Crepuscular by nature


The sun knows the secret.

Beginning and end

Are the beautiful times.

The soft warm

And sensual times.

Dawning and setting

The magic times

Of life

Of love

Of every day.

 

The sky began to brighten. Clouds and dark green mountains played mirror games with the placid lake and wispy fog. The contrast of smoky white and wet gray clouds draping the mountains, all reflected in the still opal waters struck a nostalgic chord.

Every dawn is different in a thousand ways. Sometimes the sun leaps up, hot and yellow into a clear cloudless sky. Sometimes it casts orange rays over the horizon, web-like, to hoist itself skyward. And sometimes, like last Saturday, it’s simply there to backlight the clouds and shadows as night gives way to gray day.

Yet every dawn is the same. It’s the beginning of a new day. The Earth is awakening and all of Mother Nature’s daily rituals begin anew. In spring and early summer once the Neotropical migrants have arrived to set up housekeeping the cacophony of early morning birdsong can be deafening. We anthropomorphize and talk about happy choristers greeting the day. But these songs, while beautiful, are not accolades to ol’ Sol. They are dire warnings to any interloper that would dare trespass on established nesting territory. The gray squirrel crawls from its den and stretches on the big oak limb before beginning to forage for today’s sustenance. It tests the air with its nose and warily searches the treetops for any hawks also on the prowl for breakfast.

This is a spectacle I never tire of. I was hooked at a very early age. As a little boy, sleeping in a room with my two brothers, all my Dad had to do was open the door and call my name and I was up and out in a flash, getting dressed in the pre-dawn darkness with the light of a dim, naked light bulb, to the smell of bacon and strong coffee. Then there was the clandestine drive through the morning blackness to either woods or water where I learned to be still and quite and watchful, as the curtain would rise on a new day.

Now, as I steal out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to strike out for my bird point surveys for the Forest Service, I wonder if Izzy or Maddy will be bitten by the dawn bug. I certainly hope so.

Watching the world wake up connects you in a visceral way. You will understand how the natural world deals with the continuum of time and see that clocks and hours and minutes are arbitrary human inventions that have little to do with real time. The day starts with the rising of the sun and ends when the last orange glow of evening sunlight is swallowed by night.

I am sure my ancestors — and yours — were crepuscular creatures that started their day with the rising of the sun and prepared for night and rest as the sun waned every evening.

What’s that buzzin?

“Daddy, daddy, there’s a yellowjacket in the bedroom!” cried Izzy.

And somehow, the dusty old synapses fired and I replied, “It’s not a yellow jacket, it’s a fly.”

Now, I guess I could have been premature — it wouldn’t have been impossible for it to be a yellowjacket — but the odds were against it. In early May there are few yellowjackets around. All but fertilized queens die in late fall and early winter. These fertilized queens generally overwinter under bark, in stumps and logs and under leaf litter. Some occasionally find refuge in man-made structures, usually barns or other out buildings.

When they do emerge, and it can be as early as early May, these queens immediately get busy building nests and laying eggs that will eventually become those huge picnic spoiling colonies of late fall.

However, now that spring has arrived the odds of a fly slipping in one of the seemingly always-opened front or back doors that serve, like Alice’s rabbit hole, as portals to wonderland for my two little girls, are much greater. But a fly that looks like a yellowjacket? Yep, enter the yellowjacket hover fly.

Hover flies or flower flies are true flies in the family Syrphidae. These flies are noted Batesian mimics. Named from British naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, these mimics, usually insects, closely resemble unpalatable or harmful species and are therefore avoided by predators, 7-year-old little girls and probably a majority of humanoids who, upon hearing a buzz and seeing a bright yellow and black “bee” quickly begin swatting and retreating.

The retreating is not so bad. The hover fly is unscathed and the humanoid gets to breathlessly recount being “that close to being stung by a yellowjacket.” The swatting, spraying, mashing, bludgeoning or other dispatching of the offending “bee” is, however, a sadder affair.

