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Women in the Outdoors

Monday, June 8, 2009

A buckeye in full bloom.

Women in the Outdoors is a day-long camp for women in my part of Appalachia. There are workshops and field trips and shooting practice and mini-classes. I often give a talk and lead a bird walk. Camp Hervida in Waterford, Ohio, is nestled in a lovely piece of Appalachian hardwood forest, with nice wildflowers, good tall strong trees and lovely birds.

It's just wonderful when you can show people a scarlet tanager, and know it's the first look for many of them.

You just have to gasp at a bird like that.

But my favorite thing is to see birds doing things, to find their nests and share that. We were walking slowly along a trail and I was showing the women Mayapples, and telling them how delicious the fruits were when they were ripe, and that was news to everyone, because most people don't think to eat Mayapples, they let the box turtles eat them all. Because they're just right for box turtles, four inches off the ground, juicy, fragrant, soft, yellow...all the things a box turtle loves.

And a red-eyed vireo spooked from elbow height in a small tree right off the trail. She perched, wiped her bill, fluffed her feathers, and voided an enormous dropping. I knew right away by that evidence she'd come off a nest where she'd been sitting all morning, and told the women so. Having all been mothers, we knew the feeling of being released from duty.

Within seconds, I'd spotted the nest, right where she had fluttered out of the tree.

It was such a lovely cradle, but we didn't go any closer, for fear of bringing our scent to it.

I loved that moment, letting them in on the Science Chimp thought process, which puts seemingly insignificant things together, strongly seasoned with empathy, to find out more about how birds live.

But it got better. A female Acadian flycatcher was flitting up into the top of a tree near a bridge where we were standing, and it soon became apparent that the cluster of oak catkins she was messing with was becoming her nest.

With each addition of nesting material, she'd climb into the skeletal structure and shape it with her body, feet and bill.

But it got better. Because she kept flying to another cluster of catkins and ripping them out and taking them to the nest she was working on. And we realized that she was dismantling a nest that for some reason she was dissatisfied with, and rebuilding it in a site she liked better.

Here, she takes some catkins from the rapidly disappearing old nest. Look how she's used springy grape tendrils, like the springs in a box frame, to give the nest strength.

It didn't take long for us to figure out why.

She had built the old nest directly over the bridge, probably before any campers arrived, and when they did, she realized that it was a lousy place to try to incubate undisturbed.

The old nest is the little dark knot directly over the group.

She kept at it, tearing out the old one and rebuilding in the better spot, while we marveled at her intelligence and beauty.

You can see the catkin in her bill.

Science Chimps love a mystery, solved.

Fire pink glowed in the woods.

And a storm that had threatened all morning followed me home, but it didn't stop me from hitting two greenhouses on the way, and filling up my Exploder with flowers.

I feel so blessed to live where my routes look like this.

It was a good day. We were all happy.

This one is for Suzi, who makes Women in the Outdoors happen.


This is beautiful! Year ago, a pair of scarlet tanagers took up residence and raised a family on our property. What a thrill!

Did not know you can eat May apples!

A wonderful walk through the woods--thanks for taking us along!

I absolutely LOVE these stories! Like the schoolkids with the bat, there's a profound sense of awe that comes from seeing people witness for the first time some beautiful bit of nature. You have this kind of unexpected introduction down to a fine art. Thank you!

Hey Julie,

I have a question. You said, in regards to the red-eyed vireo's nest, "we didn't go any closer, for fear of bringing our scent to it."

I've heard a rumor that very few birds have any kind of sense of smell at all, and that the kiwi is one of the few exceptions, being nocturnal and beady-eyed (in contrast to non-beady-eyed noctural birds, like owls and whipoorwills.

Is this true? What about vultures? Can they detect the scent of dead stuff?

Thanks for debunking any misconceptions I may be showing!


Same science chimp question as Callan. I didn't think birds could "smell" debunking the myth that you couldn't pick up a baby bird and return to its nest for fear the adults would smell humans (ick) and not take care of it?

I am desperately in need of a trip like this!

I didn't know may apples were edible! The things I learn from you...and the things you show us. Like fire pink; I've seen it illustrated, but never in nature. It's mind-blowingly beautiful.

As for keeping our scent clear of the nest, I'm betting it has to do with not tipping off predators to the nest's presence. This is my theory, which is mine and mine alone. But I'm ready to to abandon it if'n I'm wrong.

Junior Science Chimp butting in:

I agree with Catbird's comment. The concern is not that our smell will frighten off the parent bird, it is that we might lay a scent trail for predators to follow to the nest.

I can pick up my baby bluebirds, purple martins, and tree swallows without causing the parent birds to abandon them, but I once contributed to the loss of a nest of red-winged blackbird eggs. I think I probably laid a scent trail to the nest by visiting it daily. One day, the eggs were there, the next day they were gone. I assumed a black snake got them. He could have done so without my help, but I carry a little bit of guilt that I helped him find the eggs.

Nice story Julie, sharing nature with other women. You are the best.


A nice group, I'd love to be there. You never lose your enthusiasm and generosity, do you. You ARE the best.


Is Women in the Outdoors at all connected with Becoming an Outdoor Woman (BOW)? BOW was once fairly strong here in Oregon but seems to have disappeared.

Lovely photos of nest building. Also, so nice that your women can explore the wild side together. Maybe mayapples will start appearing on someone's menu!


What a great day - I can just feel that sense of being full to the brim with happiness at the end of it! NH has a similar weekend long program put on by Fish & Game called Becoming and Outdoors Woman. I was lucky enough to go one year - what a blast it was to ID tracks and habitats in the woods and take pictures and hear lectures with a group of women in a fantastic setting (oh and to not have to do the dishes)! I think we all felt like that mother bird.

You're the coolest.

Juilie, I'm so glad you do talks and bird walks at Women in the Outdoors events. I've been to a few, and will go to a few more, I'm sure. It's a really great opportunity, whether it's WITO or BOW. Thanks for passing along your knowledge and showing all of us, both male and female, that it's good to be a strong, smart woman in the outdoors!

(By the way Born Again Bird Watcher: WITO events are sponsored by the National Wild Turkey Federation. The BOW gatherings in Ohio are all sponsored by the state DNR, as far as I know.)

As the grandfather in Moonstruck said: "I'm confused!"

Don't animals fear the smell of humans and would stay away from a human scent trail leading to a nest???

Julie, your sense of adventure and your ability to bring your stories to life never ceases to amaze me. I felt like I was bird watching with you. Thank you.

How fun! Thanks for sharing the bird nest dismantling and rebuilding!

Re: the human scent trail issue -- this came from a birding listserve I follow. It 'splains the the hazards of making our interests in nests known to the animal world.

You'll probably have to cut and paste, but it's worth a read.

Looks like you had a great day for a hike in the woods. I'm glad you were able to help at this event Julie and showed these women the wonders of nature.

This sounds so wonderful You are soooooo blessed to live in such lovely country, and be so close to hardwood forests. Much as I love my home state of California (near Los Angeles), I just know I should have been born on a farm! I'm a city gal with country deep in my heart.

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