Nature and Anxiety/Depression

A recent emotionally difficult situation has triggered a return of some anxiety and depression I have lived with off-and-on for a decade or so. Many others – celebrities, acquaintances, and unknown strangers – have used online outlets to share their experiences with these types of mental illness. These have helped me become more comfortable with this part of me. They have also pushed the zeitgeist regarding mental illness to one of mainstream acceptance. Now is the time for me to fulfill an obligation by adding my voice to the chorus.

To those close to me, this is not a cry for help. I am fortunate in that I recognized my old nemesis early. My therapist already has me on the path to recovery that has worked before, and I can feel it working now. Of course support is always welcome, but I will be OK.

IMG_6646One thing to understand about anxiety and depression is that the triggering event doesn’t matter. It’s not “I’m very sad or upset about this thing.” In my case (this time) it was a sudden serious illness of a much-beloved dog. I am very sad about it and the continuing maintenance and care is stressful. That’s not depression, though, nor is it exactly the source of the anxiety (in my case, the more pronounced of the two issues). My mental illness is not caused by having other intense life problems. I live a very comfortable life. It’s aided by straight white male privilege, only lacking the “obscene wealth” checkbox (but neither do I live in poverty). None of this matters to anxiety brain. The knowledge of the utterly incomparable suffering of so many others layers guilt for feeling bad in my position of comfort atop the existing depression.

When my brain gets word it’s time to be anxious, everything becomes difficult. Work is hard: can’t focus, feels pointless, seems overwhelming. The same applies to home obligations. At the worst moments, it even applies to carrying out basic bodily functions and routine daily tasks. Escapism into my hobbies doesn’t really work – too transparent for that asshole brain. It knows I’m trying to fool it. The anxiety and slowdown of accomplishments makes me depressed, which leads to additional anxiety about the depression itself. Anxiety about depression makes me feel stupid, which depresses me – you see where this is going. It’s all a big ugly feedback loop of nothing. Since it’s not rational to begin with, rational thinking is no escape.

What does help – for me, and for many others – is the right combination of medication and psychotherapy. In general those of us suffering from these conditions do not need non-professional advice, except for this: if you think you may be experiencing mental illness, seek help. Call a licensed therapist and explain what you are feeling. They’ll know whether you should come in, and once you go they’ll know whether you need continuing treatment. It’s not an easy step. You may go down many other avenues of identifying your problem first (I sure did, the first time). But calling for and accepting help is the single most important step.

There’s no instant fix, and progress won’t be wholly linear. But while the meds and/or the therapy are still taking hold, I’ve found some tricks that help. Keeping myself busy is one, to occupy my mind and keep it from spiraling. Most human contact – even when I don’t really want it – helps some. If I enlist rational brain in the fight firmly enough, sometimes together we can subdue anxiety brain for a time. All of these methods can be draining and hard to keep up for long. Of course different things will work for different people, and we all have to find our own allies against our demons.

It’s my intense appreciation of nature which may be my own strongest ally. Whether it’s getting some exercise in the fresh air or just basking in the immensity and complexity of the natural world, it can ground me. It brings a feeling of significant insignificance. I am so small, and yet connected in so many ways to such elegant and harmonious beauty.

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One such boost came while taking our other (healthy) dog for a walk in a local park. It was a lovely day, and I was enjoying the sounds of the birds. We took a familiar route along a paved path and past a small lake. Nearing the end of our loop, we passed a family with a little girl who pointed and said “what dog?” or some similar question. All I got from it was “dog!” so I smiled and kept walking. The father said, “I think it’s a dachshund mix.” I turned around and said, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t quite catch the question. Yes, he’s a dachshund and… ‘something.'” We all laughed and I moved on. Such a tiny interaction, but my spirits were nonetheless lifted.

Another instance involves my medication. The short-term fix, Xanax, does its job. However, the first few days of taking it, while my body adjusts, keep me pretty sleepy. For now I need a couple doses to productively get through a work day. So one of those first days I timed a dose around lunchtime, took my lunch to a local park and ate quickly. Then I let the birds sing me through a thirty-minute nap and returned to work much fresher and clearer.

