Sounds of Wilderness During a Solar Eclipse

Note: You may enjoy listening to the natural sounds that I recorded at Congaree National Park during the eclipse while reading this post (see link to YouTube below). Detail and the sounds that I note in the caption will be best heard wearing headphones.

Once in a while, circumstance carves a groove in the path of one’s life which takes them to a unique moment, where cycles far larger than those of working, eating, worrying, and sleeping are made clearly visible. And then, the common, daily cycles of a life just might become richer. Don’t believe me? Read on!

The ‘Great American Eclipse’ happened to exactly coincide with my furlough from Florida (where I’ve been working as a field biologist). So, embracing what seemed like serendipity, I decided to take myself to a portion of the narrow band (about 70 miles wide) that diagonally ran from Oregon to South Carolina, where ‘total darkness’ would occur. South Carolina seemed the best option for me. After consulting a map of the state, I discovered an obscure, tiny square on the map: Congaree National Park. A little research confirmed that Congaree would likely be a place where I could find solitude, accompanied by a unique natural setting, and thus became my destination.

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Location of Congaree National Park

Careful to allow plenty of time for travel, I woke up on August 21st, well before dawn, to beat the ‘eclipse traffic,’ which I would learn that evening is a very real phenomenon near the band of ‘total darkness.’ Quietly, I left the campground full of sleeping people along the Georgia coast, where I too had slept (I couldn’t find any camping sites in South Carolina, due to the eclipse), and drove to Congaree National Park. By 8:30 AM, I was pulling my trusty, old jeep Cherokee into the road that led into the national park, where I was thrilled to see familiar, deciduous tree species that aren’t present where I had been in Florida.

“Eclipse parking?” a uniformed man with a radio asked. “Third parking lot, on the right.”

I pulled into one of the last parking spots available, and walked through the towering pines to the visitor center, where a crowd of about thirty people waited. Many more were milling about between the parking lots and the visitor center, which was impressive due to the fact that the eclipse wouldn’t occur for six more hours. A huge spider web, constructed about 15 feet above the ground, quickly became far more popular than I’ve ever been (not complaining, just observing!). In a few minutes, I saw at least five people take a picture of it. After the short wait, I ‘poured’ into the visitor center with the crowd, to get eclipse glasses and information from the friendly and knowledgeable staff. Incidentally, I forgot my phone on a bench in my haste to find the coveted glasses. I was in the visitor center for over fifteen minutes without that darned thing, though apparently eclipse-goers that day weren’t inclined to be thieves. For which, I suppose, I’m thankful!

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Yours truly, wearing eclipse glasses

Visitors to this visitor center will learn that Congaree National Park is a particularly special place not only because it is one of the most biodiverse places in the United States, but because it protects the largest area of bottomland, old growth forest that remains in the country. The vast majority of forests in the United States have been cut within the last 500 years, but not 11,000 acres of forest in Congaree National Park. Since my early teenage years, I’ve enjoyed seeking out these small reminders of what much of the landscape used to be like. Thus, being in such a forest as it more or less suddenly became shrouded in darkness was an exhilarating prospect for me.

There were other reasons for my excitement, too. Such a rapid transition into darkness offers the unique opportunity to listen to noisy wildlife such as birds and insects in entirely novel conditions. Given that the behavior of these animals and others are directly influenced by light levels, one might expect them to display unusual behaviors for a mid-afternoon day. Would the animals behave as if it were night? Would those creatures that go ‘bump’ in the night come out? I didn’t know, but was excited to find out. Because I possessed recording equipment which I use to record bird vocalizations, I had decided to record the sounds of the forest during the eclipse.

It was also exciting to be in Ivory-billed Woodpecker habitat. Unfortunately, that exceptionally striking and large species is probably extinct, due to habitat destruction. Because I had been extensively researching what has been written about that species while in Florida (which was probably its stronghold), I was thrilled to be in exactly the type of now very rare habitat that it used to call home: ancient, bottom-land forest. To see the large trees that it required for roosting and nesting offered a special opportunity for fueling imagination, at least. Of course, I’d keep my binoculars and recording equipment handy (in case Ivory-billeds aren’t really extinct!).

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Ivory-billed Woodpecker

And so, I excitedly walked on the boardwalk which lead through the bottom-land forest. Sporadically placed, towering trees such as sweetgum, bald cypress, and swamp chestnut oak offered awesome views of natural architecture. The largest red elm that I have ever seen stood beside the boardwalk, a reminder of what was relatively common before Dutch elm Disease made such a sight rare.

Far more people than I would generally expect to see in a ‘swamp forest’ (which usually conjures thoughts of mosquitoes) were on the boardwalk, an interesting effect of the eclipse. Soon, though, I had walked far enough that I didn’t see anyone at all. For a half-hour, I hung out beside a massive tree which had fallen and uprooted multiple trees with it, bringing with its roots a greater area of soil than I had previously seen in other forests.

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Note the smaller trees that the very large one took with it

As I sat here, only two pairs of people walked by. One of the pairs included a man serenading who was seemingly his girlfriend by singing, ‘blinded by the light.’ It was not far to walk, however, before I had entirely escaped other eclipse-seekers. When I reached the Oak Ridge Trail, several miles from the visitor center, no other person was to be seen. Despite all of the three parking lots being full, and, as I’d later learn, the driveway being lined with parked cars, I had found the total solitude that I had been looking for. Now, I needed to find a break in the trees.

The trail that I walked on was narrow and would have been easy to lose were it not for the many blazes on the trees. I found myself annoyingly worried that I wouldn’t be able to make it back to my vehicle before the third period of darkness during the day (dusk). This mostly irrational worrying, I convinced myself, was a function of too much stress which recently had caused me to generally over-analyze and thus miss out on the current moment far too often. Which is exactly why I had wanted to be alone in a place like Congaree National Park. Like a friend of mine who is a musician says, going to natural environments offers a chance to ‘re-tune.’ And so, I walked on, reminding myself to be, ‘here and now.’

