Why Nature?

My last couple of posts, spaced over a year apart, were topically less about nature than most.  Whether I look at page view charts, new followers, or general positive feedback they were also by far my most successful. While I don’t want this to become a mental illness or travel blog, I thought that at least deserved some acknowledgement and follow-up. Why exactly is nature my topic of choice? This thought led me to more deeply consider what about nature is so alluring to me. What is it that drives me to experience it as often as possible and to learn all I can about it? Why is it the balm that sometimes nothing else can be? I thought these answers would be easily teased out of phrases like “staggering complexity” or “majestic beauty,” but they are proving much more nuanced. Beauty and complexity certainly have something to do with it, but even after much thought I can’t settle on a single definitive root for this passion.

I may as well start with the concepts that first came to mind. So: beauty. Nature has it in spades, from the most expansive landscapes to the tiniest creatures. Land, sky, and water; animals, plants, and fungi – all these things hold beauty in varieties to satisfy every aesthetic. It is self-evident that the most beautiful views and sightings are among the most treasured. Beauty can’t be all of it, though. I am equally fascinated by some of nature’s least conventionally attractive offerings. Beetle larvae, termites, house centipedes, carrion beetles: all of these creatures repulse many but hold my interest. Some of this could be re-framed as finding beauty in unexpected places, but it would be disingenuous to say I find all the aspects of nature that interest me beautiful.
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What of complexity? I marvel at macro-level natural processes like the water cycle, the progression of seasons, evolution, food webs, etc… and at the adaptations of living things to them. I am equally impressed by the smaller interactions I can discover if I really get down in the weeds (sometimes literally). I can’t talk about the complexity of nature without another significant keyword: connection. Beauty draws me in, but I think it’s the connections among living things and nature’s cycles that keep me engaged.

To cite a favorite example, consider the ash tree bolete. This mushroom doesn’t appear to be anything special, except for the gregariousness with which it sometimes grows. It is found only near ash trees, but not because of a direct relationship to the trees as with many other mushroom species. It is actually dependent on a specific species of aphid which itself feeds only on ash leaves. This mushroom can then be food for squirrels (and for humans, although having tried this once I can’t recommend it). This entire system, as well as anything else which may specialize on ash trees, is threatened by the encroachment into the United States of a single insect species: the emerald ash borer.

I’ve probably mentioned that here before and it’s probably tiresome by now. But if one investigates far enough, everything in nature has such connections to something else. Bird migrations, timed to coincide with specific plants’ fruit or seed-bearing windows and covering thousands of miles, are astounding. Diversity among bird beaks to exploit specific and widely varied food sources is no small wonder, either. Insects, spiders, amphibians, and more overwinter in leaf litter. The leaf litter is broken down by microorganisms and other small creatures, enriching the soil for new plant growth. Many of those plants wouldn’t survive without pollinators – bees, butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, etc. – which in turn wouldn’t survive without the plants.

This is all pretty basic, Naturalism 101 level information, but when one stops to consider even these well-understood relationships and how they have developed over eons, it is incredible and wondrous. In these and other, more subtle interactions I see a reflection of my own – and humanity’s – connection with nature. It’s a reminder that our cultural tendency to separate mankind from nature is in many ways misguided. As with beauty, complexity and connections are definitely part of the story. These ideas still come short of fully explaining my deep and abiding love of nature. Plenty of things are complex and connected, and I’m not obsessively devoted to all of them. I don’t keep up with the Kardashians, follow cricket, or study the three-body problem.

Challenge is the next concept that comes to mind, and I think I’m getting somewhere. This is of course closely tied to complexity in some ways, but more inward-facing. A cynic might say this is how I fool my brain into believing that nature is all about me, thus making it interesting. Nature can present challenges both physical and mental, and combinations thereof. In exploring the natural world, there are countless ways for me to feel accomplished while enjoying myself,  but with each accomplishment there is always another to strive for. It’s the same dynamic at work in free-to-play mobile games: rewards are doled out at precisely the right pace to keep users playing (and paying). In nature, there’s no need to part with money to tackle the next task – not as often and not as directly, anyway.

From a very early age the challenges offered by the natural world appealed to me. First were the purely physical: hike from here to there, climb this rock or that tree, ford the stream. They progressed to the combined physical and mental: catch the critter or fish, or seek out the really cool thing. Then I was introduced to the more purely mental, in increasing complexity: identify the tree from its leaves, learn what animals to expect in which habitat, understand the relationships between the animals and interpret behaviors. I never lost interest in the physical challenges – I still love a good hike, kayaking trip, or bike ride. I still like to catch things, too, although I like to believe I do so more responsibly as an adult. Each new type of challenge layered atop the old, resulting in a bottomless well of potential challenges to draw upon.

