Tag Archives: wildlife

“Wolf Island: Discovering the Secrets of a Mythic Animal” by L David Mech (author) and Greg Breining (Contributor) – University of Minnesota Press, 2020

This is a a recent book is about research on the predator/prey relationship between wolves and moose, conducted from 1958 to 1962 at Isle Royale in Lake Superior. Most of it is taken directly from Mech’s field notes.

Field notes from ecologists provide insight (and entertainment!) that can’t easily be gleaned from peer reviewed scientific articles, of which Dr Mech published an astonishing three hundred, plus a dozen books (Wikipedia). I’m so glad this volume made it into print. We all need to know more about science.

So, most of what is written in this book is old. The dangers and challenges of remote winter field work were very great in 1958. Bush planes were temperamental and communications irregular, but Mech LOVED what he was doing as a graduate student. Later he wanted to change fields (to American Studies), but I’m glad he persisted as a biologist.

Mech is very restrained in his writing, giving us just a few glimpses into other areas of his life. We learn just a little about his family, and he also discusses religion.

A final chapter of the book discusses the amazing technological changes which subsequent decades brought to fieldwork, including radio tracking and DNA analysis. 

Wildlife and wilderness management inevitably become controversial. What is “natural”? When animals and humans occupy the same space, what interests should be defended? What do we lose when biodiversity is decreased? 

My mind wanders to issues of public policy. How can we make prudent decisions when our understanding of nature is so incomplete? Whenever I have an opportunity to meet young scientists, I feel encouraged that the work of groundbreakers like Mech is being carried forward. 


“Down from the Mountain – The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear” by Bryce Andrews

One reviewer described this book as “feral”. No. Far from it. It’s thoughtful and highly nuanced. Andrews describes his interactions with nature very carefully. His relationship to nature is based both on study and practical personal experience.

Mission Valley, Montana, is a place where mountainous wilderness and farmland intersect. Andrews works for People and Carnivores, a conservation organization with the goal “keep people safe and carnivores wild”.

“Millie” is a mature female grizzly bear with two female cubs. Andrews writes about one summer, when he begins a project to try to keep bears out of a cornfield. Grizzlies aren’t really carnivores – they are decidedly omnivorous and opportunistic. When human change the landscape, they take full advantage of new food sources. Grizzlies spend a third of each year in hibernation, so their drive to EAT is strong, especially during the Fall.

Millie came to Andrews attention because she was illegally shot and did not die. Her injuries became infected. She became weak and unable to care for her immature cubs. Captured by authorities and judged to be untreatable, she was euthanized. Her cubs, doing poorly on their own, were captured. After long and complicated negotiations, they were finally moved to a distant zoo which was willing to accept responsibility for their long-term welfare.

What’s the point here? This is a book about human responsibility. It’s also a book about wilderness. What was here before humans arrived? What has changed as humans migrated and our numbers skyrocketed?

This was Andrews’ second book. Click here to read my review of his earlier book, Badluck Way, in which he describes his earlier ranching experience. Both these books are wonderful, and will be enjoyed by anyone who values wilderness.

“Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl” by Jonathan Slaght

I loved this book! We all need to escape sometimes. What better way than to follow a scientist into “the field”, when the field is in Eastern Siberia. And who can resist the idea of research on owls?

This is the story of Jonathan Slaght’s doctoral dissertation. His goal was to learn about Blakeston’s fish owl (Bubo blakestoni) and to use his data to generate a conservation plan to preserve this endangered but little understood species. Who knew there is such a thing as an aquatic owl, one capable of catching a fish twice its own weight? Other Asian species like tigers and bears generate considerably more popular interest.

Getting into “the field” is a big project in itself when you have to travel to a distant continent and then to a remote location with sketchy transportation and hostile weather, and then conduct your daily business in a foreign language (Russian).

In a Facebook Live interview a few days ago, Slaght discussed the issue of language. His research was done with Russians and mostly IN Russian, but he also kept a personal journal in English. What a challenge! Before writing Owls of the Eastern Ice, Slaght translated the travel and adventure classic Across the Ussuri Kray by V Arsenyev (1921), which documents the cultural and natural history of northeast Asia. (Available from Amazon, formerly unavailable in English.)

This book brings an important message to aspiring scientists. Science is not all white lab coats and precision! Slaght didn’t know much about the fish owls when he began his work. He had almost no idea of how to find them, and less information about how to CATCH one! Later, he had to fit them with transmitters and track their movements. I’m amazed at how much he accomplished. Interpreting the data was crucial, and he successfully generated a conservation plan for his target species.

Alongside the science, Slaght presented cultural and personal information about the people he worked among.

I read this book using the Kindle app on my phone. Not optimal when you want to look at a map frequently. I hope my public library acquires a copy soon.

