Birding Where the Wild Things Are
This past week, one of the lead stories in the local news was a mountain lion sighting by a group of kids waiting for a school bus at Miller Creek. That’s the first headlining feline we’ve had since I got here, but there’s been plenty of other predator action – it’s been a very active bear season, with results ranging from cute stories to gruesome deaths, and of course wolves can’t stay out of the headlines to save their lives, literally — in part, of course, because politicians and hunters seem to want it that way.
This has put me in rather an interesting situation, because birding for me has always been a solitary activity. Oh sure, I will go birding with others when the situation arises — I’ve been birding with all three of our illustrious hosts, for example — but the bulk of my binocular time is spent alone, wandering around and getting quality thinking in when the birds don’t happen to be popping up.
It’s been a shock to realize that where I now live, ‘wandering alone in the woods’ is strongly contraindicated by people of good sense. Humans are still far more of a danger to all these creatures than they are to us, but getting eaten is not just an urban legend cooked up by nervous non-outdoorsmen. The numbers really do back up the contention that bear encounters are best handled as a team activity, and darn near all of the people ever killed in North America by cougars or wild canines of any kind were alone when they cashed in their chips.
So what’s a solitary birder to do?
At first I thought that if I stayed in town, I would be fine. Missoula has some nice parks, including a nature trail that runs along the river right through the middle of the city. And this is a pretty good strategy if you go in broad daylight, when there are lots of other people around. Unfortunately, as Corey pointed out recently, “broad daylight when there are lots of other people around” isn’t the most optimal time for birding. And in the early morning and dusk hours, even quite urbanized areas (by Montana standards) can be visited by wild predators.
The solution is rather obvious, I’m afraid. I’m going to have to change my birding style; I’m going to have to join a group or make some friends (volunteers are welcome to say hi in the comments.) But it’s a massive mental adjustment to even consider this, honestly. I value my alone time in the woods very much, and while you’re welcome to scoff and say that this is the difference between ‘real’ nature and whatever the folks here think we have back east, I’m not going to lie — I think that’s a false dichotomy, and there’s part of me that honestly wonders if the real but still fairly small risk of being eaten actually outweighs the minor but constant risk of losing my thinking time to the burdens of making civilized conversation and keeping up with the rest of the party.
What say others? Solitary birders, group birders, birders who have actually had close predator encounters?
Oh, and Easterners, don’t think you’re off the hook here. The day’s going to come when you have to think about black bears and coy-wolves at least as hard as I do. Probably not mountain lions, though.
(Cougar photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)