Tag Archives: wildlife

“The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady” by Edith Holden.

Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. 176 pages, plus species lists.

This book is a gem! It is a full color facsimile reproduction, notable for both artistry and scientific accuracy. Edith Holden was known in her lifetime as an illustrator of children’s books. Decades after she died in 1920, a relative showed her “diary” for the year 1906 (which was intended as a teaching tool) to a publisher, who released it in 1977. The book is a combination of field observations (she walked many miles!), the author’s favorite poems and sayings, and beautiful, detailed paintings of insects, birds and flowers.

A second book of Holden’s field notes (The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady) was published in 1984.

I took a careful look at Holden’s entries for the month of May. The month begins with a detailed painting of a chaffinch’s nest with eggs, surrounded by hawthorn blossoms and wild hyacinths.

One of the mottoes listed is “Change not a clout till May be out”. I think this means “keep your winter cloak handy”. Good advice! On May 16, Holden reports cold north wind, thunder and HAIL. She went out none-the-less, and found a thrush’s egg that had been blown to the ground.

Holden includes poems by Wordsworth, Spenser, ap Gwillym and Ingelow among her May entries. There are numerous paintings.

This lovely book would make a fine gift for any nature lover, or a treat for when you want to savor poetry and art at the same time.

“Living at the End of Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

This memoir was published in 1990, a generation ago. Much of its appeal (for me) comes from the geographic setting – in Massachusetts, near the Boston beltway (aka Route 495). In this improbable spot, in the wake of a divorce, Mitchell built a rustic cabin on the land where his family and former wife lived.This book is an account of his first year in his relatively primitive, small (10’ by 16’) shack, which was located only half an hour from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau undertook to “live simply” in 1845.

Mitchell loves the natural world and studied Thoreau extensively, although (see blog post on Walden Warming, by Richard Primack dated June 23, 2014) he may not have realized how excellent a naturalist Thoreau was. (By now, he has probably met Primack and caught up with anything he missed. Massachusetts is fortunate in the quality of its writers.)

At the start of his sojourn, Mitchell also decided to spend time with journals he inherited from family members, most notably his father’s account of several years spent in Japan.

All this adds up to an unfocused but charming set of reflections. Mitchell’s rural retreat suffers impingement by the new headquarters of Digital, Inc. Land is developed, but he is still surrounded by an amazing amount of undisturbed nature. He also “senses” the impact of earlier occupants on the land.

Checking the usual sources, I learned that Mitchell has written extensively and also served the cause of conservation as an employee of Massachusetts Audubon. I look forward to sampling his other books, essays and blog posts.

The appreciation of nature which is not remote and exotic has more recently been carried forward by Lynanda Haupt in Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis, a more urban offering which I wrote about on June 7, 2013. My next trip to Massachusetts will be enhanced by my exposure to John Hansen Mitchell’s Living at the End of Time.

Reading Nature

I haven’t blogged much lately. One reason is that I’m (slowly) enjoying The Path Between the Seas by David McCollough, about the Panama Canal.

My other reason is that I’ve had so many opportunities to be out of doors! My back yard, the campus where I work, the Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, other parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and, to top it off, Vermont! What a summer!

So I have been observing nature directly. It has been suggested that nature can be “read” like a text. So what have I been seeing/reading? A few observations… 

My experiences in nature are often linear. I walk on paths – one path at a time. I can’t walk on two paths – if I come to a fork, I must decide where to go next. I would describe myself as a “linear thinker”, so this linear experience of nature is comfortable for me. Sometimes, as at the Forsythe Refuge, I’m in a car. Again, linear. Again, for me, comfortable. 

My “reading” of nature is often technologically enhanced. Who would watch birds without binoculars? I also use them to look at insects or the bark of trees. I haven’t used a microscope lately, but I remember fondly my 6th grade teacher, who showed us what was going on (live!) in a drop of pond water. Thank you, Mr. Costello!

And consider the almost universal adoption of cell phones and digital cameras! When we go bug hunting at night, a quick snapshot of some tiny, tiny insect can be blown up by a factor of ten, and the creature is promptly identified down to subspecies detail. If its identity is NOT clear, the picture is forwarded to a website for examination by experts. Learning has become easier.

