Connection and the Christmas Bird Count

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House Finch in an Eastern Redcedar. Photo by Tripti Suwal.

From December 14, 2017-January 5, 2018, birders of all ages and experience will traipse around feeders and fields counting birds and tallying species.

The Christmas Bird Count is one of the greatest citizen science efforts the world has ever seen. For over 100 years, birding enthusiasts (birders, bird-watchers, twitchers, what have you) have braved the winter weather in order to go out and count birds!

It’s a tradition that started at the turn of the 20th century. It began with only a handful of eager birdwatchers, led by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman. It only took 28 people, but together they tallied over 18,000 individual birds and 90 species. Now the Christmas Bird Count boasts tens of thousands of participants all across North America. Last year’s count found over 18 million individual birds and 2,607 bird species.

But what is it exactly that drives these enthusiasts to leave their homes and trot through a field or a forest or even a front lawn to count birds?

Any birder will know the bewilderment of a friend’s face when they find out you’re a birder. At times these friends may be pleasantly surprised because they too are secretly a birder at heart. Other times though, your peers may look at you quizzically wondering whether or not you’ve lost your mind. It is in those times that I’ve wondered myself, “What is it about birds that keeps me coming back?”

It’s not necessarily the birds, but the moments that the birds create. When a bird flutters into view, it is only there a moment before it is gone. In that moment you must be quick to collect the details.

When you go out into nature and decide to start noticing the details, you begin to make connections–connections to place, connections to nature, and (in the case of the Christmas Bird Count) connections to people. This is significant considering our desperate need for connection (think social media, television, celebrity culture, etc.). We’re a people searching for each other; we’re a people searching for the present moment; and we’re a people searching for ourselves.

It’s lofty, I know. But it’s also simple. Take a moment and observe the world around you. You’ll be amazed how it changes you.

What the Christmas Bird Count does is it connects people with nature, with tradition, and with other like-minded yahoos foolish enough to go count birds in the dead of December. It’s a remarkable experience open to any and all.

In Search for Birds, You’ll Find . . .

In search for birds, you’ll find nature bit by bit. It can be disappointing at times for the forest to be quiet and the trees to be void of any fluttering. But if you are patient, nature will reveal herself to you. Be vigilant to observe. The array of creatures that will cross your path will only be there a moment before they again disappear into the brake.

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Racoon fishing for some food. Spotted this guy while looking for sparrows hidden in the fields of Pea Island, NC.
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Black Bear in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Spotted some Cedar Waxwings flying over a creek before seeing this bear.
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Black Snake in a tree. We could hear a Wood Thrush singing its summer song. Our search for the bird led us to this snake.
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Eastern Fence Lizard. Spotted this lizard while searching for Orioles and Yellow-Breasted Chats in an undeveloped suburb. Photo by Tripti Suwal.
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Northern Cricket Frog. Just barely saw this well-camouflaged amphibian as we were observing a Little Green Heron in some marsh land. Photo by Tripti Suwal.
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Ebony Jewelwing. This damselfly was on the trail on a quiet day in late spring. We didn’t see much that day but we did see a juvenile Indigo Bunting. Photo by Tripti Suwal.

 

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

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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

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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 and 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

Peace and the Birds You Will Find

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Hummingbird perched on a branch. Photo by Tripti Suwal.

When you find yourself in a wood, alone; and you spot a bird of interest within plain sight, your thoughts will cease and your focus will be attuned to the image of the bird. Not only the image, but the movements and the sounds and its surroundings will be regarded with great sensitivity. Your breathing will become slow and calming, disrupting little of the natural world that surrounds you. Your dependence on your senses heightens–seeing, hearing, and the feeling of air moving between the trees. It is a moment that belongs solely to you, the bird, and these woods. A shared moment unto yourself and the natural world, a bit of peace hidden in the stillness.  

Then the bird will fly off to some unknown spot, just beyond the reach of your eyes. Its song will be the only identifiable mark that lets you know it is still there with you. So you glance in that direction, careful to spot any movements amid the foliage. You listen, intently, considering a move forward toward the bird observed, or perhaps moving on. You will hear the bird make its calls and you will hear other things between the leaves of the trees. Again, a bit of peace hidden in the melody.

After a time, the bird’s song will cease and you will be left alone in a wood, feet firmly planted on soil trod from time to time by passersby in day and foxes at night. The air will move by you too as it slaloms between the trees. If it is dusk in the summertime you will surely hear the croaking frogs. If it is winter, the stillness will be louder than the falling snow. Take heed to find yourself in this moment and acknowledge the chance meeting you had with the bird observed.

 

Collective Awe, and the Eclipse

Solar Eclipse
Photo by Stormie Billings

There are moments of transcendent awe which inspire us and instruct us on the mysteries of being human. After such a moment we often hope to turn and share the experience with another. If, by chance, there is a welcomed friend nearby, our words tend to fail us. We are often unable to explain the moment in a way that recreates the feeling. Most of the time, these moments pass before we can even articulate to ourselves the significance of what just occurred. These moments must be experienced because, in most cases, it is too difficult for us to communicate.

This is why the Great American Eclipse of 2017 was so special. People from across the nation looked up into the heavens and witnessed the awe-inspiring event as one. The feelings that welled up in one person, welled up in another. There was a collective awe that spread across the continent as the moon blocked out the image of the sun and we looked skyward, eyes wide and mouths open. We were wonderstruck.

I missed the eclipse, but I could feel the wake of the sublime as those who witnessed the event struggled to find the words:

“I feel different. I can’t describe how. But I do feel different.” (The Washington Post)

“I’ve seen people get on their knees and pray . . . I’ve seen scientists cry. All of a sudden, you realize, ‘Man, I’m part of this and I have instincts that I never, ever feel. I’m part of nature.’” (The Guardian)

“Some people cry. Some people scream.” (The New York Times)

What these voices are trying to find words for is the transcendent. This feeling of peace and uncertainty, this feeling of smallness and greatness all at once. It is a feeling that brings life back into our lungs and perspective into our minds. All at once, the moment is clear and simple, then immediately complex and out of reach. In the case of a solar eclipse, science can explain the math and the astronomy that creates the event, but even then our minds struggle to fathom the idea that the sun, our sun, has been blocked from view–blocked by a moon that is just the right size and just the right distance to perfectly cover the bright, glowing star we call our own.

Perhaps, this eclipse created a few eclipse chasers out there, but the feeling the eclipse invokes is not something that cannot be found elsewhere. Nature provides.

Not only does nature provide for our physical bodies (food, water, shelter, companionship, etc.), Nature also provides enrichment for our souls. If only we take the time to look, we may find “eclipse” moments in other aspects of the natural world. The magnitude of these moments may not be as grand as a solar eclipse, or as easily shared, but they exist and persist nonetheless.

Look for them in the quiet mornings or in certain sunsets. These moments exist in the colors that spread across the sky and in the vista of a stormfront moving across the plains. They exist in those instances when you see lightning in the dead of night, or the beating wings of a hummingbird, or in the loneliness of a forest, or the expanses your eyes set sight on while on the edge of a mountain.

Nature is a provider of all our physical needs, but if we take the time to look and listen and observe, the natural world will provide nourishment for our souls too.