Last fall, we asked you, readers, for your mini-stories about memorable nature moments, and you provided a wondrous bounty, like acorn woodpeckers contributing to the communal haul. Here are our favorite dozen, with illustrations by me.
Some themes will emerge, as you read. Some stories contemplate our relationships with animals, or our place in the animal kingdom as a whole. Others illuminate an animal doing something we don’t normally get to see it doing, which allows us suddenly to understand that creature a little better. Emotionally, you are about to go on quite a journey, from a ridiculously hungry gull to some real “Circle of Life” stuff.
To everyone who submitted: thank you.
If these stories inspire you to submit your own—do! We are going for another round of these in the next print issue. You can submit your story here.
—Kate Golden, digital editor
A thunder of hooves brought me to the kitchen door one warm summer night and as I stepped outside—crash! A doe, fleeing two coyotes, had jumped off the low retaining wall onto the patio. But in her panic she’d failed to see the plastic table in her path and landed on it. It wobbled beneath her weight, and she struggled and fell, so vulnerable with the coyotes right on her tail.
Without thinking, I barged forward, flailing my arms, yelling in Rawhide fashion. The coyotes retreated 150 feet up the hill. The doe righted herself. There we were together, an unlikely alliance. How did she know to trust me? She repeatedly stamped her hoof to intimidate her two menacing attackers, and I yelled again, but they held their ground.
After a few minutes the doe recovered enough to sprint away. I held off the coyotes for a tad longer to give her a head start, but they seemed determined—I hope she made it. I think she did.
—Cheryl Nevares, Orinda
There are tiny sun-worshippers in my yard. I look for them as soon as the morning rays peek around the east corner of my house. Teed up on a leaf, flower (or even my unsuspecting shoulder) they seem to be warming their joints and preparing for a day of stalking, calculating, pouncing, and dining. Eight-legged and adorned in gigantic, googly eyeballs, these fuzzy garden darlings have captured my heart a million times over with their curiosity and charm. I have watched them for several seasons now, and it’s fascinating how their favorite sunspots change throughout the day and year. They find new planters to explore, blooms to hunt on, and various cracks and crevices to hide in and snooze. Different genera and species jump, bounce, or zoom through my little botanical oasis, always keeping me on my toes (and camera in hand), as I soak in every moment of their wonder. Some stay for weeks; others for only a moment. As fall approaches and the sun wanes, they follow its lead and slowly disappear. Now, I shall find my own patch of sun and eagerly await their return.
—Tara McIntire, El Cerrito
Close encounters in a pandemic
I think the pygmy nuthatch remembers the day when I held it in my hands while it revived from the window collision. I spoke to it gently and stroked its back until I felt its heartbeat slow down. When it was time to fly, I opened my hand. But the tiny bird just looked at me for the longest time, an intense eye contact that perhaps spoke of ancient connections.
As a wildlife biologist, I was trained to avoid any behavioral interactions with animals in the field. But I share habitat with them, as we all do on this fragile planet. To be enchanted and learn from our interactions, isn’t that the point?
—Wendy Parfrey, Oakland
I paused by the green bin to put something inside. A honey bee flew around me and then, much to my astonishment, landed right on my nose! I let her stay put. She proceeded to clean her legs and antennae and hung around for 15 seconds. Meanwhile, I was trying to sneak my hand into my backpack to get my phone, to take a selfie. As soon as I got the zipper open, she flew off. I knew that she was working, and was not a threat to me. I feel privileged that she did not see me as a threat.
—Kristina Ketelsen, Oakland
Every fall I set off on a mission to collect the seeds of the coffeeberry (Frangula californica) to grow in a local state park’s native plant nursery. My passion to find these seeds began some years ago when I found a half-eaten berry with two seeds under my cypress tree, apparently dropped by a bird. I wasn’t sure what it was, so I hiked through a nearby park to investigate the source, and found the same berries on the bushes—a California native with berries that are favored by birds and were eaten by the Indigenous people of coastal California. I soon found that the bird-delivered seeds were not a fluke. Every day, for weeks in the fall, I scoured the ground under the cypress tree and collected numerous seeds—several hundred, in fact.
I sometimes wonder whether the birds know they are my partners in this endeavor. Occasionally I’ll hear one in the branches above me, spitting out seeds that bounce off my hat and land at my feet.
—Avis Boutell, Moss Beach
For five years, my trail cameras have captured wildlife around Solano County from the smallest rodent to a mountain lion. My most surprising encounter came on a trip to check my cameras. I placed my backpack on the ground and began to change the memory card. I heard a screeching noise in the woods and I stopped to look around, thinking I might be too close to a bird’s nest. Another screech. Suddenly, out sprang a bobcat kitten from about 30 feet away, running toward me! The kitten, probably two or three weeks old, ran to my feet and circled my backpack, checking it out. I looked into the woods for mom and there she was—giving me a bobcat mom glare! Kitten scrambled back to mom. All was well!!
—Tom Muehleisen, Suisun
Scrub jays seem to have become the new regulars in our San Francisco garden this summer. While working in the garden I try to chat with them. Lately they have been emboldened. One day after some conversation I left my seat to go indoors. Upon my return I found seven lovely thistle seeds neatly placed in a button indentation on my seat cushion. Jays had vanished.