The ‘forests’ (for a frog) of cypress knees that I saw, appendages that probably help the trees avoid ‘drowning,’ are a great reminder of the ancient nature of the place that I was in, full of parts that have adapted to succeed in an environment that is prone to flooding.

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Knees

As I walked along, I heard a harsh sound which I didn’t recognize. As a birder, I’m always listening to and identifying sounds that are unfamiliar. Before long, I saw the source of the noise: a group of wild boars. These creatures are not native to Congaree, and can wreak havoc while ransacking the forest floor, searching for food. For a while I observed them, then moved on, knowing that ancient, natural cycles of the forest at Congaree have been disrupted by the presence of such animals. New cycles, with time, will form. But the adjustment period can be painful for an ecologist to watch.

It was about 12:30 PM when I had lunch on a bridge leading over a wide, cypress-bordered, stagnant creek. Just over two hours until the eclipse, and I hadn’t seen an ideal spot to view the sky from for well over an hour. I’d been hoping that there would be more openings in the canopy, and began to feel a bit foolish that I had ventured so far into the forest, where I just might miss the eclipse due to a closed canopy. However, I remained calm, glad to be where I was at.

I walked on, the trail bent, and I found myself looking at a huge loblolly pine, a tree that, appropriately, is adapted for surviving in wet conditions. While admiring the tree, I noticed that another pine nearly as big had fallen about twenty yards to the south of the one that still stood. And when this tree had fallen, it had ripped a hole in the canopy that had not only allowed light to reach the ground and nurture young plants, but also created a perfect opening through which the sun was shining. I had found my spot in the wilderness!

I excitedly put on my eclipse glasses, and saw that a tiny sliver of the sun was covered by the moon. I had about an hour and a half to kill before total darkness descended. So, I picked a quiet place to sit, set up my recording equipment in preparation for the eclipse and, like I often do, listened away some time.

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My recording set-up. Not designed for this purpose, but ‘oh well!’

By 2:10 PM, just over a half an hour before total darkness, the sun was about half covered by the moon, though still appeared bright like normal without the shield of eclipse glasses. By 2:30, about 80% of the sun was covered, and still there seemed to be a normal amount of light without the glasses. At 2:36, 5 minutes before ‘total darkness’ was to begin, I began recording. Hear the whole recording here:

 

NOTE ABOUT MY RECORDING. Here is an overview of some sounds that I identified: A cicada chorus occurs mostly throughout; from 2:18 to 2:24 a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (a bird) calls; at 2:36 the first Barred Owl begins calling; from 4:33 to 4:43 several Barred Owls begin ‘caterwauling’; more Barred Owls call at 5:40 (just after total darkness began); nearby crickets begin at 5:48 and ‘chirp’ off and on unil about 7:30; mysterious knocking at 7:06; airplane at 8:20; distant owls call at minute 9; crows call beginning  at 10:40 (just after it has gotten light again); I walk up to the recorder at 13:08. Maybe you can identify sounds that I couldn’t. If you can, please let me know!!

I walked away from recording equipment and eagerly settled in at my spot in the wilderness, waiting for the sudden onset of darkness. With the eclipse glasses, I could see that only a tiny sliver of the sun remained uncovered, though until 2:40, 1 minute before total darkness, the sun still was too bright for me to look at without glasses—a reminder of how powerful the sun is relative to our ability as viewers to take in that power.

Gradually, something like early dusk descended, as the cicadas droned. And then, nearly like as the result of a light switch being pushed down, I found myself in what seemed the equivalent of a night during a bright full moon, except that the ‘moon’ was black with a very narrow ring around the circumference. The below picture doesn’t show that effect, due I suppose to the difference in how the camera and my eye collects light.

The Barred Owls soon began to call, and during past eclipses at the very spot where I sat, I knew that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers might have felt a start of fear and gone to roost due to the sudden darkness. But like the unavoidable cycle of the moving celestial bodies, human beings came along and cut down most of the forests and thus caused Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers, as well as many other products of millions/billions of years of ‘creation’ to disappear forever. And as I sat there in the primeval forested darkness, listening to crickets stridulating (rubbing together wings, i.e. ‘chirping’), I felt very content to be doing my best to help protect the species that are still around, which not unlike eclipses can help anyone who pays attention to see the incredible process that they and what they are observing are a part of. And as I reveled in this process, ‘dawn’ quickly emerged and gradually disappeared. Once again, I was in the afternoon.

And so, I retrieved my recording equipment, excited to find out what I had recorded, hiked back to my vehicle, and resumed the long drive toward home, where my journey had begun and where I regularly return to (not quite as regularly as the moons revolution around Earth, unfortunately).

I know that millions of people experienced the same eclipse that I did, and that many may have felt something entirely different than me. I am sure, though, that I speak for many when I say that experiencing a total solar eclipse can be a reminder that physical laws guide both the swirling matter of minds and moons, and are a great opportunity for us humans to acknowledge the process of which we are but a part. Such an experience might remind us that the path of human bodies like the path of planets is apparently set, in other words predictable if enough information could be acquired (which luckily doesn’t seem possible). And we can be reminded to accept and respect the cycles that others must experience, while embracing and boldly making the most of our own cycle. We can be like our moon on its journey around the Earth, determined and steady whether revered and respected or, perhaps more commonly, totally ignored. In other words, a sense of acceptance and unity can be experienced by thinking about how things actually are, and by immersing ourselves in the natural flow of events as best we can rather than pretending that we are separate. I’m not sure if this is a common view, but suspect that in some sense nearly everyone feels something like what I’ve described. I hope that my articulation might help whoever reads this to better understand what they already know.

So, long story short, I was lucky enough to be reminded of the incredible process that we are all a part of on the 21st of August, 2017, and try to daily remind myself that every moment, not just during eclipses, but during moments of cruel rejection, dull indifference, relentless boredom, and rare success, are but a brush stroke in a mysterious and mostly incomprehensible, metaphorical painting. And, like our sun, Earth, and moon are on their paths, we’ll get to where we are going and will never know what the ‘painting’ is. But on the way, we can enjoy and embrace our personal path, and may even positively affect the flow of events here on Earth. How wonderful.

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I wonder what’s going on in this galaxy…
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Birds and Bombs

Anyone who has read my writing on this website knows that I spend a lot of time observing birds. I’ve learned that there is much which can be learned from studying the behaviors of birds (and other organisms) which can be applied not only to wildlife conservation efforts, but also to my daily activities as a part of human society. Yes, sometimes I do leave bird society! In fact, I’m confident that if people more closely observed animal behavior and related such behaviors to their own, then human society would be in far less danger of unraveling, possibly explosively, due to our actions.

Take territoriality, for instance. Some birds defend territories, some don’t. I’ve spent a lot of time observing Blue Jays, and Florida Scrub-jays. If I were to walk into a patch of forest where I knew Blue Jays existed and played a recording of Blue Jay flight calls (calls that they utter when they are flying, possibly to stay in contact with a mate, siblings, or offspring—depending on the time of year), I likely wouldn’t attract resident Blue Jays who are ‘looking for a fight,’ who wish to drive away ‘intruders.’ In other words, Blue Jays aren’t territorial.

Florida Scrub-jays, however, will station a member of their group on the tallest available perch, which offers an unimpeded view over a territory up to 50 acres in size, which is usually covered by short scrub oaks. Especially just prior to the breeding season and when acorns are on the trees in the fall, if that sentinel scrub-jay sees, or hears, a nearby scrub-jay within its territory that is not a part of its family, one could say that ‘all Hell breaks loose.’ That is, the sentinel jay will begin calling and will fly ‘aggressively’ toward the ‘intruder’ (me with playing a recording) or the actual intruder, with a flight consisting of undulating dips (not unlike the routes of some roller coasters). Its family members will follow in a similar way, and the intruders will likely be chased away. Very rarely, there may actually be a fight, which involves locking feet together, and pecking at one another while on the ground.

Here is a link to a video which contains a recording that I captured when Florida Scrub-jays were acting territorial:

Point being, two closely related species can have very different ways of behaving in similar circumstances. Why might that be? The difference in the tendency to behave in a certain way is due to differing past circumstances that the ancestors of these species encountered. Scrub in Florida has historically been basically a series of small islands surrounded by a sea of other habitat types (this situation is getting worse, due to human-caused habitat destruction, hence the necessity of translocation). So, the scrub-jay ancestors of current scrub-jays found themselves in a situation which required them to aggressively defend pieces of land where scrub existed. Those that did not do this probably did not pass on as many genes (which directly influence behavior; aggressive scrub-jays tend to make aggressive scrub-jays) and thus those that were territorial prevailed. Alternatively, the ancestors of Blue Jays inherited and came to depend upon a much wider range of habitats, covering a much larger area than the scrub which Florida Scrub-jays depend upon (most of the eastern United States, currently). In fact, because Blue Jays are so good at using a variety of forested habitats, I even have seen them in older scrub, beside scrub-jays. And so, it seems, because there is a lot of their required habitat available, and therefore all of those things which habitat provides directly or indirectly (food, shelter, mates), Blue Jays are not generally inclined to be territorial.

In other words, both Blue Jays and Florida Scrub-jays, like all other living things, are products of their environment. They behave the way that they do because of circumstance. As the sound waves produced by the call of an unfamiliar scrub-jay are perceived by the sentinel bird, hormones are released which cause a territorial response by that sentinel scrub-jay, along with his/her family. And maybe, I speculate, they experience feelings that we could recognize as they take their undulating path toward the ‘enemy.’ Alternatively, the Blue Jays in the tall forest less than fifty meters away watch a ‘stranger’ jay fly by, without so much as an internal ripple of indignation.

Remarkably, circumstance has allowed most human beings to possess the capability of understanding such processes. For one who does in fact understand them, the world can become a much more intelligible and tolerable place. Even, maybe, an infinitely wonderful place. Reasons for the behaviors of friends, neighbors, family, and ‘enemies’ can thus become clearer (though usually remain murky, at best, due to so many factors being involved). And for me, at least, with even a small degree of understanding comes a profound appreciation for the good things that people do. Compassionate, altruistic, and loving behaviors can be identified and cherished if one pays attention. A kind act in the supermarket: ‘you only have two things, go ahead.’ A call, ‘out of the blue,’ from a friend who you haven’t heard from in years. A kind, thoughtful conversation with a stranger. A commitment to not part till death.

However, the fact that many humans and non-humans constantly behave mindlessly and destructively is also painfully apparent. This is, of course, through no fault of their own, as hard as that is for anyone to initially admit. A co-worker goes out of their way to make you look like a fool, and cause you pain. A spouse cheats. A relative holds an unreasonable, destructive grudge. A dog bites, a snake strikes, a Blue Jay watches as a scrub-jay chases. An egocentric, ignorant president or dictator impetuously orders a nuclear strike.

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The simple fact is that we as human beings are in an extraordinarily precarious position. The environment upon which we and our family (including non-human life on Earth) depend upon is being altered due to selfish acts which are not always easy to identify. Territorial impulses cause people in one country to hate people in another country. We possess the capacity to destroy life on Earth with our technologies, and seem to be on the track to doing so. We are constantly bombarded by information which lessens our ability to focus upon the real issues that threaten us. Many of our leaders are no more conscious of the causes for their actions than a scrub-jay is, and far less admirable. These leaders possess the capability to, and seem intent to, destroy life by selfishly exploiting natural resources and those who depend upon them. They might gravely and tirelessly prepare for hurricanes which scientific projections suggest will radically and negatively alter the lives of their voters within a few days, ‘because we must prepare for the worst,’ but ignore related, long-term climatic projections which suggest a threat of far greater magnitude and severity, simply because doing so will not get them re-elected. These leaders behave in a way that is dictated by voters. An ignorant electorate will yield politicians who behave ignorantly, even if they aren’t actually ignorant. Selfish actors, it seems, are never in short-supply. It is obvious that they will destroy life as we know it if we allow them to.Earth

And so, I’m doing my best by writing this to provide to you with some information that I have been lucky enough to happen upon, due to circumstance. When you see a bird, or another type of animal, I hope that you will take the time to watch the way that it behaves and wonder why it behaves the way that it does. What about the way that it behaves might have helped its ancestors to survive? Examining life in such a way may cause you to be inclined to examine your own behaviors. And I’m sure that you have already, but maybe not using the ‘lens’ that I have suggested that you use to observe a bird, which has been influenced by the same types of historical pressures as you. Does the hawk eat the sparrow because it’s evil? No. It does so because that is how its ancestors behaved to survive. Do you, when no one is looking, do something which might, for no good reason, hurt the feelings of, or prospects for, someone else, because you are evil? No! More than likely, you, like the hawk, are behaving in a way which helped your ancestors spread their genes. Luckily, though, you possess the ability to be conscious of your actions and thus modify your behavior. What impulses do you have which might have helped your ancestors to survive, which may in fact be harmful to you, your family, and/or the rest of life on Earth? Taking the time to think about this simple question is very important. Not only can an honest answer to this question allow us to lead happier lives, but it just might allow us as a species to avoid self-destruction.

Luckily, there are many, many people who in fact are aware of much or all of what I have written in this post. They may be among those who have devoted their lives to developing technologies which lessen our environmental impact, like solar-powered vehicles. They may be educated activists who attempt to bring public attention to pressing social justice and/or environmental issues. They may even be politicians who must carefully mince words in order to be re-elected, so that they can do some genuine good. Or, more likely, they are plumbers, secretaries, high school teachers, and other important members of society, who we meet and interact with every day. There is a lot of reason for hope and optimism, but only if human consciousness can outpace a terrifying unconsciousness that seems to be leading toward global catastrophe. These are dangerous times, which require that the majority of us be awake. Indifference will result in disaster, to a degree which we simply cannot accurately predict.

I want you to know that I understand the reasons for sensationalism, which some people might characterize this post as being caused by. It is true that an author might sell more books if he/she convinces readers that they have written about an important issue. A news network might describe a situation as being far more dire than it is, to get more viewers. This happens. I can assure you, though, that the primary cause for me writing this post is that when I woke up this morning, I felt inspired to attempt to spread some information which might help to protect the experience of life on Earth, which I’m fascinated by. The cause for that feeling this morning was certainly affected by my exposure to others, in the past, who have concluded similarly. My hope is that maybe I can affect readers similarly.

And so, I encourage you to pay attention/care, and to the best of your ability speak out against things that you believe to be wrong, organize effective means of causing change, vote responsibly, and generally act in a way which might preserve this wonderful place for our descendants. Our behavior will have a profound impact on them.

If you don’t believe me, just watch the birds.

 

Blue Jay

Connecting Conservationists

My friend, Tori, had a great idea, which is to provide a platform for conservationists (and anyone can be one!) to share their stories.

Here she states her goal:

“I want to give faces to the conservationists of the world. Their stories, their situations, the sacrifices they make to do this work, and the rewards of it. It’s not a revolutionary notion by any stretch, but we need to be part of the global conversation on environmentalism. We, as biologists, need to know our worth. We need to contribute to the wildlife blogs of the world, the authors and journalists shedding light on the work of scientists working to better the natural systems of the planet. Everyone can be a conservationist. I want to knit together a picture of what that means and could mean in the future. We need to engage with each other to enthrall others.

I sent her a story about one of my most memorable field experiences (which involves wolves near Yellowstone!). That story can be found here:

https://victoriakaufmanbio.wixsite.com/mymorningmile/single-post/2017/07/20/Content-in-the-Winds-In-the-Field-with-Dustin

Here is a link to the ‘contributors’ page (where your face could be, if you are kind enough to share a story):

https://victoriakaufmanbio.wixsite.com/mymorningmile/contributors

I hope that you check out my story, and that you consider contributing your own story to her website! (contact her via the ‘let’s talk’ tab to send a story).

 

 

 

Jays of Our Lives – Necesito Nests

(In addition to trying to learn to understand the scrub-jay language, I’m trying to learn how to speak Spanish, which is why this title popped into my head. Yes, I can’t resist alliteration, and yes, I have discovered that I may need to find nests)

It is an early morning in April, and I know that scrub-jays are building nests. Not long after walking out into the scrub, I spot a potential nest-builder. The scrub-jay is perched atop a lone, dead tree that towers above the short scrub oaks below, watching for predators. I check the bird’s leg bands to verify who I’m looking at, and then wait to see if she or her ‘husband’ will show me any behavior indicating that they are building a nest.

If you imagine that working as a field biologist is constant excitement (crazier things have been imagined), then the reality may disappoint you. The usually relaxing, meditative quality of the work that I have chosen is precisely why I love my job. Currently, I get to spend a lot of time watching scrub-jays stoically gazing across their empire, waiting for them to teach me something.

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Scrub-jay on sentinel duty

I’m sure that some people who might read this post will wonder why the state of Florida would pay me to, among other things, find nests. The answer is that finding and monitoring nests is a great way to determine the reproductive success of any bird species. Identifying specific microhabitats in which birds like to build nests (say, like in the case of scrub-jays, beneath prickly vines) is a good way for land managers to know which conditions to create for birds that they want to attract. Another useful application of nest searching is to determine whether or not a given population of birds is a ‘source’ or a ‘sink.’ In other words, if one determines that all of the scrub-jays on their property are unable to fledge any young year after year due to, say, a very dense nest predator population, that property (a ‘sink’) may not be an ideal recipient location for translocated birds, because moving birds there would not provide much help for increasing the overall, state-wide and/or regional population. A population that is more likely to be a ‘source’ population, where conditions are better, is be a better choice for translocation. I’m monitoring nests primarily because we want to learn if translocation is an effective way to increase scrub-jay populations throughout the state.

After 15 minutes, I see the male scrub-jay fly up to the tree and hop up next to his mate. He quickly feeds her, then she flies away and he takes over sentinel duty. Courtship feeding, in my experience, seems to become more common around nest-building time. I walk in the direction that I saw her fly, to see if she provides any clues. I have trouble finding her, though finally hear the rapid jingling of her metal leg band as she itches her chin with a foot, like most dogs do. The male softly, gutturally calls from his perch. She calls back in the same way, saying, ‘I’m alright, honey. It’s just that weird human, again.’

I catch a blue blur in the corner of my eye as she flies north. Then, I hear a crashing sound that I recognize. What I hear, I am fairly sure, is the sound of her pulling palmetto fibers from a scrub palmetto.

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Scrub palmetto fibers, which scrub-jays need to make nests

 

Slowly, I walk toward the sound. Sure enough, one by one, she is pulling long fibers off of the palmetto plant. Because she is collecting fibers, I know that the pair are at least half way done building their nest. All of the sticks have been gathered, and they are now working on completing the soft, inner lining of their nest. I hope that she does not drop the fibers, like I’ve seen other birds do, before bringing them to the nest. Up to the top of a myrtle oak she flies. I’m ready to run…. Next, she flies up and lands beside her mate for a few seconds. Then, they both fly out of sight to the south as I sprint through the thick scrub, being smacked in the face by branches and maybe watched by rattlesnakes which think in their reptilian way how foolish I am for running through the scrub, when they could be anywhere. FYI, I don’t actually assume that rattlesnakes have a notion of ‘foolish,’ but it’s fun to imagine.

Scrub-jays almost always fly straight to the nest when they have nest material. So, by watching which way they flew, I know in which general direction the nest is located. However, I don’t know how far away it is, and it takes me about ten minutes to find the jays again. After 45 more minutes, I conclude that the scrub-jays have lost the mood for nest-building. Tomorrow, I’ll return….

And when I do return, it is not long before I see another bill-full of palmetto fibers being flown, this time to the west. I imagine the line and direction of their current flight, as well as their flight from the day before. Where the two lines cross, I know, is where the nest is. So, with the knowledge of approximately where their nest is, I climb a pine tree that is just sturdy enough to hold me. I scan over the scrub in the direction that I think that their nest is, waiting for them to return.

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Me watching for jays from top of a tall sand live oak

Like my co-worker said, I remember as I sway in the pine, nest-searching is a lot like hunting, though without killing. When I finally see the jays flying again toward their nest, I feel lucky that I can still harness my deep instincts and senses to accomplish daily tasks. After seeing the jays enter a sand live oak together, a part of me feels happy that I wasn’t offered the jobs which I had interviewed for that would have almost doubled my paycheck, but more than halved my opportunities to be out in the field. Outdoors, I know as I jump out of the pine, is where one can understand and feel the forces that created them and everything else. As I walk toward the nest, I feel lucky that circumstance has allowed me to experience first-hand the incredible behaviors of organisms like scrub-jays that have resulted from at least 14 billion years of interactions between living and non-living things.

The need to protect the life that is left is very obvious to me, so I feel very content helping to understand and protect scrub-jays. When wildlife disappears due to our actions, we will lose our link to ‘eternity,’ be fooled by technology, be denied of most of the feelings that we are capable of, and trapped in a miserable world that we are not suited to thrive in. Seeing scrub-jays in the scrub reminds me that there is a place for me, too, and that place is not on a highway or in a shopping mall. If I ever create a ‘nest,’ I know, I’ll have scrub-jays in mind.

The female scrub-jay slowly pokes her head out of the shrub where her nest is. She looks at me, then angrily pecks a narrow branch. I back away, and she calms down. A third bird, the pair’s offspring from the previous year, alights next to his mother, but is chased away by Dad. The ‘teenagers’ aren’t allowed close to the nest when it is being built, I’ve learned. When she is satisfied that I don’t know where her nest is, the female flies off to find more fibers, and the male follows. Quickly, before they return, I use my mirror to see how far along the nest is, mark the location with my GPS, and go to the neighboring territory, to look for another nest. All’s well in the scrub.

*

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Scrub-jay eggs

Unfortunately, though, all’s not always well in the scrub for scrub-jays. By June, the end of the nesting season, I’ve found almost 30 nests, and know very well how dangerous it is to be either an egg or nestling in a nest. The majority of nests that I monitor fail, mostly due to snakes such as this yellow rat snake:

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Yellow rat snake. Picture taken by Matt, a friend of mine.

 

One day, I was lucky enough to see a scrub-jay pulling the tail of a garter snake which was crossing the road. Repeatedly, the snake struck at the bold bird, until it was able to slither away from its hopping pursuer. Harassing snakes is a useful behavior if snakes eat your babies. If a scrub-jay cannot eat the snake that it is harassing, maybe their calls will attract a hawk which can. I cannot help but imagine that an adult scrub-jay which recently went missing may have gotten a bit too close to, say, a rat snake that it was mobbing. If so, that bird could not have died a more heroic death, so far as scrub-jays are concerned.

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Recently hatched scrub-jays. Photo by a co-worker, Alexis.
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Almost ready to leave the nest! Photo also by Alexis.

