Last weekend, my partner and I stopped during a road trip by a small pond amidst natural habitat in southeast Michigan. While we were stretching our legs, and our dog was diligently collecting sticktight seeds on his fur, we heard the excited, sharp and rapid bugles of a few sandhill cranes as they glided down to the water’s edge. They were noticeably bigger than the Great Egret that was wading nearby. Their slate-gray feathers, I thought, offered a striking contrast both to the flowering goldenrod behind them and my memories of this summer when I got to see Sandhills in their rusty-brown plumage.
Seeing those cranes last weekend reminded me that this spring, when I was walking through the marsh for fieldwork, I happened upon a Sandhill Crane nest at a special time. One chick had just hatched and another was breaking through its egg. Before I respectfully left the area, I recorded video footage that I’m sharing today.
I like to think that those chicks, along with their devoted parents that are heard in the video, are preparing to head south for the winter, or maybe even have embarked on their journey already. Given that the chicks I was lucky enough to see were about 70 miles north of the pond where we stopped at last weekend, the thought even crossed my mind that maybe I had seen the chicks again, all grown up. Though that is very unlikely, I like to think that the birds in the below video will soon be awkwardly leaping with others and adding to the amazing, seemingly-joyful chorus of thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes at nearby places like Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Audubon Sanctuary.
I wrote and recorded a song about traveling, which I’ve shared below. If you’d like to give the song a listen without further reading, go for it! The following text is just a little background about the song.
The lyrics came to me, nearly all during the same session, after I completed a summer mostly on the road for field research, just after I got back home after another week-long (but vacation-related) road trip. I’ve been recently listening, and re-listening, to many songs by Townes Van Zandt, a songwriting folk musician who lived from 1944 to 1997. Though some of his songs were performed by quite famous people, like Willie Nelson (who sang Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’), Van Zandt himself seemingly didn’t attract a particularly large audience despite regularly performing, at mostly small venues, nearly to the end of his relatively short life. I feel lucky that I heard his name mentioned, in an interview, by another one of my favorite musicians (Devendra Banhart).
Van Zandt produced, without question, many of the most impactful, thought- and feeling- provoking songs that I’ve heard. There is a sincerity about his way of communicating that, to me at least, is endearing. And his songs often tell poignant stories, including those that are funny and/or sad, which I appreciate.
Another reason, I think, that Van Zandt’s music has resonated so much with me is that his lyrics often focus on being on the road as a traveling musician. Though not as a musician, I have been on the road a lot in the last ten or so years. For wildlife-related projects and/or graduate school, I’ve worked in 11 U.S. states. During several summers (including this one), I’ve spent months living out of my vehicle and/or out of a tent to be close to the wildlife that I’ve studied. This has caused me to on hundreds of occasions be a stranger in a new place, usually in little towns where I’m easily noticed, getting to know it for a short while before moving on. Van Zandt’s lyrics often describe a love for the road that is mixed with sadness about leaving loved ones behind. I relate to that. Here is one of his travel-focused songs (‘Snowin’ on Raton’; I also recommend the interview in that video).
When I wrote ‘Traveling Song,’ I drew not only from my own experiences but also from what I’ve learned from, and imagined about, people like Van Zandt. People who, it seems to me, spent their life traveling to pursue beauty and freedom that, to some degree, harmed themselves and others.
I’m super-proud of a friend of mine who had the great idea of collecting poems and drawings from a diverse group of friends and compiling a beautifully illustrated poetry collection. Here is a blurb about the book, called ‘Project Prosetry’:
“Welcome to our little book of prosetry, a term coined for weaving a continuous narrative between folks through the dissemination of poems and art inspired by that poetry. Poetry tells a story. Whether it is bad story, a love story, or a story about a sandwich. Our world thrives on interconnectedness from prosetry in all forms. Especially now. Read, write, doodle, and let us know if you want to add your work, too!”
Four of my poems are in this book, along with poems from other writers that keeps the reading fresh. Your work could be added, too! There are blank pages left for your contributions, which could be left safely there for just you or possibly submitted to a future edition of Project Proestry. If you think that you would enjoy some thoughtful words and drawings, perhaps you’d like to order a copy at this link:
As you may know, my blog is entitled, ‘Thoughts of a Naturalist.’ A worthy question, which I’ve never discussed here, is: “what is a ‘naturalist’?” For many of us, the word carries much meaning and perhaps even is a big part of our identity. Nature-lovers, philosophers, environmentalists, and ecologists all likely tend to use the word at least a little differently. If you have an opinion that you’d like to share about what being a ‘naturalist’ means to you, please share your thoughts as a comment. I’m curious how my views, which I’ll share below, relate to yours.
