It's a New Day

October 2019

Vol. 47, No. 5

About Books: Birding 'Round The Swamp

Mark Lynch

Natural Encounters: Biking, Hiking, and Birding Through the Seasons. Bruce M. Beehler. 2019. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Every day of the year brings some gift from nature that gives some private pleasure in the environs of the nation's capital. (p. 1)

These days if you mention "Washington, D.C." in any social situation you will likely get a reaction from the people present similar to that of Moe, of the Three Stooges, hearing the words "Niagara Falls" in the classic film short Gents Without Cents. ( If you are unfamiliar with this bit of American physical humor, please visit the Three Stooges website: https://www.threestooges.com/2017/11/01/slowly-i-turned-the-origin-of-the-three-stooges-niagara-falls-routine/

The author of this section quotes Wikipedia:

The routine features a man recounting the day he took his revenge on his enemy – and becoming so engrossed in his own tale that he attacks the innocent listener to whom he is speaking. The attacker comes to his senses, only to go berserk again when the listener says something that triggers the old memory again.

Every time Moe hears the words "Niagara Falls," he goes berserk and rains blows on the innocent bystanders present. Trust me, it's funnier in the film. )

Never before in our memory has this nation been so divided politically. So much so that just the mention of our seat of government is likely to incite heated discussions, lots of yelling and swearing, and the loss of friends. As part of this antipathy toward Washington, you hear rallying cries to "Drain the Swamp!" in stump speeches by up-and-coming politicians. The "Swamp" in this case is a metaphor for the supposed cesspool of politics that our national government has become. This association between Washington, D.C., and the imagined fetid miasma of a swamp actually goes quite far back in American history. As Ted Widmer writes in his piece for The New Yorker, "Draining the Swamp" (January 19, 2017 online), building the nation's capital next to the poor drainage of the Potomac River made the whole area susceptible to boggy conditions and pestilential odors. The numerous complaints about the physical environment of the capital soon carried over to complaints about the politics happening in the capital:

A Massachusetts congressman, Theodore Sedgwick, wrote, in 1789, "the climate of the Patowmack is not only unhealthy, but destructive to northern constitutions." The smells of the District added fuel to the growing critique of a city that offended Northerners for its adherence to slavery as well as its inaccessibility. To an abolitionist like William Lloyd Garrison, Washington was a moral swamp: "The District is rotten with the plague, and stinks in the nostrils of the world . . . a fouler spot scarcely exists on earth." An eyewitness in 1860 cast an eye on the city's canals and glimpsed "dead cats and all kinds of putridity," in a stagnant pool "reeking with pestilential odors." ("Draining The Swamp")

With so many negative feelings about Washington, D.C., today, it is refreshing to read a natural history book about that area that barely mentions politics and instead focuses on the joys of birding the greater "Swamp" area. Bruce Beehler is the author of last year's classic account of following spring bird migration, North on the Wing. His new book, Natural Encounters, focuses mostly on his home turf of Washington, D.C., with extended forays north, south, and west of the capital. Though Beehler has engaged in research over the decades that has taken him to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Zimbabwe, and Mexico, it is Washington, D.C., and the mid-Atlantic area where he has always hung his hat. He considers himself a Washington-based scientist and conservationist.

I held positions at the Smithsonian Institution, Wildlife Conservation Society, US Department of State, Counterpart International, Conservation International, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation before I retired to a tiny office in the back of the bird collection of the National Museum of Natural History; which sits on the National Mall across from the red sandstone Smithsonian castle. (p. xi Natural Encounters).

It may seem surprising that good birding can occur within the Beltway. Older birders became familiar with the birding spots of the D.C. area through Claudia Wild's book Finding Birds in the National Capital Area (1983). This book was my guide when, in the eighties, I visited my brother who was a biologist at the Smithsonian. Beehler's touchstone is a much earlier book, Louis Halle's Spring in Washington, written during the post World War II period in the capital. Though not well known today, Halle's book deserves to be recognized as one of the classics of American bird literature. Beehler is interested in comparing his contemporary observations with those of Halle: "So, here, I have taken it as my mandate to reexamine the story Halle told in 1947 and to add some dimensions related to the passing of time, the changing world, and our evolving cityscape." (p. 13)

Beehler structures Natural Encounters to track the changes in nature, not just the birds, that occur during a typical year in the mid-Atlantic. Beehler's natural year and his book Natural Encounters begin at the solstice in June with the completion of spring migration and the beginning of the nesting season. For Beehler, spring is the penultimate season: "Spring is nature's most generous gift to the north temperate zone" (p. 2). He states:

I must get out every spring morning to take it all in and record its annual surprises. For no matter how many times spring is experienced, there is something new to see as well as a hundred familiar things to savor from the past. (p. 7)

It is therefore not surprising to read that Beehler considers summer the "doldrums" (p.7).

Beehler's observations are enriched by the fact that he has biked to work almost every day. His bike route ran along the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, from Bethesda, Maryland, to either downtown Washington, D.C., or Arlington, Virginia. Only deep snow or severe icing prevented him from following this route every workday. In winter that means he was biking along this path in the dark worried about the possibility of collisions with deer or beavers. This biking commute gives Beehler plenty of opportunities to stop and savor small changes in bird populations that occur through a year and to enjoy the dawn chorus of birds in the capital.

