Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

The randomness of natural encounters is a constant source of amazement.

My wife and I spotted a huge black bear on a recent trip to Wisconsin’s north woods. The bear was in the middle of a field of grass, but it’s amazing we saw it.

We were driving along a state highway at roughly 60 miles an hour. The road was lined with trees and brush with occasional small openings for bogs and pastures. The bear was in a field that was probably no more than a quarter-mile wide.

At 60 mph, quarter miles disappear rapidly.

If I had blinked. If I had been changing the radio station. If I had turned to face my wife for just a moment, the bear, big as it was, would have gone unnoticed. It makes we wonder just what amazing things I’ve missed over the years by being less than attentive.

There were a couple other sightings this week that made me marvel.

There was a spur of the moment trip to Mermet Lake last Friday. There were two unstated purposes for the trip – spotting prothonotary warblers or eastern meadlowlarks. For the record, I saw neither, but remarkably saw a pair of minks.

I parked at the northwest corner of the lake, hopped out of the car and searched the surrounding ditches for herons, egrets, turkey or deer. Predictably, none of the aforementioned critters were spotted, but a mink scurried across the gravel road about 10 yards from me.

Equally predictably, my camera was in the car.

A few minutes later, I inched along the west levee, following a double-crested cormorant on a fishing expedition. My goal: Get a photo of the diving cormorant’s beak as it broke the surface of the water.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

But, while waiting for the cormorant to resurface something moved in the rip rap just below my car door. For a moment, it seemed as if a small brown face was staring at me. Initially brushing off that notion, I looked back down to see a mink staring me dead in the eyes.

Naturally, the mink scurried off by the time the camera was aimed and focused. But, a five minute game of cat-and-mink did yield at least a couple photographs.

Then, Saturday morning I was easing through a parking lot at Carlyle Lake’s Eldon Hazlet State Park. The parking lot borders a small wetland area. Through the tangled brush I spotted the outline of an unidentified bird.

A quick peek through the binoculars verified the presence of the critter, but I couldn’t get a positive ID. Fifteen minutes later, after parking the car and hiking to a more advantageous point, I spotted the bird once more.

Still without a positive ID, I snapped several photos. It wasn’t until I returned to civilization, and access to Google, that the bird was identified as a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron – one of the last things I expected to see on this trip.

In the meantime, my quest to find the common terns that had been spotted at Carlyle Lake recently met with failure. I didn't find the common tern, but managed to spot a couple Caspian terns, fulfilling the old adage, "One good tern deserves another."

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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