Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The beginnings

At this time: The cerulean population we have studied for the past few years has now finished all nesting efforts. They have struggled through storms, predation, intra- and conspecific competition. Now the “egg chips” fall where they may. Those that were successful in fledging are actively foraging in the canopy. The young birds are already learning songs and building up energy with the adult population in preparation for migration.

As the warblers work to meet the challenge of enduring a long migration, I sift through the folders of imagery and audio files that I’ve acquired while observing them during their breeding seasons from 2006-2008. I’ve camped beneath the canopies and lived in the heavenly woodland paradise shared by these birds for many nights and days.

Along with the accumulated data there is an evolution and transcendence I hope to convey. Like the thick humus of the forest floor producing nutrient rich soil, these natural experiences feed my spirit in the truest fashion. Nature is my classroom and my church providing lessons which are relearned and relived through the modern medium of digital audio files and the pages of my journal. With these tools I hope to share with others the many adventures found during cerulean summers.

The media collection is large and in order to find any meaning in it or crack and codes in cerulean communication, it must be organized. This collection, also backed up on CD, is reviewed on a sluggish computer through Google Inc.’s “Picasa 2.7” media software (Fig 1). Each audio file is further cataloged according to content in a Microsoft access database (Fig 2) with detailed time, location and various other attributes. While cataloging, field journal notes and correlated GPS logs are reviewed. Each file is a step back in time to specific instances that are relived and contemplated.

It seems daunting. Over six thousand files stare at me on the screen. It’s seemingly a dichotomy of a pleasurable challenge.

Where do I start?

Where else?

The beginnings…

I left New York in mid-April after visiting friends of my wife and I that we met while attending SUNY Cobleskill. The Giardenelli’s family is full of love for friends, and nature. As Amy and headed to Tennessee, they moved much further and setup Otorongo ecotourism lodge in Peru (http://www.peruamazonrainforestadventures.com/). In the same computer folder with pictures of these good people, my first photos during the cerulean study are found.

The very first image in my album captured in Royal Blue, was taken on 27 April 06. It is of a strikingly colored invertebrate crawling through its leaf litter habitat. This flat millipede (Cherokia Georgiana) was a new species of millipede to me, but became a common sight (Fig 3). When picked up they emit a cyanide chemical, which smells like almonds. This toxic defense is a form of communication that has served the ancient bug species well through the millennia.

The next photograph is of a Northern slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosus) (Fig 4). Their name is appropriate coinage albeit this example is not so northern. “Herp” people as they are casually called, moisten their hands before examining these delicate creatures. In so doing, moisture is not stolen from the air-breathing skin of amphibians. Even with wet hands, slimy salamanders produce a sticky glutinous substance that is almost resinous and binds fingers with the adhesiveness of honey. When this is experienced once, it’s best to leave this species in place. The slimy is just one of many representing twelve families of salamander in the southeast. This region in general and especially in the nearby Great Smokey Mountains, houses the greatest diversity of salamanders on earth.

The first bird photos reveal the typical of spring setting in the Cumberland Mountains with the trees just budding and the early, newly arrived neotropical migrants seem weary as the scavenge the denuded branches for insects. A scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) looks inquisitively from upper branches (Fig 5). A black-throated green warbler (Dendroica virens), normally a canopy dweller, skulks along the ground for the odd crawling morsels (Fig 6).

The first audio file containing cerulean song was taken on May 9th, 2006 at 08:10hrs (Fig. 7). I had borrowed my wife’s camera and decided to test the video function. After all, I could at least attempt to capture the setting with more than a just a silent two-dimensional image. The result is panning footage of a typical spring scene with dense morning fog on a Cumberland Mountain east slope. Ambient light reveals a scene of lush green flora and the rising sun is beginning to break through the misty curtain. Birdsong is a constant surrounding sound of life that irrupts with intensity that dominates the mountains as they have each spring since the late Miocene or Early Pliocene Periods (Lovette and Bermingham 1999).

At the time of this first recording, I had know idea that the songs I was hearing would draw me into the vast, complex, and fascinating field of avian acoustic communication. Without the foresight afforded by hindsight, it took another year for me to begin taking detailed notes on individually color-banded birds with GPS coordinates. It was simply a pleasure to be witness to this life force. Now that I have recorded songs for two more years, it is not only a simply and instinctual pleasure, but has become deeper. Experiencing nature and birdsong in particular has become a consuming endeavor.

It is not just the birdsongs. Many photographs were taken during recording days. They serve to show much of the flora and fauna that is connected to the birds in the dynamic ecological web. The 600 million year-old rocks that were once part of the sea now anchors rich soils with an enormous mycorrhizal structure entwined with roots of plants. These ancient growths house invertebrates, harbor mammals, and reach through the thick misty morning air above the terrestrial domain to form song perches for the birds.

As I listen to this first audio file I long to open it in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s (CLO) Raven software, but I know song analysis will be best done after compiling all the other recordings to which I’ll compare it. I still need to organize the audio and photographic collection.

So I digress.

My first photographs while studying ceruleans where not just of birds; they were of invertebrates, amphibians, plants, and rocks. Like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and countless other naturalists, I wanted to record all biotic and abiotic “cogs in the wheel.” I review and relish those from 27 April 06. Once organized its on to the next folder 28 April 08….


LOVETTE, I.J. & BERMINGHAM, E. 1999. Explosive speciation in new world

Dendroica warblers. The Royal Society. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B

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