It is hard to imagine that seeing a Northern Cardinal could ever be anything but awesome. Sadly, the old saying, familiarity breeds contempt, is true unless we look for other things to appreciate about them.
Oblivious to the spines, a pair of cactus wrens busied themselves with making a nest in the fork of a cholla cactus in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument’s Alamo Canyon. Cactus wrens were still relatively new to us and we enjoyed the show. A woman and her husband, obviously serious birders judging by their dress and expensive binoculars, stopped to talk.
“What have you seen?” she asked. We gushed on about the wrens, pyrrhuloxias, cardinals, black-tailed gnatcatchers, phainopeplas, Gila woodpeckers and Gambel’s quail along the trail. “I am from Arizona,” she stated matter-of-factly. “Those are my backyard birds. I’m here to see a crested caracara.” It was as if we had just spotted an elusive house sparrow or starling—our finds didn’t even evoke a, “Nice!”
I was disappointed several weeks later to find myself in the same situation. By now, cardinals, Gila woodpeckers, ladder-backed woodpeckers, Anna’s hummingbirds and more—had became passé, just another cardinal or just another Gila woodpecker. They were almost an annoyance in our quest for new or rarely seen species. Like the woman in Alamo Canyon, we wanted to see a crested caracara, a vermilion flycatcher, an elegant trogon or a violet-crowned hummingbird. We accomplished all of that and when we did, the excitement of a new species (the very first time I saw a male cardinal I nearly wrecked my truck) began to fade.
My wife is better in the excitement department than I am. Once she grabbed her binoculars and began describing a sparrow-like bird with a beautiful black eye-mask and throat, chestnut back and pale cheeks. It was like sticking a needle in a balloon when I suggested that she was describing a male house sparrow.
Why? Knowing it was a house sparrow didn’t change how striking it was. Despite their commonness and a few poor habits, house sparrows are handsome birds and their behavior can be fascinating.
I now realize that there needs to be more to birdwatching, or wildlife observation in general, than just a species count. Maintaining an interest in species goes well beyond simple identification. The key to never saying, “Oh, just another cardinal,” is in learning all you can about each species.
For me, there is great enjoyment in learning about a behavior and then actually observing that behavior in the field. Recently, we spotted a black-tailed gnatcatcher. We read about its habits on our birding app. The app mentioned that, at times, the black-tailed gnatcatcher mimics the call of the black-throated sparrow. When a black-throated sparrow sang out a minute later, we were sure we witnessed the black-tailed gnatcatcher reply in similar voice. That was really cool.
Learning bird songs is another excellent way to rekindle excitement about even the most common backyard birds. Most birds have unique songs and calls and being able to identify them can be an invaluable help in locating them and boost your enjoyment many times over. Birders working on a Big Year (trying to see as many species as possible in one year) can count birds they hear but don’t see. I have posted a recommended list of birds to start with (provided by a birder friend) on my website, www.nature-track.com.
It doesn’t take much imagination to stretch this into a life lesson. So often, even important things such as relationships, stale with increasing familiarity. Finding ways to maintain a fresh look on life should be job one. If you care to share how you do that, I would love to hear from you on my website.
TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.
Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!
On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.
Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf.
If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho