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Archive for the tag “Lake Superior”

My First Hawk’s Ridge Weekend Festival

My First Hawk’s Ridge Weekend

H. Bradford

10/15/17

Although I have lived in this area of Minnesota/Wisconsin for most of my life,  I have never actually gone to Hawk’s Ridge in Duluth until this fall.  For those who don’t know, Hawk’s Ridge is a bird observatory and nature area that is one of the best places in Minnesota (and North America in general!) to watch migrating birds of prey.  Each year, over 90,000 pass over the ridge during the fall migration.  This is pretty amazing!  And yet, I never bothered to pay a visit to the observatory.   This year, I was finally drawn there my interest in birding and had hiked several times in August and September.  However, the thing that I was really looking forward to was their Hawk’s Ridge Weekend Festival event, a three day event of birding field trips, hikes, presentations, and bird watching.  The event happens each year, but I had never attended as my interest in birds is fairly new.  Hawk’s Ridge is a great place to watch hawks and other birds migrate, because the sun warms the basalt rocks that form the ridge creating thermals that the birds can use to ascend into an easier glide (i.e. flap less or expend less energy in moving).   The ridge also serves as a natural highway that the birds can follow along Lake Superior, rather than crossing the cold, expansive lake as they head south.  Well, I signed up for a weekend pass on their website as well as a membership.  This is how the event went:

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The view of Lake Superior and fall colors from Hawk’s Ridge

 


The event started on a Friday, but I did not attend the first day of hikes and presentations since I was tired and stressed from work/activism and the weather was gray and windy.  Saturday also turned out to be a gray day, but I went on a guided hike.  The bird activity was not too intense, but we did see many Sharp Shinned Hawks.  Now, I am really terrible at identifying birds of prey.   That was the appeal of attending the festival: to learn how to identify hawks.  With that said, the birds fly pretty high.  Somehow I imagined that the hawk migration was going to be something more like a scene from The Birds.  I imagined that there would be dozens of birds flying all around me at close range.  After all, if there are thousands of birds migrating, it must be like a swarm!  Not really.  While there were various falcons and Sharp shinned hawks that came closer to us, it really wasn’t how I imagined it.  Most of the birds are watched from a distance.  This meant that even with binoculars, I couldn’t always see them very clearly.  Yet, everyone else seemed able to easily identify the hawks.  This is pretty amazing, but at that distance, other cues are used to identify the birds.  Attending the event taught me to pay attention to details like flight pattern and shape.  Sharp Shinned Hawks, which I saw a lot of that weekend, are long with short heads- making a t-shape silhouette as they pass through the sky.   Their flight pattern is flap, flap, glide.  I heard a naturalist repeat this dozens of time, until it was drilled in my head to think “flap, flap, glide” as the birds moved across the sky.   In another area of the observatory, some naturalists were banding hawks.  A Sharp Shinned Hawk was brought to the crowd for closer inspection.  I was surprised by how small it was, since it seemed larger from a distance or in the sky.  I also learned to start thinking of hawks in terms of genus.  Sharp Shinned Hawks are Accipiters, or forest dwelling hawks that can easily navigate around trees.  Cooper’s Hawks are another Accipiter, which is slightly larger and said to look more like a crucifix in flight.  We saw at least one of them, but I was not be able to identify it at close range or in flight in the sky.  Goshawks are a larger Accipiter, but none were observed while I was there.  They migrate later in the season and I have seen a few on my visits now that it is October.  Despite the slow activity at Hawk’s Ridge, I went away feeling satisfied that I am slowly building my knowledge about birds.

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Clint, a naturalist with Hawk’s Ridge, holding a Sharp shinned hawk.


