The At-Home Naturalist

Let’s get one thing straight.  I’m not an ornithologist.  Yes, I played one in college.  That’s accurate.  In 1982 I spent six months in Monte Verde, Costa Rica studying the “Nest Site Displacement of Hoffman’s Woodpeckers by Emerald Toucanets.”  That was a long time ago. 

I’m not sure that this is exactly a Hoffman’s Woodpecker. But, it’s the closest, royalty-free image of a Costa Rican woodpecker I could find! On the other hand, the title photo of an Emerald Toucanet is accurate, and cost me twelve bucks to legally acquire.

The Toucanet vs. Woodpecker analysis was recommended by my college mentor who had spent the previous spring semester in that same location.  Dr. Harlow Hadow was an ornithologist and naturalist.  On the other hand, the mentoring professor in Costa Rica during my term was keen on ctenosaurs (you pronounce that without the c.)  Many of my peers joined his research on the iguana-like reptile or the more interesting Howler Monkeys that tossed their own scat your way if they were so inclined, while I flew (no pun intended) solo in the cloud forest. 

My study subject wasn’t born out of intense passion to research a specific natural event or species.  It was an opportunity to arrive on-site with a pre-planned project spearheaded by a professor I admired and trusted.  But, to be completely honest, I viewed my semester in Monte Verde less as a scientific quest and more as a brilliant expedition.  And it was.

During my stay, I acquired at least as much knowledge about Costa Rica’s people, culture, food and gracious spirit as I did about the birds.   Nonetheless – and this is the remarkable part of the journey – I did observe a feisty pair of Toucanets tear open a woodpecker’s nesting cavity.  I knew, as did my advisors, that it would be a long shot to be present for such an event.  Yet, after spending days traipsing around the edges of the rain forest, listening for the specific vocalizations, catching glimpses of their scalloped flight, I eventually identified eight active nests owned by Hoffman’s woodpeckers.  One day, after weeks observing the birds’ comings-and-goings, my effort was rewarded.  I witnessed what I had endeavored to see.  It took everything within me to refrain from throwing a rock (as if I could a. find one and b. throw it seventy feet in the air) to stop the incident.  Watching those big green birds with the massive yellow bills ripping the baby chicks from the hole, snatching them in their long beaks and tossing them back the way a Canjun consumes raw oysters on a Saturday night was almost too much for me to bear.   While the chicks’ parents swooped about screeching their protest, I remained a noble scientist and I simply recorded the event in my notebook while I listened to head-song, “Let it Be,” by the Beatles.

Fast forward nearly forty years.  For the first two decades after graduating, I used my degree in biology to assist in basic auditory research (on goldfish – yeah you read that right), partake in clinical oncology and work in applied research, development and product support of medical diagnostics in a fortune 500 company.  Since 2001, in partnership with my husband, I launched and operated three small businesses as a professional dog trainer, instructor and author.  No birding.  No nest boxes.  No bird seed.  Dog poop and dog hair, dirty dog blankets, scattered dog kibble and some crazy-ass clients with their wayward pooches.  But, no bluebirds, meadowlarks or song sparrows.

Some serious orthopedic issues slowly debilitated my body, leaving me in significant pain on a daily basis until I had both of my shoulders replaced in 2019.  After my final physical therapy in early 2020, I began to feel alive, again.  While I am still in queue for two knee replacements and have limited mobility, the freedom I gained after the shoulder surgeries has breathed new life into me.  For the first three years in our new home I spent much of my time viewing nature out my office windows and on my office patio where I have a koi (goldfish) pond, flower garden, bird seed station and hummingbird nectar feeders.  We put up nest boxes and have watched several broods of Eastern Bluebirds, Tree and Barn Swallows fledge. 

Now, I can travel via golf cart anywhere on the property – all by myself!  With Robert’s assistance, we have fashioned a wonderful ecological setting for the local wildlife.  And while I am excited every time I discover a new species that resides here, I am not an ornithologist and I am not even a “birder” in the official sense, although I respect folks who are and rely upon their expertise to help me learn more about my world.  I love seeing photos of birds from all around the globe.  But, I cannot envision traveling long distances on a birding adventure.  I know I will never run out of learning about the plants and animals that share my space.  I am content here.  This is my home.  I suppose that means that I am an At-Home Naturalist. 

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