People Who Need People

That title is a reference to the well-known song sung by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.” The line from that song that has always resonated with me is this: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” I’m a bit of a loner and an introvert, tending to spend most of my time alone or with just a couple other people. But even though I know there’s nothing inherently wrong with being this way, I still feel a bit of shame at my inability to be the outgoing, always-on-the-run, busy-busy-busy personality that is more socially acceptable in this country.

Crowded section of the Magee Marsh boardwalk
Crowded section of the Magee Marsh boardwalk

As an HSP, I have a strong aversion to crowds and noise. Some people are stimulated in a positive way by being around lots of other people, but I have the exact opposite experience. After spending time at a large social function, I usually feel very tired and emotionally drained. We HSPs take in so much more information in any given situation than most people that our brains just get overloaded with stimuli. Because of this, I’ve learned to orchestrate my life so that I have lots of quiet time for recuperation and reflection on my experiences. Knowing all of this, you might wonder why I would voluntarily go to a birding festival where the most popular birding spot is a narrow boardwalk that gets so crowded you sometimes have to push your way between people. (The photo to the left is only a medium-sized crowd — it gets much worse in spots where a really good bird is spotted!)

Birders spread out on the beach, scanning the shrub line for warblers. I much prefer this type of birding experience!
Birders spread out on the beach, scanning the shrub line for warblers. I much prefer this type of birding experience!

It’s funny though, that because of the beauty and general awesomeness of the birds, I don’t really get as tense as I would somewhere else with the same crowds. Like, for example, if the crowds were that thick at a street art festival, I’d only be able to spend short amounts of time there. But the birds make all the difference. Even though I’m surrounded by throngs of people, my mind is mostly focused on the little flying creatures in the trees.  If you saw me on the Magee boardwalk, you wouldn’t necessarily think that I was any different from anyone else. You’d probably even see me helping other people to see and identify birds; I really do love interacting with people when I can teach or show them something interesting.

This year at the Biggest Week I had a moment where I was struck by something ironic: I’ve always thought birding was a healthy and fun way to avoid people, but I found that my love of birds has begun to bring me closer to people.

My festival name badge
My festival name badge

Like the moment when a complete stranger noticed my name badge and told me she’d read my blog and liked it. Wow, talk about having your mind blown….that was great. One of the most rewarding things someone can say to me is that they read my blog and enjoy it.

There was another moment where my blog started a conversation too. I was on the boardwalk in a very crowded section, trying to catch a glimpse of some warbler (I think it was a Golden-winged…). I exchanged pleasantries with a very well-known birder who began asking me about my HSP trait, telling me she’d read my blog and was curious about it. We had a quiet conversation right in the middle of a huge crowd of people, with people jostling for better vantage points to see the bird. I was so touched by this and made sure to thank her for talking to me about it.

It may sound egotistical, but I believe it’s a core human truth: We all like to know that we’re important, that we make a difference.  This is something I’ve struggled with in recent years because I don’t usually get this kind of feedback in my regular life. I question whether I’m doing anything useful with my life. These moments of connection meant SO much to me. I thought I was okay with my quiet, relatively isolated existence. It’s not that I’m not happy — I am. But my interactions with other bird lovers in the past month have added another dimension to my life, making it richer and more meaningful.

I’m still processing what this all means to me. For example, why have I never felt this type of connection to any other group of people before? What is it about bird people that makes me feel so good? I think it may be our shared concerns for the natural world, the tie that binds all human and animal life together.  Part of me doesn’t want to over-analyze the whole experience, but I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

After all these years, is it possible I really could be one of the “People Who Need People”?

Migration Mania Series #2: “Butter Butt”

Yellow-rumped Warbler rear view - adjusted lighting
A poor photo, but it clearly shows his Butter Butt!

In my first post of this series I told you all about my favorite warbler, the Blackburnian. This next one isn’t as flashy, but it’s got the best nickname of all the warblers: Butter Butt. Yes,meet the Yellow-rumped Warbler (YRW), aka Setophaga coronata, one of the most widespread of all the wood warblers in North America. As you can see, there’s no mystery to how he got his name –look at that bright yellow patch on his backside.

