Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature

As is customary at this time of year, I am going to take a look back at 2013 and try to determine what made it different from all of the other years I have lived through. This is where being a photographer comes in quite handy. As a result of my constant effort to examine the natural world, I have a fairly constant record of the things I saw (at least the things I saw outside).

This gives me a wonderful perspective, because it allows me to see patterns through time. I can see the rhythm of the seasons easily enough and I can also pick out both subtle and dramatic differences from one year to the next. Just as one might say that every rainstorm is just a little different from the ones before it, so, too, are the years different.

2013 was a year of records for me. I can’t explain why, but I imagine it has something to do with my evening ritual of sitting out on my porch and writing in my journal. I’ve spent more time consistently sitting and watching than in any previous year and it seems to have paid off. Why, even as I write this column, I discover another event outside that is a record setter, but I’ll tell you more about that later. The year starts with January, after all.

January seemed to be a rather warm month as winter months go. The temperatures fluctuated around the freezing point with regular and liberal swings of plus or minus 10 to 15 degrees. There was one really cold morning, but the rest were fairly mild. The real news was the appearance of a large flock of redpolls at the end of 2012 and they showed no signs of leaving.

The flock that lingered at my house was at least 50 strong and the birds were a constant delight to watch. The fact that they live so far north and have such limited interaction with humans meant that I could get quite close to them. But, the real fun was setting up my camera near the window and watching them fight and squabble over food. There was enough for everyone, but they didn’t seem to notice.

February was another record breaker, though for a different reason. Susan and I visited her mother in Boynton Beach, Fla., and I took full advantage of her home’s proximity to two wonderful wetlands — Wakodahatchee and Green Cay. Travel days never really count as days spent in a certain place, so I was only really there for four full days. In that time, however, I rose at dawn and visited one of my two destinations. When all was said and done, I had taken about 8,000 photos. I’d never done that before!

March would have been a record-breaking month for species seen at my house if there had been even a single white-throated sparrow in the area. The absence of this “staple” species made the winter of 2012-13 quite an odd one indeed. I did manage to see (or hear) 30 species of birds, which was a tie for the record. March was emblematic of the strange ways that years can differ. It’s the only time that I’ve ever experienced a winter without white-throated sparrows.

April made up for the lack of sparrows by presenting me with a staggering 44 different species of birds and, yes, the white-throated sparrows were among them. They were there for just a moment in time, but I was watching and managed to see them. The redpolls were still around in numbers and the arrival of red-breasted nuthatches was a happy event. The previous record of 34 (from 2012) had been shattered and I looked forward to what May had to offer.

May did not disappoint! In May of 2011, I had managed to spot 46 different types of birds in my yard, but in 2013 that number rose to 55. I think I must have been outside on just the right kind of days because there were some species on that list that wouldn’t normally be seen in the type of habitat my property offers. Killdeer flew over and I heard them. Bobolinks passed through and I heard them. Herons were prospecting for territories and I saw them as they flew over. The redpolls had gone, but so many others had come to take their place.

June continued the trend, but only if I really did hear a hermit thrush on the evening of June 23. My yard is largely lawn and meadow with small stands of trees here and there, but down the hill there is an extensive oak forest and, from time to time, I hear wonderful birds down there. The trouble is that the songs are faint. The other trouble is that for one reason or another, I have always found the songs of wood and hermit thrushes difficult to distinguish. They are my birder’s kryptonite and it is maddening!

July was not a record breaker from a birding standpoint, but then again birding isn’t quite everything. I realize I am now an infidel in the eyes of some, but I’m willing to take my chances. Instead of birds my interest was captured by insects and none of them were more interesting to me than the milkweed beetles that I found at the edge of my meadow. I think I took more insect photos in July than I have taken in any single month since I’ve had a camera.

August was another good month for birds and I managed to spot 42 species in my yard. The two that really stood out were a warbling vireo and a blue-gray gnatcatcher. Both are birds that I would love to have photos of, but both are birds that are on the “impossible” list; a list born of the despair of frustration.

September was very quiet. As is usually the case, I have almost no photographs from September because I am suddenly working indoors again. The only real discovery I made was that the chipmunks were robbing me blind, but that’s no surprise to anyone who feeds birds.

October was a reverse record breaker. In all the years I’ve been watching birds and keeping records of what I’ve seen, I’ve never seen so few species. In my red journal I see a notation that offers up a hypothesis. October was a spectacularly beautiful month with long periods of cloudless blue sky at just the time when the birds were migrating. Is it possible that I only saw 26 species because they were allowed to travel unhindered by inclement weather? Hmmm.

November was very nice because the cold weather allowed some snow to accumulate. It was also an active month for my pigeon project, but again there are few photos to mark the passage of time. November is a dark month and if the weekends had bad weather, there was no going out with my camera.

This brings us to December, which again saw a record number of bird species in my yard (25 so far). At the beginning of this column (which for me was about an hour and a half ago), I stopped my typing and went down to grab my red journal. While doing that I decided to freshen up the birdseed supply and that’s when I heard cedar waxwings! For my first wedding anniversary I planted a crabapple tree in my yard and for the first time I now have waxwings eating the fruit. I’ve been waiting for that to happen for nine years and the waxwings are the record breakers. Huzzah!

Now it’s time to plan our resolutions. I hope you have a wonderful New Year’s holiday and I’ll talk to you soon.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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