Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Morning of Small Observations

I'm nearing the end of my annual series of censuses of the songbirds breeding in the deep woodlands of my preserve.  Using a protocol developed by the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University, I spend three hours just after sunrise in the woods looking and listening for birds that have established territories.  I do this eight times each year, and have been doing it for 17 years now.  May's censuses are usually most interesting because the birds are active as they duke it out for the best nesting sites, but as the season progresses the territories are set and the woods become increasingly quiet.  The last two censuses are usually the least interesting.
This morning, the sun rising over a low ridge caught my attention.  There was a tree perfectly positioned between me and the low sun.  The tree diffused the light and illuminated the woods without blinding me--sort of a miniature solar eclipse.  The morning was calm; not a leaf rustled.  Nevertheless, there must have been an imperceptibly gentle north breeze perfusing the forest because, in the diffuse sunlight, I watched uncountable motes moving along through the air.  Some were animate, like insects and spiders, and a few insects flew counter to the tide, but generally a seemingly endless drift of dust, pollen, seeds and who knows what else wafted along through the forest with the current.  To be honest, my first thought was, "I'm breathing this!"  My second thought was, "This is a perfect example of what I tell my restoration ecology students about woodlands receiving allochtononous inputs from the surrounding countryside."  But, in the end, I mostly just marveled at the show.
Further along, I came upon a tiny opening in the forest patrolled by three hoverflies (Family Syrphidae).  Hoverflies are always a welcome bonus on bird census days, especially on slow, late-season days, because they can be endlessly fascinating--and distracting.  For the most part, the flies maintain their relative and absolute positions, getting out of formation only to make darting forays in pursuit of aerial prey and then returning to exactly the same spot.  Today, for the first time, with the woods so still, I noticed that the hoverflies' wings generated enough of an air current to cause the leaves of the spicebush shrub above which they were located to flutter.  Amazing. 

10 comments:

Grizz………… said...

Really liked this post…and two great shots! When I look from the front of the cottage out across the river, it's often a backlit, or strongly lit view, and for the last few weeks I've also been paying attention to all the stuff in the air. First there was the cottonwood fluff, which regularly choked Moon the dog, my wife, and sometimes me. Then it was all sorts of pollen which, when the light was right, simply filled the air. Not to mention all the airborne detritus—bits of leaves and webs and who-knows-what. Like you, often my first though was "I'm breathing this stuff!" God only knows what a lung that started off clean in the morning looks like after a sunny late-spring day outdoors!

Scott said...

Thanks, Grizz. I know my lungs have cilia to move out all the entrapped particles, but it was a bit unnerving anyway. At least it was natural--or mostly natural, anyway; my woods are about a mile from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and yesterday I was definitely downwind. What impressed me most, I think, was that the current was so gentle and straight and even--no eddies, swirls, or interruptions. Just beautiful, "clean," smooth wafting.

Carolyn H said...

Scott: your sunlight through the trees photo is gorgeous!!

jason said...

I am smitten by that first photo. How beaitiful! (Admittedly, crepuscular rays make me weak in the knees, but still--Perfect shot!)

When it comes to all the stuff in the air, when it's visible I sometimes worry about it, and I certainly worry about it when a sandstorm blows in, but often I set the worry aside because I realize I'm ALWAYS breathing stuff, from pollen to detritus to smoke (especially this year from all the wildfires about) to whatever else is wafting through the air at that moment. In the end, I figure something's going to kill me eventually, whether old age or a bus or whatever, so I figure I should just enjoy the fact that I'm still breathing. ;-)

And I do envy your census responsibility. Any excuse to be outdoors is good, but contributing to science while you're out there makes it all the better!

Scott said...

Carolyn, many thanks for your appreciation. I liked it very much myself.

Scott said...

Jason, One of my colleagues, a much better photographer than I, once made an spectacular woodland image here in the Pennsylvania Piedmont when smoke from wildfires in Ontario was wafting down this way. The haze made it seem almost like we were in the Great Smokies.

It IS nice to stand out in the woods for three hours at a time most of the time, and to know that I'm helping to create a database. For example, because I have 17 years' experience doing this, I know that Veeries are far less common this year than they have been in the past. But, I've seen encouraging signs, too. For example, Brown-headed Cowbirds, though common at the feeder behind my house, are rarely seen in the woods any more, while they had been fairly frequent and unwelcome nest parasites in years past. Documenting long-term patterns is important.

John Gray said...

lovely photo!
love that shot

Scott said...

Thank you, John. My woods looks like this frequently in the early morning.

Jain said...

A marketing friend of mine would say that first photo is "God light." God or no, it's gorgeous.
I really like the notion of an insect's wings fluttering spicebush leaves, too.

Scott said...

Jain, I wonder if the hoverflies' drafts against the spicebush leaves are anything like the "butterfly effect"? Maybe for the spicebush!