Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Drawing of a bird bander © Cicely Combs

When you hold a small bird in your hand, a goldfinch or a nuthatch, you forget about the science of it.
© Cicely Combs

April 2010

Fitful science

To the curious mind, things learned along the way are as wonderful as the task at hand.

Story by Jack Bushnell
Illustrations by Cicely Combs

Here's the problem: life offers so many distractions. I stand in the rusty current of Iron Run River, in western Wisconsin's Clark County, dipping water into a long plastic tube to gauge if it's clear or is muddy with suspended sediments (turbidity). I'm here to carry out a number of stream-monitoring tasks (protocols), including measuring dissolved oxygen levels, water flow and populations of aquatic bugs (invertebrate larvae). But my eyes stray from my work. I've noticed some prints in the fine silt further up the bank, and I splash in that direction to take a closer look. The width of the foot in the tracks and the fact that the fifth toe hasn't registered makes me think it must be a fisher. I lay my turbidity tube in the summer grass and track the animal's progress upstream. I expect I'll lose the trail soon enough, but I can't resist following it anyway.

Or I'm helping on a cold morning with the bird-banding project at Beaver Creek Reserve, near Fall Creek. With each bird caught in our mist nets, we must extract the bird, record data about species, sex, age and weight, and we fit the captive fluffball with a shiny numbered anklet that it will wear for the rest of its life. I know this is important work for assessing avian populations, migration patterns and longevity, but when you hold a small bird in your hand, a goldfinch or a nuthatch, you forget about the science of it. At least, I do. The moment is all. A wild creature no bigger than your palm, is still, alert and frightened. Its legs and toes are astonishingly fine, its heart thrumming insistently beneath your fingertips, whirring like the flywheel of a tiny watch. Just holding it is addictive. I crave the joy of it, data be damned.

When I can keep my mind on my work, I am doing something called "citizen science," a fancy label for a range of volunteer programs across the country, and an initiative in which Wisconsin has taken a leadership position. I and others like me have been trained in certain procedures by local biologists or naturalists. In these times of increasingly limited budgets, we help accomplish the widespread gathering of data that are then made available to state resource management agencies and universities. At Beaver Creek Reserve, the home of Wisconsin's ambitious NatureMapping project, I've attended workshops not only in stream monitoring and bird banding, but in mammal ecology, amphibian surveys and identification of woodland and prairie exotics. I'm not a scientist, but when I'm in the field with my equipment I feel like one. Sometimes.

You see, there's at least one crucial difference between science and citizen science. Having grown up with a biologist- father, and having often accompanied him in the field, I know the tedium of the research project, the repetitive weeks, months, even years needed to choose sites, conduct work, and analyze findings. It's how science does what it does; it's how it moves forward. And I know that citizen science works in the same way, slowly gathering data until there's enough of it to draw conclusions about the health of particular habitats or the distribution of certain species. But the fact is I'm never required to be a scientist. Most of the time, I'm just a citizen. Instead of staying on the trail, I'm free to wander from it. To be distracted. And, generally, that's what I do.

Scouting an unfamiliar county forest in spring, I leave the path and cut into the trees. I find myself on a deer trail, the prints clear and deep in the moist soil. It winds down a steep slope toward a distant creek bottom and I follow it, noting the recent beaver activity, white-tipped stumps and honed branches. On the bank I see raccoon tracks, toes spread like fingers in the sand. Occasionally, along the way, I find a ragged hole several inches deep, where a raccoon has dug furiously, hunting crawfish perhaps. By the time I return to the managed trails, having slogged through high marsh grass, stagnant backwaters and tangled undergrowth, I am soaked from the waist down and scraped by thorns. It is as if I have stepped from a jungle.

In winter, the effect is even more pronounced. Tracking back through the woods against a small mammal's trough in the snow, I am struck by the odd side-to-side markings of its tail, like ribs feathering the straight backbone of a fish. I'm not sure what I'm following, though the tail's narrowness suggests an opossum. I look for scat, I walk with my eyes to the ground, and soon I'm deep in the trees. Everything is white and leafless and the same. I have come here to record animal activity. But I have been lured from my purpose, seduced by the stories written in the powder at my feet, the orange urine sprays of a leaping, courting jackrabbit, the lazy hopping prints of a squirrel, the fur-and-flesh remains of a sudden death. Too much to chronicle in a checklist.

There are times out there when I feel, not lost exactly – not with a compass and a map – but far away, disconnected from any sort of world that I can take for granted. Every step brings with it a surprise. Every mark, like a word on a page, pulls me along, draws me into the patterns, the rhythms, the interlaced minutiae of life at its simplest and most fundamental. I return from these journeys clean and startled, as if scoured by snow, cold and the rushing water of a stream.

Before moving to Wisconsin in the early 1990s, I lived almost 20 years in New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country, where you can drive from one town to the next without a hint of open road in between. So much of it is a single, contiguous, sprawling city with more than 1,100 people jammed into every square mile.

For many of those years I commuted into Manhattan, where I worked as an advertising executive. Nature and I were not on good terms. The weather always interfered, soiling or drenching my suits and polished shoes. At bus stops and on crowded train platforms, I grumbled about the seasons. Too hot. Too cold. The first slushy snow annoyed me. Summers meant sweat stains on my dress shirts, and spring generally came and went on the other side of a pane of glass, somewhere far below my high-rise office building. All the paths were beaten paths; there was little chance of surprise.

Now, it's impossible for me to have too much space, too much field, too many trees. In Wisconsin, there's room for distractions. And I let them turn me happily this way and that.

One early fall day, I am charmed by the acrobatics of countless yellow warblers in the understory above me. They leap, flit and rush through the branches of poplars and birches, the bright sunlight speckled and glowing behind them. Meanwhile, dead and dying leaves, knocked loose in the dance fall like slow rain, pattering on the forest floor. As I watch the birds, I have forgotten why I came to the woods that afternoon. More accurately, they have become my reason.

On a different afternoon, this time in late winter, I look for wolf sign in a large forest about 25 miles from my home. There are actually two small packs here, their territories spanning two counties, and I'm not the only one keeping tabs on them. I've traced them before, but today I'm not having any luck finding evidence of their whereabouts. That's when I come upon the regally precise prints of a huge bird, three forward-facing toes evenly spread, one toe straight back, all sharply etched in the snow, each stride equidistant. Cutting across my path, out of the trees on one side and into the trees on the other, its tracks tell a story of exactness, care and purpose. A wild turkey is an impressive animal close up; its large print is likewise impressive. So I follow it, at least for a while. The tracks are fresh. Perhaps I'll surprise it, as it surprised me.

Seen from above, a winter hardwood forest is a white page of antic grids and intersecting trails. Mammals and birds. Predators and prey. Rodent, canid, raptor, ungulate, human. There are no straight lines in nature, for each diverges onto another. Each path offers alternative paths. Every story meshes with every other story, season after season, making it impossible to tease them apart. Nor should we try.

This is what I've learned: Distractions are not really distractions. They're the whole point. In the name of science, I am disciplined and rigorous, setting up on a creek bank to mix reagents in glass vials or, stopwatch in hand, timing the progress of a lazy current between two flags. I calculate indices, record data. But also in the name of science, I have learned to pay attention. I move from one project to another, or to no project at all, on a whim, in answer to a distant bird call, the snap of a twig or a dainty fox print in new snow. I allow those intersecting lives to carry me off because I can and because I should. The return of the goldfinches in spring moves me now in ways it never did before, not because I know how many were banded in western Wisconsin last year, but because they have texture and weight in my memory. I can feel them in my hand, eye to eye, pulse to pulse. When I come upon a river or stream, I know what it takes to evaluate its health, but mostly I think of the stories written along its sandy shore, the prints of the coyote that drank there in the early morning mist, or the heron that stood motionless and alert, waiting for something small to swim or hop or scurry within reach.

Reading the signs they've left behind, I can't help but wonder what happened next. Perhaps I'll nose around for a bit and see what I can see. If I lose one trail, there's bound to be another. With water and a sandwich in my pack, I have plenty of time. And no place I need to be but here.

Jack Bushnell writes from Eau Claire.