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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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.

 

 

 

Jays of Our Lives – Part 2

Note: Before reading this, you may want to check out ‘Part 1’ to know what happened last time on Jays of Our Lives, which is a mini-series about some of my experiences studying Florida Scrub-Jays.

*

The morning after we released Black/Silver – Hot Pink/Light Blue (the male scrub-jay) and Black/Silver – Red/White (the female scrub-jay), I drove through the scrub just after sunset and parked near where I thought the birds would be. I took out my radio receiver and antenna, then scanned 360 degrees to see if I could detect a signal from either of the birds, who each had unique frequencies that I could enter into the receiver. From the same point, standing on top of my 1996 Ford Bronco, I was able to detect a signal from both Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White. However, just as I had left them the previous afternoon, they were separated. I hoped that they had both made it through the night, and that neither transmitter was in the stomach of a snake or owl. Being alone in a new place is dangerous for scrub-jays, just like it is dangerous for people.

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Black/Silver – Red/Black, one of the birds that I spend a lot of time with

I decided to look for Hot Pink/Light Blue first, and picked up a strong signal about 200 meters to the northwest of where we had released him and his mate. Soon, I found him alone in the scrub, and followed him for over an hour as he gradually moved to the east. It was interesting to see that he intermittently foraged and then acted as a ‘look out’ for his mate who was not there, which is likely a behavior that is genetically hard-wired and/or a semi-learned habit that is hard to break. This ‘sentinel behavior’ is a somewhat unique behavior utilized by scrub-jays, which is a good way for at least one member of the group to always have an eye on the sky, searching for hawks. It was a bit sad to think that no one was looking out for Hot Pink/Light Blue.

He reached the eastern edge of the block of scrub that we were in, where it met an area of very short scrub that was growing back after recently being burned. Across the future scrub-jay habitat, I was sure that he could see the scrub which he had been chased from the day before. As I watched him, I could not help but wonder if he knew that southeast was the direction that he should fly to find his mate. I also wondered if he was hesitant to fly across that area because of the danger of encountering the group of three scrub-jay neighbors, who could see and chase him again. To my slight disappointment, I watched as he gradually moved back into the scrub to the west, away from his mate, unnaturally alone.

The next day, the same cycle repeated itself. Both the male and female foraged alone, noticeably furtive and more quiet than usual, probably to avoid the attention of neighbors.

I told another biologist, who has studied the resident jays for over ten years, and color-banded most of them, about the situation. He suggested that maybe Hot Pink/Light Blue ‘has his eye on’ a neighboring female, one of the birds that had chased him away from his mate. The female that he described was a ‘helper’ in the group of three (the other two were her parents) immediately to the south of where Hot Pink/Light Blue was hanging out. It seemed that maybe I was watching a divorce, possibly caused by Hot Pink/Light Blue’s interest in a ‘younger woman.’

On the third morning after we released the pair, I tracked down Hot Pink/Light Blue and was surprised to see that another scrub-jay was with him. My first thought was: the ‘younger woman.’ I moved closer, and after losing both of the birds several times in scrub oaks, saw that the unknown bird was Red/White! She had apparently made the flight through ‘hostile territory’ and had found her ‘husband.’ On the next morning, I found them both back very near to the release cage, where she had stayed originally, quietly foraging. It seemed that she had tracked him down and brought him back, like ‘balls and chains’ tend to do. Kidding and anthropomorphizing aside, I’ll admit, I was a bit relieved that I did not help to cause a scrub-jay divorce.

*

Just over a week after we released Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White, I couldn’t detect either of their signals. I drove completely around the 40-acre block of scrub that they had been hanging out in, stopping and standing in the bed of my truck (which was easier than standing on the top of a Ford Bronco). With the extra height, I could increase the range at which I might detect them to about a ½ mile, but still, no signal. For the past week, they had been daily driven out of the scrub into tall pine trees to the east by both of the neighboring groups. Apparently, the neighboring groups claimed a lot more territory than we had thought. It appeared to me that Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White had decided that it was time to find a new home. They could have basically gone anywhere looking for scrub, and it was up to me to figure out where. I knew that the public forest that I was working in consisted of over 27,000 acres. Therefore, I hoped that they decided to settle near to a road within the forest, so that I could detect and find them. If they settled on private land, which is interspersed throughout the forest to the north, and very near to where we released the birds, I knew that that would complicate things. However, before beginning a ‘wild scrub-jay’ chase, I decided to walk south in the direction that I had seen them go before, after being chased by their neighbors. I waved the antenna around, hoping to hear a beep. Nothing, nothing, nothing but static at three different spots. It was about time to start driving around the forest, searching for a signal, I thought. Because I wasn’t looking forward to doing that, I walked a bit further south and tried one more time to search for a signal. Just barely, I could hear the beeping of Red/White’s transmitter!

