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Monday, August 22, 2011

Insignificance

At 4 pm on Saturday, I stepped out of my house and headed off into the neighborhood on my daily after-work walk.  Saturday is the last day of my work week, and as I started my walk I was feeling the kind of peace that I imagine most working folks feel when a few days of freedom are stretched out before them.  With each progressive step, I shed a little bit of the stress that I had picked up over the preceding five days, and by the time I had traveled about a mile I was feeling calm and reasonably centered.

That day I felt compelled to walk a route that I rarely travel, down a steeply-inclined, well-forested road that lacks sidewalks.  My mind wandered as I trudged down the hill, and I wasn't even aware that I had tuned out my surroundings until movement at my feet snapped me back to reality and the present moment.  Before my eyes focused my mind had already identified the movement as belonging to a ground feeding bird, and I had also already identified the movement as abnormal due to both proximity and pattern.  As my eyes focused and the details resolved, a series of thoughts came in rapid succession, "American Robin...no tail feathers...left wing drooping...left eye partially closed...dried blood on wing and head...likely cat attack victim...f@#$!"

The profanity came as automatically as the rest of my thoughts, and it was in no way directed at the bird or cats.  It was directed at people who let their cats roam free in the world with no regard for the safety of their pet or for the wild animals that their pets are likely to kill or injure.  After more than 16 years of working with injured wild animals, a staggering number of which have been injured by domestic cats, my tolerance for this completely preventable cause of wildlife injury has been utterly spent.  In addition, as a cat lover that has seen countless cats in my neighborhood suffer and die due to the laissez-faire attitudes of their supposed guardians, I feel a surge of anger anytime I am faced with evidence of an unprotected domestic feline.

My initial surge of anger quickly passed as I redirected my thoughts toward how best to help the victim that was before me.  Droopy wing or not, she still might have been able to fly, and I wouldn't know whether or not I could help her until I tested her ability to escape.  I crouched down and made a quick movement toward the robin with one outstretched hand.  She spread her wings and flapped hard, but she gained no lift from the effort.  She managed some forward movement by pushing off with her legs, but the movement was arrested as she weakly bounced off of a thick tangle of ivy growing alongside the road.  Assuming this might happen, my left hand enveloped her immediately with a technique known as the "bird bander's hold".  She struggled briefly against the restraint, calling out more in fear than in defiance, and then she relaxed and fell silent.

A quick examination of the robin uncovered multiple, serious lacerations.  Her eye was clearly damaged, although to what extent I could not be certain, and the trailing edge of her left wing had a blood clot that stretched nearly the entire length of her humerus.  Although the bone felt like it was intact, the amount of bruising and dried blood present gave me serious doubt that the robin would ever fly again.  The anger that I had felt upon my initial sighting now turned to sadness for the tiny being that was in my hand.  Her injuries were at least 24 hours old, and it was likely that an infection of pasturella or some other bacteria that is abundant in cat saliva was already setting in.  Even if her injuries were not fatal, this infection most likely would be.  I carried her the mile back to my house as quickly as I could, and when I arrived I transferred her to a dark but well-ventilated box and immediately drove the 45 minutes back to my place of employment to get her either the care or the humane release from suffering that she needed.

On the way home from the wildlife center I reflected on what I had just experienced.  As a biologist, I was taught to believe that one individual among a population of millions is insignificant; that we should not get hung up on the fate of one but on the overall health of the many.  While this reasoning may be sound from the standpoint of population viability, it would require that I give up a fundamental piece of my humanity to fully embrace it.  When I met that robin, she was definitely one individual among millions, but she was not insignificant.  She was a fellow living being that was suffering and needed help.  If I had passed her by, I would not have been confirming that she was an insignificant individual in a much larger population but, in my opinion, I would have been confirming that I was.

  

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Change of Pace

After rising with the sun this morning, I headed for my favorite patch of fireweed at a Seattle area park.  I had been anxious to visit the patch since a single fireweed plant in my backyard opened its first pink blossoms almost two weeks ago.  The fireweed patch is beautiful in its own right, but it is more than just the flower that lures me back year after year.  The fireweed acts as a stage, on and above which a great drama plays out.  Darting among the green leaves and pink blossoms are flashes of green, white, black and reddish-brown, occasionally punctuated with flashes of brilliant red iridescence.  The whole area is literally abuzz with activity, and at times I can become dizzy trying to keep track of it all.

The main players on the fireweed stage are juvenile Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds.  Occasionally an adult will pop up in the mix, but for the most part the area is dominated by rowdy youngsters vying for totally supremacy of the best blossoms in the patch.  There are constant dive-bombings followed by erratic chases.  The buzzing and trilling of wings fills the air.  One moment a long curved bill is inserted into a flower, the next moment it is being used like a rapier in a fencing match.  I occasionally try to capture the activity through the lens of my camera, but mostly I just stand and take it all in with my senses.  As I stood in the patch this morning, watching the spectacular aerial ballet above me, my eye was suddenly drawn to unexpected movement at a much lower altitude.  I looked down among the slender-leaved stems of the fireweed plants and found that a less frenetic, but no less interesting player had just arrived on the stage.

