Some folks enjoy finding the slight differences in a pair of pictures that initially appear alike. It’s a regular feature in some magazines. Observing nature is sometimes similar and requires some of the same observational skills. It helps to know what’s normal and expected first. It’s easier, then, to pick out those little clues that something unusual or unexpected is going on. Of course, the little clues nature offers often involve more than what is seen. At least the two other long-range senses, sound and smell, often come into play. The other two senses, taste and touch, can be helpful, too, but require the observer to be up close and personal. Nature doesn’t always offer that level of intimacy.
Sue and I were busy remaking our bed with some nice warm winter sheets the other day. She has far better hearing than I do, and stopped to ask me if I had just heard an unusual sound kind of like an insect or a tree frog. I had heard nothing, but she was sure something different was outside the west bedroom window. We opened the shade, and there was a bird on a branch of our large beauty bush; not more than three feet away. It stayed only a few more seconds. I thought at first it was a Carolina wren, based on size and some distinctive facial markings. They’re year-round residents that we occasionally see and hear in our neighborhood. The colors, patterns of color and sound just didn’t match the wren, though. I was stumped, but a few minutes with Sibley’s Birds of Eastern North America led me to the conclusion that we had just seen a worm-eating warbler – a new bird for me. A call to my birding friend, Hank, confirmed that the sighting was significant. The specie has been seen in Story County only few times, with most sightings in the spring. Our sighting was a week later than any other fall sighting of the bird.
Sue might have dismissed the sound as an insect or one of several tree frogs that generally live in our yard and not commented at all had she heard it in late summer. We’d have missed it entirely if Sue hadn’t commented on a strange sound that seemed out of place on a cool fall day.
I was headed home from Story City just yesterday on another cool and damp afternoon. I was leaving I-35 on the exit ramp to Highway 30, an area that’s under construction. I have often seen hawks hunting the large grassy areas there in the past, but it’s pretty torn up right now, with heavy equipment parked everywhere. Something looked odd in a small remaining area of untrampled grass. At a distance, it was no more than a dark spot. Was it a chunk of wood from one of the trees that used to grow nearby? Was it a hawk on the ground? No, as I got closer, it became a woodchuck, or groundhog to some. It’s not where I would have expected to see one. What’s more, it’s not when I would have expected to see one. Woodchucks are true hibernators, and they usually retreat to their dens before weather turns too cold, not to emerge again until spring. They often hit the sack before the end of October. Perhaps this one was having trouble getting to sleep with all the construction racket going on nearby. Perhaps its den was destroyed by all the digging going on before it could enter its long sleep. Perhaps it came up for a last bedtime snack. Whatever the reason, it was interesting to see it at an unexpected time and place like that. I hope it has a safe den somewhere outside the construction area, where it can survive the winter unharmed.
I remember walking across Doolittle Prairie south of Story City one fall day years ago and getting a little whiff of vanilla. It was out of place, but a clue that something special was near. Some looking under the tall grass and other plants around me finally revealed a treasure in the form of a small spiraling spike of tiny white flowers – a lady’s tresses orchid. It was blooming exactly when and where it should, but I’d have missed it without the smell.
Keep those long-range senses tuned, particularly when you’re outdoors, but even when you’re indoors. You never know when nature will brighten your day with something special.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.