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My latest challenge: taking better photos of birds like this American robin.
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Another challenge: gradually turning this…
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…into this

The more I pick at this thread of “challenge” the truer I realize it is. I have chosen specific naturalist hobbies with high degrees of challenge. Soon after college I became fascinated with mushrooms. Identifying wild mushrooms can be a complicated proposition, and it was largely that difficulty which drew me to it. There are many aspects to consider and no hard-and-fast rules except “proceed with caution.” Through experience, one can learn how to consider the myriad factors and arrive at an ID sometimes. More recently, I have adopted birding as my prime outdoor hobby of the moment. Here there are the challenges of finding and identifying specimens, as well as challenges of patience and visual acuity. Perhaps as important are the available data and tools for analyzing it. How many bird species per year, month, or day? How many in Maryland, North America, Montgomery County, or my yard? Which bird is the rarest for its location? If I examine any of my hobbies closely, I eventually discover that I have turned it into a personal challenge.

So, have I figured it all out? I’m probably missing an accent or two, but I think the cocktail’s primary ingredients are beauty, complexity, and challenge. The beauty is the initial taste, while the complexities and connections keep me coming back for that next sip.

 

Outer Banks 2018: Birds

My wife and I have just returned from a much anticipated trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The trip was filled with beach time, fishing, family, seafood, and exploring. I’ll cover some of that (and some other nature) in a future post. Every trip is an opportunity for birding, though, so I will toss off a few keystrokes on that topic first. The Outer Banks, lying on the coast and a few hours south of home, hosts bird life a great deal different from what I’m used to. A trip there is always a good opportunity for a neophyte birder like me to expand life and year lists, and to get a little more practice identifying birds outside my usual range of experience. This year’s trip was no exception – I upped my life list by six and my year list by 39, notching 64 birds for the week.

Gulls

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A herring gull scolding a fish cleaner for not giving all the guts directly to its mouth.

I always think when planning a beach trip that I will have an opportunity to see a plethora of gull species. In all reality, during June only three species of gulls are particularly common on the Outer Banks – the laughing gull, the herring gull, and the great black-backed gull. I did see all of these (repeatedly) but didn’t spot any others. The ring-billed gull is reported on just over five percent of Dare County* checklists in June, and the lesser black-backed gull on about two percent, but all other gull species would be quite rare.

Terns

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Royal terns in the Florida Keys, Feb. 2014

By contrast, quite a few tern species are common on the Outer Banks in late spring and early summer. Ten species (lumping in the black skimmer – technically not a tern but closely related) are in the top 100 Dare County birds for June, according to ebird. Of those I saw eight on this trip – unsurprisingly the top eight: royal tern, least tern, black skimmer, common tern, Forster’s tern, Sandwich tern, gull-billed tern, and Caspian tern. Of those, the gull-billed tern was a life bird for me. The two I missed – bridled tern and black tern – would also have been lifers, but as the 91st and 99th most reported birds for the area I’m not feeling too frustrated over those misses.

Shorebirds

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Reusing an old photo of a shorebird I missed this time.

Shorebirds are another diverse group on the Outer Banks. Most of these I could nab on a closer trip to the Delmarva Peninsula, but the Outer Banks with its miles of uninterrupted beaches and Sound-side mudflats is an exceptional place to view these birds. This is probably the category where I was most disappointed in my results for this trip. I didn’t spend much time looking in the ideal spots, and when I did there were several groups I couldn’t get close enough to ID even through my scope. I did tally eight species but left a lot on the table. There are a total of 19 shorebirds at least as common as the “rarest” I tallied. Those I saw: willet, killdeer, American oystercatcher, semipalmated sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, least sandpiper, and red knot. I suspect that some of those fuzzy groups at the edge of my sight included semipalmated plovers, short-billed dowitchers, black-bellied plovers, and dunlins but I just wasn’t quite able to say for sure.

Pelicans and Cormorants

Pelecanus occidentalis (12)
Pelicans from a previous OBX trip

This is quite simple: brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants are very common on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands in June, and I saw many of both.

Pelagic birds

This is where I made some real progress on this trip, notching four species of pelagic birds on one fishing trip aboard the Miss Hatteras. Previously I had only seen one: the magnificent frigatebird. Other than the few species which can commonly be observed from land, I just haven’t had many opportunities to view these birds – and this was my first chance since I started “seriously” birding around the end of 2016. First I spotted a few Wilson’s storm-petrels on our way out to sea, and soon after I saw a couple of Cory’s shearwaters. While at sea the captain noticed my interest and pointed out a great shearwater, and on the return trip I got a good look at a sooty shearwater. Of course I also missed several fairly common species, including petrels, shearwaters, storm petrels, skuas, and jaegers, but for one trip (and that not really a birding expedition at all) I was quite satisfied.

