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.