I went on a short hike the other day, and I almost didn’t bring my binoculars.
This is a pretty radical statement for an ardent birder to make, so let me explain. Even though the hike took place on property belonging to Audubon, our purpose was to look for wildflowers, not birds, and to create the beginnings of a plant checklist that would be added to in the following years. Specifically, my job was to photograph what we found.
At first, it seemed odd to leave the binos in my backpack (yes, I ended up bringing them after all). I had a macro lens on my camera in place of my long telephoto. My eyes scanned the ground rather than the bushes, trees, and sky. Then somehow I adapted, and had a most wonderful morning!
In spite of the extremely dry conditions (the area has received only 38% of normal precipitation so far this year), a surprising number of plants were blooming. However, except in the wetlands next to the ponds, most of the flowers were a lot smaller than normal. Really, they looked pretty pathetic.
Since we were making a species list for the property, we had to identify everything we found. I discovered that keying out herbaceous plants is a lot harder than identifying most birds! Yes, they hold still while you examine them and flip pages, but some of the books seem to assume a degree in botany, they’re so technical. In some cases, a microscope is needed—not exactly field equipment.
Multiple common names add confusion, which I expected, but I was amazed to learn that the same plants can have multiple scientific names as well! In fact, according to an article in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic Magazine:
The list of [scientific botanical] names has … ballooned to 1.05 million, but of those, only around 300,000 are now confirmed to be unique species. Nearly half a million others, it turns out, are redundant.
The scientific moniker for English oak has 314 synonyms, the common daisy 29, and the giant sequoia 18.
When you’re focused on flowers, you suddenly start to notice insects as well. Colorado is home to more than one hundred species of grasshopper, and we saw plenty, but like birds they flew away before we could arrange an introduction. Butterflies flitted from flower to flower, reminding me that I’ve been wanting to learn some of the more common species. Huge bumblebees weighed down the common mustard flowers, fitting right into the yellow color scheme, and were so intent on their pollen-gathering that I was able to get off a series of close-up shots without disturbing them a bit.
We found signs of larger animals as well—elk scat, pocket gopher and badger holes indicated they’d been hanging around. A doe wandered through the ponderosa pines, fox squirrels darted along the branches, and a short-tailed weasel only gave us a brief glimpse before disappearing around the far side of a wall. And yes, we did see an assortment of birds as well.
The whole morning served to remind me that I’ve only come late to birding, but I’ve loved being out in nature for as long as I can remember. Yes, I enjoy identifying the birds I see, watching their antics, and adding them to my life list. I’ve learned so much in the past seven years since a Black-headed Grosbeak caught my attention. However, I’ve spent a lifetime fascinated by plants and animals, how they survive in their environment, and how they interact with us humans. Sometimes it’s good to get past the tunnel vision and focus on the big picture.
Next week I’m joining a group for another field trip. We’re heading to a valley on the side of Pikes Peak known for its flowers and butterflies. The trip is being billed as Blossoms, Butterflies, and Birds. I’m sure we’ll see plenty of those… along with some beetles, fungi, and who knows what else. The hardest part will be deciding which of a half dozen field guides I’m willing to put in my pack!
Photos, from top: Western Salsify, Pasque Flower, bumblebee on Common Mustard, Penstemon sp.