Long legged and speckled and cherished, little Maggie worked the woods and fields with the single minded conviction of a wild prophetess. On a sharp nose and soft mouth she was indeed sent by the God of Abraham to produce panicked wings, all hell-bent skyward. Now she is skyward.
I hope she has summer pastures to bounce in, plenty of muddy water to swim in endless circles, frosty coverts full of wild bird scent, and that she still thinks of daddy sometimes.
It’s been almost a decade since I bought my field journal. When I saw it in a gift shop I knew I had to have it – the Col. Littleton No. 9 Journal, wrought of thick leather and brass. It looked like something that Hemmingway might have opened under the glow of an oil lamp to record some electrifying showdown involving a flurry of dust, a custom English side-by-side rifle, and a pissed off cape buffalo. When I told mom what I paid for the No. 9. she wryly replied (in that motherly tone of unmistakable endearment) Hunter, I doubt you have anything that important to say.
Mom was more or less right. No doubt, the Nobel Prize Committee would not find my entries fit for personal use in a public bathroom. Nevertheless I have accumulated a priceless pile of journal refills, filled cover to cover, each one stained with the sweat and dirt of a thousand wild moments.
Fortunately for most of us, neither a literary propensity nor grammatical precision is requisite to keeping a field journal. In fact laboriously technical composition in a field journal only tells first-hand that the author wasn’t paying attention to, well… the field. Formalism is tacky in a field journal, so if that’s your thing, keep a diary. Meanwhile two deer just slipped right past you.
Indeed, it is precisely the informality and imperfections that make your entries yours and over time are the underpinning for their intrinsic value. Your handwriting, if you record events in real time, can add more to your record than words ever could. The the last word in nostalgia is thumbing through old entries to find the details of a hunt, recorded with inelegant strokes of frost-stiffened fingers and blood on the page as standing proof of meat on the ground, or a sweat-smeared rendering of a blackburnian warbler that lit on a branch and blew your mind.
A record might even be expressed by some musty piece of wildness pressed between the pages. Naturalist Joe Hutto would smear deer flies and yellow flies on the pages of his field journal as he followed his flock of wild turkeys through the Florida hammock. The more smears from the respective species of fly, the worse that species was on that particular day and at that particular time. It saved him time, he explained. I doubt that, but I like the idea. Upon reading that I naturally began doing the same thing, and when I run across an old entry with 10 or 12 mosquitoes smeared into the margin, the memory of an early season deer hunt among black water and cypress trees comes rushing back with more momentum than words alone can summon.
In time, your field journal takes on a life of its own. Your entries accumulate to something more than the sum of scarcely legible notes on dirty paper. A distinctive character emerges from your scribblings, with feathers from dead turkeys and autumn leaves pressed between the pages. Finally, the entries become a deeply personal anthology of wild strivings and a tangible collection of moments that define your passion and nourish your love of wild things.
Sweat soaked and out of breath, I crouched behind a tangled labyrinth of mountain laurel. After minutes of staring into a stand of doghobble on the edge of a creek, I finally saw his zebra-like plumage. Black and white warbler, I thought, as the morning sun cast columns of golden light through the dense mountain canopy.
No doubt, birding is great fun. Whether you make a special trip to do it or find it to be a pleasant way to pass the time in the deerstand, you will find satisfaction in coming to know the names and habits of the birds in your area. You may also be astonished at the diversity of species that have always been around, just not obvious until you watched for them. Birding is about getting out into wild places and scanning the canopy and understory for birds of the wildest colors, who’s elusive nature keeps them above the mediocrity of the obvious. With over 350 bird species, a menagerie of landscapes and habitat types, and plenty or rural land, the Carolinas offer an amazing birding experience to anyone who is willing to try it.
Spring is a great time to do it since that’s when the spectacularly colored warblers pass over us, boasting their vibrant breeding plumage on their migration route from South America to their breeding grounds in the northeast and Canada. However, with so many species passing through the Carolinas this time of year, getting started can be daunting. Indeed, if you are like many of us who have ever tried it, your first attempt was frustrating: flipping through your field guide as fast as you can trying to identify every species that flies by. In your haste, you do not definitely identify any of them and turn homeward, frustrated. It is best to start with a plan, and here is how to formulate one.
Each field guide (we’ll discuss some of the best field guides later) has a species distribution m
ap that indicates where each particular species is likely to be found at a given time of year. Make a list of those species that are in your region at the time you plan to go out. After that, narrow the list down by finding out how abundant each species on your list is. For instance, you may find that the Bachman’s warbler (Vermivora bachmanii) is listed as being in your area during the spring, but it’s also listed as an endangered species and is by far the rarest and least known warbler. The cerulean warbler (Dendroica cerulean) is not endangered, but has a discontinuous range and is almost always seen high in the canopy of old growth forests. Narrow your list by crossing out the rare or unlikely species (Of course, that doesn’t mean rule them out. Indeed, one of the most alluring aspects of birding is that chance to spot one of those rarities!). Of the species left on your list, notice the habitat types that each species prefers. The prarie warbler (Dendroica discolor), for instance, is a beautiful species common in the Carolinas in the spring and fall and likely to be found in open grasslands or large pastures, while the prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea), also common, is found almost exclusively in wooded swamps. You might start with 10 species that you can expect to encounter. Study those species and their habitats, take note of distinguishing features on each one, eye rings, wing markings, coloration on outer tail feathers, etc. Take a look at the diagrams on the right.
Now you have a list of birds that you can expect to spot and a heads-up on what habitat types in which you are most likely to see each species on your list. Study each of those species, stick to your list, and if a bird flies by that you cannot identify do not get discouraged. Once you have a toehold in the sport you will be a pro in no time.
Ecotones, or places where several habitat types come together, is the best place to bird watch. For instance, an ecotone with five converging
habitat types might look like this: the edge of a brushy field(1) near a stand of heavy brush or evergreens(2), bordered by a hardwood forest(3) with ample understory(4) that slopes down to a creek bottom(5). That type of landscape is as good as it gets and not too hard to find. Remember that each species requires a specific habitat type and means of competing for food, called an ecological niche. With more habitat types within seeing distance, the more species you are likely to encounter without walking your legs off.
Most warblers are hardly more than a few inches long, so despite their vibrant colors and markings, their small size alone can make them hard to spot. Their diet is exclusively insectivorous which is why you are not going to find one sharing a bird feeder with the finches. Only a few of them have elaborate songs. Usually their calls are insect-like buzzes, hardly the warbling songs you might expect. In short, watch closely and pay attention.
A field guide is critical, of course. One of the best field guides is the Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region. It offers multiple images of each species (very helpful), categorizes the birds according to color, making it easier and faster to look up a species in the field, it also has a wealth of information on each species. There are a number of other great field guides, so just browse through them at a bookstore or online and discover which one appeals to you.
Binoculars are important, too. Look for a pair with a magnification of 7×40 or 10×40. The first number tells you how close the bird will appear through the lens, that is, a 7×40 magnification will make the bird appear seven times closer, a 10×40 will make the bird appear 10 times closer. The second number refers to the diameter of the front lens (the objective lens). Generally, a 40mm objective is sufficient. The greater the size of the objective lens, the better the light-gathering capabilities of the binoculars. If you plan to be birding in low light conditions you may want to consider a larger objective lens, such as a 50mm lens.
Lastly, a field journal is a great addition to your gear. Anything in which you can jot down a few notes such as species that you have encountered, notes on unidentified species, weather conditions, etc is invaluable, especially in the long-run.
It is also a great idea to join a birding club so that you will be able to go afield with birding enthusiasts of all skill levels. In addition, their websites will offer information on what species other birding enthusiasts have been seeing and where. The Carolina Bird Club and South Carolina Bird Watching are two great organizations to help you get started.
One of the most striking aspects of autumn is that rich, copper light that slants in low over the horizon to casts long shadows over the landscape and overstate even the subtlest details of geographic relief and texture before dripping like April dew from the fiery leaves.
Photoperiod acts like a cosmic metronome, setting the four-quarter time for the biotic cycles of the natural world. Everything, from fruit maturation, breeding cycles, migration patterns to feeding habits, etc, follows the tempo set by the earth’s trajectory around the sun, and the angle of that angle.
With respect to the sun, the earth is set on an angle just a little over 23 degrees. Without that angle, there would be no seasonality, no photoperiod. During summer, our latitude faces the sun almost directly, during winter our piece of the earth (here in the southeast) is oriented slightly away from the sun by a little over 23 degrees latitude.
During the summer months, the sun traces out an arch through the sky whose apex is almost directly overhead. However, by early September we begin to notice the sun hanging lower in the sky each day. As the sun’s arching path over North America leans further towards the southern horizon, the light pitches down at a lesser angle, passing through more of the atmosphere before finally striking the earth’s surface. Consequently, the frequency of light that our eyes perceive as the color “red” scatters, that is to say, the light “redshifts”. Come fall, that elegant, redshifted sunlight slants through the fiery canopy and drips off the autumn leaves like April dew.
By late September, warblers begin their migration over the Southeast. The decreasing daylight initiates their journey from their summering grounds in Canada to their wintering grounds in South Florida and beyond. The small, colorful birds eat almost exclusively insects and tend to avoid urban areas; in fact, many species of warbler depend on unbroken tracts of forest along their migration route. September through October is the best time to catch a glimpse of one of these handsome and energetic creatures. A great place to encounter one is along a stream bank or moist bottomland flanked by dense vegetation with an adjacent mature forest canopy – conveniently, also a great place to wait for your buck.
Those of us who take to the trees every autumn with high hopes of venison have a front-row seat to the drama of autumn light. Photoperiod largely governs a whitetail’s social and behavioral patterns. Beginning in late August, hormonal changes begin to occur in both bucks and does. The waning daylight causes testosterone levels in bucks to spike, which in turn causes the soft, velvety antlers to harden and the bucks to relieve themselves of the now itchy, peeling velvet. The curled shreds of bark at the base of saplings attest to the bucks’ high-strung aggravation.
Come autumn, there is only one place to find a whitetail: in the hardwoods. Acorns are a staple dietary component of deer and other wildlife. They also testify to the opulence of season, and more than once I have found the urge to try one irresistible. I don’t know when I’ll finally learn not to let my curiosity get the best of me; I hope never. Tannic acid is the plant’s mechanism to make its fruit less palatable to would-be predators; though it does not seem to be especially effective at deterring much more than curious, hardheaded Southern boys. In those tannic, oaken morsels are the crucial complex carbohydrates – long chains of sugar molecules – that are stored as an energy bank to see the animal through winter’s frosty nights and leafless woods.
Acorns from the white oak family, including the white oak (Quercus alba) and the chestnut oak (Quercus dentatum), among a few others, take only one year to mature, while those of the red oak group including northern red oaks (Quercus rubrum), southern red oaks (Quercus falcata), water oaks (Quercus nigra), willow oaks (Quercus phellos), and many more, take two years to mature. That may not sound like a pertinent fact, but it is. If a mid-April frost nips the tender young buds of the white oak acorns, the white oak crop may be poor the following autumn. However, the red oak acorns were already over a year old and thus heartier during the same frost. This staggered arrangement of acorn maturation ensures that, come autumn, there will always be acorns in the hardwoods. That nature never places all of her eggs in the same basket stands as a testament to the supreme craftiness of the biotic mechanism.
Recognizing the subtle goings in nature is the greatest mark of woodsmanship. It keeps our minds working and our wits sharp, and best of all, there is always something new to see and try to understand.