Front view of Yellow-rumped Warbler in spring breeding plumage
Front view of Yellow-rumped Warbler in spring breeding plumage

The eastern and western subspecies of the YRW are called Myrtle and  Audubon’s, respectively. All the photos in this post are the eastern subspecies, the Myrtle warbler. The Audubon warbler looks pretty much the same except its throat is yellow instead of white.

Most warblers have to migrate in winter because their main food source is insects. Those that migrate usually go to Mexico and Central America where they can bask in the sunshine and indulge in the abundant insect food supply. But these guys are the only warblers able to digest bayberries, so they might stay around through the winter in northern places where there’s a good supply of that food. We have some of them stay through the winter here in my home area (Oakland County, Michigan), but they’ve just started to show up in larger numbers in the past couple of weeks. Eric and I just spent the weekend birding in Savannah, Georgia, and we saw Butter Butts EVERYWHERE down there, so they’re definitely on the move.

Like most songbirds, they migrate primarily at night. I read in Birds of North America that some data indicates they fly an average of 194 miles per day in spring migration and 55 miles per day in fall migration. Either way, that’s a lot of ground to cover for such a little creature, don’t you think? At that pace, it can take them at least two weeks to cover the continental US. And when you add in weather delays (yes, airlines aren’t the only ones that are grounded in bad weather) it can probably take them twice as long.

Singing Yellow-rumped Warbler, partially hidden among the leaves
Singing Yellow-rumped Warbler, partially hidden among the leaves – this is the typical view you get of warblers high up in the trees (click for larger view)

And I learned something else very interesting about the Butter Butts while researching them for this post. You may have heard about or seen a Killdeer pretending to have a broken wing to distract you away from her eggs or nestlings, right? Well I was very surprised to read that both parents of YRWs do a very similar thing! The parent holds both wings almost fully extended and shaking, then drags them along the ground to draw you away from her precious babies. Researchers even noted one female performing this distraction display for three and a half minutes while they were checking her nest.

Here’s a link to an audio recording of the song of the Yellow-rumps (scroll down on that page), and here’s the latest eBird map of where they are now. (Darker purple indicates more reports, lighter is fewer. If you zoom in on the maps you can get down to markers that show individual reports by birders all over the country. It’s really fun to do — try it!)

I’m having a blast doing these Migration Mania posts but I’m starting to feel the pressure of time running out: The Biggest Week in American Birding starts in ONLY 17 DAYS! There’s so much I want to share with you…our weekend birding Savannah, Georgia,….the birds we’re seeing here in Michigan now…what I’m looking forward to seeing in Ohio next month….spring is crazy busy!!

Visitor Guide for 2013 Biggest Week in American Birding
Visitor Guide for 2013 Biggest Week in American Birding

So in case I forget something, here’s a direct link to the online version of the Visitor Guide for this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding (click the image to the left to go to the guide). You can page through and read all about it. There are tips for beginning birders, articles about some of this year’s speakers, and lots more. I’m not ashamed to brag about being featured in it either — check out page 33!

A Highly-Sensitive Person Goes Birding

Beaver with mouthful of seaweed v3 (640x414)
Beaver with a mouthful of aquatic plants for a mid-day snack. (Click to enlarge)

I want to tell you about a conversation I had with a stranger yesterday while I was out birding. To understand the significance of it, you need to know that one of the things I experience as an HSP is an above-average sensitivity to sudden and/or loud noises.  I know that most people will be startled by a sudden noise –like a car backfiring — but I have problems with things most other people don’t even seem to notice. Movie theaters are a good example: At a movie with my husband last week, I had to cover my ears for much of it because the sound was so loud I couldn’t concentrate on what the actors were saying. It felt like it vibrated to the core of my body, jangling every last nerve to the point that I felt like running away. And it wasn’t even an action movie. (You’d think I would have learned to take earplugs to the theater by now!)

This kind of response to noise is common among HSPs; we can be so overstimulated by the way the sound feels that we can’t focus on anything except getting away from the source of it. It’s one of those things that can be a minor or major problem, depending on the particular situation. Luckily, birding isn’t usually a noisy activity. Unless you’re watching a big flock of Canada Geese or Sandhill Cranes, that is. 🙂

Can you believe this pair nests here every year, right beside a shooting range?
Can you believe this Osprey pair nests here every year, right beside a shooting range?