Not noticing birds in one's daily environment is like being badly nearsighted as well as profoundly hearing challenged. One misses a whole segment of life on earth that can deliver joy every day. (p. 36)

Beehler writes that, along the Potomac, Eastern Phoebe, Acadian Flycatcher, Eastern Wood Peewee, Eastern Kingbird, and Great Crested Flycatcher are all common. Warblers reliably found here include Northern Parula, Yellow-throated, and Prothonotary. That's a dawn chorus that many of us in Massachusetts would love to experience. Beehler also notes other wildlife he comes across in his travels in the D.C. area. He writes about the excitement of finding four huge Hercules beetles while playing tennis, much to his tennis partner's consternation. He is startled at seeing a gray fox at the intersection of Twentieth and M Streets in D.C. trying to find a way through the heavy traffic. Beehler watches flocks of Black-crowned Night-Herons move to night foraging locations as he waits for the fireworks to start in the capital. Sometimes the appearance of a bird or creature will mark a change in seasons. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers arrive at the end of October. The icing over of the Potomac marks the beginning of the real winter in the D.C. area. Fish Crows calling in late February mark the coming of spring. Natural Encounters is Beehler's "personal encyclopedia of the joys of nature" (p. 2).

Natural Encounters takes some fascinating side trips outside the D.C. area. In summer, Beehler drives out to the Allegheny Plateau of western Maryland. Here he finds hemlock forest and Alder Flycatchers. Beehler also notes the giant windmills planted along Backbone Mountain:

We stop and photograph this environmental and visual desecration of the Allegheny front. These tall monstrosities pollute the view for miles around. In addition, the construction of these ridge top wind farms in the region resulted in broad scale devastation of sensitive mountain habitats that deserved state protection. When rotating, the giant devices make a low humming sound that further disturbs the peace of this upland wilderness. We are happy to get away from this unfortunate intrusion of technology on once-sacred mountain heights. (p. 26)

Beehler takes an extended trip up into New England in late August. He stops first to visit friends in the small Massachusetts town of Colrain, a bucolic Garden of Eden. He continues on to Mount Washington, New Hampshire, for a sighting of Black-backed Woodpecker and other northern species. Then, on to Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin in Maine. On his way back home, he stops by Newburyport and Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Massachusetts. His last visit here was back in the 1970s, but he remembers the place fondly: "It was there I saw my first Buff-Breasted Sandpiper and Snowy Owl, Iceland Gull and Barrow's Goldeneye" (p. 61).

Finally, he drives out to Cape Cod to visit Peter and Jeremiah Trimble and takes in some serious shorebirding on Nauset Beach. While on a whale watch out of Provincetown, he savors his views of whales and Great Shearwaters. Finally arriving home, he sees another natural marker of the changing of the seasons: "Back from my trip to New England, I see the first cricket hopping on the rug of my basement office—proof that autumn is on the way in the Mid-Atlantic." (p. 69)

Other side trips find Beehler surf fishing and savoring some scrapple in Delaware Bay in early November. In midwinter he heads south to Florida and Captiva Island and finds gopher tortoises and manatees. But Beehler is always happy to return to his home in the D.C. area. Even in the frigid days of mid-January, when the birds are few and far between, Beehler celebrates his sightings of Carolina Chickadee, Fish Crows, and the occasional Bald Eagle. Most of the water may be ice covered, but in open spots he finds Hooded Mergansers, Redheads, Pied-billed Grebes, and scaup. There is always something in the natural world to look at and enjoy no matter what the season.

Natural Encounters is a celebration of the natural world found in a place that most people would think would only support feral congressmen and women and the odd wild lobbyist. It is proof of the importance of preserving green spaces and waterways in urban environments and shows how what we see and hear in these places can affect us deeply.

Memory of an encounter with nature can take us to a place of calm and peace. For instance, this morning, along the canal, I watched a big American Beaver make a silent wake across the dark canal waters, its paddle tail trailing on the surface. The experience was but a few moments but now remains timeless in my memory of it. Just recollecting that encounter lowers my heart rate and puts me at ease. By actively seeking out these natural experiences, we give ourselves reserves of tranquility that we can return to from time to time. (p. 264)

Natural Encounters and last year's North On the Wing show that Bruce M. Beehler is an important new voice in contemporary natural history writing. His books track nature through a season or a year from a personal perspective and show how close observation of the natural world can inform and enhance our wider lives. Even in the Swamp.

After thirty-six years here, I am fonder than ever of the Washington, DC, area for its ready access to nature (p. 8).

Citations

  • Beehler, Bruce M. 2018. North On the Wing: Travels With the Songbird Migration of Spring. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.
  • Halle, Louis. 1947. Spring In Washington. New York: William Sloane Associates.
  • Wilds, Claudia. 1983. Finding Birds in the National Capital Area. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Widmer, Ted. "Draining the Swamp." 2017. The New Yorker. January 19. Accessed online at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/draining-the-swamp
blog comments powered by Disqus