Backyard Birder: After 25 years, it’s time to step aside

  • A male monarch butterfly newly emerged from its chrysalis – and Ball jar – soon to take flight to its wintering grounds in a patch of conifers in Mexico. Photo by Francie Von Mertens

Backyard Birder
Published: 9/6/2019 10:52:34 AM

When people ask, “What’s new?” I usually laugh and say, “You know me, nothing,” sometimes feeling sheepish as though I SHOULD have news to report.

I do keep on the same track for years. This column is a good example.

Its title – appropriately – is Backyard Birder. I do venture out of the backyard to new places, but I’m content to observe all the myriad, subtle changes in the backyard through the year.

Birds were the first focus. When I began the column I was eager to learn everything about birds and their world. Our kids had left home and there was a void in my heart.

Soon I began this column. Twenty-five years ago.

I’ve strayed from birds over the years. To pollinators, most recently. Columns on native bees, the unsung true pollinator workhorses. Honey bees get all the attention. Both are in trouble.

Columns on the monarch butterfly’s amazing fall migration to Mexico; other columns on why their numbers are falling.

I’ve written about neonicotinoids (I still can’t spell them), the systemic neurotoxin pesticides that lawn treatments apply routinely. Some plants we buy for our gardens are treated, too, although most growers have phased them out in response to pressure from the public.

I write about “neonics” with hopes to increase that pressure. They are linked to the decline in pollinators, monarch butterflies included.

Columns on land conservation – wonderful lands to explore and wonderful people who have conserved them.

On mushrooms. Fungi, the fifth kingdom. Some species live symbiotically with trees and are essential to the health of the forest as they provide trees with soil nutrients and receive sugars in return.

I’ve written often about invasive plants, a threat to forest health, and to fields and waterways. In November, I’ve written about foraging wild cranberries with grandchildren for the annual Thanksgiving relish (recipe included).

And on and on.

Birds led me to all these places.

I write to expand the learning process. Our species is programmed to observe, to learn, to figure things out – as it is with all animals. A species’ survival depends on it, actually.

I also write to share the intimacy of nature observed. I have often written here that we take better care of the familiar, of what we know. The natural world needs taking care of, the wild ones – plants and animals.

I’ve been at it for one-third of my life, this column. And the time has come to move on. There have been guest writers recently as part of my stepping aside.

I’ll continue the column through mid-November, the 25th anniversary of my first one. I suspect I’ll return now and again, and I hope that guest writers will, too, but for now, for me, it’s time for a sabbatical.

I realize now that when someone asks “What’s new?” I could report the coolest recent discovery out in the natural world, or while researching how that world works.

For 25 years I have shared those discoveries here.

Pictured here is the newest discovery a few days ago – this monarch butterfly recently emerged from its chrysalis, so very fresh and intensely colored as it exercised its wings before taking flight.

Monarch caterpillars are everywhere this August, reversing a steady and disturbing decline. They strip milkweed stems bare, sometimes four or even five to a stem here in our backyard. I’ve relocated some from stripped stems to ones with intact leaves to munch on.

Back a week or so I found a chrysalis attached to weed I’d yanked. I brought it inside.

It seemed too small to contain what would become an adult butterfly, and I didn’t have high hopes. But the bejeweled, pastel green chrysalis did start to dissolve, seemingly, darkening as a black and orange pattern within became visible.

A butterfly did emerge from a fully transparent, cast aside casing, unfolding well beyond its confined chrysalis size.

I’ve never seen such a clean, clear black and shades of orange.

The fall hawkwatch up on Pack Monadnock will count monarchs as they flit by on their way to Mexico, and hawkwatchers will wish them well, I suspect, and marvel at their journey.

The staffed hawkwatch began Sunday for its 15th year. As I’ve written here probably 14 times, broad-winged hawks will be swirling by in numbers hard to believe in a couple weeks.

Be sure to join others up on the watch, always good company, hawks and humans.

Meade Cadot and I will be up on Crotched Mountain on Saturday, Sept. 15, reprising a hawkwatch we did for many years, way back when. It’s part of the Harris Center’s 50th anniversary year-long celebration. Check the Harris Center’s online calendar for information.

A live hawk from NH Audubon will be part of that 9 a.m. ‘til noon event, although if the hawks are flying we’ll be there a lot longer.

As I’ve often written, come on along.


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