Commentary
5:20 pm
Wed December 4, 2013

Carl Wernicke: When Natural Florida Calls, Pick Up Your iPhone?

Credit IHMC

Given that I’m known for going off on rants about the perceived evils of technology, fairness compels me to also note how sometimes technology can enhance even the experience of the natural world.

This past Saturday brought us a classic fall Northwest Florida day. The decidedly low-tech mechanical barometer on the dining room wall, and the old-fashioned liquid-filled thermometer on the porch told the story: high pressure, low humidity, temperatures in the upper 40s and rising under a crystal-clear and limitless blue sky. Gentle sunshine bathed the landscape.

So it was the perfect morning for a walk. We headed for the trail on the southern tip of Garcon Point, which takes hikers through the varied terrain of a typical wet prairie. It is marked by well-spaced pines, wiregrass, pitcher plants and wildflowers, some still in bloom as winter nears, and interspersed with hammocks of hardwoods on the low sandhills and ridges, and cypress swamps in the low areas.

The land is well-maintained by the Northwest Florida Water Management District, which burns it regularly. It’s a beautiful area with two trailheads and two intersecting trails, but not much used; we saw two other hikers in the almost two hours we spent on the trail. Given that I like solitude when outdoors I hesitate to even mention the trail, but it’s a fine outdoor walk . Just one word of caution: this is a wet prairie, and any decent rain makes it wetter.

Meanwhile, though people weren’t much in evidence, we did see the usual crowd: birds of all kinds. Some moved through the grasses, low to the ground, while others darted in flocks through the trees. Overhead a bald eagle circled majestically, its piercing call echoing across the prairie.

At one point we halted for the tell-tale tapping of a woodpecker. My wife located it, hard at work on the underside of a limb on a tall pine about a hundred feet from the trail, bark flying as it hammered away. I put the binoculars on it, and it looked like a downy woodpecker. But I wasn’t sure.

So I grabbed my trusty iPhone, called up the BirdPro app, did a search for woodpeckers, and tapped on the downy entry. The full-color photos quickly confirmed it as a female downy.

I then triggered the birdcall, and the clear, trilling notes bounced across the grass. The real downy immediately stopped its work, and hopped to the top of the limb. I played the call again, and the bird flew straight to a branch above our heads. I played it once more, and the downy responded with the exact same call.

It was a cool moment, made possible by the electronic gizmo in my hand. Yes, I worry about what would happen if everyone headed to the woods to heedlessly torment the inhabitants with electronically generated calls; such a disturbance could not be a good thing.

But it should be no different than the difference between having a relaxing glass or two of wine, and drinking your way to a crushing hangover. The problem isn’t the wine, it’s how we use it. I just hope that the next time I follow a bird call, it doesn’t lead me to some goober with an iPhone.