Flower or hover flies are actually quite beneficial insects. Flower flies are major pollinators. In agri-ecosystems like orchards, flower flies out-perform all other native pollinators. The only more productive pollinator would be the honeybee. But honeybees only pollinate. Flower flies are also beneficial as predators. The larvae wreak havoc on aphids, caterpillars, thrips and other harmful insects.

If you can still yourself till the “fight or flight” response passes, it’s fairly easy to distinguish between the yellowjacket hover fly and the yellowjacket. The fly has only two wings. The yellowjacket (and all wasps and bees) has four. Yellowjackets have long antennae. The hover fly’s antennae are shorter than its head. Hover flies actually hover, yellowjackets don’t.

The hover fly’s mimicry doesn’t stop with appearance. Once your logic has overcome your flight or fight response and you have captured the hover fly in your hands, it will press its abdomen to your palm and don’t be surprised if you react by waving your hand and dancing a jig while squealing like a 13-year-old girl at a Jonas Brothers concert. That flight or fight response is not called “hard-wired” for nothing.

After two or three captures you will regain your swagger and be one of the first to say, “here, let me take care of that for you.” But as you reach for the culprit you will be going through a mental checklist: two wings, long antennae, it was hovering, right?

This little buzzer is also known as a “buzz bee.” It has the habit of getting in your face and buzzing loudly. In parts of Appalachia it is known as the “good news” bee. The folklore goes: if one buzzes in your ear you will soon experience good news.

A decade of Birding for the Arts

This past Saturday morning (May 2) more than 20 arts patrons and bird fanciers gathered at 8 a.m. under ominous skies at the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre for the 10th annual (time sure passes when you’re having fun) Birding for the Arts fundraiser.

We began, as usual, at the theatre and were rewarded immediately with all three of the area’s mimics — gray catbird, mockingbird and brown thrasher.

Many other common birds, residents like blue jay, common grackle, European starling, northern cardinal, American goldfinch and American robin along with migrants such as northern rough-wing swallow, barn swallow and chimney swift were also noted at the theatre.

Those aforementioned skies began to leak a little as we spied on the green heron rookery at Lake Junaluska. The lake is always a great place to compare and contrast our common swifts and swallows. We saw purple martin, tree swallow, northern rough-wing swallow, barn swallow and chimney swift all side by side. Wetland specialties at the lake included double-crested cormorant, pied-billed grebe and spotted sandpiper. It was a little slower than usual at Junaluska for migrant passerines, but we did manage to find a Cape May warbler and a yellow-rumped warbler.

The next stop was the Waynesville Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is always a productive stop for the Birding for the Arts tour. The dwarf larkspur and other wildflowers here always compete with the birds for our attention. But we came for birds and we weren’t disappointed. Warblers seen and/or heard at the overlook included black-throated blue, black-throated green, American redstart, ovenbird, black-and-white warbler, blackburnian, worm-eating warbler and chestnut-sided. Other Neotropical migrants included indigo bunting, rose-breasted grosbeak, scarlet tanager, veery, blue-headed vireo and red-eyed vireo.

There were numerous grosbeaks at the overlook, all vying like American Idol contestants to be chosen virtuoso. As we were watching one contestant strut his stuff from the top of a not-yet leafed out tree, a different species began to clamor for stage time.

“Fire, fire! Where, where? Here, here, quick put it out!” called an indigo bunting. We located the bunting and a large number of the group was focused on it when we had one of those “birding moments.” A male scarlet tanager suddenly flew into the field of view and perched, it’s scarlet body and jet-black wings contrasting with the bright indigo of the bunting.

Rain began to fall as we left the Waynesville Overlook, headed for Licklog. When we arrived at Licklog Overlook, we were socked in and the rain was steady. Our gracious hosts Sen. Joe Sam and Dr. Kate Queen offered their porch in Waynesville for a dry lunch catered by the Patio.