 

When I saw an alligator in the scrub, I was reminded that I, too, could be on the ‘menu.’ I know that being attacked by an alligator would be an exceptionally rare event. However, the presence of such ambush predators reminds me that I, too, am a natural thing which is vulnerable, which is best off paying attention to surroundings, and which could quickly become only energy that keeps something else alive. That knowledge is, you may be surprised to read, more comforting than anything else that I know. By knowing this, the pressure and incoherence of human-made concepts that suggest otherwise disappear. When I’m in the scrub, as I watch a young scrub-jay that has beaten the odds by escaping the snakes, crows, and raccoons, I’m reminded how unlikely life is. I remember to appreciate the fact that, so far, I’ve escaped the alligators and the less literal but equally dangerous ‘predators’ that pretend not to be, which just might have a first and last name. In other words, I remember to appreciate my short time in the air, as I watch the young scrub-jay fly by.

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This young scrub-jay landed on my head the first time that we met! Then, down to my hand.

 

 

 

“Virunga” – Inspiration for Conservationists

I recently watched the 2014 documentary called “Virunga.” Virunga National Park, nearly as large as Yellowstone National Park in the U.S., is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and protects one of the last strongholds of the mountain gorilla. At this park,  rangers daily risk their lives to protect the largest remaining population of mountain gorillas from poachers (there are less than 800 wild mountain gorillas left worldwide). Over 140 rangers have been killed protecting the gorillas and other wildlife in the past 20 years. This inspiring documentary tells the story of a small group of brave and persistent people (the park director, rangers, gorilla rehabilitators, and a journalist) attempting to expose the corruption and collusion that threatens life in the park. An oil company attempts to undermine the safety of people and wildlife residing in and near the park by extracting oil from beneath Lake Edward. A rebel army, apparently in cooperation with the oil company, attempts to take control of the park. Despite the immense danger, including an assassination attempt, the small group of conservationists stand firm and try to document what’s happening, with the hope that people like you would see and care enough to make a difference.

I found it profoundly touching when André Bauma, the gorilla orphan rehabilitator, said in his heavily accented voice, full of resolve, as the rebel army was approaching to take over the park: “I feel obliged to stay with the gorillas here. You must justify why you are on this Earth. Gorillas justify why I am here.”

I think that all conservationists can relate to that statement.

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For those of you who may be feeling discouraged about the reality of immoral and corrupt politicians who threaten to exploit the natural environmental upon which we all depend, who may be feeling that there is nothing that you can do about it, I hope that this documentary will provide you with some inspiration. Organization and resolve can go a long way to combat corruption, ignorance, and selfishness.

This documentary is available on Netflix, and probably on the internet elsewhere. If, after watching, you feel that you would like to make a donation to the park, you can do so at:

https://virunga.org/donate/

A little of your money goes a long way in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as overviewed below, from the Virunga National Park website.

Where Does Your Donation Go?

By donating, you will become an integral part of the effort to save one of the Earth’s most special treasures. There are few places where a financial gift can have such a meaningful impact. Here are some examples of what your money can do:

$8 – A pair of new boots for a ranger
$32 – Funds a ranger for one day (includes family health insurance)
$50 – One month of support for the widow and children of a Fallen Ranger
$150 – Two weeks of food and supplements for an orphan gorilla
$300 – One hour of flight time for an anti-poaching patrol
$500 – One day tactical elephant protection operation
$1000 – Comprehensive sweep and removal of deadly snares in the mountain gorilla sector

Controlled Burns on Land and in Mind

A ‘controlled burn’ in the field of ecology is a management tool which can help to, for example, maintain a prairie by removing trees that have encroached in an area where a land manager does not want a forest. A wildfire, of course, is the exact opposite of a controlled burn. I believe that these different types of fire are metaphorically related to the way that we as individuals view the world and interact with one another.

Wildfires are not necessarily bad, just as burning, uncompromising passions in the minds of individuals are not always bad. In fact, both are sometimes needed to cause a desired outcome. Some ecosystems rely upon wildfire, such as the lodgepole pine forests in Yellowstone National Park, which depend upon fire to open pine cones to regenerate the forest. Many important societal movements, such as the on-going struggle for the establishment of civil rights, would be impossible without a leader who possesses a fiery, hyper-focused mentality, which I think could be compared to a wildfire in the context of this essay, as I will explain. Sometimes, though, the goal is to keep control. Because, for example, if the fire that you have started to maintain a prairie gets out of control, an entire town could be burned down. Similarly,  an idea that you have whole-heartedly embraced without first carefully considering alternative ideas could aide in the destruction of our society.

I was part of a team who helped to administer a controlled burn at Prophetstown State Park, to maintain prairie habitat, a few years ago. In so doing, we first made a detailed burn plan, and had to wait for the precise wind conditions so that we did not lose control of our fire. Here is a picture of me with a torch, helping to maintain the prairie in a responsible way.

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Photo taken by fellow student, named Jill

Our minds are not much different than this fire was, and can also be influenced greatly by ‘the wind.’ Any interest or inclination begins as something like a tiny flame on a candle stick. Then one will feed the flame through a given source (say, the opinions of Rush Limbaugh, Carl Sagan, Bill Maher, Pope Francis, Che Guevara, Bernie Sanders, etc.) to the point that he/she can, if not careful, become possessed by a raging inferno which they no longer have any semblance of control over.

