhabit the same space with a mutual respect. They observed me as much as I observed them. And it was a smooth transition to learn how to piece together the stories of their tracks and sign as much as they did the same with me. It was not uncommon for me to spot a deer or badger that had been following me as much as I had been following them.

A quarter of a century later, and many chapters of life changes, I found myself doing the same last week. Every day I drove the cramped little truck down the chunky gravel road to park the truck so that it would not block visitors or other staff on the refuge. Sitting on the tailgate, I removed my regular boots and pulled on the chest waders. The field vest was the last item; heavy, with so many filled pockets it was like a weighted vest, binoculars hanging on my chest. And then wade through the canal waters to go out into a world that few really see. By that, I mean ‘see’.

My focus was surveying vegetation in the marshes and  transition zones from wetland to dryland, even the sagebrush steppe. I searched for plants (other than grasses and sedges) that were emerging, budded, and flowering. The prize was the milkweed species (Asclepias spp.). However, I also searched for plants that might serve as nectar sources for Monarch butterflies. Because of the dearth of data for Monarch butterflies, the milkweeds and nectar sources in SE Oregon, my search was wide open. I decided to document all of the forbs and shrubs that might be candidate nectar sources, as well as any milkweed plants.

Red-winged blackbird.

Over four days I covered a large field accumulating a preliminary database of plant phenology that has been missing from this part of the refuge. However, my time out in the marshes also provided an opportunity to observe a variety of  birds and mammals within their own private lives. I learned many new bird calls, observed birds interact with each other and their interactions with me. Twice I was warned away from specific locations by female northern harriers, probably too close to their nests. Other times, I watched red-winged blackbirds dive bomb the same harriers, one blackbird even riding on the back of a harrier until it was out of range.

One early morning I quietly came upon two young black-tailed bucks as they grazed grass. While I froze in place, they watched me. Our eyes met, and when I blinked, they blinked. I could see them relax, and even when I slowly moved myself several feet away, they were not perturbed.

During these days, I found myself thinking, ‘Think like a butterfly’. Or ‘Think like this plant’, and ‘Think like that/those bird(s).’ As my father and others in my past taught me, I tried to look at their world through their eyes, their noses, their mouths, and their ears. Even their roots and leaves. Our lives and being overlapped.

At times I forgot what species I was. I became a part of the whole system. I found myself adopting their same behavior when a vehicle drove down the gravel refuge road: being still and blending in. Becoming ‘invisible’.

I began to ‘see’ and become a part of them.

Raptor-Wannabes, Kestrel Chic Day, and Walkabout

29 Nov

“I think I see a hawk in the tree at 2 0’clock!”
“No; that’s a Raptor-Wannabe!”

Four of us piled into the Refuge van for the weekly Raptor Survey. Jac, one of the Nature Store staff, joined us for the first time. Between four pairs of eyes and varying levels of experience in locating and ID’ing our intended targets, we all learned something new or refreshed memories. The foursome also made for entertaining jokes, especially when the van wouldn’t start while out on the Refuge loop.

Informally lumped into the popular category, ‘raptors’, not all birds of prey are technically raptors. Eagles, vultures, hawks, and falcons share similar structures and functions. They all have powerful feet (raptorial) with sharped curved talons for catching and holding their prey. They also have strong hooked beaks for tearing their catch into pieces. Other ‘birds of prey’ that are not considered raptors are owls and osprey. Although they also have powerful feet and toes, they are arranged differently; hence they are classified differently. Our Raptor Surveys do not include the two latter species (the osprey is very rare here and owls are typically not active during daylight).

Raptors are commonly subclassified into informal taxonomical groups: the New World vultures, eagles, hawks, and falcons. Most all falcons are of the same genus (Falco sp.) , whereas most of the hawks in North America are of two genus: Accipiter and Buteo sp.

Identifying birds in the field is very similar to ID’ing plants: start with the obvious and the basics. Then dive into the details. The first field cues are size, flight pattern, and shape. With plants, it would be size, shape and growth habit (plants can’t fly ;).

Size: Birds of prey are generally larger than songbirds, although there are exceptions. The American Kestrel, a member of the falcon family, is the smallest with 10 1/2″ length and a 23″ wingspan. Not much bigger than a meadowlark. But like all falcons, a kestrel’s flight style and shape are similar to other birds of prey because of their food source. Yet, because of their body size, they fly differently compared to larger hawks and eagles.

