People sometimes ask how it is that I have so many wildlife encounters. There is a degree of luck, for sure, but, besides wandering around with my camera I also spend a lot of time gathering ‘intel’.
That often involves talking with farmers and other landowners, aimlessly driving around rural areas looking at terrain that looks suitable for particular species and, most significantly, never really ‘switching off’.
When I am cycling down the rail trail from Cambridge to Paris, Ontario, for instance, I am always on the lookout for wildlife. Some species linger long enough for me to reach for my phone and snap an image. This Eastern hog nosed snake was very compliant when I stopped while on a ride with my son one day.
I never wear headphones when I ride although I often see runners and cyclists absorbed in their music or podcasts. Maybe it’s not important to them but I certainly want to be totally aware of my surroundings.
One day in early November 2019, a day when it was cold enough I had the trail to myself, I spotted a huge male deer while on my bike ride. It came crashing through the brush, took one look at me, then crossed the trail and vanished. Of course, I didn’t have a camera with me.
I made a mental note to go looking for him on foot a couple of days later. About four kilometres into my hike along the trail – and here’s where the luck comes in – he wandered into view. This was within a kilometre of where I had seen him on my bike. You can imagine my delight!
When I hike with my camera I am always checking my settings and adjusting them according yo the ever changing light along the trail. So when he stood there for two or three seconds, as surprised to see me again as I was to see him, I managed to fire off about four images before he sprinted into the bush.
Again, I would never have known to look for him had I not been cycling along the trail a few days earlier with my wits about me.
Cycling this trail has given me so many wildlife encounters. Deer cross at a few different places en route to or from the nearby Grand River.
Perhaps my favourite encounter with them occurred a couple of years ago when a young deer ran alongside me for thirty or forty metres before darting into the brush. Along this flat stretch of trail I generally ride about 26 to 28km/hr. I hadn’t seen it at first and we were both startled when we clapped eyes on each other. What a thrill to see it sprinting just an arm’s length away.
Another occasion when I wished I had been hiking with a camera and not cycling I watched an adult female deer walk out on to the trail about 70 metres ahead of me. She stopped to look at me approaching. I braked and stopped about 40 metres from her just to observe. Then a fawn appeared and started nursing. The doe just stood there looking at me for a few minutes before leading her baby off the trail. Again it was an experience you don’t see often.
On my rides I regularly see a red tail hawk that hunts squirrels that behave carelessly. And I have seen bald eagles fishing along the river.
A nest just south of Cambridge and a second one just north of Paris means there are both adults and juveniles using this stretch of river for their dining pleasure. This one was hunting the Grand River near the rail trail. An Eastern Kingbird was harassing it.
Foxes den near the river too and occasionally I see them crossing the trail. About five years ago on a ride I had the magical encounter with one adult that came up from the river’s edge and stood on the trail looking at me. I came to a stop. He had a rabbit in his mouth. Off he trotted along a nearby deer trail in the woods before stopping, only ten metres away, to study me once more.
Recently some landowners told me where they had spotted a den on their property and I hiked down. This one appeared after a short wait.
There is a healthy coyote population along the rail trail and I have been fortunate several times to see individuals while cycling or hiking. At night their howls are audible for quite a distance. This one was chasing a deer across the path one evening but stopped in its tracks when I arrived on the scene.
The forest through which the rail trail passes provides habitat for many species. I often hear pileated woodpeckers – they make a high pitched giggling sound when they are not hammering away at a tree trunk. After hearing this one during successive bike rides I went back one day with my camera. He was almost in the exact spot I had seen him in during one of my rides.
Switching off electronics and being aware of your surroundings is a good thing. It’s good for both mental and physical health. Chances are better that sounds and sights are enhanced when you are looking and your senses are keen.
I hope everyone is enjoying some time in nature and having positive wildlife encounters!