Encountering the wild at a rest stop


It pays to be prepared. That’s why I always try to keep a pair of binoculars in the car. Last week, while traveling home from a visit with my daughter who lives just west of D.C., I stopped at the Sidling Hill rest area on I-68.

It’s one of my favorite rest stops. On a clear day the scenic vistas to the east are magnificent. It was mid morning on another hot day, so thermals were boiling. A few turkey vultures floated by, and then a distinctive shape caught my eye. With my 8x32s I could tell the bill was huge, and its tail was wedge-shaped.

It was a raven, a bird I never see at home, so it was a real treat. As it soared past, maybe a hundred feet overhead, it croaked. Just making sure I wouldn’t mistake it for a crow, I suppose. Over the years I’ve made many notable observations at highway rest areas. I saw my first scissor-tailed flycatchers along I-40 in Oklahoma.

And on that same trip, I found my first Lucy’s warbler at a rest stop in New Mexico. And along a highway in Montana (though not an interstate), I’ve seen dippers and harlequin ducks in swiftly flowing mountain streams. After seeing the raven, my day was made, and I hadn’t even opened my sandwich.

Quite the commotion

I sat at a picnic table nestled along a row of small trees. After a few minutes, a commotion caught my ear. A group of birds in the nearest tree was agitated. I glanced over and about 20 feet away a large yellow something flapped about on the ground. At first I thought it was a piece of litter. But when a tufted titmouse attacked it, I checked it out with my binoculars.

It was a female imperial moth with an impressive five-inch wingspan. Its tattered wings suggested that it was dying, having already laid a clutch of eggs to continue her line. That’s what moths do after they reproduce — they die. But they rarely go to waste. These titmice would see to that. For several minutes, one lone adult titmouse battled the dying moth. Flight was out of the question; it could only flail about on the ground.

The adult titmouse seemed timid and unsure of itself. Perhaps it had never encountered such a large, helpless moth before. Finally it moved in and grabbed the moth with its bill and took it to a nearby tree. The entire brood followed, and a feeding frenzy ensued. Turkey vultures, a raven, and feisty titmice in just 10 minutes made for a busy rest stop, but now I finally had time to eat my sandwich and read the newspaper.

Slithering snake

Before even finishing the op-ed page, however, I noticed movement in my peripheral vision. Binoculars were unnecessary this time. A small garter snake, maybe 16 inches long, slithered by the picnic table in the direction of the tree where I had last seen the titmice. It wasn’t long until the titmice saw the snake.

Perhaps emboldened by their success with the large moth, two titmice, probably the parents, flew to the ground to investigate.

Climbing snakes, most notably rat snakes, are frequent predators at titmice cavity-nests, so the birds should have known better than to get too close. Or perhaps they realized that this snake was too small to pose a real danger. In any case, for the next ten minutes the birds played “let’s torment the snake.”

The birds took turns pouncing on and pecking the snake. When the snake tried to escape, one of the birds blocked its path and attacked from that side. This went on for a few minutes until the birds and snake got tired or bored. I think the birds realized this snake posed no real threat, so they returned to the business of hunting insects. The snake, though clearly agitated, seemed unharmed and disappeared into the tall grass.

Wild moments

By now I was behind schedule, so I got back in the car and headed for home. If a rest stop on an interstate highway could provide such entertainment, there’s no telling what I might find in my backyard. Wild moments can happen anywhere, anytime. It pays to be prepared.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033, or by email via his web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.


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