Encounters: Almost anyone who spends enough time outdoors will at some point have a close encounter with a creature that lives in the wild. (By encounter, I mean in a voluntarily sense, not a creature that was caught on a hook, shot with a gun or captured in a net.) I can think of only a couple of incidences like this occurring to me in my lifetime. This episode took place at Peterson Pond, one of my favorite places to listen at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Seems like there is always something happening there. The small pond is encircled by a perimeter of reeds and cattails that is yards deep, which makes it difficult to see birds up close, but there’s plenty of life to hear on the open water and in the surrounding foliage. Something wonderful happens when I listen to wild places with microphones and headphones. My sense of hearing becomes hyper-acute. The boundaries for my aural world extends by miles, and the sounds nearby become brilliant with clarity and intensity. I tell people it’s like looking through a good telescope for the first time and seeing unimagined details in the night sky.
Early in this year’s hunting season, an industrious hunter took it upon himself to hack a narrow path through the dense cattails surrounding the pond, clearing a way to drag his boat to open water. That’s where I chose to set up and record early one Sunday morning. It was late fall, and the pond was populated with hundreds of American Coots. At Ash Meadows, coots are about as common as flies. That’s an exaggeration, of-course, but the yearly Audubon Christmas Bird Count shows that they clearly outnumber all other avian species at the refuge. They’re a rather nondescript blackish, grayish waterfowl but sporting a distinctive ivory colored bill. Many people think that they are a type of duck, but a close look at their unusually large feet indicates that they’re actually more related to wading birds such as cranes, rails and moorhens. They cover all areas of the pond, and I will challenge any birder who has glassed a pond with binoculars only to see a flock of coots has not felt a slight bit of disappointment.
After an hour of listening and recording, I stopped my recorder, walked over to the hunter’s clear-cut to pack up my equipment. And there the encounter began. A single coot had wandered up the 20 yard long path while foraging for food. It was perhaps only 15 feet away from me. I stopped, slowly raised my camera and took a picture. The coot did not move, and neither did I. I took another picture and braced myself for the coot’s furious retreat down the path to join the safety of its flock. Still the it remained motionless. A few minutes passed, and I decided to slowly lower myself to the ground, lying on my stomach to photograph this charming little creature at eye level. The coot decided to continue foraging and narrowed the distance between us. I had never seen one so close before. They’re really quite beautiful. I continued to take pictures and he or she seemed to relax. (Males and females look the same with only a slight difference in size.) Eventually it wandered within the minimum focusing range of my camera lens. (Nikon says that’s about 5 feet for the 70-300mm lens that I was using.) Until then, I had only seen flocks of coots at long distances. The beauty of this individual bird up close was quite remarkable.
Eventually, it made a leisurely retreat back down the clear-cut path to rejoin its flock. I had taken all of the pictures that I wanted, but I kept watching. Then, I and the flock of my new friend heard the piercing call of a Northern Harrier – a top predator around the pond and surrounding wetlands. I looked up to see. The coots heeded the alarm and moved to more open water. The marsh hawk passed over and out of sight. I looked back to the water only to realize that the individual bird that I had just encountered was no longer distinguishable. My new friend was just another member of the flock, one of perhaps a few hundred American Coots on Peterson Pond that morning.