How About Some Serious Pondering

by Dave Hanks

My brother Richard, in the later part of his working years, was employed by an irrigation company. His job consisted mainly of taking soil moisture samples and recommending watering
procedures to the client. In order to do this, it took a great deal of investigative searching, testing and the practical experience previously gained from operating his own farm. His Father-In-law would periodically ask his advice, only to completely disregard it in favor of that which he had heard on “the street”.

This frustrated my brother to “no end” to say the least. Yet he was guilty of the same thing regarding environmental issues that had entered the political arena – totally disregarding the findings of scientists in favor of “crack-pot” radio, television, and newspaper commentators ( the likes of Limbaugh, Bell, Maughan, to name a few ) who were pushing a political agenda.

Why do people do this? Why do they shut their ears and eyes to the obvious? I was a Biology teacher in high school and so I have witnessed this closing of the mind on a first-hand basis. This is especially true in environmental science and the theories relating to species continuation and adaptation. Parents were always interfering in the learning process. The following is a quote I have para-phrased that I believe most timely: ” People toss out science in order to assuage their insecurity in certain of their own ideologues, especially religious ones – purposely closing off any contact with biological education. Scientific illiteracy is leaving too many of us unprepared to discuss or understand the damage we are wreaking on our own habitat and even on our own existence. ”

I have long been a preacher for the tremendous importance of variety. Variety seems to me to be as important an eternal principle as any other you’d care to mention, yet there is an almost insane drive by the human animal to reduce it as much as possible. Whether it is in our social drive to follow styles to be like the next guy, or the drive to make us all think and act alike in a religious context, or the replacing of naturally occurring bio-systems with
mono-cultures. Ethnic variety is what’s made America strong on the world stage. Likewise the elimination of variety in naturally occurring gene pools will eventually catch-up with us all. A very frustrating and frightening prospect to me!

I always cringe when others refer to me as a bird watcher. They talk as if all we do is recreate with birds. This attitude hits me as so trivial that it is irksome. While I do love birds and observe them, I love everything out there in nature. Our time is spent photographing all life-forms, birds being the most abundant and noticeable. What I really am is a naturalist and a conservationist. Hopeful what we do might have an effect in some small way on the attitudes of others. After all, I don’t think there is any concern facing the human race more serious than keeping our planet healthy. Also, to keep it viable through the preservation of all the variety possible in all the many and varied gene pools.

In this race for the dollar and the using up of everything on this earth, who will be the eventual winner?

The Latitude Variety Rule

This rule states that areas near or on the equator will have a greater variety of species than areas closer to the poles. For instance, the Amazon Basin has so many species that many have not yet been classified. The northern countries do have fewer species, but there may be vast numbers within those species. The great caribou herds are an example.

Our place, west of Burley, is wildlife friendly and we have seen quite a few species on our property. We have documented 10 mammal and 107 bird species – which is a lot. However, if we lived in a southern state, there would be the opportunity to document many more.

If you have a desire is to see many types of lifeforms, plan a southerly trip. For this very reason, we have often traveled to the Rio Grande Valley of southern Texas. Texas has more bird species than any state in the union and its southern area has the most. A species that we especially enjoy, which is found only there in the USA, is the Great Kiskadee.

The Great Kiskadee is a large (9 ¾ inches) member of the Flycatcher family. We seek it out in the habitats it prefers – which are found along bodies of water where there are ample quantities of insects. They will also dive, kingfisher-like – but not totally submerge – for fish and crayfish. In fact, they remind me of a colorful kingfisher.

Their name results from a loud, slow, deliberate “Kis-ka-dee” call. Their nest is domed with one entrance and is usually in a thorn tree or thorny bush. Coral snakes are their main predator and thus the thorny nest site. They will also shun anything with that snake’s red and yellow color pattern. Kiskadees are monogamous, and the female will lay from two to five eggs.

We thrill to this birds gleaming yellow chest and belly, white head (with its black stripes), and the rusty under-wings and tail. It is always a highlight of a Texas photo excursion! We spent one whole morning chasing several Kiskadees around a cemetery but never got very close. But the next day at a private ranch I got lucky. They came in and sat in front of my blind – very close!

(The big, colorful Flycatcher on a stump in front of my blind)


Edge Effect

This is a principle that I taught in my High School Ecology classes. Where two communities meet is an edge (i.e. Sage brush ends and pine begins). There are always more numbers and greater varieties of species along an edge than deep within either community. This is because species from both communities are along the edge and there is a greater variety of factors that can either provide food or cover for the animal. Mule Deer are a good example. They can hide in the trees during daylight hours, but come out into the meadow at twilight time. The meadow furnishes feed but the trees are close enough to dash back into in case of danger. Fishermen take advantage of this principle when fishing where slow, deep water is off to the side of rapids, or along a log that has fallen into the creek. There are many types of edges.

One of the best edge effects we have experienced is in central Oregon at a place called Cabin Lake. Why it is called that I don’t know because there is neither a cabin nor a lake there. What is there is a spot where the Sage, Rabbitbrush, and Bitterbrush “peters out” and a Ponderosa Pine forest is starting with widely scattered trees. Sitting in a blind by a watering spot there has yielded more photography opportunities than about anyplace we’ve been. We were lured there because we read that it was a great place to see Pinyon Jays.

We discovered a wonderful spot. Not only were Pinyon Jay abundant, but a total of 33 bird and 5 mammal species came to that watering spot. A half dozen jay species, 5 woodpecker species, 2 bluebird and 2 towhee species, as well as crossbills, nuthatches, and chickadees to name a few. Some of the woodpeckers (like White-Headed, Lewis, and Williamson’s Sapsucker) are ones that are hard to come by in favorable photographic situations.

It is a hard, out of the way, place to find. But since that original trip, we have been back several times. The effort to get there is always rewarding because the variety is amazing!

(White-Headed Woodpecker at Cabin Lake)