The Conservation of Experience
Story by Bryan Pfeiffer
BIRDS in focus
For more than a quarter-century, the dawn and the trees have
hardly changed at Bear Swamp. Each June for the past 27 years,
which is nearly half my life, I’ve bushwhacked the same route
into these woods here in north-central Vermont, through the
lovely muck, past steadfast tamaracks, and beneath the familiar croaks of common ravens. Bear Swamp is one of the most
enduring things in my life. Except that now the yellow-bellied
flycatchers are gone.
They had called a liquid “tseh-lek” to me at Station No. 5 on
my annual trek through Bear Swamp, which is not actually a
swamp but rather wet coniferous woods. At each of five points
(flagged trees) on my route, I stop for exactly 10 minutes to
count every bird I hear or see. My annual tally, along with those
from other birders, constitutes one of the most ambitious forest
bird population studies on the continent.
Station No. 5 has always been my favorite. On my way there
I step over tiny pink eruptions of twinflower, Linnaea borealis,
the most elegant plant in these woods, the one named for Carl
Linnaeus and the North. On damp mornings, which is most
mornings at Bear Swamp, the lung lichen glows green on tree
trunks like nothing else in the forest. And all the while, yellow-bellied flycatchers normally beckon me onward.
Now they beckon no more. This isn’t particularly newsworthy.
Forests are nothing if not about growth and change and death.
And whether we let them go wild, manage them, or do something in between, forests also have business of their own, subject to events near and far and beyond our control. No better
examples of that than forest birds.
Except for the black-capped chickadees, hairy woodpeckers,
and other year-rounders, most of the birds at Bear Swamp fly in
from the tropics each spring, exploit our flush of insects, fruits,
and seeds to feed their young, maybe stick around to be counted
in a population study, and then leave us without regret. We only
get them for a few months of the year. But we get them long
enough to recognize – either by our own intrinsic sense of the
woods or by the data we gather – that some of our forests aren’t
as raucous or musical anymore.
The Vermont Center for Ecostudies, which runs the bird
study, has discovered a 14. 2 percent overall population decline
in forest birds here in Vermont over the course of 25 years [See
Discoveries, page 70]. It raises concerns about birds and forests
alike. Vermont forests support more than 125 bird species.
By now the threats to birds are well known: shopping malls,
invasive species, suburbs, pesticides, mountaintop removal, and
house cats, to name but a few. But here’s one that doesn’t get as
much press: ignorance. We cannot protect what we do not know.
Whether it’s birds or butterflies, oaks or orchids, conservation
begins with recognition. And by this I mean not merely knowing
how to tell a mountain maple from a striped maple, or a least
flycatcher from a yellow-bellied flycatcher, but rather knowing
how the woods come together, how they awake each morning,
how they breathe, how they grow and change with the light and
the seasons – and how the rest of us fit into the drama.
Extinctions and near extinctions garner headlines. But also
troubling is what conservationist and writer Robert Michael
Pyle calls the “extinction of experience” – our gradual forgetting
of the familiar, of what grows, swims, hops, walks, or flies here
in our backyards and wildlands.
Northern Woodlands brings you experience and a sense of
our place in the woods like no other magazine. And for more
than eight years I’ve done my bit part to bring you forest birds.
Beyond mere field marks or vocalizations, I’ve tried to offer you
experience among birds. Now it is time for me to move on to
other indoor and outdoor adventures, not the least of which will
be to continue to teach writing and experience (among birds and
insects) to graduate students in the University of Vermont’s Field
Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs. Those students
give me hope for a future with nature.
After all, when we no longer have the legs or balance to bushwhack into the forest (which I hope for me isn’t anytime soon),
let’s make sure we have in waiting the next generation of field
ecologists to journey into Bear Swamp and beyond – maybe
even to document the return of yellow-bellied flycatchers.
Postscript: For their vision and wisdom, for their editing skills and
patience, I’m grateful to Northern Woodlands founders Virginia
Barlow and Steve Long, and to current editor Dave Mance III.
May you all spend as little time as possible indoors.
Bryan Pfeiffer is an author, wildlife photographer, guide, and consulting naturalist who
specializes in birds and insects. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont.