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Wild About Utah: Pleasant surprises

Gopher snake coiled up in dirt and grass

We all love pleasant surprises! I especially enjoy nature’s offerings, both pleasant and less so. I wish to share a few from a very long list!

Snakes may be at the top. I believe we have an innate fear of this special reptile, which has imparted indelible memories. Great Basin gopher snakes have repeatedly shown an uncanny ability to find birds nests in implausible locations, climbing seemingly impossible vertical walls to consume both bird eggs and young. Rarely, rattlesnakes have crossed my path, their buzz always putting me on full alert- a spine tingling surprise.

Moose may be second to snakes. I’ve been charged a few times and revisit nearly every step taken toward me by these grand beasts, my own steps in fast retreat. But it was a sandhill crane – young bull moose memory, where the crane won the day which lingers fresh. As the young bull curiously extending his tender muzzle toward the nesting bird, it elicited a sharp beak response from the nester that sent the youngster scurrying away.

Golden eagles are a favorite bird for their beauty, intelligence, and undisputed apex predator status. I was stunned to find they may not be top bird after all. On two occasions, I have witnessed a peregrine falcon unleashing its powers of blazing speed and agility to usher a golden eagle well away from the falcon’s eyrie.

I associate the Clark’s nutcracker as a keystone species for nut gathering and caching, while inadvertently feeding grizzlies, squirrels, and planting innumerable five needled pines. It rocked my socks when a flock of songbirds were attacking a Clarks who had stolen a baby bird from a nest for a midday snack. This activity forever changed its strictly nut-eating narrative. I’ve had at least a hundred bear encounters in Yellowstone, Tetons, and Denali national parks, all with favorable outcomes.

But only once have I crossed paths with a mountain lion in my thousands of miles hiking wild, remote country. I can recount nearly every second of that rare moment. Lurking in the shadows on a beautiful fall day, I mistake the lion for a coyote. As I approached it from about 30 yards distance, it slowly moved revealing a very long tail. Mixed emotions surged while I talked gently, walking slowly in its direction as it gradually moved away. A spellbinding, euphoric moment.

I experienced two unforgettable occurrences while exploring Zion’s Hidden Canyon. Being midday, I wasn’t expecting anything beyond a rock squirrel. Then came an unusual hoot, definitely not that of a great horned owl. Answering its call, it flew toward me alighting in a large Douglas fir- a Mexican spotted owl- my first and only sighting. Soon after, two furry critters scrambled up a 10 foot boulder, ringtail cats! Mostly nocturnal, a very rare moment indeed!

I’ll conclude with several surprise animal attacks I’ve suffered- a pocket gopher nipped the soul of my boot, a muskrat attacked my hip-waders, and a pine martin chewed on my well protected toe. Finally, I’ve been strafed by various bird species protecting their nests and young. All leaving surprised chuckles from the victim.

Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society, Wild for more of Utah’s nature surprises!


Images: Courtesy US FWS, USDA Forest Service and US NPS. All photographers acknowledged with images
Featured Audio: Courtesy & © Friend Weller,
Bird Sounds Courtesy & Copyright Kevin Colver,
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon,
Additional Reading Links: Lyle Bingham

Additional Reading:

Wild About Utah Pieces by Jack Greene,