Thursday, July 05, 2007

Open Book

Sometimes I compare Moose Hill to a book. Anyone can open a book and flip through the pages. If there are photos, they can look at the images, and they might recognize some things in the pictures, but can they read the captions? Can they read the text? Someone might enjoy a hike in the woods or a picnic in a field on a sunny day. It’s enough to look at the pretty pictures. Others might want to read the captions, so they learn the names of some birds and trees. They learn to recognize some birds by their song. Eventually, the nature lover might want to read the text. They begin to study the richness of the world around them by delving into things like ecology and history, and begin understanding how things work, how they got they way they are and how they may be affected by our actions.

I was thinking about these things on my Saturday morning walk a few weeks ago. I was previewing a walk I was to lead on Sunday for a friend’s birthday celebration (What better way to mark an important milestone than a walk on Moose Hill!?) and I wanted to refresh my memory about some trails and think about what I wanted to say.

I took the trail to Bluff Head. This rocky outcrop is probably the most popular Moose Hill destination because it offers impressive views over the countryside to the south with the ever-expanding scar of Gillette Stadium off in the distance. Not far from the bluffs, in a white pine and oak forest I heard a bird trilling. I’d heard this before and wondered what a chipping sparrow was doing so far from a roadside where I usually see them. Determined to read the caption, I left the trail and headed into the woods to find this wayfaring sparrow. Hearing the song coming from a tall pine, I suspected it was not a sparrow at all, and just as my determination and patience began to squabble, I spotted a warbler with lots of yellow and wing bars. A quick look in my old field guide informed me that the pine warbler has a song a little like the chipping sparrow.

Happy that I exercised enough discipline to learn something new – to read the caption, as it were - I found my way back to the trail. Soon, a little further up the hill where the soil is drier and the trees are shorter, I heard another pine warbler. Hoping to get a better look at the field marks, I left the main trail again and followed a deer trail into the woods. It was easier to spot this bird and there was a nice spot to sit on the rocks and have a little breakfast while watching the bird. The show quickly got interesting when I noticed the warbler was feeding one of its young!

While singing frequently, the little warbler would flit around in the pine looking for caterpillars and bring them back to the hungry youngster. I quickly noticed that the baby was nearly twice the size of the parent, and I figured it had to be a juvenile brown-headed cowbird. Cowbirds don’t build their own nests but, rather, lay their eggs in the nests of many other species and let the unwitting hosts raise the cowbird young as their own.

Thinking that could be a good story to tell the next day, I went back to the trail, walked along Bluff head, paused to take in the view, and moved on through the woods to Allen’s Ledge. It was getting warm so I found a place in the shade to eat some fruit and have some more coffee. I was a little unsettled by the responsibility of having to lead a walk the next day, so my thoughts were not as free to wander as I like while sitting alone in the woods. What could I possibly tell these people that would interest them? I wanted our time together to be more than just a stroll through the summer woods. I wanted to help them read some captions by pointing out some trees, birds and any other interesting things I could identify for them. I wanted to read them some text by talking about inter-relationships of land, plants and creatures. I could use the cowbird as an example of how human activity – in this case forest fragmentation – could impact on the lives of a variety of bird species. Through development, we break the forest up into ever-smaller patches, allowing the parasitic cowbird of open fields to more easily find its hosts. I thought it perhaps best not to go into the way seeing things while sitting alone in the woods can launch me into long daydreams of all sorts and explain how seeing this wild parasite in action might lead me to ponder parasites of other kinds, particularly the two-legged variety.

I’m happy to report the guided walk went pretty well. The twenty or so guests tended to get strung out along the trail, usually busy with conversations, so when I spotted something I wanted to talk about, I’d stop and address the smaller, more intimate group of people who happened to be nearby. An American chestnut sprout gave me the chance to talk about how imported diseases can virtually wipe out a major tree species and forever change the face of our forests. A red-cedar with scraped bark allowed me to talk about our exploding deer population. The chipmunks scampering everywhere showed the connection between an abundant acorn crop in the fall and a healthy rodent population the following spring. A small sassafras tree let me tell a story about making tea. The flute-like song of a wood thrush gave me a chance to tell my cowbird story and explain how a beloved bird – already threatened by winter habitat destruction and dangerous migrations - can be further pressured by brood parasites that are encouraged by our development activities.

All in all, I think my remarks were pretty well received. Some of my fellow hikers asked questions that showed interest and encouraged me to have confidence that - even at my limited level of knowledge about these woods - I have things to share that might be new and interesting for others. One guest even came to my house days later for help with a bird feeder. It’s satisfying to think that I helped some people to open the book that is Moose Hill, to see the pretty pictures and to start reading the words that might help them appreciate and protect the natural world around us.

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6 Comments:

At 9:13 AM, Blogger Lynne said...

Bravo Mojoman!! I'm sure that you had a positive impact on the folks in that group. You read some new text to me too. While I was aware of the parasitic behavior of cowbirds threatening songbird populations, I never made the connection to forest fragmentation opening up new areas to the cowbirds. I hope you'll continue to share your daydreams with us here. I always learn something from your visits to Moose Hill.

 
At 7:47 PM, Blogger Larry said...

Well-done-I'll bet you had some nice narrative along the way.

Cowbirds are parasitic but they pass one test that is applied to many birds by birders-they are a "native" species.-

 
At 10:10 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

Perfect analogy!

When can I sign up for your next guided walk at Moose Hill?

 
At 4:40 PM, Blogger Bob said...

Nice job on the guided walk. Doesn't it feel good to exercise some of that knowledge you picked up at ESF? I'd like to be on the next walk too, but it may be a while before I get back on the east coast.

 
At 5:32 PM, Blogger Larry said...

Al-I tagged you for an 8 random facts Meme.-Go to my 7/10/07 post for details if you would like to participate.

 
At 6:57 AM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Laura inspires me to extend an open invitation to any readers finding themselves in the Boston area to join me for a walk on Moose Hill.

 

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