Last weekend I decided to do something that sounds odd. We’ve all had to get creative about what we do during a pandemic, both in desperate measures and finding trivial pursuits. The self-prescribed activity I will describe below definitely falls under the more trivial side of things. And yet it’s also about deeper things too, things that have to do with being human and being a steward of the places you live.
If you are birder in the Northern Hemisphere, May is a traditionally fun time of year where you can get out to your favorite patch and enjoy the wonder of migration and an influx of colorful birds you’ve been missing all winter. I have many places I like to visit in May and sometimes I do a big day, where I count as many birds as possible in a 24 hour period. With the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Global Big Day happening on May 9th, I figured hell might as well do a big day in my yard.
That’s not actually anything terribly special. People keep yard lists. An annual event in October called The Big Sit requires birders to stay within a 17’ diameter circle, all day, and count what they see. Birders are very creative in finding seemingly inane challenges for themselves.
To make this a little more interesting, and more challenging for me (I can already tell you that I had 90% of the birds I’d see in the first two hours of the day), I decided to lump in a bioblitz. The goal: count all the living things. Really, it wasn’t going to be a bioblitz because they are gatherings of experts and the interested public, inventorying all the life they can manage to count in a day. This was just me, with my limited knowledge, running around with little focus and no clue. Sounds pretty stupid right?
One can make up many reasons for wanting to do something like this. A Bioblitz when done well can introduce people to entirely new taxa hiding beneath their noses or even contribute to monitoring efforts in a specific place. The Global Big Day was started to amplify engagement in birding, in crowd-sourced data on birds, and to raise funds for global conservation. If I am being honest with myself, I did this for mostly personal reasons, even if I did post silly Instagram videos of myself all day and am writing about my experience here. I did it to have something to do; to learn something.
What you could broadly say I was participating in is called “natural history,” I was collecting data on specific taxa. This is rough, but it’s what I was up to. What is the point of doing this?
There are a good number of compelling reasons to pay attention to the natural world around us. I am preaching to the choir, I know. Among the many good reasons is this line of logic: if we know what is around us, we’ll see it more, we’ll pay attention to it, we might even begin to care, and build empathy. This is a very reasonable concept that I have come to very unscientifically, anecdotally, and to spare us the word count and time involved in finding empirical evidence I hope you will consider it a real thing. I’ve seen it happen and it’s also entirely likely it doesn’t work this way for you.
Knowing the names of some birds and plants is great. But it doesn’t mean you understand diddly about these beings, about their role in the environment, about what it’s like to be one. You might know how to recognize its shape, size, colors, things people are pretty good at. But that’s basically nothing even if you pair this with understanding a portion of their life history, their behavior. But you continue to learn these things, slowly and with a certain degree of subjectivity through observation, through experiences that can build over a lifetime.
There are problems with names. In the “science” world, they are very Westernized, insisting on a certain, dominant mode of knowledge. One example is this: many birds are named after some famous dead white guy. Swainson’s Thrush, a bird I saw on this big day, is named after an English ornithologist, who did important work and is worth recognizing but who also had scant things to do with this bird. As far as I can tell, he never saw them in North America.
I would argue that this naming limits our view of the human relationships with the more than human world, and tends to turn species into an owned objects, things we count, discounts individuals and being. Swainson’s name showed up after a colleague described the bird, which thrust it into Western science and simultaneously ignored thousands of years of experience that Indigenous people had with the bird, all across its migratory range. This also ignores the unfathomable existence of being a Swainson’s Thrush and stops us from considering the individual. How might we be dismissing different relationships with a species named a certain way?
It is possible for me to hold this notion in my head, uphold the hard work of community and professional scientists worldwide, and delve into learning the names of species new to me in my yard. During my bioblitz and big day, I toed this line constantly. I ran about a yard full of life, both species introduced by my settler-colonist ilk operating on a global economic scale, and those that have been here since the last glacial advance receded, or even before.
I live on 1.14 acre property that’s mostly lawn. It’s not huge. And yet it is rural and full of life. Birding from home has been touted as a thing “all of us can do” and even I have fallen into repeating this ideas. It’s true, we can, and yet there is also an inequity in this. There is strong evidence that biodiversity is higher in more affluent areas, particularly with an eye to more human dominated places like cities. Again, there are certainly caveats, but my point is that my cavorting was a luxury of my race and socioeconomics.
So really, I ran around and counted stuff. It was super fun. I spent 18 hours minus a couple breaks to eat food or have a breakdown because it was hot. Indeed I’d chosen the hottest day of the year thus far. Below I will explain a bit more about my process, what I found, and thoughts for the future. I would like to do this sort of thing again, because this was a test run and likely will always be something I can improve upon. Really this whole thing was a practice in trying to figure out what I don’t know.
Some Basic Stats
Time Devoted: 5:21 AM – 11:21 PM; 18 hours
Distance Traveled: 1.22 miles
What I missed; Vacancies
Birds: If you have done a big day of birding, you know that one almost always misses something you hoped for, or at least expected. A few birds I hoped for, but that I don’t see every day here are: Bald Eagle, Osprey, and Steller’s Jay. I missed them all. Likewise a few species showed in the yard in the following days, due to the variance of migration. Early may is always a good time for big days in Washington and it’s always a bit of a game of chance. I had Yellow Warblers and a single Lazuli Bunting in the yard days after finishing up.
Reptiles and Amphibians: I checked under a lot of boards, scanned the edges of the property, but no lizards or snakes. And no amphibians either. We are probably too far from real bodies of water to have any.
I heard Pacific Chorus Frogs in the evening, but I didn’t count them because they were clearly not on my property. This is a judgement call, because I counted birds I heard far off, but then again it’s more likely they’re around.
Mammals: I know that there are rodents on our property. But I didn’t see any and I didn’t have any traps, live or otherwise to use. I am sure that other mammals are here too, like weasels and skunks.
Though I didn’t see them, Townsend’s Moles are around and there is strong evidence of them. I threw them on.
Most Invertebrates: So yes, there was no way I could approach counting them all. But I definitely didn’t do enough digging in the dirt, lifting of logs, etc to really feel like I got a good count. I shook some shrubs to see what fell out, I looked at the edges, I visited flowers. But there are so many microhabitats within a very small area. I was overwhelmed and distracted just by trying to get good enough looks at flying insects. Even then I only saw 1 dragonfly, and a single Cabbage White Butterfly. Also I didn’t take time to think about ants, I only really counted one species for sure: western black carpenter ant, Camponotus modoc who were releasing alates – the flying, reproductive ants that leave to form new colonies.
Grasses: If I had sufficiently prepared, I could have tried to identify the grasses in the yard. I assume that almost all of them are introduced species.
Weeds: This is a derisive, not terribly descriptive term in the first place but I really wasn’t going to notice everything growing along the margins and in the lawn. I took a casual approach and walked the perimeter and strolled the lawn. I probably found most of the species, but certainly missed some.
Garden Plants: Here I was totally objective. I counted trees but not everything else. There are too many plants in the garden and I didn’t want to get lost in doing this. It’s a blurred line because much of the weed category are merely plants that have jumped garden beds and self-seeded elsewhere.
Microbiome: There is no way for me to assess this in day. And it’s also absurd because the bulk of the biodiversity in the world is not made up of Eukaryotes (organisms with nuclei enclosed within a cell membrane – plants, animals, fungi). No idea about Bacteria or Archaea. So, it wasn’t even something on my radar until I sat down to think in the afternoon. Maybe someday amateur naturalists will be able to engage in this. When I really think about it, this makes my whole effort seem like a joke.
Fungi: While I know there are fungal colonies all around me at all times, I just didn’t have the space. So much missing.
Ideas for Next Time
- Measure (height and diameter at breast height) and count trees.
- Set out plots as a way to focus my efforts.
- Invite friends to help, when that’s an option!
- Investigate a rotten log and spend all day with just that.
- Cars are loud and make it hard to hear. So are robins when they’re all singing early in the morning.
- I already knew this, but the best place to find diversity is on the edges of things.
- My landlord mowed the lawn right before I started. And weed whacked some other patches I’d hoped to explore. That didn’t help.
