Monday, February 27, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are

We have lived in Como for more than 15 years. We walk through the park every day, sometimes twice a day. And every now and then, we see wild creatures. Foxes, coyotes, woodchucks, eagles, hawks, herons, owls, giant turtles, the occasional wild turkey, and a multitude of rabbits and squirrels. You usually know when we see something because I take blurry photos and feverishly blog about it. (Typical blog post: A turtle! We saw a turtle! It was really big!)

I am beginning to realize, though, that we have seen these creatures only because they let us; they position themselves in places and at times of day when it's easy to spot them.

It's hard, after all, not to see a giant red-tail hawk in the top of a tree, gleaming white against a bright blue sky. Or a great-horned owl sitting in the snow. Or a fat woodchuck nibbling grass right at the curve of Horton Avenue. Or a coyote trotting across the ice of a frozen lake.

Sometimes I have wondered about the animals that we don't see. What else lives there? What are we missing?  But I always figured it couldn't be much; this is an urban park, after all, and it's not like you can get deep into the forest. It's more like this:  Walk through woods--oops, we're at the ballfield!  Walk through other woods--oops, we're at the golf course! So surely we've seen most of its inhabitants.

And then, this weekend, we learned a little more about the wild things that live here, and boy, was I surprised.

On Saturday we joined a group that learned how to identify animal tracks in the snow. The very first track the guide showed us absolutely floored me: Deer.  Deer? Really? In our park? In 17 years I've never seen a deer here. Deer are big! They'd be hard to miss! But our guide said they pass through fairly often. 

Then she showed us more tracks: fox tracks leading from the woods to the street and straight across the ballfield (pictured). (It has been at least 10 years since I've seen a fox here.) Skunk (skunk?) and raccoon.

The next day, Doug and I went to the Raptor Center, which is not in the park but is a couple of miles away on the UM campus. This is where they study and rehabilitate injured raptors--birds of prey. We have seen Raptor Center workers in the park, sometimes, with an eagle or a hawk that they have taken to a big grassy open area to help it fly again.  One of our neighbors volunteers at the center, and she invited us to visit on Sunday.

It's a fascinating place, world-famous for its work with the great birds. Some birds live there permanently--an eagle with an injured wing, a hawk with one eye, an owl that imprinted on humans and can no longer survive in the wild.

(This is the imprinted owl, and my, she was noisy, making all kinds of throaty chuckling noises because she wanted some food.)

We learned about Cooper's Hawks, which apparently live in the patch of woods directly in front of our house. I have never seen one, at least not to my knowledge. They are fast, shy and nimble, and they have a monkey-like call---kak kak kak kak kak kak. I think I have heard that call, and I think I always attributed it to squirrels. (I attribute most strange noises to squirrels, since they are so abundant.)

And owls--we saw a snowy owl in the park once, many years ago, when we crossed the pedestrian bridge and I happened to glance up. And there was a great-horned owl that lived in a pine tree over by the conservatory, but we haven't seen it in years.

Ah, but it turns out that there are lots of great-horned owls in the park; they're fairly common. And screech owls. And saw-whet owls. And, I don't know, unicorns and pterodactyls and why haven't I seen these things?

(Mainly because I don't know where to look, I don't know how to look, and I usually am with my dog.) There are nesting eagles in the park, too, and this fact drives me crazy because have you ever seen an eagle's nest? They are huge. Huge.  Here's a picture of a replica nest on display at the Raptor Center:

OK, that probably doesn't look very impressive. Here's another picture of it, with Doug standing beside it for scale:

As he said, "Hell, I could sleep in that thing." Eagle nests can be as big as 9 feet in diameter, and weigh as much as two tons. (Apparently they are under constant remodeling and expansion, much like our little old house, and so they get bigger and heavier every year.)

They are not all that hard to find, since they are so damn big and look like a giant pile of sticks in the crook of a tree. But have I ever seen the eagles nest in our park? No, never, not even after searching diligently for it, not even after being told which side of the lake it is on.

(This time of year the eagles are beginning to lay their eggs, and should any of you think of hunting for the nest I should warn you to stay away if you find it; adult eagles have been known to abandon the nest if it's disturbed, leaving the fledglings to die.)