I think that it is probably fair to say that I’ve been a naturalist—at least a budding one—since I was in high school, even though I don’t remember using the word then. At that time, I began going out to natural areas with the primary goals of paying attention and learning. I remember walking through a nature preserve near to my house teaching myself to identify trees, which was perhaps inspired by mother’s and grandmothers’ interest in flowers. My naturalism probably started even earlier, when my grandfathers got me ‘hooked’ on fishing.
During those many fishing trips, I learned to patiently sit outside and to pay close attention to my surroundings. I thought about where fish were likely to be, when they were likely to be there, and what they would want to eat. Not only did I get exposed to an incredible diversity of life—including aquatic vegetation, several fish species, and a variety of other animals—but I also learned to be comfortable outside. And to be there alone.
My definition, part 1: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world with the main goals of paying attention, feeling, and learning.
A naturalist could be defined simply as ‘someone who studies natural history.’ This includes amateurs of all skill levels. The term ‘natural history’, like ‘naturalist,’ has a variety of meanings. Here is website—which I think is worth checking out especially for naturalists looking for a sense of community—where people explain what natural history means to them. As I see it, natural history is the story of a landscape, including its living and non-living parts. The timeframe of that story could be a day, a season, a year, or many years. For example, by noting when you see the first monarch butterfly each year, you are on the path to learning something about that animal. Just like by observing what plants the monarch caterpillar eats, you learn something. Before you know it, you are thinking about how the butterfly depends on the landscape, how the landscape depends on the butterfly, the long history they have together, and how changing the landscape could cause the butterfly to disappear and then cause the landscape to change further.
An ‘ecologist’ is also a word to indicate someone who studies relationships between living things and their environment. However, in my experience, this term tends to be used to indicate someone who does so professionally. Not all ecologists, however, are naturalists. Not in my opinion, at least. I think that the best ecologists tend to be naturalists (though not necessarily vice versa). It is possible to be an ecologist who doesn’t spend considerable time in the natural world and who doesn’t even want to. An ecologist’s work could be done solely in a lab and/or on a computer and not require any trips to the field (i.e., the forest, the prairie, the river, etc.). Results generated from such ‘field-less’ investigations can be valuable, especially if they are cautiously interpreted and cause field work for further examination. If ecologists do go to the field for work, their trips likely pertain to formal data collection in some way.
As a naturalist-ecologist, I cherish the times I get to go to the field for my ecology work. I do my best to observe a wide variety of phenomena. The birds singing, the plants flowering, mammal tracks in the snow, the way a river is flooding, etc. However, when in the field for research, I have a job to do and generally cannot sit and take it all in for two hours or so like I otherwise might. I have 5 radio-tagged birds to track (for example), a field assistant to coordinate with, and a manuscript to write based on the data that we collect. In other words, I’m out there primarily to take something (data) rather than to feel something. I get the impression that there are some ecologists who only ever go to the field to take. I don’t consider those people to be naturalists.
My definition, part 2: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world without the primary goal of taking something.
I’m not saying that those who go to the field to hunt, fish, take pictures, or formally collect data aren’t naturalists. Most naturalists, I’d guess, actively do or have done at least one of these things (I think that going fishing taught me to be a naturalist; when I fish again it will be as a naturalist). My point is that partaking in these activities alone shouldn’t indicate that someone is a naturalist. Some of the best naturalists are certainly hunters, for example, given the necessity in many cases of paying close attention to the natural world and being quiet (which I think generally go together). But there are also hunters who simply want to drink beer and shoot at things and pay little attention to their natural surroundings. Similar to naturalist-hunters, there are some ecologists who carefully observe and reverently experience the natural world while taking careful measurements so that we can better understand and conserve it. There are also ecologists, though (a small minority, it seems), whose primary goal is to collect data that will corroborate a pre-defined story that they want to tell in a scientific journal to advance their careers and perhaps feed their egos. Don’t get me wrong – I think ecology is a great profession that tends to produce solid and useful knowledge. I just wanted to point out that the process of taking, even in ecology, can come at the cost of experiencing and some people may want only to take.