Much of my “reading” of nature takes place in a social setting. Sitting around a “black” light waiting to see what insects will fly in is a pleasantly gregarious night time activity, kind of like a campfire. (Usually the setup consists of several lights and a white sheet, and there are variations that include “bait” to attract insects. The bait formulations often include alcohol or rotten fruit.) We chat and drink beer. Then suddenly a big moth or strange beetle arrives, and it’s all about science for a few minutes. Occasionally, an insect is collected for research, but most are admired, photographed and allowed to continue their business. This can go on for hours, until we get tired and goofy and try to communicate with the local owl population, imitating their calls. 

Another scientific/social way to “read” nature is to participate in a bioblitz, an event at which scientists get together to study the living organisms in a particular area. At a “full scale” bioblitz, there’s an effort to have complete coverage, a scientist for each category of organisms that might turn up, plants as well as animals. That is a big, complicated endeavor and it doesn’t happen very often. I think the last one I attended was in Connecticut in 2009. But I went to two small, insect oriented events this summer. See http://www.nps.gov/vafo/naturescience/bioblitz.htm The national park at Valley Forge was studied by scientists from Drexel University and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

What makes a bioblitz “social”? It’s the curiosity! At one bioblitz, the officials actually fired a starting gun to signal the beginning of the 24-hour event. The large team of invited experts scurried off. Not being a biologist, I lounged around the “headquarters” area, wondering what would happen. Twenty minutes later, the first scientist returned, with a big basket of mushrooms and funguses. But wait! In the gills of one mushroom was a tiny insect. It was carefully passed along to the correct specialist, and the day’s excitement began. No matter what you brought in, someone found it exciting! Slugs and leafhoppers generated as much interest as birds and cute, small mammals. 

Sometimes people ask if a studious approach to nature makes it less “mysterious” or less beautiful. Not to me! Nature is still full of surprises. The more you look, the more you see. Often I’m outdoors in the company of people who observe much more closely than I do. When I settle down to their meandering pace, I find out how much there is to look at. 

My best surprise in recent months was a migration of dragonflies. A river of dragonflies! Every few yards, another dragonfly, all traveling in the same direction. I don’t know how wide the river of dragonflies was, or how long it persisted, but I was thrilled to see this unexpected behavior.

Another fine surprise was a foot long snapping turtle crossing the sidewalk near the lake at Richard Stockton College (New Jersey). This snapper was black and wet and weedy, and had an attitude! Every part showing outside of its shell looked like pure muscle – legs, tail, neck… Instead of dragging along on it’s abdomen, this character came up on its legs and moved strode briskly. I kept out of its way, hastily taking a few pictures before it slid into the lake. 

I’m still reading books of course, but for now, I will read nature whenever I get the chance.

“Bird of Jove” by David Bruce

I found this book in an unlikely place, the gift shop of the Cape May Bird Observatory, which was about to close for the summer. There were the “real” books, the sale books, the donated books, and finally a shelf of books marked “no further reduction”. I can’t resist a bargain. I purchased “Bird of Jove” for one dollar.

“Bird of Jove” was published in 1971. It tells of the purchase of a rare Burkut eagle by an Englishman, Sam Barnes, who was traveling in a remote part of Kirgistan. Barnes was a naturalist and falconer. He was able to buy the rare eagle only because she suffered from a disease not curable in that isolated part of Asia. The eagle was cured quite simply with a common antibiotic, but getting Atalanta (as he eventually named her) to England was a monumental task in itself.

Living with (and training) a wild eagle in a small Welsh seaside resort town was challenging. Barnes and Atalanta had to cope with tourists (mostly harmless), aggressive motorcycles gangs and, to top it off, a fire bombing by Welsh ultranationalists. Time and again, Barnes had to nurse his terrified and sometimes injured eagle back to health and calmness.

Barnes says of falconry that a falconer must be “a practicing field naturalist first” and must also study folklore, history, botany and medicine.

This book raises SO many interesting questions! Is falconry an art and science that brings out good qualities in both human and animal, or is it a cynical exploitation of a wild creature? What is “intelligence” and what is “instinct”? When a trainer “dominates” a bird, does that behavior parallel anything seen in nature?

Barnes (and Bruce) anthropomorphize (make human) Atalanta a great deal. When they speak of her having a “temper”, what do they really mean? Might they be seeing something quite different, like fear or some other survival instinct? A bird may, to us, look “proud”, but I don’t believe it can feel “proud”. So what are we really seeing?

