But it is a never-ending journey. It is a quest of sorts. We strive to learn the birds, and in the process, learn the trees. After all, how can you point out a bird to a friend if all you can say is “look in that green tree”? It helps to be able to say “in that live oak” or “on the top of the mesquite”.
Then we begin to notice other flying things besides the birds: butterflies, moths, dragonflies and damselflies. Later, as we look closely at flowers, we see lots of other bugs and spiders. And on the leaves and ground there are lizards, frogs turtles and snails. It becomes a fascinating pastime to learn about all these creatures.
The last group of animals in which most naturalists become proficient is the mammals. Why is this? It’s probably because we don’t see them all that often. Plus, many mammals are prey. It behooves prey species to be secretive, furtive, nocturnal and/or camouflaged. Or fast. It is how they avoid being eaten by predators. Sometimes, anyway.
A predator can be a snake, a hawk, an owl and, of course, another mammal. Predatory mammals can be as small as a shrew or as big as a bear. Shrews, coyotes, bobcats and bears are seldom seen, because they also have to be secretive, furtive, nocturnal and/or camouflaged. Or very fast! Not so much to avoid being eaten, but to be able to catch something to eat.
It is a delicate balance. Sir Roger Bannister, a famous runner, once said “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle – when the sun comes up, you’d better be running!”
Indeed, that is what happens in nature. If you aren’t out-maneuvering, out-smarting or out-running your prey (or your predators!), then the game is up.
No wonder we see so few wild mammals. Mammals are either hiding to be better predators or hiding to escape those predators! The exceptions are squirrels and rabbits. Squirrels are active in the day and can just run along through the trees with impunity. Rabbits, well, there are just so many, you are bound to see one once in a while.
Some mammals have learned how to exist around humans, mostly by skulking around at night. Think skunks, raccoons and opossums. Most naturalists with flashlights can find these creatures.
You have to be outdoors a good bit before you begin to see coyotes, foxes and the big cats, especially in the daytime. It helps to be quiet, stealthy and as inconspicuous as possible. Wear camouflaged clothing, sit still and be silent, and be downwind of where the animals might show up. Sounds like hunting, right?
Even so, you can be walking along and come across a predator, just by sheer luck. You may only get a glimpse of it, but what a thrill!
I came face to face with a bobcat once. The memory is branded forever in my brain. I was hiking a small trail in the brush, when just to my left, only 10 feet away, was a young bobcat. He had been walking too, but when he saw me he stopped still. Our eyes held for several moments. Neither of us moved. I held my breath. I saw his unblinking light green cats’ eyes staring at me. His ears had slender tufts of hair that trembled in the light breeze. His nose was pink and outlined in black. With a tiny twitch of his whiskers, he decided I was not “prey.’ Too big! (Or maybe his feline senses told him I was too old and therefore too tough to eat!).
The bobcat gracefully turned aside and disappeared in to the brush. I saw the white spots on the backs of his ears and the tip of his tail as he vanished. He was beautiful. I will never forget that close encounter.
Most bobcats are well away from us when we see them. Crossing roads a hundred yards ahead of me, they appear as glimpses of sandy-colored spotted fur on sturdy legs. Sometimes, I see a female with a couple of half-grown bobkittens, playing as they move along. They lope across and are gone.
I am envious of the wildlife photographers who get so close to bobcats that they can get wonderful photos. They can capture them lapping up water, or in a close-up stare. I think you must have special skills and endless patience to photograph these wary felines.
Wherever you are on your journey to appreciate nature, you have had or will have “close encounters” with splendid animals. Perhaps it was a 12-point buck, a grizzly bear or a beautiful bobcat. May the memories stay with you forever!