Blog: EarthSpirit
by Mayah

Nature Encounters

I've had several close encounters with nature in the past week. I enjoy walking at the El Dorado Park Nature Center in Long Beach, a 105 acre oasis in the middle of a large suburban area. I hadn't been there all summer and just last week started walking there again.

Date:   10/5/2012 12:34:34 AM   ( 10 y ) ... viewed 9226 times
Matilija Poppy | Flickr - Photo Sharing: photo by dianejp 9/5/2010

One of my favorite places at the Nature Center is a little trail that offshoots the main trail next to one of the small back lakes; I often head there to sit at the bench and observe the wildlife. In spring time, when the native plants are blooming—mostly Matilija Poppy and purple sage, this spot is virtually buzzing with insects of all kinds. Bees, bumbles, flies, moths, and butterflies dart among the flowers and chase each other, and in turn are chased by myriad lizards who eye the insects hungrily.
Purple Sage:  photo by WooThemes 3/4/2011

Last week, with fall just starting, there were no blooms when I came to this spot but I had a close encounter with an alligator lizard. The 8 inch lizard was clinging to the back of the bench I usually sit on; not wanting to startle it into running away, I froze as soon as I saw it from about 5 feet away. As I stared at the lizard, the lizard seemingly stared at me. Moments passed. Then the lizard did something I’d never seen before—in one enormous leap worthy of an Olympic Gold medal the lizard launched itself off of the bench, flying past me in mid leap, and hit the ground running. It darted over to the edge of the brush where it snapped at a bee who was wrestling with a large fly on the ground. The lizard’s mouth snapped open and shut a few times, missing the struggling insects; the insects disengaged from each other and flew off, leaving the lizard without a meal. The lizard had no interest in me whatsoever; the chance to nab a tasty meal seems to have trumped its natural fear of one two-legged.
California Alligator Lizard: photo by J.D. 8/2007

Yesterday, I arrived at the Center at a little after 8:00 A.M and was on a quiet stretch of trail when the quick movement of legs as seen through some shrubs caught my attention. At first I thought the legs belonged to two children. Then I noticed that the legs were long and thin and had fur on them, and I thought it was a dog.  A few more steps down the trail allowed me to clearly view a coyote! I paused in my walking so as not to startle her; she trotted around a bend in the trail and I quickened my pace, only to find when I got around the bend that she’d disappeared! I had entered into an open space but could not see her anywhere. This is only the third coyote I’ve seen at the Center in the early morning in all of the many years I’ve walked here (about 40 years now!). These shy animals are usually nocturnal; this one may have been going back to her den after a night of hunting. I did find a lot of scat on the trail with fur in it; some might be evidence of a successful rabbit hunt.
Cotton Tail:  photo by urbanfocus, 8/28/2008
Coyote: photo by Justin Johnsen 6/7/2003

I try to arrive at the Nature Center at different times, as different animals are active dependent upon what time of the day it is. Cotton tail rabbits can be readily seen foraging in the late afternoon, and sometimes early in the morning, but generally are not to be seen midday when lots of two-leggeds are wandering the trails, especially the groups of noisy school children who tend to frighten away most of the animals with the exception of a few of the ground squirrels who have unfortunately lost their fear of humans and have learned to look their cutest sitting on their hind quarters with their little paws up, staring pleadingly at the two-leggeds for a hand out.
California Ground Squirrel: photo by mhoctoer 7/14/2007
California Live Oak: photo by Peter Y. Chou  9/8/2011

Most of the squirrels, however, busily search for and bury acorns dropped from the many California Live Oak trees at the Center. Today the many squirrels I saw were eating the acorns instead of storing them; I surmise they were instinctively fattening up for the winter months ahead. One very plump squirrel must have had a benevolent spirit watching over it. I was walking under a cluster of oak trees that form a favorite place for the squirrels to forage when I heard the shrill calls of a Cooper’s hawk as she flew right over my head. I turned to observe the hawk just in time to see it dive at the plump squirrel who was sitting in a ground level “V” of a tree while munching on an acorn. I thought the little guy was going to be the hawk’s meal, but the hawk didn’t have its talons out and she flew within millimeters over the squirrel’s head, straight through the “V”, then up into the trees! The squirrel belatedly froze, obviously terrified, and stayed immobile for quite some time. I think the hawk was trying to scare the squirrel away from the bird’s territory, as it could have easily caught the squirrel if it had wanted to.
Cooper’s hawk:  photo by Mrs. Wiley Coyote 1/26/2001

Today as I rounded the bend of the back lake of the Nature Center I halted in my tracks when I saw a Great Blue Heron standing in the water at the lake edge, less than 15 feet from me. These large birds are usually very shy of people; they either freeze when encountering humans, attempting to go unnoticed, or lift their expansive wings and fly off. This bird was frozen in position, standing on one leg with its neck extended, but it did not seem to notice me, so intently was it staring into the water. As I watched the bird a number of people passed by on the trail behind me, some talking loudly, but the bird remained in its fixed position. I stood as still as possible while staring at the bird, finding it difficult to be as immobile as she. 
After some minutes passed my vision started to go a bit fuzzy from staring so hard without blinking. Just then, with a movement so fast it was hard to follow, the bird’s long neck lunged forward and its long beak plunged into the water; then the heron threw back its head and swallowed!  This is the first time I’ve ever seen a Blue Heron hunting and I was quite startled by the sudden shift from statue-like pose to rapid movement. After a few moments the bird resumed hunting, again standing completely still except for a slight shift in its eyes as it watched the fishes in the waters of the lake.
Great Blue Heron: 6/2011

Continuing along the lake edge, I spied a huge iridescent blue-green dragonfly buzzing over the water. I found myself talking to the dragonfly, as I often do with the animals and insects, saying hello to it and admiring its beauty. Soon it was joined by two others of its kind. The three chased each other over the surface of the water, whether in territorial display or one of greeting, I do not know. Periodically the first dragonfly would fly towards me then buzz off. I watched their flying dance for a while, and then walked on to my favorite spot to sit on the other side of the lake. While resting on the bench that the lizard had occupied last week, I looked up over the bushes that obscured the view of the lake and saw one of the giant dragonflies hovering; I imagined it was the one I’d talked to.
Giant Dragon Fly:  photo by HerNibs, 7/28/2010

As I was leaving the Nature Center this morning, I stopped to watch from a bridge as a small raft* of quacking mallard ducks floated down the stream. The male mallard in the lead had something in his mouth that looked like a pink crustacean—I could see arthropod-type legs sticking out of the mallard’s bill. As the ducks floated under the bridge, the drake kept trying to swallow the crustacean by shifting it around in his beak, but the legs still managed to stick out. He was still struggling with his meal when he and his raft floated out of sight. I think the crustacean must have been some kind of fresh water krill, but I'm not sure.

Certainly, this has been the week to observe Nature’s BEings in the act of eating and being eaten, and almost being eaten!
Mallard Ducks:  photo by Eric Baetscher  12/2007


* a flock of ducks in the water is called a raft



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