My best moments in the field don’t tend to be when I’m collecting data. Rather, they usually occur when I can go out there to just sit and think about what is going on around me and to better understand what has led to what I see. Those thoughts and natural observations actually could help me with ecological research later, and probably are required for the best ecology to be done, but that’s not why I go seek the natural world on Sunday mornings. My weekly trips to the field are mainly to nourish what some would call my ‘spirit.’ I go there to feel connected to a location—often achieved by purposefully not thinking—and to understand how I fit into a larger place. Sometimes I get distracted and don’t pay attention to my environment or begin focusing on what I can take. But at my best, when I’m out there, I’m a naturalist.
My complete definition of a naturalist: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world with the main goals of paying attention, feeling, and/or learning without the primary goal of taking something.
We rescued a dog (Bernie) from the shelter this year and had some fun making a music video featuring him. The music is my rendition of Johnny Cash’s ‘The Wall,’ but I think the best part is the video footage that relates to the lyrics. Bernie’s ‘mom’ helped a lot with putting the video together. I hope that you enjoy!
Speeches can be a lot of things. Funny, terrifying, boring, inspiring. A combination of these. Only one have I heard which always makes me think, “if everyone listened to this, we’d live in a kinder, saner society.” That speech is called ‘This is Water’ and was presented at a graduation/ commencement ceremony by author David Foster Wallace.
I’ll admit that I have shared this speech with at least three people and, though I know I could be wrong, I didn’t get the impression that it meant very much to any of them. Wallace’s speech probably won’t mean much to you, either. But, especially if you are feeling hopelessly frustrated, it could mean a lot. It could mean seeing what so far has been missed, and that could be very important. So, I thought that I’d share.
This summer, I was lucky enough to get to spend some time at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Ohio. It is a beautiful place that I’d hightly recommend as a destination for anyone who appreciates wildlife.
During one of my visits, I noticed that an adult Trumpeter Swan caring for cygnets looked like it had something around its neck. Not sure what it was, I had a closer look with my binoculars. This is what I saw:
Because I’ve banded hundreds of birds (put tiny metal rings around their feet), I knew when I saw this neck collar that a researcher had put it there to improve our knowledge of this species. By reporting where marked birds are detected, we can learn about how long their species live and where they go. So, I noted the collar number and then went to this website. From there, I reported the number I read on the collar, which identified the bird. I also reported when and where my observation occurred. Doing so only took a couple minutes, but provided information that could help to better understand, and so protect, this amazing species.
I thought I’d share this experience in case you didn’t know that you can help out birds by reporting the numbers on bands, neck collars, or other markings on birds that you observe.
Not only will you help to conserve birds by reporting such observations, but you’ll also get a certificate from the US Geological Survey which includes information about when and where the bird was marked. Another Trumpeter Swan I saw this summer was marked as a cygnet 16 years ago!! I sighted that bird about 6.5 miles from where it was marked.
I just submitted the collar number of the marked swan that I shared pictures of in this post. I can’t wait to find out when and where it was marked!
My PhD research focuses on studying secretive marsh birds. For a class assignment, I had a fun conversation during which my partner and I talk about one of my projects (which entails figuring out what habitat an endangered marsh bird species needs). Here it is, in case you are interested in learning more about my marsh bird research:
Hundreds of millions of birds will be migrating over many of us in North America tonight! Like a biological flood, they flow in pulses that are pronounced this time of year. Billions of individuals will migrate this fall, as hundreds of bird species head south. Here is a great site for seeing nightly migration forecasts:
It is, however, a perilous journey – especially due to lights at night which can disorient, attract to suboptimal habitat, and likely will kill perhaps hundreds of millions of birds this year. The good news? Each one of us, especially those in urban areas, can do our part to help make sure that this awe-inspiring flood of life isn’t reduced to a trickle. Just turn off your lights between 11:00 pm and 6:00 am, and spread the word. Check out this site for more information:
By the way, if you want to experience the migration you can head outside on a night with clear skies and a bright moon. Pull out your binoculars and look at the moon. You just might see migrating birds or other animals flying between you and the moon. You also might hear their high-pitched calls as flocks fly overhead.
An article that I wrote about the Grand Kankakee Marsh and efforts to bring it back was recently published by Earth Island Journal, so I thought I’d share the link. The marsh was once the largest inland wetland in the U.S., but growing up in northern Indiana I mainly just saw agricultural fields where it had been.
Here is a map of the vicinity where the marsh occurred, and where it could be brought back: