Field Notes 2015: Human Nature and The End of Nature

Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 2.31.05 PMNature is in peril. Biodiversity is plummeting. Species are going extinct 100 to 1000 times faster than normal. How many times have you read an introduction beginning that way? It’s depressing because it’s true. The ensuing article or book usually offers plenty of advice on what actions we must take to stem the tide of extinction and climate change and how to convince the uninformed public to care about it. But what about us — conservationists who already care about the deterioration of the natural world as we know it and who struggle with it emotionally? How can we find solace?

The current issue of Field Notes, the annual publication of UVM’s Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs, reflects on how we can continue to delight in nature even as we stare these sobering environmental issues in the face.

Read or download the issue »

The Musicality of Birdsong

From Donald Kroodsma's The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong, 2005.

From Donald Kroodsma’s The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong.

By Joanne Garton

Formal study of birdsong has long been fascinated with the who, how, and why of some of our most ubiquitous outdoor sounds. Many guides encourage new birders to learn their species by ear, listening for bird presence rather than relying on sight alone. Researchers have examined everything from a songbird’s syrinx (the bird equivalent of a larynx) to its wing morphology to determine how a bird makes its song. Ecologists have monitored bird behavior to suggest why they sing and why birdsong makes us feel happy and safe. (For further thoughts on birdsong as a cultural ecosystem service, take a look at my research proposal on the valuation of birdsong in education.)

As a student of an Applied Wildlife Management course and an avid musician and fiddler, and a complete beginner when it comes to birds, I decided to examine the what of birdsong. More specifically, I was curious about the musical what, the pieces and patterns of sound that make up a spring morning or summer evening. Do birds sing in pitches and tones like we do? Do they prefer certain keys? Do they take a breath with each phrase? And how hard could it be to learn to reproduce birdsongs? (Quite hard, it turns out). Click on the bird names that look like this to hear my renditions of some of these birds’ songs. Continue reading

A Blackpoll Warbler’s Daring Trans-Atlantic Flight


By Bryan Pfeiffer

Two wings and a prayer carry a Blackpoll Warbler on a remarkable journey to South America each autumn. Well, actually, two wings and the audacity to pull off one of the most amazing feats of migration on the planet: a non-stop, trans-Atlantic flight lasting up to three days.

With most of us only speculating for decades about this amazing journey, my colleagues at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) today announced proof. Blackpoll Warblers fitted with miniature tracking devices took off from points in either Nova Scotia or the northeastern U.S. and flew south over the Atlantic, with no safe place to land, until reaching Caribbean islands roughly 1,600 miles away.

“This is one of the most ambitious migrations of any bird on earth,” said VCE’s Executive Director, Chris Rimmer, co-author of a research paper published today on the warbler flights. “We’ve also documented one of the longest nonstop, overwater flights ever recorded for a songbird.” Continue reading

Beyond the Jeep Road Sits Coyote — Wilderness in 2015

Southwestern desert

Southwestern desert

By Levi Old

On the first day of a 90-day expedition, our team made camp at the end of a jeep road. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, blanketed the desert’s red and orange rocks. Daylight quickly shifted into dusk. The rocks faded into shapes, and dropped shadows on slick rock in the crescent moonlight. The wind-worn surfaces that stood so vibrant in daytime were gone.

After dinner and a meeting about the next day’s plan, we embraced the opportunity to sleep out in the open. I found a flat boulder, climbed into my sleeping bag, and looked up at the night sky. The 10 students wandered around searching for sleeping spots, chatting with nervous anticipation and preparing their new equipment for a night’s rest.

“I bet this never gets old,” said Ben, 20, from Wyoming.

“Seriously,” agreed Lily from New York, “I’ve never seen stars like this before.”

I peeked over the lip of my sleeping bag and noticed the students gazing at the night sky.

The two college students traveled far from their comfortable existences to attend a three-month wilderness leadership course in the heart of the southwestern desert. Along with my colleague, I was their instructor. Around us, there was a more distinguished instructor— wilderness. Continue reading

Shadows and Sex


Red Squirrel / © Bryan Pfeiffe

By Bryan Pfeiffer

YOU DON’T NEED PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL to know which way the wind blows. Groundhog Day ain’t about shadows. It’s about sex. Birds and rodents are beginning a season of foreplay.

No, spring is not around the corner – at least not here in Vermont. Songbirds don’t rely on the vagaries of weather to calculate their breeding cycles. Instead, they schedule mating and nesting to take advantage of a reliable abundance of food for their offspring, mostly insects, which happens in May and June here at our latitude. As the days grow longer, birds do get ready to, well, um, make more birds. It’s why we’re starting to hear Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, House Finches and other birds errupting into song on sunny mornings. Continue reading

To Brave the Cold

By Shelby Perry

The sun had been up for an hour and the day was already warming. As I sat down to a steaming bowl of cinnamon oatmeal, Bernd walked into the cabin and announced that it was -24 degrees Fahrenheit outside. This made the rest of the week seem balmy, with temperatures fluctuating between -5 and 28 degrees F. Soon we would head outside for an exploratory ramble. It was just another day in Bernd Heinrich’s Winter Ecology class.

