Category Archives: Favourite Naturalists

Mouse hunting

My thoughts are with the local coyotes as they are in the regional news this weekend.

That was when they came on the coyotes, two females hunting in the open. They were a mile or so from the hollow that fed Bitter creek, not a place Deanna would have gone looking for them. It was a clearing where fallen trees had opened the canopy, letting the sun onto a patch of forest floor that now grew thick with a red carpet of new blackberry leaves. At first she thought they were dogs, they were so big: thick-furred behind the ears like huskies, and much stockier than the scrawny specimen she’d seen in the zoo or any western coyote she’d seen in photographs. These two appeared golden in the sunlight, arching their backs and hopping through the foot-deep foliage, one and then the other, like a pair of dolphins alternately rolling above the waves. They were on the trail of something small and quick beneath the leaves and grass. Probably a vole or a mouse. They paid no attention to the pair of humans who stood with their boots frozen in the shadows. Focused entirely on their pursuit, their ears twitched forward like mechanical things, tracking imperceptible sounds. Like two parts of a single animal they moved to surround and corner their prey against a limestone bank, tunnelling after it with their long noses. Deanna watched, spellbound. She could see how efficiently this pair might work a field edge, pursuing the mice and voles they seemed to prefer. No wonder farmers saw them often and feared for their livestock; if only they knew that they had nothing to lose but their mice. It occurred to her as she watched them that this manner of hunting might actually be helpful to ground-nesting birds like the bobwhite, because of the many passages it would open through the tight clumps of fescue.

~Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer, p 196-7

Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer - book cover from www.kingsolver.com

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This life, a blessing come
by turning to and from the star
that gives us morning

Excerpt from the song Morning
~Carolyn McDade, (c) 1998

Went to Carolyn’s song circle this spring – so much wonderful nature imagery!

When I heard this poem on Bob Chelmack’s The Road Home recently, the imagery of the falling snow filling the air so aptly captured the extraordinary experience of the warm-weather great fluffy flakes that filled the space between me and the mountain in Jasper that I had to share it.

Last night, an owl
in the blue dark
tossed
an indeterminate number

of carefully shaped sounds into
the world, in which,
a quarter of a mile away, I happened
to be standing.

I couldn’t tell
which one it was —
the barred or the great-horned
ship of the air —

it was that distant. But, anyway,
aren’t there moments
that are better than knowing something,
and sweeter? Snow was falling,

so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more

than prettiness. I suppose
if this were someone else’s story
they would have insisted on knowing whatever is knowable — would have hurried

over the fields
to name it – the owl, I mean,
But it’s mine, this poem of the night,
and I just stood there, listening and holding out

my hands to the soft glitter
falling through the air. I love this world,
but not for its answers.
And I wish good luck to the owl,

whatever its name —
and I wish great welcome to the snow,
whatever its severe and comfortless
and beautiful meaning.

From the book, “What Do We Know: Poems and Prose Poems” by Mary Oliver (2002).

Snow drifting in the air

Tracking reinspired

One of my childhood favourites was Mark Trail’s Book of Animal Tracks, a book brought into the household collection from one of my parent’s childhood bookshelves. (As a child I often pondered the surprising appropriateness of the author’s name – a penname? Or the inevitable outdoorsman career choice with a name like that, like lawyers with the surname Law? To my disappointment I discovered recently the solution to that puzzle –  this childhood figure’s perfect name is due to his fictional status.)

It was a delight to find a track around the farm and to take its features back to Mark Trail’s little illustrated book to play the matching game. A similar joy that birdwatchers (or listeners) find in identifying a bird call.

There’s something special about encountering wild animal signs first-hand. It’s a connection, tangible proof of asynchronously shared space with these often unseen near-neighbours.

Cross country skiing around Jasper earlier this winter I encountered several intriguing trails that rekindled my interest in track mastery. On the first afternoon’s trip we cut our own fresh trail, then on the 2nd morning when we followed it again, an interesting fresh track revealed that an animal had frolicked around the base of a tree. Backtracking, I saw it had come from the direction we had come the previous day. The trail shortly disappeared into thin air. I peered to the near and far side of our ski trail – a blank slate of snow – only to discover that the cheeky creature had trotted in right up our own ski trail: hidden its tracks in ours. We also spotted some Whitetail deer feeding on grass, and, as they thoughtfully vacated on our approach, we were able to look at their digs. Some stand-offish elk studied us from behind the trees, and I was delighted to later come across the field of snow they waded through to arrive there.

Obviously, track photography is another skill I can work on! It’s tough!

In Jasper I acquired 2 remote teachers: I discovered two excellent tracking handbooks to be my lesson books – Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species, by Mark Elbroch, and Tracking & The Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign, by Paul Rezendes – carefully selected for stock at the Friends of Jasper shop. Of course, first-hand mentorship is best for these kinds of lessons, but it’s a start.

Of course I am a beginner and a dabbler yet – to really become adept I have a long road ahead. Learning the appearance of a particular kind of animal’s track is one thing, but the layer upon layer of complexity makes it a lifetime’s study! Animal behavior – what attracts and repels each species; why they move and how; what speeds do they travel and what gaits do they use – which produces variation in the track arrangement and print registry. That old book of Mark’s initiated me, but I’ve got a long way to go!

Colours of Winter

One of my most loved pieces of naturalist literature is Diane Ackerman’s book, Dawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and other ways to Start the Day. Here is an excerpt from the chapter Where it’s Winter – a revelry in colour.

Monet understood the subjective lens through which snow, though rumoured to be white, often appears confetti-colored as it reflects the winter sun. Dig a hole in the snow and a blue shadow appears at the bottom, because on our planet all shadows are blue, sky-tinted, the scheme of winter dawn.

An opalescent sky becomes the stinging blue of mosque tiles or stage scenery. It’s an azure blue, from the ancient word for lapis lazuli, the intense blue mineral flecked with gold that has emblazoned church and palace walls since antiquity. Polished lapis gives soul to a mosaic, including dawn’s chimeras of jumbled outlines, blurred edges, and phantom forms. We bundle up but the trees go naked in winter. I’ve always loved the way sky is captured in their bare limbs. Held by the delicate tracery of twigs, sky resembles light pouring through leaded stained-glass windows. …

Porch lights shine along the street — white, yellow, gold — like distant stars each tinted differently by the gas at its core. As a result shadows streak behind the trees. The magnolia branches are all elbows.

Winter is a blue season, gray-blue at dawn, blue-white in landscapes, and for many people blue in mood. For them it’s not enough that the sun rises each day, if it just trickles copper across the lake instead of trumpeting reds and oranges. The short days don’t fill their reservoirs of light, and anyway most of the animals are scarce and the plants dead. Personally, I love winter, and regard snow as a great big toy that falls from the sky, just as I did as a child. I love how snow becomes a prism in the sun, crinkling with colors, and how ice coating a winter fence creates visual firecrackers. I love that snow is a mineral, falling as billions of temporary stars.

Tree branches against blue sky