For the Birds: It’s safe in the woods — mostly

Photo by Chris Bosak
Yellow jackets are one of the few threats to New England wildlife watchers.

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.

Being an avid wildlife watcher in New England is a relatively safe proposition.

Notice I included the word relatively.

We do have two types of poisonous snakes in our region, but they are rarely seen and not widespread. Travel south or west and snakes become a bigger concern.

In all of my hours in the New England woods searching for birds, moose and other wildlife, I can count on one finger the number of times I have seen a bear. So, if just seeing a bear is very uncommon then the likelihood of a New England black bear attacking someone is remote at best.

Without getting too deep into the controversial subject of mountain lions in New England, it is safe to say that the odds of being attacked by a catamount in our region are extremely low.

Don’t let the lack of large dangers lull you into a false sense of security, however. Dangers do lurk, but they are smaller in size and more subtle in their “attacks.”

We may not have scorpions, black widows, or tarantulas in New England, but we do have our share of biting and stinging insects and spiders.

I was painfully reminded of this the other day when I grabbed my spotting scope and binoculars and walked to a nearby pond. I noticed a bunch of wood ducks at the edge of the water, so I altered my course through the woods so as to not disturb them. Wood ducks can be extremely wary and I did not want to flush them unnecessarily.

I came to a little clearing in the woods, splayed the legs of the tripod and zoomed in for a closer look at those beautiful ducks. There were about a dozen of them — eight males and four females, to my count — but I may have missed some lurking in the pond’s foliage.

I was fully absorbed in the moment for a few minutes before feeling a stinging sensation on my left leg. I looked down and a pricker bush of some sort was under my feet, so I assumed it was merely sharp thorns causing the sensations. I bent the branch away from my legs and went back to my ducks.

The stinging sensations continued, only this time I looked down to see three yellow jackets on my ankle right above the sock line. I brushed them away from my ankle socks and noticed I was standing next to a hole in the ground that served as the yellow jackets’ nest. Several other agitated yellow jackets swarmed my legs, and I gathered my gear and got the heck out of there before any more could sting me.

Within seconds my ankle was swollen, red, itchy, hot and painful. The same exact thing happened earlier this summer and it literally took weeks until the pain and itching subsided. This time, I think it will be worse because there were several more stings and they were not exclusive to the ankle area. The first stings, which I thought were prickers, were around the knee and thigh area. Those stings are not itchy, but they are painful for sure.

Thankfully, my stings are only itchy and painful. Many people are highly allergic to bees and wasps and the consequences could have been greater — especially alone in the middle of the woods.

To keep it all in perspective, I do not mind the occasional sting from a wasp, because as I said before, New England is relatively safe for wildlife watchers. So, I will take these wounds and count them as payment for all the wonderful hours of pain-free enjoyment I get out of the New England wilds.

Of course, bees and wasps are not the only dangers out there. The most nefarious of the dangers is also the smallest. I’m talking about ticks, and they can have serious long-term effects on people, despite being the size of a pinhead.

Other dangers, such as poison ivy and our unpredictable weather, also call for caution out there. But it’s nothing to deter wildlife watchers from experiencing and enjoying all the region has to offer.

3 thoughts on “For the Birds: It’s safe in the woods — mostly

  1. There are certainly Pumas, Mountain Lions, Catamounts or what you want to call them, in New England…every time it snows I see their unmistakable tracks in the woods behind my house in SW New Hampshire. I have a brook on my property that animals use (game trail) and the big cats hunt there. They are elusive, I’ve also photographed an early morning Bobcat in front of my residence…..


  2. About a decade ago my husband & I encountered a black bear in front of us on our family woods trail to our brook. We backed a little, then turned & made a quiet retreat. I’ve never forgotten the sensation of seeing the bear ahead of us: what Emily Dickinson calls “Zero at the Bone”. She’s talking about a snake, but it applies to a bear as well.
    Our family place is in Jaffrey, also in SW New Hampshire.
    Best Susan

    Liked by 1 person

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