Roadside attraction

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitat

Roads are both a blessing and a curse for wildlife (Photo: Colleen Greene, Creative Commons license)

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Ever dreamed of going on a safari? Then fasten your seat belt, start the engine, and hit the road. Any road. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts—take the time to look and you’ll spy enough wildlife to satisfy, Bwana.

Sure, some of the creatures will be easier to spot than others… for the simple reason they’re no longer moving.  But I’m not proposing a road-kill road-trip. Trust me, the city streets, shady neighborhood boulevards, highways and byways offer plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching. Naturally, the species on display depend on the size of the road, its location, the season, time of day, and the speed limit.

wildlife and roads, vultures, wildlife watchingLet’s say your motoring down a divided highway, a conduit to and through the all-American suburbs. The big stuff (aka megafauna), such as deer, elk, moose, bears, and even coyotes, can be seen at 65+ mph (although not always in time to either admire or avoid them). Certain birds of prey, red-tailed hawks in particular, can be seen at both speed and distance due to their habit of hanging out high on handy utility poles to scout for snacks. Anything more petite will be visible only if it’s on the shoulder or trying to cross the road. Scavengers looking for a free lunch can be seen out on the open road day (crows, ravens, vultures) and night (opossums, coyotes). That meal ticket can quickly turn the diner into dinner for someone else… and so on.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, groundhogBeyond mowed blacktop borders, in the woods and taller grasses, you’ll find rabbits, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and groundhogs. Based on my own non-scientific observation, to improve your chances of seeing these meso– (medium-sized) species as well as small but brightly colored male songbirds in situ you’ll have to ease up on the gas pedal and let the speedometer drop to 35-45 mph, tops.

A bicycle (or even a horse if you have access to one) would probably set the right pace for a rider to notice mice and voles, lizards, turtles, frogs and toads, as well as female songbirds (who tend to have less flashy wardrobes than their ready-for-the-disco menfolk). The truly diminutive critters—insects, spiders, snails and slugs—are hard to spot at more than arm’s length so it’s best to set off on foot and plan for a leisurely pace if spineless quarry is your goal.  A general rule: the slower you go, the more you’ll see—that’s what makes the backroads more appealing for this kind of trip than a superhighway.

In poetry, novels, song, and cinema people often speak of the allure and romance of roads—the ones that calls us, the ones less traveled, the ones that go on forever, choosing between high ones and low ones. Wild animals rarely have access to books and mp3 players and RedBox kiosks, though, and I’ve never found them to be all that interested in popular culture… so what’s the attraction?

To build a road through a previously undeveloped area, the first thing that happens is clearing a swath of the existing plant community, be that trees and shrubs or grasses or cacti. Once the project is completed (or even while it’s still in progress) new plants begin to colonize the bare soil, creating a plant community that’s different from the surrounding landscape along with an edge where new and old meet.  Disturbing the soil stimulates the germination of seeds that may have sat dormant for a long time waiting for the right conditions. Soil may be brought in from somewhere else as part of the construction process along with seeds from plants that are completely novel in this setting.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitatSince the plants predict what kind of animals will be found in any ecosystem, the new habitat creates opportunities certain wildlife species will exploit… but in most cases it won’t be the species that were living happily in the pre-construction habitat. Edge species will colonize the area, often using the right-of-way as a travel corridor before and after the road is completed. Some organisms will hitchhike to their new home on and in the bodies of larger animals or even motor vehicles. Birds, bats, and flying insects will drop in from above. Wild things are always jockeying for space and there’s no such thing as a vacant lot in nature—at least, not for long.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, pronghornMake no mistake—roads are a significant cause of habitat loss and their presence is detrimental to many types of wildlife. For others, though, the resulting edge provides exactly what they need to thrive. This includes our most familiar next-door nature species. In fact, the reason blue jays, robins, white-tailed deer and other edge-loving species are so common in human communities is because Homo sapiens is also an edge-loving species. Our roads are simply one very conspicuous example of that fact.

The natural world is never static; it’s always in flux and each day there are new winners and losers.  Are roads good or bad for wildlife? It depends on the species. But there’s no doubt they are a boon for wildlife watchers.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Colleen Greene (black bear); e_monk (black vulture); Matt Reinbold (groundhog); MoDOT Photos (edge habitat); Allan Harris (pronghorn).

Long time no see

male green anole

The male green anole flashes his brightly colored throat to claim territory and attrack females (Photo: Ken Slade, Creative Commons license)

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When I was in Austin about a month ago, I ran into an old acquaintance… kinda-sorta. I was having a glass of wine at the Hyatt Regency’s outdoor bar when, out of the corner of my eye, I recognized someone I haven’t seen since I left Texas over a decade ago. Actually, I found it hard not to notice, since he was doing push-ups against the patio railing, but the other hotel guests seemed oblivious. As he moved closer to my table I turned to face him, thinking, “Typical attention-seeking anole.”

A green anole (Anolis carolinensis), to be exact, although he has a number of aliases including Carolina anole, American anole, and red-throated anole, not to mention tree lion. I’ve also heard people say he’s a green anole changing colorchameleon. Trust me, he’s not. Oh, he can change color alright, within a limited green-to-brown range… mostly when he wants to fade into the background or broadcast to everyone that he’s stressed, cold, or generally displeased. But while he does have roving eyes, they don’t move independently of one another.

When I say “he” I don’t mean it in the gender-neutral pronoun way—I’m certain this particular reptile was a male. Why? Because he would periodically take a break from pumping up to flair the strawberry-hued flap of skin on his neck called a dewlap. It’s the anole equivalent of “hey, baby… can I buy you a drink?” Or throwing up gang signs to claim a corner. A dewlap is dual-purpose.

Or maybe it’s really all one and the same. In the anole world, you’ve got to be a property owner to be a playah. A male’s territory overlaps those of multiple females. Green anoles are polygynous, meaning a guy will wander through his ‘hood flashing throat bling and making social calls. The little women, on the other hand, stay pretty close to the homestead, waiting for their man to come around. It’s basically polygamy, but for any number of irrational reasons, people prefer to use different terminology for analogous human and non-human behavior.

female green anoleWarming temperatures raise lizard libidos, so depending on the local climate, the party starts sometime in April and doesn’t wind down until late August/early September. Courtship is simple and not all that subtle. Once a male’s bobbing head and dewlap have caught a female’s attention, she lets him know she’s in the mood by arching her neck… which he subsequently bites from behind. Understandably, this can cause her to reconsider her level of receptivity, so he has to hold on tight. I guess all that upper-body work has a purpose beyond posing after all.

The encounter lasts a minute or two and then they go their separate ways, at least for a couple of weeks. She lays a clutch of 6–9 eggs that take 5–7 weeks to hatch. Neither parent gets involved in child-rearing. What can you expect? Young anoles grow up fast and are having babies of their own at 8–9 months of age.

Back on the patio. I said hello, asked how he’s been, the usual slightly awkward pleasantries that pass between acquaintances who’ve not seen each other in a long while. As I remember he never was much of a talker, but he seemed particularly distracted that afternoon. A quick glance around and I understood why. I cut my conversation with this lounge lizard short once I realized he looking past me at a couple of slender green ladies who were checking him out.

Typical.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Alex Calderon (color change) and e_monk  (brown female) for making their photos available through a Creative Commons license.