I suspect there is a positive correlation between one’s appreciation for fir waves and one’s distance from them. From a distance, fir waves etch a pleasing pattern on the landscape, pose interesting ecological questions, and remind us that turmoil can be a form of stability. Up close, they inflict scrapes and puncture wounds, incite expletives, and remind us to plan the next vacation to California, where the mountains have no trees (and it hardly ever rains).
Wandering down Boulevard Saint Germain near Notre Dame in Paris, I passed a store window filled with insect specimens on display. The stylish sign read Claude et Nature (Claude and Nature).
I veered into the store, astonished that such a place exists. A small stuffed bison (small for a bison, that is) stood in the center of the store, next to a case of fossils. On the right were black cases full of artfully arranged insect specimens. On the left were fossils, shells, stuffed birds, skulls (human and weasel, among others), and sea stars. All were perfectly preserved and arranged, and neatly labeled with the species name and country of origin.
I spent some time perusing the insects—they had an uncommon family of weevils!—then wandered into the fossil section, then back to the insects.
Other customers were in the store, buying up iridescent blue morpho butterflies, flashy rhinoceros beetles with horny ornamentations, and large walking stick insects, which look just like knobby sticks with legs. All of the creatures on sale were eye-catching in some way. I found myself disappointed that there weren’t more insects with mundane appearances. I craved some little drab ones so I could learn about their diversity. One of the most beautiful insects I’ve ever seen was brown and white and hardly bigger than a pinhead (a lacebug, in case you are curious). The insects present were in families already familiar to me.
This led me to ponder one of the differences between amateur and expert naturalists: level of attraction to charismatic megafauna.
Amateur naturalists and non-naturalists flock to the Serengeti to see lions and elephants, even just for a few hours. Few head to sandy beaches in Massachusetts to see tiger beetles. And when they buy preserved insects, they buy the largest, most colorful individuals. Experts and devoted amateurs, on the other hand, may be eager to see lions and tigers, but they are also there for the naked mole rats and dung beetles. Why?
I believe the answer has to do with memory and learning. An inherent characteristic of many animals is that they easily remember something bright, large, or dangerous. This is what is exploited by the wasp’s black and yellow warning coloration: remember me, don’t bother me, I sting. Young blue jays who eat a monarch butterfly and then vomit refuse to eat a second monarch because they recognize it. They may also refuse to eat other orange and black butterflies, whether or not those butterflies are actually noxious.
Just because I can easily remember what a blue morpho butterfly looks like doesn’t mean I’ll want a dead one hanging on my wall. A blue morpho is a beautiful blue that flashes sometimes deep sea blue, sometimes robin’s egg blue. I enjoy seeing beautiful things—that’s why I want it on my wall.
But I could just as well hang an iridescent blue hubcap on my wall; why a butterfly? Now my answer comes to the crux: because our love of living things is inherent.
This love is called biophilia, a term coined by E.O. Wilson and expounded upon by him and Stephen Kellert. This is why I find myself drawn to watch the fish in my aquarium and end up with a stupid, happy grin on my face. This is why people spend 30 Euros on a dead long-horned beetle (in spite of being dead, the beetle retains its living appearance when preserved).
I think experts have these three things—memory, appreciation of beauty, and biophilia—in larger or more finely tuned doses. Entomologists know and remember much more about insects than the average Schmoe, so they are more likely to remember the little drab ones as well as the big sexy beasts. They can notice more about a lacebug because they already know what it is. Their appreciation is honed to subtler beauty.
I have made it sound like being an expert is better than being an amateur in terms of seeing and loving the beauty of the world. Not so. Experts in the beauty of soil chemistry may be amateurs in the intricacies of maggot hibernation or cloud formation. They may not even see other parts of the world in any depth. Amateurs may be able to see and appreciate a broader slice of the world because they do not dig too deep a tunnel. I think there is a world between the loud blue morphos and the rare weevils where subtle beauty can be found and cherished.
On my last night in Paris I walked to Notre Dame, then across the Seine to the Hotel de Ville. There was an ice-skating rink set up in the square and a crowd of bundled Parisians whirling round and round. Some wobbled and held onto their equally wobbly friends, laughing and crashing into the wall around the rink. Others raced in weaving lines between the wobblers, or twirled on their blade tips in the center, muscular and graceful. The amateurs enjoyed laughing with their friends. For the experts, it may have been getting a move right. Both the amateurs and the experts were paying attention to the beauty of the experience, be it loud or subtle.
by Cathy Bell
(originally posted on vtdigger.org)
Every autumn, thousands of snow geese take a break from their 5,000 mile southbound migration to rest and feed at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison, Vermont. Journeying from their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra to their winter range in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern states, the snow geese are but fleeting visitors to the Green Mountain State, descending on our cornfields from October into early November.
The bright white feathers of a snow goose’s body contrast with tips of the wings, which look as though they have been dipped in paint of the richest black. Young birds are brushed with gray on their backs, giving them a dirty appearance. Here and there among the flocks are dark gray individuals with white faces. These steely-looking birds, commonly known as “blue geese,” are the same species as the white ones. Snow geese of either coloration are far prettier, to my eye, than our resident Canada geese. Getting to see these visitors from the north is a seasonal treat.