In simpler terms, our thoughts are directly related to our experiences. If, for example, someone looks outside to watch the falling snow and thinks, ‘human-caused global warming is a hoax,’ they may be inclined to do a google search with those same words. Before that person knows it, they have followed fifteen different WordPress sites which agree that the damned scientists have made up the idea of human-caused climate change to help the Chinese economy, whose government secretly pays all of the world’s climate scientists large sums of money in order to control them. And ‘evidence’ for this notion could be provided daily, via, for example, the followed sites. This example may seem absurd, but I believe that similarly groundless beliefs are held by many people who don’t understand that certain interest groups know how to take advantage of them, and do, or at least try to, every day. The frightening thing is that many of us ‘like’ or ‘follow’ only ideas which are in line with the way that we want to see things. It is far too easy to cocoon ourselves, be it by what stations we listen to on the radio, what WordPress sites we follow (mine are rather eco-protection-oriented, I admit), what church we attend if we attend at all, etc., so that we may ultimately lose, at least to some degree, the ability to make thoughtful decisions due to ignoring alternative points of view. I know from my own biases that exposing oneself to contrary ideas keeps the decision-making process alive, and helps one to avoid becoming rather mindlessly dedicated to a cause which may not be the best one.

The presidential election in the United States seems to be a great current example of the danger of raging, out of control, emotional fires. It would be interesting to know what would have happened if all American voters had been required to study an objective report about all of the candidates and what they represent before voting in the primary elections. So, speaking of feeling the Bern by setting aflame Bushes, ask yourself if we would have nominated either of the candidates that we did if such research had been done? Maybe, maybe not. Ask yourself honestly, and look at the actual evidence before deciding, which candidate, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, is more likely to be so incompetent that they endanger life on Earth? Which candidate is more likely to greatly harm our country and the world due to their actions? This is an open-ended question, and the decision is yours to make. I hope that you wouldn’t vote for that person, despite their incompetence and harmfulness, just because they represent the political party that you generally associate with. Might unquestioning allegiance to that party have been burned into your mind by, say, biased hosts of political commentary shows who spread misinformation and discourage critical-thinking skills in order to advance their own careers?

Though I don’t like politics, I felt as if I should present my thoughts because, unfortunately, this election could have dangerous environmental repercussions, which is an issue that I care deeply about. So, while voting in this election and making daily decisions in general, I think that it is important for us all to consider very carefully the conditions which control our ‘mental flames,’ and tend to our fires carefully, or we may well become a flaming disaster that we can’t understand, which ultimately burns others as well as ourselves.

Seeing Upon Rocky Shores (Point Pelee and Isle Royale)

I am sitting upon a Canadian rock, watching the rhythmic, breaking grey waves of Lake Erie. The wind presses hard against my face, and a slight rain falls, but these sensations which might cause most people to get up and go towards shelter are over-ridden by something in me which wants to stay where it is. And I am watching and listening to the violent splashes of water on rock, feeling the mist, when I think of how incredible my mind is, which has created the whole scene around me. ‘Cold’ doesn’t exist without a mind to create it, nor does the particular image that I see of atoms interacting and light reflecting, which some might naively call just another lousy wave breaking at their feet. The gull flying over my head sees the stunted hackberry tree that is shivering in the wind at my back differently than I do, as its mind creates a different, more one-dimensional image of the world (because of its monocular vision due having an eye on each side of its head), an image that is, for example, probably better used for detecting floating fish on the surface of the water than mine is. We all see in a way which helped our ancestors to survive, and miss essentially everything that wasn’t helpful. I am reminded of the fact that approximately 95 percent of our Universe is apparently made of matter/energy which human astronomers cannot even identify, and of how my human eyes can perceive far less than one hundredth of a percent of the light waves entering them. So for a while I watch the incredible detail of the rolling waves, and the deep feeling of air in my lungs and wind upon my face, grateful for what I can perceive and aware of the awesome beauty that I cannot imagine.

I walk to the southern-most point of the Canadian mainland, at Point Pelee National Park (a world-renowned place to see birds in migration), where the juniper, hackberry, and maple trees give way to the ever-shifting sand that becomes a point jutting into the lake. I stand as close as I dare (for fear of being taken by waves) to where the sand disappears beneath the water, which is not as far as the gulls who have congregated further to the south. On my right (to the west) are the same waves that I had been watching from my thoughtful rock, but to my left the water is as calm and flat as one’s swimming pool before one-time (long ago) 250 pound high school wrestling champion Uncle Billy jumps in. The contrast and close proximity between calm and not-calm is striking, as seen here:

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Point Pelee

So, as usual when at such spots, I sit down again and take in what I feel lucky to be able to see. I watch a Sanderling (a type of bird, see below) braving the waves that pushes it around near the Point as it searches for food amongst the sand to provide energy so that it can continue its flight from the Arctic to, possibly, the southern tip of the South American continent. What a journey! As the Sanderling walks near my feet, I spot a walleye that has been pushed by the waves onto the sand, where it struggles until another wave pushes it closer to the calm water, then closer again, and closer again until finally it reaches deep water on the other side. And it is very clear to me in the wind on the Point that an unexpected sandbar could catch any of us, and that it may take waves that we cannot control, waves that may never come, to push us to calmer waters. So I enjoy the current while I can, before deciding to get up.

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Sanderling, which didn’t appear to mind me

I begin walking along the calm shore, and pass a woman who through the wind is able to say to me, ‘this is beautiful.’ And it is, though certainly the beauty that she sees is different than the beauty that I see, just as, though probably to a smaller degree, the walleye’s view of the water and the Sanderling’s view of the sand is far different than how I see those small parts of our world. The beauty that I see is a reminder of the tenuous nature of life, and of humanity’s impact upon that life on this planet.

I worry very much about our fellow inhabitants of Earth, which interact with the world in such a way that is determined by past conditions. The gull sees the way it does because  the long line of its ancestors were determined, among other reasons, by who could see fish the best and therefore past on their genes the most effectively. But this line of reasoning goes beyond vision, of course. Everything about the Sanderling, from its plumage, to its bill, are adapted to survive. And if we humans are drastically changing the environment in which these species live, what chance does the Sanderling, for example, have? What chance do we have if the many species that our ancestors interacted with disappear? If our eyes were suddenly confronted with conditions that they were not adapted for, would we, blinded, have a chance to survive? Probably not, and the same problems are being faced by other organisms as we militantly convert the landscape, and other conditions, which they depend upon.