But there’s a section of our favorite metropark that’s located next to a gun club, and when we go there to enjoy nature, we’re also bombarded by the sudden and loud sounds of frequent gunshots. Despite knowing that there’s a fence between us and the guns, and that they’re shooting at targets and not at us walking in the woods, I find myself tensing up at every shot.  Not a very pleasant place to bird. And that gun club is the reason we avoided this part of the park for years.Sign for trail closing due to eagle nest

But as I got more into birding and wanted to find more birds, I finally forced myself to “get over it” and go there occasionally. After all, there’s a way cool Osprey nest on the cell tower there, and now there’s also a Bald Eagle nest there too. (I wrote about the “secret” Bald Eagle nest a couple posts back, but since then the park has put up signs about it so it’s no longer secret. They’ve also blocked off parts of the trail to protect the birds.)

Anyway, here’s the conversation I had yesterday with a stranger I met on the trail right beside the gun club fence. We said hello and then this:

Him: I’m going out to see the eagles…there’s supposed to be a nest out here somewhere.

Me: Yes, there is.

Him: I’m out here all the time and I didn’t even know about it. I’m a club member next door (indicates the gun club on the adjacent property).

Me: Yeah, they’ve blocked the trail off to protect the eagles, but you can see the nest from across the pond. (Then I told him where to stand and which direction to look to see it.)

Him: Ok.

Then we exchanged a few more words about the Osprey nest nearby, then said goodbye. A few steps later I turned around and we had this further conversation:

Me: Excuse me…do you know if there’s any particular day or time when there’s no shooting going on at the club? I’d like to be able to come see the birds without the sound of gunshots.

Him: (Proceeds to tell me which days they have certain shooting events…which I didn’t care about, then he finally says that there’s no shooting on Tuesdays.)

Me: Oh, good! I wish I’d asked about that years ago…

Him: It’s not that much shooting, really. They’re just target shooting behind the fence…

Me: Oh I know, but it just bothers me. I find it sort of jarring and not conducive to enjoying nature.

Him (looking at me oddly, or is that in my imagination?): I guess I’m just used to it. [Pause] Well there’s less shooting now because nobody can find any ammo…. (He then tried to have a conversation with me about why they’re hoarding their ammo when they can find it, and how the government is trying to take their guns, etc. I extricated myself from that as politely and quickly as possible and went on my way. It was a beautiful day and I was there for birding, not politics.)

I wanted to tell you this story because at the point when I told him I found the sound of gunshots “jarring,” I found myself feeling like there was something wrong with me because I had to make a big deal about something that most people seem to accept without much fuss. And that self-criticism about being sensitive is something I really don’t like. It’s not like I’m choosing to feel the noise of the guns all the way to my bones — it’s just the way it is. I can’t change the way my nerves send signals to my brain, can I?

So why do I feel I have to apologize for trying to avoid things that make me uncomfortable like that? I think it’s because our American culture has such a strong prejudice toward extroverts that we’re all conditioned throughout our lives to think that our sensitivities are abnormal. I guess since HSPs only make up about 15-20% of the population, we are probably technically “abnormal.” But you know what I mean, right?

But we’re judged enough by the non-HSPs around us, and we need to not judge ourselves so harshly on top of that. There’s nothing wrong with arranging your life the way you like it, and that includes avoiding things that upset you and allowing time to recuperate after an event that overstimulates your nervous system. No matter what anyone else says or thinks about our sensitivities, we need to honor our own needs before we can be of any use to anyone else in our lives. Remember the emergency instructions the flight attendants give us before each flight? “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting anyone else.”

As I write this I feel like I’m giving a speech — standing on my soapbox, so to speak. But it is what it is. I’m feeling braver about talking about HSP issues since so many of you have sent me comments and subscribed recently. (By the way, thanks for all the lovely comments on my “About Me” page last week.) But even so, I’ve edited this post over and over for days, not really sure what I wanted to admit publicly, and I keep hesitating when I’m almost ready to publish it. But you know what, I’m going to be brave right now and send my thoughts out to the blogosphere. If even one person is helped by my perspective, then I can tolerate the judgment of all the rest. (That feels really good to say!)

Now, where are those birds?

Zygodactyl Feet? Who Me?

