24 June 2024

Scientific observations

Monday, October 31st, 2011
Southwest sky, from Beech Hill, Rockport, Maine, 31 October 2011.

Southwest sky.

As I was doing last night’s dishes this morning, I watched crows flap about along the sunny roadsides when a slight movement caught my eye low in the trees along the parking lot. A little bird there. Some kind of warbler, looked like. I dried my hands and grabbed my binocs. A ruby-crowned kinglet, just flitting about among the yellow leaves there. Hunting. Picking off little insects or something. So I stepped out back with my camera—in my birthday suit.

Ruby-crowned kinglet, Glen Cove, Rockport, Maine, 31 October 2011.

Ruby-crowned kinglet.

Took photos for as long as I could stand the chill. (Kinglets move around a lot and are hard to photograph.) The ruby-crowned appeared to be stocking up for migration, but it was flitting along on a northerly path. Why? I decided maybe it was bound not north but toward the shore, where perhaps it would take flight. That was my theory anyway. You observe a thing and then you come up with a reason for it. Scientific observation.

Not long after, while at my desk, I heard crows making a racket up the hill. They only act that way when there’s a hawk about—or an owl, or a fox. Again I dashed out back with my camera (warmer this time). The crows were perched in a high pine beyond the still leafy oaks, and I couldn’t see what they were hollering at. But while I was out there, I got a sweet surprise: the sound of a singing Carolina wren coming from the yard next door. First wren on my backyard list, I’m pretty sure.

The rest of the day was wacky busy. I completely forgot about lunch, and Jack had to wait until 5 o’clock—and a rapidly dimming sky—for us to embark on our daily drive to Beech Hill. En route, out in Chickawaukie Lake, I spotted two rafts of coots and miscellaneous small collections of ducks. The only ducks I could ID were a pair of buffleheads.

The sun had already set behind the Rockville Ridge when we arrived. Calling at the parking lot were chickadees, a brown creeper, a hairy woodpecker, and a robin.

Moon over Beech Hill, Rockport, Maine, 31 October 2011.

Moon over Beech Hill.

The waxing moon was out, and most of the snow had already melted from the hillsides, and the trails were mostly muddy, here and there covered with patches of crispy snow. Along a couple of particular stretches near the top of the hill—I’ve noticed in scores of cold-weather hikes—the snow stays longer. In deep winter, it drifts in these places. The open trail comes up along the southeastern slope, where the warmth of the sun generally keeps things clearer than the northeastern, wooded trails. But I noticed today that these snowy stretches occur where the trail has higher edges that block the season’s angular sunlight. I.e., they stay in the shade. Well, no wonder. It’s science, after all.

We returned home in twilight, and I hadn’t put any lights on. As I leaned over to untie my hiking shoes, I thought I saw the slow flash of dim lights, like flickering headlights or a flashing sign. Weird. I looked up to investigate—but saw no lights. Leaned down again, and there they were again. After a second or two I realized what was going on: the slow flashing was happening in my eyes, synchronous with my heartbeat. In fact, the dark between the flash matched the beats, and the lightening period came between them. Huh. Never noticed that before. Some recharging of the rods and/or cones, I reckon, where the surge of blood lets me see better in the dark, and the lack of it causes my pupils to dilate. An increase in my apertures.

Just another scientific observation.

My apertures increased again a moment ago when I took dog out to pee. The night air is autumn crisp, the moon has set, and I saw no stars. But I did see the hazy glow of Jupiter. Must be some thin clouds up there, but I’m not sure how to test that hypothesis.

Beech Hill List
Beginning at 5:15 p.m., I hiked the open trail.

1. Black-capped chickadee (voice)
2. Brown creeper (voice)
3. Hairy woodpecker (voice)
4. American robin (voice)
5. Yellow-rumped warbler (voice)
6. Blue jay
7. American coot
8. Northern cardinal (voice)


9. American crow
10. Ruby-crowned kinglet
11. Carolina wren
12. Herring gull
13. Ring-billed gull
14. Bufflehead

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Bird Report is a (sometimes intermittent) record of the birds I encounter while hiking, see while driving, or spy outside my window. —Brian Willson

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