Friday, December 10, 2010

Coyote watches badger

I got this picture from Susan Smith who was with us on the bird count when we saw this coyote and badger. I've only seen one other badger in the wild at West Bijou and most people have never seen one. So to see one with a coyote close by, both hunting in a prairie dog colony was really a treat. Here's Susan's picture.

I think the coyote was hoping the badger would kill a prairie dog so he could harass it and perhaps eat it himself. Coyotes are critters of opportunity. But the more dangerous predator, man, was hovering around, so these two skilled predators of the prairie reluctantly headed east to safer territory. Thank you Susan for sharing such a wonderful picture. I will remember this incident in nature for a long time.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A morning watching critters on the prairie

This morning we left the Aurora site of the Plains Conservation Center and drove the 30 miles out to the West Bijou Creek site. Four of us were on our way to count birds at WB, something we try to do each month. We have fourteen points where we spend three minutes counting every bird we see or hear. The idea is to get a view of what birds are living there at each season of the month and to get a good idea of the health of the prairie ecosystem.

Well, this morning it started to look like between recent cold weather and a long dry spell, the prairie was not well. We had already observed at half the points and had only one porcupine, a starling, and one hawk so far away in a tree that we had no idea what kind it was. Oh yes, we also saw briefly a small flock of goldfinches flitting through some willows.

But all was not bleak as the porcie was kind of cute. This is a pic I took of one earlier this fall before the leaves turned. We saw about five porcupines as we drove where we could look into the cottonwoods near the creek. 

Then we saw a dozen pronghorn running quickly across the prairie to get away from us. They were joined by another ten, and by the time we were done, we saw close to 60 pronghorn in two separate groups. We weren't sure why they were so skittish until we notice a coyote also running away from us, near where the pronghorn herd was. The coyote must have been tracking the herd and when they spooked, he did also.

We pulled up to one of the last observation points and Susan Smith, the new director of education at PCC, pointed to a coyote standing in a beautiful, alert pose looking at us, probably wondering what we were doing out there. Then she noticed a prairie dog burrow start to move. Most of them don't move very much, so she focused on it with her long lens and saw a badger very near the coyote. For a while, the two predators were ambling away from us across the prairie dog colony. I can only imagine the fear in that prairie dog colony, with two four-legged predators ambling through.

I was thinking that seeing the coyote and badger at one time was the highlight of our morning. But as we came down off a ridge from our last observation point, where we saw one herd of 36 pronghorn and another coyote, Anne Bonnell, an excellent birder, pointed to a form sitting on a rock. She said it had to be a golden eagle it was so large. We made fun of her saying it was just another rock, a Cheyenne youth on a vision quest, and other such irreverent jests. Well, I stopped the truck as the shape looked more and more like an eagle, and sure enough, there was a beautiful golden eagle perched on that rock, not a quarter mile away. Another highlight. We had seen another eagle fly over earlier, but it was far off and we had difficulty making an ID on it. This one just stood there giving Susan some great pictures of it. Anne was kind enough not to say "I told you so."

So that was our miserable morning on the prairie. We only saw 60 some pronghorn, four or five coyotes, two golden eagles, half a dozen porcupines, and, of course, our resident herd of bison, which we left alone this time out. We also saw a golden eagle nest that is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Last year the nesting pair of eagles produced two chicks which successfully fledged. 

One of the joys of my life as a naturalist, of course, is seeing critters like we did this morning. But even more fun is sharing the wonder and beauty of nature with others, to help them feel the same joy I feel. I went through training at the National Association of Interpreters this past March in Casper, Wyoming, to become a certified interpreter. One of our exercises was to create something that expresses our feelings toward interpretation. Of course, I wrote a poem and read it to the class but felt it needed work.

I spent several weeks working on the poem and then sent it off to the editor of Legacy Magazine, the bimonthly publication of NAI. He accepted the poem, and it was published in the Nov/Dec issue. Here it is:

To Interpret Nature is … 

… to find again the wonder 
and joy I felt as a child 
when I turned over a rock 
and found three pill bugs, 
a cricket, and an earthworm. 

… to find again the beauty 
of a prairie sunrise or sunset, 
to recapture the soul-expanding 
feeling that grabbed my attention
and held it into poetry.

… to study and research and crawl
on hands and knees like a child
to see the beauty of wildflowers,
to touch prickly pear spines, 
to find bones and fur in an owl pellet, 
to hear the sage-scented prairie wind 
sing in the grass.

… to express these feelings, reflect them
to my students so they may recapture 
childhood memories and excitement 
and rekindle their own sense 
of wonder and joy.

… to pass on my learning and feelings
with facts and skill, enthusiasm and joy 
so those in generations behind me 
will love and nurture and protect Nature 
and themselves.

© 2010 Art Elser 

This morning on the prairie was a perfect example of why being a naturalist and sharing what we saw is so fulfilling and rewarding to me. Each instance like that helps me learn more about the prairie and its critters and help others find pleasure and satisfaction on the prairie.