And now for the woodpecker action I promised in an earlier post….

Hairy Woodpecker stashing nut in old Pileated hole
Hairy Woodpecker stashing nut in old Pileated hole
Hairy woodpecker
The red on the back of the head tells us this is a male Hairy Woodpecker.

The other day, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a Hairy Woodpecker stashing peanuts in some holes drilled in a sassafras tree by a Pileated Woodpecker a couple years ago.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (female) after she bumped the Hairy off her spot!
Red-bellied Woodpecker (female) after she bumped the Hairy off her spot!

And as if that wasn’t cute enough, a moment later he was bumped off his spot by a female Red-bellied Woodpecker, who proceeded to stash her own peanut in the same hole (or maybe she was taking his out). It happened so fast that if I’d blinked I would have thought the Hairy had magically turned into a Red-bellied. I’ve seen the Red-bellies do that same move before — back in January as I was watching my first ever Fox Sparrow on the ground below our feeders, suddenly a Red-belly landed practically on top of him. I think they’ve got a bit of an aggressive streak, or else they just don’t watch where they’re going very carefully!

Zygodactyl toe blog sidebarAs fun as it was to see the interaction of the Hairy and Red-belly, I got to see a much rarer interaction a few days later at the same tree.

A hard-working female Pileated Woodpecker
A hard-working female Pileated Woodpecker (a male would have a red moustache stripe rather than black)

As I walked out the driveway to get the mail one afternoon, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker in the woods across the road. Excited at the possibility that it would come over to our yard, I ran inside to get my binoculars and camera. When I came back the bird was nowhere in sight. Disappointed, I went back inside, but stationed myself at the kitchen windows so I could keep an eye out in case he/she came back.

I couldn’t believe my luck when she did come into the yard less than 20 minutes later! And even more interesting, she went right to those same sassafras trees (we have five of them side by side in that part of the yard). She began chipping away at the bark in several different spots at first, then settled on one spot and really got busy. But the resident Red-bellied Woodpeckers apparently didn’t want her here, and they tried to chase her away. They were unsuccessful and gave up after a few minutes, leaving her to spend the next 45 minutes drilling a hole big enough to put her entire head inside the tree.

Red-bellied woodpecker and Pileated woodpecker -- look at the size difference!
Red-bellied woodpecker and Pileated woodpecker — look at the size difference!

But I got a great photo with both woodpecker species in the same frame, showing the big size difference. Usually the Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of the largest birds in our yard, but this one looks so tiny next to the Pileated, doesn’t he?

I was thrilled to be able to watch her for so long, and after she finished drilling that large hole she flew across the road and was gone. I was hoping maybe she was going to make a nest hole, but I think this was just a hunt for ants inside the tree. Since these big birds have territories from 150-200 acres in size, our property is just a small portion of their home base. I guess that’s why we’ve only seen two of them in the past several years here.

Pileated Woodpecker holes from previous years (533x800)
Older holes
Pileated Woodpecker holes in sassafras tree (533x800)
New holes

I went out to check out the holes after she left. These two shots show the holes dug in previous years compared to the new ones; see how the exposed inner bark is brown on the new ones?  

And here’s a video of her as she worked, accompanied by some light classical music that was playing on my tv.  (It’s a good thing woodpeckers have reinforced skulls or they’d need a steady supply of aspirin, wouldn’t they?)

Migration Mania Series #1: Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh during migration
Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh during migration

I know my blog audience is made up of many types of people — birders & non-birders, HSPs, and general nature lovers — and I hope that I usually balance the topics enough for all of you to find something interesting here. Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for years will know that spring is extra special for me because of the excitement of migration. So I hope the non-birders will be patient in the coming weeks as there’s more bird talk than usual. In the next five weeks leading up to the Biggest Week in American Birding, I’ll be doing a mini-series of posts I’m calling “Migration Mania,” in which I plan to tell you  a little bit about some of our migrating birds and hopefully convey why they’re so much fun to watch. And be forewarned, I have a mission to get everyone excited about birds eventually. (I get a huge thrill when someone tells me they’ve started paying more attention to birds after reading my writing about them, something that has been happening more often recently.)

