I love running on wilderness trails for the wildlife I chance to see. At a hiking pace, one is less likely to surprise an animal, especially not when in a group or talking or with a dog. If a wild animal sees you first, you probably won’t see it at all. Those who hike or run with pods in their ears are less likely to see wildlife, not just because the acute hearing of animals can often detect the sound, but you may not hear the sound that tells you wildlife is nearby.
Many of my wildlife encounters have occurred after hearing a grunt, or rattle, or just a slight movement in the brush. I stop running then and wait and listen to see what, if anything, reveals itself. I run with a forefoot strike, a technique useful for long distances but which also tends to be quieter than a heel strike. If the wind is right, I sometimes come up on an animal before it is aware of me.
In all my years of trail running, the spring and summer of 2019 have been the most rewarding for seeing wildlife while on the trail. It may have been the abundant rainfall preceding the spring, ensuring plenty of water in most areas. For whatever reason, some animals were cooperative enough to wait for me to find my camera and take pictures.
I’ve seen several snakes either in or along the trail this year. The most impressive was the rattlesnake that stretched across the trail. It lay perfectly still, that likely being its best defense against aerial assault, hoping to be invisible or at least look like a twig. To pass, it was necessary for me to retreat and then advance again tromping loudly like a squadron of hikers. It was gone then.
The Gopher Snake wouldn’t move either, but I felt less concern stepping around it.
Surprisingly, the California Garter Snake didn’t move but watched me with raised head as I moved around it taking pictures.
I saw my first mountain lion in the wild this spring. I surprised it just as it was moving out of the brush onto the dirt of the Jeep road about twenty feet in front of me. It turned its head and looked at me and I could almost read its surprise. Then it vanished. No picture opportunity there.
The family (or tribe?) of feral pigs announced their presence with grunts. I stopped and looked up the slope where I saw the brush moving. The humped back of the largest male was just visible. They were apparently feeding on something quite contentedly. As I stood listening a line of heifers crossed the Jeep road on the other side of me and angled up to where the pigs were feeding. I could hear but not see the altercation and realized the pigs were retreating down a path that would take them into the road in front of me. I had time to pull out the camera. I was the second unhappy surprise for them and they scrambled away grunting in dismay.
Along the same road more recently a wildcat emerged from the brush onto the road in front of me, turned to look in much the same way as the mountain lion had done, then powered across and up the slope using its long rear legs vanishing into the brush. Again, no opportunity for a photo.
My latest sighting was for me the most spectacular. While descending a narrow path down a mountainside with the sun low in the west I was on the watch for snakes warming themselves with those last sunlit moments. I had startled several already. The path was carved from the slope, leaving a cut embankment about a foot or two high on my right. I became aware of motion. A gray fox stood above me on the slope about eight feet away. I had never seen one so close in the wild. His dull brown outer coat gave way to lustrous golden tan undercoat in places. His pointed ears were turned to me as he turned his pointed nose toward me.
Usually, a fox will vanish immediately but this one stood and studied me for just as long as I stood and studied him. I spoke softly and he listened. Only when I tried to extricate my camera did he start to move, not in an alarmed way––just moving on. But no picture. It was a disappointment because it would have been a once-in-a-lifetime shot. But I carry the picture in my head.
It is now deer hunting season and my runs in this particular area are on hold for a fortnight. Ironically, the last animal I viewed was a doe crossing my path moving slowly, seeming unconcerned. I wished it luck.