Herons and allies

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Another cheat photo – snowy egret, Florida Keys Feb. 2014

On one moderate hike at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge I recorded seven species of herons, egrets, and ibis. None was a life bird, but all seven were year birds, and the two most common I missed (great blue and green herons) are abundant near my home and therefore not huge losses. It would have been nice to finally check off the glossy ibis as well, and I am certain there were some in my general vicinity. Still, one particular spot held a mixed flock of well over 50 great egrets as well as perhaps a dozen snowy egrets and as many white ibis, plus several tricolored herons. As a side note, I thought I spotted a pair of sandhill cranes flying from the sound side to the ocean side while driving home, just south of Oregon Inlet. The birds appeared too huge to be anything else, but we were cruising along pretty fast and I can’t even reliably report if they were the right shape. I haven’t found any recent reports of these birds in that area, so they were probably just some great blue herons or brown pelicans that looked oddly huge from my vantage point.

Other notable (to me) birds

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A juvenile barn swallow on Ocracoke

I didn’t see anything rare on my trip, but I was treated to one nice surprise. In our campground on Ocracoke, when night fell, I began to hear songs from several Chuck-will’s widows scattered among the marsh bushes. This was technically a life bird for me (because I had previously only heard them before I was recording sightings) and was something I was absolutely not expecting, although it turns out they are locally common in a few spots on the Outer Banks. Other year ticks for the trip included: boat-tailed grackle, purple martin, American black duck, brown thrasher, yellow-billed cuckoo, prairie warbler, and Eurasian collared-dove. While not “notable” in any real sense, I am always surprised by the preponderance of swallows at or near the beach. I shouldn’t be – they’re quite common – but there is always something incongruous to me about their appearance with the sand and waves.

What I missed

The single most abundant bird I did not see was fitting, as it is probably also the most common eastern North American bird missing from my life list: the eastern meadowlark. It’s a point of irritation for this East-coaster that I’ve ticked the western meadowlark but not the eastern. I also didn’t see any Carolina chickadees, which was odd but not that odd given the environments I frequented. Other than the shorebirds mentioned above the only other big miss is probably the prothonotary warbler, another bugaboo for me that always seems like it should be an easy add.

 

*Note: I am using a Dare County list as a proxy, but some of this vacation was on Ocracoke Island, which is in Hyde County (whose list is similar but different).

2017 Bird Blitz: Final Species Count

Good news! This is the last time you’ll have to scroll past a post about my 2017 bird blitz. To briefly recap, early this year I decided to do a personal “big year” of sorts. The goal I set was to see more species of birds in 2017 than were on my life list prior to 2017. I learned a lot about birding through this effort, and subsequently revised my life list to remove a few species I was no longer sure of (but kept the original target number). I blew past that original goal (in part because my life list was missing quite a lot of fairly common species for this region) and set a revised target of 200 species. So, how did I do?

I almost made the revised goal, and here’s the (rest of the) list:

163. magnolia warbler
164. bay-breasted warbler
165. black-billed magpie
166. Steller’s Jay

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A skittish Steller’s jay

167. mountain chickadee
168. red-breasted nuthatch
169. ferruginous hawk
170. gray jay

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A very much not skittish gray jay

171. lesser scaup
172. yellow-headed blackbird
173. white-crowned sparrow
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174. Swainson’s hawk
175. California gull
176. American kestrel
177. rock wren
178. vesper sparrow
179. western meadowlark
180. pygmy nuthatch
181. Williamson’s sapsucker
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182. mountain bluebird
183. white-throated swift
184. prairie falcon
185. Woodhouse’s scrub-jay
186. spotted towhee
187. American pipit
188. Lincoln’s sparrow
189. sharp-shinned hawk
190. little egret
191. spotted dove
192. Japanese tit
193. light-vented bulbul
194. common tailorbird
195. Oriental magpie-robin
196. crested myna
197. Eurasian tree sparrow

It was really the trips to Colorado (birds 165 to 188) and China (birds 190 to 197) that gave me the opportunity to expand the list. Species new to my life list are in bold above – which is all but three of the birds since my last update. Regrettably, I have very few good pictures of these species, but I’ve included what I could find.

Another birding accomplishment I pulled off this year was identifying my first hybrid:  the relatively common mallard x American black duck. I actually encountered this individual several times in Wheaton Regional Park, and he is pictured in the header image from this post.

Of course, a list like this wouldn’t be complete without the misses. So, I saw 197 species of birds this year… but how many could I have seen? There are a few major rarities that occurred in my area which I didn’t get the chance to go see: a Eurasion wigeon on some private land in Poolesville and a shiny cowbird hanging out near Beach Drive in Kensington are recent examples. For a list of more common birds I just didn’t happen to spot, I turn once again to ebird.org.

With their data, I can see that there are 155 species which have been recorded in Montgomery County at least once which I didn’t see in 2017. Of course, no one could expect to cross off all those records in a single year – many are one-off vagrants or extreme rarities. I will focus instead on the most common of these. The most reported Montgomery County bird I missed is the Prothonotary warbler, occurring on 3.4% of submitted checklists. A total of 21 birds of the 155 are historically reported on at least 1% of MoCo lists. Nine of these are warblers, but also included are the hermit thrush, purple finch, red-headed woodpecker, and rusty blackbird (among others).

So what about 2018? I don’t think I will try for any specific birding goal next year, but I’d like to fill in some of those blanks and keep expanding that life list. I pushed it forward from 160 to 245 this year, so I think I can coast on that for a while.

2017 Birding Goal: Achieved!

This will be a quick (and possibly boring to many of you) post. I am writing today simply to affirm a personal achievement. I decided early that 2017 would be the year I got better at birding. As a part of that ambition, I set the goal of compiling a 2017 year list of at least 162 birds. Why 162? As of 12/31/16, my life list stood at 161 bird species. As I learned more about birds I questioned some of those records enough to reduce that total somewhat but chose to retain the original goal. On a day trip to Assateague Island last Saturday, two new year birds put me over the top.

Pelecanus occidentalis (18)The first of these was a brown pelican spotted from the car as we crossed one of the small bridges on the Eastern Shore. Once we arrived at the beach I saw a couple dozen more. There’s nothing particularly special about this bird, except that I hadn’t seen one yet in 2017. Brown pelicans are large, unmistakable, and common so therefore an extremely easy box to check provided one spends a little time in their habitat.

The second was a least tern. Again, it’s a fairly common bird and marking it off is only a slightly higher bar to clear than the pelican. Still, I have only recently learned how to separate terns (and am as yet not great at it), so this one felt more significant. During strolls up and down the beach I spotted 4 or 5 more of these small birds. The other birds I saw this day were repeats, but I was struck by how much easier they were to identify than when I began this focused effort. More importantly than the list is the seeming success of the method of self-instruction. It seems, at least for me, that intense focus on one subject is a better way to build my knowledge of the natural world than simply studying whatever I find.

I suppose now is the time to get the list itself out of the way before I ramble on too long. If you’re interested in seeing the first 104 entries on my 2017 year list, they are enumerated in three previous posts here, here, and over there. New life birds are in bold.

105. broad-winged hawk
106. Baltimore oriole
Icterus galbula (5)
107. wood thrush
108. green heron
Butorides virescens (9)
109. purple martin
Progne subis (1)

110. ovenbird
111. eastern wood-pewee
112. indigo bunting
113. solitary sandpiper
114. chimney swift
115. cedar waxwing
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116. orchard oriole
117. veery
118. common yellowthroat
119. red-eyed vireo
120. yellow warbler
121. eastern kingbird
122. northern parula
123. Swainson’s thrush
124. American redstart
125. bank swallow
126. blue grosbeak
127. great crested flycatcher
128. boat-tailed grackle
129. ruddy turnstone
130. laughing gull
Leucophaeus atricilla (2)
131. dunlin
132. red knot
133. sanderling
134. semipalmated sandpiper
135. short-billed dowitcher
136. willet
Tringa semipalmata
137. common tern
138. snowy egret
139. American avocet
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140. semipalmated plover
141. black-bellied plover
142. least sandpiper
143. wild turkey
Meleagris gallopavo (2)
144. white-eyed vireo
145. yellow-breasted chat
146. ruby-throated hummingbird
147. scarlet tanager
148. field sparrow
149. prairie warbler
150. acadian flycatcher
151. willow flycatcher
152. cliff swallow
153. spotted sandpiper
154. little blue heron
Egretta caerulea (4)
155. yellow-billed cuckoo
156. pectoral sandpiper
157. lesser yellowlegs
158. horned lark
159. black-and-white warbler
160. least flycatcher
161. brown pelican
162. least tern

Reflecting on the full list, a few things are apparent. First: given how many very common and distinctive birds are new to my life list, I had a pretty pathetic life list going into this year. Second: given the total number of new-to-me birds (55), it would really be better for me to tack on at least a handful of additional species to be really certain I’ve hit the mark. I’m not self-assured enough to believe that all 162 birds are 100% certain. I tried to set a very high bar for counting a bird, but I’m far from perfect and still honing my skills. Third: I never would have gotten close without ebird.org and Cornell’s all about birds website and Merlin Bird ID tool. I know I have plugged these things unrelentingly, but for good reason.

So, what’s next? There is still plenty of time in 2017 to expand this list. I have an upcoming trip to the Rockies which should yield new opportunities, and the bulk of the Fall migration is yet to come. Juveniles and winter-plumage birds are more of a challenge than their adult and spring counterparts, but there’s no reason I can’t pick out at least a few more. Can I reach 200? That seems like a nice round number to aim for now.

Final note: photos above are not necessarily the same individuals identified this year, but all are my own.