A Pacific Chorus Frog was working his way through the fireweed patch, presumably in search of a meal.  The fireweed leaves were just strong enough to bear his weight, though they still bent considerably under the load.  The frog was traversing the plants mostly by walking, but I am quite sure it was his landing after a jump that had caused the initial movement that drew my attention.  Having just been immersed in the high-speed world of the hummingbirds above, I found the slow, deliberate movements of the frog almost hypnotic.  For several moments I forgot about everything else and focused my full attention on the fascinating, sticky-toed hunter.  

My trance was broken as two battling mini-birds buzzed by within a foot of my face.  Their fight continued as they rounded a snowberry bush and disappeared from view.  Three more birds buzzed by in quick succession, and for several minutes I was drawn back into the air around and just above the blossoms at the top of the fireweed plants.  By the time my mind turned back to the unassuming amphibian making his way through the lower leaves, he was nowhere to be found.  No movement in the plants betrayed his direction of travel.  Wherever he was off to, I felt extremely fortunate to have spent even a short time in his presence. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Reaffirmation

A Varied Thrush could be heard softly calling from an alder tree in Seattle’s Schmitz Preserve this afternoon.  The bird was very animated, hopping from branch to branch, looking in all different directions and alternating between robin-like chatter and a call that sounded like a truncated version of the species’ airy, single-note mating call.  As I stood below the bird I was struck by how much this one individual’s voice added to the life of the forest.  Moments before, I could hear branches and dried leaves rustling in the wind, and the trickle of a nearby stream, but the thrush’s contribution added a new dimension to what had already been a beautiful chorus.  His voice would have been music to my ears no matter the circumstances surrounding our meeting, but my emotional response to his calls was heightened by my awareness of just how close he had come to being silenced forever.

The thrush that was calling above me was one of the tens, if not hundreds of millions of songbirds that are attacked by free roaming house cats in our country every year.  When I first met him, his body was riddled with scratches and puncture wounds.  Some of his feathers were disheveled and/or broken while others were simply missing.  He was a mess, but he was one of the lucky ones.  He survived the attack. He received treatment for his wounds, and antibiotics to stave off infection.  He was kept in a protected environment while he healed and grew in new feathers.  When he was strong again, and ready, I returned him to his home.  He got a second chance that millions of wild animals that encounter outdoor house cats never get.  

And to be clear, the cats are in no way to blame for the loss of these wild animals.  The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the humans that allow their pets to roam free, or that turn a blind eye when they encounter stray or feral cats in the world at large.  The cats are as much victims as the wildlife, often dying prematurely from accidents or disease, or becoming prey to predators larger and more capable than themselves.  

As I stood in the forest and listened to the thrush’s beautiful voice, I wondered how many other voices within the range of my hearing had been silenced forever by free-roaming cats.  In the same moment I wondered how many neglected or abandoned cats were suffering nearby.  As I walked out of the park I reaffirmed my commitment to doing everything within my power to speak up for all of the victims in this scenario, and to keep helping the individual animals I encounter in my everyday life.  If you are reading this, I sincerely hope you will do the same. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Comforts of Home

I climbed out of bed when my alarm sounded at 5:20 am this morning, but I had already been awake for at least an hour.  Ordinarily this kind of pre-dawn insomnia can be attributed to the three little people of the feline persuasion with whom my wife and I live.  But this morning it was my own restless mind that was keeping me awake.  I kept envisioning an endless expanse of rolling waves under a gray sky.  This vision was no metaphor.  I believed that what I was seeing, or at least a close approximation thereof, existed in the real world, and I was trying to imagine what it must be like to feel as comfortable there as I do in my own home.  

The reason for my early morning musings was simple; I would be spending much of my day with five beings who do feel right at home in an endless expanse of waves.  Nearly six weeks ago these amazing creatures had been separated from their home.  Blown from the sea by a windstorm, they were found on the sandy shore where they faced starvation, predation and all of the other dangers present to an animal removed from its element.  But their story did not end on the beach.  Instead of death, they encountered compassion, and through long hours of diligent care their health and strength were restored.  My job today was to give them the last piece of their life that was still missing, and before noon “freedom” would be added to their list of things that had been restored.