I recommend this book to anyone who loves to travel or spends time enjoying nature. It would make a great gift for anyone in high school or college who likes science but wonders what real scientists do!


Taconic State Park, New York – Copake Falls

Around this time last year, I blogged about camping in New York State at Schodak Island State Park. This year we went back to Copake Falls, which we had last visited in 2011. The campground was slightly disappointing, but we had a great time.  Food and friends – the perfect combination. My thanks to BJC for the arrangements!

It didn’t rain!

Our fellow campers were pleasant, and observed quiet hours conscientiously.

Bird watchers reported many sightings, but the most interesting natural phenomenon was a fungus called “dead mans fingers”. This picture from Google Images gives you an idea of what we saw.


Dead mans fingers


Very strange! And so small (1/2 inch high) I could have missed it. It thrives on dead vegetation and falls in the category of decomposers, along with mushrooms. What would we do without them??

Sometimes I wonder how much longer I will continue to camp. Getting organized is so much work… Then I join my friends, and have so much fun.

Sahara Sands – “Frog Slog”

If you Google “Sahara Sands” you will find various businesses, but you won’t find anything about the patch of State (NJ) owned land I visited last Tuesday evening.

A “frog slog” is a specialized nature walk. This one was sponsored by the Great Egg Harbor River Watershed Association, and took place as darkness fell. Around 16 people of varied ages attended. Most (but not all) were dressed for swampy conditions and insect pests. Many carried nets, and there were two portable aquaria.

We were told the walk would be conducted on the principles of CPR. Not the usual medical CPR, but rather

  • Catch
  • Photograph
  • Release

Frogs are, after all, vertebrates, and some are protected by law. We spent a few minutes listening to recordings of frog calls.

We walked along a sand road and crossed through woods to a large, shallow pond. Those wearing high boots slogged out into the pond. The excitement began almost immediately. It was a perfect frog hunting night – warm and humid. Five or six species could be heard singing loudly at any one time. Various specimens were netted and photographed, along with insects, insect larvae and tadpoles.

On our way back, a large bullfrog was caught. In the net, its familiar deep call (jug-o-rum, jug-o-rum) changed to a pathetic whimper, sounding like a human child! We turned him loose, and off he swam.

WHY a frog walk? Because frogs are interesting, ecologically valuable and threatened by development. A frog walk is also a way of asserting the importance of Sahara Sands and other places that support wildlife like frogs. One of the “competing uses” for this land is recreation using off road vehicles (ORVs). Such use is incompatible with protection of wildlife. ORVs tear up the marshes and destroy native plants. The damage is largely irreversible.

At Sahara Sands the conflict between these two uses has not been resolved, and it HAS been politicized.

The more people who understand frogs and enjoy this wonderful PUBLICLY OWNED natural site, the better.



“The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady” by Edith Holden.

Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. 176 pages, plus species lists.

This book is a gem! It is a full color facsimile reproduction, notable for both artistry and scientific accuracy. Edith Holden was known in her lifetime as an illustrator of children’s books. Decades after she died in 1920, a relative showed her “diary” for the year 1906 (which was intended as a teaching tool) to a publisher, who released it in 1977. The book is a combination of field observations (she walked many miles!), the author’s favorite poems and sayings, and beautiful, detailed paintings of insects, birds and flowers.

A second book of Holden’s field notes (The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady) was published in 1984.

I took a careful look at Holden’s entries for the month of May. The month begins with a detailed painting of a chaffinch’s nest with eggs, surrounded by hawthorn blossoms and wild hyacinths.

One of the mottoes listed is “Change not a clout till May be out”. I think this means “keep your winter cloak handy”. Good advice! On May 16, Holden reports cold north wind, thunder and HAIL. She went out none-the-less, and found a thrush’s egg that had been blown to the ground.

Holden includes poems by Wordsworth, Spenser, ap Gwillym and Ingelow among her May entries. There are numerous paintings.

This lovely book would make a fine gift for any nature lover, or a treat for when you want to savor poetry and art at the same time.

“Living at the End of Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

This memoir was published in 1990, a generation ago. Much of its appeal (for me) comes from the geographic setting – in Massachusetts, near the Boston beltway (aka Route 495). In this improbable spot, in the wake of a divorce, Mitchell built a rustic cabin on the land where his family and former wife lived.This book is an account of his first year in his relatively primitive, small (10’ by 16’) shack, which was located only half an hour from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau undertook to “live simply” in 1845.

Mitchell loves the natural world and studied Thoreau extensively, although (see blog post on Walden Warming, by Richard Primack dated June 23, 2014) he may not have realized how excellent a naturalist Thoreau was. (By now, he has probably met Primack and caught up with anything he missed. Massachusetts is fortunate in the quality of its writers.)

At the start of his sojourn, Mitchell also decided to spend time with journals he inherited from family members, most notably his father’s account of several years spent in Japan.

