Nine things

Nine animal encounters

OVER the years, in daily life and on holidays and trips to see friends and relatives we have had a number of encounters with animals – not quite David Attenborough, but fascinating and memorable in their way.

1 and 2: Porcupine and golden eagle – We were in southern Arizona on a New Year’s Day. We had been to the Chiricahua mountains and were on our way to the old mining town of Bisbee (whose better known neighbour is the Tombstone film-set ).

We were running out of petrol. Of course we were – we had a long way to go and everything was closed for a public holiday. We slowed at a corner, puzzled by a strange shape on a tree branch. On closer inspection (but not daring to stop because of the fuel), we discovered it was a porcupine. We had no idea they climbed trees, let alone would sleep on a thin bare branch. A few miles later, we spotted another strange shape which as we drew close turned out to be a golden eagle, picking over its prey at the side of the road. Again we couldn’t stop to get a photo – by this stage we were seriously worried about breaking down. (We found a garage and general store a few miles further on – and a fellow motorist glad to find an open petrol station, who had been at the same Beatles concert in Bournemouth as Gay back in the 1960s … another story!)

3: Grizzly bear – We met my daughter and her family in Yellowstone National Park, to celebrate her 40th birthday. My son-in-law, a fairly urban sports-lover, had spent the whole drive from California lowering their expectations about the chances of seeing a bear. There were 3,500 square miles of almost trackless wilderness, he pointed out. Why would bears come anywhere near the few roads? Driving from our rented house towards Old Faithful we got stuck in a traffic jam caused by roadworks. Then along came … less than 100 yards from the cars … a grizzly bear and her cub. They ambled past, unbothered by the excited humans, taking their time, knowing that here at least they were safe, the only shooting being photographic. I will never forget the utter joy on my son-in-law’s face.

4: Manta ray – For some years, while living in one of the Gulf States, I used to go sailing with a very laid-back character whose idea of teaching me was that he sat with a can (or two) of cold beer and I did everything else. This included getting out of the boat to push it when it got stuck on a sandbank. On one warm sunny afternoon, the sandbank moved. It was one of the many (harmless) manta rays that bask in the warm shallow waters. To say that I was scared almost witless would be an understatement.

5 and 6: Alligator and owls – we saw countless alligators on a visit to the Everglades. We particularly liked the single ‘gator on the bank at a visitor centre beside the road known as Alligator Alley and the huge number half-submerged in murky water – we liked to imagine they had a rota for the tourist cameras! We went on a long ranger-led drive, learning about and seeing the amazing wildlife and birds. At one point an alligator ran alongside the open-sided vehicle for several hundred yards on the dirt road. Their speed is quite astonishing.

Later on the same trip we were on a boardwalk through a thick clump of trees. There was a rustle. We glanced up and there looking down at us was a baby Barred Owl, so well-camouflaged that we only saw it because its mother was coming to feed it and stirred the leaves. It was just a few feet above our heads – inscrutable in that endearing way that owls have.

7: A condor in the Badlands – No, it wasn’t a condor, but the man who came to see what we were looking at through binoculars and telephoto lens told us it was. We tried (very politely) to tell him that (a) it was a golden eagle (yes, another golden eagle) and (b) you don’t get condors in the Dakota Badlands. He wasn’t having it. He stomped angrily back to his car and we stood there for half an hour or more until the magnificent bird took off, soaring into the bluest sky above the extraordinary Badlands rockforms.

8: Swallow – My office at my old paper was in a second floor former attic, with a Velux window. One afternoon a swallow flew in. Some of the staff were frightened because they didn’t like it flying around and we were all worried it would hurt itself. It came to the (closed) sash window beside my desk and I managed to catch it, while a friend opened the window. It weighed less than a piece of paper but I could feel its tiny heart beating fit to explode. As soon as the window was open I put my hands out and it was away. Animals experience fear but they have no sense of gratitude – perhaps it is the simplicity of their responses that is so rewarding.

9: Hedgehogs – Animals don’t have to be exotic or rare for encounters to be memorable. A friend and I were walking our dogs after dark over the recreation ground in our town. Her dog, a feisty little Jack Russell, disappeared into a ditch and emerged a few minutes later looking distinctly ruffled. We went closer and found a hedgehog, which had taken the sensible precaution of rolling into a ball. We put the dogs on their leads and walked on. After a few hundred yards, we let them off on rough ground and they almost instantly found another hedgehog. Back on the leads, and back home past the cricket pitch – a scuffle in the grass by the pavilion, and a baby hedgehog. Three hedgehogs on one evening – what are the chances of that!

Pictured: American porcupine in a winter tree; American golden eagle; alligator and barred owls in the Everglades National Park; swallow; hedgehog in autumn leaves.