Less than two hours after my alarm sounded, I was in heavy traffic on I-5 South in Seattle.  Five boxes were secured in the bed of the truck that I was driving, a canopy keeping the boxes’ occupants safe from wind and noise.  After driving for three hours, I made one stop out of necessity; my early morning insomnia had turned into late morning somnolence, and I needed a little caffeine to ensure that my passengers and I arrived safely at our destination.  The last hour of the trip went by quickly, and I am not certain whether to attribute my increased alertness to the warm beverage I purchased or the excitement at nearing my destination.  When I arrived and opened the back of the truck I discovered that my passengers were feeling much more alert as well.  They had been still when I checked on them during my pit stop, but now they were scratching and jostling around inside their boxes with apparent excitement.  I can safely say that their excitement had nothing to do with caffeinated beverages.  The more likely cause of their stimulation was the sound of crashing waves and the smell of salt air.  They were nearly home.

The sky was as gray as I had envisioned earlier in the morning, and a steady drizzle was falling.  I had come prepared with rain gear and hip waders, but my passengers would need no such special protection.  I somehow managed to pick up all five boxes at once, and I carried them up and over a large sand dune and down to the beach below.  I was facing a large, crescent-shaped bay.  The eastern end of the bay was being pounded by six-foot waves, but the western edge was sheltered from the Pacific Ocean by an enormous sand and rock breakwater.  I chose to release my charges there, as much for my own safety as theirs.

I opened a box to reveal a very alert and anxious Northern Fulmar.  As I lifted the bird from his transport box and carried him out into the water he made no attempt to bite.  In fact, so focused was he on the expanse of water before him, it was as if I wasn’t even there.  I had seen this animal almost daily for the past several weeks, but as he left my hand and settled onto the water I realized that I had really only seen a part of who he is.  This point was driven home as the fulmar opened his wings and began to run on the surface of the water, lifting off and soaring low over the waves with a grace reminiscent of his much larger cousin the albatross.

One by one I opened each of the four remaining boxes and carried the fulmars they contained to the water.  All of the birds were gripped with the same excitement, and all took flight very soon after hitting the water’s surface.  Three of them made wide, arcing flights that brought them up over the beach, before turning into the wind and flying far out into the bay.  It was difficult to track the five gray bodies against the gray water and sky as they moved farther from shore, but when I last saw them they were heading west beyond the northern tip of the breakwater.  There was nothing in that direction but open sky and endless ocean.  I reflected again on my mental exercise from earlier in the morning, and I thought of the change I had just witnessed in the fulmars.  I smiled as I thought about them shedding the stress of captivity with every mile they put between themselves and the shore.  I hoped that they would feel as at peace making their journey seaward as I would making my journey back to my own home.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Piece of the Puzzle

Three years ago I photographed something I had never seen before- a female green shield bug that was laying her eggs on the wall of the house I was renting in Edmonds, Washington.  I was completely amazed by the sight, and I was as riveted by this encounter as most people are by the sight of a soaring eagle or foraging bear.  In my mind, insects are just as interesting as other wildlife, and the fact that so much of their lives occurs completely below the radar of human perception makes a rare glimpse into their world all the more intriguing.  I visited those eggs on a daily basis, waiting with baited breath to see what would emerge from those tiny, conical capsules.

After two and a half weeks of waiting, the eggs hatched.  What emerged looked very little like the green and brown insect that had left the small life pods behind.  The baby shield bugs were shiny and completely black.  They shined like tiny pieces of obsidian in the afternoon sun.  They stayed close to their egg shells for several days, but eventually the young insects dispersed to make their own way in the world.  I was left to wonder how these small black dots, no larger than the period at the end of a sentence, eventually grew to fully flighted adults with the ornate green and brown patterning of their mother.  While I still don't have all of the answers, I did discover one piece of the puzzle in a recent encounter with an older juvenile shield bug.

I still have no idea how long it takes for an infant shield bug to make the journey to adulthood, but I did encounter one recently that had completed half the journey.  He or she was a combination of the green and brown pattern exhibited by the mother shield bug and the sleek, obsidian black of the juveniles.  If this one individual could be assumed to represent the pattern of all green shield bugs, it seems that the transformation to adulthood starts at the animal's rear and progresses forward toward the head.  I have no idea how old this semi-mature individual was, or how much longer his or her journey to maturity would be, but I was thrilled with the encounter none-the-less.

As a naturalist, every new experience I have with the natural world makes me feel like I have discovered one more piece of life's puzzle.  As different as a human may seem from a green shield bug, we are all a part of the same process, and of the same natural system from which all life has arisen.  We have a shared genetic history that is far more important than the narrow focus of human geopolitical history.  I can't help but think that any insight I gain into the lives of the living creatures around me ultimately helps me to expand my understanding of who and what I am.  Every piece of the puzzle is important, and although a lifetime of searching will never give me a clear view of the entire picture, I am compelled to learn as much as I can about the universe in which I live during the limited time in which I am here.  Today that means paying attention to a tiny green and black bug on the wall of a building.  Tomorrow that means remaining open and observant to whatever wonders the universe sees fit to send my way.          