Next day, again after a nice bird conversation, I placed the same seeds on the brim of a straw hat sitting next to me. A jay eventually landed beside me, picked up one of the seeds, took it to a sturdy planter, broke it open and ate the nut. It eventually returned to land on the back of a chair, where my feet were propped. After looking me up and down, it landed on my bare toes and we talked for a bit. I eventually went inside for a moment, and upon returning the remaining six seeds were gone. So was the jay. We don’t speak the same language, but I feel a bit of intimacy here.
—Steve Curry, San Francisco
Golden Gate Park has a therapeutic way of grounding me in the moment, reminding me of my place in this natural world. It may be the wind whispering through trees that does the trick, or the raucous politicking of birds overhead. On this day, though, the park was more direct.
A coyote materialized at the edge of a meadow. Coyotes are common, but it was odd to see one here, because the meadow was busy with people and a large, playful dog.
The dog’s owners leashed him and watched as the coyote stopped about 50 yards away. The wild canine looked at the dog, not with an air of menace, but with a radiant, unwavering confidence, even as this apex predator arched his back and lowered his hips to poo. For several seconds, the field stood silent, transfixed by the coyote. All the while, coyote and dog held each other’s gaze in a moment of clear communication. Deed done, the coyote calmly turned and trotted back to the bushes from whence he came, casting one last glance back at his audience before fading away.
—Stephen Riffle, San Francisco
After the first fish died in Lake Merritt—part of the Bay-wide harmful algal bloom last summer—we went down to the lake to bear witness. The Adam’s Point arm of the lake had more birds than I’ve ever seen in the lake. Hundreds of brown pelicans, and a camp following of gulls. They were there for the things that still lived. A mass of topsmelt moved sluggishly at the surface. Thousands of yellowfin gobies swarmed the edges, resting on pipes and whatever bit of rock or concrete might allow them to stay near the surface. The living fish swam above the dead: little ones bright silver against the mud, hundreds of striped bass at the edges, and dozens of bat rays big and small. A bass thrashed and thrashed before going belly up. The brown pelicans gorged, acting more like white pelicans, stabbing into the water without diving like they usually do. We and our fellow lake-walkers gaped at the spectacle. The pelicans worked for a couple of days more, and then they were gone.
—Adrian Cotter, Oakland
A gull’s gotta eat
One day while lollygagging on the beach at Point Reyes National Seashore, I happened upon a small gull with a large pink sea star in its mouth. I’ve seen herons stabbing frogs, snakes gobbling down lizards, and raptors swooping for rodents, but this seemed a bit zany. The feeding unfolded over 20 minutes—no exaggeration! At first, the gull appeared nonplussed. It bobbled around with the creature wiggling and dangling from its mouth. Then perhaps it realized that by rotating its prey and chewing on different portions for a few minutes, the thing could be softened up and “gull-ped” down. With sea star swallowed, the bird staggered momentarily, its bulky cargo distending its stomach. Following a few unsuccessful wing flaps, the gull finally managed to lift off and fly away like a lead balloon.
—Tom McGuire, San Francisco
Coyote vs. badger
I was sitting alongside a cluster of rocks, troubleshooting my camera setup, when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. About 200 meters away, one coyote came into sight, then another, then a third! They appeared to be all hunting an underground gopher, which I couldn’t see. I watched one of them walk away, and when I looked back I saw what looked like a boulder between the two remaining coyotes. I thought, “Where the heck did that come from?” I looked through my lens to see a big old badger challenging the coyotes. It charged them! The coyotes wanted none of that raging fury and sauntered off, with badger staring them down all the while.
Half an hour later, I went to go study the tracks of what just happened. To my surprise, the badger was still out, about 30 meters away. It glared at me with a vibe like, “Oh, you want some too?” “No, sir,” I thought, and backed away immediately.
—Joshua Asel, Sebastopol
Año Nuevo State Park is one of very few places you can walk to see elephant seals: the largest, deepest-diving, longest-breath-holding, and farthest-migrating of all pinnipeds. There, I’ve served as one of the volunteer docents who lead small groups out to see them. The trail first traverses beautiful coastal scrub, where deer, rabbits, lizards, coyotes, and many birds live, and I always encourage visitors to call out creatures they spot along the way so we can all enjoy them. One morning I set out with a group of third-graders. We hadn’t gotten 30 feet before a girl pointed excitedly at the trail. I looked but didn’t see anything. She crouched. I crouched. Still nothing. Finally she yelled: “Ants!” Ah, yes. The tiniest ants I have ever seen, busy at their tiny work. I decided her sighting deserved the same respect as any other. So we all huddled there, appreciating these miniscule creatures—as essential to the ecosystem as the most massive mammals.
—Lorrie Klosterman, Berkeley
Can squirrels swim? One Sunday, my grandson and I looked out the window and saw a squirrel with a buckeye in her mouth fly across the patio, jump up onto the two-foot wall of our small pond, and doggy-paddle straight across it—about 10 feet. Then, without missing a beat, she jumped out and scampered away. The cat was inside, and nothing else was chasing the squirrel, either. We figured she just needed the straightest line to go on her way. I guess squirrels can swim.
—Sherrill Clark, Corte Madera