So to get us started, I offer you the first installment: The Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler in Tawas, MI
Blackburnian Warbler in Tawas, MI

Warblers are the stars of spring migration and one of the reasons I fell in love with birds; therefore I  have to start with my favorite of all the warblers, Setophaga fusca, the Blackburnian Warbler. This tiny little bird is the only warbler on our continent to have an orange throat, allowing him to stand out even among a family of birds with so many other brightly-colored members. (The predominant color among warblers seems to be yellow.)

Warblers are very small birds, usually around 4-5″ (10-12 cm) long and weighing less than a half ounce (14 grams). Most of them spend the winters in Central and South America and then migrate to their summer breeding grounds in the northern US and Canada (see range map below). So imagine this: you weigh less than one ounce, are 5″ long, and you have to fly a couple thousand miles. Twice a year. Solely powered by the energy your little body can generate. That fact alone should give you a much bigger appreciation for these amazing little birds.

Range Map of Blackburnian Warbler
Range Map of Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warblers breed in the eastern part of the northern US and southern Canada. On their breeding grounds, they spend their time way up at the tippy tops of the trees, but during migration they often come down nearer to ground level so we can see them in their beautiful breeding plumage. Honestly, I think they know how pretty they are, and that’s why they come down to the Magee Marsh boardwalk — to show off for us.

The Blackburnian Warbler spends its winters in the forests of the Andes, mostly from Venezuela to Peru.  In early April it migrates northward around the Gulf Coast. I checked eBird today to see where the Blackburnians are right now, and I see that most of the reports are from Costa Rica and Columbia. But interestingly, there was a report from Brevard, Florida a couple weeks ago, so they’re definitely heading north now. (Well, at least one of them is!) Here’s a link to the map if you’re curious. (And just as I was preparing this post, Greg Miller posted links to the eBird maps for all the warbler species on his blog, here.)

I can’t wait to get my first glimpse of a bright orange flash in the trees this year. The anticipation of that thrill is almost as good as the actual moment I first get my binoculars focused on one of these little feathered gems. It’s a challenge to  find them and then keep your eyes on them — they move quickly through the branches grabbing insects from the undersides of the new leaves — and I always have sore shoulders after a day of watching warblers. But it’s SO worth it.

There IS Life After Death

Have you given much thought to your life after you die? I’m not thinking of any type of spiritual existence, but rather about how your body becomes part of the earth, one way or another.

Cemetery sign with toxic waste warning (800x533)As uncomfortable as it might be to think about it this way, conventional cemeteries are really toxic waste dumps. Think about it. Your body is pumped full of embalming fluid (formaldehyde and other chemicals) to preserve it long enough for funeral home viewing, then placed in clothing (often synthetics that take a long time to biodegrade), then placed in a wood coffin that’s been treated with chemical sealants and contains metal hardware. Sometimes the coffin is placed inside a steel or concrete vault, then the whole bundle of poison is buried six feet under and covered with turf grass that’s kept alive for all eternity by chemical pesticides and fertilizers. I don’t know about you, but I sure as heck don’t want MY final act to be one that poisons the earth like that.

Smokestacks for blogFor the past decade or so I’ve been convinced that I wanted to be cremated when I die. Cremation is actually fairly common in this country; about 42% of all Americans are cremated at death (per 2011 statistics from the Cremation Society of Great Britain). Cremation  seemed much more environmentally friendly than the other available methods, at least at first glance. You simply get reduced to a pile of ashes that can be scattered at sea or in a special wilderness place, or just buried in an urn.  But then I started thinking about the air pollution generated by the cremation process; specifically there are concerns about the mercury vapors from dental fillings. I don’t have any mercury in my fillings, but even so, I’m unhappy with the pollution aspects. So I started looking into other options, and I think I may have found the perfect choice for me.

But before I tell you about that, I found one other interesting option for people who still want to be cremated. It’s the “Bios Urn,” a biodegradable urn that contains your ashes and a single tree seed. The idea is that you help fertilize a tree, which then grows and
stands as a living legacy to your life. That sounds pretty good, but I’d be worried that someone would cut me down for firewood. Wouldn’t that be ironic if I chose not to be cremated and then I grew into a tree that someone burned in their fireplace? Funny.

Walking trail at Foxfield Preserve.
Walking trail at Foxfield Preserve. Photo used with permission.

