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Joy of Mammaling

I just got back from my vacation, and while I didnít get all that much birding in, I did have a lot of fun mammaling.

Some birders, as I understand, are only interested in birds. If someone shows them a snake or a butterfly or another animal while birding, they get annoyed. Other birders will be happy to see any sort of interesting creature wherever they go.

Iím in the second category. I like all animals, but most donít get blown around like birds do. If you live in the city, like I do, you have a pretty good chance of seeing a pretty or exotic bird fly by during migration. You have little chance of seeing a pretty or exotic mammal, and if you do, itís probably considered a nuisance. I enjoyed it when a raccoon was up a tree in front of my apartment one day, but my neighbors? Probably not so much.

The best places to go mammaling are probably on a safari in Africa or in Australia, where you can go marsupialing. I say ďprobablyĒ because I am, in my real life, a teacher in Catholic school. So I actually have very little firsthand information to give about expensive dream trips. I do, however, have a lot of experience with some lower-cost mammal watching vacations.

The most common mammal watching expeditions are boat trips that focus on marine mammals. I have gone seal watching, dolphin watching, puffin watching (OK--a puffin is a bird, not a mammal!) and whale watching. In general, I have had 100% success seeing the chosen animal on seal, dolphin and puffin cruises, and a 25% success rate on whale watches. One of the whale boats was turned around by the Coast Guard after everyone on the boat (except me) vomited from the rough seas.

If you want to do some pelagic birding on your marine mammal boat, choose a larger outfit and ask if they have a naturalist on board. Smaller boats are fun in that you go faster and get a bit of a ride, but it may be just the guests and the captain--and he (itís usually a man) may know more about boats than wildlife.

Dolphin, seal and puffin watches are not usually rough. Whale watches go further out to sea, and bring more of an opportunity for seasickness. Make sure you bring some motion-sickness remedies (like Dramamine) if you need it.

The best whale watch I was on left from Plymouth, Massachusetts. In my experience, Maine is a bit north to find good whales, and there few further south in the summer. We just missed one sailing from Delaware last week, and this was the first one all summer. So if you want to go whale watching in the Atlantic in the summer, and actually see a whale, Massachusetts is probably the best state for it.

Atlantic puffins can only be seen from the state of Maine in the US (though you can probably see them in Canada, as well.) They start their migration out to sea in August, so plan your trip accordingly. We were lucky that we saw four in mid-August, although they were already in their less-colorful winter plumage. They were probably all gone by the next week or two. If I ever go puffin-watching again, I will go in June or July, and see them in their breeding plumage with their orange beaks. Maine is also a great place to see seals and harbor porpoises.

For land mammals, I highly recommend Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia. For over 200 years, wild horses have lived here, bringing a lot of tourists to the thin barrier island. I admit, I was skeptical that I would actually find a horse on our own, so we took a horse-watching cruise out of Ocean City. This was very productive; not only did we see 9 ďponies,Ē but it was a good unofficial birding cruise as well. I saw numerous oyster catchers, egrets, ospreys and pelicans--perhaps not ďlifeĒ birds, but it was good to see them just the same.

So impressed were we with the horses on Assateague Island, that we decided to drive there and see if we could spot any from the land. After being warned several times by various signs and employees about the wildness and viciousness of the horses, we decided to go swimming on the beautiful beach. Returning from lunch, we heard there was a horse on the beach. I imagined, that somewhere, off at a distance, a horse could be found on a dune, away from the people. Should I get my binoculars out of the car?

It turned out, I didnít need to. The horse was standing between the blankets and umbrellas, eating a bag of pretzels that someone had spilled from their picnic. Everyone was afraid to touch the horse, so we all posed with it, standing a respectable foot or two apart. The horse gave me a dirty look, but didnít seem aggressive in the least. He finished his snack and then took off into the grasslands. Later, we saw a family of horses crossing the road, right in front of the cars. It was like being at a drive-through safari, only the animals werenít put there by park employees.

Mammal watching doesnít get any better than this!

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