Finding Northern Indiana’s Lost Marsh

An article that I wrote about the Grand Kankakee Marsh and efforts to bring it back was recently published by Earth Island Journal, so I thought I’d share the link. The marsh was once the largest inland wetland in the U.S., but growing up in northern Indiana I mainly just saw agricultural fields where it had been.

Here is a map of the vicinity where the marsh occurred, and where it could be brought back:

Estimated former extent of the Grand Kankakee Marsh. The Century Atlas Company, 1897. Copyright: Jim Sweeney, 2016.

Fox Snake Swimming in Marsh

While I was completing a marsh habitat survey where a King Rail that I’ve been tracking had been hanging out, I noticed a large snake swimming across the water nearby. It was easy to catch up to. I identified the snake as an Eastern Fox Snake (herpetologists, feel free to correct me!). Regardless of what it is called, I think the snake and the way it moved through the water is beautiful. So, I thought I’d share. Here is the video:

Do I Really Look Like an Ostrich?

“You look like an ostrich.”

That is what I remember someone telling me. I’ll not ‘name names,’ but will say that the person who said this to me, coincidentally, had the name of an animal species in his/her last name. I didn’t see the resemblance.

I often do, however, see resemblances, kind of like that person did when looking at me (I’ll admit that like an ostrich I am tall, have a long nose, and cannot fly). I’ve had the opportunity over the last eight years or so that I’ve seriously been studying birds to see many people who study not only birds, but many other animals species. I’ll be the first to admit that some people bear an uncanny resemblance to the organisms that they study.

Yes, I’ve seen frog-people and mice-people, even moose-people. Not usually, but sometimes.

The resemblances that I see, though, usually go beyond attributes such as body-type, facial features, etc. Generally, when I watch the way that people move through the world, I think that their behaviors more closely resemble the organism that they focus their studies on than does their physical appearance (with some notable exceptions that I won’t elaborate on).

In a herpetologist, I’ve seen the calm, zen-like demeanor of a salamander. In an ornithologist, I’ve seen the indifference of a sleepy owl.

It could be that people are hard-wired to see similarities between any two things placed nearby (physically or mentally), and that in fact people don’t tend to behave more like what they study or associate with than would randomly paired people and animals. My gut, however, tells me that this isn’t totally true.

I’m convinced that if one watches anything for long enough, to some degree that thing becomes a part of their mental process and affects everything about them, even if they do not realize it. This is a simultaneously beautiful and depressing realization, especially when one considers the things we all see and wish we didn’t, and also that which some people must see every day and cannot escape.

I feel very lucky to be able to watch birds. And if I do, in fact, become a bit more bold or inquisitive after spending years watching Blue Jays, or even more secretive like a marsh bird, that’s OK by me.

I know that some people probably consciously choose to act the opposite of what they watch, and that most people likely don’t actually behave like what they study or associate with.

To me, though, a world where I think that I might see the intelligent poise, or even ruthlessness, of a wolf in someone is far more interesting, and usually inspiring, than a world without wild and natural influences.

Let’s do our best do maintain the diversity of wildlife, and behaviors in people, that remain. Even if we don’t see the effects of our conservation efforts, others may see the effects, perhaps even when they look at us.

Why Nature Matters, and is Worth Fighting For

A Google search of ‘Why Nature Matters’ yields many articles. I examined the first ten links that appeared when I googled that phrase, and found web pages that focus on many sentiments that I share, such as the facts that we depend upon and are a part of the natural world, tend to be mentally disconnected from that reality, and therefore are causing damage to ourselves and other living things due to our non-eco-friendly actions such as contributing to climatic change and generally not caring.

Among the action-based websites of the ten that I examined (https://www.wwf.org.uk/why-nature-matters, http://www.everythingconnects.org/), I saw a common model for trying to bring about positive change with respect to humanity’s relationship with the natural world: first, identify specific problems, second, outline efforts being made to combat them, and then, third, ask for monetary or other contributions so that those efforts can continue. Also, I saw the common, and important, listing of facts about the dangers of climate change and how the natural world provides ecosystem services (things that can be utilized by humans), such as clean water and medicines, among many others.

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Small sinkhole in land that the state of Indiana has protected via nature preserve status

But these important approaches, I believe, cannot succeed alone. A particularly good outline, an article by Kobie Brand on the Nature Conservancy Website (https://global.nature.org/content/why-nature-matters-in-our-new-urban-world), briefly touched upon the ‘spiritual’ importance of the natural world for people, which is somewhat close to what I’d like to discuss in this post. Another Nature Conservancy associated page (https://blog.nature.org/conservancy/2013/01/04/the-heart-of-why-nature-matters/), written by Sarah Hauck, gets closer to what I hope that you take the time to consider with me today, and that is the notion that a part of the reason why the natural world matters because it can help us to understand and find a sense of comfort in life. This idea is rarely discussed as a reason for why Nature matters, and so I want to help begin the conversation, in whatever small way I can.

I decided to write this post because of the time that I spent yesterday in Donaldson’s Woods, a very special place in Indiana, USA. This section of forest within Spring Mill State Park is possibly the best example of climax forest in IN (I use ‘climax forest’ to mean a forest that has been virtually undisturbed by humans or other processes for several hundred years). Almost all of the trees in the eastern United States were cut down when Europeans arrived, so to find an area where the cutting did not happen is very special to me. At places like this, I can feel a sense of being at home that does not occur in the same way elsewhere. I’m going to use the example of my experience in Donaldson’s Woods to convey what can be felt in the natural world.

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Massive Tulip Tree, in Donaldson’s Woods

In Donaldson’s Woods are towering living and dead white oak and tulip trees (and other tree species), as well as massive, decaying trees on the forest floor, all which provide important habitat for wildlife, as well as thought material for any organism that has wondered or will wonder ‘how did I get to be here?’

Thinking about this question, as I sat on the bench where I could see the towering tree in the above picture, I watched leaves fall around me, people walk by me, and a plump pawpaw fruit dangling above me. There were lots of pawpaw trees, many more than I’m used to seeing in the younger, more dense forests that I frequent. I thought back to what a fellow bander at the bird banding demonstration that I took part in earlier in the day had said, which was that land managers sometimes burned the under-story of Donaldson’s Woods in order to, among other reasons, clear the way for plants to grow which would not be able to otherwise. I then found myself wondering if pawpaws grow better in places that are occasionally burned by people who want to simulate fires that naturally occurred before humans began to suppress fire.

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Pawpaw tree and fruits, in Donaldson’s Woods

When I saw an empty water bottle that someone left on the trail, it reminded me of the sinkholes that are scattered throughout Donaldson’s Woods, as well as the breath-taking caves elsewhere in Spring Mill State Park. I tried to imagine water eroding the holes and caves from limestone. Maybe even the same water that ended up in the bottle. And, I wonder, how long did it take?

A migrating Swainson’s Thrush flew by me, as I sat on the bench, and I began wondering if birds in climax forest’s such as Donaldson’s Woods are in better body condition than birds of the same species that live in younger forests, or in cities, and if climax forests like Donaldson’s Woods offer ideal migratory stopover habitat. I wondered if I could find out.

I actually try my best, these days, not to think such thoughts in the forest during ‘non-work’ time because I like to ‘just be there,’ if I can. But, my point is, there are many questions that can come to mind when one is in the natural world, which can lead one back through eternity. The questions that I experienced while in the ecosystem of Donaldson’s Woods are no different than the question of ‘how did I get here?’ More specifically, I wondered, how did I get to be on a bench as a clothed, human animal in a ‘state park,’ in a ‘country,’ on a planet that is experiencing rapid, destabilizing change, where people still regularly kill each other?

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Old life providing nutrients for new life, in Donaldson’s Woods

Watching and thinking about interactions in Donaldson’s Woods, it was quite clear that events spanning at least over what we call ‘billions of years’ have lead to me and everything else. This is a time span that we humans cannot envision. It involves many lives like mine that have begun and ended, going all of the way back to before there was land. There have been complex processes that have involved unimaginably large numbers of interactions that have shaped everything I see, and everything I don’t, including the hormones that affect my behavior, the structures that make my body, the decisions about which things I value, the feelings I experience, and the way that I perceive the colors, images, and sounds of things around me.

In the woods, it is easy to see the forces that control living things, such as the the need to acquire nutrients, to get water, to have shelter, to reproduce. And, when one places themselves upon the same eternal stage as other living things, he/she may begin to acknowledge the ultimate reasons for their emotions, their behaviors, their interactions with people and non-people. In other words, the processes that have led to them become a bit more clear. And, with this in mind, important decisions can be made about how to conduct oneself. The reins of the wild, sometimes destructive, stallion that you are riding finally appear, for you to grab. And, luckily for us, there have been many thousands of scientific studies conducted which can help to elucidate why things are the way they are, as well as many authors, lawmakers, priests, and other desirous sculptors of how people see things, who have also tried to distill our situation into a coherent one. In other words, we don’t have to figure it all out ourselves (but, we do have to decide who we can trust, i.e. who is presenting the facts as they are and who twists them). Many incorrect inferences about how humans relate to the natural world can and have been drawn from natural observation, though there is enough good information available today for everyone with internet access (look for sources that cite their sources) that an understanding of how the natural world works, and how we might fit in, is available.