So my choice is a natural burial. In a natural burial your body isn’t pumped full of chemicals. There’s no lacquered wood or steel coffin being placed into the soil to poison it further. What happens instead is that your body is placed in a simple cloth shroud (or sometimes a biodegradable pine coffin) and placed directly into the soil to decompose naturally. It gives me a feeling of deep peace to think that my body will fertilize the soil, and perhaps feed earthworms or insects, which will in turn become food for the birds I love so much. It might even be possible that a molecule from my body will one day fly across a meadow in the body of a beautiful Northern Cardinal or Red-winged Blackbird. How can you top that? (Of course my sister doesn’t like the idea, and says I’d probably poop on her car…funny girl.)

Gravesite at Foxfield Preserve, overlooking a natural meadow.
Gravesite at Foxfield Preserve, overlooking a natural meadow. Photo used with permission.

There are some great places being established as natural burial cemeteries, and I hope more will pop up as this idea gains support. There’s an interesting one in Northern Ohio called Foxfield Preserve, a lovely-looking nature preserve cemetery owned by the Wilderness Center. Take a look at their video here and see if it doesn’t seem pretty amazing. And even closer to me is The Preserve on Lake Maceday, the first natural burial cemetery in the Detroit metro area. I think I’ll make a point to go birding in one of these places this summer to get a better feel for what they’re like.

So what do you think about this whole idea of natural burials? Do you think it’s important or not? Would you consider it for yourself or your loved ones?

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Resources for further reading — I haven’t read any of these books yet, but offer them here as possible starting points for those who want to read more.

Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson

Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Burial, by Bob Butz

Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, by Mark Harris

List of Natural Burial Preserves in US – some of their websites have good information too.

Forest Bathing: No Soap Needed

Most of us cleanse our bodies on a daily basis, but have you ever given much thought to cleansing your mind and spirit as well? I’m not referring to traditional religious practice, although that may serve a similar purpose for some people. I’m talking about shinrinyoku — forest bathing.

Walking in the Michigan winter woods
A winter walk in the woods

In 1982 this term was coined by the Japanese government to describe the practice of walking in the woods for refreshment and escape from the hustle and bustle of urban environments. They recognized the health benefits of being immersed in nature and encouraged people to spend quiet time among the trees as often as possible to reduce stress levels. Scientists in Japan are conducting a range of ongoing studies measuring the physiological effects of various elements of the natural world, trying to quantify exactly how our bodies respond to nature. But even without knowing their results, I think we all know how good we feel when we get away from our desks and the concrete jungle, even if only for a short walk on our lunch hour.

Scientists here in the U.S. are also trying to establish objectively measurable evidence of the health benefits of nature. For example, a study at the University of Illinois came to some interesting conclusions:

Access to nature and green environments yields better cognitive functioning, more self-discipline and impulse control, and greater mental health overall.

Less access to nature is linked to exacerbated attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, higher rates of anxiety disorders, and higher rates of clinical depression.

The article goes on to explain that green spaces have more than just psychological benefits; they also have proven physical effects like helping you to recover quicker after surgery, improving your immune function, and even improving “functional living skills” among older people. In fact, I just read an article in the new issue of Birds & Blooms magazine that touts the benefits of “healing gardens” for dementia patients. Apparently these gardens are becoming more common at hospitals, senior centers, and even schools. I’m very encouraged by this, and I’ll have more to say about healing gardens in an upcoming post.

The scientists might need more evidence to satisfy them, but this is more than enough to convince me that I’ve named my blog appropriately: Nature [really] is my Therapy.

Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park
Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park

By the way, if you live in a location with lots of snow and bare trees right now (like I do), don’t despair; you can still get the benefits of “green”space without waiting for things outside to come back to life in a few months. All you need to do is decorate your home and office with pictures of flowers, gardens, rivers, or landscapes; then when you need a break, just gaze upon those peaceful images and feel your blood pressure go down, your breathing slow, your mood lift. If you’re skeptical that this works, try it. You’ll see.

Below are some photos of beautiful things I found because I was out looking for birds — I hope they make you happy too.

