Environmental Almanac

Looking back at wildlife firsts of 2014

Close-up of a moose in the Rocky Mountains

A Moose in the Rockies Rob Kanter

I was out early on New Year’s Day, in a patch of woods along the Salt Fork River in Vermilion County, and within an hour of sunrise I’d already seen my first bird of prey for the year, a bald eagle. That got me thinking about the many wildlife firsts I experienced last year.

You may remember that my wife Karen and I found a pair of whooping cranes at the Middle Fork Forest Preserve in early November, a first for both of us.  It was also in November that we had our first experience of chasing a red fox from the back yard.  Normally I’d sneak out to photograph such a visitor, not scare it away--but this one was trying to carry off one of our hens. (She lost some feathers in the attack, but nothing worse.)

The hens themselves, which we got as chicks in April, are firsts for us, made possible by the work of Karen and others, who convinced the Champaign City Council to revise the ordinance prohibiting hens.

Pale-Billed Woodpecker

Photo Credit:Rob Kanter

In June our family camped for a week at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. It was our second time for that, but there were a couple of general firsts involved. We all saw a badger for the first time ever. It scuttled across the road in front of us and up a nearby slope as we drove at dusk one evening. We also had a first in our campsite one afternoon; a young bull moose walked through, right next to the tent where my wife and daughter were resting.

On one of our hikes in the Rockies I added a couple of birds to my life list: a rock wren that was singing from a dead pine up near the tree line, and a MacGillivray’s warbler that sang from a thicket along a stream in a valley.

In March I travelled to Costa Rica with a U of I field course led by a colleague in the School of Earth, Society, and Environment.  As co-leader of the trip, it was my job to help ensure that students gained everything they could from the experience. How better to do that than by paying attention to the wildlife that surrounded us and helping others to see it?

Leafcutter Ant

Photo Credit: Rob Kanter

Because most of us had never been to Central America before, my complete list of firsts from Costa Rica is probably longer than you would care to hear. But the condensed version begins on the forest floor with leafcutter ants. I’ve always found them fascinating in zoos and on screen, but enjoyed even more seeing their single-file parade across our path.

In the trees we saw monkeys—mantled howler monkeys, whose otherworldly calls could be heard miles away through the forest, and white-faced capuchins, which hung around looking for handouts and would steal food given half a chance.  There were new-to-me reptiles in the trees, too—green iguanas as still as statues, and eyelash vipers so vivid a yellow they looked like ornaments rather than part of the natural scene.

Yellow Eyelash Viper

Photo Credit: Rob Kanter

Of the 900-plus bird species that occur in Costa Rica, I’ll say only that we saw enough for one trip, but too few for a lifetime. Fortunately, it’s my job to lead another class in Costa Rica this March, so I’m confident 2015 will include some interesting firsts of its own.