Secrets of Observing Nature

Expert advice on blending in when you're observing nature, or trying to.

| October/November 2006

  • observing nature - gray fox
    The gray fox normally avoids humans, but if you're careful about observing nature you might catch a glimpse of one.
    Phot by Bill Lea
  • observing nature - northern spotted owl
    Northern spotted owl.
    Michael Durham
  • observing nature - two deer in stream
    Whitetail doe and fawn.
    Bill Lea
  • observing nature - wild turkey
    Wild turkey.
    Bill Lea
  • observing nature - common yellowthroat bird
    Common yellowthroat.
    Richard Day/Daybreak Imagery
  • observing nature - raccoon sniffing flower
    Dwight Kuhn

  • observing nature - gray fox
  • observing nature - northern spotted owl
  • observing nature - two deer in stream
  • observing nature - wild turkey
  • observing nature - common yellowthroat bird
  • observing nature - raccoon sniffing flower

As was often my habit, I slipped out of bed at dawn and sloshed uphill through tall, dew-soaked grass to the old barbed-wire fence that separated the forested top half of our North Carolina mountainside from the sloping, pastured bottom. From that high vantage point I could see the entire valley spread out like a rumpled organic quilt — each irregular patch colored with rusty soil and green grass, and each patch with its own miniature house, barn and wandering livestock.

I was sitting amid the broom sedge, watching the light of day seep into the valley, when I sensed movement to my left. Just at the edge of my eyes’ capacity to strain in that direction, no more than 10 yards away and slightly behind, came a fox. I spotted it in time to see it take two or three steps before it spotted me.

For a moment, the fox froze. Then — to my astonishment — it turned toward the valley, glanced my way one more time and calmly sat down on its haunches.

Never mind that the fox is among the most persecuted and furtive of rural mammals. This one seemed not the least concerned over my presence. That it had chosen not to flee was a puzzle — but more than that, a privilege. This was no unhealthy creature too sick or addled to acknowledge danger. This fox had decided — for whatever reason — that I was no danger at all.

Afraid that motion might ruin the moment, I remained stock-still, facing straight ahead. But by straining my eye muscles almost to snapping, I could tell my companion was a gray fox— its reddish fur silver-tipped and its tail capped with black, not white like the red fox. Undoubtedly my visitor was checking me out, too, though with much less effort. While a person’s field of view is about 180 degrees, a fox can see nearly 250 degrees around.

So there we sat, the two of us on that hillside, gazing out across the misty fields.

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