Outdoors North

Glorious fall approaches

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

I just recently returned from a trip to Nashville. The last time I went to Nashville it was in Indiana. This time it was the one in Tennessee.

A couple of interesting thoughts on things I contemplated there.

One is the naming of things, in this case birds.

First, it’s interesting to me that Nashville is known for its country music, and singers are sometimes referred to as warblers.

This is interesting to me because as many people know, there is a group of birds called warblers. Once more, there are bird species named Nashville warbler and Tennessee warbler. And yes, the males of both species sing.

The Nashville warbler was first discovered near Nashville, Tennessee by ornithologist Alexander Wilson. The Tennessee warbler was also discovered and named by Wilson after he found the bird along the Cumberland River.

All of that is made even more interesting by the fact that Nashville warblers and Tennessee warblers mate, build their nests, lay eggs and raise young – in other words “live” – much farther north, in places including Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The birds are named for geographic places that they are just passing through while they are migrating north or south for the summer or wintertime. There are also other species that have been named in this fashion.

Another thing that occurred to me in Nashville was most relatable to human nature.

I have been in plenty of situations where I see a person and I know I know them, but for some reason I can’t recognize them.

It usually turns out that I am seeing this person out of their typical uniform, place they work or something else that’s out of place and that detail works to confound my identification ability.

I usually figure it out after I’ve walked away thinking, “Who the hell was that?”

When I finally recall the name and the face and the place, when it all snaps together it’s like solving a riddle or some other puzzle.

I then feel relieved, satisfied and happy that I was finally able to figure it out, but still a bit foolish for not being able to recognize someone I knew I knew.

The same thing can happen while watching well-disguised actors in Hollywood movies. I think as viewers we intrinsically know we need to buy in to some degree to what is happening on the stage or the screen to stay engaged with the story.

When we do this, I think we often look past the human being we are seeing and go straight to the character, trying to figure out what he or she means to the story. This is exactly what these very skilled and chameleon-like actors want us to do.

But by doing so, we can become distracted as the production moves on. We can hear a voice or see certain mannerisms or facial characteristics and wonder who is that guy?

Then it clicks and it can be mind-blowing.

Example: “That guy who’s playing the monkey was the one who played the woman in that show about the stolen car. Wow, that’s cool!”

The absolute best one of these snap moments for me came during the movie “The Avengers.” Not the 2012 action hero film, the 1998 satire based on the spy television show of the late 1960s.

When I was a kid, the Avengers television show made actress Diana Rigg a veritable sex symbol in her definitive role as Emma Peel. Her male counterpart was Patrick Macnee who played John Steed.

I loved that show then and I still do.

When the 1998 movie came out, I was disappointed in the interpretation, but the snap moment provided complete absolution.

A character in the plot is named Invisible Jones and not surprisingly, you don’t see him. But you hear his voice.

After listening for a little while, I recognized the character’s voice as none other than that of Patrick Macnee – the dapper actor who played John Steed in the television series 30 years prior.

That was an exciting and wonderful moment for me. It was like a secret message to viewers that those who were putting this film together not only were aware of the Avengers television show, but that they might quite possibly be fans themselves.

So cool. It’s one of those little things that make me probably happier than it should, but I can’t help it. I think it’s great.

So, with all that said, when I was in Nashville, I toured the 360-degree, Vincent Van Gogh immersive experience exhibit. It was absorbing and completely incredible.

Afterward, I was outside waiting for my ride.

I sat on the sidewalk and watched the scene around me. It was a hot day, and I was enjoying the shade of a tree growing along the sidewalk. After a few minutes, I stood up to stretch and saw a bird flying in the sky over me.

It was bigger than a robin and its flight looked familiar, but I was out of place. I was in Nashville where there could be quite a few different birds that I am not used to seeing regularly.

It was like one of those times I’ve described of bumping into someone I didn’t recognize in the grocery store.

So, I studied the bird intently for the few seconds I had to observe and think.

Then, the positive identification swept over me like a cold, ocean wave.

I said aloud, “Yup, that’s a blue jay.”

I could have smacked myself in the forehead.

I think the geographic location predisposed my brain to anticipate something exotic. Instead, it turned out to be a species I see almost every single day, but under these circumstances was, for a few seconds, an unidentified flying object.

At times like these, I try to remind myself that there are plenty of people who have never, nor will ever, see a blue jay but would certainly like to.

It’s all about relativity and location.

Speaking of unidentified or missing information, I had another realization this week. This one was kind of sad and hollow for me.

When birds leave for the winter season, many of my favorites, unlike the Canada geese and sandhill cranes, do not announce their departure.

One day, I just figure it out that they are gone.

This week, I had one of those days.

I realized that I was no longer hearing the loons. They had been constant friends since the spring with their haunting nighttime serenades that let me know I wasn’t the only one still awake at those hours.

The black-throated blue warblers, chimney swifts and common nighthawks are all favorites of mine that exhibit the same leaving behaviors. The nighthawks at least form big, mid-air grouping displays which could be considered an announcement, but I rarely am fortunate enough to see those.

But with the loons gone, what I presume is a young, barred owl has done his best to fill that friendship gap. I have been hearing him singing on several nights recently and I have answered back in some instances.

A few nights ago, I was watching television late in the evening and I heard the owl’s call. It was loud enough to hear over the show I was watching.

I went outside and found the owl in the trees in our front yard. I shined a flashlight up and had a great look at the bird, just sitting there in the open, looking down at me.

I talked with him for a few seconds and enjoyed the opportunity. This is one of those experiences not enough people have had. To see an owl and to hear it sing or call is an out of this world kind of experience.

I have intentionally sought such encounters out over the years, and it has proven to be invaluable to me. I can likely remember just about every time I have seen an owl.

From hot, desert nights to chilly mountain heights and snowy fields in the eastern part of our region, I have seen more than a dozen owl species. However, there remain a few noted blanks on my mental life list of owls I still want to see.

With the autumn here, I anticipate spending many evenings sitting out before a campfire, letting the cool and clean atmosphere sink into my soul.

Once the leaves are down, the owl spotting becomes much easier.

I eagerly await those nights, ready to smell the pumpkin spice and recognize my ghostly avian friends when I see them and hear them.

EDITOR’S NOT: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.


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