Up Close & Animal

This weekend was a nature whirlwind, from the Jersey shore to Delaware’s National Park to  New York State parks.

Friday we drove down to Sandy Hook and took a great walk with the American Littoral Society to see the horseshoe crabs coming ashore for their mating season. The females are impressive and agile even with their bulk. The naturalist showed us the oodles of slippershells that attach to their bodies–a miniature ecosystem filled with reproductive dramas hitching a ride on a stoic horseshoe crab.

While the highlight for me was seeing a tree filled with ten or so cedar waxwings, there was also a personal reminder of how different viewing wildlife on our terms, from a safe and controlled experience, is from encountering them unbidden. Two raccoons were eager to share a delicious dinner with us. I heard crackling and saw shaking bushes while I was preparing to cook, as the raccoon believed she/he was invited to dinner. Feeling like a fool, but also being raised in a place where raccoons could be rabid and definitely attacked chickens and rabbits, I shouted and beat the bushes with a piece of firewood. I was only intimidating enough to make the raccoon go a whole six feet further into the trees. They continued to make forays, even with our food closely guarded during the cooking process. I was twitchy the whole time while eating and packing up food. As it turned out, the bear boxes were really meant to keep raccoons out of food; although, based on their behavior, I’m guessing they are successful in snatching sustenance more often than not. While we were packing up for the night, the bold critter hopped up on the picnic table to helpfully ensure that our clean plates and utensils really were clean. This time, he/she was scared off with a shout and the sweep of the flashlight.

The next morning was a rainy BioBlitz in the First State National Historical Park, my first. From sweeping the vegetation with nets–and being scolded for being too gentle with the invertebrates we collected!–I identified my first orchard orb weavers, nearly stepped on a leopard frog, and learned about wetlands identification. The real highlight was stumbling upon a nook in the river, with tree swallows winging around like fighter jets. They were so unconcerned with our appearance that they continued to streak by, so fast that you barely tell if the metallic color was purple blue green, the white breast just a blur. They fought over spots on the branches, but not over the insects rising off the stream.

A fuzzy iPhoto in Delaware, on a magical portion of the Brandywine. Tree swallows barely visible on the branches. Photo by author, 2016.

Lastly, the weekend ended with a game of inches. Pulling invasive species out of a state park, hoping to remove a barely-established invasive in order to be able to later on remove a thriving invasive. Raises the question of where to draw the line, what baseline we want to use for a native ecosystem, what the best use of resources is, which are all lovely questions to ponder but really what you end up thinking about is how badly your office worker back and quads are going to hurt the next day from actually engaging in honest physical labor. Later all you are thinking about is how to remove that diminutive tick from the underside of your knee, but in the meantime, you did something to ameliorate the human tendency to upend the order of things that allows biodiversity to thrive.

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