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Right On Cue

As my wife and I walked through the woods in Seattle’s Discovery Park yesterday, we both had our attention focused on a large Madrona tree that grows on the edge of a steep bluff sloping down to Puget Sound.  The tree is a favorite of the local Bald Eagles, and we were hoping one of the birds would be waiting there to greet us.  As we neared a turn in the trail that afforded a better view of the tree, we could see that its branches were empty.  We were about to move on when, as if on cue, a large female eagle appeared and landed in the tree.

The eagle must have come from the beach below.  I surmised this not only from the fact that she had flown up to the tree from below, but also because she had brought a large fish head with her.  The head looked like it had belonged to a salmon at one time, but now it clearly belonged to the eagle.  Even the nearby crows, vocal though they were, did not seem anxious to challenge the eagle’s possession of the head at anything other than a respectful distance.  The eagle paid neither the crows nor us any attention and simply set about the task of deconstructing the fish head.


The fish head had clearly been cut from its body.  The human that had caught the fish had apparently discarded the head considering it to not be worth eating.  The eagle disagreed.  We were close enough to hear the sounds as the eagle grasped the fish head firmly in her talons and picked apart both flesh and bone with the sharp point of her beak.  Bit by bit the remains of the fish disappeared down the eagle’s throat, and some of the pieces were so large and jagged I was amazed at how easily they went down.

The eagle did not linger after the last of the fish was gone.  She simply turned on her perch and pushed off effortlessly into the air.  After she left, we continued along the trail wondering what other encounters the day would bring.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

You Smell


I spent a few hours this morning standing in between a patch of Fireweed and a patch of Snowberry in Seattle’s Discovery Park.  Both of these plant species are in bloom right now, and the local nectar enthusiasts have taken notice.  The area surrounding the spot in which I stood this morning was literally abuzz with activity. Much of the buzzing was coming from Rufous and Anna’s Hummingbirds as they jockeyed for position at the choicest blossoms.  Bumblebees added their own, quieter drone to the mix as they did their best to visit the flowers without getting caught up in the ongoing avian conflict.  Many times I nearly became a casualty of the hummingbird war myself when aerial battles buzzed so close to my head that I could feel the breeze given off by the bird’s tiny, rapidly-beating wings.

While enjoying the air show I heard  the rustle of dry plant material coming from inside a tangle of snowberry bushes about 15 feet northwest of my position.  The noise continued for a few moments, and the bushes above the sound’s point of origin were being shaken in rhythm with the sound.  The movement crept from the middle of the bush outward toward the edge, and I did my best to peer into the shadows at the bottom of the bush while not shifting my position or making any other movement or noise.  As I watched, a small, rounded, furry brown head with beady eyes poked out of the bush.  Aplodontia rufa, the Mountain Beaver had come calling, and she was carrying a mouthful of freshly cut vegetation.

In the interest of accuracy, I should have actually said that it was I who had come calling, rather than the Mountain Beaver.  I knew the spot I was standing in well, and Mountain Beaver burrows and sign surrounded it.  But the burrows’ inhabitants had never made a daylight appearance up until this point, so I was delighted to meet one of them.  The little Aplodontia disappeared back into the snowberry bush and, judging by the shaking and rustling, continued to gather vegetation.  I went back to watching and photographing any hummingbirds that came close enough to enter my viewfinder.  A minute or so passed and then the rustling in the bushes behind me abruptly stopped.  I slowly turned my head to investigate.

I thought that the Mountain Beaver might have re-entered her burrow with her load of local, organic produce.  The species usually has many different entrances and exits to the same burrow system, so I assumed that she had gone into a hole that was somewhere under the Snowberry Bush.  Apparently, this thinking was correct, because as I was looking around, I saw her cautiously exit a burrow that was only about a foot away from my right hiking boot.

Despite her close proximity, the Mountain Beaver’s poor eyesight and hearing was clearly making it hard for her to get a fix on me.  Still, her cautious manner told me that she was aware that something she should be concerned about was nearby.  Her best senses are those of smell and touch, and since it is more prudent to rely on the former when danger is involved she began sniffing in earnest to see what news the breeze could bring her.  Her nose twitched noticeably faster as her head swung in my direction.  Living in a busy city park as she does, human is undoubtedly a very familiar scent to her; however, smelling one from a foot away was apparently not something she found comforting.

The Mountain Beaver turned quickly and hurried back down into her burrow.  Two seconds later, her head appeared at another entrance hole about four feet away from the one she had just entered.  She sniffed again, and then once more retreated to the safety of her underground home.  I decided it was time to leave.  The Mountain Beaver had been a far more gracious host to me than most humans would to an uninvited houseguest, and as any good houseguest should, I know when I have worn out my welcome.  I thanked her for her hospitality and left her to finish her grocery shopping in peace.