Posted by: geolobo | July 25, 2011

Cuckoo!

In nature, every sound has meaning.

Stepping out of the house this morning to scatter a handful of bird seed for the local quail and other welcome guests, I heard an unexpected sound—a few series of sharp, somewhat hollow kowp calls that made my hair stand on end.  A Yellow-billed Cuckoo!  As our house sits atop a dry jumble of granite boulders, one of the last birds I expected to get on my yard list was the stream- and thicket-loving cuckoo, but there it was.  Unmistakable if you know the sound.  And the calls were coming from appropriate habitat, the green ribbon of cottonwood, willow, and ash trees that follows Granite Creek a hundred yards or so away.

A cuckoo at this elevation in central Arizona is an outstanding find.  Adrenalin surging through my body, I had no need for coffee to wake me up.  I grabbed binoculars and took off toward the creek, hoping against hope that I might find the bird.  Cuckoos are notoriously difficult to see; they are shy skulkers, and they call irregularly.  This was a needle-in-the haystack search, and I knew it.  Though I was 100% positive that I had heard a cuckoo, would my reputation prove sufficient if I reported a bird heard a hundred yards or more away?  For no more than a minute or two?

There was great diversity of bird sounds at the lush riparian area, but no cuckoo sounds.  One thing about creeks like this one—they run in both directions, upstream and down, and if I guessed wrong, I might not hear the bird again.  My hunter instincts were strong—it had to be downstream.

Ten minutes later, I rock-hopped the creek.  Each time I stopped to listen, my senses were flooded with information, but that information did not include cuckoo.  The crazy cackling of a Yellow-breasted Chat, the buzzing of two Bewick’s Wrens in bushes dangling from a granite cliff, the rapid twitters of White-throated Swifts slicing the air above , and the annoying chainsaw screams of cicadas caught my attention, as did the high whines of mosquitoes homing in on my bare legs, arms, and ears on this sultry morning.

Instinct time again.  Do I work back and forth along this stretch of the stream, the area closest to where I heard the bird earlier, or do I take a chance and go further downstream, which would mean a detour well away from the creek to get there?  Instinct spoke.  I left the creek and walked up to busy Highway 89, where cars whizzed past me at 60 miles per hour as I threaded the road edge against a steep roadcut (really vertical rocks).

I approached the once-notorious Pinyon Pines biker bar, as incongruous as any structure might be next to a riparian area.  Boarded up just during the past year, it sports a “For Lease” sign.  Another historic Granite Dells cultural feature stands abandoned, as so many have over the years.  Personally, I will welcome the quieter evenings along the creek without the blaring music and cycle revving that used to be common there.

I stood for ten minutes behind the bar on the edge of its gravel parking lot looking out over willows and walnuts under taller cottonwoods.  Acorn Woodpeckers sallied out to catch insects, and some birds made frequent trips into the nest cavity in a towering snag.  The woodpeckers tolerated the tiny goldfinches landing in the snag’s upstretched branches, but they made aggressive passes at three Bridled Titmice that foraged in dried bark not far from the nest site; the titmice ignored them.  Brilliant Summer Tanagers, Blue Grosbeaks, and Hooded Orioles made appearances, and I certainly did not mind standing there, cuckoos or not.  Finally wearying of waiting, I decided to head back out across the parking lot and follow the old road a bit farther, where I might find the Common Black-Hawks that nest there.  It was getting quite hot now, and I had not grabbed a hat when I left quickly this morning.  Nor had I had any breakfast.  I was thinking that this might be a wild cuckoo chase, though one in which the birding was excellent.

Just then behind me, right where I had just stood, came loud clacking or knocking sounds, like the sounds you can make by dropping your chin and snapping your tongue hard against the floor of your mouth, only much louder.  Though quite different from what I had heard this morning, this too was the sound of a cuckoo.  I raced back across the lot and up to the overlook above the creek.  I feared my haste might scare the bird if it saw me, but I could not hold back.  I stopped at the edge, simply hoping to hear the sound again.  Silence.  But then the cuckoo flew from the dense Red Willows right toward me, landing at eye level just twenty feet away in the bare, silvery branches of a small dead cottonwood, where it began to strip fibers of dried bark that it most likely was using for nest-building.

