Early morning is a great time to observe wildlife in their natural surroundings.
Just after dawn one day, I was on our deck with a spotting scope scanning a beach half a mile away. A mother deer with a newborn were standing in shallow water. The mother alternatively drank and lifted her head high checking for signs of danger. Meanwhile, the tiny white spotted fawn wandered among her legs sniffing them and tasting the water.
As the mother bent again to drink, the tiny fawn approached her head. They touched noses. Suddenly the frisky little fawn began jumping up and down, clearly filled with the joy of life. At one point the fawn’s rear was facing its mother. It raised its tiny right hind leg and kicked, splashing water on its mother’s face. As if delighted with its mischief, the tiny perpetrator again danced up and down in the water, lunging from side to side. Then it paused and looked around, evidently proud of itself.
The mother raised her head a few inches and shook the water from her face. She lowered her head again and nuzzled her errant offspring, gently pushing the awkward little baby a few inches sideways. Then the mom took a step to her right and swung her left front leg as if pawing the ground, throwing a spray of water on the fawn. It responded by leaping up and down again, this time shaking water from its little back, prancing around in a ‘look at me’ manner.
It was all over in a seconds. Moments later, mother and baby disappeared back into the bush from which they’d emerged earlier. Oh, to have had a video camera.
Nature can be unforgiving and deadly, but it’s never malicious. Most of us misunderstand the natural behavior of birds and animals. In nature, all species must eat to survive, of course. A few species are herbivores (vegetarian) but most are carnivores – they eat other birds and animals.
To those unfamiliar with nature, one species killing another may seem an angry brutal act. The truth is animals in nature have no anger or malice when they hunt. They kill when they are hungry and when they need to provide food for their young. And sure, they will kill humans on occasion. Just as a cougar kills a deer for food, it might also kill a human for the same reason if the human happens to make itself available as prey. The kill is not malicious, as we may thing, but only because it needs food.
A close connection with nature was illustrated recently by an 82-year-old neighbor. Frequently, this kind-hearted woman would express concern for the families of quail flourishing in the cedars and junipers that surround her country home. She often expressed frustration with the hawks that preyed on “her” quail, particularly the babies. The hawks would perch in the pine trees next door and across the road, watching for opportunities, and these came too often for her liking.
One day, her attitude changed. The hawk she’d complained about frequently and blamed for most of the lost quail was found dead on the sidewalk beneath her living room window. It had flown into the window, breaking its neck.
She asked her son who was visiting to put the dead hawk in a box and bury it in her back yard. She looked on sympathetically.
“He really wasn’t so bad, you know” she said quietly. “He was just doing what he was supposed to do. I’m sorry he’s dead. I think I’ll miss him.”
“Look over there!” Marilyn shouted from her deck, pointing toward the middle of Crawford Bay. “Two bald eagles are after that mallard.”
Sure enough, another of nature’s real life dramas was playing out. Not 200 yards from our decks, a mallard duck was in the water, struggling frantically to evade aerial attacks from a pair of bald eagles. Mallards are a favorite on the menues of bald eagles.
We watched as one bald eagle silently dove from over 125 feet, straight for the mallard. The duck dove beneath the surface. The eagle hit the surface with a huge splash and flew up, its claws empty. No sooner had that bald eagle flown away, than the second eagle dove down at high speed straight for the still-sputtering green-headed mallard. Down under the water the duck went again. And again, it surfaced safely, its attacker again having flown away ‘empty-handed’. It circled for another attack.
Time after time, they would take turns. One eagle would swoop down, its white head and tail feathers disappearing under the water, and then fly away without its prey. And then the other did the same. Again and again the mallard dove, surfacing in different and unpredictable places each time.
Suddenly for some reason, one of the bald eagles left the hunt. It flew up into a tall spruce tree well back from the lakeshore. We guessed it was tired. The mallard turned that change of pattern into the break that it needed. The remaining eagle dove again, and once again, it was unsuccessful, pulling up from the lake, shaking water from its feather as it flew toward the other eagle.
In a split second, the mallard was in the air flying in the opposite direction, inches from the water. The pursuing eagle took a few seconds to realize its preferred prey was escaping. The huge bird struggled to reverse course, it’s thick 3 ½ – foot wings oscillating slowly and clumsily. Then it was in hot pursuit.
The mallard’s wings beat rapidly as it headed up the bay along the shoreline. The bald eagle’s great winds flapped hard, unable to gain on the obviously frightened mallard. Then the duck proved its smarts. Without warning, it turned sharply inland, into a dense forest. It wasn’t the mallard’s natural habitat, but it also was one the bald eagle and its seven-foot wingspan could not penetrate. The mallard’s human cheering section responded loudly, applauding its deliverance.
Myrna had lived on Kootenay Lake for almost 50 years. We shared with her a fondness for the Great Blue Heron that frequented our bay to do some late evening fishing.
We were visiting her one day when Myrna told us about her grandson’s experiences with blue heron while fishing with her husband, Bill. His grandson Erin was a preschooler then and would follow him down to the shoreline where they fished early in the morning.
Bill often caught suckers. Normally, he threw them into the bush. One day, he gave a newly-caught sucker to Erin, who walked along the shore toward a blue heron he’d seen fishing in shallow water. At first, the huge blue heron was apprehensive, understandably. Sensing the huge bird’s unease, Erin left the fish on the shore and walked back to his grandfather. Eventually, the blue heron walked over and enjoyed the free meal.
Long story short: within days, Erin was feeding the blue heron the suckers his grandfather caught — by hand. The boy didn’t understand until years later what a rare privilege that had been.
Nature holds a multitude of surprises. One day while on board a departing ferry, we spotted an Osprey nest. Two fuzzy young chicks were visible above the rough looking stick and twig nest perched atop a tall post just a few feet from the ferry dock.
The sound of a splash grabbed our attention. An adult Osprey emerged from the water shaking water from its wings and body, and holding a fish in its claws. It flew to the top of a dead tree and began pecking at its catch. We were surprised. We’d assumed it would head for the nest. The chicks were chirping loudly and hungrily.
“Well, look at that,” I blurted out. “The parent’s eating and ignoring its little ones.”
“Excuse me, sir,” said an unfamiliar voice standing next to me at the ferry rail. “You seem interested in Osprey. Mind if I share something with you?”
“Not at all.” I replied. “We’re new here. We don’t know much about them.”
“I’m a game warden,” he said, confirming the shoulder patches on his brown uniform. “That adult Osprey in the tree isn’t eating. She’s preparing that fish for her little ones. Newly hatched Osprey chicks can’t digest fish bones like adults. So, the parents take out the spine and the big bones before giving it to their young. In a few months, they’ll be able to digest them, but not yet.”
We caught a glimpse of the parent Osprey flying to the nest, presumably to feed the ‘prepared’ fish to her newly hatched chicks.
The game warden also told us Osprey always carry their caught fish head first. That’s because with their excellent eyesight they can see potential prey clearly enough to approach them from behind.