Monday, May 21, 2012

When the student is ready.....

           His song rang out like a cathedral bell at dawn.  A rush of adrenaline increased our momentum as we descended toward the spring branch.  Again, his alluring melody arose from this lush cane sanctuary.  We stopped to capture this moment, to feel the intensity of this melody.  This bird was no ordinary bird, and this quest was no ordinary quest.   
            This quest required many years of searching, and this bird impacted my life’s journey, even before I knew it existed.   When I became aware of its existence and searched repeatedly for it, it eluded me.  Somehow I sat back on my laurels, believing that I could encounter this species like the first robin of spring.  By the time I realized that this would not be the case, the years had passed and the miles of driving cross country and hiking through dense cane labyrinths had accumulated.  I recognized that I would come to this bird only when the species, and I, were ready.  “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” I recalled in some lost bit of literature.  
            I was joined this day by my friend and colleague Andrew Kinslow.  We had time to prepare, as several reports from the area confirmed the bird’s presence, but none of the seekers before us came away with more than a fleeting glance of this “King of Camouflage”, the Swainson’s Warbler.  Learning from those who had gone before us, we quickly quelled our desire to rely upon digital playback.  On this day, by broadening our perspective and fully understanding the nature of this encounter, we developed a more appropriate strategy. 
            With my lawn chair and Andrew’s camping stool, my journal and his book, my river shoes and his bare feet, and our cameras and binoculars in hand, we traversed the bubbling stream, and listened for the effervescent warbler song rising above the stream’s din.  We approached the repetitive melody, settling into a marginal clearing within the dense Giant Cane that towered 18-20 feet above us.  We were determined to stay as long as necessary for the bird to welcome us into its lair.
            Birder Matt Andrews soon arrived (I knew him from previous shared viewings of shorebirds, and most recently, a California Gull he discovered in the Ozarks last fall).  We first saw Matt following the bird’s call from tree to tree.  When the warbler returned to our location at the center of canebrake, Matt approached us, and we invited him to join us.  It was a winning combination!
            The warbler flew from perch to perch without giving even a slight clue.  We were amazed at his uncanny ability to fly undetected over and over again.  However, within 15 minutes, Matt exclaimed in a near whisper, “I got him”.  He patiently lowered his binoculars to give us visual clues to the bird’s location on a bare limb 30 feet above the ground, just above the canopy of the canebrake.  Its long, pointed bill stood out as its most obvious field mark, but we basked in our view of its chestnut cap, it light supercilium, and dark eyeline.  All three of us watched in awe as the bird sat in an unobstructed clearing, singing every 10-12 seconds during one of those “eternity in a moment” experiences.  In reality, probably 2-3 minutes elapsed before the bird moved on, continuing its circuitous route.   
            This warbler broke all of our stereotypes for the cryptic skulker.  It was amazingly cooperative, and truly did not appear to care that we were there to observe its daily activity.  This experience gives me an opportunity to say a word or two about the birding world’s current obsession with playback devices.  First, I am not opposed to the proper and ethical use of such devices.  In fact, I use mine frequently.  But, I think it’s important to note that we should do our best to understand each individual species before, and not after, we visit their habitat.  Prolonged use of calls or using them at high volumes (birds hear quite well) serves only to stress the avian creatures we love so much to experience, and desire so deeply to preserve.  The best approach to many species, especially threatened or endangered species like this Missouri Swainson’s Warbler, reflects the Buddhist Proverb earlier sited:  “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  So do your homework, your field work, and your soul work.  Truly we are the bird’s students, and our most satisfying nature experiences and lessons come when the paths of birds and us naturally converge and leave lasting imprints on our lives.   

            A Footnote:
            It may sound like it, but the Swainson's Warbler was not the only bird we saw.  Here is Andrew's photo of a Hooded Warbler!
            Long before this day when I heard and then saw this life bird, the Swainson’s Warbler, I was called by its haunting melody.   For several years, I traveled to the most predictable Swainson’s Warbler location in Missouri at the Greer Access of the Eleven Point River.   More recently, I traveled to Howell Woods in North Carolina to view the bird in NC’s most reliable Swainson’s habitat.  But the student, apparently, was not ready, and the teacher…. Or bird, did not appear. 

            Four years ago, the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society developed a project to restore critical habitat for Missouri’s endangered Swainson’s Warbler.   The Green Leadership Academy for Diverse Ecosystems (GLADE), of which I am a founder and co-director, is far more than a bird camp that restores riparian cane habitat, but its roots are there in the canebrakes, which diminished in an age of reservoir creation and food plot biology in the White River Basin.  With the disappearance of the cane, so went the Swainson’s Warbler.  The last Swainson’s Warblers nesting at the Drury-Mincy Conservation Area, an Important Bird Area where GLADE is held, was over ten years ago.

            In GLADE, we are training a new generation of conservation leaders who currently work in riparian cane restoration to bring back a species few will ever see.  Even those who attend the academy have a very small probability of seeing what we saw this day.  Still, these young conservationists work tirelessly for the day when the song of the Swainson’s Warbler echoes off the limestone bluffs that rise above our Ozarks streams.    Last spring University of Missouri Bird Researcher Will Lewis heard the Swainson’s melody as it passed through the restoration area at Drury-Mincy.  It was the first sighting since the restoration work began.   

            Today our GLADE alum look to an alternative future where they bring their children or grandchildren to their restoration site at Drury-Mincy to view the little bird with a big song…..  The bird that is a worthy teacher, but only if the student is ready!


Robert Clark said...

Wonderful post! Like you I have found that quiet patience is often rewarded. I will never forget a Winter Wren (Pacific Wren now, I guess) foraging along a branch no more than 3 feet from me, calling away. He never knew I was there - but I was transfixed and transported by him!

Congrats on Swainson's Warbler!!

Greg said...

Thanks, Robert. It was definitely a lifer moment that I won't forget!

dhusic said...

Nice description of the excitement of being a student of nature Greg. That excitement of the "hunt", the moment of discovery, the passion for something so beautiful. Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone had such opportunities? Such passion?

Funny that I also just wrote a blog post about birding, but the teacher I referred to was my son.