Please regard the images in this post as copyrighted and ask permission to use them in any way. Thanks. DEClapp
Before we get started I want to refer anyone who develops an interest in this topic to two very entertaining and educational articles: one in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, a county newspaper from central Massachusetts, written and illustrated by Kevin Gutting and published 9/15/18 and another in the Greenfield Recorder by Dominic Poli from 9/15/2019. These both speak to tobacco farming in the Connecticut valley. These articles bring you back to the early 1800’s and on into the 2020’s and today’s crop.
Well, here’s the story. Fran and I are avoiding people, much like everyone else in our state. We miss the kids (they are only 9 and 11) and are living in the attic we think. But like everyone else, in order to keep the peace and good health until we can develop cultural immunities and vaccines we are sheltering. The good news is that we both like empty and lonely countryside and each others company. So we wander the beaches before most people have brushed their teeth and our road trips are not to CostCo or the supermarket; they are to parks, beaches, and locations where nature abounds.
One great adventure that anyone can do (alone and away from people if need be – and at the moment there is that need) is to start a bird list around the yard or neighborhood. I warn you early on that it can be as addictive as any other stimulant and has the potential to be surprisingly expensive. But just to ally those fears your binoculars don’t have to cost $3000 nor does your spotting scope. You can get away with an aluminum tripod; though the carbon fiber tripods are alluring. If you want to take photos as you note your neighborhood birds there are now dozens of digital cameras that have a 50x (or more) reach. Enough so that your heartbeat makes the images blurry. Or you can just walk around and try to identify what you see and what you hear. There will be clues everywhere.
You can start this hobby simply with a pencil and a sheet of paper. Or bird feeders. Or a walk around the block. Or better yet by Googling eBird and opening a free eBird account. eBird will serve as your bird book, list keeper, geographical servant, and provide information on hot spots and migration and it will even rank you among the other area birders – if you want. But that is where the competitive spirit lurks. The Lovely Frances was a quiet research taxonomist (aquatic insect larvae) and a backroom problem solver in the banking world until she found that eBird compared her to other birders in the area. Now she checks each morning to see if she is in the county’s top 10 or if we (yes we) need to bolt out the door and add a species or two to her year list so she can regain he rightful spot near the head of the list. eBird can speak in short sentences or in volumes. It is a wonder of our modern age.
One last topic is stimulated by the word list. You see there are many lists; yard lists, day lists, month lists, year lists, outing lists, Big Day lists, and so on. If Tom, Dick, and Harry see a Blackburnian Warbler then dammit I want to see one as well. Where did they see it? eBird will not only tell you where they saw it but it will show you their list and link you to a map on how to get there from anywhere so you can put it on your list. But, the really great thing about eBird isn’t what it does for you and me though that is amazing and much appreciated; the thing about eBird is that the datum we submit is blended and collated with other data points and a picture of our world is created based on bird movements and bird sightings. In a time of the dismantling of environmental regulations and protection we need a baseline of real data – of trends and changes – so we can defend environmental causes.
So let us move on to the tobacco and birds – the birds are going to be Cliff Swallows, a species found from Alaska to Massachusetts in breeding season and one that now nests on buildings more than cliffs. In New England they converge rather nicely along the Connecticut River Valley.
PS – just kidding about the kids in the attic
Anyway what we were doing had little to do with tobacco or even the Connecticut River Valley. We were looking for a rapidly declining species of bird in a group that is rapidly declining overall. Our burgeoning world population (of humans) needs food; lots and lots of food every day. The best way to grow food is in huge mono crop fields. These fields are ripe for plunder by invasive fungi and insects. In order to develop a profitable crop chemical controls are used to control weeds and plant predators. This has resulted in more efficient poisons. Killing insects is sometimes nothing more than killing insects: aphids, ants, dragonflies, and butterflies can all be impacted by the same insecticides. Some insecticides are quite specific and the use of pheromones is increasing – but poisons, and now nicotine-based poisons, are having a damaging impact on insects overall. I remember the days when cleaning a car windshield was to remove bugs collected as we drive along.
The insect eating birds are suffering population losses. Their food sources are being impacted and the long term impact is not understood at all. These insects feed multitudes and pollinate a great many plants. We will miss them some day – I think we can count on that.