November 3, 2022
Sunrise Northern Harrier with Montane Vole
Sunrise Northern Harrier with Montane Vole
Early one morning on our recent road trip to Colorado I found myself at the edge of a meadow, at 8000 feet in Ponderosa Pine, trying to photograph a young Northern Harrier.  The bird had flown right toward me, then suddenly veered off and made a strike on something in the tall grasses where the local Elk herd bedded down in the afternoons.  It was now dismembering its victim, and I was trying to get close enough to identify its hapless prey.

Coming along the trail were a middle-aged couple who stopped to ask if I had gotten the picture.  Without thinking, I hit the “enlarge” button, turned the LCD screen on the back of the camera toward them, and held it up so they could see for themselves.  Just as I raised it I realized the frame I had blown up for them was probably the most graphic one I had taken, the raptor standing over the body of what I guessed was a Montane Vole, holding the shredded carcass down with one foot, bloody entrails dangling from its beak.

Too late!  They had seen it.  To my surprise the woman exclaimed “Is that an eagle?” apparently conflating the harrier’s white rump patch with the white tail of a Bald Eagle.  As I began a somewhat sheepish apology for the blood and guts and identified the hawk for her, a couple things dawned on me.  We birders often assume others who love nature enjoy it in the same way and to the same extent we do.  This lady, though, was a revelation.  “That’s a great picture!” she exclaimed.  “Oh, this is my happy place!”

Her husband didn’t say a word, but I had the feeling behind his dark glasses his eyeballs were rolling.  Me?  I wanted to reach out and give this total stranger a big hug.  “Mine too” I said, smiling.  The point, of course, is that you don’t have to know an eagle from a harrier either to appreciate nature or benefit from it, and the episode reminded me the majority of those we see in the woods and on the trails probably don’t think of themselves as even amateur naturalists.  They just enjoy being out there.

I’ve always considered “out there” the real world, and it’s been well documented that many humans discovered nature during the pandemic when the natural world was the safest place to actually be.  Rediscovering our roots in their original outdoor setting where we got our knuckles off the ground and stood upright may have come a little late to save the planet, but at least some interaction with our furry and feathered fellow travelers seems to have becalmed a lot of people and taken their minds off their personal tragedies and personal devices.

As we shunned traditional indoor gathering places during the Covid spikes, many amongst us realized that rather than going to a museum and staring at a diorama it was more enjoyable, and educational, to visit an actual forest or desert and immerse in the real thing interactively.  While out there, we could even picnic in the original outdoor restaurant, one which features a garden for butterflies, serves voles to raptors, and doesn’t cancel the blood and guts marking the circles of life.

In our present political climate of distrust and divisiveness, that’s all to the good.  Communing with nature might lead to some communion with others.  I know Democrats who travel to red states to photograph the elk in autumn rut, and I know Republicans who visit blue states for fall bird migration along the coast.  Get outside and find a happy place, enjoy the real world, maybe even hug a stranger.