Looking up at birds is great, but looking at the ground can be rewarding too.
Looking up at birds is great, but looking at the ground can be rewarding too.
A carpet of woodland daffodils
A carpet of woodland daffodils
Beautiful ice formations on the melting Clinton River
Beautiful ice formations on the melting Clinton River
Just look at the intricate beauty of those wings! Imagine what it's like in his world....
Just look at the intricate beauty of those wings! Imagine what it’s like in his world….

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Sources for those of you who want to read more:

Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine: Trends in research related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793347/?tool=pubmed)

Science Daily: Green Environments Essential for Human Health, Research Shows (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110419151438.htm)

Cranes to my Left, Cranes to my Right

Sandhill Crane in flightWe’ve all seen those wildlife documentaries where they show thousands of animals gathered in one spot; the one most people think of is the incredible migration of the wildebeests in Africa, right? Thousands and thousands of them running across the plains…it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be there to see something like that in person, but we just know it would be amazing.

Well, last Friday night, we got to experience something every bit as amazing as that, and only two hours from home. It was the annual gathering of the Sandhill Cranes in southwestern Michigan as they prepare for their southward migration. We’d been watching the daily count tallies from Baker Sanctuary in anticipation of our trip, and when the number hit 3,800 cranes a few days earlier, I started to get very excited. Heck, look how excited I got about our close encounter with just two of them last summer.

We had tickets to a special dinner event that night (more about that shortly), so we decided to go to the sanctuary beforehand to watch the evening fly-in. (Cranes come in to the marsh each evening before dusk to roost, then leave again in the morning.) We got there at 5 pm and I was very surprised to see at least a thousand cranes already populating the marsh. I couldn’t even begin to count all of them, but I’m sure there were more than a couple thousand by the time we left around 6:30. They were a hundred yards away from the closest viewing areas, so I was disappointed not to be able to get close-up photos. But I took a few shots of the large groupings anyway, and shot the smaller groups as they flew over our heads on their way down into the marsh.

The beauty of these large and majestic birds is part of the reason this is fun to watch, but the sounds are even better, in my opinion. The cranes call while flying and after landing, and the entire marsh resonated with their prehistoric-sounding trumpets. If I had to choose only to see or to hear these birds, I’d definitely choose to hear them! Here’s a link where you can listen to their calls. Doesn’t that send shivers down your spine? It does for me. Just imagine a bunch of birds with a wingspan of 5 to 7 feet flying overhead and making that gurgling sound…it’s one of the most entertaining bird spectacles I’ve ever seen. I tried to take some video to share with you, but the audio was cluttered with some irritating people talking loudly about what they had for dinner, or something equally distracting. (And don’t even get me started on the people who came out to a nature sanctuary and smoked cigarettes the whole time….omg!) Luckily there are plenty of videos on YouTube already — just search for Sandhill Cranes and you’ll get a bunch of choices to watch.

Cranes in formation

I’m so glad we watched the cranes on Friday night, because Saturday turned out to be such a cold and rainy day that we decided not to spend the day waiting for the evening fly-in the second time.

Just a small portion of the crowded marsh as the sun started to lower in the sky
Landing gear down….

Just about the only time these birds don’t seem majestic is when they prepare for landing, letting those long, gangly legs droop down below them. It always makes me laugh.

Bald Eagle (click to enlarge)
Pileated Woodpecker! (click to enlarge)

And lest I forget, there were other great birds in the area that night too. We watched two Bald Eagles soaring around a few times, and got to witness a beautiful Northern Harrier soaring low over the marsh hunting for his dinner. There were bunches of Robins, of course, and a few small songbirds that we didn’t pay much attention to. But I kept taking pictures of anything that flew past, even if I didn’t know what it was at the time. Imagine my surprise when I got the photos uploaded and discovered that I’d shot a Pileated Woodpecker flying past! This is a great bird that I don’t get to see often enough. And I also found a life bird in one of the photos — a Ring-necked Pheasant was perched on a dead tree way back in the marsh. I’ve become used to using the computer to zoom in on trees looking for little birds, but this one was so obvious I wondered how I hadn’t noticed it when I was scanning the marsh with my binoculars. What a fun 24 hours this was!

