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Nature’s unpredictability leaves room for surprises

April 30, 2014

Sensitive ferns, which were tightly coiled fiddleheads a couple of days earlier, are out of the water and unrolling their leaves.

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

On May Day, the Naturalist celebrated that milestone birthday made famous in the matchless song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. John, of course, never made it to 64, while Paul reached that age eight years ago. And since we definitely still need both of them, in spirit and reality, well, maybe there’s hope for me, albeit at a more local level.

One hundred thousand fans will turn out for a Paul McCartney concert; I consider myself blessed when I can attract a few dozen “fans” to walk with me into the woods to discover whatever nature happens to be offering at the time. Still, even if one of my guided treks only goes out with one or two participants, as it did this past cold and rainy Saturday, I’d stack the enthusiasm of my “followers” against that of any rock concert audience and say we come out, person for person, about equal. OK, no one with me screams, although one of my charges did shriek mightily, although that had more to do with the temperature of the water when she hit a slippery spot on the shore, and, on an Earth Day wetlands walk sponsored by our local middle school, tumbled chest-deep into the drink.

Actually, this past week, one of my observations had me almost screaming. On the tree where we keep our suet feeder, I spotted the crow-sized body of a Pileated Woodpecker inching down the trunk for a snack. We haven’t hosted a Pileated at this woodpecker diner for almost ten years, so when I saw the great bird, my first inclination was to yell for my wife to run to the kitchen window for a look. But no sooner had I inflated my lungs then I thought better of it. I certainly didn’t want to spook the Pileated, which, around here, is exceedingly skittish, so, very calmly, I walked noiselessly downstairs, blurted out “woodpecker,” and Pam, having fed me off and on all these years, instantly got the message.

It was at precisely that point that I had a certain need: Please, Mr. Pileated, stay still.

Years as a naturalist, writer, photographer, and teacher have, of course, taught me one core truth about this need—more often than not, it will go unfulfilled. In the natural history business, this is known as the “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” Principle—who knew that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were great ecological theorists?—and YCAWYW tells you, in no uncertain terms, that nature is not predictably Disney-esque. I can’t say whether this uncertainty gives you, as the song title suggests, “what you need,” but the experience of never being certain about how the natural world will behave and what it will provide to the observer is guaranteed to make you humble.

In any event, I fully expected, when I grabbed my camera and Pam and I looked out the kitchen window at the suet tree, to see nothing but tree bark and a fleeting flash of black, white, and red as the giant woodpecker vanished deep into the forest. Many years of attempting to photograph Pileateds have prepared me for disappointment.

But sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes that rare bird actually is where it’s supposed to be, and sometimes it’s where you are at the same time. Fate can be kind as well as cruel.

I got an early birthday present: something I both needed and wanted. And while the shots of the Pileated weren’t perfect—I had to shoot through window glass, for I knew that the sound of opening door or my boots crunching through leaves would have sent the woodpecker into panicked flight—the fact that I could both capture that magnificent bird at close range and share it with my wife and, eventually, my readers, was, to me, a double gift.

And there were other pre-birthday gifts as well.

On my Earth Days walks at the school, I only had one kid hit the drink, and that was just during the first of three classes, so my adaptation tactics to avoid another disaster proved successful. In addition, we saw some intriguing things, from the heating capabilities of Skunk Cabbage to an abundance of crayfish in our nets, and these observations helped convey the twin conservation and life-long learning messages I hoped to impart.

During another public walk I led, none of the participants fell into the water, even though we were mesmerized by a fine display of wetlands plants, from stunning Marsh Marigolds to the more subtle horsetails and fern fiddleheads emerging from a small stream and the surrounding mucky soil. In the upland sections of our journey, there were other presents: flowering wood anemones and, perhaps, some Dwarf Ginseng. (I remain unsure about the latter, which I couldn’t find again on a return trip for additional study, but new mysteries are themselves a wonderful kind of gift.) Out of the rocky ground there were also unrolling Christmas, Cinnamon, and other fern fiddleheads that I’ll have to identify. It’s a welcome burden.

Equally welcome were some of the discoveries that presented themselves during my research walks. At the Thomas Miner Preserve in Stonington, where I’m in my second year of monitoring vernal pools and other aspects of invertebrate life, I spotted newly hatched Wood Frog tadpoles, some intriguing variants on the caddisfly larvae theme, a fat dragonfly larva close to becoming an adult, the last of the willow catkins and spicebush blooms, and the start of the Canada Mayflower season. In the Bell Cedar Swamp, a rare type of Atlantic White Cedar wetland not far from the ridge, I waded in and managed to wade out successfully in what will be my quest for two species of Connecticut-endangered invertebrates, the Ringed Boghaunter dragonfly and the Hessel’s Hairstreak butterfly, both of which should be found in the Bell Cedar habitat. Given the continued chill, neither has put in appearance so: the boghaunter on my white tee-shirts or close-to-white hair (the species finds white to be attractive)‚ and the hairstreak on blueberry flowers.

But it’s May, I’m 64, and I remain optimistic. I hope to continue at this trade for a while. I hope you continue to need me to report on the flora and fauna that I hope you’ll need and want to know and appreciate. And I hope that if I keep trying, I’ll get what I need and want: sightings and pictures of rare and common fauna and flora alike. A home-cooked meal, to say nothing of a fine birthday cake, would be equally appreciated.


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