The Newness in Nature

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Crow perched on a wire.

The Earth has been around for a long time and yet when we look into nature we refer to it as the unknown. We have this sense that some great mystery lurks just beyond the edges of the forests and the deserts and the oceans. Yet, for us humans, Earth is all we’ve ever known.

Why do we regard our home with such obscurity? It is a blessing I believe: to forever be on the cusp of discovery. Human history is one that has been shaped by the discoveries of man, but there are still new discoveries going on every day. Even on the smallest scales . . .

I recently started a nature club at my school. It is a school that is characterized by free-and-reduced lunch and one that has been dubbed “high-minority.” Many of my students have very few opportunities to experience the natural world outside of their neighborhoods.

At our last club meeting, we planted bulbs as part of a beautification project. One student was not happy about the project. She told me that she didn’t want to get her hands dirty and that she was upset for being placed in the club. I told her to have an open mind and to just try the club for at least one day.

While the other students were planting, I handed her my binoculars and challenged her to find a bird. This changed everything. Moments later she came back grinning and pointing toward some birds she’d found in the top of a tall tree.

They were crows.

Other students were immediately drawn to her enthusiasm and wanted to see the birds for themselves. Pretty soon a group of students were wandering the school grounds in search for something new.

Discovery is out there for everyone. And anyone who looks will be granted a new experience, one that sits deep in your bones. When you look back on the moment you will remember it all–what you saw, what you felt, and the possibilities that filled your mind.

 

Binoculars Enhance What You See and Feel

Barred Owl
Barred Owl perched above a creek. Photo by Tripti Suwal.

There are two numbers that are associated with every pair of binoculars. These numbers may appear as 7×50, 8×42, 10×50, etc. The first of these numbers indicates the magnification. So, if the first number is 5 then the binocular will magnify an image times 5, making it appear 5 times closer to us than normal eyesight. The second number refers to the objective lens diameter, or aperture, this number indicates the size of the area in which you are viewing. A smaller aperture will give you a narrow view, whereas a larger aperture will give you a wider view. Likewise, a sizeable aperture will allow more light to pass through the lens, making colors more vivid and clear.

The most recommended specs for binoculars is 8×42. This range allows birders enough magnification and aperture to view birds clearly and with a steady hand. Higher magnifications or lower apertures can result in a shaky scene.

A good pair of binoculars will enhance your ability to see things that are far away. This is clear–but we take this simple fact for granted. To see the world up close is to see the world differently. Birds are a perfect example of this.

For many, spotting a bird is like seeing a shadow in your periphery. It is barely noticed and when it is, it’s easily dismissed.

“It’s just a bird,” we say.

And so it is. But with the ability to see the bird up close, there is so much more. If you’re an experienced birder, just hand your binocs over to someone who’s never used any. They’ll peer through the lenses, frustrated at first trying to find exactly what you’ve told them to look for–a barred owl you’ve spotted perched on a branch just over a creek.

The person will scan the trees searching for the bird, wandering through the many leaves and branches, until finally they’ve spotted it. Almost always they’ll pause and a smile will spread across their face.

Through their new eyes, they see the world anew. They see the colors and the tones and the textures that make up the bird. They see the movements and the subtleties of the forest and the creatures that live within it.

If you note it, the person is usually shocked, dumbstruck by the details that were hidden in front of their face. There is great joy that can come from the simple act of noticing, and binoculars allow you to do just that on a more magnified scale.

The Restlessness Within Us All–Zugunruhe

Tundra Swans
Tundra Swans migrate from the far reaches of Northern Canada and the Arctic Tundra to winter near the fresh water lakes of coastal North Carolina.

Restlessness will beset us all–a need to move, to get out, to run away, or to walk toward. These times of unease can redefine us or reground us in what we already know to be true.

We may find ourselves moving away from home and the only things that are familiar. We may trudge through the wilderness of our lives in hopes of finding something new or reassuring. We may find ourselves far away and in need of making the long journey home, forever changed with the layers of life that cling to our skin.

In these moments, there is a deep sense of longing for something mysteriously on the fringes of our lives. Those who move, whether it be backward or forward, home or away, should find relief in their willingness to explore the surroundings of their being. For this willingness is one giant part of what makes you, You.

Birds too have these moments of restlessness; and a bird’s restlessness is called zugunruhe. Like a tree’s leaves, a bird’s sense of belonging changes with the seasons. When the time comes each Spring and Fall, migratory birds head North and South, respectively.

Zugunruhe refers specifically to migratory restlessness. It is a mysterious quality that reveals itself only during migratory periods. During these times, migratory birds are known to be particularly restive–ready for the right wind or weather to make their long flight to their seasonal homes.

For a long time, humans have marveled at the mysteries of migration. But diligent research is starting to answer most of our questions. For example:

Migratory birds are able to orient themselves in many different ways. Research has shown that birds have an incredible skill set for navigation.

Birds can read the magnetic fields of the Earth to navigate the globe.

Birds can orient themselves using the sun. Diurnal songbirds, such as warblers, prefer to navigate at night and can use the stars to navigate.

Birds who have traveled the path before can use landmarks, such as mountains or the coastline, to find their way either North or South.

Even first-year migratory birds display signs of zugunruhe. A first-year bird that is caged will leave its perch and flutter in the exact direction that it needs to fly toward. This suggests that zugunruhe is something innate within each individual bird–a deep knowledge of the need to go and the exact direction it needs to follow.

Migratory birds display zugunruhe for the duration it would take to actually fly to their intended destination. If it takes two weeks for a specific specie to get to its winter home, a caged bird of the same specie will show signs of zugunruhe for two weeks. It’s as if the birds know the exact time they’re supposed to start and end their long journeys.

Reflecting on zugunruhe I cannot help but relate the idea to the human experience. Is the restlessness within us all some sort of innate impulse? Is it driving us toward something or somewhere specific? How come it pushes some further away from home than others?

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the mysteries of migration. Something very human. Something that expounds on an individual’s need to move and adapt. Something only the birds really know.

Research Links:

Science Direct

Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms of Homing and Migration in Birds

The Sixth Sense of Direction, or, Navigation Secrets of Migratory Birds