All this adds up to an unfocused but charming set of reflections. Mitchell’s rural retreat suffers impingement by the new headquarters of Digital, Inc. Land is developed, but he is still surrounded by an amazing amount of undisturbed nature. He also “senses” the impact of earlier occupants on the land.

Checking the usual sources, I learned that Mitchell has written extensively and also served the cause of conservation as an employee of Massachusetts Audubon. I look forward to sampling his other books, essays and blog posts.

The appreciation of nature which is not remote and exotic has more recently been carried forward by Lynanda Haupt in Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis, a more urban offering which I wrote about on June 7, 2013. My next trip to Massachusetts will be enhanced by my exposure to John Hansen Mitchell’s Living at the End of Time.

Reading Nature

I haven’t blogged much lately. One reason is that I’m (slowly) enjoying The Path Between the Seas by David McCollough, about the Panama Canal.

My other reason is that I’ve had so many opportunities to be out of doors! My back yard, the campus where I work, the Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, other parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and, to top it off, Vermont! What a summer!

So I have been observing nature directly. It has been suggested that nature can be “read” like a text. So what have I been seeing/reading? A few observations… 

My experiences in nature are often linear. I walk on paths – one path at a time. I can’t walk on two paths – if I come to a fork, I must decide where to go next. I would describe myself as a “linear thinker”, so this linear experience of nature is comfortable for me. Sometimes, as at the Forsythe Refuge, I’m in a car. Again, linear. Again, for me, comfortable. 

My “reading” of nature is often technologically enhanced. Who would watch birds without binoculars? I also use them to look at insects or the bark of trees. I haven’t used a microscope lately, but I remember fondly my 6th grade teacher, who showed us what was going on (live!) in a drop of pond water. Thank you, Mr. Costello!

And consider the almost universal adoption of cell phones and digital cameras! When we go bug hunting at night, a quick snapshot of some tiny, tiny insect can be blown up by a factor of ten, and the creature is promptly identified down to subspecies detail. If its identity is NOT clear, the picture is forwarded to a website for examination by experts. Learning has become easier.

Much of my “reading” of nature takes place in a social setting. Sitting around a “black” light waiting to see what insects will fly in is a pleasantly gregarious night time activity, kind of like a campfire. (Usually the setup consists of several lights and a white sheet, and there are variations that include “bait” to attract insects. The bait formulations often include alcohol or rotten fruit.) We chat and drink beer. Then suddenly a big moth or strange beetle arrives, and it’s all about science for a few minutes. Occasionally, an insect is collected for research, but most are admired, photographed and allowed to continue their business. This can go on for hours, until we get tired and goofy and try to communicate with the local owl population, imitating their calls. 

Another scientific/social way to “read” nature is to participate in a bioblitz, an event at which scientists get together to study the living organisms in a particular area. At a “full scale” bioblitz, there’s an effort to have complete coverage, a scientist for each category of organisms that might turn up, plants as well as animals. That is a big, complicated endeavor and it doesn’t happen very often. I think the last one I attended was in Connecticut in 2009. But I went to two small, insect oriented events this summer. See http://www.nps.gov/vafo/naturescience/bioblitz.htm The national park at Valley Forge was studied by scientists from Drexel University and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

What makes a bioblitz “social”? It’s the curiosity! At one bioblitz, the officials actually fired a starting gun to signal the beginning of the 24-hour event. The large team of invited experts scurried off. Not being a biologist, I lounged around the “headquarters” area, wondering what would happen. Twenty minutes later, the first scientist returned, with a big basket of mushrooms and funguses. But wait! In the gills of one mushroom was a tiny insect. It was carefully passed along to the correct specialist, and the day’s excitement began. No matter what you brought in, someone found it exciting! Slugs and leafhoppers generated as much interest as birds and cute, small mammals. 

Sometimes people ask if a studious approach to nature makes it less “mysterious” or less beautiful. Not to me! Nature is still full of surprises. The more you look, the more you see. Often I’m outdoors in the company of people who observe much more closely than I do. When I settle down to their meandering pace, I find out how much there is to look at. 

My best surprise in recent months was a migration of dragonflies. A river of dragonflies! Every few yards, another dragonfly, all traveling in the same direction. I don’t know how wide the river of dragonflies was, or how long it persisted, but I was thrilled to see this unexpected behavior.

Another fine surprise was a foot long snapping turtle crossing the sidewalk near the lake at Richard Stockton College (New Jersey). This snapper was black and wet and weedy, and had an attitude! Every part showing outside of its shell looked like pure muscle – legs, tail, neck… Instead of dragging along on it’s abdomen, this character came up on its legs and moved strode briskly. I kept out of its way, hastily taking a few pictures before it slid into the lake. 

I’m still reading books of course, but for now, I will read nature whenever I get the chance.

