Watching wildlife

The Pine Bush Preserve is inhabited by creatures great and small — like this grasshopper.

The Albany Pine Bush is one of the best remaining inland pitch-pine scrub oak barrens in the world. It is a truly unique place right here in the Capital District. Through this column, I hope to transport you for at least a short time to the Pine Bush to experience some of the seasonal happenings, active projects, and musings of this environmental educator.

Many people wonder what kinds of animals live in the Pine Bush. This is also a common topic that we discuss with visitors on our programs.

A few weeks back, I was out on a hike with a group of first-graders. I asked them what animals they thought lived in the Pine Bush.

One student raised her hand and very calmly said “unicorns,” as if she had seen five unicorns on her way to the Pine Bush that morning and expected to see more on her way home. I explained that unicorns do not live in the Pine Bush and so we would not see them on our hike that day.

If we polled elementary school students in the Capital Region, we would also have dinosaurs, lions, and monkeys roaming around in the Pine Bush. Perhaps it’s the element of excitement and mystery but for whatever reason these are the animals that come to mind when we are huddled on a sandy trail looking out into the sea of scrub oak, New Jersey tea, and pitch pine.

While we do have some big mammals in the Pine Bush — coyote, fox, deer, and fisher — it is highly unlikely that we would see them on a group hike. We more commonly see birds, big ones like hawks and vultures, and small ones like black-capped chickadees.

We also often see chipmunks and insects galore. These may not seem exciting but, if you can quiet the part of your brain that says, “I have seen a million chipmunks in my lifetime” and just watch the chipmunk scurry across the path into a scrub oak bush and quietly make its way to the top to grab an acorn, you might find yourself thinking, “Wow, that is amazing!”

Stop and just stare at the beautiful orange butterfly milkweed flowers and watch the insects that come to visit. Don’t think about them creeping into your house or onto your skin but just watch them as they crawl across one flower and fly on to the next without reacting to your presence.

A habitat for wildlife in the midst of the Capital Region, the Pine Bush Preserve is full of these small wildlife discoveries.

Wildlife, from the common to the rare and everything in between, is difficult to predict. Recently, another educator and I led a nighttime bat program in the preserve.

As soon as we got out of our cars, we noticed bats diving over our heads. We had timed this walk right!

We hadn’t even left the parking area and we had already seen bats. We turned on our bat-detecting devices and heard even more. We enjoyed watching these roadside bats for a bit before we headed down the trail.

Along the first field, we heard a few more bats and saw them too. They were big brown bats zooming over our heads, feasting on insects. Bat numbers in New York have decreased dramatically in recent years but on this night we enjoyed watching these flying mammals dart back and forth over our heads.

Whether you are seeing your one-millionth chipmunk or your first endangered Karner blue butterfly, reflect on the fact that you are catching a glimpse of a wild animal in its habitat. In a world of schedules, appointments, and lists, just enjoy that you are catching this animal in the middle of its daily routine.

The next time you are out for a walk, keep your eyes open for all types of wildlife. You might be surprised at what you find.

If you want more information about the Albany Pine Bush Preserve or the Discovery Center, go to our website, call 456-0655, or visit the Discovery Center at 195 New Karner Road in Albany.