When I tell people about winter camping their reaction is often one of shock; sometimes I provoke a chorus of “That sounds terrible!” People ask these experiences with comic incredulity, but their questions give me the chance to explain why braving the cold is worth it.

  1. Winter is beautiful.

    2015-01-07 10.46.45

    Photo by Bonnie Richord

The landscape sparkles with snow, the late-afternoon sun paints the hills pink, and the tree silhouettes stand twisted against the sky. After a snowfall, the world is transformed, quiet, and peaceful.

  1. Wildlife!

While many animals are sleeping or have left town, the ones that remain can be easier to see against the backdrop of snow and bare tree branches. Below, check out an owl sighting from winter ecology. Continue reading

Kiss This: Mistletoe’s Higher Calling

By Bryan Pfeiffer


Great Purple Hairstreak (Atlides haleus) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

GET YOURSELF UNDER SOME WILD MISTLETOE this Christmas. Your gift might be a shock-and-awe butterfly called Great Purple Hairstreak.

Mistletoe is a plant that grows on trees or shrubs. And it’s a bit of a leech, a hemiparasite, which means mistletoe draws minerals and fluids from its host. But mistletoe is also photosynthetic, generating some of its own energy demands from sunshine. Oh, by the way, there is no one mistletoe. The world has more than 1,000 mistletoe species. I’ve got one of them in a cottonwood next to my cabin here in New Mexico. Mistletoes grow flowers, have pollinators, and produce fruits like many other plants.

In Arizona this past weekend, among thousands of butterflies, I encountered a single Great Purple Hairstreak. That’s usually how we find them, sluggish and alone, about the size of your thumbnail, crawling among flowers and lapping up nectar. But the business side of this butterfly, at least when it comes to mistletoe, is the caterpillar. Great Purple Hairstreak caterpillars eat mistletoe species in the genus Phoradendron (and maybe others). Continue reading

Partial Migrants: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

By Sonia DeYoung

Outside my window, a robin pecks around in the rain. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and the forecast calls for the rain to turn to snow tonight in my Massachusetts hometown. So why isn’t this robin right now flying south toward a warm, easy winter?

American robins are facultative partial migrants: they decide each year whether to migrate

American robins are facultative partial migrants: they decide each year whether to migrate

Casual birdwatchers see robins as harbingers of spring, but you can actually find them year-round throughout much of the U.S. Based on my own observations, robins seem to stick around more now than they did twenty years ago—perhaps global warming plays a role in that trend (see November 6 post). But climate change can’t explain why some robins flee wintertime and others take their chances.

[Update: The day after publishing this post, I stumbled across an article by biologist Mark Davis saying that more robins stay in the north for the winter now because of a greater winter food supply: they happily eat the berries of several increasingly common non-native species.]

Many birds, like warblers and hummingbirds, migrate annually no matter what. Others, including robins, kingfishers, and chickadees, are “partial migrants”: within a single population in a given year, some will migrate and some will not. Backyard birdwatchers who rejoice in the first robin of spring aren’t necessarily unobservant. There are fewer robins around in winter, and those that do stay often roost in bogs and swamps instead of backyards. Each year, a robin must decide based on the available food supply whether to migrate; a snowy winter landscape can never provide as much food as the same land in summer. Some robins may even leave mid-season if the conditions turns especially harsh. Continue reading

Give it a Shot: Staying Safe in the Woods During Rifle Season

Shelby and one of her dad's bucks sometime in the early 90's.

Shelby and one of her dad’s bucks sometime in the early 90’s.

By Shelby Perry

It’s hunting season, and this year I’m working through my end-of-semester stress with a rifle.  I’ve never been a hunter before, but, as a native Vermonter, deer camp, hunter-safety orange, and the first rule of gun safety (always point your muzzle in a safe direction!) have been in my vocabulary since childhood.  As I prepare for my first rifle season as a hunter, I have been surprised to find that many of my classmates did not grow up around hunting, and haven’t really thought about what it might mean to them.  Staying safe during hunting season really boils down to three main points, and shouldn’t be intimidating or frightening.

  1. Be visible.  Wearing hunter-safety orange any and every time you go out in the woods during rifle season is a must.  A lot of people think wearing any bright color will do, but almost nothing is more visible and recognizable as human in the late fall forest than hunter-safety orange.
  2. Be respectful.  Few things are more frustrating for a hunter who has been shivering silently in a tree stand since dawn than a person or dog thrashing obliviously past.  If you think there might be a hunter already in the woods it’s best to stick to heavily traveled trails or to just avoid the area during rifle season altogether.  Less about safety and more about etiquette, respecting other legal uses of the forests you love is a condition on which your own access depends.
  3. Take it seriously.  “It won’t happen to me” is the wrong approach to safety during hunting season.  Spend 8 hours looking for deer in the woods and your brain will start to make them out of everything – tree branches are antlers, the crunching leaves under a retreating rabbit are footsteps.  I am not condoning the actions of anyone who would pull the trigger before being absolutely certain of their target, but I am saying that it is wise to set yourself up for success.    Never assume your safety is someone else’s responsibility.

Continue reading