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It doesn’t always work. I’ve tried gardening, which usually leaves me fulfilled and energized, but sometimes even that feels as pointless and overwhelming as anything else. Right now I am in an adjustment period, and during that time there doesn’t appear to be such an animal as a thing that always helps.

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Still, yesterday’s brief trip to McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area was another success. It was a hot day, but beautiful. A Washington Post piece Laurel shared with me reminded me of the huge sunflower fields they plant there. The section known as “Hughes Hollow” is also one of the better birding sites in the county, so I was all-in for an excursion. We went around midday, so the birds were less active than I’d hoped, but I saw quite a few common yellowthroats and two yellow-billed cuckoos as highlights. Of course the sunflower fields themselves were filled with darting goldfinches. The Post article did its job – quite a few people made the same journey on Saturday, but not quite enough to make things feel over-crowded.

I do think that when my brain chemicals are in the right balance and my mind mostly settled, my love of nature is one of the major factors keeping them that way. Combined with the medication, anxiety brain is no match for hikes through the woods with the sights and sounds of other living things all around me. Trees, mountains, lakes, streams, oceans and beaches all confer a placidness I would otherwise struggle to find.

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12 Months of Nature: May

Breeding Horseshoe Crabs

May’s adventure marked a return to the same general location as my February trip, but with a different target in mind. This time I was making my way to the shores of the Delaware Bay to observe breeding horseshoe crabs and the related food web in action. On the surface, that may not sound like something worth a two-hour drive, but I was lured by a mental picture of a thick blanket of horseshoe crabs covering sandy beaches while shorebirds greedily feasted. After all, up until this trip I had almost exclusively seen horseshoe crabs singly or in small groups, and post-mortem. Their otherworldly appearance fascinates me. So, I took an extra vacation day I had in my pocket, rose early, and headed for the DuPont Nature Center and Slaughter Beach.

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scoped view of a black-bellied plover amid some dunlin

“Come for the crabs, stay for the shorebirds,” should be the tagline. I was a little early for the peak activity – my schedule would not permit otherwise – but still there was enough for me to understand why this phenomenon has an accompanying festival and generates quite a bit of naturalist buzz. The basics are that the Delaware Bay provides optimal conditions for horseshoe crabs to breed in late Spring, supporting more of the crabs than anywhere else. Migratory shorebirds, particularly red knots and ruddy turnstones, have in turn learned to exploit the predictability of this cycle, timing their Spring migration to include a stop on the Bay’s beaches on their northward journey. These birds are following a particularly long migratory path and thus arrive often near starvation and always in need of energy. Without this food source most would not be able to complete the trip.

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I obeyed the rules, though admittedly sometimes pushing them as far as these swallows.

My first stop was at the DuPont Nature Center, which is a renowned spot for viewing shorebirds. There was a birding group who arrived around the same time I did, and the leader was kind enough to point some birds out for me and include me as a sort of de-facto member. With her help and the aid of my scope, I was able to pick out dozens of dunlin, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, and short-billed dowitchers. There were also a smattering of willets and semipalmated sandpipers and of course hundreds of “shorebird x” birds. What was a little surprising was an apparent shortage of red knots – the poster child for this whole thing. There were some, but not the numbers I’d expected. The Nature Center staff assured us they were around, though – they reported counting hundreds in a banding project just days before. Of course the shorebirds were not alone. laughing gulls, herring gulls, and common terns shared the beach and skies with them, as did several osprey and a small flock of barn swallows. Seemingly every post supported a double-crested cormorant. I spent about an hour and a half here and could tell this was going to be a successful day.

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A crab I thought was dead waves its appendages frantically to disabuse me of this notion.

