During its larval stage, a ruthless two-inch beetle called the water tiger injects its victims with a venom that dissolves muscle, and then extracts its dinner like a teen sucking chocolate shake through a straw. And it's not afraid to attack creatures much larger than itself. All this would be fine as long as it happened somewhere far away, like New Jersey. But this Coleopteran monster lives in a pond behind my house.
I know this because of Mac Donofrio, 41, a Montana naturalist who recently made a house call to educate me about the wilderness pulsing in my own backyard. Last fall, Donofrio launched Home Ground Inventory Services, a one-man operation that surveys the flora and fauna on private land.
Donofrio's business is the culmination of 20 years in the natural sciences. Ever since moving from Maryland to study geology at the University of Montana in 1978, he has excavated prehistoric sites in the northern Rockies, studied bald eagles in Glacier National Park, and most recently cataloged songbirds in Montana and Idaho. "My goal is to spend every waking minute outdoors," he says. "Except when it's 33 degrees and raining."
On a stroll around my 25-acre place with Donofrio, I learned more in two hours than in the entire ten years I've lived here. "See that?" he said, pointing to what I thought was a fat sparrow, but what is really a northern pygmy owl. Farther on, Donofrio tore a leaf from a two-foot weed. "Hounds-tongue. If your horses eat it, they could get sick."
Donofrio charges $150 for one of these informational nature walks, but for $20 an acre he will conduct an archaeological survey of a piece of land's human history, the best places to site a building, and the probability of a wildfire whisking across your property.He assembles his findings in a scrapbook, complete with a hand-drawn map and pressed plants arranged in plastic sleeves.It's an ambitious undertaking, even for a veteran naturalist like Donofrio, but his backyard start-up has already taught him a valuable lesson: Namely, when it comes to understanding the environment, he shouldn't be afraid to attack things much larger than himself.