Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Scientific Method

This is a picture of my husband as we were walking along a trail one recent winter. I know it wasn't last winter because after the October 30 storm we had no snow until spring.

MH is not a believer in chance. MH prefers to be prepared. Yes, he was a Boy Scout once.

He has more of a scientific bent. When we go birding he walks quickly. I, meanwhile, amble along, dealing with whatever Fate may throw at me.
I will stop at the smallest sound in case it's a new bird. He will keep walking. He will stop to photograph a snake, a butterfly or a dragonfly. I usually ignore anything that is not a bird and keep walking.

It is a difference in style and approach. He is more apt to pick up a dusty tome containing records of the earliest and latest a  rosebreasted grosbeak has been seen in New Jersey. He notes records precisely.

He knows that if we're lucky, rosebreasted grosbeaks will show up at our seed feeder in early May, around the time of our anniversary. He has a good idea of when the first junco appears for the winter and when it will leave in the spring.

I tend to stick to the here and now. I go, look and record, check in a bird guide to find out what I am seeing but I have little interest in the past unless I need the information for a precise reason. There are birders who compile lists on Excel spreadsheets. MH has given me books to record my sightings by date and location, but I prefer writing in narrative in a notebook, or in this blog.

Rosebreasted grosbeak
Between the two of us we are an ideal birder, one who has an appreciation for the here and now but who is also aware of the past, which allows us to realize how strange it is that an increasing number of bird types that would never have been considered anything other than a southern species are now much more commonly seen in the north. Redbellied woodpeckers. Carolina wrens. Yellow-throated warblers. Prothonotary warblers.

Birders get excited by this possibility of seeing a new or unusual bird in their familiar birding patches. The other weekend MH and I were birding along Old Mine Road - a popular place for those migrants that nest in elevated, forested land (it is part of Worthington State Forest, parallel to the Delaware River) - and we had stopped to look at a brook falling sharply downhill. I was hearing a hooded warbler - twee-tweeteo - when MH pulled up his camera and started "shooting" at something moving. It was calling and not singing but when it popped up it was most definitely a prothonotary. It is golden yellow and stockier than a yellow warbler and has silver-gray wings. Unfortunately, his pictures of it did not come out or I'd have included one here.

These birds are common in Florida but the first one MH and I ever saw was on a rock in Central Park, where the little guy made a lot of birders very excited. The next time I saw one of these was in the front garden of the New York Public Library, a little bird surrounded by big men with gun-like cameras. (That is where I took the cellphone picture below.)

So what should we make of this phenomenon? Just as the birds fleeing the Indonesian coast warned of the Christmas tsunami, to me the birds are warning us that global warming or climate change, which made our New Jersey winter mild and free of snow, is having an effect, thus making it possible for these birds to expand their range.

MH, the scientist, went to his records. It is true, he said, that birds have been known to show up early, according to what he's read in the records of John Bull, Whitmer Stone and Ludlow Griscom. However, he also keeps weather records and when he studies the annual Year in Weather published by the New York Times, we didn't have a single day in 2011 where it was colder than normal. In fact, we did have a lot of days warmer than normal.

Prothonotary warbler, NY Public Library
To him, it is evidence of global warming.

In this we agree.

As an observer, I find the trend frightening, and not just because I am not one of those who dreams of perpetual summer, wearing flip-flops and tank-tops all year and trips to the Jersey Shore. Warmer days means more power needed for air conditioners and more water for our plants and ourselves.

People act as though we have unlimited resources. We don't. After a particularly heavy rain this week one of my neighbors' automatic sprinklers went on. I guess he couldn't be bothered to put it on only when necessary. Like the lawn services, coming on their schedule, not when the lawns need cutting.

I have no answer for this. It is particularly depressing to try to explain these things to people and be considered an old crank. I hope the children of the world learn the importance of the environment and do a better job teaching their parents.


A postscript:

The nest box in my backyard is finally in use. This afternoon I came out from the porch and saw one of the house wrens fly to the box opening. Cheeping ensued. At my appearance the neighbor's chained-up dog started barking and wouldn't stop until I went inside. This is the yin and yang of my life in the suburbs.