“Bird of Jove” by David Bruce

I found this book in an unlikely place, the gift shop of the Cape May Bird Observatory, which was about to close for the summer. There were the “real” books, the sale books, the donated books, and finally a shelf of books marked “no further reduction”. I can’t resist a bargain. I purchased “Bird of Jove” for one dollar.

“Bird of Jove” was published in 1971. It tells of the purchase of a rare Burkut eagle by an Englishman, Sam Barnes, who was traveling in a remote part of Kirgistan. Barnes was a naturalist and falconer. He was able to buy the rare eagle only because she suffered from a disease not curable in that isolated part of Asia. The eagle was cured quite simply with a common antibiotic, but getting Atalanta (as he eventually named her) to England was a monumental task in itself.

Living with (and training) a wild eagle in a small Welsh seaside resort town was challenging. Barnes and Atalanta had to cope with tourists (mostly harmless), aggressive motorcycles gangs and, to top it off, a fire bombing by Welsh ultranationalists. Time and again, Barnes had to nurse his terrified and sometimes injured eagle back to health and calmness.

Barnes says of falconry that a falconer must be “a practicing field naturalist first” and must also study folklore, history, botany and medicine.

This book raises SO many interesting questions! Is falconry an art and science that brings out good qualities in both human and animal, or is it a cynical exploitation of a wild creature? What is “intelligence” and what is “instinct”? When a trainer “dominates” a bird, does that behavior parallel anything seen in nature?

Barnes (and Bruce) anthropomorphize (make human) Atalanta a great deal. When they speak of her having a “temper”, what do they really mean? Might they be seeing something quite different, like fear or some other survival instinct? A bird may, to us, look “proud”, but I don’t believe it can feel “proud”. So what are we really seeing?

A part of the book I found especially endearing was Barnes’s efforts to deal with Atalanta’s natural cycle of mating, brooding and nurture of offspring. There was no eagle in England as a potential mate. Atalanta’s instincts led her to try to make a nest. She did it very badly – in the wild, the male would do most of the work. She laid two sterile eggs, and brooded them lovingly. Barnes was distressed for her. By chance, he found a nestling owl and decided to put it under Atalanta, taking away one of her eggs at the same time. Atalanta “adopted” the owlet, so Barnes got a second one, setting up a foster family. This seemingly logical step was complicated by the fact that owls and eagles don’t work the same shift! The owlets were active at night, when Atalanta’s daily rhythm led her to sleep. One owlet, which was driving Atalanta crazy, was soon returned to its original nest. The other was happy as an adopted eagle, until the age when baby eagles are normally driven away by their parents. Interestingly, the owl parents had never lost track of it and had continued to show up regularly with mice and other tidbits. So both baby owls returned to the wild, apparently unharmed by their temporary lives as eagle chicks.

This book is a wonderful read for anyone who loves animals and nature. David Bruce tells a great story. The book ends when Barnes leaves on an expedition seeking a mate for Atalanta.

“Bird of Jove” is dated, and I plan to go looking for “the rest of the story”, but I wanted to examine it first without “outside” input. Stay tuned!

“Bringing Nature Home – How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens” by Douglas Tallamy

This is a review not just of this book but also of a lecture by the author presented on January 27, 2014. It wasn’t the first time I had the pleasure of hearing Douglas Tallamy speak.

To those frightened by what’s happening to our planet and discouraged about the limited impact an individual can have, Tallamy offers practical advice and hope in an important arena, the preservation of wildlife through careful landscaping decisions. Many of us own a yard , and even a small patch of ground can provide host plants that attract butterflies and moths. These lay eggs which hatch into caterpillars that are a vital food supply for breeding songbirds.

Interesting questions came up after Tallamy had showed his gorgeous slides of butterflies and birds.

How far will insects travel to get to a desirable host plant? Pretty far! Tallamy cited an enclosed (urban?) courtyard only 15 by 15 feet that developed healthy insect populations a few years after native plants were established. He has found a few surprises in his own back yard in Delaware, which is one of his primary sites for scientific study.

Is it helpful to feed birds? Yes, but feeding should be restricted to winter unless you can keep everything very clean. Summer feeding can, unfortunately, spread disease.

Tallamy issued some stern warnings. Sadly, the monarch butterfly population “is crashing”. People need to know “how close to the edge we are” in terms of species extinctions of insects and birds.

BUT landscaping with native species can make a BIG difference! Bring on the Virginia creeper and plant oak trees and wild cherries. Reduce your lawn and plant flowers, shrubs and trees. It will look beautiful and be less work.

I’ve moved towards the encouragement of native species in my yard. I carefully protect holly trees and whack out autumn olive. I planted birch trees last year.

One more thing – Bringing Nature Home contains beautiful photographs. They make lovely browsing for any idle moment.