Friday, November 20, 2009

A Biologist-Gardener Commutes (or would that be Migrates?)

Once a week I go into Boston to volunteer at the New England Aquarium. This week I walked out my door to find a heavy frost. It lined the intricate details of complex petals like curly parsley

And it even lined the fur like texture of the leaves of this Coreopsis

And it enhanced the color of my Mother's Day Azalea

And this Blue Something Holly

And look how cute this Labrador Violet looks, all snuggled into a bed of leaves.

I immediately wanted to go back inside, grab my camera and photograph the frost. I didn't (these pictures were taken the following day) because I had a train to catch. Careful planning and good fortune helped us find a house about a half mile from the nearest train station. My husband commutes to his job on the train, I commute to my volunteer work and into Boston for museums, dinning and all the city has to offer. We even sold our second car and now only have a hybrid Civic (which really does get gas mileage in the mid to upper 40s). By doing this we're significantly reducing air pollution, our carbon footprint and the countries dependence on foreign oil. Yea us.

So I walk past other gardens and notice that one neighbor still has a daisy blooming but most have cut their gardens back for the winter. I don't cut my garden back in the fall - I wait till spring. There are a few plants that survive the winter better if they aren't cut back (like Salvias, Buddleias, Caryopteris). I have all these. So rather than try to remember what to cut and what not to cut I just procrastinate. Besides it makes my garden look more interesting all winter and provides food (seeds) and shelter for native wildlife.

I need to learn to identify all the berry producing plants up here. There seem to be a lot of unfamiliar plants with unfamiliar berries on my way to the train. I hope the birds like them. Bill Hinton recently did a post on how Cedar Waxwings get the color tips to their feathers from the berries they eat and how many of them are started to have orange tipped leaves instead of yellow tipped leaves due to the changing diet as gardeners change their plantings. Think about that next time you're deciding on a new bush.

When I board the train I try to board toward the back so I can get a window seat on the West side of the train. This is the side that has the best views. Because while I may take a book and I actually do read some, I also look out the window. I observe the tides, the changing plant life, and the changing bird populations.

Lots of the trip the view is of the back of commercial buildings, abandoned warehouses, and cheap housing but interspersed between signs of humanity are a few wetlands, salt marshes and rivers. I see Gulls, Canada Geese and Mallard Ducks everywhere but there is one place where most, sometimes all, of the Great Blue Herons occur. I can see dozens in this one spot while a few miles down the track, in what looks to my eye as the same type of habitat, there will be none. I wonder what the difference is and if I would be able to spot it if I was on foot instead of in a moving train.

The Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets occur just a little bit away from the Great Blue Herons but they seem to have moved out for the winter. I'll miss them. I wonder why they prefer a different area than the Great Blue Herons. Is it because of the size difference? Or maybe different feeding styles or prey items?

There is one Mute Swan family en route. While this species is native to Northern Europe it is not naturally occurring here. Are these swans that inadvertently ended up on this side of the Atlantic and found things to their liking? Or are the descendants of escaped (or released) captive birds? The Mute Swan is a real problem to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem (see USGS page here) but up here in Massachusetts I've only seen a few. The pair along the train track managed to raise one cygnet this year. I watched it get bigger and bigger and finally, just recently, start to turn from the juvenile grey color into a white adult.

I know I'm a biologist because one of my favorite birds to spot are the Cormorants. These fish eating waterbirds smell bad in the hand (fish eating animals generally do smell bad), have sharp beaks at the end of long necks that they are very good at catching you just above your leather gloves (can you tell I've handled more than a few?), but I like them anyway. I like the way they spread their wings to catch the warmth of the sun. I like watching them dive for fish. I like their scrappy attitude in the hand.

Once I get into North Station in Boston my nature watching is almost over. Sure I can watch the changing season in the changes in the street trees (and the street weeds, talk about scrappy!) but I do have to watch for cars on my walk to the Aquarium so I don't spot many birds. One of the birds I do see plenty of are the Rock Pigeons. Here's another good sign of a biologist - I like Rock Pigeons. How can you not admire a species that was once limited to rocky habitat in Southern Europe, Northern Africa and parts of the Middle East (it's hard to determine exactly where since they have long been domesticated by humans) and is now found pretty much everywhere that people are found (except Antarctica and I wouldn't be surprised to find them living in the buildings there. I expect them to become one of the first feral species in space once we start colonizing the moon or Mars). Instead of acting like a wild bird that takes off at the sight of humans Rock Pigeons will just saunter out of the path of pedestrians. I've seen them deep inside university buildings, just walking the hallways, looking for food scraps. I've seen them in subway stations deep underground. They seem to be able to live, no, make that thrive, off the littlest crumb of human food waste. How can you not admire their great skills at surviving right alongside humans in this world when so many species are being pushed into extinction by humans?

This is what a biologist thinks about during her commute. I never claimed to be normal.

No comments:

Post a Comment