Nature, North Carolina

Wild Backyard: Enjoying wildlife close to home in the age of Covid-19

Marsh rabbit along Bolin Creek trail in Chapel Hill

Now that we’re all spending more time at home and many parks are closed,  you may think ‘there goes my chance to see wildlife’.  Wrong!  There is an abundance of wildlife to be found, even in the most urban of environments.

I am a wildlife photographer living within the city limits of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.   Yet I can more easily find wildlife right here within a walk of home than I can by traveling to far away exotic locales.

Many people don’t think wildlife and urban life coexist, but they do.  It is often that we are too busy getting from place to place to notice the ‘wild thing’ right in front of us.  In life PC (Pre-Coronavirus), I was often amazed how many people I’d see walking right past an animal because either they were looking at their feet or phone.  Now that our lives are in a forced slow down, perhaps this is the time to look with more intention when you are on your daily walks around your neighborhood.  (Social distanced from other walkers of course)

Take a wildlife spotting walk in your neighborhood

A ‘spotting wildlife walk’ is like undertaking a real-life Where’s Waldo.  I always feel a rush of excitement when I spot a brown colored owl against a brown barked tree.  It’s also great game for families with young children and an educational lesson in how wildlife are naturally camouflaged to blend into their native environments.

Piebald white tailed deer near the Chapel Hill Police station. A ‘piebald’ coat pattern is due to a genetic mutation.

Why are urban environments the perfect place to see wildlife?   In a word:  development.  As forests give way to subdivisions, animals are driven into the open.  We are living and working in closer proximity to wild animals, who have adapted to city life and are attracted to man-made food sources, like our landscape plants.  I live on a quarter acre lot, my mother lives on 10 acres.  Yet, I routinely see more wildlife in my backyard than she does.

When should you look?  Dawn and dusk are the golden times for wildlife.  The day shift animals (birds, squirrels, etc) are getting in their last bites before settling in for the night while the night shift (owls, fox, deer) are starting to stir and look to satisfy their hunger.  But truth is, you can find wildlife any time of day.  For example, owls may be most active at night, but you can often find them roosting (sleeping) on a tree limb during the day.  You just have to look a bit more closely for this wildlife treats!

What can you expect to see?

Well, that depends upon where you live.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve documented close to my Chapel Hill home:

  • Barred owl
  • Gray fox
  • Bald eagle
  • Raccoon
  • Opossum
  • Deer
  • Nutria
  • Beaver
  • Woodchuck (groundhog)
  • Rabbit
  • Great blue heron
  • Three species of hawks
  • Monarch butterflies
  • And far too many birds, insects, and reptiles to list.

I set up some camera traps in my backyard.  The animals which have been documented in my yard:  gray fox, raccoon, opossum, white-tailed deer, flying squirrel and a host of birds.   Some mornings, I hear the hoot of an owl and the call of a coyote.  There’s so much out there!

Put up a bird feeder

Cardinal on feeder perch

Seriously.  This is the quickest, easiest way to enjoy wildlife at home.  You can sit on your couch and just look out the window and witness amazing birds…how cool is that?!   This time of year you’ll see some interesting dramas because it’s mating season.  Look for a male bird feeding a female bird….nature’s way of saying ‘I kinda dig you baby’.   In just a few weeks, you’ll begin to see baby birds being bed by their parents, which is very VERY entertaining.

Don’t know a cardinal from a wren?  A great resource on birding comes from the folks at Cornell University.  Go check out All About Birds.

Is living with wildlife safe?

I get asked this question a lot and my short answer is yes, if you use a little common sense.  When people and wildlife live in close proximity to each other, it can lead to conflict.  However, much of the issues are of our own making.  For example, leaving garbage or food out and getting too close to wildlife can lead to problem behaviors.

A barred owl along Morgan Creek in Chapel Hill

Wildlife should not be feared, but we should have a respect that these are wild animals. I have encountered residents who, for example when I point out a barred owl roosting in a tree, are simply terrified.  They find it difficult to understand that unless they are the size and weight of a mouse, the owl has little interest in them!  Fear stems from a lack of knowledge and interaction with the natural world.

Yet, I have also encountered residents (and photographers!) who don’t have enough fear and get entirely too close to a wild animal.  I have a long zoom lens so I can stay a good distance away from my subjects.  But many (far too many) times while I’m photographing a subject, a passerby will get way too close in an effort to snap a picture with their cell phone.  I’ve even seen naturalists with binoculars and photographers with zooms get too near an animal’s personal space proclaiming ‘oh, this one is used to people’.

Such harassing interactions always cause the animal to flee, creating a hazard for both the animal (who may be flushed from a safe spot into the open where it may face predators) and people—a frightened animal may perceive you as a threat and lash out towards you in self-defense.   Observe.  Appreciate.  Be respectful.  Don’t harass.

If you leave wildlife alone, they will leave you alone.  One exception…a sick or injured animal.

Baby raccoons on a backyard deck

With most wild animals, if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.  The exception being a sick or injured animal.  Rabies is an issue in my region; yet it seems far too many people mistakenly think ‘it must have rabies’ at the first sight of a fox, raccoon or bat.  Just because an animal can be a carrier of rabies does not mean every single animal is rabid.

How do you know when an animal is sick?  A good rule of thumb:  wild animals should act wild, having a healthy fear of humans. As a wildlife photographer, I take great care to not be seen by my subjects because the moment I’m spotted, they will retreat. Even among urban animals who have been acclimated to people, they may tolerate your presence but they will never approach you.  If a wild animal chooses to approach you, that’s not normal behavior and a sign that you should keep your distance.

So stay home like we are supposed to during this covid-19 outbreak, but also get out and enjoy nature to the extend permitted by your local municipality.  Even if it is just a walk around the block,  I bet you can spot some wild creatures.   Give it a try and let me know what you see where you live!

Want to see more cool wildlife photos?  Check out my portfolio.  All taken in North Carolina and most right here close to my home in Chapel Hill.  Wildlife IS everywhere!

Don’t forget to look for insects like this monarch caterpillar



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