The Geek discovers nature

August 2001

It's not true that I spend my whole life sitting and staring at a computer screen. The fact is, sometimes I turn my head and look out the window. And there I see. . . Nature.

There's a mulberry tree right outside my large, second-floor window that's so close to the building that it's as if I'm living inside the tree. It was in that tree that I first saw an albino fledgling being fed by its mother. It was in that tree that I saw a hawk catch a small bird and eat it, bit by grisly bit, pulling off the feathers and eating flesh. Following its meal, it sat there, with its yellow eyes, looking satisfied. And then it cleaned its beak by scraping it on the limb.

You can always tell when a hawk is around because you'll hear birds banging into the glass. They tend to get fooled by the "false azure of the windowpane" when they're scrambling for their lives.

And you can always tell when a cat is around because all the birds tend to make a staccato chirping sound. I heard a real chorus of it about a week ago and walked to my window to see a big ol' orange cat lounging on the patio. This was one fat cat--certainly not the sort to catch an unwary bird.

Sometimes, truth be told, I actually leave my computer and head outside to walk to main campus. And this, too, is an opportunity to experience nature. One day I saw something suspicious on the sidewalk: it looked like short strips of black tar. But I suspected that it was poop. I looked closer and saw some little bits of fur.

This was very curious. It just wasn't like doggie do, and I don't think anyone else even noticed it. I watched it over the coming weeks, and as the rains fell, the black outer covering gradually washed away. Eventually all that was left was a pile of hair--rabbit hair.

I suspected a coyote. And I turned to the Internet to see what I could learn. I went to eNature.com, the absolutely wonderful nature site that offers, for free, all the information typically found in field guides.

It described coyote "scat" as typically being deposited on the middle of a path (indeed it was) and consisting mostly of hair (indeed it did). I do hear coyotes occasionally, and had the feeling that they came on campus at night to eat the rabbits. Seeing the coyote scat convinced me that they do.

I also learned from the entry on coyotes that they run with their tail down. That, too, was telling, because one morning when I went out for a jog before dawn, I saw what seemed to be a wild animal the size of a dog. When it sensed my presence, it immediately took off in the other direction and didn't stop until it was out of site--and it ran with its tail down.

eNature.com offers a complete guide to over 4,800 North American plants and animals, with detailed descriptions and photographs. I'm thrilled about two new features: the local guide and the addition of bird songs.

In the past when I tried to find specific birds, it was hard because there were so many. The "Zip Local Guide" lets you type in your Zip Code and then offers you a selection relevant for your area. It not only takes into account your location, but also the time of year, which is especially important in regard to migrating birds.

Once you've typed in your Zip, you can choose from among four categories: birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. Since there are few of the latter two in Iowa, the results of my Zip Code search combined amphibians and reptiles into one page.

The site has 60 bird species I can expect to see in summer in the "greater Iowa area, including Jefferson County." I was also thrilled that I can now click on a link to hear the bird's song. Doing so opens a popup window with a larger picture of the bird and plays the song in one's choice of format: RealPlayer, Windows Media Player, or QuickTime. RealPlayer seems to work the best for me.

The eNature site is filled with additional features, including ecards, an "Ask an Expert" feature, a park finder, birding basics, life lists, habitat guides, and sky guides.

So do take a peak at nature on occasion--and then let the eNature.com tell you what you saw.

© 2001 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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