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September 27, 2009

The Art of Observing

Wildlife watching offers a front-row view to a fascinating world of drama and survival

All Animals magazine

All Animals July/August 09 Wildlife Watching

The HSUS

by Ruthanne Johnson

As dusk fell, a battle silently waged in Dave Pauli’s garden. Hundreds of red ants swarmed over a colony of black worker ants, trapping them in pincer strangleholds so tight that many were beheaded. It was a brutal scene, and only those who fled escaped death.

Then the red ants did the unthinkable. They forced their way deep into their opponents’ nest,marching over the wriggling bodies of the wounded and dying to strangle the black queen and plunder the living treasure stored carefully below.

The final blow was callously dealt as the red ants began streaming out of the ragged nest, triumphantly carrying their booty—the unhatched children of the defeated queen.

The miniature melee could easily have gone unnoticed. But Pauli’s daughter, a budding naturalist, sounded the alarm while investigating their backyard Montana landscape. “I’d never seen anything like it,” says Pauli, a veteran wildlife watcher and director of The HSUS’s Western Regional Office.

“After we watched the two ant colonies at war, we looked on the Internet and found that the black ants are a sweet-eating species [consuming food such as fruits], and the red ones are called slave-making ants. The slave-makers raid their enemy’s nest to capture the larvae for lifelong servitude.”

Wild animals—from the ants to the antelopes—lead “secret lives all around us,” as observed by master tracker Mark Elbroch in his book Mammal Tracks & Sign.

This type of dramatic episodemakes the natural world better than any movie for Pauli and his family. Nature is real, harsh, and profoundly beautiful, with wonder and mystery at every turn, he says. “I learn new things whenever I take the time to notice.”

Across the U.S., legions of people are finding themselves engrossed in nature’s lessons. While the numbers of hunters 16 years and older dropped to less than 13 million in 2006, the ranks of birders, photographers, ecotourists, and other wildlife watchers reached 71 million, according to the U.S. Fish andWildlife Service.

Bird watching is the most common form of wildlife observation. The methods can be as casual as looking up from the paper at breakfast to see who is visiting the backyard feeder—or as impassioned as booking a last-minute flight to the Everglades with the hope of glimpsing a rare snail kite in a new nest.

Nearly 50 million birders spend billions of dollars each year on seed, binoculars, books, and travel; they collect observations in the way philatelists collect stamps, cherishing and recording each encounter.

With about 900 species in the U.S., the challenge of finding every last one can be all-consuming. Few ever even approach that number, but most birders are undoubtedly content just to see cardinals and jays in the backyard or spot a pelican on the family trip to Florida.

The evidence they leave behind while we work, sleep, and otherwise go about our lives reveals the exciting and the mundane: the life-and-death dramas, the animals’ relationships with one another and their habitats.

All that is needed to help reconstruct these lives is a mixture of patience, a bit of science, a good imagination, and a willingness to look closer—for you never know what types of encounters may be unfolding at your feet.

Keep reading: The School of Nature»

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