The New Year

By Ethan Duke


A sound spectrogram of a Wood Thrush. Associated sound file below.

The new year is upon us…

We think of “Auld Lang Syne” and the melancholy of ‘old acquaintances‘ as time goes by. Sentiments peak (if we allow them), and we contemplate the past year. Granted, with the indulgences of the holidays our vision is sometimes obscured, but we are generally of open mind. Eventually, our conscious thoughts swing on time’s pendulum to the future and resolutions. In an effort to come up with good self-improvement ideas, I’m leaning on the world of birds.

In the world of birds, the new year really began on the solstice. The days begin to grow longer. We hardly notice the change, but change is continual and gradual. Some birds may begin to practice singing more frequently. Some may begin establishing pecking orders and even start their unique courtship routines. Unless you are in the outdoors, you’ll miss these progressions.

You would assume that keeping attuned with the ebb and flow of the tides and change of seasons would go part and parcel with being a biologist. This isn’t always the case. In fact, it may be easier to do as a birder. Even if you only bird once a week. Whether you’re a birdwatcher, biologist, or both—Keeping in touch requires the dedication of time.

Even though Dana and I had a great start to 2015 with a Christmas Bird Count (CBC) at Swan Lake NWR, we aren’t in the field much this time of year. We are crunching data and drawing inferences from the arduously collected data. These are then combed over in minute detail as we generate reports during most of the limited daylight hours.

Sure, we watch our feeders with joy and interest, but that serves as a great teaser for what we are missing in the prairie, in the woods, and beyond the backyard. Whats going on out there? There is a yearning to keep our fingers on the pulse of nature. What are the birds doing? Does that Harris’s Sparrow sing all day? Do they sing differently on their breeding grounds? Is that Carolina Wren going to sing the same song this summer? I wonder if those American Bitterns “pump-er-lunk” more when there are more in the area… or longer into the morning?

There just isn’t much time for that when even we are in the field (mostly during migration and breeding seasons). We’re doggedly navigating properties and conservation areas across the state collecting as much data as possible in the brief windows of time. Such a schedule does not often lend itself for a great deal of zen communion with nature, let alone time to  contemplate such questions. Monitoring birds for science isn’t quite the free, exploratory experience as birdwatching. Oh, what we’d give for just a couple hours to sit and watch the Northern Harriers ballet or study the comings and goings of nesting nuthatches… Monitoring does afford some amazing and wonderful discoveries of self and the natural world, but it isn’t the same as birdwatching.

When birdwatching, one can take to time to observe the tiniest of details. As spring arrives… How many other Indigo Buntings are seeing within earshot of this one? How different are their songs? This one’s a first year bird… is it singing differently? Gosh, doesn’t this Dickcissel sound vastly different from the one in the Upper Osage? How long before this Grasshopper Sparrow breaks from its jumbly song to the typical one?

No time to wait and see… must count birds.

It isn’t a rare thing to turn one’s passion into a career, but it can be frustrating at times. So, how does one get back on track when what they love becomes work?

For me, I’m going to force myself to bird… my way. Though it is idiosyncratic and odd as it is to publicly state a resolution, I plan to audio record more birds this year. As time marches on toward the equinox, opportunities will present themselves. Some respites will be sacrifices, maybe even some emails will have to go without a timely reply.

Ahhh… the songs, the drumming, the booming, the pump-er-lunking.

Here’s bit to keep us going…

I’ll post the recording on, others may benefit as well. This will be one resolution that won’t be too taxing and I think those birds deserve a little more attention and wonder. Don’t you?

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