Staying green while going outside – and why it’s more important than you might think

There’s a bike ride that still sticks with Edgar Spalding.

“I stopped because there was an ovenbird, which is a six-inch to five-and-a-half-inch bird … that spends its summers in our forests and … goes to Central America and South America to spend the winter. It was dead on the side of the road and had been hit by a car.”

Moved by experiences like this, Spalding, a professor of botany at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has ditched his car for his birdwatching and bug-spotting hobby. On his adventures, Spalding can be spotted on foot or by bike with a pair of binoculars, a camera, and a wide vocabulary of local bird calls that he whistles out into the wind. He has been watching birds for most of his life, and he says that nature is something that he took comfort in during the pandemic.

Research backs up Spalding’s experience. Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce stress and increase productivity.

In an effort to be more environmentally cognizant in 2021, Spalding biked and walked for all of his birdwatching adventures, traveling over 2668 miles without a single tank of gasoline. During his bike rides, Spalding found 201 species of birds, 49 species of dragonflies, and 37 species of butterflies. Spalding even observed two species of dragonflies that hadn’t been observed in Dane County before, one of them being a Slender Bluet.

Spalding says he was inspired by an internal conflict he felt with using a car when interacting with nature. “Isn’t there a direct conflict of interest, if you’re using a machine that’s bad for the things you’re going to look for?”

He continues, “While you’re in your car, you don’t see those things as much on the side of the road, the dead things…If you put yourself inside the machine and go to your location you’re not as aware of the things that happen on the journey.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, quarantine and travel restrictions led to a reduction of carbon emissions and pollution worldwide. This has led to more attention to how people can become more environmentally conscious following a return to commutes, in-person gatherings and travel.

Spalding also acknowledges the limitations of going gasless, such as not being able to travel farther out to see a wider variety of birds. But there were also new benefits he has experienced traveling by bike. “I do get a much bigger kick out of biking 10 miles to a place like Shoveler’s Sink and finding a Baird’s Sandpiper… If you have to make that kind of effort to go to a location, and then you find a bird you’re hoping to find, it’s much more rewarding,” Spalding says.

However, Spalding said that change is not just something that needs to be “black and white.” He says to “be aware that there’s other ways to enjoy your hobby, make some compromises that might be better for the things that you are loving to go see.”

For example, birdwatching and insect watching is a hobby that can be enjoyed very locally with few supplies and little preparation. There are over 250 species of birds that can be regularly spotted throughout the year in Southern Wisconsin, from chipper robins in the spring, a bloom of warblers in the summer, to robust chickadees in winter. 

“In between class breaks, if you just spend 15 minutes looking around those gardens, you would learn some, see some interesting things and learn some identifications,” Spalding says. Some places that he recommends to see wildlife on campus are Muir Woods, located behind Sewell Social Sciences, and the Allen Centennial Gardens across Observatory Drive from the Steenbock Library.

When interacting with the outdoors, there are many adjustments that can be made to consider larger impacts on wildlife. For example, something as simple as cutting the cords on disposable masks before throwing them away can ensure that wildlife do not get caught in them. Other measures, such as carpooling  and making picnics more eco-friendly can also make positive changes.

And there are societies and clubs in the Madison area that organize outings to go observe nature. For example, the North American Butterfly Association has a Wisconsin chapter. Another organization is the Wisconsin Dragonfly Society. To learn more about birds, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology is also another resource.