At the other end of the spectrum, eagles are relatively easier to ID because of their large size and there are so few species. Hawks are the biggest challenge. Regardless, judging size in the field can be difficult and unreliable, especially at a distance. Flight styles and shape are field traits to consider next.

Flight: Typically, the smaller raptors fly closer to the ground. Marsh hawks (also known as Northern Harriers) tend to swoop close and parallel the ground, especially over shallow riparian areas, with wings upraised. They hunt for birds, frogs, rodents, and reptiles. Because of the small size and V-shaped wings, they are truly acrobats, turning on a mushroom.

Flight in birds is a function of their size and wing structure. The smaller raptors are quick and flap their wings more in flight than the larger birds. Eagles and the large hawks are more gliders than wing-flappers. Because of their large body size and weight, flapping their wings is very energetically expensive. Their wing beats are typically more deliberate and slow. They also use prevailing wind currents and thermals to take flight and glide. You will often see eagles and large hawks circling on thermal winds.

Shape: The overall shape and proportion of a perched bird or one in flight may reveal much information. Our favorite cue for a perched red-tailed hawk is its football shape. Kestrels are relatively easy to spot. Despite their diminutive size, the shape of the wings, squat head, and curved beak often reveal their identity.

Raptors in flight are a perfect opportunity to observe their tail length, shape and color, as well as their wing shape. Head size and neck length of perched raptors are another field trait that can differentiate them.

Occasionally a non-raptor plays the Trickster and fools us for a few moments. Several of the larger falcons and mid-sized hawks are nearly the same size and shape as the Common Raven. One of us might spot a dark form perching in a tree in the distance and call attention to it. Up go the binoculars and we all realize that dark perching bird is none other than a black raven: a Raptor-Wannabe! Such is what we call the ravens when doing our raptor surveys. (Ravens are not as easily confused as a raptor when in flight; their proportions and flight style are vastly different)

Chic Kestrels

Our raptor counts can significantly vary each week, and from day to day. Our last survey revealed six Northern Harriers, which are common on the Refuge, and five kestrels. Today we spotted only three harriers, but eight kestrels! Only one of the colorful males was spotted, but with a brown mouse in its talons. The other seven were females, which typically hunt solo in the open fields. We were presented with three females hunting together in one field today!! It was like a finely choreographed ballet.

We reported to the others that this morning must have been a Kestrel Chic Day.

Our final count for just 1/2 of the sampling area this morning was as follows:

  1. Red-tailed hawks: 14 non-sexed adults (1 was a dark morph, 1 a rufus-morph) + 3 juveniles = 17 total
  2. American kestrel: 7 females, 1 male = 8 total adults
  3. Northern harrier: 3 non-sexed = 3 total adults
  4. Bald eagles: 1 non-sexed adult, 2 juveniles = 3 total
  5. Cooper’s hawk: 1 juvenile
  6. Merlin: 1 non-sexed adult
  7. Ferruginous hawk: 1 juvenile
  8. Sharp-shined hawk: 1 non-sexed adult

Marsh with ducks and snow geese at Bosque del Apache NWR

            Walkabout

Because it was a warm day, and energized by the excitement of today’s raptor survey, I went for a walkabout on the Lagoon Trail. The wide and open trail wanders between two riparian canals on the side of the Refuge Auto Tour route, and across from the expansive marsh where ducks dabble and dive.

The two-mile plus walk was quiet and lovely, with tall grasses on one side and mowed native grasses on the other. I heard two hawks flying over the Chihuahuan desert brush land on one side. And heard the occasional quacks of mallards on the other side. Two scattered V-lines of snow geese flew overheard and I could hear the whoosh of their wings with their constant high-pitched honks.

Glancing down frequently in the gravel under my feet, mammal tracks showed big heavy mule deer, racoons in the dried mud, and one other string of human boots. A large deposit of fresh coyote scat revealed a partially digested diet of juniper berries, and even a small juniper sprig. In one line of big feline scat, I found a small white femur and other tiny tidbits of white broken bone encased in short light gray fur. Another tiny pile of scat further on suggested a young bobcat. Also discovered were two pieces of dried hide with long orange and beige fur! My guess was coyote or possibly red fox. Regardless which species, it was definitely from a wild canid.

