Welcome back to Creature Feature, a monthly column on the biology of the creatures we share our planet with. Most months, I’ll pick one or two plants or animals or fungi or bacteria or what-have-you (you can help me pick them! Email me your suggestions) and try to convey to you the most compelling aspects of how these organisms’ behaviour and ecology have evolved. But this month, I’m going to talk instead about beginnings and endings, about change in the lives of animals and humans.
On my third day in California, after moving more than 3,000 km from my old home in Massachusetts, I walked down to the beach. My mind was spinning with the newness of it all, with the contrast between the grey clouds overhead (they call it ‘June Gloom’) and the shiny, relaxed cheeriness I’d been told to expect of Californians. As I climbed down from the dusty cliffs, I stumbled upon a large bird.
The bird was dead, and had been for a while, long enough for the wind to lightly sprinkle it with sand, long enough for the scavengers and decomposers to have left little behind but feathers, beak, and bone. The bird was a loon — I knew that because back in the opposite corner of the US, on a lake in summertime Vermont, I had seen and heard a loon in its full, living magnificence. Its black-and-white patterning stark against the greenish water, its long call, resonant with eerie sadness, carrying clearly across the lake’s expanse. Why was this bird here, and how had it died?
Like most living things, loons may die for many reasons, and we won’t know precisely how this particular bird perished. We can use scientific research on loons to make an educated guess, though. It had probably made its way to California some months ago, to escape the winter at more northern latitudes. It had likely died near the start of its journey back to the breeding grounds up north. Perhaps it had undertaken this journey many times before, and was simply too old to go on. Maybe this bird, which was bigger than I’d imagined a loon could be, had bitten off a longer migration distance than it could chew. This bird had to have flown at least 1,500 km to get to this beach, but loons are built to swim. With narrow wings that need to flap rapidly to keep the weight aloft when flying, the heaviest loons don’t migrate as far as lighter ones. More amusingly, loons need to run down a “runway” up to 200m long before they can take off and begin flying, and perhaps this bird has miscalculated some crucial distance in an attempt to take to the sky. Maybe it had misinterpreted the atmospheric cues that loons use to avoid bad weather. On a more sombre note, maybe this loon had fallen victim to methyl mercury, an environmental contaminant in these birds’ breeding grounds that, when consumed in high concentrations, can impair the ability to move.
I couldn’t shake the image of the loon from my mind, and in this new place where I knew almost no one, I returned, again and again, to the beach where it had died. I took my sadness there, walking along the water and telling the ocean everything I was scared of. In this time of transition, I also found solace in my online community on Twitter, which remained an island of constancy amidst all this change. Except that loss is never too far from wherever life happens to be. Some weeks ago, Terry Wheeler — an insect biologist, a mainstay of the scientific community on Twitter, a kind and generous soul — had passed away.
Wheeler and I hadn’t discussed this column, but I am confident that he would have approved of its goal of sharing biologists’ excitement for the natural world with people from all walks of life. He devoted his career to finding previously undiscovered species of flies and understanding how they are related to one another. He advocated passionately for the joy and the value of paying close attention to nature. His writing led me to what is now my favourite description of natural history: “A practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy.” My goal for this column is to encourage you, and to remind myself, to engage in exactly this practice.
It was strange to mourn Wheeler, a man I had never met. But witnessing the outpouring of love and respect for him from other biologists, thinking back to how gracefully he tackled his illness, and remembering how doggedly he wrote about the science and values he believed in, it seemed natural to feel his loss. I took those feelings to the beach too, this time at sunset. It was one of those sunsets where light reflects brightly off scattered clouds long after the sun has dipped below the horizon — nature giving us the perfect metaphor with which to celebrate Wheeler’s legacy of teaching and research. Standing in that reflected light, I thought of the loon, of journeys that end and those that continue, and how nature binds us together in life, in death, and in times of change.
Ambika kamath is a behavioural ecologist, currently based at the University of California, Santa Barbara;firstname.lastname@example.org