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View of scrub, from atop a Ford Bronco

At about that time, I received a phone call from another person who is a part of the project. He wanted to see how the jays were doing. So, we met and walked south together. Through long-leaf pine forest, which is not good scrub-jay habitat, we went toward the signal, which gradually got stronger. Finally, 0.75 miles south of where I initially picked up the signal, we spotted our birds. They were dispersing, and made long flights punctuated by short periods of rest in small clearings amongst the tall forest. If they found a nice area of scrub, we knew, that could become their new home. I happened to know that it would be another mile to the south before they found new scrub, and just when I was beginning to think that they would end up there, they changed directions and began moving west. We followed them a mile to the west, and then a mile to the north, until finally they reached scrub that was about a mile to the west of where they had been released. Maybe unwittingly, maybe not, they had gone around five groups of scrub-jays and ended up in unoccupied scrub. It seemed like they had found a new home.

*

The next day, however, they met new neighbors who were as unwelcoming as the first two groups which they had met. They were driven to the north into unoccupied scrub, and after spending two days there went back a mile to the east, near their release cage. Quite the adventure they had! Considering that scrub is a habitat that can quickly be changed, due to fire, say, or due to the scrub-oaks growing too tall for the liking of scrub-jays, it is probably good for scrub-jays to become familiar with their surroundings. By becoming familiar with where other scrub is, a scrub-jay group can find a new home when they need to. So, maybe the adventure that I was lucky enough to witness wasn’t for naught.

*

About a month after their adventure, I was with Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White in the morning. As usual, I followed them around, marked their locations, and noted their behaviors. With my binoculars, I saw that several palmetto fibers were in the bill of Red/White. Despite their apparent trouble settling in, I thought, they must be building a nest!

Nest searching season had arrived, for both me and predators. Will I be able to find any nests, or will the clever jays out-wit me? What predators are lurking in the scrub? What potential predator’s tail do I see a scrub-jay pull? What predator do I see in the scrub which could eat me?

Find out nest (I mean next) time on Jays of Our Lives!

Jays of Our Lives – Part 1

Working with Florida Scrub-Jays is far more entertaining than any soap opera I’ve seen (admittedly, I have not seen many). Being a biologist who studies scrub-jays, though, naturally causes one to compare a day’s work to witnessing a soap opera, considering the drama that is seen every day. I have heard the phrase, ‘Jays of Our Lives’ used independently by a couple of my co-workers, in reference to the popular soap opera, ‘Days of Our Lives.’ So, I thought that I would describe some of what I have seen! I will do so in a series of posts, highlighting some of the interesting events and/or dramas that I have witnessed in the scrub, usually in relation to scrub-jays.

First off, you should know that Florida Scrub-jays are, appropriately, based on their name, only found in Florida. They are well-adapted to survive in ‘scrub,’ which primarily consists of oak species that are less than 2.5 meters tall. Florida is called ‘the lightning capital of the world,’ which historically caused regular wildfires, therefore maintaining habitat conditions that scrub-jays depend upon. However, we human beings have suppressed natural fire cycles and have converted much scrub habitat into housing developments, etc. Thus, Florida Scrub-jays are federally recognized as being ‘threatened’ due to the isolation of their existing habitats, which makes movement from one patch of habitat to the next very difficult for these birds that have short wings and a natural tendency to stay put. Therefore, I am part of a team that has been working to experimentally translocate these birds, so that we can understand if doing so will be an effective way to protect their genetic diversity (which is crucial step towards protecting scrub-jays from extinction). My job, as an employee of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is primarily to monitor how the birds we moved are doing. So, I get to spend a whole lot of time with scrub-jays!

