On the Trail: Great Blue and You

Great Blue Heron, by Marie Read, allaboutbirds.org

Great Blue Heron, by Marie Read, allaboutbirds.org

Twenty minutes watching a great blue heron from fifteen feet away can teach you a few things.

I sideled up  to the waters edge of Overpeck Creek recently after running in the large urban park, to see what I would see. Usually not much. A distant cormorant or a snowy egret on the far side in the phragmites. But this morning would be one I would remember. A great blue heron stood motionless on the kayak dock just a few feet off shore. Completely motionless. Statuesque. Immaculately attired actually.

And there it stood. I  sat on a nearby granite rock and noted the time. It did not move, fixed in its gaze toward the water. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Than in balletic form it turned 180 degrees. And again stood still, now gazing at the water in the opposite direction. Another five minutes. No movement, until slowly the heron stepped off the dock and into the water, clearly a more strategic position. It lowered its head to within inches of the water, than looked up and moved away,  crouching under the sloped gangplank of the dock, compressing its neck into a perfect S shape, its dagger like beak pointed, poised, primed to strike.

Then in one explosive action the bird uncoiled its neck, and in so doing buried its beak full into the water with nary a splash.

Great Blue Heron, by Greg Bishop, flickr.com/photos/gregbishop160/2928315528/

Great Blue Heron, by Greg Bishop, flickr.com/photos/gregbishop160/2928315528/

What happened below the surface, though, remains a mystery for it raised its head high, its beak empty. Had it caught something small and quickly ingested? Whether because of its success or its failure, the great blue than strode away.

I took away some lessons from watching the heron, lessons of patience, perseverance. Lessons of focus, stillness and, that solitude is often essential.

But I also learned that clear, cool autumn morning by the shore of the wide slow moving river that if you plan to survive hunting small aquatic wildlife near the water’s edge, you should arm yourself with a very long, flexible neck and a beak as lethal as a bayonet.

Howard E. Friedman

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“A Window on Eternity”, in Gorongosa and Chernobyl

Destruction of our natural habitat comes in many many different forms. Edward O. Wilson writes about destruction and rebirth in one such place, Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. And Timothy Mousseau, professor of Biology at University of South Carolina, studies destruction and its impact on rebirth in another location, Chernobyl, Ukraine.

A Window on EternityIn A Window on Eternity, A biologist’s walk through Gorongosa National Park (Simon & Schuster 2014), Wilson briefly recounts the history of Mozambique’s 16 year civil war ending in 1994 which resulted in nearly a million people killed and the creation of several million refugees. A collateral effect of the war was near extinction of what Wilson describes as “the megafauna” of Gorongosa National Park, a wildlife refuge located in Mozambique, but too close to the fighting. Large edible and/or valuable animals were killed for food or profit. Elephants decreased by 80-90% in number. Cape buffalos went from 13,000 in 1972 to 15 in 2001, Wilson writes. Wildebeest went from 6,400 to one and zebras from 3,300 to just 12 he adds.

Thanks to the great efforts of U.S. businessman and philanthropist Gregory Carr who began over seeing the reintroduction of large animlas back into the park, Gorongosa is staging a slow resurrection.

“Another several decades may be needed for Gorongosa to return to its old preeminence, but given the persistence of its undergirding of plants and invertebrates which largely survived the war intact, I believe this  will surely come to pass,” Wilson concludes in the chapter called ‘War and Redemption’. In the chapters that follow Dr. Wilson describes findings from his and his colleague’s expeditions to Gorongosa as he shares their ground-eye view of ants, katydids, praying mantises and others. “None to me is a bug,” he writes, “Each instead is one kind of insect, the ancient legatee of an ancient history adapted to the natural world in its own special way. I wish I had a hundred lifetimes to study them all,”  he writes in the beginning of chapter eight, ‘The Clash of Insect Civilizations’.

But while E.O.Wilson is sanguine about ‘The Conservation of Eternity’ (title of chapter eleven) in nature’s ability to recover from war in Gorongosa park, fellow biologist   Timothy Mousseau, professor at University of South Carolina is less optimistic about the resilience of various phyla of the animal kingdom to survive nuclear fallout. Dr. Mousseau has been studying how various species of birds, spiders and insects have fared in and around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor which exploded 25 years ago, releasing large amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere. His work was featured on Newyorktimes.com.

Dr. Mousseau in Red Forest, Chernobyl (http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/Mousseau/Mousseau.html)

Dr. Mousseau in Red Forest, Chernobyl (http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/Mousseau/Mousseau.html)

Still a hot zone, the area around the old plant has been off limits to humans, making it an interesting living laboratory to study flora and fauna without the day to day interference of human life (though one could make an easy argument that after contaminating an entire region with radioactive waste, day to day human activity is kind of negligible). Since 1999 Mousseau and Dr. Pape Moeller have been documenting aberrations in spider webs, bird beaks,  insects and rodents, all of which they say reflect genetic mutations in animals living in the most radioactive zones around Chernobyl. And, while some researchers take issue with Mousseau and  have pointed to the fact that any wildlife that persists around Chernobyl is proof of the resilience of  various species, Dr. Mousseau cautions that if you look more carefully, life has persisted but not robustly and not in good health.

Neither scenario is appealing. Dr. Wilson documents a resurgence of wildlife in an area that witnessed almost a million human deaths, thousands of animal deaths and which required importing ‘megafauna’ species to help repopulate the area. Dr. Mousseau documents the persistence of weakened and wounded life which, however, has been able to survive a near direct nuclear explosion but which has little hope of ever returning to full health. Perhaps for either scenario, Edward O.Wilson was prescient in selecting the opening quote in his latest book: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live . – Moses at Mount Nebo, Deuteronomy 30:19.”

Howard E. Friedman