The Naturalist's Journal

A small flock arrived last week and made quick work of the berries. A Red-tailed Hawk (above), silhouetted against a sunset, was right where the documentarian expected it.

 

When scholars tried to timestamp ancient history, the standard method of ensuring that everyone was in sync was to use the terms BC—before Christ—and AD—Latin for Anno Domini, which translates to “In the Year of Our Lord” and is shorthand for the years following Jesus’ birth. More recently, of course, academics have replaced such overtly religious references with the more neutral abbreviations BCE—before the Common Era—and CE, the shorthand for Common Era.

There are folks who see such changes as a politically correct conspiracy to kill Christmas, but the standard explanation among academicians involves more than just a scholarly sensitivity to religious diversity. The main reason that BC/AD has fallen by the wayside is that it’s historically incorrect. Tradition to the contrary, we don’t actually know the precise year when Jesus was born, but it almost certainly wasn’t in the transition year Zero. (It probably wasn’t on Christmas, either.) Most Biblical researchers believe that the most famous birth in history occurred sometime between 6 BC and 4 BC, so if accuracy in dating is important, better to go with BCE and CE—and get an absolutely unambiguous crossover from negative to positive historical numbers.

On the ridge, we routinely face similar dating dilemmas. The most recent one, however, has the most clear-cut solution. That would be the time periods designated by the terms BR and AEM, or, from a probably faulty try at Latinizing (it’s been more than 50 years since I took my last Latin class at—where else?—Classical High School), Before Regina, that is, before the queen, and Anno Eius Maiestas, In the Year of Her Majesty, respectively.

Very respectively.

Those terms, readers may guess, refer to the eras before and after my almost-nine-year old granddaughter Stasia—perhaps more accurately called a princess than a queen, but what the heck—came to call our humble abode and neighborhood home, and we, despite our certified geezerhood, came to call ourselves guardians. We can actually put a precise date on the calling—it’s October 30, 2018—and we now can properly and accurate divide our history in terms of a BR and AEM duality.

BR, for example, I spent lots of time walking through the natural world of the ridge and beyond to document everything, however obscure and tiny, that I noticed. The significant events I discovered I was able to pack both into this Journal and the daily blog I’ve been crafting since 2013. BEM, by contrast, is characterized as natural history by brainstem, which is the result of never having enough time to do anything beyond what happens by a kind of reflex, rather than a luxuriously reflective, nature documentation.

Every parent, to be sure, is all too aware of this. Mea culpa, I’d forgotten... but not for long.

It works out this way: I’m waiting for the morning school bus with Stasia and we notice that the rhododendron leaves are rolled due to the persistent cold. I try to remember the leaf diameter until I get back inside to a notebook: index fingernail? first joint? second joint? And what does that equal in inches, assuming I even remembered the fact that I made a measurement?

Or this way: I have some time during Stasia’s school day to take my cardiac rehab training five-mile walk and I spot some newly arrived ducks at the local farm pond I zip by. I stop, very briefly, and snap some hasty pictures with my ancient Fuji All-in-One S5200, a 13 year old, lightweight digital camera with what was then a very long telephoto zoom lens that still works fine and can be carried anywhere. I feel guilty about allowing my heart rate to drop below target range, but I feel spiritually elevated because, in addition to the blessing that watching nature provides, the newbies, upon image analysis, turn out to be Ring-necked Ducks. These handsome diving waterfowl are proof that, persistent winter weather to the contrary, spring is moving in. Another sign that we’ve passed the vernal equinox are all those Red-winged Blackbirds, now numerous and perched and singing atop the pond’s emergent reeds, each male staking out his own territory and as close to his rivals as prudence allows.

Because all my decades of watching the natural world now make zeroing in on something that wasn’t there earlier simply, well, natural, I didn’t miss seeing the first blooming yellow crocuses by the sun-favored and -warmed side of a local home on the 13th. And since miles of hiking this very road had given me the familiarity to know precisely when to be ready for what, I had the camera and binoculars in hand as that Red-tailed Hawk appeared, as usual, in profile at the usual place in the hardwood grove just after the stream-crossing—no Killdeer yet—near the first milking parlor.

Without a doubt, I miss the ability to saunter, but Thoreau wasn’t taking care of a granddaughter, so I just have to be grateful for the time I have... and for a brain still capable of rapid-fire assessments and, at least occasionally, remembering these long enough to chronicle when I get home.

Because I’ve trained myself to “sweat the small stuff,” I didn’t miss that pair of Bluebirds in my neighbor’s meadow when I finished up my trek and stopped to check the mailbox. And, praise be, I was attuned enough to the sights and sounds of the ridge to know—how is a joyous mystery—that an almost imperceptible peep heard on the hike up the driveway was worth following up.

One of the signature events of mid-March is the arrival of the first flocks of Cedar Waxwings, a drop-dead gorgeous songbird that sometimes spends the winter with us but almost always makes its presence known before the advent of the Vernal Equinox. It’s then that our Holly berries, which had been too hard and bitter for the fruit eaters to stomach, have been softened and sweetened by long exposure to the cold. The waxwings, often in the company of Robins, somehow know when dinner is ready and typically, about this time, pay us a visit.

I was ready for them. I had my 100–400mm telephoto lens already affixed to a larger camera that rested within easy reach inside the house, and in less than a minute, I was quietly creeping towards the birds, who were gorging so fast that they paid no attention to the documentarian. I got within about five feet of the small flock of a half-dozen waxwings, and I wound up with perfect close-ups of that diagnostic head crest, black eye mask, and yellow bar at the end of the tail. The only things I didn’t capture were the red, waxy secretions that often appear at the ends of the secondary wing feathers and give the bird its common name. According to Nature Conservancy writer Matthew L. Miller, the red tips—the color comes from the carotenoid pigment astaxanthin, “appear to be status signals that function in mate selection.” In fact, the older and more attractive the bird, the more wax in the wings.

BR, I would have had the leisure to then delve deeper and deeper into the subject. AEM, I had to simply thank the natural history gods for a brief sighting and a briefer introduction to waxwing biology.

 

A Note to Readers: I’m kicking off a series of free, public nature walk programs I’ll be offering through southeastern CT’s Avalonia Land Conservancy on Wednesday, March 27, at 6:30 with a “Vernal Pool Adventure” at the Babcock Ridge Preserve in North Stonington.

At twilight, we’ll hike to a group of vernal pools to search for such creatures as Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers, Spotted and Marbled Salamanders, and Fairy Shrimp. We might also hear the booming hoots of Barred Owls and the peents of Woodcock. Bring a flashlight, wear warm clothes and waterproof boots, and don’t forget your spirit of adventure on this family-friend outing. For more information and to register, visit avalonialandconservancy.org, e-mail me, bruce.fellman@yale.edu, or simply call 860-599-4867. This being a school night, I promise to get everyone back to their cars by 8 or thereabouts.

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