A part of the book I found especially endearing was Barnes’s efforts to deal with Atalanta’s natural cycle of mating, brooding and nurture of offspring. There was no eagle in England as a potential mate. Atalanta’s instincts led her to try to make a nest. She did it very badly – in the wild, the male would do most of the work. She laid two sterile eggs, and brooded them lovingly. Barnes was distressed for her. By chance, he found a nestling owl and decided to put it under Atalanta, taking away one of her eggs at the same time. Atalanta “adopted” the owlet, so Barnes got a second one, setting up a foster family. This seemingly logical step was complicated by the fact that owls and eagles don’t work the same shift! The owlets were active at night, when Atalanta’s daily rhythm led her to sleep. One owlet, which was driving Atalanta crazy, was soon returned to its original nest. The other was happy as an adopted eagle, until the age when baby eagles are normally driven away by their parents. Interestingly, the owl parents had never lost track of it and had continued to show up regularly with mice and other tidbits. So both baby owls returned to the wild, apparently unharmed by their temporary lives as eagle chicks.

This book is a wonderful read for anyone who loves animals and nature. David Bruce tells a great story. The book ends when Barnes leaves on an expedition seeking a mate for Atalanta.

“Bird of Jove” is dated, and I plan to go looking for “the rest of the story”, but I wanted to examine it first without “outside” input. Stay tuned!

“Bringing Nature Home – How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens” by Douglas Tallamy

This is a review not just of this book but also of a lecture by the author presented on January 27, 2014. It wasn’t the first time I had the pleasure of hearing Douglas Tallamy speak.

To those frightened by what’s happening to our planet and discouraged about the limited impact an individual can have, Tallamy offers practical advice and hope in an important arena, the preservation of wildlife through careful landscaping decisions. Many of us own a yard , and even a small patch of ground can provide host plants that attract butterflies and moths. These lay eggs which hatch into caterpillars that are a vital food supply for breeding songbirds.

Interesting questions came up after Tallamy had showed his gorgeous slides of butterflies and birds.

How far will insects travel to get to a desirable host plant? Pretty far! Tallamy cited an enclosed (urban?) courtyard only 15 by 15 feet that developed healthy insect populations a few years after native plants were established. He has found a few surprises in his own back yard in Delaware, which is one of his primary sites for scientific study.

Is it helpful to feed birds? Yes, but feeding should be restricted to winter unless you can keep everything very clean. Summer feeding can, unfortunately, spread disease.

Tallamy issued some stern warnings. Sadly, the monarch butterfly population “is crashing”. People need to know “how close to the edge we are” in terms of species extinctions of insects and birds.

BUT landscaping with native species can make a BIG difference! Bring on the Virginia creeper and plant oak trees and wild cherries. Reduce your lawn and plant flowers, shrubs and trees. It will look beautiful and be less work.

I’ve moved towards the encouragement of native species in my yard. I carefully protect holly trees and whack out autumn olive. I planted birch trees last year.

One more thing – Bringing Nature Home contains beautiful photographs. They make lovely browsing for any idle moment.

“The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature” by D G Haskell – new environmental classic?

Is there a name for the genre of books based on deciding to do something every day for a year? Like Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell… Could we call this the “journal format”? Sometimes it’s clever, but sometimes I think the author didn’t want to make the effort of choosing a structure. I’ll give Haskell the benefit of the doubt, and say it makes sense to organize a nature book by the cycle of seasons.

Haskell decided to visit a very small, defined forest site regularly for a year. He frames this as a form of meditation and begins with a discussion of the mandala, a Hindu/Buddhist symbol representing the universe. A mandala is highly geometric and regular. Sometimes it is intentionally destroyed after a period of contemplation.

Haskell’s little patch of woods was anything but geometrical. He had access to a bit of publicly owned, old growth forest in Tennessee. Few readers would be able to find such a place. Haskell writes about what he sees and how he feels. In an extreme attempt at “participatory observation”, he sheds his clothing to experience the extreme cold of winter. I think he was surprised at how fast hypothermia set in.

So what do we learn from Haskell? He wrote three or four entries per month, discussing the plants and animals and their relationships to the larger world. It’s entertaining, but, finally, faced with a November chapter entitled “Twigs”, I gave up. I skipped to the epilogue, where he expresses his opinion that ours is a good time for naturalists, supported as they are by technology and (sometimes) public interest.

Is this book a classic? Probably not. I liked Crow Planet (L L Haupt, see my entry dated June 7, 2013) better. The city dwelling Haupt decided to take binoculars with her everywhere, in order not to miss the wildlife that is, in fact, all over the cityscape. Many of us could emulate this! I would recommend it more strongly than Haskell’s approach.

Haskell is a good read for a temperate zone nature lover who wants to brush up on forest ecology. His bibliography would support anyone who wishes to study more deeply.