Next up was Slaughter Beach. This was the spot where I expected not to be able to move without treading on horseshoe crabs. That would prove to be an unfounded assumption, but the crabs were abundant – living and deceased. Every few yards was a live crab, or a carapace, or a pile of discarded crab guts. Trails in the sand told the story of their journeys after being deposited ashore by the mild surf. The birds were far less plentiful here, and I got the impression that so were the crabs. The action seemed to mostly be taking place on sandbars and sheltered flats, as well as beachheads less accessible to the public. Still, I enjoyed every moment of the stroll and came upon some unexpected bonuses. For example, I was definitely not expecting the large numbers of purple martins swooping and diving over the sand. I also had to do a double-take at several skates swimming in the shallows, and at the eastern diamondback terrapins peering cautiously from the waters. At first I put the two together in my mind, thinking I was spotting sea turtles. I may have nerded out extensively before I figured out the truth… but this was OK, because I was fine with nerding out over the truth anyway.

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This particular terrapin was unlucky.

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Having already checked off the two big purposes for the trip, I still had a few hours to kill. So, recalling a great experience from a few months ago I returned to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Once again this proved a rewarding choice. This was a second great opportunity to check off some shorebirds on my year and life lists, and included the highlight of the trip: a pair of American avocets. These were a first for me and are among the coolest-looking birds I have ever seen. The thin, upcurved bill, upright posture, and white stripe just makes them look so elegant.

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An American avocet

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Prior Months of Nature

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans
April – Early Spring Wildflowers

Global Big Day 2017

Yesterday, May 13th, was Global Big Day. Global Big Day is an annual event sponsored by a whole host of birding groups across the globe with the intent to get as much data as possible into eBird. This was my first year participating (and frankly, my first year aware of its existence) and I had a blast! Along with 14,000 people I’ve never met as far as I know, I helped gather and report sightings of thousands of birds. Data is still coming in but as of this writing 5,884 total bird species have been logged. I was able to nab 61 myself, which in comparison is not very many but is a huge day for me. Among those 61 species were 11 more for my year list, of which 8 were new additions to my life list. I began the day with a goal of 50 species and hopefully three or four new ones, so I am overall quite pleased with the day. Yet there are groups who managed to log nearly twice as many birds as I have on my life list in a single day… perspective.

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Canada geese may be among the most boring and irritating birds, but their young sure are adorable.

It was raining pretty steadily when I woke up, but I had steeled myself for this eventuality during the preceding week and was not about to let that stop me. So, at 6:15 AM I tromped off into Wheaton Regional Park. I focused my first efforts of the day in the area around Pine Lake and the miniature train. It began humbly enough, as most birding checklists seem to, with robins, cardinals, and mourning doves. It wasn’t long, though, before I had added several of the most common May birds I was missing for the year: first a common yellowthroat, then a pair of enthusiastically singing red-eyed vireos. Three yellow warblers and a pair of northern parulas soon followed. There are some large pines near the train station that always seem to have some kind of interesting bird activity. I paused there for a long time, straining for a good look at several warblers that were darting about. I wasn’t able to ID any of them – the flashes of black, white, and yellow I saw weren’t nearly enough nor did I recognize their songs. Before moving on, however, I did pick up a surprising veery. That was a new one for me, and it took me a lot of staring and phone-pokery, and then finding someone else’s corroborating report, for me to accept my conclusion.

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A red-winged blackbird sat still just barely long enough for a quick phone snap

My next checklist began still within Wheaton Regional Park, but this time focusing on Brookside Gardens and the Nature Center. I didn’t add any new life or year-list birds here, but I did add several of the more common birds I didn’t find around Pine Lake, including the first pileated woodpecker of the day. I also spent some time watching and listening to some Baltimore orioles and following the graceful dives and turns of several barn swallows. For boring semantic reasons I started a separate checklist when leaving the park around 10 AM to return home. Here again I mostly fleshed out the everyday birds I was almost certain to see at some point, with one notable exception. I spied what I assumed was a wood thrush, but something just didn’t seem quite right. It sang and then I knew it was a different bird, but what kind? I turned to the Merlin bird ID tool and found the most likely culprits, noting the key features. I tracked the bird back down (it fortunately had not moved far) and centered it in my binoculars. Between the smudgy white eyering and chest pattern I had it – a Swainson’s thrush, and another first for me.

