Sunday, July 28, 2013

I Love the Maryland Biodiversity Project

It's a common sentiment among birders that this hobby isn't really about the birds.  We want to connect with nature, and birds provide the best experience.  Unlike mammals, there are a lot of birds and they're relatively easy to see - and less dangerous.  Unlike insects, bird species can be readily distinguished in the field.  Unlike fungi and slimes, birds aren't disgusting. 

But while birds are Goldilocks' "Just Right" porridge of the animal world, it doesn't mean birders aren't interested in everything else out there.  That's why I think the Maryland Biodiversity Project is such a cool idea.  The idea is simply to catalog all the living things in Maryland.  So far they've got more than 10,000 species in their checklists - more than 3,300 with photographs.  The volume of life is incredible - from fish to ferns to fleas and fungus.

A real sense of wonder and excitement pervades the site - headlines in the news section breathlessly report a new bee record or that 217 species of scarab beetle have been added.  It's a lot of fun, and enough to make a jaded mid-summer birder want to get back out there and turn over logs.  If you've got a bunch of hours to kill, lose yourself in the species photos of some random classification, and remember what it feels like to have your eyes opened to a world of creatures you didn't even know existed.


Anonymous said...

I'm a birdwatcher and a butterfly watcher, and saying birdwatching is the "best" way to connect with nature is puzzling. First, to find butterflies, you need to find the correct habitat, and within that, the correct larval food plants for caterpillars or a food source for adult butterflies. So, there is a need to understand far more about nature than with birdwatching, which only requires a rudimentary delineation between habitats. An understanding of botany, for example, is not important for birdwatching. So, to the extent that people who watch birds are connecting less with nature than others, how exactly could birdwatching be the "best" way to do so? Agreed, it's the easiest way (though hundreds of butterfly species can be identified in the field), and highly enjoyable, but let's leave it at that.

NickL said...

Ha I love the combative comment, Anonymous. Let me retort! I could make points about how birders do in fact need to know a lot about specific plants and habitats to find birds but I won't in the interest if making I think a stronger point.

You say that birders "connect less with nature" but it's true that birders explore a wider variety of habitats than butterfly watchers. Do butterfly watchers go on pelagic trips to the open ocean? Do they explore the world at night? Do they brave the snow and ice? Not really, yet those things are all huge aspects of the natural world.

I love butterflies and birds and think watching them both makes for a fantastic past time, but I'm not ready to say that butterfly watchers are more connected to nature than birders.

Michael Olsen said...

Nick -- thanks. I hope you'll allow me to rebut your retort.

Please don't misunderstand: I love birds, birdwatching and birdwatchers. It's the "connecting with nature" thing that I'm quibbling with.

Birdwatchers go to different habitats to tick birds off lists. For example, they don't go on pelagic trips with any curiosity about ocean currents, water temperature or salinity levels. They go to tick off Buller's Shearwater or Rhinoceros Auklet. The only "connection" with the habitat would come if they accidentally fell off the boat.

Being from Canada, I was going to leave the snow and ice thing alone, but trust me, birdwatchers don't embrace snow and ice, they endure it. I've never heard one exclaim wonder at how deep the snow is, or how interesting it is that the atmospheric conditions are leading them to lose feeling in their extremities very quickly. No, they're there to tick off Great Grey Owl or Gyrfalcon. Once they do, the habitat is history: there is no "connection".

Regarding the night -- it's the same thing (moth watchers are only distantly related to butterfly watchers, by the way).

Could birdwatchers connect more with nature? Sure. Will they enjoy birdwatching more if they do? Probably. But the point is, they don't really have to "connect with nature," and most don't, unfortunately.

NickL said...

Michael! Thanks for your comments! With all due respect, I could not disagree more!

It sounds like you've had some bad experiences with birders. Sorry about that. But there are folks in all pursuits (including butterfly watching) that are happy to have someone else point out the species so they can check it off their list. There are probably more birders like that, but there are more birders overall.

But when it comes to connecting with nature - all aspects of nature - I just can't see how birders can be beat. Regardless of how much one learns about the ocean (and any pelagic birder knows that you need to know a lot about the ocean - where the Gulf Stream is and how to identify it, where the banks and underwater features are - to be successful), butterfly watchers aren't out there at all. Whether birders are cold or not, they're still out in the snow when butterfly watchers aren't. And out at night. And they use their ears to distinguish between all the various sounds of nature to find the bird they're looking for - but butterfly watchers don't. I don't think the edge butterfly watchers have in botony - which birders also have, especially ones looking for arsitida grass for sparrows or certain pines for crossbills or any other specific habitat - makes them more connected overall.

Michael Olsen said...

Nick, I'm not putting down birders. As I mentioned, I am one myself. I added three species to my Canada life list on a recent trip to Alberta and British Columbia (Pacific Wren, California Quail, and Anna's Hummingbird), and am now up to 323 species. (I also added 13 butterfly species, taking me up to 96 for Canada.) I just think you may be in a small minority of birdwatchers. You obviously know something about nature, which is great. That's not clear from your trip reports (reread Matinicus Rock, for example), but, that's fine. In all sincerity, I wish you, and all birdwatchers, great observations.



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