- I wasn’t exactly efficient. I spent too much time focusing on trying to ID tiny bees. This was fun, but wasn’t helpful in terms of the numbers game.
Where all this “data” went
(aka use these resources)
iNaturalist – all the insect photos I took ended up here, both to help me ID them and to document what was around. This is the coolest thing about iNaturlist, it sits between a crowd-sourcing of identification and a way to broadly document biodiversity. I wish I had time to take photos and upload everything.
eBird – All my bird data went here. I used ebird both for my own records (which I am generally bad about) and to help contribute to a global dataset on birds. My main question is why birders wouldn’t use eBird? It’s easy, both an app and on a brower, and it keeps track of things for you. I like old fashioned pen and paper too, but eBird is awesome for both personal and professional efforts.
My journal – I keep a journal, for personal use, for a distant unlikely future where I can recall what I’ve seen, where, and that it might be useful to someone else. It’s not like a Grinnel Journal (referenced in a link above) but I have kept those in the past (pay me to do this stuff and I’ll keep a Grinnel every day; patreon anyone?).
The Basic Numbers
Here’s the disappointing bit. I still haven’t finished writing this all down. Birds are were easy to list, but the rest takes considerably more effort. I have pictures and notes, but I want to have a list of species with common and scientific names attached and will do this in the coming weeks. This is a big effort. And I wanted to get the broad strokes of this effort up. I still feel very accomplished with the numbers below.
Total species counted: 161
Invertebrates (insects 46, arachnids 4, woodlice 1, Symphylans 1): ~52
Plants (including Lichen): 62
- Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 1
- Band-tailed Pigeon 2
- Mourning Dove 1
- Anna’s Hummingbird 1
- Rufous Hummingbird 1
- Cooper’s Hawk 1
- Downy Woodpecker 1
- Pileated Woodpecker 2
- Northern Flicker 2
- Pacific-slope Flycatcher 2
- Hutton’s Vireo 1
- Warbling Vireo 3
- American Crow 2
- Common Raven 3
- Black-capped Chickadee 2
- Chestnut-backed Chickadee 3
- Violet-green Swallow 12
- Barn Swallow 3
- Bushtit 2
- Golden-crowned Kinglet 1
- Red-breasted Nuthatch 2
- Brown Creeper 1
- House Wren 1
- Bewick’s Wren 2
- Swainson’s Thrush 5
- American Robin 15
- Cedar Waxwing 1 Flyover, calling.
- Purple Finch 3
- Red Crossbill 2 Flyover!
- Pine Siskin 17
- American Goldfinch 4
- Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon) 8
- White-crowned Sparrow (pugetensis) 2
- Song Sparrow 9
- Spotted Towhee 5
- Brown-headed Cowbird 9
- Orange-crowned Warbler 3
- Black-throated Gray Warbler 5
- Townsend’s Warbler 1
- Wilson’s Warbler 2
- Western Tanager 5
- Black-headed Grosbeak 6
Depending on where you sit, 161 may seem like a pretty small number. Or it may seem huge. I know it’s just the surface of what this 1.15 acre parcel has. I could spend an entire year documenting and still not have it all down. This is actually a source of excitement for me. I will never know it all and I will continue to be surprised.
Almost a week after this big day of naturalizing, I was still running outside to look at things, finding bees I’d never seen before in the flowering kale outside our kitchen. I know carry a little bottle and a loup with me and have used it to scoop up a weevil I saw crawling across the beach. I’ve always been attuned to birds, but I am just that much more aware of who is around and what might be going on in their lives. In this sense, I achieved my goal. To feel a little bit closer to the land, my neighbors, and to snuggle down into the warm embrace of curiosity and fascination (with a sprinkle of unbridled fanaticism and frenetic energy).
One final thing: to do this stuff I had help and support from my partner, Caitlin. She helped me shake bushes, wrangled crane flies, and listened to me drone on and on and on about all this stuff. Couldn’t have done it without her. Thank you.
Cheers everyone and thanks for reading about this journey!
amazing stuff Brendan ! We just miss every thing unless you stop and look . What fun if everybody could compare their own slice of life and marvel at the differences even over just a few miles . Gordon
Thank yyou for writing this