Five New Year’s resolutions to better appreciate the natural world

Take time in the New Year to become aware of our natural surroundings. Egrets in a marsh need no such advice. — Photo by Kristofer Rabasca

Okay, you’ve lived here for years. Maybe you were born here. Maybe your great-great-grandparents were, too. You think you know the Island pretty well. But do you?

Most of us — and I include myself — are creatures of habit. We tend to visit favorite places repeatedly, in favor of exploring. And we experience places in the same way, repeatedly, without forcing our senses and our minds into different pathways. So although we think we know a place well, in fact we only know portions of it. Here are five suggestions for ways to shake the cobwebs off in 2014.

Watch the birds

Find a bird nest. I mean an active one, and one belonging to a species that conceals its nest: no fair staking out a bluebird box! While the process of locating a nest is simple, it requires patience and observation skills. And doing it will vastly improve your understanding of how birds live their lives.

Adult birds enter and leave an active nest — one with nestlings in it — scores or even hundreds of times a day, shuttling in food for the rapidly growing babies. Most species, though, suspend their activity when they know they’re being watched. But if you sit still enough, a few dozen yards from the general area of the nest, the adults soon lose interest in you. By watching their arrivals and departures, you can gradually zero in on the precise nest location. In the process, you can often see what food the adults are carrying. By the time you manage a quick peek into the nest (keep it brief to minimize the disturbance), you’ll have vastly increased your respect for the skills and energy of birds.

Find the fish

Go fishing. Well, since actually snagging a fish on a hook isn’t to everyone’s taste, let’s broaden this one a bit: just locate some fish. Visually, we’re ill-equipped for seeing beneath the surface. And a lot of the water out there is empty at any given moment. But fish are out there, in large numbers, and finding and watching fish that are active at the surface, where you can actually see them, is challenging and even exciting for the non-fisherperson. Twilight and tidal flow are cues to get you started; circling gulls often mean fish feeding below. Often, the small prey species leap from the water, seeking safety; and a real feeding frenzy shows up as a boiling patch of jumping bait and striking bass or bluefish. It’s a primal, even brutal thing to witness, and gives you a moment of insight into a hidden world.

A night stroll

Take a walk at night. Pick a warm one in late summer and try to pass through a mix of habitats. Stop often to listen: nearly anywhere on the Vineyard, you’ll hear a tangle of insect calls. It’s a good exercise to count how many different calls are going on at once; each type of call reflects a different species, mostly crickets and katydids. While you’re out, take a look around any lights you pass, and again, try to count the varieties of insects hanging out there, even if you can’t identify any. I’ll bet you had no idea how much insect activity there is at night, and how many species are readily detectable if you pay attention.

Just sit

Sit for an hour. Seriously. Just sit. Pick a quiet place in one of the Vineyard’s larger conservation properties, park your posterior on a rock or log, and watch and listen. Early in the morning is the most interesting time, but even at midday, with patience, you’ll hear and see an amazing variety of wildlife busily engaged in surviving. Or maybe you won’t hear or see much at all, at least at first. But if you free yourself from the urge to keep moving, you’ll find interest in little things you’d otherwise miss — an ant wresting a small caterpillar home, or a beetle blundering around on a lichen.

Buy a good guide

Finally, buy a field guide and learn to use it. It doesn’t matter what the guide covers; just pick a group (butterflies, dragonflies, birds, wildflowers…) that you don’t know much about. Read the introductory material to learn how to use the book. Then start using it! Make a point of spending time regularly, even if it’s just ten minutes a week in your own neighborhood, looking for and trying to identify new species. You won’t just make some new acquaintances; the process will sharpen your observation skills and help you grasp the diversity of life that shares the Island with you.

The Vineyard is a beautiful, distinctive, and endlessly surprising place. But whoever you are, you’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s out there. Change your routine, visit new places, encourage yourself to look at different things, and you’ll find that the Island just gets even more captivating.