At first glance, it may seem like we are all about birds here at the Cape May Bird Observatory, I mean it is in our name and all. However, all you have to do is join our naturalists on one of our weekly walks and you’ll soon find out that most of us are all-encompassing nature nerds! Whether it’s identifying the various shrubs and wildflowers or calling out the names of dragonflies and butterflies as they whiz by, you’re almost guaranteed to walk away having learned something that extends past birds. This desire to share our broad passions with others allows for us to take advantage of the teaching opportunities that present themselves when we are out in the field. I’ve always said that one of my favorite aspects of environmental education is the unexpected, sometimes serendipitous, things that happen when you’re out on walks. It could be said that if you spend enough time outside, it’s inevitable that you will witness something really cool, but I think a lot of it just comes down to luck. Like seeing a falling star, you just have to have your eyes in the right place, at the right time.
Luck seemed to be on our side last week during a CMBO walk at the Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows. A large Black Rat snake was basking along the west path and seemed indifferent to our presence. So, I did what any good naturalist would, I picked him up and gave an impromptu lesson on snakes. This large male was very cooperative and downright sweet as I gently handled him and allowed our guests to take photos and interact with him. Snakes get a bad rap and it more than likely stems from a combination of social prejudices and wrong information. In fact, snakes are one of the rare groups of animals that are facing threats from malicious killings along with the usual habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, and disease. The truth is that snakes are typically non-aggressive, fascinating creatures that play a vital environmental role in controlling prey populations and acting as a prey item themselves for top predators, including many birds of prey. As someone who has taught herpetology for many years, getting to share a moment in the field with this guy was a treat for me!
|CMBO's George Myers Naturalist, Margeaux Maerz, |
handling a Black Rat snake. [Photo by Mike Crewe].
As we continued our walk through the Meadows, I was still abuzz with excitement from our new, scaly friend, when someone pointed out a Great Egret in one of the East pools. He was obviously trying to eat something rather large and I expected to see a fish or frog when I focused my scope on him. It was with audible surprise that I found him trying to eat a small mammal! From what we could see, and knowing the fauna of the Meadows, we believe he was eating a young Muskrat. Now, I have read of herons and egret eating mammals and I recall watching a video of a Great-blue Heron catching and eating a gopher that went viral on social media last year, but never had I witnessed this spectacle with my own eyes. We stood there, fascinated (and honestly, a little disturbed) as this egret dunked his prey into the water and manipulated its orientation a few times before swallowing the critter whole.
The morning’s excitement left me wondering for the rest of the day, how much do we miss when we are out in the field? In a time of birding that is so focused on lists, have we lost the art of passive observation? Animal behavior is a fascinating subject to ponder but requires a great deal of patience (and in some cases luck) to experience first hand. So, I encourage you the next time you’re on a walk, whether it’s with us at CMBO or in your own back yard to slow down and take your time. Don’t be so quick to identify a bird and move on to the next, but rather sit and really observe the bird’s behavior. It’s during moments when you’re quiet and still that animals seem to put on a show. You may find it liberating to stop worrying about what's around the next bend in the trail but rather, take time to savior the moment and soak it all in. You just never know what you might see.