What a gorgeous bird!  A field guide says “clean white underparts,” but that evokes an image of new men’s underwear.  No, the dazzling snow-white- alabaster breast, the corn-yellow curved bill, the hint of rich rufous in the primaries, and the striking white-and-black of the graduated tail feathers combined to make this a bird beyond words (though this is my feeble attempt to at least acknowledge the beauty).

After the bird flew off with its beak full of cottonwood fibers, I stood for a long while, almost dazed with my good fortune, grateful to my instincts.  On my return walk, I repeatedly flushed a Common Black-Hawk (anything but common at this latitude), which flew low up the winding stream channel through a tunnel of greenery.

Five minutes or so from home, there they were again—the kowp calls that I had heard early this morning.  This bird was high in a towering cottonwood; as I trained the glasses on it, it flew from one tall tree to another.  I suspect this may be the bird I heard early, and it could well be different from the one building the nest some quarter- to half-mile downstream.

Cuckoos are rare in the West today, reflecting the enormous losses to the riparian areas once found there.  When I see a cuckoo, I realize that this is the tropics come to me.  The steamy heat of the summer monsoon season is what attracts them, a time of fat caterpillars and praying mantids and lush foliage along streams where nests can be built out of the sight of egg-hungry predators.  As fall approaches, the cuckoos slip away back to their tropical haunts.  These are snowbirds in reverse, catching Arizona at its hottest.  They never experience real winter.

This is part of what it means to be a naturalist.  Attentiveness to an unusual call, recognition, pursuit, confirmation.  Hearing and seeing the cuckoo transported me straight to the tropics, or at least provoked my “informed imagination” to go there.   It told me more about my home place, as well, showing how a multitude of avian threads tie the continent together.  It confirmed my connection to all things wild and free.  And yes, as some might remind me, through that connection, it proves that I am, indeed, a little bit cuckoo.

© Walt Anderson and Geolobo, 2011.          Photos of Prescott Creeks

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Posted by: geolobo | July 25, 2011

I am a Naturalist

It’s perfectly natural to jump to conclusions when you see that title. No, I do not run around outdoors in the buff (that’s “naturist”). If that disappoints you, then head off to some other blog. I may at times strip away pretensions and speak the naked truth, but that’s as far as it can go here. Well, since evolution’s bottom line is differential reproduction, much of life really is about sex, so I may not be able to resist some titillating tidbits of nature in the raw. Far more worrisome, perhaps, is the fact that I adore word play, so brace yourself for occasional verbal twists and turns, sometimes subtle enough that only the sophisticated will appreciate it and sometimes downright blatant and silly. Without levity, we are left with gravity, and that’s a downer, for sure.

My first book was titled The Sutter Buttes: A Naturalist’s View, and that was a way of expressing in print what I do in the field with people all the time—interpret nature. I now also wear the title of Professor of Environmental Studies, but I certainly do more than simply profess about the environment. I live and breathe natural history.

Darwin considered himself a naturalist. E.O. Wilson, one of the finest scientists and writers on the natural world alive today, entitled his autobiography, Naturalist. John Muir was a naturalist. Ann Zwinger’s fine collection of essays is The Nearsighted Naturalist. Robert Michael Pyle, whose eclectic interests range from butterflies to Bigfoot, easily qualifies, as does Harry Greene (author of what I refer to as the “Harry Greene Snake Book,” a delightful image).

I make no claim of filling those famous shoes (despite having extraordinarily large feet), but I am honored to be in that company of like-minded souls. If I had met them, we would have gotten along famously, for our passions for nature and for teaching about how the world works would be our common ground.

David Cavagnaro—extraordinary writer, teacher, photographer, and gardener—wrote the foreword to that first book of mine, and I would like to repeat his words here (Anderson 1983:ix; 2004:xi):

A naturalist, I think, is first a person of the Earth, a shaman really, one who feels as well as sees, one who simply knows with greater breadth and depth than intellect alone can muster. Second, a naturalist is an interpreter, one who can translate the complex language of nature into the vocabulary of the common man, who can reach out to us from the heart of the natural world and lead us in.

Wow, it’s no wonder that I have big feet! They give me an unusual grounding to the Earth. “The language of nature”—that pretty well hits the nail on the head. In some sense, a naturalist is a linguist, using his or her tongue to express apparent truths about nature with the hope that the message will come through loud and clear. For a naturalist is not content simply to mutter to mosses or warble to warblers (those are worthy but insufficient goals). We are compelled in our passion for nature to reach out, as David said, to help others establish connections to and appreciation for nature (and ultimately, to defend the natural world in which we are embedded).