So I certainly don't want to do that. I don't want to disturb anything, I just want to see it, to find it, to know it's there. It would be so cool to see those ugly babies.

Our last stop at the Raptor Center was what they called the children's room, where the smallest raptors hang out. American Kestrels. Saw-whet owls. The children in our tour group were enchanted, and so was I.

This little guy would fit nicely in the palm of your hand.

Later in the day, as I drove through the park to run some errands, I looked up. It was a blustery, windy day, and the sky--the sky was full of raptors! Eagles, peregrine falcons, owls, those shy and elusive Coopers Hawks, all swooping and diving and riding on the billows of air.

On second look, of course, it was clear that they were nothing but crows. But for a second, in my mind, and in my heart, they were raptors, raptors all.


Pondside said...

Cooper's Hawks like our woods too - and our hen house. Eagles make our cedars regular resting places to and from nesting (and scouting out our ducks).
I'll bet there are elves and fairies in your park too!

Kate said...

You inspire me to go to the Raptor Center to take some photos for my blog. When we return from Santa Fe (in just a few days...sob!) I intend to watch the paper more closely to be able to participate in events you describe in Como Park, one of my favorite places to visit. While here in SF we always visit the Wildlife Center, a place where wild, injured animals are rehabilitated, if possible. I should do the same for my own city and find places like the Raptor Center, which I shamefacedly admit I've never visited altho I am very familiar with its location since we take our dogs to the U of MN veterinary center. (How's the structure of that last sentence...whew!)

NanaNor's said...

Wow, it would seem that you have many of the same critters we have in our area-except I haven't seen an owl yet.Your last comment cracked me up!
Thanks for sharing.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

There is an eagles' nest in the woods behind us--and we see those magnificent birds every day.
Scat and tracks--they tell so much, don't they?

Irene said...

I think you're very lucky to live where you do and to be even near to creatures like that.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Great post. I didn't know the Raptor Center gave tours, or that Como taught about tracks. The grandkids will love that, and so will I!

Heather Peden said...

I keep saying "I need to get a book to identify..." tracks, birds in flight, strange-shaped creatures spied from a distance. The other day I found a set of tracks I'd never seen before on our walking trail. I swear it was a giant squirrel. That's exactly what the footprints looked like, squirrel feet but about three inches long!

The Raptor Center sounds like a great place.

Gail said...

Raptors, in balance, are good.

As a child, I had a screech owl as a pet, found in a dozed tree. He lived with us for years. They are amazing birds.

Two French Bulldogs said...

wow neat! Wonder if we could have one for a pet. Nevermind, momma said no
Benny & Lily

Pamela M. Miller said...

A beautiful post. Thanks, Laurie.

Have you or your readers ever seen the 1969 movie "Kes," about a kid who trains a kestrel? I rented it recently upon hearing that it is one of the best movies of all time, and it is.

Rudee said...

You inspire me to look up! I miss my mom's house where it wasn't hard to find any of these creatures. It's a little harder in Detroit.

Canadian Chickadee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Canadian Chickadee said...

It's amazing how well wild animals adapt to their urban environments. Though I've never seen a cougar, I know they're in the 480 acre state park about a mile from our house. I know because I've seen the occasional paw print on the muddy trail (huge! even the tracks are scary) and because a cougar was hit and killed trying to cross the highway near the park a few months ago. And there are several coyotes, though they go to ground in the day time, and we seldom see them. At night we've heard them though. And all these things are going on within blocks of our house, which is inside the city limits.

Shirley said...

It's amazing how many creatures live in our neighbourhoods that we are not aware of. I've seen a fox, a woodpecker, and deer and have heard the howl of coyotes in the night. We live near a ravine so we do have the rare occasion to see these magnificent animals. Your post was fascinating.

Eulalia (Lali) Benejam Cobb said...

You've seen coyotes in your urban park! And I, who live next to woods infested with same (so the neighbors claim) have never seen one. My daughter's suburb in Montana has its own mountain lion. I'm about to succumb to urban envy!

Blondie said...

Wow that is so cool! I would love to see an owl like that in person! Thanks for Sharing!


Indigo Bunting said...

Oh rapture, oh raptors! (And having dogs along CAN slow down the sightings...)

elizabethm said...

Fascinating stuff. I love tracks in the snow. It has been way too long since I visited your blog!