Taking the camera for a walk

Saturday morning was foggy and drizzly – not the best kind of day for taking pictures, but I tucked my camera in a coat pocket just in case. The combination of moisture and low light made the fresh green of buds and young leaves appear especially vivid. And sometimes wildlife is more active on days like this. I hadn’t gone far when I heard the first ovenbird of the season: Teacher, teacher, teacher, he sang – or is said to sing. You hear something one way a certain number of times and pretty soon it’s hard to hear it any other way – a situation that teachers, preachers and politicians shamelessly exploit.

I found this interesting patteran in the middle of the trail. Gray foxes, like most members of the dog family, mark regularly used trails with urine and scat to communicate their presence, and probably other information as well. Gray fox turds are distinguished from red fox and coyote by their small size – a half-inch to two inches long. I don’t know what message this author had in mind – again, I was not the target audience – but I was impressed by what looked like a multi-media presentation, incorporating sticks as well as turds of varying size, shape and color ranging from almost white to dark gray.

I ran into a box turtle going the other way. He was about three-quarters grown, making him less than ten years old, I think. It’s very gratifying to know that the hollow still supports a breeding population of box turtles – we found a mating pair on the other ridge just last August – and that some of the young ones are surviving despite abundant predators. I sat down a few feet away and watched him watch me – a staring contest I made no effort to win.

I’ve often thought that if reincarnation were real, I’d like to come back as a box turtle. They always seem exceptionally gifted at minding their own business. Though between the growing pet trade and the ever-spreading, deadly asphalt tentacles of human settlement and commerce, retreating into one’s shell at the first sign of danger may not be such a wise strategy.

Farther down the same trail I encountered this red eft traveling in the same direction I was, albeit a bit more slowly. As with the Department of Transportation, bright orange signals warning. And unlike with the ovenbird’s song or the gray fox’s patteran, here the message is intended for a multi-species audience: I don’t hide because I don’t have to. If you eat me, you will die.

Red efts are the terrestrial, middle-aged form of red-spotted newts. After the first few months in their natal pond or stream, baby newts become eft up, as it were, and spend the next several years wandering around the woods and living off invertebrates in the forest litter before their final molt, at which point they sprout gills and go back into the water for good. Imagine if humans did that!

Near the end of the trail I was impressed by a clump of evergreen woodfern fiddleheads shoving aside the matted leaves: green fists raised high, as if in some impromptu street protest. That may sound fanciful, even melodramatic. But what could be more insurrectionary than spring? Happy May Day, y’all!

A trail without any other people on it can still seem awfully busy. In fact, come to think of it, if these trails had many other hikers they wouldn’t be nearly so interesting. Plants and wildlife sign would be trampled, and the critters would learn to stay away.

But even along the one-lane gravel road up the hollow, there’s plenty to see this time of year. Large patches of purple trillium – also known as wake robin or stinking Benjamin – line the stream for about half a mile. Their heads were all bent down in the rain. At first, I kind of regretted it – after all, we only get to see trillium for a few weeks out of the year – but then I started liking them that way. They looked as if they were napping – and perhaps they were, in a sense: conserving energy for the next warm day, when they’d have to send out their famous odor again to attract pollinators. It sounds like a good theory, at any rate. I felt compelled to apologize when the flash went off.

I stole the title of this post from Jerry Hassinger, President of the Pennsylvania Biological Survey, who told me that he sometimes gives talks on this theme at the local nature center in his area. I had been sounding off about people who insist on hiking rapidly through the woods, only pausing on mountaintops to admire scenic vistas – which I actually find kind of boring.

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