Natural spritz of joy: Red squirrel surprise, tom turkey walk, song sparrow song, night crawler memories
A week stretch drives home the joy of the everyday natural world with a flood of surprises: a red squirrel spotted, a tom turkey sneaking roadside, a song sparrow singing in a subdivision, night crawlers thick on wet roads and sidewalks.
A small mammal scurried from pine to pine as my wife and I ambled along the soggy, 1.5-mile Chapel Gorge Trail outside the Wisconsin Dells in late March.
I casually assumed it was an eastern chipmunk, then I caught a flash of red. Aha, an American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). It is one of my favorite mammals. Sometimes hunters or locals call them pine squirrels, which is apt because they favor pine or evergreen areas.
Red squirrels are rare in Illinois except for in pockets, mainly along the Kankakee and Iroquois river basins in northeast Illinois. They aren’t threatened or endangered, but the population is small enough in the state that hunting them isn’t allowed.
Red squirrels, which are closer in size to the eastern chipmunk, aren’t to be confused with the much larger fox squirrels, which can have tinges of orange and red.
The last red squirrel I saw in the wild was while I hunted at Iroquois County State Wildlife Area a few years back. So spotting one, even in Wisconsin, made me happy.
That jolt of surprise is the joy of the natural world at its best.
The red squirrel started a good week of sightings for me. That mattered because it happened during a stretch of weather — damp, cold, cloudy — that sucked the soul out of me after a couple of days earlier in March had hinted at spring.
Two days later, I heard a bird call I didn’t recognize while Lady, the family rescue mutt, and I rambled on a dank morning. I was curious enough to open the Merlin Bird ID app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on my phone. After clicking on the sound ID — boom — I determined it was a song sparrow.
Curiosity feeds the flow of joy through the natural world, even the natural world of a subdivision.
I’ve been with birders who instantly recognize the song of a song sparrow. I can’t. I am ordinary when it comes to bird-call IDs. Give me the basics of mourning doves, starlings, crows, red-tailed hawks, fledgling Cooper’s hawks, barred owls, great horned owls, cardinals, blue jays, robins, red-winged blackbirds, whip-poor-wills, ring-necked pheasants, northern bobwhites or wild turkeys.
Speaking of wild turkeys, while I drove through familiar haunts at Kankakee River State Park the next morning, a long-beard tom turkey strolled across the road, then along the bank. I normally would have hit the four-way flashers and pulled off for a photo, but a jackass was riding my bumper on Warner Bridge Road, and I opted for living over a turkey photo.
But I savored the vision of the tom, broadside, eyeing me with his beard dangling as I whizzed past.
The sodden weather about did in my spirit, but it was good for pulling earthworms and night crawlers to the roads and sidewalks. On two mornings, I interrupted my ramblings with Lady to pick crawlers from our wet road, hoping neighbors and passing motorists didn’t wonder about my sanity and safety (and Lady’s safety).
As a general rule, I buy crawlers at local bait shops as a symbol of support. But picking crawlers a couple of times each spring is a joyful ritual of memory, recalled from my youth of walking roads between Amish farms and filling Ball quart jars with crawlers in spring. All the while, I tried paying enough attention not to step into piles of horse manure on the road.
I clutch at such moments — it soon will be spotting the first Baltimore oriole — to keep me moored amid the flotsam and jetsam of real life.