One of the benefits of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic is the amount of time I get to observe wildlife around my house. As the weather warms, I expect these observations will only become more varied and exciting.
Songbirds will nest in the trees. Snakes will emerge from their dens to bask in the sun. Frogs and salamanders will lay eggs in the nearby vernal pools. Colorful moths will return to my porch light.
Already, I’ve noticed plenty of changes in nature that come with spring. A few days ago, I heard the eerie call of a loon, which traveled uphill from the nearby lake. And when I went on a bike ride along the shore, I spotted a pair of common mergansers loafing about in the frigid water. The ice is out, and so the waterbirds are returning.
So for this week’s 1-minute adventure, I thought I’d go on a backyard safari.
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Of course there was no guarantee that I’d actually see any wild animals on my little excursion. Wildlife rarely cooperates. Nevertheless, I crept around my yard and the forest surrounding my house, camera poised in front of me, and gave it my best try.
It’s a good thing that my nearest neighbor lives way down the road. Otherwise they might have wondered if I was finally letting this working from home situation get to me.
At one point, as in an attempt to sneak up on some mourning doves, I shucked off my shoes and walked barefoot so I wouldn’t make so much noise treading on dry leaves and twigs. It worked. I was much quieter. But my toes quickly became cold, and I stepped on a prickly beech nut shell, so I limped back to my boots.
For about two hours, I wandered looking for animals. For the most part, I followed my ears, listening for birdsong or the rustle of something moving through the underbrush. But I also used my eyes, scanning the landscape for the tiniest movement. This method of searching led me to a pair of dark-eyed juncos, plump dark gray and white songbirds that are year-round residents on my property. They’re frequent visitors to my bird feeders, and for the last couple of years, at least one pair of juncos have built a cup-shaped nest in my overgrown backyard.
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Walking slowly up the road, I followed a chirping noise that I assumed was produced by a bird, only to come face to face with an eastern chipmunk. He perched on a pile of granite rocks and boldly stared me down.
I also spotted all three of our most common woodpeckers: downy, hairy and pileated. They were easy to find. Right now, they’re constantly drumming on trees and other hard surfaces to attract mates and announce their territories. In fact, one started drilling on the side of my house the other day. I ran outside to scold him. He flew off, and I can only hope he got the message.
Other feathered safari attractions included several white- and red-breasted nuthatches, a tufted titmouse, a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a couple of robins digging for worms and a pair of chickadees that appeared to be excavating a cavity in a dead tree to build a nest. I also saw my first hermit thrush of the year. A brown bird with spots covering its chest, it returns to Maine in the spring to nest and outsing every other bird in the forest (in my opinion).
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I’m not just interested in birds, though they do keep me entertained. But aside from the chipmunk, the only other non-bird creature I ran into that day was a woolly bear caterpillar moving slowly but surely across a patch of moss near my home’s foundation. With a thick band of brown and two black ends, the fluffy caterpillar had spent the whole winter hibernating. He did look a bit groggy, now that I think about it.
I also came across a beautiful reishi mushroom, which admittedly isn’t an animal — it’s a tree fungus. I stopped to inspect it anyway. The deep red mushroom formed a big, rounded shelf on the side of a mossy hemlock stump. I’ve heard naturalists and foragers talk about its medicinal properties. In fact, some refer to it as “the mushroom of immortality. “ Nevertheless, I don’t eat wild mushrooms without guidance from an expert. Some of them have funny side effects. Some are just plain poisonous. And while some wild mushrooms are tasty and may even boost your immune system, none of them will actually turn you into an ageless forest goddess — unfortunately.
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So maybe it wasn’t the most riveting safari I’ve ever been on, but I did enjoy myself. And as the weather warms, I know that my outdoor observations will only become more exciting as animals continue to migrate across the landscape, pair up, build homes and raise their young. I’m eager to see how my next safari, and the next, differs from this one.
And what about you? Have you been observing wildlife around your house lately? If so, I’d love to hear about what you’ve seen.
In the weeks ahead, as I continue to practice social distancing and work from home, I plan to continue my backyard safaris. I’ll take you along with me, if you’re interested. Let’s see what the season brings.
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors. Her guidebooks “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine,” “Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path” and “Dog-Friendly Hikes in Maine” are available at local bookstores and wherever books are sold.