Community Columns

Watching wildlife from front-row seats

We watched a great horned owl fly in over the pasture when all other birds had settled in for the night. He settled atop a tall evergreen long enough for us to get a good look at him through our binoculars before he took off.

We have a number of old plastic yard sale chairs sitting around our property so we can stop and sit awhile as we work or wander about. We have them by the fish pond up the driveway, in the woods, in the garden area and out in the orchard.

Recently Barbara and I walked down to the old orchard, where we sat and looked out over the cow pasture. We didn’t know what we’d see but it was late in the afternoon and it was a cool place for us to sit while the day was winding down.

The only sounds that could be heard were the pleading cries of newly fledged young crows. You can tell the young ones for they are always calling to be fed. They are smaller than the adults that do most of their calling high in the hidden world of greenery.

As we sat there comfortably, the first to show up on our evening stage was a large cottontail rabbit, perfectly camouflaged until he hopped, and then we could see that fluffy white tail that gives him his name. The rabbits are always looking out for tender shoots that these days often include those in our garden, especially our red leaf lettuce that seems to be their top priority.

As we sat and listened we could almost feel the presence of some unseen visitor. It was the large twitching ears that eventually gave it away. Without this movement we would never have noticed the large deer that was so well hidden in the camouflage of the high grasses. I’m always amazed at the size of the ears of deer. Here in the late afternoon sun we could certainly see them clearly.

We wondered if it might be the mother of three young ones we’ve seen recently in our woods. We’re told that triplets are not uncommon; in fact, they make up about 12 percent of the births to older mothers while twins make up 67 percent and single births make up 21 percent. Younger mothers usually have just one or possibly two.

As the deer eventually moved farther away from the stubble that ringed the pond area and into the open, something dark back in the bushes began to move about. We watched and watched and thought perhaps it was the rabbit we had seen earlier, but no, it was larger and darker. It moved so slowly it took us some time to finally identify it as a groundhog, or woodchuck, foraging nearby, much like the rabbit had been earlier.

Groundhogs are stocky, weighing five to 15 pounds. They have short ears and legs relative to their body size. We haven’t found the burrow yet but I assume it’s in the hedgerow near the irrigation pond from which farmers used to draw the life-giving water for their crops some 60 years ago.

Our last visitor was an osprey that flew in and alit in a dead tree down by the pond. Three or four ospreys have been using our windmill as a place to eat their lunch and dinner, but this must have been a satisfied bird whose belly was full of bunker and it just stopped to rest awhile.

With all this going on we thought we should have seen the fox that has been using our back pasture to play in recently. No sooner had we discussed this evening prowler than, lo and behold, he came across the pasture and sat in the hay up on the back pasture that was put out for the cow. It sat for a bit, scratched itself, yawned and was on its way.

None of the animals or the osprey we had been watching made a sound. Either resting or feeding, they were content with what they were doing. We, too, were content. There were no flies or mosquitoes and we enjoyed just watching the twilight arrive. Then, with a slow walk up through the orchard and garden, we headed for the house.

It was such a beautiful evening we didn’t put lights on once inside, as we had been noticing the fireflies dancing around the yard. We were also looking for bats that usually show up at this hour, but no luck. We put up a bat house some years ago and are not quite sure it has ever been occupied. Birds and squirrels like to sit on it and that’s about all we’ve ever seen it used for.

In the coming darkness, as we sat inside, we could still see through our binoculars the osprey, with its light-colored breast, sitting high in the old dead cherry tree, where it would probably spend the night.

Then, from out of the night something large and dark flew across the pasture. We put our glasses up and tried to see what it was when it landed. To our surprise, high up on the top of a tall evergreen tree I spotted a great horned owl. It remained at the top of the tree just long enough for both of us to get a good look at it and then it was off, perhaps headed out for its nightly meal.