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.)
In Pennsylvania we already have the coy-dogs and black bears, but both are pretty shy. No mountain lions, but just try convincing the average Pennsylvanian about that…it seems every month there is a new “sighting” of a big cat. Never any photos though.
I have done quite a bit of lonely wandering in cougar and bear country. The rules I and others follow are “Take a dog with you,” and/or “Make human-sounding noises.” Talk to yourself, sing, whistle, carry a couple of tin cups that bang together, etc. Oh, and keep your eyes, ears, and nose alert. (You can smell a bear before you see it, if the wind is right.) Which you’re doing anyhow, if you’re birding.
Unless you surprise them or get too close to their cubs and kittens, most bears and cougars will just melt into the bush when they hear you coming.
When I was a kid living out in the wilds, we always made sure we were back with other people before dusk, when the cougars would wake up and start hunting.
Drew: Yeah, I’ve read a lot about the supposed eastern cougars, and unfortunately it seems to be an “I WANT to believe” phenomenon. On the other hand, given the level of comeback that black bears have made, who knows what the future may hold…
Susannah: Good tips, thanks! I’ve been considering getting a dog, but I don’t know if it’s right to take on the responsibility right now. Talking to myself, on the other hand, I can definitely implement right away. People already think I’m crazy.
I’ve birded in a few landscapes with predators or (lethal) snakes and done it almost exclusively alone. You just have to make sure to follow certain rules, which will vary according to region/species involved and often also season. I very strictly (and this is serious, VERY strictly) followed these rules and never had a single “significant” encounter. Of course there will still be a certain risk, and it’s up to everyone themselves to decide if saying farewell to solitude in nature is such a loss that the risk is worth taking – or not.
I once birded/did monitoring in an area for 10 days that was known to be frequented by at least three bears (one female with young) and a pack of at least 7 wolves. This might be comparable to your situation. The rules I followed were: be home before it gets completely dark, stay on wide roads with a visibility of at least 50 m in all directions after sunset (while on your way home). If walking through dense bush with visibility limited to less than 30 m in at least one direction is inevitable, be constantly noisy. I sang – or that’s what I call it. In other areas, open forests with good visibility, open heath etc., I just birded normally.
Oh well, I guess you know all that anyway, but hey – you asked.
Whatever you do, stay safe. It’s bad enough the RezCats have called it quits, we don’t want the bloggosphere to impoverish any further.
And I am certainly not a big thrill-seeker, but have found that the possibility of meeting my fate while out in nature actually enhances the experience. Don’t seek the risk, but enjoy it if you have decided it is worth it.
And as a former dog owner: I always found it very difficult to go birding with a dog.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods alone. I used to hike with packgoats and a large handgun in Western Colorado. The goats were great, quiet, companions and extremely alert. Now that I don’t have goats, live on the more heavily populated Front Range (Loveland) and have dogs the size of bear bait, I am back to hiking / birding mostly alone. I always carry bear spray and stay alert to my surroundings. I’ve been known to reach down and touch bear scat – if it was warm – I’m outta there. I’ve been in Colorado for 23 years and only this month saw my first bear, and have never seen a Cougar.
Who knows how many have seen me.
I value my quiet time out there. I need it. But I do my best to be smart about it.
I have heard that cougars prefer to attack children rather than adults. When they are preying on humans, that is. So if you’re a smaller adult, you are more likely to be a target.
On the other hand cougars prey on mule deer, and you probably aren’t smaller than a mule deer.
On the other other hand, there have only been three fatal attacks by cougars on humans in the last 10 years in all of North America.
So your risk is quite small. There are plenty of other more likely ways for you to fail to return from one of your solo birding trips in the woods.
My father, who is 85 years old, regularly hikes alone in the mountains north of where we live (Vancouver BC). Once he did see a cougar, and he was quite shaken. It would be damned inconvenient if he didn’t come back from one of these hikes but I’m certainly not going to tell him to stay out of the woods.
My sole encounter ever with a mountain lion was a close one and pretty terrifying, but I survived, and it’s made a great story over the years since. But of course I’m tall and mean-looking, so most wild animals give me a wide berth anyway.
Gellert was with me for me first BC Willet this morning, so birding with dogs isn’t a l w a y s unproductive–just most of the time.
