Some things I do just seem to suck the life out of me. Preparing tax returns, for example. I am thankful that I have income, and in college I roomed with an accounting major who just loved that stuff, but I am far too disorganized. And uninterested in becoming better organized, unfortunately. My nature is to be a quiet observer, feeling my best when I’m alone outside wandering and wondering. The slower the better as far as I’m concerned. I have no desire to set records, except personal ones based on the number of interesting things I can experience. So, fortunately, there are other activities that are meaningful and well suited to my boring personality.
For many years I’ve participated in the Midwest Sandhill Crane Count through the International Crane Foundation. Five-thirty a.m. in mid- April can be a dicey time to be outdoors, and over the years I’ve counted on days which were a beautiful 50 degree morning, full of birdsong, and horrible 10 degree days with snow and wind. The poor cranes were present at all of them, but lately the morning has become a special ritual involving a co-worker and myself. We take the same block each year, hiking the length of one of the wetland trails at Woodland Dunes. Its the first long bird hike of the year for us, typically, and it is a joy to experience all that mid spring has to offer – the birds, the buds, the tracks- refreshing us at the onset of another field season. Some years we count 50 species on that one trail, and some years we count 50 cranes if the water levels are right. Ok, above I said that I cherished being alone outside, but being outside experiencing the wild with a kindred soul is just as wonderful. And the opportunity to contribute to knowledge of a bird species, even if it is not highly technical scientific inquiry, makes it all the better.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been participating in bald eagle nest monitoring, volunteering for Madison Audubon which coordinates the project across the State. I don’t remember if I was contacted, or if I contacted a colleague already helping coordinate the project, but it has been a wonderful experience as well. Unlike crane counting, it involves sitting still, monitoring a particular nest. I am fortunate to live across the river from a pair of eagles, who nest in a large white pine in a gently used park. I am able to cross my lawn to my happy place on the riverbank, where I am forced by protocol to sit still for an hour and record what I see.
One of course tries to pick warm, windless days, and fortunately we’ve had a few between snowstorms. So there I am, sitting at my scope, watching the eagle mom while she watches me with what I imagine to be a rather skeptical expression on her face. She is a quarter mile away, and while I need a scope she seems to have no trouble watching me. Monitoring starts in mid February in my part of the State, and as it progresses things become more and more interesting. This year the eagle was on the nest at the onset, presumably sitting on eggs as she did not move. The male shows up occasionally when I’m watching, but there will be more activity after eggs hatch, probably any day now. But just ike crane counting, being forced to be outdoors reveals so many other things- a surprising number number of birds singing even early in the year, robins and flickers which decided to stay the winter, mergansers and goldeneyes on the river as it opens up, cranes soaring and calling loudly, and the return of the usual suspects like song sparrows and others. A pileated almost always flies over, and a red-bellied barks constantly from the poor ash trees as they slowly die from unseen insects.
There are many different projects and counts which benefit from the participation of volunteers. Some require a lot of effort, some require little more than patience. We all know we are too busy, but it seems almost impossible to find ways to slow down. I am especially grateful for the opportunity watch birds in a meaningful way, knowing that it helps me just as much as them.
Photo- sandhill crane by Justin Lebar – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=951919