Sunday, November 11, 2007

What is a Naturalist?

I've spent much of this class trying to learn more about the community's around me, and, in some respects, I have felt a failure.

Other participants can confidently identify species, knowledgeably discuss the life cycle of organisms, and uncover minute specimens from habitats I would unthinkingly bypass. So, I have followed behind, trying to play catch-up, competing with fellow students who started a light-year ahead of me.

And, often, failing, at least in my eyes.

I'm terrible at bird identification. They usually move too fast for me to focus. By the time I'm looking in the right place, they're gone. I'm usually wearing my reading glasses when the cry goes out “look, over there”. By the time I've secured the glasses, and turned around, it's “hasta la vista, baby!”

There are only a few birds on my list, and most of them are almost impossible to miss (cardinals, crows, hawks). The remainder are those I am familiar with, as the birds also are seen in Ohio, my native state.

I'm even worse when it comes to identifying bird songs. I have tinnitus, a constant hissing sound in the background of my world. I can't hear the higher pitches, even with amplification. If I could just persuade the little darlings to “mike up”, I'd be fine.

I've had the most success with trees. I have a number of oaks in my landscape, and they are relatively easy to identify by the shape and other characteristics of the leaves. Still, I find them easier to identify once they're dead - like a pathologist, I'm most comfortable with the formerly-living. Once off the tree, I can examine them up-close, even putting them under the microscope or hand lens. After our second trip, I surprised myself by the ability to spot a loblolly, even at a distance. Part of the improvement is that I spent enough time to make the distinction between various types of conifers.

I've been working too many long days - in the last month, I've seldom reached home before 6 pm. That has limited my useful time outside; it becomes dark too soon, and I can no longer make out details.

But, I have found other attractions than sight identification. I have learned to recognize the rustling sound the local rabbit makes as he scampers across my front lawn. Always from the north part of the property to the south; always following the same path. I've never seen more than one at a time.

The various insects make their presence known at night.

At first, in the dark, it seems very still. After dinner, the local car traffic is less; although, as I sit there, I can make out even distant traffic.

After a while, I can hear movement in the bushes; sounds that I wouldn't even have noticed, seem very loud. Sometimes, if I sit there long enough, I can see small movements. It's hard to sit there very long without moving, but it's worth it.

I've been planning to take my telescope out for some star-gazing. Unfortunately, when I've had the time, the weather hasn't cooperated. Cold isn't the problem, overcast skies are. I may have to wait another few weeks, when the cold means less moisture, and viewing is better.

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