I’ve regularly walked alone in forests with dangerous animals (leopards, bears, tigers, elephants, chimps). The risks are small, in fact I have never seen most of these dangerous creatures.
We have here in Finland lots of bears, wolves, lynxes and wolverines but I don’t really consider them as a risk. Much worse risk is the mooses and white-tailed deers, especially during mornings and evening along the roadsides. No to mention the ticks the spread the Lyme disease.
Ups, sorry for the typos above…
This sort of thing does bring into focus how other people around the world live doesn’t it? I’ve (stupidly) walked alone in Tiger country and I wouldn’t do it again – I thought I was being really brave but it was really draining, and it’s hard to concentrate on birds when you’re wondering what’s watching you! Same in Africa with Lions – you just never know what’s out there. It’s oh so easy for us living here in the UK to tut about villagers elsewhere killing tigers, leopards, snakes etc when the most dangerous thing we need to watch out for is our own teenagers, but I always thought when I was abroad if I’m going into the countryside I’m on the animal’s territory and I should consider it a privilege. Like Jochen said, I always made a lot of noise when in Bear country and the very few bears I’ve seen were moving away rather than towards me – but you know all of this, of course.
We’ll miss you if anything happens, but if it does try to get photos – it would make a great final post 🙂
I tend to prefer my large predators in water and I’ve written before about how big cats scare me and what I would say is that being aware of the risk and sensibly prepared should minimise the risk in North America it may also minimise your enjoyment of outdoors time. I think the key is to find a way to get comfortable and safe enough to enjoy your time without worrying and if that means finding a similarly minded and quiet buddy go for it.
As for eastern cougars – apparently they ain’t all imaginary (but heaven knows where they came from):
A year or two ago, there were reports of mountain lions a few counties north of me (about 60 miles from NYC). Lately, we have had roughly half a dozen verified coyote attacks (on children and pets), right in the heart of the suburbs. There is a preserve roughly 40 minutes from me that’s reputed to be great for birds, but also home to some black bears; I haven’t yet been there.
So as an Easterner and a lifelong suburbanite who’s only birded in well-traveled pockets near civilization, I haven’t had to make the same kinds of choices you have, Carrie. And as someone who’s not terribly experienced in the wild, I don’t feel equipped to truly go into god’s country, especially solo. I would be loathe to give up the peace, solitude, and joy that birding on my own can bring. (though I do appreciate how nice it is to have others along too, especially when I can’t ID a bird on my own!)
Whatever you decide, I hope you find a balance between safety and freedom. (Or else the terrorists will have won …)
There were several sightings of mountain lions when I used to work with birds in Carmel Valley, CA. I saw a few footprints, but never an actual animal. I always kept an eye out since we worked early mornings. However, I rarely wandered off by myself at dusk (when most of the sightings happened)…
I hear you on the value of hanging out in the woods and wild places of the world with no one but me, myself, and I. Life without periodic escapes from roads, barking dogs, and constantly talking people would be a heart breaking ride but how to do it without getting eaten by large predators? Unless one has nature needs that include wandering around areas frequented by lions and tigers this shouldnt be too much of a problem although I admit that Pumas and bears could certainly turn you into a prey item. Going it alone or not in territories of those animals is a tough call. Maybe instead of hanging in the woods with a group, you could go with one or two like-minded, quiet people?
During countless hours of time spent alone while doing bird surveys in wild places, I have never seen a Puma but have surely been close to them on more than one occasion and have had very close encounters with bears without being attacked. That isnt to say that such times alone in the woods werent risky or dangerous though and in retrospect I feel that I shouldnt have done so much on my own.
I wouldn’t give up my alone time in the woods whatsoever. We’ve black bear, coyotes and yes, the “infamous” Catamount. I did see a Bobcat when I lived in Pennsylvania, though I digress.
Stay alert, safe, aware and continue to enjoy yourself. Those are my 2 cents.
All things considered, I am pretty sure it is far more dangerous (statistically speaking) to bird in Central Park, NY, or say, Belle Isle in Detroit than any remote place in Montana or Alaska. During my hiking years, I had one face to face encounter with a grizzli bear (in AK), and the bear slowly went his own way. I had a couple other very close encounters with black bears in Ca, and they always ran away.