Living in the city one loses most sense of nature but after living for many years in the rural foothills of Colorado which most people call the boonies, in a landscape of pinyon juniper forests, undeveloped wild lands and mountains all around, my senses have been intensified. Its easier to see, to smell and touch. Its easier to hear, easier to listen.
There are only a few of the usual man-made sounds where we live and yes, we still see the vapor trails, hear the commercial airlines flying high over the Colorado mountains and the occasional vehicle driven by the house or the more distant neighbors’ dogs barking. But more of our auditory experience is in listening to the wildlife that passes over and through our landscape.
In particular, I’ve become accustomed to the vocalizations of birds, chipmunks and the rock squirrels who live here. Speaking a different language with a variety of dialects its hard to know what they are saying but I’ve been tipped off to events in their lives a number of times. If you are a photographer, naturalist, wildlife enthusiast, birder or simply one who enjoys the outdoors you may already know what I’m talking about. If not, you will be amazed by what you can discover.
A few days ago as I was going about my daily routines in a house with the windows opened wide, bringing in the warm summer breezes. Chipmunks often find something to talk about but when they spend 20 to 30 minutes barking from the same tree on the same branches, eyes focused in a single direction, you have to take notice. Inter-species communication is more common than you may think. This day, the urgency of its chipping calls beckoned me to the window nearest the source of the ruckus. I wasn’t the only one beginning to wonder what was getting this little guy so upset.
As I watched, numerous other birds came in one by one. A male Black-headed Grosbeak perched on a limb of a nearby fallen tree. A Junco and then another flew to an adjacent tree. A rock squirrel ran to the scene and started to dig, throwing dirt all around with tail raised high and fluffed wide but after a few minutes lost interest and all puffed up wandered off in the opposite direction. A Scrub Jay arrived. Even a Mourning Dove. It was virtually an Inter-denominational convention. From my vantage point I couldn’t tell what exactly was causing all the commotion.
By now of course… I had to go outside. Judging by all the downward attention, I had my suspicions of the focus of all the attention. We have two species of snakes where we live, the non-venomous Bull or Gopher Snake and the Western Prairie Rattlesnake. The intruder could have been either.
Slowly opening and quietly closing the door as I went out, I approached the area with caution, keeping my eyes to the ground while trying to pinpoint the target of the chipmunk’s vigilance. I didn’t have to walk far before I saw the rattlesnake. There below the downed tree in the mottled sun was the rattler with the tail end of a chipmunk protruding from its jaws. Not wanting to scare the snake into losing its meal, I backed away and headed back into the house to grab a camera. Here was a photo-op not to be missed.
On another occasion, perhaps mid-summer a year or two ago, our native Gopher Snake, a hunter of small rodents and birds, caught our attention because of the anxious vocalizations by a pair of Mountain Bluebirds nesting in a box hung on the side of our tiny guest house. Below, was the snake appearing to contemplate how to reach the nestbox, knowing there were nestlings inside.
Well, with all the excitement of the adults, the nest erupted with nestlings fleeing as if on cue. In another grab the camera and go I was treated with the good fortune of photographing not only a beautiful Gopher Snake but several new fledglings and their distressed parents.
The Bluebird family gave the snake a wide berth while the snake posed for a few intimate shots before sliding away to better hunting grounds.
Birds and small prey animals such as chipmunks and squirrels are the obvious whistleblowers for predator activities. But don’t forget the predators themselves can be another voice to the events on the ground. Many times eagles, hawks, ravens and vultures have led us to other animals killed by bears, coyotes, mountain lions or wolves. The excited yips and howls of foxes and other canids can tell you volumes. Bugling elk, the rattling of clashing antlers or the echoing low-pitched clack of bighorn rams battling it out to impress a ewe are all the sounds of the wild for you to take notice, perhaps to find and capture on film.
So while you are out somewhere away from the urban noise, whether you are in your own backyard or taking a hike in the wild, take a camera and take your time, look around, sit still and listen. You may be surprised by the photo opportunities presented by what you hear. The natural world is talking to you.