Notes from the Northern Boreal: A wandering bird biologist’s field journals

 Lichenous white-spruce; black bears abound; boreal plant and animal artifacts collected

17 June, 2012

“Close at hand the moss and grasses were full of tiny flowers – it is another world of beauty. The more I see as I sit here among the rocks, the more I wonder about what I am not seeing” – Dick Proenneke, Alone in the Wilderness.

It’s been a few weeks since entering the woods to study birds, and already the bouquet of boreal flora begins to take on new dimensions, to transform. The first days in the field every summer, the forest seems awash with unnamed greenery – vegetative species’ names lost on me. I am, after all, more birder than botanizer. After studying plant field guides with a sense of urgency for a time, and living among them, I surprise myself with a sudden ability to recognize a variety of common flowering plant species. Suddenly I can see more of the details.

In the fens and bogs, Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum), marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), bog laurel (Kalmia polifolia) and bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) catch my eye, while in the mixedwood and deciduous forests prickly rose (Rosa acicularis), beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), twinning honeysuckle (Lonicera dioica), twin flower (Linnaea borealis), bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and others become the more familiar. Simply a matter of letting the taxonomic concepts gleaned from the pages of the plant guide marinade for a few days, I suppose.

Paradoxically, even after a surge in confident plant identification in the field, in the last couple days the many discreet microhabitats and biological communities of flora and fauna seem the more foreign and irreconcilably complex to me. It isn’t extraordinary to figure that at any given point, I may be standing on half a dozen species of moss and lichen unknown to me, flattened beneath my steps through the chlorophyll-lush forest floor.

I know this sense of unease intimately: the feeling that you are missing something integral right in front of you.

And this is how I felt this afternoon. My coworker Stacy and I made camp in a densely populated white spruce stand that was completely lychenized; rather, it was cloaked in a variety of lichen species.

Lichen is a symbiotic species (the, often mutually beneficial, interaction between two separate organisms surviving in close physical proximity to each other), the composite of algae and fungus. Basically, these two species join to form lichen, and in this symbiotic relationship, fungi provide the organism’s structure while the algae produces its nutrients through photosynthesis. Because it obtains food through photosynthesizing and trapping water from the atmosphere, lichen is regarded as a reliable indicator of environmental pollution.

Every white spruce tree in the area—from their needles to their scaly bark—was covered in unknown lichen. Crusted, blistering, fragile, whitish species coat the trunk from root to apex; wispy, drooping, beard-like species hang and thrive along the trees’ many branches. An attempt to photograph this fecund and diverse lichen community yielded what looked more like an image of a forested snowscape. The flash of the camera saturated the white lichen-lined spruces to the point of overexposure, rendering the image washed-out in appearance.

I eagerly teased off a few strands of the wispy species and carved off a piece of bark containing a couple of the dry and crusted species, and found a lone and obliging aspen tree to sit up against while flipping through my plant book.

From perusing the lichen section of the book, at least one of these wispy species may be a “beard” lichen – perhaps shaggy old man’s beard (Usnea). Another foliose species, bound-up with the aforementioned beard lichen, looks to be a spruce moss or boreal oakmoss lichen (Evernia prunastri). (My plant book alleges that the beard lichen and spruce moss are often found together on white spruce branches.)

I suspect the oakmoss lichen’s light-green and whitish colouration is but one of the reasons my photos turned out with that glaring snowblink texture to them.

I’ve pressed the beard lichen in an envelope to send home to a friend.

18 June, 2012

Today I hastily extricated myself from a survey area via ATV (all-terrain-vehicle or “quad”), nervously checking behind me the entire way back to camp. Today I had an encounter with wildlife: the big, black, toothy, furry kind.

Around 9 a.m. I was finishing a point-count, listening to the songs of the migratory warblers and sparrows around me, when I came across an area with several beautiful wildflowers. I took occasion to pluck (and wantonly destroy) some of the roses and beaked honeysuckle flowers, to press and send home to family and friends. I put them between the pages of my bird book for the time being and placed it at the bottom of my backpack with an assortment of other artifacts I’d found in the woods in the past few days: half of a young, male white tail deer’s weathered rack (horns) and its bushy tail, and a few tertiary feathers of a spruce grouse found at the base of a hill yesterday.

I have, in a way, made this into a ritual: collecting objects found on the job, in the wilds, and sending them home to loved ones. In past years, friends and family have been surprised to receive nondescript packages, with no return-address, containing bird feathers, claws, beaks and nests; deer/fox/wolf/moose skulls and/or bones; and, of course, wildflowers.

Recently I’ve begun feeling conflicted about this practice. From a purest naturalist perspective, even things like shed feathers and bones are best left to decay where they lay, and picking a wildflower seems to be as blasphemous to some as would be tearing out pages from a holy book. Conflicted, but not yet conflicted enough to retire this funny way of sending my greetings to kin from in the back of beyond.

Often I hang on to some of these artifacts for myself, although by the end of the field season they aren’t the exotic and beautiful objects they once were. Bones may fester, poorly pressed flowers wilt and mold, and feathers ruffle beyond unruffling in the multipurpose bag I store them all in. By the end of the season it’s all a slimy wad of unventilated ephemera from the boreal – my own twisted take on potpourri.

After placing that book with the pressed flowers in my pack, I continued bushwhacking towards where I’d parked my ATV on a nearby pipeline. Eyes fastened to the screen of my gps most of the way, I eventually looked up not 30 metres from my destination. I was startled to a halt. A thin band of willow and alder thickets separated and obscured what looked to be my parked, red ATV, but with a black bear (Ursus americanusI) standing over the back tires, tearing apart the seat with its large canines.

“Whoa, buddy,” I uttered softly. Alarmed by my voice, it leapt from the vehicle, sprinted 10-metres down the pipeline and away from me. And then its inquisitive nature took over. It slowly walked back towards me, and ambled through that thin band of shrubs separating us. There we both stood in that sedgy knoll for the next 2 minutes—me with my bear mace drawn in one hand, he with his shy eyes peering in my general direction—and we waited on one another to make a move. I sidestepped slowly through the shrubs, careful not to arise suspicion, mounted my quad and rode off in a hurry.

When I arrived back at camp to show my coworker the three huge holes torn into my quad’s foam seat by the bear, she blurted out a similar though more serious encounter she had just had with a completely different bear. It scared her off of surveying one of her points.

We had a laugh together at each other’s brushes with bears. Then we went to change out of our field clothes. Our tents looked on the cockeyed side. Mine was particularly slanted. Upon closer inspection, it appeared as if a third bear had taken an interest in our tents, and left me with bent tent poles and a few fine lacerations in the shell of my tent.

They told me there were occupational hazards to working in the remote wilderness…