As I walk along the calm beach, I am reminded of a recent trip to Isle Royale, another national park. Because of our love for the natural world, a friend of mine and I drove all of the way from Indiana to the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan, Houghton specifically, where we caught a ferry that took over six hours to reach the beautiful wilderness island in Lake Superior, a backpacking naturalist’s paradise. We spent four nights and five days on the island, hiking over 40 miles through the backcountry, before taking a float plane back to the mainland. The island is famous for the long-term study that has taken place there to understand the predator and prey population dynamics of moose and wolves. The wolves control the moose population, preying upon the weak and elderly, so that the plants on the island aren’t heavily browsed by moose, which in turn causes the moose population to be healthier than it otherwise would be. When the moose population declines, so does the wolf population, which causes the moose population to go up, and so on, which causes a predictable, wave-like cycle in regard to numbers of these animals on the island. But, because of a recent warming of the globe (which humans have likely caused due to the burning of fossil fuels), the water between the island and Canada does not freeze as often as if otherwise would, which has isolated the wolf population, caused deadly inbreeding, and reduced the number of wolves to only two, from an average during the last 75 years of around 25. These wolves, half-siblings as well as father and daughter, will die soon. Not surprisingly, the moose population is rapidly increasing, which, if the National Park Service does not intervene by introducing more wolves (or by finding another way to control the moose population), could result in a serious degradation of the island’s plant-life, and therefore endanger all of the animals on the island which depend upon that plant-life. We saw a total of six moose while on the island, including this one, which would soon be followed across the trail by her calf:

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Courtesy of my friend Lincoln

It seems that the park’s size (~900 square miles) is not large enough to sustain an isolated population of wolves (if immigration were still possible, the population would likely survive due to new genes wandering in). This is an important reminder that habitat size, and connectivity of existing habitats, is crucial for the preservation of natural systems. Even mainland parks like Point Pelee National Park are essentially islands surrounded by developed land, and the survival of its inhabitants depend upon immigration from nearby habitats (which often don’t exist). Here is an aerial photograph of Point Pelee National Park, which has an obvious border with the adjacent, developed land:

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Point Pelee from above

There is a well-established ecological principle that after an episode of terrestrial habitat destruction, calculating the fourth root of area remaining as wildlife habitat will provide a somewhat accurate prediction of the percentage of species that will remain. For example, if 50 percent of Earth’s land area is set aside for non-human life and the rest made useful only for humans, approximately 84% of the species originally present will avoid extinction into the foreseeable future. This is the rationale of the great biologist, E.O. Wilson, who is valiantly campaigning to set aside half of the world for wild things. His book on the subject can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Half-Earth-Our-Planets-Fight-Life/dp/1631490826. It is not surprising that, even though the ~ 6 square miles that encompass this park were protected in 1918, species within it are still being lost. For example, of the herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) present before European habitation, six of eleven amphibian species and 10 of 21 reptile species no longer exist in the park (Hecnar and Hecnar 2013). Protecting large areas of habitat and connecting them to other protected areas is absolutely crucial for protecting wildlife.

I continue to walk along the calm side of the Point, aware, as always, of the threat that life on our planet faces, and feel that I have no choice but to do my best to do whatever I can to help preserve what is left. I see a swirling cyclone of over 50 migrating Blue Jays rapidly enter the trees to my left (these birds, like hawks and butterflies, don’t want to cross Lake Erie during their southern migration, so follow its coastline to the west to cross the Detroit River, where I have seen them every day for the past three weeks). And as I watch them enter the trees, I see a small falcon, called a Merlin, flying just over the tree-line, which is certainly what had frightened the jays. As I watch this predatory bird, I forget everything but the moment, probably like the falcon. I watch as the Merlin goes after a small flock of songbirds, probably American Goldfinches, and soon focuses on one, which repeatedly dives towards the water before ascending to avoid the fast-pursuing falcon. The small songbird flees over the beach, into the trees and out of sight, as the Merlin is gaining ground. I am left to wonder what will become of the little songbird, and of the little falcon, which needs a meal to survive.

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Merlin

I later think that this series of events near the Point could be related metaphorically to what is happening to life on this planet. It appears that for many awe-inspiring species, doing all that they can do to survive, there is a fast-approaching killer closing in on them. And I am ashamed to know that we as humans, with our destruction of habitats, changing of the climate, and lack of understanding of what we are or what we can cause, are acting as a major killer of life on this Earth, which could be thought of as a fleeing songbird. We as a species are not evil, just as the falcon is not evil. We are all doing what we think that we need to do to survive. But no matter how bleak the situation currently looks, I, like I imagine that the little songbird escaped (and the Merlin found another, less Anthropomorphized meal!), am optimistic that we can change our ways and priorities before it is too late to save ourselves and much of the rest of life on Earth. Awareness of, and a strong conviction by, a large number of people are all that it will take to improve our situation as it relates to our natural environment, and there are many ways that you (!!) can help, such as by educating someone else, joining (and/or donating to) a conservation club, doing citizen science by, say, reporting what birds go to your bird feeder on this website (http://feederwatch.org/), voting responsibly for environmental protection in elections, not being pessimistic, and/or creating some wildlife habitat by planting native species in your yard.

As I type this, I am glad to know that wild, rocky shores, teeming with non-human life, still exist, and hope that they do for as long as there are people to see and understand the beauty which we are privileged enough to have the capability to see.

 

Literature Cited

Stephen J. Hecnar and Darlene R. Hecnar. 2013. Losses of Amphibians and Reptiles at Point Pelee National Park. Parks Research Forum of Ontario.