Migrations: “Is This the Nature Guy?”

When I was 19, in one of those unpredictable turns on which one’s entire life thereafter hinges, I got a job writing a weekly natural-history column for our local newspaper, on the edge of the anthracite region in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t by plan: I had been casually complaining to an older friend, a sports writer for a larger regional metro, about the lack of any kind of nature coverage in our county paper. “Don’t gripe,” he said. “Get in the car.” Having once worked for the local outfit, he drove me up that very afternoon and introduced me to the editor. After submitting some sample columns, I found myself a few weeks later, in the fall of 1978, writing a weekly missive that appeared in the Saturday edition.

I had no writing experience and certainly no training, but something clicked. After a year and a half of writing columns, I got a job with the paper as a general assignment reporter, but continued—for the next 12 years—to write that weekly column, even after I’d left the paper, the Pottsville Republican, to pursue a freelance career.

I had pretty much carte blanche to write about whatever caught my fancy—birds, obviously, but I’ve always been a general naturalist, and so, eventually, almost everything that grew, swam, squirmed, flew, or ran wound up in my weekly 20 column-inches of type.

And, in the mold of everyone who has ever written a similar column for a similar local paper, I became “that nature guy”—the one to whom the curious and sometimes bewildered public turned for answers when they had a nature question.

Because the column featured a tiny photo of my grinning mug, I was stopped in grocery store lines and filling stations, regaled with stories about snakes or questions about hawks or discussions of weird fungi. My number was listed in the phone book, and it jangled at all hours for advice on what to do when the cat dragged in a baby rabbit or robin (to start, keep the darned feline in the house) or for help identifying the strange bird at the feeder. I was also rehabbing injured raptors in those days, and it wasn’t unusual for the state game protector to call the office to say he had a broad-winged hawk with a broken wing, or a screech-owl that had been dinged by a car.

“Hello, is this the nature guy?” It might be someone calling to settle a bar bet (no, copperheads and black racers can’t hybridize and produce a venomous black snake, and no, I don’t care how much money is riding on it), or a school kid looking for help with a report on hummingbirds. Once it was a doctor in the ER of the city hospital; a boy had been admitted with a severe allergic reaction to, well, the doctor wasn’t sure what.

“It’s some weird green prickly slug-thing,” he told me. “The mother brought it in a jar—can you come over and tell me what in the world it is?” The “slug-thing” proved to be a saddleback caterpillar, a deceptively attractive moth larva, bright green with a brown splotch in the middle of its back—and hundreds of tiny, venomous spines. In most people, the spines cause a painful rash and occasionally nausea, but this boy must have been allergic to the venom and was on the edge of full-blown anaphylaxis. The doctors caught it in time and were relieved to know their patient hadn’t been the victim of some alien invader from Planet 9.

More than once, I came back from a reporting assignment to find on my desk a big cardboard box, being eyed suspiciously by everyone else in the newsroom, inside of which might be a clutch of kestrel chicks left homeless by a barn demolition or (on one occasion that resulted in a terse discussion with the managing editor) a great horned owl whose most recent meal had obviously been a skunk.

The senior editor was a short bulldog of a man with a fearsome temper—and a tendency to follow his curiosity a little too far. Late one afternoon, the front desk called to say the game warden was there again, this time with an injured red-tailed hawk. Not having time to run the bird home to a flight cage (I had to cover a school board meeting in a short while), I put the box on my desk and wrote “Live Hawk: Do Not Open” in big, black letters on the top and sides.

Some hours later, sprinting back from my assignment, I had barely cleared the threshold when I heard Mr. Costello bellowing my name. Called into The Presence, I received a tongue-lashing on the propriety of loosing dangerous wild beasts in a professional setting. Yet when I emerged, verbally flayed, from his office, I found the box exactly where I’d left it, but with the big newsroom dictionary on top.