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I told you goslings were cute.

I returned home for lunch and to plan out my next trip, which turned out to include the highlight of the day. It certainly helped that it had stopped raining by then and I had thrown on some fresh clothes. At about 1:15 I arrived at my next spot: Meadowside Nature Center in Rock Creek Regional Park. In general this was a surprising gem with a lot to offer – I will need to return for more than just a birding trip to explore further. I arrived to find another pileated woodpecker on the ground poking at a stump not ten feet from where I’d parked and immediately knew I had chosen well. I paused to check out their raptor cages: a red-shouldered hawk, barred owl, and bald eagle (no, I didn’t count those). I meandered through some short trails at first, where I happened upon a small group of American redstarts emphatically either welcoming me or telling me to go away. After a while of wandering I came to the Study Pond, and here was a bird-nerd’s delight. I first noticed a number of swallows (tree and bank) zipping above the surface. Then I found that what I thought were more swallows executing acrobatic U-turns were in fact cedar waxwings – fifteen or more of them. When I passed around to the far bank for a closer look, a flash of blue caught my eye. It turned out to be a blue grosbeak – another first for me. I was rewarded with two great views of this stunning and unmistakable bird. I stayed to observe all this activity through my scope for half an hour or so.

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A tree swallow with the study pond in the background

I concluded the day’s birding by making a circuit of the nearby Lake Bernard Frank. Most of the birds here were repeat sightings, and none were brand new to me, but I did manage to add a few good ones to the day’s list, notably some double-crested cormorants and a bald eagle. There were a few moments where I was nearly certain I had heard a red-headed woodpecker’s distinctive screaming “Tchurr” call but I was unable to confirm it. The eagle would be the last species tallied for the day, which was somehow fitting.

 

Favorite Bird of the Day: Blue Grosbeak
Most Surprising Bird of the Day: Veery
Most Disappointing Miss: Scarlet Tanager
Most Surprising Miss: Chimney Swift
Most Abundant Bird: American Robin
Birds Appearing on All Five Lists: Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, Chipping Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Baltimore Oriole

Final Tally

Canada Goose (35)
Wood Duck (5)
Mallard (3)
Double-Crested Cormorant (8)
Great Blue Heron (3)
Green Heron (2)
Black Vulture (1)
Turkey Vulture (1)
Osprey (4)
Bald Eagle (1)
Solitary Sandpiper (1)
Mourning Dove (32)
Red-Bellied Woodpecker (23)
Downy Woodpecker (6)
Hairy Woodpecker (2)
Northern Flicker (5)
Pileated Woodpecker (3)
Eastern Phoebe (1)
Great Crested Flycatcher (2)
Eastern Kingbird (3)
Red-Eyed Vireo (2)
Blue Jay (13)
American Crow (17)
Fish Crow (7)
Northern Rough-Winged Swallow (7)
Tree Swallow (4)
Bank Swallow (3)
Barn Swallow (4)
Carolina Chickadee (21)
Tufted Titmouse (5)
White-Breasted Nuthatch (9)
House Wren (1)
Carolina Wren (8)
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (18)
Eastern Bluebird (6)
Veery (1)
Swainson’s Thrush (1)
Wood Thrush (16)
American Robin (58)
Gray Catbird (13)
Northern Mockingbird (2)
European Starling (7)
Cedar Waxwing (15)
Ovenbird (6)
Common Yellowthroat (1)
American Redstart (4)
Northern Parula (2)
Yellow Warbler (3)
Yellow-Rumped Warbler (3)
Chipping Sparrow (21)
White-Throated Sparrow (1)
Eastern Towhee (8)
Northern Cardinal (55)
Blue Grosbeak (1)
Red-Winged Blackbird (19)
Common Grackle (17)
Brown-Headed Cowbird (2)
Baltimore Oriole (9)
House Finch (3)
American Goldfinch (17)
House Sparrow (27)

Total Identified Birds – 561