For a naturalist, the three best words in the English language are those that, perhaps paradoxically, I find myself uttering quite frequently. They are, of course: “I don’t know.”
Now, at first blush, you might think that this admission of ignorance would be embarrassing, particularly when it comes up during the public walks that I delight in leading. It’s one thing to realize, in private, that you can’t put a name on a critter that happened to appear in the viewfinder, the binoculars, the spotting scope, the hand lens, or captured on the field recorder, but, unless you’re given to revealing your failure to an audience, be it in print or on social media, no one has to know. It can live forever in that Donald Rumsfeldian universe known as the “unknown unknown.”
Well, it can do so until the Naturalist does the right thing and comes up with identification.
On the two guided walks I led for a fine and inquisitive group of hikers during the National Trails weekend on June 1st and 2nd, however, there was nowhere to hide and I had to admit, rather red-faced, that I was now in the realm of the “known unknown,” as in, “Heck, it’s definitely an insect... bird... mushroom... gall... etc., but I can’t quite remember what it’s called.”
In the old days, when I had functioning and strong knees, I probably would have been carrying a backpack loaded with 50 or so pounds of field guides, and I would have looked it up. These days, I have all the guides loaded on my tablet computer, so I can perform an equivalent digital search without joint pain. And if I were equipped with a smart phone, there is, as many people know, an app for this conundrum: an artificial intelligence, pattern recognition algorithm that can turn an image or sound file into an ID.
While I marvel at this technology, I don’t use it, not the least of which is because it’s not yet all that accurate. A deeper reason is that I fear AI will make humans really, really stupid, particularly in the natural history realm.
Having all taxonomic knowledge simply handed to you means that you never actually learn anything beyond which touch pad buttons to push. You also never experience the wonderfully goading acknowledgment, uttered several times over Trails Day weekend, that you don’t know but you’d be happy to embark on yet another journey of discovery to find out—to turn that known unknown into its double known counterpart.
Oh sure, this requires some work, sometimes hard work, but it also provides a source of accomplishment, even, I would add, joy, that is simply unavailable without a modicum of mental gymnastics and sweat.
So it was that I had to admit that I couldn’t put a name on that black and white flying insect that worked the edges of the splendidly scenic Wyassup Brook in North Stonington last Sunday morning as my Trails Day crew paused during our walk and captured the scenery in our natural history journals. By design and serendipity, we’d already stopped a number of times in our exploration of the Avalonia Land Conservancy’s Tefftweald at Birchenturn refuge as we practiced an age-old skill: documenting what you see, hear, feel, smell, and even, when prudent, taste.
A journal is a perfect antidote to a world that too often moves too fast—taking notes and sketching forces the journalist to slow down, stop, and give the natural world a close, close read. We’d already zeroed in on ferns, Indian Cucumber flowers, a Garter Snake annoyed that we’d interrupted its nap on the trail, the start of Mountain Laurel blossom season, and a small squadron of Hover Flies, whose flying expertise delighted and amazed the group.
Without netting the stay-in-one-place, highly maneuverable “aircraft”—alas, I didn’t bring a net (what was I thinking?)—I couldn’t provide a name. But, I added, I’d be back, capture tool in hand, to snag one of the insects; bring it home to chill it, in the refrigerator, into temporary inactivity; and then run it through the brand-new Princeton University Press’s Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America, by Jeff Skevington and company. (The book and Dr. Skevington, a research entomologist at Agriculture and Agri-food Canada—and an all-around great guy who’s helped me in the past learn these insects—will be the subject of an upcoming edition of the Journal. Also, I did go back to Tefftweald, but the Hover Flies were, sigh, hovering elsewhere.)
Our route then took us past Witch Hazel shrubs where we spotted some strange growths in the leaves known as Witch’s Hat Galls. I explained that these conical structures serve as nurseries for young invertebrates, and that galls, which come in a bewildering array of sizes and shapes, are most often made by flies and wasps, whose youngsters develop in and feed on the plant tissues before leaving “home” to repeat the cycle.
In the case of the Witch Hazel Cone Gall, the perpetrator is actually a species of female aphid called Hormaphis hamamelidis, and she not only initiates the gall-making process, she stays put as the gall entombs her, providing sustenance and shelter for mom and her eventual offspring. I didn’t know that, and I was quite glad we noticed the cones and I promised I’d figure out their maker. (I owe the group an e-mail.)
After that grist for the journals, we made it to the brook and, once everyone had enjoyed writing in a wooden seat known as the Poet’s Bench, we watched those black and white insects that, I was almost certain, weren’t moths. What was bedeviling me was that they belonged to that most upsetting of groups: the previously-known formerly-knowns. In other words, I’d identified them once. Now, unfortunately, I couldn’t remember their names.
This kind of ignorance wasn’t bliss, but it was an incentive to start searching. I knew it had to be some sort of aquatic insect, so, back home, with a sample in hand, I pulled out an assortment of field guides, both the printed varieties and their digital counterparts, and started matching the characteristics of a chilled specimen with drawing and photos. Eventually, I found the right neighborhood in the Field Guide to Freshwater Invertebrates of North America, the standard volume from James Thorp and Christopher Rogers, and my hunch was confirmed in BugGuide, the go-to online resource. What we had been watching were the adults of a group known as the Dark Fishflies, and, from the descriptions, I was pretty sure we were observing members of the Nigronia serricornis congregation.
I was happy to re-make their acquaintance, and I hoped that the work I’d done to identify them would help cement that ID in one of my six still-functioning brain cells.
Clearly, there continues to be cerebral activity. A bit later at Tefftweald, I spotted a Nessus Sphinx “hummingbird” moth and a Spatterdock Darner dragonfly enjoying the afternoon. I’m sure there’s an app for both, but, thank the neurons, I didn’t need it. I knew both right away. All that toil continued to pay off.
A Note to Readers: I know this is rather last minute, but if you have some time Saturday morning, June 15th, and you’re able to make the journey to Stonington, Connecticut, please take advantage of a rare opportunity to visit the Stonington Land Trust’s 82-acre Thomas Miner Nature Preserve & Wildlife Sanctuary. The Preserve is normally closed to the public, but from 10 to noon, I’ll be leading a group through the meadow part of Miner in search of Bobolinks, a gorgeous and highly musical songbird whose grassland-dependent populations are rapidly declining throughout the Northeast. In addition, we’re going to be watching Miner’s abundant collection of Milkweeds, some of which should be in full bloom and attracting all sorts of butterflies, from Monarchs and Great Spangled Fritillaries to Pearl Crescents and various Swallowtails. No doubt, we’ll also spot a dragonfly or two. For more information, visit www.stoningtonlandtrust.org/events. You can also call me at 860-599-4867, or e-mail email@example.com.