By Laura & Hal Mahan
What is that bird? It looks like a robin or a thrush. Oh, there’s a hummingbird at the feeder! Not here in Asheville in January!
We are bird watching in Panama, real time, from the comfort of our computer. Nature lovers know that all kinds of natural phenomena can be observed from wherever you might find an online connection. Often during slow times at our store you might find us glued to the computer at the sales counter watching polar bears in winter in Churchill, Manitoba, or the birdfeeding station at Canopy Lodge in Panama. In the summer, we can watch brown bears catching salmon in Alaska. In late spring, we watch Great Gray Owls in Montana feeding voles to their young. The website is Explore.org, the world’s leading philanthropic live nature cam network and documentary film channel.
Lately, our favorite is the birdfeeding station in Panama. Lush green vegetation hangs over a moss-covered platform feeder. Often the leaves are dripping from recent rains. It looks warm and steamy there. Occasionally a human appears to place cut-up pieces of fruit on the platform or refill the hummingbird feeder. Even the fruit looks exotic and unfamiliar, as do the birds that appear after the human is gone.
As long-time bird watchers, we are quite familiar with most, if not all, of the birds in the Asheville area. It is a treat and a challenge to look at the Panama birds and try to apply bird identification skills to “foreign” species. Then you realize that the same principles apply to bird watching here and everywhere. You look at color and shape. How large is the bird? What type of beak does it have? How does it move? Does it have long legs? You mostly just look at general impressions.
There is something compelling about trying to figure out the name of something. It is like you are finally getting to meet them and to be introduced to them. Then when you see them again, it is like meeting old friends. Oh look! That bird looks like a tanager, related to our Scarlet Tanager that’s here in our forests in summer. Tanagers in Central America are beautiful and varied. We see a bluish-gray one and a beautiful red and black one on the feeder. We want to know more. It’s possible, too, that we might even see one of our “own” birds like a Baltimore Oriole, House Wren or Canada Warbler that have migrated south for the winter.
Another way to track nature online is to view migration maps. Monarch butterflies migrate to the mountains of central Mexico to overwinter and then breed their way back north in the spring. Our Ruby-throated Hummingbird flies south to Central America for the winter, and we will see it again next April. You can learn about and watch maps showing their progress at JourneyNorth.org.
Don’t get us wrong. Winter is a wonderful time to get outside and explore nature here in the mountains. But if you are stuck inside, try watching a live webcam or explore some captured pictures from wildlife cams found on NCCandidCritters.org or The Smithsonian Institution’s website, eMammal.si.edu.
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit CompleatNaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.