A Lesson in Awareness

It was a warm day in late spring along the Rock River when I decided to run a few errands in town. The cornfields had been planted, but the seedlings hadn’t pushed through the soil yet. The evidence of this past winter lingered on the landscape, but spring’s influence had finally taken hold. Birds were building nests, fox pups were exploring outside their den, and the air still smelled clean and slightly pungent from damp leaves on the forest floor. On my way to town, I chose to take my time and follow a road less traveled. It was bordered by a small cattail marsh, surrounded by dense clusters of sandbar willow.

As I passed the overlooked marsh and slowed to cross the railroad tracks ahead, something caught my eye in the dusty field to the left. A mother sandhill crane stood next to her fluffy, sandstone colored chick. I drove past them and parked my truck behind a large berm. The two cranes were exposed in the middle of the field, vulnerable to local dogs, fox, and coyote, or so I thought. I crawled up the embankment and parted the tender grass at the edge of the field. Spellbound, I watched as these magnificent birds poked and prodded the soil for seeds and insects. Over the course of a few minutes, the mother casually moved west toward the marsh, with her youngster close behind.

At the opposite end of the field, I began to hear a series of bird alarms, interrupted by excited chipmunk calls. This wave of noise and disturbance was moving in my direction along the tree line that separated the field from the railroad tracks to the east. I knew something was coming; a predator. Within two minutes the culprit of this commotion revealed himself. A red fox appeared on the scene along the trees trotting toward me.

Fortunately, the wind was not in his favor to detect my presence. The fox hooked away from the tree line and entered the barren field, remaining motionless. With an intense gaze he scrutinized every detail of the field in a few moments, directing most of his attention toward the marsh. I had been so focused on the approaching fox and all the alarms that I had forgotten about the cranes. To my amazement, they had disappeared into the cattails and willow thickets just before the fox made his debut.

It was strange for a fox to be so far from adequate cover in broad daylight. He didn’t appear at all concerned about masking his physical presence. I guess even this fox understood that people are too busy to glance into his field as they race by. At least birds and chipmunks aren’t as easily fooled. I’m sure the fox knew this young family of cranes and was hoping to catch them off guard. Fortunately for the cranes, they detected his approach minutes before I did, having listened to the wave of excitement wash across the landscape. I can only hope that some day I will possess such an awareness of the woods.

Interrupting the fox’s pursuit, a car hurried by with a bad muffler. That was all it took to send him back where he came from at a fast clip. Now I was able to hear the original bird alarm sequence moving in the opposite direction. The alarms persisted for some time in the far corner of the field, well out of view. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the fox crossing the railroad tracks, so I crept over to the railroad bed. To my surprise, two deer skirted across the tracks away from the fox, possibly uncertain as to what had made such a torrent of alarms in the forest. With a big grin and deeper understanding of bird language, I strolled back to my ruck and continued on my way to town. Watching the other cars on the road, I had to wonder, what did they learn driving to the store today?