Igniting That ‘Spark’ for Nature

Compleat Naturalist: Igniting That ‘Spark’ for Nature

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Compleat Naturalist

By Laura & Hal Mahan

It was a cold, drizzly, early morning—7:30 a.m. on Sunday. My mother rousted me out of bed every Sunday for six weeks in the spring to accompany her on the “bird walks” organized by the Cleveland Audubon Society in one of the nearby Metroparks. I, frankly, did not enjoy it much. It was cold. It was too early. Most of the people attending were older and I did not relate. The binoculars I was using were my grandfather’s old ones—heavy and difficult to focus, and I hardly ever got a good look at whatever bird of the moment everyone else was exclaiming about. Frustrating was the word!

Then it happened. High in the old sycamore tree at the beginning of the trail near the parking lot one Sunday morning was a bird sitting in the open where I finally had enough time to locate it through the old binoculars. I could hardly believe my eyes! It was a strikingly beautiful, chunky bird with a jet-black back, thick beak and a spectacular triangle of rose red on its chest. Wow! I had never seen any bird as beautiful as this. From that moment on, I wanted to find, see, and know every bird in the area, and everything about them. This was my “spark bird”—the Rose-breasted Grosbeak—the bird that turned me into a bird watcher and ultimately into a naturalist.

Once the spark has ignited, you might find that you are now experiencing other spark events! For example, try examining small objects in nature like tiny flowers, or the hairy leaf from a tree, or the wing of a butterfly. Looking at something like the minute flower of bishop’s cap or miterwort through a hand magnifier will reveal white petals divided into a tiny, feathery pattern. This plant could spark your interest in wildflowers and botany.

One of our favorite spark moments was while we were leading a trip for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was nearing the end of the morning session and we were walking down the path behind the restrooms at Newfound Gap. One of our participants had been having a challenging time using binoculars that were small and hard to see through. Suddenly we all stopped to find a moving bird that someone had spotted. There it was, out on a bare limb, not too far away. We tried to help the frustrated woman, who by this time was ready to give up and go back to her car. There it is—keep your eyes on the bird and then bring the binoculars up to your eyes. Suddenly she spotted it: a Blackburnian Warbler with its spectacular fiery-orange throat. She was hooked.

You can help others find their spark, too, by supporting any of the fantastic nature study programs in our area, such as ecoEXPLORE at the North Carolina Arboretum. Sparks are igniting everywhere across our beautiful mountains!

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit or call 828.274.5430.

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