On Sunday, the sky cleared, making for a gorgeous sunny day.  In the morning I did the Color Run, then I zipped over to Hawk’s Ridge for more presentations and birding.  The warm, clear weather created a massive migration.  I quickly learned a new word as birders kept saying, “Check out that kettle of Broad Winged Hawks.”  That was the theme of the day, as 20,000 Broad Winged Hawks passed over Hawk’s Ridge on Sunday.  The Broad Winged Hawks were very high in the sky, flocking together or “kettling.”  They were so high up, I could not see them with my naked eye.  With binoculars, they looked like black specks or Amazing Sea Monkeys.   My binoculars are not very powerful, but it was pretty amazing to have dozens and dozens of birds come into view as they peppered the sky.  Again, they were high enough in the sky that it would be impossible for me to learn to identify them through markings.  As the name suggests, they have broad wings.  They also have short-ish tails.  Sunday was the biggest migration day that Hawk’s Ridge has had (at least that is what I overheard).  When it comes to identifying Broad Winged Hawks, I would have much more trouble.  I learned that they are in the genus, Buteo.  They have a thicker profile in the sky and a much shorter tail.  However, from a distance, I found that their shape looked pretty similar to Red tailed hawks and other buteos, or raptors built for soaring.   I did learn that Broad winged hawks are often seen migrating together, if that offers a clue.

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Some of the birds that were seen that day.


There were other birds viewed that day as well.  One highlight was a flock of Sandhill cranes which honked loudly overhead.  Some Osprey passed over on Saturday, undeterred by the overcast sky.   They look like the letter M in the sky.   There were also turkey vultures and bald eagles.   Peregrine falcons, American kestrels, and Merlins also passed by.  They flew low enough that we could catch a closer glimpse of them.  Still, I would be hard pressed to identify them at a distance or as they are speeding by.   Their profile looks pretty similar to me.   As they season progresses, the species of migrating birds changes.  Since visiting that weekend, I have returned several other times, including twice yesterday!  I really, really, want to see a golden eagle, a goshawk, and a rough legged hawk (since I have not seen any these birds before).  All of these are late season migratory birds, so they may appear more often later in October.  (The first two golden eagles of the season passed over the ridge yesterday…15 minutes after I left for the day!!).    Despite missing out on the golden eagles yesterday, I did see an American pipit, which is a new bird for my bird list.  I doubt I would have noticed it without birders around, since it looks like a drab, brown bird (easily overlooked).

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The more I try birding, the more overwhelmed I am by the amount of detail that a person must learn.  Thus far I have mostly tried to become familiar with birds by memorizing their appearance- though this relies on a close up view of a stationary bird.  Of course, a person does get better at recognizing birds by sight and there are field markings which aid with a quick identification.  I have seen a lot of white outer tail feathers lately.  I don’t need to see the whole bird to identify the flocks of Dark eyed juncos as they dart for the ditch.   Or, when I see a waging, white tipped tail, I think…Eastern Kingbird.   I have since tried to learn some bird songs or calls, but this is daunting as it is like learning another language.   Attending Hawk Ridge Weekend taught me to pay attention to flight pattern and body shape from a distance.  This adds yet another layer to the detail that a person must learn to become proficient at identifying birds.   I am not a natural when it comes to this.  It is a concerted effort to pay attention to the birds around me.  Though, the hope is that someday I can look at some distant bird and know exactly what it is.   This has brought me back several times this season- quietly watching the birds- and trying to learn from the other birders.   The benefit of building my birding skills is that it reshapes my relationship to nature.  Nature is often the background- the repeating, bland landscape of green.  (Sort of like a video game wherein all the trees and rocks look like they are the same- or some variation on a limited template).   By paying attention to the details, nature announces itself- its variety, its sounds, its hidden life forms- that we have taken the time to study and name.   There is something really amazing and overwhelming (soooo much information!) about becoming acquainted with the planet.

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Another Mini Camping Trip

Another Mini Camping Trip

H. Bradford

8/22/17

I can’t believe that summer is nearly coming to an end!  (Well, technically it ends September 21st, but…it feels like it ends once September starts).  I feel that there is so much that I didn’t do this summer.  It never lasts long enough.  I suppose that is why I felt that I needed to take another mini camping trip.  It won’t be long before it is too cold (though I suppose I could someday try winter camping…).   In any event, I once again checked online to see what programs were being offered by state parks.  I saw that Temperance River State Park was offering a plant identification hike.  So…I decided that I would head there for a little camping and lesson on plants.

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Temperance River is about an hour and a half northeast of Duluth.  I set out early Friday morning to make certain I arrived there on time for the ten A.M. plant identification hike.  It was a pretty drive.  The road was not yet crowded with vehicles and the accompanying scenery of Lake Superior made me feel happy to be alive.  I have been many places but there really is something special about Lake Superior, especially the north shore with its dramatic cliffs and craggy shores.

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The plant identification hike was pretty cool.  Those sorts of programs don’t tend to attract huge crowds, so it was a naturalist, a family, and myself.  I knew many of the plants already, but I did not know that Jewel Weed can be used topically to treat stinging nettle.  I also saw Wild Beebalm, which I had never noticed growing around here before.  I also learned that Victorians used to back Tansy into cakes.  The smell is pretty…strong and not very enticing…so I am not certain why it was added to cakes.  But, it is mildly toxic, which ended tansy’s career as a cake flavoring.  Hmm.  The hike lasted about an hour and a half.   When it was done, I decided to purchase two guidebooks from the park office and set off on another hike.   I purchased a guide on fungi (as I have been more interested in fungi recently as a result of the Feminist Frolic earlier this month) and another on berries (as many berries are appearing now).

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I set off for Carlton Peak, which is the second highest point in Minnesota.  Because it is the second highest point, I figured it might actually be a bit of a challenge.  It really wasn’t, which I guess goes to show that Minnesota really isn’t a dramatically tall state.  But, it was still a fun time.  I stopped along the way, taking note of interesting fungi and doing my best to sort of identify them.  There were also many warblers hidden in the woods, chipmunks scurrying about, and the early touches of yellow on some of the leaves.  The hike took me to the top of the peak, where there was a nice view of Lake Superior and the surrounding forests.  Like usual, most of the hikers were couples, families, and friends.  I didn’t meet anyone else on a solo adventure that day.   After taking some photos of the top, I went to nearby Tofte Peak for another view.

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Oh, I also ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  This is a challenge when I go on these mini trips.  I never know what to pack.  I need to bring things that are easy to make and which don’t spoil without refrigeration.  I have yet to come up with a satisfying menu of camping foods- so I tend to eat snacks.  In this case, I brought peanut butter, jelly, and bread.  Only…my bread was kind of old.  It tasted gross and stale.  I ate the sandwich anyway, but my stomach felt uneasy for the rest of the day.  I also lost my taste for PBJ sandwiches after that one bad one…even after buying some better bread.  Despite an upset stomach, I went on several other hikes that day.  I wandered around Lake Superior and went on a hike along Temperance River.  In all, I was up and moving around from 10 am to almost 8pm (though it wasn’t strenuous non-stop movement as I sat down, did identification work, took photos, etc.).

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At 8pm,  I made a fire and rested for a while.  I made myself a grilled cheese and avocado sandwich, but my taste for food was non-existent due to my nasty PBJ earlier.  I mostly stared at the fire and journaled in the dim light.  Also, I came to the realization that my tent…which I had not used since my rainy camp adventure in July…smelled really, really musty.   I aired it out through the day, but it still smelled.  I think it will be better next time, but it could really use some airfreshener.  My stomach was not a happy camper  and the smell of the tent was not going to do my digestive system any favors.  I ended up sleeping in my car to avoid the smell.  Yep.  But, not before wandering to Lake Superior in the darkness and sitting on some rocks.  I observed the stars and enjoyed the darkness.  There is something wonderful about the blackness of night.  It is mysterious and frightening in a fun way.   I listened to the water on the rocks and the sound of leaves.  All of the other campers were already sleeping, so it was nice to stay up and out there alone.