As colleagues told the story later—and they told it often in the years that followed—the editor had circled the newsroom for an hour or so, jingling the change in his pocket and whistling tunelessly, and stopping periodically to scrutinize the large box that sat, quiet and mysterious as the Sphinx, on my desk. A few more passes, and he paused to rap on it a few times with his knuckles. No response. A bit later and he was back, and this time he leaned over and slowly, slowly pulled apart the overlapped lid, creating a small opening … out of which lashed a huge, bright yellow, heavily taloned foot that slashed the air a millimeter from Mr. Costello’s nose. He slammed the lid closed with a yelp, dropped the dictionary on top of it, then bolted back to his office where he waited, like a raptor himself, for his prey to return.

Just for the record, none of this was or is typical for a newsroom, yet, generally speaking, my bosses and colleagues were incredibly tolerant of all my nature-nerd stuff. But in those days, the Republican was itself a slightly idiosyncratic paper: a small, family-owned operation with an outsized national reputation. (At almost the same time I started writing for them, the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, focusing on organized crime’s tentacles in the coalfields.) They tended to hire reporters from a wide variety of non-journalism backgrounds, so perhaps a bird-obsessed columnist/reporter wasn’t too unusual by contrast.

In fact, I somehow convinced them to allow me, as a formal part of my job through their participation in the national Newspapers in Education program, to do raptor education in local schools. A couple of times a week, I would visit classrooms with one of the non-releasable birds I held under special permit: a placid red-tailed hawk that someone had shot, a barn owl that had survived a car collision but couldn’t fly, or a massive female great horned owl that someone had “rescued” as a chick, leaving her permanently imprinted on people and unable to function in the wild.

There is always something electric about a wild raptor up close, and those days were always the best of the week for me. But the unexpected sometimes happened. I recall one visit to a local Catholic school just up the street from the newspaper office, all the first- and second-graders sitting on the floor of the small gymnasium, the nuns and teachers along the back wall. I had the barn owl that day, and there was a chorus of oohs and ahhs when I lifted that gorgeous, golden-biscuit-colored bird into view.

Anyone who does public speaking knows that some days you’re on, and when you are, you can feel the electricity, and this day, the kids were riveted. I was on a roll, talking about the incredible adaptations owls possess, pointing out this bird’s sharp talons, hooked beak, parabolic-like facial disk and much more.

Soon the kid were pointing and whispering excitedly, and I surged on with my spiel, secretly pleased with myself for being such an engaging speaker, not noticing that some of the kids now looked worried, glancing uncertainly at each other and their teachers.

Finally, one of the tykes jabbed her arm in the air and, without waiting for me to call on her, said in a rush, “Mr. Weidensaul, your owl is dying!”

I looked over at the barn owl. Her mouth was gaping open, and as I watched, she twisted her head and appeared to choke a few times. Then she leaned forward and regurgitated a big, fat pellet.

If you find an owl pellet in a barn or under a roost tree, and it’s usually dry and friable, pleasantly crumbly under your fingers. Not so when they first pop out of an owl. This one, wet and slimy, hit the wooden gym floor with a loud splat. I glanced up, not sure what to expect; the nuns and other adults looked aghast and more than a little green. The kids, on the other hand, leaned forward and, with one quiet, slightly awed voice, said “Cool!”

Nature can be unsettling when it intrudes on the grown-up, workaday world. Marie, the sweet older lady who for many years served as the newspaper’s switchboard operator and front-desk gatekeeper, became inured (just barely) to people wandering in the door with all sorts of things, living and dead, for “the nature guy” to look at.

But one day when Marie rang my desk, I heard a mix of panic and revulsion in her rather shaky voice.

“Um, Scott? There’s a man out here who wants to see you. He has a brain. In a jar. With a stick through it. And it’s…” (she swallowed hard) “…it’s green.”

I sprinted out to the front counter. Marie, white as a sheet, had pushed herself as far back in a corner as she could go. The gent at the counter proudly handed me a big pickle jar in which floated a somewhat oblong, grapefruit-sized, gelatinous mass. It was, as advertised, pale green-brown and translucent, and it did indeed have a stick through it.