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Soil exposed by a fallen tree, in Donaldson’s Woods

I believe that learning to sit quietly in the woods, or anywhere, can help one to ultimately feel more at ease than they otherwise would, as a result of being able to see and understand a bit more. In regard to understanding, it is supremely inspiring to me that individuals of our species have helped to compile the collective body of knowledge that we have acquired which describes our situation here on Earth. We’ve been able to gain this scientific understanding simply by observing, hypothesizing, experimenting, concluding, submitting for peer-review, and repeating. By studying the natural world, I feel sure, and by thinking about how things have come to be, we can find a history that is far more accurate than what humans have passed on via oral mythology and then via written language. Histories written by humans are at their best a bit distorted, but informative and useful, and at their worst entirely misleading and often intentionally destructive, with the intent to benefit a few people, or a few selfish human tendencies. By this, I mean to say that there is a lot that we can learn from the ‘history pages’ that exist in the natural world (i.e. the largemouth bass, the fire ants, the amoebas, the chestnut trees) which if studied scientifically possess answers that we cannot acquire via history books written by humans. Further, an understanding of history, I believe, is crucial to feeling at home. Thus, we should cherish our natural history.

And, in Donaldson’s Woods, there is as clear a picture as we can get in Indiana of what the long process of time has led to, as there is an assemblage of interacting organisms which are in an environment that their bodies were created by evolutionary processes to interact with. It is true that species like wolves are missing due to extirpation by humans, and changing climates and pollution affect everywhere, but, that said, it still remains that Donaldson’s Woods is just about the best that a naturalist can get in Indiana. Feeling this, I watched a Wood Thrush ‘tut-tut-tut’ away as Blue Jays were crying, in a way that I’ve seen them do when they’ve found a snake, and which maybe the Wood Thrush has seen before, too. And which Native Americans may have seen occur thousands of years ago, too, in what we now call Donaldson’s Woods. Natural areas like Donaldson’s Woods are sacred ‘ovens,’ I think, where metaphorical ‘bread’ in the form of plants, animals, fungi, and insects still exist and ‘rise’ in a place where we can come to understand something about how they have been ‘baked’ so far, why the ‘taste’ the way they do, and how they might ‘taste’ in the future.

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Blue Jays are prolific planters of forests

Seeing a Northern Cardinal in the parking lot of my apartment complex, however, is not like seeing a loaf of bread in a sacred oven. You see not much of what led to the bird as it is in the parking lot, given that the species has little history in such an environment. In the parking lot, or in an a forest riddled with invasive species, for that matter, what you see are the conditions that the bird (or reptile, or plant, etc.) is now adapting to, and that its history has pre-disposed it to be adaptable (or not, if the species to which it belongs is present, but slowly disappearing).

Everything, even in Donaldson’s Woods, is constantly changing, and often adapting, to some degree. Upwards of millions of generations of Wood Thrush’s, for example, and all other species, have seen the instruction manuals housed in their cells (DNA) modified by up to billions of years of changing circumstances. If you can’t make it in the environment, then you don’t pass on the instructions housed within you to make offspring that are very similar to you. It needs to become common knowledge that current circumstances in the global environment are challenging many species in such a way that they will disappear sooner than they otherwise would, due to the behavior a particular species on Earth, of which I and all who I can communicate via written words are a part. We are a force of Nature, like anything else, but one which I hope can learn to see, and act in its own best interest by achieving a state of harmony and equilibrium necessary for long-term survival.

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Woodpeckers create cavities in dead trees like this, which can then be used by species that cannot make cavities themselves, like raccoons.

The way of feeling and thinking about the natural world that I have described, of acknowledging the evolutionary processes that have led to all that is here on Earth, may cause you to abandon or discover what has been referred to as ‘God.’ But, either way, I feel that paying attention to the natural world is more likely than not cause a person to become more comfortable in their own skin, more accepting of those in other skins, and probably more ‘spiritual.’ So, if you haven’t spent much time observing the natural world, I hope that you give it a try, and realize that, like anything else worth doing, it takes time and practice to feel like you are ‘doing it right.’

I believe that in many ways, we as a species are like a Northern Cardinal in a parking lot. Not exactly suited for the conditions in which we find ourselves. However, there are still natural temples that exist, where we can feel that forces that made us, and where we can escape the screens and societal arrangements that are unlike the conditions which formed us. There is still a natural home for us, even if it is much more rare than it once was.

