Nature Nuggets: What to Look for in the 5 Minutes Between Classes

So I love the outdoors. I know this must come as a huge surprise, given that I’m a Nicholas School of the Environment student and that my blog title is “Outdoor Devil,” but it’s true. Yet, here I am, spending most of weekday daylight hours in the Levine Science Research Center. Cut off from the outside world (while I learn about the outside world), I find myself looking longingly out the window.

American Beautyberry on campus

Luckily for me, and for most of us, we are granted a few snippets of time every day to go outside, enjoy some sunshine, and take a breather from the excessive air-conditioning. Last week I was enjoying these few minutes when I noticed the absolute racket the birds were making in the trees bordering the grassy square along Research Drive. I mean they were loud. Scanning the leaves, darting shapes emerged. Once I found them identification was easy: the Northern Mockingbird.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website has a pretty perfect description of mockingbirds: “If you’ve been hearing an endless string of 10 or 15 different birds singing outside your house, you might have a Northern Mockingbird in your yard. These slender-bodied gray birds apparently pour all their color into their personalities. They sing almost endlessly, even sometimes at night.” Mockingbirds abound on my way to class and on my home from class – they’re so common one of my professors used them as a lecture example because he was absolutely confident when the time came he could point out the classroom window and find that familiar gray form (even though our classroom looked out onto a construction zone).

Northern Mockingbirds

Mockingbirds aren’t Duke’s only avian residents. Our campus is habitat for Carolina Wrens (little brown birds with yellow stomachs and quite the loud call), Mourning Doves, Gray Catbirds, and of course, the North Carolina state bird, the Northern Cardinal. These deep red birds are beautiful, and their cheeping is much less overwhelming than the constant babble of the mockingbird. If I have a little extra time and head into Sarah P. Duke Gardens, my opportunity to see birds increases ten-fold. On Wednesday I spent barely ten minutes staking out the feeders at the Gardens’ bird-blind and saw at least eight different species. My favorite? The bright yellow Pine Warbler. They look exactly like tiny bananas against the brown and green forest background.

pine warbler
Pine Warbler

Campus boasts more than birds. So common that they’re almost boring, Duke is home to many, many gray squirrels. Yes, they’re all over the place but come on, they can be cute sometimes, admit it. I also recently found out that these little mammals lose a significant portion of the food they “squirrel” away for winter. At the very least, this makes me feel better about constantly leaving my backpack and electronic devices on every form of public transportation I’ve ever taken.  In addition to squirrels, blue tailed skinks (lizards with black and yellow bodies and black and blue tails) skitter away from me when I startle them sunning on the sidewalk. I’ve even seen a small rabbit darting from hedge to hedge.


My time inside is important. I take classes, catch up with friends, and tackle the growing pile of homework before it threatens to eat me. I have to say though, I love that I can walk outside and immediately see birds and other animals. Watching them, even if only for a few minutes, reminds me that at Duke we are still part of an ecosystem. Though humans are the dominant species on West Campus, we are definitely not the only ones!



2 thoughts on “Nature Nuggets: What to Look for in the 5 Minutes Between Classes

  1. So many things I liked about this post! One, beauty berry (so striking), two, your description of pine warblers as “tiny bananas” (precious), three, that your pine warbler is actually on a pine tree in the photograph (classic), and four, that you managed to relate to squirrels on a personal level (enough said).

    But really, these “nature nugget” experiences you describe are one of my favorite things about our campus. I remember during visitation weekend, someone mentioned that Duke was known as the “university within a forest,” and I was sold.

  2. What an awesome concept! I’ll be on the lookout for my daily nature nuggets from now on.

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