The Naturalist's Journal

Dunlin (above), small shorebirds with long, curved bills, have been a common sight at Napatree all winter. This brief nap may be a way to conserve energy in advance of the upcoming migration. 

 

With any luck, I will have, by the time this edition of the Journal sees print, rejoined the digitally interconnected world. With a new wireless router replacing the old one that, for reasons no one has been able to determine, gave up the digital ghost on Tax Day—the cause might have had more to do with an early morning thunderstorm than a protest against the IRS—I can now phone out, the telemarketers can renew their incessant harangues, and the wider Internet world can once again be my oyster.

Praise be. The Net is certainly a blessing.

But when I was offline, however temporarily, I was not, to be sure, altogether disconnected. My nine-year-old high-tech granddaughter Stasia recoils in horror when I tell her about growing up in a world without screens. I’ve so far steered cleared of telling her about a world without digital connectivity—I fear that might put the poor child over the edge—but she’s growing up and, soon enough, I’m going to have to have that conversation about those Facts of Life. 

Our recent Internet outage gave me a chance to think about the upcoming Talk, and what I came up with was this: Yes, my dear granddaughter, cyber linkages are wonderful and remarkable, but just as Aslan, the leonine hero of the C.S. Lewis classic, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, talked about the “deeper magic,” the Naturalist has discovered a “deeper connection.” This is available without a monthly subscription fee and, mostly, without requiring any additional equipment beyond one’s inborn senses. All you need to do to make the link is to get outside in nature.

And that, of course, is precisely what I did when I was summarily and ignominiously unplugged last week. To be sure, long-time readers of this venture and Stasia alike might see in this the obvious answer to the first of Passover’s Four Questions—why is this night [and, I would insert, day] different from all others?—which would be, “Well, it isn’t.”

I try to spend part of every 24-hour cycle re-forging what I pray is an eternal bond. So it will come as no surprise to anyone, least of all my granddaughter, that when the router died, I was set free and “reborn.” My first stop was the vernal pool at the center of the meadow in the Samuel Cote refuge I wrote about last week, and then as now, I was slowly slogging through the waist deep water at dusk to document the courtship behavior of a squadron of American Toads. The guys were in fine voice, and at least one male, barely half the size of his egg-carrying mate, had managed to convince her that his long-duration trilling was a sign that he carried superior batrachian genes. She let him climb on her back, and he held on tight with his muscular front arms in a position known as amplexus. When she had frog-kicked her way to a suitable spot in the shallows, she’d deposit strings of eggs. He’d be in the perfect position to fertilize all of them as they emerged.

There were also newly emerging plants to reconnect with, from tiny ferns in the fiddlehead stage to the most recent of the early bloomers, those white-blossomed charmers known as Virginia Rock-breakers. These hardy, mostly evergreen members of the Saxifrage family are often spotted growing in the soil pockets of boulders, a characteristic that make it appear as if the plant can cleave stone. (The ancients had similar notions; Saxifrage is Latin for rock-breaker.)

No sooner than I touched base with the appropriate pages in the Peterson field guides to the ferns and wildflowers, respectively, than I heard a bird call in the wetlands below my house that sounded exceedingly familiar. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have made a recording of the call or, if I was feeling supremely confident, affixed it in my memory, and than raced inside, navigated to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s splendid gift to the birding public—the All About Birds website—and compared the sound file from Cornell with what I’d stored. 

But that way of doing natural history business, alas, had become impossible, so I was reduced, horror of horrors, to using what existed in my computer’s memory: a huge collection of bird songs and calls copied—legally, by the way—from CDs, mp3s, tapes, and actual vinyl records that I’d amassed over the years from books by Don Kroodsma, Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, Lang Elliott, Donald J. Borror, and Roger Tory Peterson himself, among others. Given the challenged state of my own memory, I find it necessary to pull these out every April and relearn the identities of the avian music makers I’m likely to encounter. 

All I could tell from the singing was that the mystery bird seemed to be a warbler, and it was definitely one that I’d heard in the past. My suspicion, given the early date and the wetlands location, was some kind of waterthrush, and after some quality time with my headphones and computer, I opted for a Northern Waterthrush. I smiled. The songbird migration was on.

With no cyber demands to keep me inside, I turned off the machine and headed to Watch Hill and the great beach at Napatree. There would certainly be newly arrived shorebirds working the rocks and mudflats, and some of the winter residents would no doubt be wearing the flashier feathers of breeding season. In my digitally connected days, I’d have checked the rare bird alert websites for ideas about what had been seen where, and I’d have supplemented this intelligence with the timing of the low tide, which is always the best situation for shore-birding. Since this couldn’t happen, I had no choice but to just walk the beach, look, and hope; we still subscribe to a newspaper—I could check the tides there. (Old-fashioned, sure... but effective.)

An early fog had lifted. The beach was alive with walkers and joggers. The dunes had been cordoned off for the benefits of Piping Plovers and Least Terns, neither of which I saw, and close to shore, I spotted Common Loons, Red-breasted Mergansers, and what I surmise was a Greater Scaup. There were numerous Song Sparrows calling, along with cooing Mourning Doves, and one Mockingbird running through its repertoire of every singer likely to be in the neighborhood. It might have even offered a phrase from a Taylor Swift song—the pop star does, after all, have a Watch Hill address—but, without my granddaughter, I couldn’t be sure.

The Brant had gathered in a huge flock, and the American Oystercatchers were busily joining the Ruddy Turnstones, the Black-bellied Plovers, and the Purple Sandpipers in working the low-tide-exposed gravel beds for invertebrates. There were still Dunlin and Sanderlings aplenty, and while I wanted that quartet of snoozing shorebirds I documented to be rare Red Knots—when I was still able to be online, I noticed that someone had reported seeing that species at Napatree—quality time with my field guides pointed me in a more realistic direction: something common, probably a group of Dunlin, one of which had started to develop the black belly feathers that will make the guys especially attractive.

An Osprey, carrying a freshly caught fish, flew overhead, and it was soon joined by a Black-backed Gull giving chase in the hopes of garnering a free meal. I recorded, took photos and videos, wrote notes in my field journal, and made all manner of connections. Even without the Internet, such things are still possible. Even with the Internet, you can still make this deeper connection. I recommend both.

A Note to Readers: In celebration of Earth Day, you’re invited to join me for a walk on the Avalonia Land Conservancy’s Benedict Benson Preserve in North Stonington in search of Hepatica and other wildflowers, as well as migrating songbirds, and who knows what else on Saturday, April 27, from 10 a.m. to noon. It’s a gently paced exploration, and entirely family friendly. To register and get more information and directions, visit avalonialandconservancy.org/event/benedict-benson-preserve-hike/ or e-mail me: fellnature@sbcglobal.net or do it the old-fashioned way and call 860-599-4867. I promise I’ll have reconnected by then.

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