The autumn months are an interesting time of the year. Some days it feels like winter is just around the corner. Other days it feels like summer is still hanging in there. Recently, I have taken advantage of those nice days to enjoy some of our local Metro Parks. Metro Parks are great places to go to observe wildlife and learn more about nature, whether you are visiting the Nature Center or just walking along the trails. I often go to Highbanks during my lunch breaks at work, and on a recent weekday I saw several animals, including chipmunks, gray squirrels, a fox squirrel, and even a beaver.
Gray squirrels are the most commonly seen squirrels in this area. Fox squirrels look similar to gray squirrels, but they have more reddish fur on their bodies and tails. Squirrels like to use trees for food and shelter, especially trees with nuts, like the hickory, oak, black walnut, and buckeye trees. I saw several squirrels running up trees or jumping from tree to tree as I was walking through the forest. I assume they were looking for nuts because they like to hoard nuts and acorns for the winter, but they might have just been playing too.
Eastern chipmunks are the smallest member of the squirrel family, and like squirrels, they live in forests or other brushy areas. They can nest in logs, hollow parts of tree trunks, or small burrows in the ground. They also like to eat nuts and acorns, but they sometimes eat eggs or insects. I saw one on the path eating an acorn, but it quickly scampered off when it heard me coming. Chipmunks have a great sense of hearing and warn the rest of the forest when they sense predators approaching. They are pretty solitary animals. Chipmunks don’t interact much with other chipmunks except during mating season. Chipmunks hibernate in the winter, but instead of living off their body fat like most animals, they eat from their collection of nuts and acorns from the summer.
I was most surprised to see the beaver, because that might be the first time I saw one in the wild. One reason for this might be that beavers are mainly nocturnal animals, and also because beavers spend most of their time in the water to keep safe from predators. I saw the beaver walking through some brush along the Scenic River trail at Highbanks one afternoon. From a distance, it looked like a really big squirrel, but its tail was flat and it had more fur on its face. Beavers live in burrows near water and build dams on the water. They are famous for their dams, which they build mostly to provide themselves shelter and safe access to food supplies. Beavers tend to eat tree bark and leaves, as well as underwater plants. They don’t eat fish, as most people believe. Beavers are excellent swimmers. This is due in part to the shape of their tails and their webbed feet. Thanks to conservation efforts, the beaver population is starting to make a comeback after nearly being decimated because of fur trapping. Beavers have also had conflicts with humans because their dams can cause flooding in some areas. Conservationists have worked to find non-lethal ways to prevent beavers from damaging residential areas.
In addition to mammals, you can also see an abundance of birds, insects, and reptiles at the local Metro Parks. A couple of Sundays ago I was having a picnic with one of my friends at Sharon Woods, and we saw a blue jay, as well as a flock of Canada geese flying in their trademark V formation. Blue jays can actually be pretty aggressive towards other birds. They have even been known to attack smaller birds. Like chipmunks, blue jays often warn other birds when they sense the presence of predators, like hawks. They have a distinctive call that other birds can recognize and take warning. Blue jays can also gang up to chase away predators. Canada geese are sometimes considered nuisances by people because of their noise and aggressive behavior. Their population was declining, but has increased in recent years thanks to preservation programs and several protection laws.
Of course, my friend and I also had to deal with a couple of honeybees buzzing around our food during our picnic. These honeybees can be a common nuisance during picnics, but they are also a form of wildlife that serves a critical function in nature. Every wildlife species serves some important purpose, whether it is honeybees pollinating plants and flowers, or Canada geese signaling the start of spring and fall to other animals, or beavers helping enrich aquatic life in our ponds, lakes, and streams. Many wildlife species have also had success stories of coming back from the brink of extinction thanks to conservation and preservation efforts.
One of those species is the wild turkey. The turkey was important in Native American culture, and it has been a staple of countless Thanksgiving dinners over the years, but they were hunted almost to the point of extinction in some parts of the United States by the early 1900’s. However, preservation efforts have helped them to make a comeback. There are also several organizations trying to learn more about turkeys and their habitat by using digital tracking technology. They are hoping that by providing safer habitat for turkeys, they can help their populations thrive. I had the good fortune to spot a pair of wild turkeys strolling along the road at Blendon Woods while walking my dog on the pet trail there about a month ago.
The fall and winter months can make for some pretty miserable weather. The good news is that there are many wonderful wildlife species that we can watch and appreciate, no matter the season. Whether you are enjoying one of our local Metro Parks or just hanging out in your backyard, you can take some time to appreciate the outdoors and enjoy the splendor of Mother Nature. Of course, if you want to get more involved, you can also help out with some of the many wonderful conservation programs and organizations. — Lee Gruver