Virginia Rail in Cattails

My PhD dissertation research focuses on trying to help conserve secretive marsh birds. Specifically, a group of birds that are rarely seen or heard called ‘rails.’ The term ‘thin as a rail’ actually refers to this group! Because many people aren’t familiar with these birds, I thought I’d share a video that I recorded when in the marsh for research. The species in the video is a Virginia Rail, which is just a bit bigger than an American Robin.

I hope you enjoy the video! I like how the bird uses last year’s plant litter to stay safely concealed.

Blue Jay Calls: Hawk Mimicry

On Monday I was leaving campus at the end of another long day. My partner and I were in the library parking lot and I was worn down after a lot of time at the computer working on dissertation research. I decided to study wildlife to be outside, but after data are collected—especially as one’s career progresses—most time tends to be spent inside analyzing data and writing about it. As we were about ready to get into our car, I heard what I was pretty sure was a Blue Jay imitating a Cooper’s Hawk from a row of oaks that bisected the parking lot. I’d seen a Blue Jay in the oak trees in that direction just before I heard the interesting call.

Here is the type of call, uttered by an actual Cooper’s Hawk, that I thought I’d heard:

XC554004 Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) :: xeno-canto

Like I often do, I wandered away toward a bird with little or no explanation. Maybe I said, “there is a Blue Jay over there.” Luckily, my partner is an ecologist, so she understands—or, at least accepts—my strange behavior.

As I approached the tree line, it became clear that indeed a Blue Jay was imitating a Cooper’s Hawk while foraging. Here is the footage:

Foraging Blue Jay Imitates Cooper’s Hawk – YouTube

Blue Jays have been observed on many occasions imitating/mimicking other species. Often, I’ve noticed, they imitate their potential predators. There are several reasons that the jay I saw could have been imitating a Cooper’s Hawk. Given that it appeared to be foraging alone, the bird might have been calling as a way to deter other birds from competing for a valuable food source. Little acorns were just beginning to form on the oaks, but I think the jay was eating something else on the ground. The Blue Jay might have been just showing off a unique call which it had learned that could, when combined with the other calls in its repertoire, impress another jay. It is also possible that the bird was indicating nearby danger, though I don’t think that was the case in this instance. However, when I studied Blue Jay vocalizations for my Master’s research, I frequently observed jays imitating predators (Red-tailed Hawk, American Crow) as I approached Blue Jay nests. It was as if they were indicating danger to their mates by imitating a species that was dangerous to them. Or maybe they had been trying to scare me off by imitating something that scared them.

My favorite memory from my Master’s research is the afternoon when I heard a pair of Blue Jays utter uncannily-convincing American Crow calls as I approached their fledglings. A recording from that day of that call type, as well as other Blue Jay call types that I described in a recently-published study, can be found at the below link. The most convincing American Crow call is at the very end of the file called ‘NamesAndCalls_Row3.’

The vocal repertoire of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata): spectrographic snapshots and suggested nomenclature | Zenodo

Yesterday, when I was leaving campus on my bike, I noticed a Cooper’s Hawk flying high overhead. I was only a few hundred yards to the northwest of where I’d recorded the Blue Jay on Monday. I put down my kickstand and watched as the hawk boldly flew above me, clearing carrying something in its talons. Was it my Blue Jay friend?!? No, I was able to tell, it was some kind of rodent. A little relieved, I pedaled home.

This morning, at around 7:00 am or so, I was sitting in the backyard with my loyal canine companion at my feet. We were both thinking about what we wanted to accomplish today. As I thought, I listened to several Blue Jays calling around the neighborhood. Within the last couple weeks, a pair of Blue Jays successfully hatched young from the sycamore behind our house and ever since I’ve been listening to the calls of hidden fledglings as they beg for and then noisily receive food. But this morning it was just adult calls, mostly the ones that jays utter when they are flying and attempting to stay in contact with allies. The calls suddenly changed to what I call ‘Burry Descending Jay,’ and several American Robins began ‘tutting,’ so I wondered if they were concerned about something.

Then, like a low and straight arrow about 15 feet above the ground, a Cooper’s Hawk flew from east to west across our backyard almost right over me. And the jays kept calling, as if I needed to be convinced more to share about the special birds that we call Blue Jays and one of the many challenges that have shaped them. Gradually the ‘tuts’ of the robins stopped and the Blue Jays resumed calls that generally don’t indicate danger. I carefully listened for what jays and other birds will teach anyone who pays attention. And all, for the moment, again became calm.

Snowy Owl by Roadside

My parent’s and I were lucky enough to come across a Snowy Owl* that was perched beside a central Michigan road. It was the first time that my mom had seen a Snowy Owl in-person, after years of watching the fields during car rides, and the first time that my dad had seen one in 8 years (despite searching with me every year). I’m glad I captured the moment, and hope you enjoy it:

*Snowy Owls are the largest owls in North America, based on weight. They breed in the arctic, though many (like the one above) migrate south during the winter, when they are commonly found throughout the northern U.S. If you ever would like to go ‘owling’ (I’d encourage it!), please be respectful and try to avoid flushing any owl you might find. Many owls, including Snowys, spend long periods during the day roosting. So, when they are forced to fly, precious energy is unnecessarily used and they are exposed to potential predators. The video found at the following link provides a great overview of how to be respectful to owls and other birds you might want to observe: https://vimeo.com/149465659

Project Prosetry

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:

Prosetry (lulu.com)

What is a Naturalist?

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.

My brother and I at one of our favorite fishing spots, with a tiny fish.

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.

Stages of Monarch butterfly development
Monarch butterfly stages of development on a milkweed leaf.
Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

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.