Hoping to find some snow geese, I went to Dead Creek on Saturday, October 30. The day started out sunny but clouded up as the big Halloween nor’easter worked its way towards New England. Driving down Route 22A from the north, I made a right turn onto Route 17. I had gone less than a mile from Addison Four Corners when I saw a wheeling flock of waterfowl. Backlit, the winged forms did not reveal any details of their plumage, but the size and flight pattern didn’t seem quite right for Canada geese. Even as I thought to myself that I must be in the right place, I saw a turnoff on the south side of the road. I pulled off the highway, shut off the ignition, and hopped out of the car, binoculars in hand. Looking to the south, I felt my jaw drop in wonder.
About 800 geese were in a field very close by, in easy sight of a viewing platform with interpretive signs. Hundreds more were in a distant depression. From the knot of people with binoculars and spotting scopes a quarter mile to the west, I guessed there was another—possibly even bigger—group of geese over there too. Aerial photo counts that weekend documented more than 4,600 geese in the area, but few people braved the chill wind of the gray afternoon to witness the impressive spectacle.
A northern harrier, its white rump patch catching the watery light, startled the nearest geese into rising from where they rested and fed. Within moments, the nervousness of a few waterfowl swept through the flock, and hundreds of birds were in the air, honking their discontent in a higher-pitched and more tremulous voice than that of the familiar Canada goose.
Though I looked carefully, I failed to find any Ross’s geese among the swirling clouds of white waterfowl. Snow geese and Ross’s geese are two distinct species, though very similar in appearance; the rarer Ross’s is more diminutive in build and has a smaller bill. I later read on the Vermont bird listserv that there were indeed two Ross’s geese at Dead Creek that afternoon, but they were the needles in the haystack of thousands of snow geese.
I may have lucked into witnessing the peak of this year’s snow goose migration, but there’s still time for you to see the spectacular waterfowl as they pass through Vermont.
At 2,858 acres, Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area is administered by Vermont Fish and Wildlife and includes extensive reaches of cattail marsh and stretches of open water. The geese, however, are concentrated in upland agricultural fields. The designated goose viewing area along Route 17 is the best place to see the birds, but a little farther south, Gage Road can provide good sightings as well.
Moreover, though the snow geese may be the star attraction, there is more here for inquisitive visitors to enjoy. Northern shovelers and green-winged teal dabble in the shallow, ponded water of the fields, and once in a while a pectoral sandpiper passes by overhead. A quarter mile west of the goose viewing turnoff, Route 17 crosses the still, murky waters of Dead Creek. Mallards and black ducks ply the waters here. Just over the bridge, a left turn takes you down a gravel road towards a hunters’ camping area. Look along the reedy edges of the water for great blue herons and wood ducks. Despite its name, Dead Creek is a lively place.
The creek flows northward, parallel to the southernmost portion of Lake Champlain. Just seven miles north of where it flows under Route 17, the creek joins with Otter Creek and soon wends its way into the lake. Its meandering path has been modified by the addition of dams, and today, the state actively manages water levels in the flooded impoundments.
The snow goose hunting season runs from October 1 – December 29 in the Lake Champlain waterfowl hunting zone, with a daily bag limit of 25 birds. Portions of the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, including the upland areas south of Route 17 near the viewing area, are managed as a refuge where no hunting or other public access is permitted.
By Danielle Owczarski
Far from Burlington, hidden in the low basin of the Nulhegan River in the Northeast Kingdom, awaits a little known National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The 26,000 acres of refugium established in 1999 encompasses three headwater tributaries to the Nulhegan River, itself a tributary to the 7.2 million acre Connecticut River watershed. Protection of this basin is critical to the health of many species of plants and wildlife and to the water quality of the Connecticut River. The Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge was created to protect these valued natural resources.
Now is the best time to visit the quiet boreal and northern hardwood landscape. Red and sugar maple, balsam fir, tamarack, yellow birch, and beech color the landscape in the fall months, nourishing the soul’s need for creative inspiration. Lewis Pond, the Nulhegan River trail, and Mollie Beattie Bog (named after UVM Alumni and first women director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife), are a few of the Tolkienesque attractions within the refuge. Start your tour at the exemplary Visitor’s Center in Brunswick, VT, to collect trail maps and wildlife viewing guides and explore the interactive interpretive exhibits.
The headwaters of the Nulhegan offer a tranquil and wild setting for fly fishermen and women. The Black Branch and North Branch, along with Lewis Pond, comprise healthy brook trout populations, which are periodically stocked by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. The most recent stocking in the Black Branch on June 20, 2011, included 100 eight-inch yearling brook trout. Studies conducted in 2000 indicate that self-sustaining wild brook trout populations exist within the cool clear tannic waters of the refuge streams. The ideal habitat supports healthy macroinvertebrate populations that provide nourishment for the trout throughout the year.
The refuge also supports scientific research studies. While driving or hiking along the refuge roads, lined and filled with gravel and dirt, you’ll come across plots of young low grasses and shrubs, managed to encourage breeding and nesting of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). The area is also home to such projects as the Migratory Bird Stopover Habitat Study, the Canada Warbler Study at the Nulhegan Basin Division, Effects of Habitat Fragmentation on Carnivore Distribution and Fitness Indicators in Vermont Forests, and the Study of Public Use on the Nulhegan Basin Division.
This land is truly a place for anyone with a passion for the outdoors whether hiking, bird watching, hunting, fishing, observing, or renewing. So turn off the computer, grab a friend, and immerse yourself in Nature.
For directions to and in-depth information about the Silvio O. Conte NFWR: