CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the perks of my job is getting to watch wildlife.Earlier this week, I arrived early at a New River boat launch site for a meeting with a couple of fish biologists. I had half an hour to kill, so I sat on a rock and scanned the river for signs of life.The first thing that showed up was a young coot - no, not a teenager imitating an elderly man, but a real, live, honest-to-goodness juvenile American coot of the bird variety. It flew across the river toward me and landed on a gravel bar a short distance away.It lingered there only for a few moments before it lit out for the river's far shore. If you've never seen a coot take off, it's sort of comical. They flap their wings furiously and, in an attempt to gather momentum, they run across the water until they finally become airborne.Not long after the coot disappeared, a blue heron came flying along, looking every bit like a pterodactyl of the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods must have looked.Its neck formed an S-shape, and its head sat atop the middle of the S. Its long, slender wings flapped slowly, gracefully, and with so little effort that the heron appeared almost to glide along.It landed on the downstream edge of a promontory a couple hundred yards upriver, and, after a brief rest, continued its journey to the opposite shore.About the time it departed, the surface of a nearby cove erupted with spray. A school of small fish came shooting out of the water, closely followed by a rather large fish apparently intent on eating them.I caught only a glimpse of the would-be predator, but judging from its length and general shape, I suspect it was a muskie.
The disturbance got me watching the nearby shallows for further fish activity and sure enough, through polarized sunglasses, I was able to watch a nice-sized smallmouth bass prowl the nooks and crannies of a weed bed for potential prey.A flurry of movement far upstream caught my eye. The river's surface appeared to shimmer, and with my poor eyesight I couldn't really tell what was going on - at least not until the large flock of Canada geese lifted off, turned downriver, settled into their trademark chevron-shaped flight formations, and came zooming toward me.The gaggle flashed past, 30 yards offshore and 20 feet up, their ha-ronk, ha-ronk cries piercing the morning stillness. They skimmed over some rapids just downstream and disappeared around a bend.Some ripples in the water caught my eye. Just offshore from the gravel bar, a triangular head poked through the surface.I thought for a moment that I might get to see a snake swim ashore, but the head submerged and the ripples died away. Two or three minutes later, the head reappeared a little farther upstream, but disappeared just as quickly.Only on its third appearance did I realize I'd been watching a turtle. It stayed about 15 feet offshore, popping to the surface every couple of minutes to breathe.
A truck pulling a boat came along and broke my wildlife-watching reverie. The driver was a fisherman, and after he backed his boat into the water the local critters laid low.The experience, though, made me realize just how fortunate I am to have a job that allows me, from time to time, to sit on a hilltop or a riverbank and just - watch.Here in West Virginia, nature is seldom more than a few steps away. The secret to seeing it is to stop walking and sit a spell.