You Need Some Vitamin N

That’s Vitamin N as in Nature, and most of us are deficient in it. There have been lots of books and articles written about the health benefits of ecotherapy lately, but many of them are supported primarily by anecdotal evidence and sloppy research. But now we have proof that time spent outdoors is essential for mental health and positive patterns of social functioning, based on rigorous research conducted by Frances Kuo at the University of Illinois. She says, In greener settings, we find that people are more generous and more sociable. We find stronger neighborhood social ties and greater sense of community, more mutual trust and willingness to help others…. In less green environments, we find higher rates of aggression, violence, violent crime, and property crime — even after controlling for income and other differences. We also find more evidence of loneliness and more individuals reporting inadequate social support.”

I encourage you to follow the link above to read more about the study. If that doesn’t make you go outside, I don’t know what will! In fact, as I was gathering info for this article I had an urgent impulse to take a walk around our woods. So I did. And it felt gooood.

I’ve also been reading The Nature Principle, by Richard Louv, and find myself highlighting passage after passage for future reference. Did you know that exposure to the natural world can actually increase intelligence for some people? According to Louv, it apparently stimulates “our ability to pay attention, think clearly, and be more creative, even in dense urban neighborhoods.”

I think most creative types will be familiar with the inspiration that can strike during a walk in the woods or a stroll on the shore. I get lots of good ideas when I’m driving on a pretty country road, or even in the shower (I consider that “nature-like” since I’m in the water….). Other studies cited in this book (done by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan) suggest “that nature simultaneously calms and focuses the mind, and at the same time offers a state that transcends relaxation, allowing the mind to detect patterns that it would otherwise miss.”

I just found another book on this subject that sounds pretty good: Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. I’ve just ordered it and will let you know what I think after I’ve had a chance to read it. In the meantime, here are a couple of my recent “therapy pics.” Enjoy!

Ecotherapy to the Rescue

“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”    — Frank Lloyd Wright

Mr. Wright was definitely right about that (couldn’t resist the wordplay). That was true again for me last week as I found myself in desperate need of comfort. You see, my cat Mickey’s jaw was broken by our vet during a “routine” dental cleaning. The next morning he had to be taken to a feline dental surgeon 60 miles from home to have the jaw repaired, so I had to find a way to pass the agonizing waiting time somehow.

I noticed that the surgeon’s office happened to be very near the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor, so after I dropped Mickey off I headed for the gardens with my camera in tow.

I would have preferred to be away from other people that day, but despite there being dozens of little kids there on a field trip, the gardens still felt like a peaceful place. (Normally I’d avoid any place with so many kids, but they stayed mostly in the Children’s Garden, so it wasn’t too bad.) So I spent maybe 90 minutes wandering among the lovely perennial gardens.  It was interesting to note that the bees and butterflies were all going about their lives, even though I felt that mine was on hold for the moment. That realization might have given me perspective if my worries that day hadn’t been so serious. But in any case, I did enjoy the lovely aromas of the flowers and the bright sunshine.

Imagine the sound of dripping water on a hot day….

There were fountains too, and I spent some time sitting on a bench just watching the cool water dripping over a pile of rocks. Water is always soothing to me, whether it’s a still pond, powerful ocean waves, or a gently cascading waterfall. I think that’s probably common, but I have difficulty explaining why water is so calming. Sometimes it’s the sound of it, as with rain or waves. And other times it’s the feeling of it, as in the shower or when you go swimming. And I notice when we go kayaking that I’m soothed by the gentle bobbing motion of the kayak on the water surface.  Water is a true elixir of life. It’s precious not only to keep our bodies functioning from the inside, but also for how our minds respond to it.

You look at that river, gently flowing by. You notice the leaves rustling with the wind. You hear the birds, you hear the tree frogs. In the distance you hear a cow. You feel the grass, the mud gives a little bit on the river bank. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. And all of a sudden, it’s a gear shift inside you. And it’s like taking a deep breath and going, “Oh yeah, I forgot about this.”

That’s Al Gore speaking softly in the opening of his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” with a peaceful river image on screen.  (And another quote soon after that: “I am Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States.” He got laughs for that one.)

I love this little guy!

Thankfully, Mickey’s jaw was “easily” repaired (in the words of an expert surgeon). He seems to be recovering well and should be able to eat hard food again in about another week. So we had a few traumatic days last week, but things feel much like normal again today and Mickey is calmly sitting at the window watching me as I type this. For today at least, we’re blessed with good fortune.