Nature on TV is so amazing. There are eagles diving for fish and flying off to a tree to munch on them,
with videography showing close ups so remarkable that you could count the feathers on the eagle’s
head. It is easy to watch River Otters diving for fish or frolicking across the ice.
This can lead to an actual nature experience feeling somewhat hollow. It is easy to go for a hike and see
nothing more exciting than a chipmunk or a Blue Jay. Those exciting nature moments that are so
common on television are hard to find in real life. That said, it seems to me that most things that are on
the little screen are hard to find in real life.
Of course, no one really expects to see Superman flying overhead or stumble across an odd group of fascinating people living in an apartment together for decades. They do expect to go outside and see amazing things, but it often does not happen.
One of my goals in life is to be a better photographer, and part of that is patience, lots of patience. Those photographers that come back with close up shots of eagles and otters spend hours, if not days, or weeks, stalking them and putting themselves in the right spot to get an amazing shot. It is more than just going on a hike every couple of weeks. It is being outside a lot, and pure luck, and good fortune.
I love to be outside, hiking and walking and playing through the forests, rock cities, gorges and waterfalls of the region. There are different expectations for different hikes. If there is a large group of family or other people, I go with the expectation that there will be almost no wildlife, but lots of tracks, wildflowers, insects and other things to discover. One time, we even found a small slime volcano on a log while exploring far off the beaten path. It’s exciting to be with other people, because everyone notices something different.
Virtually every close up experience I have had with an animal has been when I am alone. The few times that others have been there, I have been with unusually quiet individuals and the timing was unusually perfect. Usually, though, one person standing or sitting quietly by themselves has better odds of seeing things.
This makes some of my personality quirks helpful when it comes to seeing wildlife. The other morning, when the thermometer said it was five degrees below zero with a wind chill even colder, I was excited to get out and see the hoar frost crystals that formed near the Conewango Creek. Hoar frost is caused when the air is so cold that the water freezes out on every surface. It is especially common near creeks. Hoar frost turns a mundane snowy day into a wonderscape of nature that only lasts a couple of hours. Unsurprisingly, no one wanted to accompany me.
One of the best places to see hoar frost and not freeze is the Warren Mall. The creek behind the mall never freezes and it is easy to see and photograph the ice crystals without walking too far. The ice crystals were smaller than I hoped, but reflected shimmery morning sunshine from every surface. My attention was so focused on the ice and light and how to get my camera on the right settings that nothing else registered around me.
Nothing, that is, until a Bald Eagle flew off from a tree only 50 feet away. It flew south down the creek with slow wingbeats, disappearing into a golden fog emanating from the creek. This was a TV-worthy moment, but only one person was there to see it. I was lucky that this was my day to be in the right place at the right time.
Loud, piercing chirps echoed across the creek shortly after the eagle flew off. They were high pitched enough to be an eagle, but wrong in pattern and tone. No bird that I knew sounded like that. A scan of the trees showed crows and a nuthatch braving the cold, but nothing large enough or odd enough to make those loud chirps.
Movement by the creek caught my eye as two river otters slid down the hill and paused on the ice. After a brief hesitation, they slipped into the cold water and swam to my side of the creek, where they bounded up the ice below me and disappeared going north up the creek. It was another television worthy moment with a viewership of one.
What I found remarkable was how close everything happened to parking lots and malls and town. There was no need to hike or freeze quietly waiting in the woods. I stood ten feet from my car, entranced by the spectacle of hoar frost, eagles and otters. Sometimes it is more about getting out there, not how far you go.
Jeff Tome is a Naturalist at the Audubon Community Nature Center, where you can also sometimes see
amazing otters and eagles from the building.