Under the Open Sky: The Dark Side of Nature

By Kimberly Mason
For The Chronicle

As all avid hunters already know, taking on the study of Nature isn’t a walk in the park filled with tweeting songbirds, frolicking bunny rabbits, playful deer, and bashful skunks smelling of perfume.
Nature in the real world has very little in common with the Disney movie “Bambi.” (Including the fact that Bambi’s daddy was obviously an elk, something my born-to-be an outdoorsman son figured out by the age of three.)
No, Nature is full of the bad, the ugly, the mean and the dastardly deeds of its creatures. Nature has a dark side — but then, so do we.

Tasty Little Critters
My daughter, Chronicle food columnist Tara Leonard, can hardly look at a rabbit without licking her chops over the idea of a rich rabbit stew. She sees a round-breasted quail and thinks, “Mmmm, roast quail with a balsamic reduction.”
But that’s her job, food.
Buddy the WonderDog, my best friend and a Labrador Retriever, thinks, “Chase. Catch lunch!” He, too, is only doing the job he was bred to do.
Me? I think, “Oooo, pretty!” and I shoot at them — with a camera.
In March I attended a waterfowling workshop with the Washington Outdoor Women’s group.
I was prompted to take this workshop because I wanted to get to know the women WOW organization and see how they worked (I’d love to start a group like that down here). I also thought that as an outdoors writer I should be out there shooting something and ducks seemed to be an easy and convenient because I have duck ponds in my backyard. I also have a love for training bird dogs and am a generally reliable shotgun shooter — although I have only shot at clay pigeons in the past.
I was wary of the idea of duck hunting. Not because it’s generally cold and miserable work, but because of the day my son and I went duck hunting and we experienced the “Duck That Wouldn’t Die.”
I was traumatized over it.
But it only took one bite of a duck summer sausage at the WOW waterfowling workshop to change my mind. It was so good I wanted to climb up on the counter and hover over the dish growling at anyone who dared to come near me.
I’ll never look at a duck the same way again.

Big Game
For two days last week I had the blessed opportunity to watch our resident herd of Cinebar elk in my backyard.
They played, fought, grazed, lazed, and wandered, and I stalked them, shooting at them (again, with my camera), and enjoying their presence. I took some amazing photos of loving moments between yearling calves and pregnant cows, and got a few lucky shots of the lead cow disciplining a two-year bull who wouldn’t move fast enough for her liking.
Later I was able to study the two-days worth two-thousand photographs at my leisure.
Maybe it was because I had skipped a couple of meals while stalking the elk, but all I could think about was elk pot roast — one of my all-time favorite dishes — as I scrolled through the photos.
As tasty as elk are, however, I doubt I’ll ever be a big game hunter. Why?
I had a rule with my boys when they were growing up, “You kill it, you clean it, you cook it.”
The very idea of me going at a big, dead elk with a knife in my hands is just too overwhelming.
Ripping the skin off a dead duck? Easy peasy.

Eagles War Over Roadkill
Last Friday, on the way to the Salkum Grocery, I spotted a dead coyote on the side of the road. I immediately pulled into the next driveway and perched my camera on the edge of the window, sure that something would come along soon to pick at the carcass.
Coyotes are beautiful animals. I love to watch them hunt the field, I enjoy listening to them howl at night.
I also hate the idea of them killing one of my precious resident California Quail or raiding a duck’s nest at the pond, so I wasn’t entirely unhappy that this coyote was roadkill.
I was soon rewarded by the appearance of two Common Ravens — my personal favorite bird.
They were stunning creatures, as they pecked and pulled at the flesh of the coyote, their beaks red from blood and dripping with gore. I held my trigger finger down, trying to get a good shot off while struggling with my distaste for the darker side of nature.
The next day I was able to capture a juvenile Bald Eagle going to battle with an adult Bald Eagle over the carcass, and then watched as the victorious youngster devoured parts of his prize.
It was the Circle of Life played out before me. It was as beautiful as it was ugly.

Spring Migration Brings Foul Feathers
The Brown-headed Cowbird has arrived in my backyard. They are a beautiful bird — the males are a shining black with brown monk-like hoods and an oddly musical, sometimes gurgling call; the females are a gentle grayish brown and wear sweet expressions of innocence.
But these birds are anything but innocent.
They’re bad parents who leave their eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving their nestlings for other birds to raise. And because the cowbird eggs hatch earlier than their hosts’ eggs, the cowbird hatchlings crowd out the resident baby birds and take most of their food.
Last year I taught Buddy the WonderDog to bark when I said “Bad bird!” scaring the evil intruders away from my porch seed feeders.
But they aren’t the only wicked birds in town.
Crows, ravens, jays and other birds are known nest robbers.
Eagles will steal the twigs from a hard-working, nest-building Osprey.
European Starlings steal prime nest sites from bluebirds, swallows, and woodpeckers, leading to a decline in their population.

Light Needs Dark
Nature definitely has a dark side and the more you watch Nature at work, the easier it is to see.
But without the dark side of Nature, I am convinced that the light and beautiful side of Nature wouldn’t shine as bright.
If you would like to see more photographs from my week’s adventures, travel over to my website and go into The Shooting Gallery. Be forewarned, it does get gruesome in there at times.
But don’t stay at the computer too long. Go outside and play!

Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer and photojournalist. Visit her website The (Almost) Daily News (almostdailynews.com) and find her on Facebook (Kimberly Mason — The Chronicle), call 269-5017 or email kim@almostdailynews.com.