I had big ambitions for the following day.  I planned on doing more hiking and visiting some other state parks on the way back to Duluth.  But, after hiking so long the day before, I wasn’t that energetic.  I did a little geocaching around the park and stopped for some photos at nearby rivers and the abandoned town of Taconite Harbor.  However, I wanted something more substantial than what I had packed to eat.  My stomach felt normal but wasn’t hungry for what I had packed.  So, I made my way back towards Duluth in search of food.  I stopped in Silver Bay and did a little more geocaching, but began to feel drawn home by some activist obligations.  Originally, I had set off with the intention of staying out late at Gooseberry Falls State Park so that I could catch a presentation on ravens.  However, this would mean missing out on a prisoner solidarity protest and a benefit dinner for a UMD student from Syria.  My roommate Adam texted me asking where the signs I had made were.  I didn’t actually make any signs for the protest.

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Visions of eating Mexican food and attending these political events drew me home earlier that I had intended.   I didn’t catch the presentation on ravens, but I did have a fun time eating Mexican food and going for a walk with Adam.  I was also glad to attend the political events later in the evening.   I am not much of a camper, but I enjoyed the hiking and genuinely felt glad to live in this part of the world.  There is a lot of beauty to partake in here.  Each time I camp, I learn something new.  This time I learned to really, really think about what I want to eat and not to pack expired bread- even if it isn’t moldy yet.  I also learned that I should be more careful with my tent and not assume that it was “dry enough” when I packed it up.  This can lead to a musty misadventure.   In all, it is fair to say that I am not the most adventurous person…but I enjoy my little mini adventures.  It removes me, even for a short time, from people, work, activism and the demands of everyday life.  It is an important part of my self-care and I always learn something new.

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Asleep on the Deserted Sea

Asleep on the Deserted Sea

H. Bradford

7/1/17

One of the draws of travel to Central Asia was the opportunity to visit where the Aral Sea once was.  I learned about the Aral Sea eons ago.  It was one of the few things I remember reading in my “Weekly Reader” as a first or second grader.  I am sure that I have learned about the Aral Sea in every environmentally focused science class since.  Decades have passed since the sunny autumn days at Wright Elementary School, but the sea continues to disappear.   I believe that the sea was about 40% of its original volume when I was in the first grade.  Today it is less than 10% of its original volume.   I was told by a fellow traveler that the sea continues to shrink by a yard each day.   Really, it is sad to think about the death of a sea.  Living next to Lake Superior (the second largest lake in the world by area to the Caspian Sea), it is hard to imagine a giant body of water just disappearing.   It would be as if in a few decades, someone from Duluth would have to drive to Marquette, Michigan to see the shoreline of Lake Superior.   While I did not spend a long time visiting what was once the Aral Sea, the sea shaped several days of my trip.

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My trip began in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, a city lush with trees and fountains.  The many fountains and white marble create the illusion of serenity and coolness in the midst of the punishing heat of the Karakum Desert.  The miracle of endless water for fountains, well watered trees, and shiny clean cars and buildings is made possible by the Karakum Canal.  The 850 mile canal was built by the Soviet Union to divert water from the Amu Darya River to the hungry fields and cities of Turkmenistan.   Apparently 50% of the water the passes through the canal vanishes to evaporation.  Still, the canal is large enough to be navigated by boat for most of its length.  Ashgabat requires its own blog post, but suffice to say that my journey to the Aral Sea began with a visit to a water hungry and water wasteful city in the desert.  The city served as a brush stroke in the painting of a vanished sea.

