Where the Wild Things Are: An Ode to Small Creatures

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Spring has sprung, and I have been out en force with my camera.  Mostly, I take pictures of bugs, as I find waiting for that shot of the majestic moose or bugling elk to be an intrepid waste of time. Not that I wouldn’t take advantage of the situation if it arose…

Let me preface this by saying that I have been mostly devoid of opportunities to work with, what we call in the biology biz, “charismatic megafauna.”   By and large, I’ve been okay with that.  Studying insects has made me keenly aware that there is an entire hustling and bustling world available to me whenever I step out my door, so long as I am patient enough to look, and flip over a few rocks.

Yesterday, I found myself up Slate Creek flipping rocks in terrible weather.  While there were no herps (reptiles and amphibians)

Big fuzzy spider under a rock.

Big fuzzy spider under a rock.

lurking in the rocks, there were plenty of spiders, beetles, and crickets.  I love these little adventures because I learn lots of stupid things that I would have never thought to ask about.  For example, the kinds of crickets you buy at the pet store are not the same kind you find in the wild in Idaho.  Wild crickets are smaller, jet black, quiet little bugs (at least until night time).  Spider mothers that make nests under rocks must do so upside down if they have any intention of attaching their web to said rock.

On a similarly timed hike I took last weekend I got luckier.  I was especially pleased, though my dog was not, to happen upon a basking Sagebrush Lizard that didn’t mind me taking about a hundred photos.

Basking female up Cusik Creek.

Basking female up Cusik Creek.

The dog wanted to get on with the hike, as we had just left the parking lot. The Cusick Creek parking lot is located next to the wild and scenic “Pocatello Women’s Correctional Facility”, and the road leading to it is adorned with a sign instructing motorists to avoid hitch hikers.  I don’t know what used to be near the trail head, but there’s lots of old concrete and a large overgrown building foundation.  I found this lizard, and one other that ran off, in one of these concrete piles.  Their pile was poking up in the Sagebrush, perfect for catching the afternoon sun.  I think it must be akin to a lizard mansion in the Hamptons. If you take the time to watch lizard behavior, it can get pretty entertaining.  Lizards often defend the best basking spots with emphatic head bobs.  Now that I know where this pair lives, I will visit them again.

Later on the same hike, I came around a bend and was poking around some logs hoping for a snake to come out. Instead of a snake, I found some snake food.  A Deer Mouse poked its

Poking out from inside a log.

Poking out from inside a log.

head out from inside a log and gave me a long hard look.  This is exciting because I only ever get fleeting glances of rodents, shrews, and voles in the wild.  I hear a rustle of leaves, and they’re gone.  This little fellow took a long time to check me out, and I was able to observe him in his log.

If I were primarily concerned with getting the big “million dollar photos” and once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters I would miss so much.  On just two hikes I got some awesome photos and learned a few things, just as a naturalist is supposed to do.

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold indicates that he is so familiar with the animals on his property, that he knows if a single Chickadee is missing.  He knows when and where they’ll be on his property during each season too.  As an avid hunter, he knew all the game birds and exactly what they liked to eat, and when each food was in season.  When I am out on my hikes I secretly hope that I am slowly gaining the same kind of knowledge Leopold did about his stomping grounds. Maybe when I am old my naturalist ways will seem like the sort of sage wisdom you read about in Tolkien books.

There is something about hiking that makes me nostalgic for naturalists I read about.  In biology, we consider old-time naturalism to be kind of a dead art.  It’s no longer enough to find an animal, sketch it, take some detailed notes, and publish a paper.  The art has been replaced by rigorous empiricism.

While this shift has given science a boost, I think that the tradition of good naturalism has gotten lost in the shuffle, and it was one of the best ways to get people interested in all the common things out in their backyards.  It’s too bad because that’s where conservation ethics start. Children and adults that make the time to look for the little plants and the little creatures in spite of this fact have a particular and highly admirable character trait.  To spend time looking for these small and common things in nature, begets a certain kind of empathy in a person.  It begets the kind of empathy that extends to, not only plants and animals, but all of our fellow men and women.   It’s the kind of empathy the world needs more of.

With that I will leave you with a quote from my favorite naturalist:

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.” -Charles Darwin

Taken near the mouse in the log.

Taken near the mouse in the log.

 

 

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