Saturday, March 5, 2016

Bump on a log?

The Head and the Heart has some great advice for the birder-naturalist

I like to sit in the woods (I have heard it called stumping, a term I adore). Considering that you are reading this blog, you probably enjoy the occasional woods-sojourn yourself.

Yesterday I spent the last hours of daylight sitting cross-legged in pine needles. The woods were quiet after a hot afternoon. Listless Hispaniolan Woodpeckers chirred. Breeze-harvested pine cones ricocheted through the understory and came to rest on the ground. Something rustled to my right; I shifted my eyes, keeping my body motionless. There, ten feet away, sat a Broad-billed Tody. It flycatched its way through the brush, coming ever closer. I sat frozen, willing away the pain of two mosquitoes on my brow. The bird—lime green and pink, like the absurd progeny of a kingfisher and a hummingbird—stared at me for a few moments, then flitted, snapped a fly, and disappeared into the brush. I released my breath and swatted the engorged mosquitos.

Broad-billed Tody, aka Fat-faced Highlighter-Jacamar  

There is magic to sitting in nature. I pondered my tody encounter and drafted three reasons why I go to the woods to sit.

1. Sitting and watching is a great way to learn more about an ecosystem and its function. Want to learn more about beech-maple forest? Sure, you can read books, peruse websites, and consult experts, but there is no replacement for sitting on a stump. Go and sit! Sit in the morning, in the winter, at night, in the rain. Bring a notebook and record what you see. If you are artistically averse, fear not—you don’t need to write nature poetry or paint watercolors. Write simple observations and questions: “Just saw a squirrel with a mouthful of leaves climbing up to a drey” or “I see a skinny tree with lacy yellow flowers…what is it?”

Budget quality time with epiphytes!

2. You see wildlife. I believe the sedentary naturalist sees more than the mobile one. We are clumsy. Branches snap, Gortex swishes. Wildlife flees or freezes, never to be seen. Sitting heightens the senses and diminishes the human presence. Invest thirty minutes, an hour, two hours of sitting, and some animal will approach within a heart-stopping distance. In these moments I wish to be Radagast the Brown, camouflaged with lichen-encrusted cheeks, so still that I am habitat, birds nesting in my hair.

3. It keeps you sane. Nature is therapeutic—that is unquestionable. I always love going to the woods, but I am especially drawn there when plagued with negative emotions. Anxiety, depression, frustration—all of these feelings dissipate, lysed by the forest.

But, despite these wonderful reasons for stumping, I seldom do it. Why? Again, three reasons (excuses?) spring to mind.

1. I do not always live in spots conducive to wood-sitting. Last fall, I resided on bustling Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids. The roof was a great spot to observe drunk hipsters passing by, but the only birds I ever saw there were House Sparrows and Starlings. It took significant effort to get to a natural area, and consequently I seldom did.

2. I don’t have time! As much as I love sitting on logs, it does not always seem like the most constructive use of time. The reward is intangible. Stumping appears synonymous with idling when other activities vie for my time. Work, sleep, friends, family, this blog—all these things are important and do not always leave time for a sit in the woods.

You will see more caterpillars in nature than in your living room

3. We admire the intrepid. This is reflected in the immense popularity of adventure birding blogs, like Noah Stryker's quest. Were I to sit on the same log every day and write of my observations, would I attract as wide of a readership as Stryker? Doubtful—but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to try (I can already see it: The Stump Year: An Effort to See as Few Species as Possible.) The point is, if I have a morning free, I prefer to undertake some exploit that will net epic birds and perhaps create some brag material for the blog.

I have more to learn from the woods than I think, I think. The question is: will I make time for the stump? And the patience to linger? The observance to notice? And will you?

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