Nature Connection: Following The Clues

By: Mary Richmond

A screech own checks out the photographer. MARY RICHMOND PHOTO

Even as a young girl I loved mysteries. Like many girls growing up in the 1960s, I was an unabashed fan of Nancy Drew. My love of mysteries continues today. I’m especially fond of British and cozy mysteries, not to be confused with suspense, international intrigue, or other more violent sorts.

This penchant for carefully searching and teasing out the real clues from the multiple red herrings mystery writers delight in throwing our way has served me well out in nature as well. Much of nature remains out of sight for most of the day. This means we have to look for clues if we want to see anything more than some ants or squirrels, which always seem to be around in plain sight.

Those who wish to spot deer, coyotes, foxes, fishers, and other animals in the wild have learned how to spot and identify tracks. They’ve learned about the habits and habitats of these animals, and they figure out the best times of day and places to spot them. After that, it is a combination of patience and luck.

Birdwatchers learn that warblers and sandpipers will probably never show up in the same places. They learn that finding a kestrel may be different than finding an osprey or bald eagle. They figure out where the best spots to find bobolinks and meadowlarks may be, and when to look for the first towhees and phoebes of the season.

Sometimes nature’s clues are that simple. Noting the time of year, habitat, food source, and specific habits can help an observer determine what it is they may be hearing in the distance or what may have just flashed by them. 

Those of us out walking daily find many clues. We may find a half-eaten rabbit, scat filled with dark berries in the middle of a path, a big circle of feathers but no bird. These clues lead to stories and the more experience we have, the more we can accurately finish the story and solve the mystery.

Whenever I hear blue jays or crows making a ruckus, I look in that direction. I’ve learned that usually a predator is the cause of the ruckus, and the noise is meant to distract the predator as well as chase it off. Often the subject of the harassment is easy to find, as its harassers divebomb and call repeatedly. It’s usually a hawk. At this time of year young hawks are exceptionally vulnerable to harassment as they haven’t learned yet that hiding is helpful if one doesn’t wish to be exposed publicly.

The other night while taking the dog out at dusk I noticed that two robins and three mockingbirds were very agitated. They were quite loud and after the dog did his business I snuck over to see what was going on. Darkness was settling in, but I saw a shadow fly from one low branch to another, deep in the holly trees that line one side of our yard. One mockingbird continued to squawk but the others gave up, probably heading off to bed. I couldn’t see in the dark so I gave up, too.

Very early the next morning, before the sun was even up, the dog and I were back out. Guess who else was out there raising a racket again? This time, however, they were at the top of a maple sapling which had very dense leaves. I suspected something was in those leaves so after taking the dog back in and grabbing my binoculars, I did some spying. Sure enough, there was brown lump, a roundish brown lump, huddled up close to the slim trunk of the young tree. I started to get excited and ran back in the house to grab my camera. Could it be?

As I focused the camera on the lump, it turned to focus on me. It was an owl! A screech owl, and it was looking right back at me. We spent some time checking each other out and then it flew to another tree, followed by its robin and mockingbird entourage. A few cardinals and catbirds checked out the situation but strangely this small owl attracted no attention from jays or crows.

Screech owls are not uncommon but remember that I live in the middle of Hyannis, a stone’s throw from downtown. Our neighborhood is old, though, with many good-sized trees, and we’ve heard screech owls at dusk over the last few years. 

Until this day, however, I had not laid eyes on one. If I hadn’t been curious about what the robins and mockingbirds were up to, I’d still not have seen one. 

This little guy or girl hung around for a day or so before moving on. Screech owls will occasionally take a bird but mostly they are hunting mice, shrews, chipmunks, even grasshoppers. They are quite small and very light. There’s only going to be so much they can carry. In other words, they aren’t threats to pets, unless they are pet mice.

Nature is all around us and often she’s full of surprises. Channel your inner five-year-old like I do and follow the clues. You never know what or whoooo you may find.