by Matt Conner, Park Ranger White River NWR -- April, 2007
I have a collection of outdoor memories that I carry around in my mind at all times. These are moments that I have experienced in the outdoors that I have found to be magical and unforgettable. One of my favorite memories was when I was working at Glacier National Park in Montana as a Ranger and I had hiked up to the top of a ridge and sat down to watch the sunset. I looked over at an adjacent ridge to my left, I saw a grizzly bear saunter up the hill and sit down and look towards the sunset as well. I sat there wondering what the bear was doing sitting on top of a ridge like that and for a second I thought it was perhaps enjoying the view as I was. Later someone tried to tell me that bears climb to the high peaks like that to roll rocks over looking for moth larva and other insects, but I prefer to believe that the bear was just enjoying the view.
Another time I was collecting forest ecology data in northern Wisconsin and I as I was getting a compass heading for my next research plot, I looked up from my compass just in time to watch a large paper birch fall 100 feet in front of me. I didn’t find this moment to be frightening, rather I was awed by the chance that I would be standing at that exact location at that exact moment to see a tree fall of natural causes right in front of me. There was no wind blowing or reason for the tree to fall other than the fact that this tree’s life happened to end just as I looked up from my compass to see it happen. The tree was over 80 years old, but I saw the exact second when it fell.
Why is this magical? Consider this. There are 86,000 seconds in one day. Multiply this by 365 and you see there are 313,390,000 seconds in a year. Multiply this by the trees age (80 years) and you get 2,511,200,000 seconds. Do you see my point? I had less than a 1 in 2.5 billion chance to see this happen and I was lucky enough to be there at the exact time.
When I was training as a park ranger, I read a book by Freeman Tilden called “Interpreting our Heritage.” Freeman Tilden is thought as the father of interpretation as he was the first to define how rangers can “interpret” the outdoors and natural process to visitors. In the book he illustrates many useful techniques to engage a group and tell a story that is meaningful and relevant. However, Tilden mentions in one part of the book that we should, “never try and interpret a sunset.” Meaning, when a magical moment in nature occurs, don’t try to explain why it is special, step out of the way and let the moment speak for itself.
I have recently experienced a new magical moment with a group of beginner birders a couple of weekends ago. I am participating in some courses through the “Business of Birding” program at Phillips Community College UA in DeWitt.
The “Business of Birding” is a program designed to increase tourism to the Delta area and encourage owners of hunting lodges to cater to birders after the hunting season. The goal is to have year round tourism and offer outdoor experiences to people from around the world. With the Refuge and other natural areas, this area is an ideal place to offer birding trips using existing lodges and local amenities.
We had a beginning birding class the evening before and we meet at the Refuge the next morning so I could take the group to some hot spots on the Refuge. The class instructors were Dan Scheiman, the Bird and Conservation Director for Audubon Arkansas, and Kathy Radomski, the Director of Business and Industry Training. They gave the group some basic birding lessons at the Visitor Center and then we headed out to the field to test out our new skills.
We were driving down a gravel road when we say a great blue heron eating a frog next to the road. The van pulled over and we practiced using our binoculars and field guides to observe the bird. As we were watching the heron, Dan pointed to another bird flying towards us. “There is a loggerhead shrike flying towards us,” said Dan. The loggerhead shrike was about the size of a robin and had a black mask similar to a chickadee’s markings.
Dan told the group that the loggerhead shrike was a hunter like a red-tailed hawk, but because it was a smaller bird and had much weaker feet than the red tail hawk, it has adapted as a hunter. The loggerhead shrike isn’t able to kill its prey with crushing talons nor is it capable of tearing apart its catch with its feet. But what it lacks in strength it makes up in skill and agility. This small bird will catch grasshoppers or even prey as large as mice and fly them straight into a thorn on a bush. The bird will impale its prey on an object and then return to feed on it.
As soon as Dan had said this, the loggerhead shrike dove into the bushes and jumped back on the branch it had been sitting on it. A moment later Dan noticed there was a mouse stuck on the branch next to the shrike. We sat there and watched the exact moment unfold that Dan had described. The bird ate the mouse as we took pictures and maneuvered for a better view from the van we were in. We all sat watching the bird not saying a word as we all knew we were seeing something special that made a group of beginner birders hooked on wildlife observation from that moment forward. Dan said he has been birding for 19 years and had never seen anything like this before.
We spent the rest of the morning identifying dozens of birds and learning the types of habitat that each species depends on. I was thinking about what a great experience we had had and was filed this morning under my “magical moments” in my mind. I don’t know how to calculate the odds of seeing a loggerhead shrike impaling and eating a mouse, but I know the odds of seeing some type of wildlife in the Refuge is next to 100% on any given day. Whether it’s watching deer from a distance, looking for amphibians in puddles on the forest floor, bird watching, or just taking a nature hike on the refuge, there is a world of magical moments waiting to be discovered on White River National Wildlife Refuge!