You should also know that Florida Scrub-jays are ‘cooperative breeders,’ which means that offspring (most of the time) stick around to help their parents raise their siblings. Sound familiar? We humans, of course, have a similar life strategy. Just over 3% (or maybe slightly more, estimates vary) of bird species are currently known to be cooperative breeders. A similar percentage of mammals (humans are mammals) breed cooperatively. Therefore, both humans and scrub-jays are in the minority in this regard. Also, scrub-jays are in the ‘Corvid’ family, which includes ravens and crows. These birds have been described as ‘primates of the bird world,’ due to their large brains and impressive intelligence (see another post: ‘Bird Flew By: Thoughts on Consciousness’). This is yet another reason that these birds are similar to us humans. So, yes, scrub-jays are special! Of course, every species is special in some way….

Most of the birds that we are studying are uniquely banded so that we can tell who is who. Here is a picture of a color banded Scrub-jay:

Florida-scrub-jay-with-peanut-in-beak

 

Also, most of the birds that we moved to the new location have radio transmitters on them, so I can always find them (assuming that they have not gone on an adventure). Because of the transmitters and color bands, I can know ‘who is dating,’ ‘who is arguing,’ ‘who has died,’ and all of that other stuff that some people like to watch soap operas to see.

20170201_104547
Transmitter being put on a Florida Scrub-Jay

So, now that I have the background information out of the way, I will begin the story of Black/Silver – Hot Pink/Azure (a dashing male) and Black/Silver – Red/White (a beautiful female).

This pair is tough. We know that they have been together since 2013, and that Hot Pink/Azure is at least 6 years old and Red/White is at least 4 years old. Before they were translocated together, over 80% of their territory was deemed mostly useless to them by people who were trying to promote sand pine growth so that the pulp of these tress can later be harvested. The habitat that we moved them to is, as far I as I can tell, much better for scrub-jays than the habitat that they were taken from. We housed them in a cage for just under 36 hours before releasing them, so that they could become somewhat familiar with their surroundings before trying to settle in.

Initially, they refused to leave the cage, and stayed a night longer than we had wanted them to. When they finally did leave the cage, I followed them, and was pleased to see that they were behaving normally. Like usual, they were taking turns watching out for each other, while the other bird foraged. They did not seem to be bothered by their transmitters (no pulling on the antenna, no difficulty flying). All seemed well, until, 30 minutes after release, they wandered into the territory of another scrub-jay group. This was going to happen sooner or later, but luckily, I was there to see what happened. After I heard the first territorial calls, I saw Hot Pink/Azure and Red/White flying back towards the cage, with two other birds, a father-daughter pair, in hot pursuit. Soon, three other birds (a breeding pair and their helper) from a neighboring territory joined the chase, which noisily lasted for over an hour. Eventually, I saw Hot Pink/Azure, the male, chased to the northwest while Red/White was chased to the south. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, 40 minutes, passed. I was surprised, and a bit worried, to see that the pair were not reuniting. Because of their radio transmitters, I could tell that they were separated by about 400 meters. I needed to go check on another pair that we had recently released, so I had to leave. When I returned a couple hours later, they were still separated. They both, it seemed, were hiding alone, in foreign land, with hostile neighbors.

Will they reunite? Will they be able to form their own territory? Will they fly away and leave me with no idea where they went? Will they make a nest and lay eggs?

More next time, on Jays of Our Lives!!

Why I Care About Natural Things

The following is a draft of the introduction to a book that I am currently in the process of writing (I will share the title for this book at a later date). This excerpt explains why I have decided to take on this project, for which I have been compiling notes since the spring of 2015.  Hopefully I will have this book completed, and published, by 2018. Because I have been busy documenting a hawk migration (see my daily reports here: http://www.drhawkwatch.org/hawk-count-monthly-summary), I haven’t had much time to write much else than the beginnings of this book, which is my first non-fiction project. So, I thought that I would share a bit of it, and a picture of a group of people at the hawk watch count site scanning the sky for hawks and other raptors. Their feeling of awe towards the natural world offers daily inspiration to me.

hawk-fest

Here is the excerpt!

I used to wonder how studying plants and animals could be beneficial to humanity, and therefore to me financially, if I chose wildlife biology as a career. Recklessly (so far as careers go), without a real answer, I chose it anyway, because it was fun, I enjoyed being outside, and believed that non-human life should be protected despite being unable to articulate specifically why. But in the process, my studies have liberated me in regard to the way that I see our world and my place in it. Further, I can now articulate why non-human life must be protected. So, the shorter answer to the question of why I wrote this book is that I am attempting to share what I have been fortunate enough to learn about the wisdom that can be attained from studying and preserving the natural world. 

Here is the longer answer (if you were satisfied with the short answer, feel free to skip ahead!):

I happen to find more joy in interpreting facts than in establishing them, which in some regards makes me less of a scientist and more of a philosopher. Given the incredible amount of scientific knowledge that has been and is being generated, I believe that people like me can help make otherwise esoteric bits of information useful. So, in relation to several different topics with a link to biology that effect the lives of many people, I will try to explain in the following chapters some of the obstacles to having, and reasons to have, hope.

A sample of the topics that I will discuss, from a naturalist’s perspective, are: evolution, understanding ourselves and others, free will, climate change, death, hostility between groups of people, (G)god(s), homophobia, and the interdependence of all life on Earth.

This book is not a technical description of the mechanisms by which the topics that I discuss work. There is plenty of literature already in existence which can supply that information. Rather, I will present ways to think about the situation that we are in, and you can choose if they suit you. I have not cloaked my writing with formality, though rather have tried to present myself just as I would if the reader was a friend who wanted to know why I care so much about things like birds and trees. I am not a world-renowned authority in biology, and don’t claim to be. I do, though, know enough of the basics to be able to see the incredible all around and within myself, which have caused endless inquiries about life, many of which are presented in this book. Some of my ideas are, I admit, audacious, but all are inspired by scientific thought. Further science could disprove what I present, which is what makes scientific thinking so beautiful. With science, we are stuck with nothing but the truth.

I consider the natural world to be much like an abstract, mind-bendingly beautiful painting (like those of Salvador Dali, for example) that tells me something about what I am and where I am. If one does not look at the exquisite painting that is life in the right way, they might miss what can be learned. And this painting is being consistently burned away year after year so that people can fuel their vanities. Imagine billions of people smoking their cigarettes in front of a Dali painting, and stamping out the flaming end on the beautiful canvas. Before long, the priceless, irreplaceable painting will be gone, destroyed by the residue of careless and ignorant people. That is exactly what is happening to the natural world that I love, and in the following pages I will try to explain what we can learn from Nature in addition to how and why most of what is left of the natural world must be protected. The only way for this to happen is if the vast majority of people change the way that they relate to the world that surrounds them. In so doing, I believe that many of them could become much happier.  

Not long after trying to describe the basics of science and how it supports the reality of evolution to my mother, I had an interesting dream. There was a grizzly bear in our front yard, and I wanted her to join me in approaching it, for a closer look. She didn’t want to, though did eventually acquiesce and drove me over to see it, on a four-wheeler. She was in the front, I was sitting on the back. Once we got close, I started taking pictures and then the bear aggressively charged toward the vehicle. I told her to ‘go!’ and she did. The bear was surprisingly fast, and had equally surprising endurance. It succeeded in scratching my hands, though we escaped. Once we reached the end of our road, somehow (due to dream logic), I was suddenly driving a motorcycle and my mother still drove the four-wheeler. I raced to the north down the road we had arrived to, leaving her at an intersection with a bear approaching. As I was speeding down a dirt road on the other side of the block, I thought that she might decide to go back toward the bear alone, ill-equipped to do so, and therefore expose herself to danger. Upon feeling very guilty, I awoke. This example of the subconscious eloquently using a metaphor (which goes to show how much the sub-conscious mind can perceive and create) is a perfect analogy for understanding other ‘grizzly bears’ in one’s front yard, in addition to evolution and its implications. ‘It’ is there, undeniable, and without the appropriate preparation can be daunting. And I felt in the dream that my mother was not prepared to think about a particular grizzly, mainly because she had not had years of schooling involving the study of evolution, such as I have.

So, I think that it is important for everyone to avoid facing grizzlies alone. There should be open discussions led by educated individuals about many such subjects (maybe dynamic and honest weekly meetings that the whole family could look forward to?). There is no reason for someone to have to grapple with such a difficult subject alone. Especially because it can turn from daunting to beautiful if approached correctly. This book is an attempt to help people turn a frightening grizzly bear (or bears) into a beautiful thing, so that an incredible painting can be saved and live to inspire others as it has so inspired and liberated me and others like me.