Watch your step!

When walking in the great outdoors there are a surprising number (and variety) of hazards that you can suddenly find yourself stepping on. There are the usual suspects: poison oak, unstable rocks, slippery twigs, holes in the ground. And wildlife. Wildlife should not be stepped on.

Over the last few days I’ve had a two heart-pounding encounters with wild animals, which involved – yes – almost stepping on them. This is not normal, even for a wildlife biologist.

On Friday morning I was out for a bird survey. While conducting a survey I hike, stop at the designated point, identify and count all of the birds that I see and hear at the point within a five minute period (known as a point count), and then hike to the next point.

One month ago when I surveyed this transect I had a face-off with a wild pig. I happened upon the pig as it was bedding down for the day, and the sudden encounter startled us both. After a short stare-off the pig ran away, but my heart took a few minutes to settle down.

With this encounter in mind, I was more cautious than usual when I hiked through this part of the transect. Last time I was here I saw multiple places where large mammals had bedded down, and I suspected that this was a wild pig hangout.

I carefully made my way through the oak woodland, scanning for sleeping pigs and scouting for an escape route should I (or the pigs) need one. In this state of hyper vigilance, I nearly put my foot down on…a fawn.

My brain registered that something was wrong and my foot jerked backward. There it was, a tiny fawn curled up in the grass, nearly invisible thanks to its spotted camouflage. Its mother had parked it there while she went off on some morning errand. The fawn didn’t move when I snapped its picture. What a cutie!

“If I don’t move she can’t see me!”

Yesterday I was out for my final bird survey of the season, and thanks to my close encounter with the fawn I was extra careful with foot placement. So it was a great shock when, halfway through the transect, I came uncomfortably close to stepping on this fellow:

This is a blurry picture but I wasn’t willing to get any closer.

Yikes. For this very reason I wear big thick snake gaiters every time I’m out on a bird survey. Hiking cross country through variable terrain and variable vegetation means that you can’t always see where you’re stepping, or what you’re stepping on. I came upon this snake just before 7am, and the temperature was still cool enough that this guy probably wasn’t capable of moving fast. I didn’t receive a rattled warning, and it’s possible that I could have breezed right on by without ever knowing how close my legs were to danger.

But luckily I saw the snake. I backtracked and went well around the hazard. And I stayed on high alert for the rest of the transect.


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