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Learning by doing: a formula for the budding bidder

A pulsing of rustling leaves led to the sighting of this uncommon Spotted Towhee last spring. Keith Corliss

Last week I began thinking about the progressive chain, the one that has led me to the relationship I currently enjoy with the outdoors. It took the unnatural waving of a large weed to stir the inner Muse.

In a recent attempt to exorcise the demon of cabin fever, I put myself in a patch of broken woods along the Maple River northwest of West Fargo. While soaking in the snow-covered scene I noticed a tall weed flagging back and forth. This would seem normal during our typical wind only this was a calm day. Something else was moving it. More careful observation revealed the instigator, a Downy Woodpecker.

I’ve been involved in this bird watching stuff for well over 35 years. Like any endeavor one immerses themselves in, an accumulation of experiences and observations eventually add up to a treasure trove of knowledge. After a time, one becomes almost an expert. Which leads me to the ‘chain’ thing.

I’ve come to believe there is a three-step process (or three-link “chain”) involved in becoming an outdoorsman in general, a birder in particular. For me it began with, A.) a desire to know. About everything. Each and every creature, rock, plant, or cloud was—and still is—a source of wonder. It’s a thirst that continually needs quenching.

After desire, the second step is, B.) awareness. Over time the budding outdoorswoman becomes cognizant of a wonderfully vibrant and diverse group of critters known as birds; a group separate from the other animals in many interesting ways. Some bird watching friends of mine started with this stage before moving onto A, making the first two links in this chain interchangeable.

Ultimately, though, we all arrive at the last of the three steps; that is, C.) continual observation and growth. It’s a stage virtually impossible to turn off. Once a person develops a keen interest or desire and a deep awareness, then observation becomes the food nourishing the hunger to know. 

It’s this third step, this final stage, which knows no end. This is the one that circles back and feeds the others in a continuous loop of perpetual motion, a chain if you will. The more we know, the more we want to know. Through years and years of this continuity, a rich basket of knowledge and lore accumulates.

It’s that basket that allowed me to know with virtual certainty that the unseen critter moving the main stem of a large forb in the middle of a weedy patch was a Downy Woodpecker, even before verifying its identification.

It’s the reason I know that the messy pile of chiseled splinters at the base of the tree is not the work of beavers (the pieces would be much more uniform in size and show scalloped ridges caused by their teeth) but of a Pileated Woodpecker on the hunt for wood boring insects.

It’s what makes me stop and wait carefully in heavy underbrush when I hear a small rhythmic raking of nearby leaves. Somewhere under there is a scratch-feeding sparrow such as an Eastern Towhee or a White-throated Sparrow.

It’s what makes me look up when I see small clouds of tiny down feathers wafting to earth. Surely a raptor is feeding on a recent kill, probably a Sharp-shinned Hawk or a Merlin.

It’s what makes me listen carefully for the chatter of finches when I observe the papery husks of spruce or pine seeds floating to earth. High in the needled trees White-winged or Red Crossbills are undoubtedly feeding on cones.

Outdoors people learn early on that the neat little cattail domes dotting the marshes are the work of muskrats; that the mud-and-stick dam blocking the flow of water in a stream is the hallmark handiwork of beavers; that the near watertight clump of leaves high in the leafless tree will be a winter nest for tree squirrels.

Either by learning from those who came before us or by personal observation, these factoids become nuggets of knowledge that pile up over time and make our outdoor experiences richer each and every time we step out. 

I’m not suggesting we will all become Apache trackers with the ability to tell a story from each broken blade of grass. I will say, though, that once a person finds themselves in the loop model described above, the outdoors will inevitably reveal secrets to the careful observer in ways not previously imagined. I guarantee it.

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications.