14 May Friday. So the week was cold and wet, and we couldn’t even come in on Wednesday because there was too much snow, so when we came in today and it was only partly cloudy and relatively warm, it felt great. We spent the morning finishing up a dense patch of myrtle spurge that we started the previous day, and then our crew leader broke off to do some office work while my two crewmates and I got the good job: delve into the Heart of Darkest Boulder to GPS any big infestations of garlic mustard we find. I speak of course of the Cottonwood Grove Habitat Conservation Area along Boulder Creek. Surrounded by roads and industry, the area is an unusually dense and overgrown riparian forest, a green patch easily visible on aerial maps of Boulder but fenced off from the public and generally unknown outside the transients who take advantage of the extreme complexity and density of the understory to camp in seclusion. In fact, the transients, along with the proximity to a polluting chemical plant, are often cited as the real reasons for making the area an HCA in the first place – the designation provided an excuse to build an excluding fence around it.
Inside the fence is an area as close to jungle as you will find in
We saw a small group of deer as we attempted to follow the creek, and soon after finding a small patch of garlic mustard things got interesting. I was pulling up some garlic mustard when I happened to look over to my right. One of my crewmates was pulling another little patch some thirty or forty feet away, and no more than fifteen feet beyond her, a coyote was walking by. Focused on the weeds, my crewmate didn’t even notice the medium sized carnivorous mammal passing silently on her right. I called her and pointed urgently, but stupidly couldn’t seem to get out the word coyote. She looked at me, trying to figure out what I was so excited about, and by the time I got her looking in the right direction the coyote was gone. But with some searching we saw it again, lingering in the foliage, looking back at us for a minute before departing. I tried to get a picture but my camera malfunctioned. I’ve seen plenty of coyotes before, but it felt different seeing one in a forest rather than out on the prairie, as though it were more mysterious and wolf-like, and its ability to pass unnoticed in plain sight impressed me. We continued with our work and cleared the patch before lunch.
We watched beautiful yellow, black and red Western tanagers and yellow and green yellow warblers as we ate by the creek. After lunch, the coyote came back, and this time she decided to stay. As we worked a dense garlic mustard patch she came and lay down some thirty feet away and watched us lazily. If we snapped a loud twig or got within twenty feet she would take notice and perhaps move off for a minute before settling in a new location at a comfortable distance and continuing to keep an eye on us. She watched us for well over an hour this way, even apparently taking a nap now and then. I finally got my pictures, and while I wanted to take this as an awesome wildlife experience, the strangeness of her behavior was enough to make me wonder if she wasn’t sick or tame from transients giving handouts. Yet I couldn’t help thinking about how this is what the origin of dogs must have looked like, with wolves lying just outside a human camp, waiting for a bone to get tossed their way, wolves who edged closer and closer until they divorced the rest of their kin to join us permanently, and how we rewarded their loyalty and the voluntary sacrifice of their freedom by mutating them into Boston terriers. Despite the knowledge that something must be wrong about a coyote behaving this way, it nonetheless remained a surreally cool experience, watched over by a coyote as we worked.
She followed us at a distance throughout the afternoon, always mildly interested, just keeping an eye on us. We saw at least three dead raccoons in various states of decay (including a beautifully intact skull that I couldn’t resist keeping) which might have been the coyote’s handiwork, perhaps indicating that she isn’t sick or overly tame after all. Once, reentering the HCA after going out to drop off our trash bags full of garlic mustard, I saw a rabbit dash into the bushes, followed closely by the coyote, who looked over as if to ask why I interrupted the hunt. When we split up for a last pass through the western end of the grove she followed me at a distance through the forest.
An off-limits jungle, unexpected wildlife viewing and a close, extended encounter with a wild representative of that place in the form of a coyote. Yeah, I was on the clock for that.