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Observation and Collaboration

Tundra Swans have a peach colored bill when they are younger.

Working in environmental education at a time when inquiry-based learning is the norm, the practice of learning how to make observations and ask questions comes up a lot. I am constantly reminded of how it is an intentional, not intuitive, practice for me. I walk into the same room day after day, but even after months I still notice something and ask “Has that been here the whole time?” Often the answer is yes. Sound familiar to anyone else? There are plenty of things that live on my periphery and occasionally I’ll pick up on things by myself, but frequently, these observations are kickstarted by another person or event.

Earlier this November, on a sunny Saturday, I found myself leading a small group of elementary-aged children and their accompanying adults to search for signs of animals. This program happens once a month, and, barring truly terrible weather, we end up outside to explore the surrounding forests and ponds in relation to whatever the theme is that Saturday. This particular day, we were exploring the coverings animals have on their body to keep them dry, safe, and, especially appropriate to a late autumn morning, warm.

As I stepped outside with the last of my group, I heard a couple of those children excitedly exclaim that they found a dragonfly. I joined them and there it was; a bright, red dragonfly stationed next to the garden. It was sitting in a sunny spot, so at the time, I assumed it was just a lingering dragonfly, an anomaly holding on from the warmer fall temperatures. However, I saw another one later that day, and two more the day after. Clearly, they wanted me to spend a little more time and energy figuring out what was going on, so down the Google rabbit hole I went.

Luckily, I wasn’t starting completely from scratch. Although I did not know the exact species, I could confidently narrow it down to one of the meadowhawks.

First of all, what a fantastically cool name for an insect. A meadowhawk is a type of dragonfly, and its name evokes such a wonderful image of this small animal as the raptors of the insect world, perching on branches and rocks, darting around fields and diving to catch their prey. There are several kinds of meadowhawks found around here and many of them are seen from late July to early September.

Many kinds of meadowhawks are found in late summer and fall.

After some research, the most likely match seems to be the Autumn Meadowhawk. It turns out these dragonflies can be spotted later in the fall as long as the temperature is not consistently cold and we don’t get too many hard freezes. I do not know if I have never noticed them around, or the weather this year means they are just sticking around longer than in previous years, but I appreciate their autumn appropriate red color hanging out on a warm rock or darting around the sunny November afternoons.

On that same Sunday hike where I was left pondering dragonflies, I also spent fifteen minutes at the pond with a pair of binoculars trying to solve another mystery. A couple visitors and members came into the Audubon asking about a large, white bird on the pond. My immediate response was Tundra Swan because those are the birds I expect to see that fit their description. That gut reaction identification was immediately challenged as they went on to describe the beak color as somewhat orange.

This area is largely a stopover spot for swans, so there is the possibility of more than one species finding its way here. Tundra Swans, as adults, have mostly black bills. So they asked if it was a Mute Swan. Those generally have bright orange bills with a spot of black near the face. Then a coworker spoke up and asked if it was an adult or a juvenile. So for the second day in a row, I headed back into the depths of the internet and field guides, comparing different species of swans as adults and juveniles.

It turns out juvenile Tundra Swans have a peachy pink bill which will turn into that black bill I am used to seeing as they mature. Armed with my new information, I went out with a pair of binoculars where I watched and waited fifteen minutes as the swan slowly swam in my direction. As it finally came into clear view through my binoculars, I saw the peachy pink beak of a juvenile Tundra Swan rather than the bright orange of an adult Mute Swan.

Sometimes, I let the question or the observation just be and never go on to figure out the reason behind an event or the correct answer. Other times, like with the dragonflies and swans, an observation made by another can spur my inquisitiveness into action. Science and research are so often a team effort. Sharing your results and comparing data is a vital part of moving forward and gaining understanding of the world around us. It makes sense that this same collaboration can also result in new knowledge on an individual level.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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