Close Encounter of the Wildlife Kind

Yesterday (Tuesday, March 9, 2010) was an unusually warm day for early March, at 54 degrees (F); so I decided to take my camera out to capture some of the early signs of spring.  Streams and puddles of melting snow were abundant, but not particularly photoworthy.  Bird signs were everywhere: geese staking out nesting spots and fighting off all suspected interlopers, hawks in pairs—each looking in opposite directions for prey, pairs of mallard ducks darting from pond to pond, and a big flock of newly arrived red-winged blackbirds sounding off like fifty gate hinges badly in need of lubrication.

[You can see the photos larger if you click on them; then hit the back arrow to get back to the post.]

Near dusk a couple days before I had spotted a flotilla of about 20 swans on nearby Thornapple River and thought it might be neat to get some photos of such an unusually large lamentation of swans (see the collective names of animal groups here). Going to the spot where I had seen them, I didn’t even find a duck.  So I headed southward and caught a glimpse of one, but no group.  To go farther south I had to drive up out of the Thornapple valley before I could get back to another river vista point.  That’s when I got my “wow” experience.  I was driving past the east end of Grand Rapids’ main east/west airport runway and caught a quick glimpse of a huge bird on the ground—and it had an entirely white head: a mature bald eagle standing hardly 30 yards from the road!

I did a quick turnaround and slowly drove back and to the side of the road where I could get a good shot—fully expecting that such a man-wary bird would be gone before I could even get my camera up and focused.  But because traffic was pretty common on that stretch, it had apparently decided that cars were not a concern.  So I had the delightful experience of a close encounter for several minutes with this majestic bird, which had spotted a road-killed raccoon and had dragged it off the road onto a patch of melting ice where it could stuff itself without being bothered.  It was, however, being closely observed by flocks of starlings and red-winged blackbirds and a dozen crows eager to finish off what the eagle left behind.  It reminded me of that Far Side cartoon of lion “police” talking to curious animal onlookers taking in the gruesome sight of other lions feasting on a recent kill and saying, “Okay folks, move on.  There’s nothing to see here.”

[See my video of it on WZZM TV here]

What a delight it was to have a “wilderness experience” right next to an urban airport—the result of the Endangered Species Act that I had earlier in my hyper-conservative life considered interference with private property rights.  I compare that to my experiences as a kid growing up in a blue-collar town where if a critter had feathers, fur, fins or four feet, it was fair game.  Every hawk was a “chicken hawk” and needed to be shot wherever one was seen.  Every crow was a corn thief and you only saw them at a great distance in the country—almost never in town.  Deer were virtually never seen; the first one I remember seeing close up was one a neighbor had shot.  And the only fish you caught in area rivers were “trash fish”: suckers, catfish, chubs, mud-puppies, or carp.  Now I thank the legislators who had both foresight and the courage to pass wildlife protection bills in spite of the ire of many within their constituency.

I have come to realize an important fact: the nature of wild animals is to a significant extent what people make it.  The wildness and tameness of most animals is often related directly to the threat they feel from people—fear almost always rightly warranted.  I used to think that the account of birds and animals flocking to be near Francis of Assisi was mostly all legend.  Now I believe the accounts were probably true.  Although I am still dubious about his making peace between a man-eating wolf and the people of Assisi by telling the people to stop harassing the wolf and telling the wolf to stop eating people!

See you outdoors!

Dean