Are you finding, as I am, that it is easier than usual to procrastinate during this pandemic? Stuck at home, it seems fantastically easy to shift my to-dos to the ambiguous designation of “later.” Since I’m pretty sure I’ll be home “later,” it’s easy to convince myself I’ll do stuff “later.” Meanwhile, there are great books to read, shows to binge, recipes to try, friends to call and walks to take.
My entire life, I’ve enjoyed walking. When I was a child, my yard backed up to woods and I would spend whole days walking, dreaming, pondering and poking around. I’ve lived in cities on four different continents and each one I’ve walked, from one end to the other. On many walks, I like to frequent the same route so I don’t have to pay attention to where I’m going. When I walk, I feel free and have the time to clear my head, let my thoughts roam, think through problems or just zone out. I never, however, stop noticing the world around me and long ago challenged myself to see something new on every walk.
I used to live in Morristown, near Patriots’ Path. I walked a section of that path nearly every day for 10 years and never failed to meet my goal of seeing something new. A wildflower, a bug, a mushroom, an animal behavior. The natural world is brimming with things to discover. During these pandemic days, I’m continuing to walk near my new home in south Florida, and I maintain my goal to always see something new. Whether I log a couple miles on the beach or in nearby slash pine forests or cypress swamps, I am continually delighted with new natural treasures. One recent day I was strolling along the Gulf Coast, enjoying ideal beach conditions. The tide was low, a huge sandbar was just offshore, and the ocean was flat, clear and glossy blue. I thought, surely dolphins must be out there cavorting on such a fine morning and scanned the water. Sure enough, I saw a couple fins break the water’s surface. It looked at first to be a mama and baby dolphin because one fin was moving steadily along, and the fin farther back was smaller and moving more actively.
But something didn’t look quite right to me. Dolphins don’t swim steadily, they roll and, of course, they surface to breathe. I realized I was looking at a shark—how exciting! As the shark swam, the front dorsal fin broke the surface of the water like a soldier standing at attention. The back fin, actually its tail, moved side to side like a tiger pacing its cage. The shark was only 10 feet away from me, cruising in water just a couple feet deep. It minded its own shark business, the apex of the ocean’s food chain and part of the circle of life. That shark and I kept pace with each other for about an hour. I never saw it attack or eat anything. Perhaps, like me, it was content to merely cruise the shore and observe. Totally cool and awe-inspiring. Another day I was hiking through a forest of oak trees. When I came to a clearing of open, grassy scrubland I saw, perched on a barbed wire fence, a striking gray bird with a black mask and a strong, hooked bill—a loggerhead shrike. Fierce hunters, these birds (and their cousins, northern shrikes,) sit and scan open territories for all manner of prey: bugs, rodents, lizards, frogs, even small birds. They sometimes also hunt by hovering in the air for a better vantage point and flash white patches on their wings to startle prey into moving.
When they see their quarry, they dive incredibly fast to strike it. After catching something, shrikes do something quite clever. They actually impale their victims on thorns or barbs. This not only immobilizes the prey, making it easier to eat, it also serves as a way for the birds to store food. Sometimes called “butcher birds” for their unique behavior, shrikes remember where these stashes of prey are and visit these larders (as they’re called,) when food is scarce, such as wintertime, or when food demands are high, such as during nesting season.
Shrikes are tough birds to see in New Jersey, so you may have to travel a bit to see one. If you’re snow birding next winter in Florida, Arizona or another southern state, look on power lines, fences or other perches in open, grassy areas. You may see the bird, or you may see its prey pinned on a larder!
Until your next out-of-town journey, get outside and enjoy walking the Lake Hopatcong Trail or the many others near the lake. Drink in a healthy dose of nature. What new wonders will you see? If you need help identifying your observations, check out the app called iNaturalist. It’s free and designed to help you figure out what you’ve just discovered. Happy trails!