Watching the raptors, spotting the tracks and scat, they all told stories of some of the wildlife that call this Refuge ‘Home’. I am perfectly happy sharing their Home with them. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Tracking: Cougar and Coyote Tracks

5 Mar

How does one tell the difference between cougar tracks and coyote tracks? Several differences will help determine how to differentiate between tracks of these two animals.

  1. The general paw morphology of these two animals is similar: they have four front and rear toes. However, the most notable difference is that cougar tracks seldom have claw marks in their tracks, whereas the coyote almost always has claw marks because they cannot retract their claws like cats do.
  2. The general shape of the tracks of members in the cat (feline) family is round. Whereas, tracks of members of the dog (canine) family are egg-shaped.
  3. If you look at any track of all animals, there is empty space between the toes and the pad of their paws. That is referred to as ‘negative space.’ Because of the shape of the pads, the negative space of the cats paw is like a ‘C’ laying on its side with the open side down. Many members of the dog family, including the coyote, have a ‘X’ shape negative space because their pads are shaped differently and the toes are also arranged so that the two middle toes are more forward (domestic dogs have a ‘H’ shape negative space).
  4. Another important clue is how the tracks are arranged together during their gaits. These can vary greatly between species within the dog family; foxes, domestic dogs and coyotes move differently depending on their behavior and, therefore, they can exhibit a variety of gaits. On the other hand, the only major difference between the wild cats is their size and the ground they are on, called the ‘substrate.’

Negative spaces in foot tracks
When encountering animal tracks, be sure to look at the trail of tracks rather than just one track. Many components in the environment come together with the animal to tell a story. Their tracks are like words on a page, but all the pages come together to complete the story. Often, one must ‘read’ all the pages in order to answer a question, “Why is this a cougar?” or “Why is this not a coyote?”

One of those pages is the animal’s gait: the way an animal moves. It is not just a description of the trail of tacks, but the way and reason the animal moved to make those tracks. Why is this important? Because it helps you think like the animal. For example, cougars and bobcats walk. They usually move slowly and stealthily. It helps them conserve energy and that is their general behavior.

Coyotes, on the other hand, are usually trotters. They hunt very differently than the big cats and they trot along the land catching scent or sound of small prey, often times flushing them out of cover. They also cover long distances, whereas the big cats do not. However, both cats and coyotes walk and trot, but they spend most of their time moving at one or two gaits which are more energy efficient for them.

Coyote indirect register tracts in soft sandy mud.

Now we are starting to think like a cat and a coyote. All gaits have a rhythm, and most of those are consistent (the notable exception is domestic dog). And the gait is what leaves the trail and pattern of tracks. Walking and trotting are the most natural gaits. And here is where we can also differentiate tracks made from canine and felines.

Both dogs and cats tend to be diagonal walkers; they move opposite limbs together. When a coyote walks, its rear foot tends to fall just behind the front with the rear track sometimes overlapping the front. This is called ‘indirect register’. When they trot, their rear foot falls in the front footprint, called ‘direct register trot’. But one must keep in mind that coyotes have many rhythms, gaits and patterns, which is why they are referred to as ‘the dancers’! Each time any animal shifts from its natural rhythm or speed, there is a reason and the tracker must ask themselves ‘Why?”. That is where interpretation and storytelling comes into play.

The big cat’s natural walk is slow; their gait and rhythm is consistent and slow, claws are retracted, and their tracks are direct register: their back paws fall in their front footprints. Because of their size the greater the stride and distance of their tracks compared to the coyote. When they bound, such as in the act of catching prey, their tracks will cluster and group together more, such as one rear track grouped with both front paw tracks.

The best way to study tracts and animal behavior is to take a small journal notebook with pencil and a small ruler (up to 5-6”). Sketching animal tracks is usually better than taking photographs because the latter is notoriously difficult to capture the depth of field and the subtleties. With a pencil, you can shade in certain features and draw measurements. Get down on your knees or even lay down to peer and study the shapes and textures of the tracks. Also look around the area and include notes about the surroundings, especially the substrate (sand, mud, dust, snow) and the patterns of tracks. For those serious about learning tracking, you can assemble a small kit to take with you that will enable taking plaster casts of tracts. That way you can take impressions of tracks home with you for later study.

Plaster cast of coyote in Rough Run Creek, Study Butte, TX.

Plaster cast of coyote in Rough Run Creek, Study Butte, TX.

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