“Found this in the water hazard when I was golfing this morning,” the fellow said, “and wondered if you knew what it was.” I did. It was a colony of so-called magnificent bryozoans, one of the only species of this otherwise marine group of invertebrates to live in freshwater. At six or seven inches in diameter, it was a small colony. Some can grow several feet wide. And it did look a lot like a brain, with each zooid (as the individual animals are known) forming a cell-like pucker on the globular surface, creating a brain-ish look to the whole thing.

Poor Marie. The very next day someone dropped off a shoebox, tied shut with twine and labeled “For That Nature Guy,” in which something bumped and flapped and rustled and banged. I was out on an assignment, and it sat on her counter like some malevolent threat for several hours until I returned and found a lovely female cecropia moth, which had laid hundreds of eggs inside the box. A week or two later when the eggs hatched, I released the tiny caterpillars on an apple tree in the backyard, and raised a bumper crop of the huge and glorious silk moths that summer.

Mail call could be a little alarming as well. One morning, from the pile I picked a manila envelope that bulged in unexpected places. Slitting it open, I withdrew a letter, only half paying attention.

“Dear Mr. Weidensaul,” the neatly typed note began. “I understand you know about snakes. I found this on my driveway today. Can you tell me if it’s poisonous?”

Suddenly, the mystery package had my full and undivided attention. I gingerly picked it up by the corner and slid the contents onto my desk and found, in several brittle pieces, the flattened and completely mummified remains of a northern ring-necked snake, perhaps eight inches long and as harmless a serpent—in life or death—as it’s possible to encounter. I sent a reassuring note back to my nervous correspondent.

Sometimes, though, there was a more ominous side to being the nature guy. One late-April day, I came home to discover a black plastic trash bag hanging from a tree beside the front porch. Alarm bells already going off in my head, I cautiously untied it; whatever was inside was bowling-ball heavy, irregularly shaped, and definitely not as fresh as a spring day. But I still wasn’t prepared for the rotten, smelly mess inside. I could see eye sockets, sharp, grinning teeth, and maggoty flesh hanging from a skull, before, gagging, I quickly closed the bag.

This wasn’t just gross; it was deeply unnerving, and not just for the obvious reasons. By this time, I was doing investigative reporting, and a story I was then pursuing had Mafia connections. Was this a warning of the horse-head-in-bed variety? Maybe the local goodfellas had watched The Godfather one too many times and decided a road-killed dog was just as effective a message as a horse to a nosy reporter. I called my editor, who said he’d check with our contacts in the FBI for advice.

Meantime, I gingerly carried the whole, fetid mess into the meadow and dumped it out carefully, and downwind. When I did, I realized that what I’d thought was a large dog’s head was actually that of a small bear. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine where some creep would have come up with a dead bear on short notice, but I passed the update along to my boss, and he to the FBI. The feds took the whole thing pretty seriously, but also seemed as puzzled as I was. “You’re sure it’s not a deer or something?” the agent asked when he called me. “Maybe a horse?” After I assured him I knew a bear skull when I saw one, he shrugged it off and started explaining how to make sure that no one had planted a bomb in my car, or had cut my brake lines.

Days passed; I was on constant, jittery lookout for anything new. I was supposed to tape-record incoming calls in case I got a phone threat, but on the third evening after dinner when it rang, it was my fishing buddy Dave. I flipped off the recorder switch I had just toggled on.

“So what did you think of my present?” he asked brightly. “Smelled so bad I had to tie it to my bumper all the way back from Clinton County. No way I was putting that in my car.” Dave had found the remains of a young black bear along a north-country creek while trout fishing, and knowing my love of old bones, decided to bring the stinky skull back for me. I made a sheepish call to a decidedly not-amused FBI agent, something I remember every time I look at the now white and clean bear skull that still sits on my shelf.

It’s been 25 years since I stopped writing that weekly column, but I still get stopped in the grocery store or filling station from time to time. “Weren’t you that nature guy?” they’ll ask. Yep, I admit; still am. But by then they’re already telling me about the bald eagle nest they found, or asking if I’d heard that copperheads and black racers had started mating. I sigh. At least I don’t worry about the organized crime any more.

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