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Between Ashgabat and Uzbekistan, there was little water at all, spare a salty lake en route to the Darvaza Gas crater.   However, as we neared the border with Uzbekistan, the landscape began to change.  The sandy, white blonde desert morphed into a less arid desert made of sage scrub.  This gave way to fields and trees along the legendary Amu Darya River.  Beyond this, hours along bumpy roads brought us closer to the sea itself, or where the sea once was.  We stopped at Moynaq, which was once a fishing town on the Aral Sea.  The fishing and canning industry in Moynaq employed over 30,000 people at its peak.  Art at the Savitsky Museum in Nuukus depicted various scenes of Moynaq in its heyday.  Paintings of fishermen, burgeoning nets of fish, and pastel sunrises over the pier decorated the walls of the museum.   However, when I visited, the town seemed small and empty, with just a few thousand residents remaining.   There was nothing pretty, pastel, or burgeoning about Moynaq.  The city reportedly has high rates of cancer and respiratory disease from the polluted remains of the sea and all of the chemicals used to grow cotton and other things.  None of this was apparent from a brief visit.  The people did not roam about like zombies, but carried on like any other village or town we had visited.  My traveling companions munched on five cent ice cream bars from a shop with a hodgepodge of supplies.  We’d intended to visit a museum to the Aral Sea, but much like the sea and most of the people, the museum was gone when we arrived.

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At first I was disappointed, as I didn’t see any sign of the sea or anything unusual in the dusty town.  However, once we boarded the truck, we set off for a memorial to the sea and the sea bed itself.   Just up the road we came upon an expansive basin- an empty bowl of sand and brush that extended to the horizon.  It was a dramatic crater that spread over 200 kilometers to meet the muddy shoreline of the shrinking sea.  The rusty wrecks of ships dotted the landscape.   Cows trod along, stomping over grass, sand, and broken seashells.  When I finally saw it, I was impressed by the astonishing melancholy it invoked.  After somehow negotiating with the local police, we managed to camp in the ship graveyard.  This did not prevent the fire department from paying us a visit to check on our campfire.  Otherwise, the camping was without incident, spare the swarms of mosquitoes.  Camping in the sea bed was certainly surreal.  In an alternative history, it might have been a beach resort and in the near history, it was a way of life.  I couldn’t help but feel angry.  It has to be the worst thing that humans have done to the planet.  At the same time, it is a cautionary tale of what could happen if climate change is not stopped.  We will see the Aralization of the planet.

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Seeing the Aral Sea certainly made me angry at the Soviet Union for prioritizing cotton production over the environment.  Of course, it also made me angry at the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia for continuing to grow cotton…(and now rice!) at the expense of the sea.  It is a tragic loss for the planet.  The sea is only 24,000 years old, young in geological time, but it vanished in less than 50 years.  Of course, it is easy to blame the Soviet Union and post-Soviet countries.  Since I have no control over history and these countries are impoverished, it is hard to blame them for continuing what is cheap, easy, and provides income.  Thus, it raises the question of what I can do as an American.  Really, there is precious little I can do for the Aral Sea.  However, rather than blaming the Soviet Union or Central Asian countries, it is more useful to draw lessons from the Aral Sea which can be extended to current water use practices in the United States.   For instance, aquifers in the United States have been depleted by about 25% over the last century.   56,900 million gallons of water are used each day in the United States for irrigation.  32% of the depletion (over the last century) of the Ogallala Aquifer in particular occurred between 2001-2008.   Someday, we might look upon the loss of the Ogallala Aquifer as a tragedy like the Aral Sea…something entirely preventable, wasteful, and irreplaceable.   Corn (and beef fed by corn) could easily be our cotton, something that future generations will look upon as wasteful and too thirsty for the landscape.  The truth of the matter is that all countries pursue easy profits over environmental sustainability.  It is the nature of the system and dooms us to environmental catastrophe and economic instability.   One of the greatest ecological mistakes seems to be the assumption that resources are endless.  While we are drowsy, we consume too much water, too much oil, too many passenger pigeons or Greak auks.  So, while the Aral Sea is particularly sad, it should be a wake up call to continue to organize.

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Bird Nerding Notes: Early April

Bird Nerding Notes: Early April

H. Bradford

4/10/17

I’ve been out quite a bit in the past few weeks in pursuit of birds.  One adventure was with my mother, but I’ve been trying to go out daily for at least some birding.  I’ve checked out Wisconsin Point, the Western Waterfront Trail, and Loons Foot Landing for birds and all three of them have yielded some new birds for my list.  It has been an exciting adventure, as it has helped me to realize all of the birds that are around me that I never really noticed before.  Like I’ve noted before, it is like an endless scavenger hunt.