After the delicious lunch, checklists were passed out and we tallied the morning’s species. Most of the group was surprised to find out, that even through the rain and fog we had recorded 61 species — a reminder of the amazing biological diversity here in our mountains.

The rain and gray had set in for the day. Those of the group with good sense finally dry and with bellies full called it a wonderful trip and packed it in.

That left only the bird-brained — the senator, Kate and myself — to head back into the gray. We got to bird only in snippets in the fog between raindrops but we added a dozen species to the list. Our best stop, species wise, may have been the last one at Polls Gap on Heintooga Road. We probably couldn’t see more than 300 feet but managed to add golden-crowned kinglet, red-breasted nuthatch and yellow-bellied sapsucker to the list.

Because of the limitation on number of participants (due to logistics, birding groups need to be compact), Birding for the Arts is probably not one of the Arts Council’s major fundraisers. But it certainly is one of the most enjoyable. Plan to join us next spring!

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Hats off to Avram and the activist spirit

Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition, is not afraid to put his money (whatever fine he may have to pay for trespassing) and time (eight hours in Mecklenburg County jail) where his mouth is. According to Associated Press accounts, Avram was the first person arrested at an April 20 Charlotte protest at Duke Energy headquarters.

Protesters were there in opposition to Cliffside, Duke’s newest and grandest monument dedicated to King Coal, proposed (actually 30 percent completed) in Rutherford County.

Forty-three other brave souls joined Avram in this much-needed exhibition of civil disobedience. From AP reports, it looks like Avram’s relatively young legs – he’s 59 – allowed him to nose out 86-year-old Betty Robinson (you go granny!) at the arrest-me line.

Regular readers of this column may know that Avram and I have, at this point in time, differing opinions about the efficacy and environmental tradeoffs associated with large-scale wind farms on the ridges of Southern Appalachia. But I have never, and will never, question Avram’s integrity and motivation as he fights for clean air. I consider Avram a friend and colleague in the struggle for a cleaner environment.

Avram and I are contemporaries and were “coming of age” in the 60s when the power of public opinion and civil disobedience was showing its muscle. The hero of the day was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The hero of the past was Mahatma Gandhi. And the counter-culture hero was Abbie Hoffman. There were some fringe groups, but the mainstream movement was huge and it was civil. What is needed today is a real public wake up call. The public — loud and large and civil — is the only “body politic” with the power and moral authority to change the status quo, to implement a paradigm that says public health and well being and the fate of the planet are more important than the bottom line.

Sure, Duke and other corporate polluters — and there are many across the country, Duke is just the big dog on our home court — will try to play the “jobs” card. They will shout that the mean “environmental whackos” want to take away the “average man’s” paycheck. Well, I am the average man and I work shoulder to shoulder for 12 hours a night with other average men and women, and if you asked any one of them what’s more important — this job or the health and well being of your children — you will find out fast where you can put “this job.”

As long as the powers that be at Duke and its corporate brethren think they can paint a line on the ground and sit in their corporate towers and be shielded from taking the responsibility of explaining to you and me how emitting six million tons of carbon dioxide into the environment every year for the next 50 years is in the best interest of my daughters and your sons, well, they’ve got a lot to learn about the average man.

I want to thank Avram and his 43 courageous, convicted compatriots for reminding us that spray paint on the ground is simply spray paint on the ground, and if anyone should be in control of the best interest of our children it is their parents.

Maybe next protest there will be 444 arrests and 4,444 after that ....

(Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A picture is worth a thousand words

When the 1968 Apollo astronauts rounded the moon for the first time the deepest impression was not the view of that barren, never-before-seen lunar landscape, but the sight of a dazzling, beautiful blue and white gem floating in the black vastness of space. The astronauts sent images home, and for the first time in the history of the world humans all around the world got a glimpse of their one celestial home.

Poet Archibald MacLeish described it in Time magazine, “to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now that they are truly brothers.”

These shots seen round the world helped coalesce, especially in the U.S., a burgeoning environmental awareness. The 60s and early 70s were heady times in this country for social activism, civil disobedience and grassroots organization. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (published in 1962) decrying the widespread indiscriminate use of pesticides was a New York Times best seller. Filled with passages like, “There is still very limited awareness of the nature of the threat. This is an era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits. It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged. When the public protests, confronted with some obvious evidence of damaging results of pesticide applications, it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half-truth. We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts. It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks that the insect controllers calculate. The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts. In the words of Jean Rostand, “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know,” Silent Spring created a sense of urgency that lent itself to the passions of the times.

Some may argue that the city of San Francisco’s Earth Day celebration on March 21, (spring equinox) 1970, created by activist John McConnell was the first and/or original Earth Day. And while many consider McConnell the “father” of Earth Day, it was the massive (estimated 20 million participants) countrywide events that occurred on April 22, 1970, spearheaded by Sen. Gaylord Nelson D. Wisconsin that landed Earth Day and the environmental movement squarely in the center of the political socio-economic spotlight.

This early, fervent and widespread public support created the political capital that allowed for groundbreaking legislation like the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. And while that early passionate blaze has led to important political and industrial gains in the form of stricter environmental laws and policies, it is easy to see from here, in this land of nonpareil beauty and biodiversity, which is being choked under a heavy brown blanket of pollution, there is much still to be done.

The fact that our county and many of its neighbors, plus the “pristine” Great Smoky Mountains National Park, don’t even meet EPA standards for clean air 39 years after the first Earth Day means we’ve dropped the ball.

We need to fan those Earth Day embers back into a maelstrom of public outcry demanding that we and our children and their children deserve and shall have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.

Happy Earth Day!

(Don Hendershot can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Canaries in the coalmine

As I passed the kitchen windows last Friday (4/10), a brilliant red streak caught my eye. I followed the streak to a branch in one of the large poplars at the corner of the deck. There in all his freshly plumaged glory sat a scarlet tanager. The scarlet so bright and vivid it was screaming next to the jet-black wings.

Now don’t tell anyone associated with Cornell’s Back Yard Bird Count or I’ll have to recant because it’s entirely too early for a scarlet tanager in the mountains of Western North Carolina. It would have to be an aberrant cardinal or a cardinal in poor light.

One of my many shortcomings as a birder is the fact that I don’t take notes or record observations. But I have friends that do. So I called a birder friend that does (Bob Olthoff) and asked how last Friday compared to his earliest scarlet tanager record. Bob said the bird in my yard was a good 10 days earlier than his earliest record.

This spring also happens to be my earliest arrival date for blue-headed vireo. I had one singing in my yard on March 23 this year. I don’t know how early that was but it was early. I didn’t think much of it because blue-headed vireos are early migrants. But add the tanager and it makes you go hmmmm.

I have casually perused some of the information regarding global warming and migration over the last few years. The early appearance of the scarlet tanager caused me to turn to some of that data again.

The appearance of one or two early migrants means little, in itself. But, thankfully, many birders are better at keeping records than I and studies are beginning to show bird-population trends consistent with warming trends. Models predicted that birds would shift their home range northward and/or toward higher elevations as temperatures rise.

Research of data collected for the past 24 years shows that warblers like prothonotary, blue-winged, golden-winged, Cape May and others have expanded their range northward by an average of 65 miles during this timeframe. And one study of 20 species of migratory birds showed early spring arrival dates in 1994 to be 21 days earlier than in 1965.

The implications regarding effects of global warming on bird population distributions and behavior are myriad and complex. A quick primer can be found at www.abcbirds.org/conservationissues/globalwarming/global_warming_factsheet.pdf, at the American Bird Conservancy’s website. Or for my unplugged friends who find the listing of URLs a bit biased, you can call Darin Schroeder at American Bird Conservancy, 202.234.7181.

The canary in the coalmine comparison is troubling. The only way the miners knew they must leave and remedy the conditions in the mine was if the canary was dead. If we wait for mass extinction of our multi-colored, nightingale-voiced canaries before we begin to address the issues of climate change we will indeed wake up to Rachel Carson’s silent spring.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Watershed dreaming

Last Saturday (April 4) was another sojourn into the town of Waynesville’s 8,500-acre plus watershed. The town initiated these watershed hikes back in 2007 to introduce town residents and other interested parties to this amazing resource that has been set aside in a conservation easement to insure the town has an ample supply of high-quality potable water.

This spring’s hike included a combination of first-time and repeat hikers. We carpooled up to the beginning of the hike. At that point we separated into two groups — those that came to stretch their legs surrounded by this beautiful setting and those who were content to amble along seeking early spring blooms and listening for returning neotropical migrants.

I suffer from chronic naturalist’s-amble. If I want aerobic exercise I put on my running shoes and hit the road or track. In the woods I cannot go far or fast without seeing something that requires closer scrutiny. Sometimes it is something interesting or unique like the broomrape we found last spring or the wood frog hiding beneath the leaf-litter of a vernal pool that we discovered last fall. Often it is something common in unusual circumstances, like the bloodroot we found this year in seemingly dire circumstances — the stem colorless and the leaf still curled tightly — that catches the eye.

This spring about a half dozen participants joined my daughter, Izzy, and me for our amble. I have to admit, Izzy ambles differently than I. She’s 100 miles per hour up the trail, then 100 miles per hour back to see what we’ve stopped for. But even at that speed her youthful eyes are quick to focus on interesting objects and she waits patiently (?) to show us the newest bloom or animal track she has discovered.

It was a crisp morning (mid-30s) when we embarked. And being early April, not a whole lot was blooming. We found bloodroot, golden ragwort, meadow parsnip, cut-leaved toothwort and a couple of species of violets in bloom. The only neotropical migrants we heard were blue-headed vireo and black-throated-green warbler.

As we climbed, so did the temperature. Around 10:30 a.m. we began to shed jackets. And as we stopped occasionally to look down on the reservoir sparkling in the sunlight, we also drank in the warm spring sun like the fecund leaf-littered earth. These settings nurture more than wildflowers.

After a while hiking we found a comfortable spot to stop and cast off our backpacks and drink in the warm spring sun.

“So, who are those people?” asked one of the hikers.

“Oh,” I said, “that’s a group of teachers and educators participating in a Project Wild workshop. They are learning how to incorporate hands-on environmental education in their curriculum.”

“Does a lot of that go on in the watershed?” asked another participant.

“Oh, sure,” I replied. “There are Project Wild programs for educators and for kids in K through 12 grades. Haywood Waterways Association’s Kids in the Creek program uses the watershed to help educate eighth-graders in the county about the benefits of good water quality.

“Community colleges and universities from the region and around the country come here to monitor and learn about best management practices and the forest management tools used to restore the watershed to a more natural, pristine state.

“We can stop at the visitors center on the way out and you can learn about all the recreational and educational opportunities—

“Daddy! Daddy! Wake up! You’re dreaming that watershed dream again.”

(Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Caving moratorium sought

Three weeks ago (Naturalist’s Corner 3/11) I wrote about a mysterious malady dubbed White Nose Syndrome (WNS) that has been decimating bat populations at various hibernacula across the Northeast and spreading south. Last week (3/26) the U.S, Fish & Wildlife Service called for a voluntary moratorium on caving in states with documented incidents of WNS and in adjacent states.

The fact that WNS has been reported from sites considerable distances from known WNS-hibernacula has U.S. Fish & Wildlife concerned that humans may be aiding the spread of the disease. “We suspect that white-nose syndrome may be transmitted by humans inadvertently carrying WNS from cave to cave where bats hibernate,” said Fish & Wildlife northeast regional director, Marvin Moriarty.

Fish & Wildlife is asking spelunkers to suspend all caving activities in WNS-affected states and adjacent states. The Service also asks that cavers not use clothing and/or gear that have been used in WNS-affected states in any caves even if the equipment and clothing have been disinfected using Fish & Wildlife’s protocols. The advisory states, “Although we have confidence in the current protocols for decontamination, there is no way to guarantee efficacy for all equipment in all circumstances, and they may not adequately address needs for technical or vertical gear.”

Fish & Wildlife and other agencies will also re-evaluate all scientific activities taking place in hibernacula to try and insure they are not possibly aiding the spread of WNS.

The nine states where WNS has been documented to date are New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia. At least 60 hibernacula are known to be infected and the service estimates that more than 400,000 bats, including 25,000 endangered Indiana bats have succumbed to WNS. Some hibernacula have experienced mortality rates as high as 97 percent.

The Service has closed four caves at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, near Decatur Ala. And may close more on Service property in accordance with advisory guidelines. Fish & Wildlife only has authority to close caves on property it owns but noted in its advisory, “We expect other government agencies, organizations or private landowners will close caves to help prevent or slow down the spread of WNS.”

Northeast Fish & Wildlife director, Moriarty noted, “We understand that following these recommendations will inconvenience recreational cavers, but we believe this is the most responsible course of action as we face this unknown threat to bats, which play an important role in our world.”

Fish & Wildlife is hoping for the same kind of cooperation and understanding from cavers that rock climbers have shown regarding Peregrine Falcon closures.

The four recommendations the Service has issued are:

1. A voluntary moratorium on caving in states with confirmed WNS and all adjoining states;

2. Nationally, in states not WNS-affected or adjoining states, use clothing and gear that has never been in caves in WNS-affected or adjoining states;

3. State and federal conservation agencies should evaluate scientific activities for their potential to spread WNS; and

4. Nationally, researchers should use clothing and gear that has never been in caves in a WNS-affected or adjoining state.

We intend to review the cave advisory frequently – at least quarterly.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

By Izzy Hendershot (age 7) • Notes in italics by Dad

We hopped in the car and started off. The first stop (two hours later, in Blowing Rock) was the hotel. We unpacked and then we got back in the car and went to Grandfather Mountain. We walked across the “Mile High Bridge.” It was a little scary. From the bridge we saw lots more mountains. I got to climb some boulders. I touched the “No visitors beyond this point” sign.

Grandfather Mountain is estimated to be 730 million years old. The rock beneath, the Wilson Gneiss Formation, is 1.2 billion years old. Grandfather was formed by the collision of the North American and African continents. Millions upon millions of years of weathering created a “geologic window” where younger, harder rock is left exposed above the older rock.

After that we hopped back in the car to see the animal habitat and nature museum. There were rocks, water and bears. The black bears were just waking up from their winter hibernation.

Next we got to see cougars. They were running and chasing each other. One of the cougars pooped in a hole, just like a cat at a litter box. We also saw a bald eagle that had been hurt by a gun.

Then we went into the museum and we got to take a look around. We got to see some cool crystals and rocks. We saw the biggest amethyst on the North American continent. It weighed 162 pounds!

This crystal was discovered in 1972 by Lester Sigmon in the Reel Mine at Iron Station, N.C. The crystal, 2 feet by 2 feet by 1 foot high, is thought to be the finest amethyst cluster ever discovered in North America.

We also saw a model of a salamander that was four times its actual size. Then we got to see some other things and the gift store, which had lots of stuffed animals.

We made it back to the entrance of Grandfather Mountain and waited for our friend Carol who was visiting from China. Cars passed by and none of them were Carol’s. Finally we saw her. When she arrived Grandfather Mountain had closed. Next, everybody, daddy, Carol, mommy and Carol’s sister, Nic, talked for a while.

They decided we would go to a restaurant together. I got to ride in Carol’s car to the restaurant. Nic reminded me of a student teacher at school, Ms. Hoyle.

We went to restaurant in Banner Elk called Sorrento’s Bistro. The waitress brought Maddy, my sister, and me a ball of dough to play with. Then we got to eat yummy pizza.

After we were done eating, my family went back to the hotel. Our hotel room number was 115. We went for a swim, then to bed.

The next morning, after breakfast, we went back into the pool. After that we packed up to get ready to go home. We got to have lunch with Carol, in Boone. That’s where App State is.

Then we started for home. On the way home we saw two deer run right in front of a car and almost get hit.

We started down the mountain and we saw some trees getting their new leaves. We stayed on the four-lane for a long time. When we got home my dog, Sophie, was glad to see us.

Izzy Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a citizen-science venture conducted under the auspices of Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon. It is conducted each February. It began as a kind of “feeder watch” or backyard project with volunteers counting the birds around their homes. A few years back the GBBC expanded its scope to include almost any setting participants decided to bird, including but not limited to public lands like parks and wildlife refuges.

In retrospect, I can see that my first GBBC was a harbinger of things to come. That year, early 2000s, was one like this one with large numbers of pine siskins. My feeders and the trees in my back yard were constantly full of the little buggers. On count day I counted 43 siskins at my feeders and could see at least that many more in the treetops. I recorded a conservative estimate of 75. The red flags flew!

I was contacted by a reviewer who informed me that I must have been mistaken – 75 pine siskins was an unheard of number. I responded that I did indeed have 75 siskins, probably more, but to no avail. The record was stricken.

Well, I decided that GBBC reviewers were probably prone to err on the side of caution and that 75 siskins was a high number so I just dropped the discourse. But my ego was bruised so I didn’t participate in the next couple of GBBCs.

Then February 2005 my brother Ford and I found ourselves in Louisiana at a gathering of the clans. It was the weekend of the GBBC and we decided to do an impromptu count at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge. While that year’s weather was bitter and the count was low, we enjoyed ourselves.

We decided to make the GBBC at Black Bayou an annual event. Surely as much a social event as scientific but an accurate count nonetheless.

Fast-forward to February 2009 — our fourth annual Black Bayou GBBC. This February we were a bit surprised and delighted to encounter palm warblers. I knew that palm warblers over wintered in Louisiana and didn’t anticipate the need for documentation even though my camera was in the truck.

It must have been the numbers thing again because the day after I submitted my count report I received, what to me, was a very patronizing email from a reviewer announcing that I had obviously made a typo in my report and meant two not 20 palm warblers.

I replied in a similar tone informing the reviewer that I, indeed, knew the difference between two and 20 and that 20 was, in fact, a conservative estimate.

After getting no response I checked the GBBC database and found that my record of palm warblers at Black Bayou was removed. I emailed the reviewer, asking if that was the end of the story. And received another patronizing email, which included a note that I should remember that the reviewer had no way of knowing my birding experience.

The devil made me do it. In my response I mentioned that, in fact, I did not know the reviewer’s birding experience either. Finally after about the third email exchange, in which I was admonished for being terribly rude and even accused of flaming in all CAPS, which I never did, I received a records form to fill out.

I dutifully filled out the form and returned it but you guessed it — still no palm warblers on the Black Bayou count. From perusing the GBBC blog, I discovered other contributors had experienced the same “numbers” problem. One solution I saw was simply, don’t report numbers greater than one or two and there’s generally no problem.

But what about the “science” part of citizen-science, doesn’t science require that we be as accurate as possible?

And I can’t help but mention the 2,000-pound ivory-billed woodpecker in the room. Perhaps if I had been able to convene a press conference at the White House to announce the 20 palm warblers with the same fanfare Cornell used to announce the “rediscovery” of the never-again-seen ivory-billed woodpecker in 2005 my sighting would have validity.

It’s not what ya’ know — it’s who ya’ know.

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