 

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Large tulip tree in Donaldson’s Woods, with my water bottle as a size reference

Gaining a sense of understanding and thus feeling at home is, I believe, perhaps the most important reason that Nature matters. For me, nothing aside from being in and thinking about the natural world has caused me to feel that I am able to understand something about ‘how I got to be here.’ Additionally, nothing else causes me to realize just how fine-tuned myself and most other things are for succeeding in this place, so long as our Earth is not modified extremely (by pollution, etc.). In other words, I can feel at home in the natural world because I can see that that is where I came from, how I was made to be the way that I am. And I can feel inspired to fight for my home. I believe that millions of other people may feel more or less just the same as me, and that billions more would do so if circumstances were such that they were able to spend free time observing the natural world.

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Old, standing dead trees, like this one, are hallmarks of  climax forest

I want to stress that such a view of life can be inspired almost anywhere, not just in a climax forest. Many forest types exist via natural progressions, which involve many different species. However, telling the story of climax forests is important to me because of how common they once were, along with the many individuals which used to live in them that no longer have a home. The same could be said of grasslands and wetlands in the mid-western US. I’m sure that these habitat types also have wisdom to provide.

Before I conclude, I want to say that my trip to Donaldson’s Woods caused me to kind of fall in love with a Scottish adventurer named George Donaldson, who lived from 1811 to 1898. While almost literally all of the other landowners in the eastern United States were cutting down their forests, he was in a position that he could and did refuse to do so with respect to what is now called ‘Donaldson’s Woods,’ which he acquired in 1865, where he did not permit any ‘snake to be killed, a butterfly to be caught, or a flower or twig to be broken,’ according to an article by S.E. Perkins III from 1931. He even made a monument in 1866 on his property in remembrance of Alexander Wilson, a man who has been called the ‘Father of American Ornithology’ (see Perkins’ write up about Donaldson and Wilson, here: (https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/wilson/v050n01/p0013-p0017.pdf).

And, because of the actions of George Donaldson, many lives have been positively affected, and many humans have probably felt the all-pervading tickle that acknowledgement of connection to natural processes can cause. It is very refreshing to experience a positive feeling toward someone with ‘Donald,’ in their name. During my time in Donaldson’s Woods, I had many thoughts about the political situation in the United States, and I’ve decided not to provide many of them here for you (because I think almost everyone is sick of hearing about the travesty of US Politics), but I will say that the actions of the President of the United States and his party suggest a sickening disrespect for the natural world and an opposition to George Donaldson’s position, which was to cherish and acknowledge our connection to the natural world. Caring about the environment that we all depend upon should not be partisan issue, and everyone, regardless of political affiliation, should demand that that be the case.

Observing the behaviors of the President of the United States, just like looking at the results of all such elections, serves as a mirror for the people represented by the elected official. If we don’t like what we see, we must be brave enough to speak up and try to bring about the change that we want to see. I see a national consciousness that is confused, and lost, but which could come to feel at home if allowed to be set free from the choker leash of confusion and tyranny.

When I imagine a nation, and a global society, that equates home with Nature and which acknowledges the preciousness of life, I’m emboldened to be a part of the fight to show that Nature matters, and to thus help protect this delicate place that you and I call home.

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A trail, waiting for walkers like you

 

Rocky Raccoon Almost Meets His Match

 

When I was walking to our urban study site, hoping to catch a pesky Song Sparrow before sunrise, I heard what struck me as an unidentifiable sound. I can identify most natural sounds that I hear, but this one had me stumped. A shrill, persistent, screaming-type sound had me wondering if some tropical bird of a species unfamiliar to me had been blown north by a hurricane to Indiana, where it was complaining about a lack of friends in its new environs – or about some other injustice. This didn’t seem likely, but I needed to know what the sound was, regardless.

It was clear that the sound was coming from a spruce tree next to the city street that I was walking on, so I took a few moments to peer into the dark. And this is what I saw (pay close attention at second 40):

 

I know that I’ve heard raccoons calling before, but never quite like this little guy/gal was. I’m not sure if at the end of the video he/she was scolding me for not lending a hand, thanking me for moral support, or assuring me, ‘I meant to fall, you know’, but I am sure that I’ll never forget what a young raccoon hanging on a branch (apparently terrified) sounds like! The deer and rabbit which were standing directly behind me when I was filming this (unbeknownst to me at the time), who were as far as I can tell possibly interested in the wails, too, may not forget what a stressed out raccoon sounds like, either. In the natural world, it certainly pays to listen to your neighbors, who might warn you of danger. Who knows, they might also warn you which branches to avoid…

P.S. The title of this post is in reference to a great song by the Beatles. If you don’t know it, then maybe you should change that!

 

 

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…

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!