Wisconsin Point:

My first adventure on Wisconsin Point yielded one new species.  I found some common mergansers close to shore.  Of course, they were quick to swim away, but it was neat to see a new bird.  I visited for several days in a row, noting many common mergansers, even if they were far away from the shore.  Because the birds are pretty shy, it is no wonder that I have never noticed them in all of the years that I have visited Wisconsin point.  Otherwise, a large flock of seagulls had assembled on a sheet of ice, which slowly melted over the course of a week.  I am not experienced enough to identify different species of seagulls, which all look pretty similar to me.  Among the seagulls were some immature bald eagles.

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Western Waterfront Trail:

The Western Waterfront Trail yielded several other species of birds.  Again, the birds were spotted from a distance and only identified by zooming in on the photos I had taken.  I noted a Common golden eye and Hooded merganser while hiking along the trail.  Again, the birds were shy and even though I was quite a distance away from them, they were quick to move along.  I hike on the Western Waterfront Trail dozens of times during the year but have never noticed these birds before.  I hiked the trail later in the week and again spotted a flotilla of these same birds.

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Loon’s Foot Landing:

My best birding has been at Loon’s Foot Landing in Superior.  I have spotted Hooded mergansers, common mergansers, Northern shoveler, pied grebe,  Common goldeneye, bufflehead ducks, Ring necked ducks, green winged teal, and what appeared to be Greater scaup.   These waterfowl seem to enjoy hanging out together in a quiet corner behind some cattails.  It makes photographing them a bit of challenge since they are safely tucked away quite a distance from the trail.  I also saw my first Great blue heron of the season fly overhead.

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Ring-necked duck

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Pied-billed grebes

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Green winged teal, Northern shoveler, and Ring necked duck

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Hooded merganser

Beyond the waterfowl were some interesting passerine birds.   While walking back to my car, I spotted what appeared to be a robin sized bird in the brush near the shore.  I followed the bird, trying to get a closer look.  It was quick and active, but finally slowed down long enough to take a photo.  It turned out to be a fox sparrow, which was pretty neat.  I am slowly learning different kinds of sparrows, which until this year all seemed like ordinary brown birds that didn’t warrant much attention.   The Fox sparrow was unique because of its gray and rust colored plumage and its large size compared to other sparrows.   When I was following it, I thought maybe it was a female red winged blackbird.  Only with the help of the camera was I able to identify it.   Since then, I have visited Loon’s Foot Landing almost daily.   While I have mostly noted the same birds each day, today I happened to see an interesting bird on top of a tree.  I assumed it might be a robin, but upon closer inspection it was gray in color with a sharp beak and black band by its eyes.  The mysterious bird appeared to be a Northern shrike!  These birds are interesting, since they are carnivorous song birds that impale their prey on barbed wire and thorns.  The bird is not very large, but manages to use its sharp beak to kill smaller birds, rodents, insects, etc.  The bird is nicknamed the butcher bird because it is known to store meat in holes or on wires.  I have also seen a Northern flicker, Northern cardinals, chickadees, and red winged blackbirds at this spot.

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Conclusion:

It has been fun going out and observing birds.  I suppose that my friends have been a little bored, as I’ve dragged them along on some of my adventures.  One of the most fun aspects of birding is the realization that there are all these interesting birds around us all of the time, but for years, they went unnoticed and unnamed.  Learning to identify new birds is a bit like learning a new language.  It opens up a whole new reality.  It is the same with learning anything new.  Learning to identify ferns, butterflies, amphibians, trees, etc. opens one up to the unique characteristics of the universe around us.  The life around us is usually the backdrop of our own lives.  It is just the setting, full of unnoticed extras.  To know the names of birds, their habits, their songs, and that they were there all along…is a small peak into the vastness of our universe and the richness of the life of this planet.

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