Toward that end, I have developed a personal mission to foster the use of what I call “informed imagination,” a way of seeing that uses all one’s senses.

In the technology-infatuated world that envelopes those of us in “developed” nations, the few naturalists out there might be relegated to being voices “crying in the wilderness” (getting harder to do that all the time, as wilderness gets “civilized”). There is genuine concern that children deprived of what used to be commonplace—direct connection with nature—might suffer “nature-deficit disorder” (Louv 2006).

The study of natural history, the practice of a naturalist, is a proven antidote to nature-deficit disorder, and anyone can practice it. As I reach out to those of you who follow my words as a naturalist, I challenge you to take steps in that direction. You don’t have to have fancy degrees to be a naturalist (you do not have to be E. O. Wilson or even Walt Anderson, for that matter). You just have to be attentive to nature and willing to learn.

Is this respectable? I’ll let you decide as you work into this. You should be aware that the recent revival of natural history is a positive counterpoint to some decades of decline in the practice. I wrote a few years ago (Anderson 2006):

There are those who see natural history as an antiquated pursuit by eccentric generalists encumbered with a multitude of fairly unsophisticated tools: a hand lens, pair of binoculars, plant press, butterfly net, and the like. It is often seen as the poor cousin of the science of ecology, which is a quantitative, analytical approach that adheres to the scientific method, that replaces subjectivity with objectivity. Hard science, according to this viewpoint, provides the ecologist with detachment from human biases, hence credibility as a resource for those making management decisions. Though natural history may be recognized as the foundation of the science of ecology, more and more institutions of higher learning are relegating it to the footnotes of history, giving conservation biologists like Reed Noss plenty of reason for concern about the future of the field.

I followed that with a much more positive and uplifting message about the growing recognition of natural history as important, not only to science and conservation, but also to our psyches. One of the reasons that I love teaching at Prescott College (“For the liberal arts, the environment, and social justice”), apart from the amazing, curious and caring students, is the fact that natural history is embraced and supported. I’ll tell you more about this in future entries, I suspect.

If you’ve read this far, you have the patience to be a naturalist. I hope that my occasional musings in this blog will inform and/or inspire—and encourage you to get out there.

I’ll quote myself once more in this introduction (I promise that won’t become a habit):

A naturalist is motivated by joy and by love: joy in the search for understanding, love for the living world within which he or she is connected. Those kinds of personal connections deny the myth of objective detachment, but they also increase the responsibility of the naturalist to be true to nature, to interpret with the greatest possible fidelity to the way that things actually work. That is at the heart of ecological literacy.

References:

It may be unusual to list citations in a blog, but I do hope that you do not strictly limit yourself to staring at a computer screen. There is something sensuous and real about a book that you can throw into your pack and take out on the trail (OK, I guess you can do that with Kindle or other reading devices now). Still, a book has paper, which is just one step (albeit industrial) away from trees, and if you are out on the trail, you can give personal thanks to our woody friends for their literary sacrifices. In any case, no matter where or how you find the words from the references I cite, you should recognize the authors who take the trouble to write for your benefit (there is rarely much or any monetary benefit to the author, with JK Rowling and Stephen King being enormous exceptions). That’s particularly true of naturalists who write, for they could just as well be immersed in keying out plants, stalking rare birds, sniffing flowers, hugging trees, and tasting chokecherries. All right, I’m hitting the trail now.

Anderson, Walt. 1983. The Sutter Buttes: a Naturalist’s View. Chico (CA): The Natural Selection.

Anderson, Walt. 2004. Inland Island: the Sutter Buttes. Prescott (AZ): The Natural Selection and Live Oak (CA): Middle Mountain Foundation.

Anderson, Walt. 2006. Informed imagination: A naturalist’s way of seeing. Pp. 1-10 in R. Dean Johnson, ed. Teachable Moments: Essays on Experiential Education. University Press of     America.

Louv, Richard. 2006. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill (NC): Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Wilson, Edward O.1994. Naturalist. Washington (DC): Island Press.

Zwinger, Ann Haymond. 1998. The Nearsighted Naturalist. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

 

© Walt Anderson and Geolobo, 2011.

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