Sunday, March 4, 2012

the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know

For instance: the chickadees. What is it about the yellow birches that they love so much, as they flit around above me, muttering contentedly to themselves? Are they munching on the catkins, and just visiting the bark? Or is there something in the bark – insects? larvae? – they’re after? I don’t even know what they eat. Pathetic. Let’s rectify this:

    • The Black-Capped Chickadee hides seeds and other food items to eat later. Each item is placed in a different spot and the chickadee can remember thousands of hiding places.
    • Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment even with their tiny brains.

- from

The first time I ever heard of chickadees was in a trail log on the Long Trail many years ago, where it was referred to as the “Descending Whole Tone” bird.

The barred owls. They’re north of here, within earshot. How far is that? There are at least two of them. From the sound of it, one’s on the other (east) side of the main road, and one’s on our side. Are they nocturnal? If so, what are they doing calling back and forth in the early afternoon? Calling good night, as it were? If I head up our brook upstream, what are the chances I’ll ever see one?

I’ve been doing some research on dave. (New here? dave, as in musingsfromdave, is the property itself.) Did you know that the nice people at the USDA will generate a soil map for you gratis, just-like-that, off their website? Here is a teensy picture to whet your appetite:

soil map

This actually cracks me up, because that blue line – the brook? It’s shown going through our neighbor’s living room. The private drive we share is also shown bravely assaulting what in actuality, is rich northern hardwood forest. Yeah…this could be related to the FEMA floodplain map snafu that necessitated the hiring of a surveyor to establish that in fact, our house is not located smack dab in the middle of a floodplain. I don’t know how to ground-truth the soil data shown above, except I will say that the soil people have a decent handle on where the actual pond is (“W”, at lower right = “water”).

I can see that GIS (Mom, that’s Geographic Information Systems) is a black hole of fascinating-ness, that I’d better be wary of, in the same way that I’m wary of oh, I don’t know, heroin, maybe.

Did you notice how I blithely tossed off “rich northern hardwood forest”? Did you catch that? Yeah. Well, I’ve flirted with Actual Science-Based Ecology on several occasions in my life. I fell in with it a little too late to major in it in college, although come to think of it, it wasn’t actually available as a major per se at that point. Instead, I got sucked into the magical mystery of William Cronon’s take on history. But I have tramped around, taken classes before grad school and of course AT grad school. I’ve dug soil test pits from coastal Connecticut to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. I’ve peered at glacial striations on outcroppings behind shopping centers, and drooled over road cuts.

Basically, I have j-u-s-t enough knowledge to realize that I don’t know jack.

So today I manned up and broke out my copy of “Wetland, Woodland, Wildland: A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont”. This is a book I’ve owned since it was first published in 2000. Now that I’m actually letting myself get well-and-truly-grounded-where-I-am, I’m finally ready to eat it whole and expel it like an owl pellet. This afternoon, when I came back inside from standing in the woods, entranced listening to birdsong, I flipped through dozens of forest descriptions before coming to some types that feel a lot like home sweet home: the “sugar maple – white ash – jack-in-the-pulpit Northern Hardwood Forest” variant of the “Rich Northern Hardwood Forest”.

Oh, the trouble I’m going to get into this summer.

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