Sunday, April 19, 2009

Out of My League

This Prairie Warbler is perched directly in front of some dude's crotch. Insert tasteless joke of your choice.

I've lived in a bunch of different places around the world, and I've noticed that one of the subtle ways places and cultures vary is in how much one is expected to know about something in order to be considered competent. And this correlates with the even more subtle difference in how much personal experimentation people allow themselves.

Back in California, the land of personal re-invention, it was considered not only acceptable, but commendable, to try to learn a discipline in which you have absolutely no talent. I've taken writing classes with people who were baffled by basic punctuation and vocabulary, and cooking classes with people who could barely tell a knife and spoon apart. And despite having huge phobias of complex machinery and being underwater, I somehow managed to get my scuba certification. (The other students in my scuba class were a former competitive swimmer and an ex-Navy SEAL. It was humbling. Well, actually, humiliating.)

But it hasn't been like this in other places I've lived. I signed up for a just-for-fun food writing course when I lived in Canada, and was surprised to discover that almost all my classmates were professional food writers in some capacity or another. Ditto for a kayaking class I took there as a lark—just about everyone there owned a kayak and had been paddling around in it for a couple of years before deciding they were ready to commit to a basic course. And I'd never sat in a kayak in my life.

People in Canada don't do stuff unless they have evidence that they have some aptitude for it. And as it turns out, neither do Floridians.

A local birding couple invited me to spend Friday evening and Saturday with them at the Chinsegut Birding and Wildlife Festival, held at Chinsegut Nature Center, near Brooksville. Our plan was to drive there Friday afternoon, stop for dinner along the way, and arrive in time for the evening bat/bird/bug walk before checking into a cabin at a nearby conference center.

Despite arriving late, we followed the glint of distant flashlights into the woods and caught up with the bug walk. Then I realized that some of the little glimmers I thought were distant street lights or flashlights were actually nearby fireflies. I've always wanted to see fireflies, and now I can finally say I have. They were magical to watch. Then we heard faint screeching in the distance, which my friends identified as the call of a Chuck-Will's-Widow. A life bird for me, so also very cool.

The other surprise was the demographics of the group: about three-fourths of the crowd consisted of a squealing Girl Scout troupe (most of whom found the fireflies terrifying); the other quarter consisted of professional biologists and naturalists engaged in heated debates over land-use policy and the exact genus and species of that tiny mayfly stuck on someone's headlamp.

And then there was me.

Where were the other People Like Me? By this, I mean where were the semi-serious amateur naturalists out to learn a bit more about natural world in a non-competitive way? People like, say, 90% of the participants at the evening Owl Prowls and bat walks I participated in or helped lead back in California?

Then I remembered Canada and I realized what was going on: People here don't go to these things unless they really know what they're doing. Or unless they're children brought in to complete some required module of their third-grade science curriculum. Birders here probably learn to bird in infancy, and are Sibley-level masters by the time they're my age.

I was out of my league.

I didn't have anything to say to the Girl Scouts (and people don't like strangers coming up to their kids in the dark and talking to them in any case), so I tried to make small talk with all the bug people (as the entomologists proudly called themselves). They were all very friendly and passionate about their bugs—but I realized I was WAY out of my league.

The next day was more of the same. We were back at the festival site by 6:30 the next morning for the first event on the schedule, bird banding. My friends (also both biologists) helped set up mist nets along the trails to catch the birds, then spent the first part of the morning monitoring the nets, gently untangling the birds that flew into them, then bringing them in to be banded. I made myself semi-useful by writing down band numbers and bird info as the banding took place.

It was a productive morning: we got a female Northern Cardinal almost as soon as we arrived, followed by Prairie Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Grey Catbird, an Eastern Towhee, and a couple of Tufted Titmice (one of whom ended up in the net only half an hour after we banded him).

The Cardinal was by far the most aggressive bird we banded. The guy doing the banding said that seed-eaters were more aggressive biters in general than insect-eaters, and our female Cardinal lived up to this reputation. As soon as he picked her up, she took a stab at him:

He calmed her down by putting a thick stick in her mouth, which distracted her until the band was on. Then he opened his hand to release her. But instead of taking off immediately, as did the other birds, she spun around and bit him one last time. Hard.

("You know how you associate certain words with birds sometimes?" a birder pal said this morning when I told her about this. "I never thought I'd think of Northern Cardinals and 'vindictive'.")

After getting sick of my asking for the four-letter codes for each bird we banded (not to mention the special codes for "identified for sex by plumage" and "identified by age by beak color" ), the head bander said I could do something else if I wanted. OK, I got the message. Then I headed off for the bird walk that was to start shortly.

And this turned out to be a brief jaunt around the parking lot, as we looked for Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, so we'd all be able to see how to tell them apart. I'm really glad they were doing this, as one of the first things a new birder should learn as that little grey birds are actually fun to watch and can be easy to distinguish— but I was bored. And frustrated.

Not good enough to play with the big kids. And too big to play with the little kids—at least while keeping my dignity intact.

Spring migration has finally hit north Florida, and I was hoping to get my fill of warblers. But instead, I got sucked into multiple bug walks (one on butterflies, one on bugs in general). What the hell—critters are fun, and the only thing to do was go with the flow.

The Bug Walk yielded some surprisingly pretty beetles. This was one of several dung beetles that the trip leader had caught in traps baited with—guess what. Kids squealed with excitement as he plucked the bugs from the traps and placed them in their outstretched hands.

(And shortly after releasing said beetles, the kids would dig their hands into big bags of chips and cookies they carried with them, which led some of us grownups to shake our heads in despair.)

The Butterfly Walk didn't yield that many butterflies, but the trip leader showed off various indigenous plants that local butterflies and their caterpillars like to feed on. One of these was the Passionflower. Back in California, I grew to love these, and was saddened to learn that they were harmful invasives. But out here, they are natives, and my enjoyment is totally guilt free:

In the afternoon, there was a presentation on bats, which included several rehabilitated bats. One was this Yellow Bat, which the Bat Lady (the woman who gave the presentation) wore as a living pendant while it took a nap:

I know next to nothing about bugs, butterflies, and bats, so it was easier to set aside my pride and regain what Buddhists call the "beginning mind": learning without preconceptions. And once I did that (and got my serious caffeine hit at lunch, since I didn't get any coffee at breakfast), I was happy. And I learned a lot about bugs and bats.

And on the way home, my friends stopped off at a private Audubon-owned property nearby, and I got to see Indigo Buntings in alternate plumage for the first time. So I got my best bird only after the "bird festival" ended.

My plan for next weekend: All warblers. All the time.


Sparverius said...

Sorry your trip didn't turn out quite like you'd hoped. But I am so glad you had some enjoyment learning about bugs and bats. Some of my favorite creatures are bugs and bats. :)

Felicia said...

Thanks for your sympathy--but I actually had a pretty good time, overall. I think bats are adorable! I just hate feeling like an idiot...