Nature's outdoor zoo

Where is the best and biggest zoo in the world? You may live right near national forest land as I do, but if you live in the country, or you visit national forests or parks, you're visiting what I think is the best and biggest zoo in the world - the outdoors. And here are some ideas for you on how to see all kinds of wildlife in this zoo before the animals or creatures scamper away.

If you are familiar with lizards, you know as well as I that those little reptiles are fairly bold in the presence of humans. You don't have to be very sneaky to spy one doing push-ups on a rock in the sun. On the other hand, if you've ever encountered a deer while hiking and frantically waved and called to your friends behind you to ``Look at the deer!'' you found that the deer disappeared in a flash.

Wildlife is just that. Wild. In this zoo, animals want to keep their distance from man. But those of us who simply want to watch them can get close to them if we are careful, quiet, and slow in our movements. It takes patience and determination. If we maintain a gentleness around wild creatures, and show them no threat, they can relax and go about their business.

One of the best ways I have found to observe wildlife is to find as discreet a spot as possible and take up residence. Just sit there like a big, still lump for a half-hour or longer. Lean up against a rock in a meadow, or next to a tree by a stream. If you ``lump'' yourself long enough, you'll become, as far as the animals can tell, like the rock or tree next to you. Now you don't seem such a frightening intruder.

After perhaps five minutes, what do you notice around you? I usually become aware of the birds singing and calling each other in the trees and brush. I begin to see them flying from one bush to the next, or landing on the ground to peck at seeds or bugs. If you are by a stream, do you notice any fish jumping? If you are in a thickly vegetated area, there are probably many insects and spiders. Maybe you will notice a colorful moth or butterfly land on a twig.

Another approach to observing wildlife is the old-fashioned nature hike. The first red fox I ever saw met me and my goats coming around a bend up a trail one morning. All four of us - my two goats, the fox, and I - stopped dead in our tracks. I wasn't sure what the animal was for a minute. It was small, like a cat, but more doglike in it's features. It was reddish in color, and had a long bushy tail. The fox allowed me a long look, and wasn't skittish. In fact, the fox seemed to take as much interest in us as we in him. My goats began to get jumpy, so I finally said, in a loud voice, ``Go on now, get!'' The fox casually skulked off into the thick brush.

One time my husband and I came to a creek crossing on a trail and spooked a golden eagle that had been getting a drink from the stream. It was very quick and graceful for such a large bird. We might not have noticed it had we not been so quiet and alert.

Where I live there are numerous snakes also. Some are harmless to humans; others, like our diamond back rattlesnakes, should definitely be avoided. I have always been very cautious and respectful of snakes and their right to be where they belong.

It is important to respect other creatures, and to never intentionally disturb them. This is for their protection and ours. Some wildlife can be aggressive, and we can endanger ourselves by getting too close or annoying them.

When you are hiking in the best and biggest zoo, don't make shortcuts or wander off the trails, and always go with at least one other person.

Tracks in the dirt, claw scratches on a tree trunk, a feather hanging from a twig are all marvelous little clues as to the moving about of wild creatures.

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