Wildlife in Your Backyard
July 1, 2011


When I was younger, I dreamed of traveling to the Arctic to study the great and unique wildlife that inhabits that part of the world. In particular, I wanted to study the marine mammals like the polar bears, whales, walruses, and seals. The Arctic was so very different from the city in which I grew up, and the wildlife seemed much more interesting than anything I could ever imagine seeing close to home. I thought that I had to travel a great distance to observe exciting wildlife, but I was very wrong. Today, Comet and I spend most of our summers on Nantucket, a small island off of Cape Cod, observing animals in our little backyard and at nearby ponds and beaches.

Getting in the groove of observing wildlife is easy: you just have to find a place to sit or stand and wait for the party to begin. I usually sit quietly on my front stoop or off to the side of my yard, so as to remain as unnoticed as possible. I will share with you the extraordinary animals I saw and heard during a pretty typical 24-hour span.
At 4:30 a.m.--- I wake to sounds of what sounds like a tropical rainforest jungle, but it’s actually outside the window of my very own bedroom. Birds love the sunrise, and the birds in my yard are no exception. They are very loud and very beautiful. I am too tired to get up, but I hear cardinals, crows, seagulls, catbirds, a rooster from around the corner, and more than a few other birds that I can’t readily identify. I love to listen to birds sing to one another.

6:30 a.m.
After Comet finishes her hearty breakfast, we head outside for her to “do her business.” It is there that I see the best friend a girl can have in her own backyard—my good friend Bun-Bun. Bun-Bun is an Eastern Cottontail rabbit who lives in our yard and in the edges of the surrounding scrub oak forest. While I don’t know how old he is, he has been coming around for at least three years. He and I both recognize each other now, and I could watch him forever. Other rabbits in the yard keep their distance, but Bun-Bun is used to us and comes relatively close. He isn’t even bothered by Comet---and may even enjoy seeing her, since Comet is older, unthreatening in any way, and may even scare off potential predators just by hanging out around the yard and minding her own business. Outside, we also see chickadees and blue jays hanging out by our birdfeeders. Every once in a while, a squirrel attempts to hang onto one of the feeders upside-down. Some people find squirrels to be pests, but I think they are adorable and provide constant entertainment.

10:00 a.m.
While sweeping my front walkway, I notice a huge gathering of ants. I’m not sure what they’re eating, so I stand overhead and watch. It looks like they have a piece of tomato or pepper from the garden. They are busy at work and don’t notice the likes of a giant like me looking down. I can’t believe how strong they are for such little animals. Amazing! On my way inside, I see a couple of caterpillars eating my basil plants, so I gently lift them off and place them near the little pine trees. No doubt they’ll be back on the basil tomorrow.

Noon---I head outdoors for a short bike ride, and I see a hawk flying overhead. He is medium-sized with gray wings and is quite beautiful, but I hope Bun-Bun is safely hiding in the brush. A few days ago, I saw a hawk with an unlucky smaller rabbit, but I know that everything in nature needs to eat. (I just hope it’s not Bun-Bun.) I hear my neighbor’s rooster crow (yet again!).

1:00 p.m.
I bike to a nearby beach and immediately glimpse four huge bobbing heads in the water. Gray seals are frequently close to shore at this beach, and I can watch them frolicking in the water for a very long time. Sometimes, they just seem to be having fun in the waves, and other times, they are busy feeding on fish swimming by. Today I see lots of minnows and other small fish in the water, so I’m guessing they are there to eat. I also see small crabs, jellyfish, and some kind of sand shrimp. Before I leave, I count eight gray seals---and it is hard for me to leave. I wish I could stay here all day, but at least I know Bun-Bun might be waiting for me in the yard at home, munching peacefully on the grass.

2:30 p.m.
On my bike ride back home, I stop short when I see something moving on the pavement. I see a very long snake, one that appears to be about 2-1/2 feet! It is gray with markings on it, and I later look it up in my field guide to discover that is a Northern Water Snake, likely on his way to a little wetland area close by. He is truly magnificent. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bigger snake so close to home. Meanwhile, that rooster is still trying to get my attention.

4:00 p.m.
Before I mow my yard, I move some lawn chairs and discover a small reddish salamander. SO CUTE! He scurries away, though, and I grab a field guide that helps me identify him as an Eastern red-backed salamander. WOW! Birds are still chirping all around, as they tend to get loud again late in the afternoon and early evening. One of the birds is digging in the dirt, he is also a frequent visitor to our yard. The sun is still strong, and bumblebees are still buzzing around some purple flowers, going from one plant to another to help pollinate my garden.

6:30 p.m.
Comet and I are walking outside and see a huge flying beetle in my garden. These beetles seem to like eating my pretty flowers, so what’s a girl to do? I also observe a big, beautiful butterfly flying low over the grass. When we stop to rest by the side of the yard, we notice two small bunnies munching on the freshly mowed grass. Then, out of nowhere appears a small water rat. He grabs a bit of seed that has fallen from one of the birdfeeders and then disappears back into the scrub oaks. He comes and goes several times—what a treat to have a new visitor in my backyard! That rooster is still cock-a-doodle-do-ing.

8:00 p.m.
Before Comet and I head outside again for our last bit of daylight, I see two large deer in my yard. They have such keen senses of smell and sound that when I move just a bit to pick up Comet, they become frightened and scurry away. But not Bun-Bun, as he is here to stay. He has a large piece of grass hanging out of his mouth and is constantly eating during the day.

9:30 p.m.
When I go to close my front door for the night, I am treated to an amazing sight right on my screen door. I count over 25 moths of varying sizes and colors. Some are huge and look like they are made of wood, and others are small and green. Some even have spots. I grab the guide that I keep by the front door and try to identify some. Comet is getting restless and wants to go to sleep. Even as her head hits her pillow (yes, her pillow), I know she is listening to the birds outside who keep singing in our yard for another half hour or so.

One thing I can say, with total honesty, is that observing and studying animals is NEVER boring and is usually fascinating and fulfilling. You can do it ANYWHERE—smack in the center of a city, or from the window of a small country cottage---and anywhere in between. You simply need to cue in to the sights and sounds of the space around you. Grab a pair of binoculars if you have them, or sunglasses, and maybe a camera, too. And one more thing: you’ll need a bit of patience, (not Comet’s strong suit) but believe me, it will be very much worth the wait.  Any time of year is good to study wildlife, but summertime is especially brimming with many animal friends who allow us a closer glimpse into their remarkable lives.

There are plenty of guidebooks for studying wildlife in your backyard. Learn more about who you are observing.
Keep a journal of what you see. Maybe you’ll find patterns of frequent visitors or new and welcome additions.
Bring along a friend and learn about the fabulous creatures in your backyard. Whether they seem exotic or ordinary, we can learn something from all of nature.