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Sights to see without sightseeing

Last September, we considered "must see" travel destinations. Today, it's alternatives to typical travel.

Things other than famous natural, historical, artistic or architectural sights may be equally worthwhile, and less costly. Example: I have written about cowbirds, watched cowbirds woo and seen cowbird eggs in other birds' nests. But, last July, from our dining window, I saw a first, a fledgling cowbird begging food from its unknowing foster parent, a chipping sparrow half its size.

We see many birds from that window, but little variety, because "The Meadows" is not ecologically diverse. Basically, it's lawn, a pond, and young ornamental trees and shrubs, so we mostly see some common birds plus grey squirrels, tridecs (13-lined ground squirrels), cottontails, deer and housecats. However, Sept. 28 a Harris' sparrow lit on the lawn. I've seen them rarely before, on spring migration through our more ecologically varied upper Calihan lot. They nest west of Hudson's Bay.

In summer 2007, Elaine was walking ahead of me on "Salisbury Plain." (No, not the English plain of Stonehenge fame. We so-dubbed the field north of us when we saw someone crossing it on a bicycle.) Anyway, Elaine stopped. There in the sand was a dead grub of some sort. It was maybe 3 cm. (1¼ inches) long, pale greenish, and teeming with ants. The grub was in a shallow trench the ants had apparently dug. They were not going in and out of a wound, just scurrying on and near it. An entrance to their nest was a hand's width away along the path. Not a pretty sight, but interesting.

I marked the spot, resolving to see if the ants buried the grub, ate it or what.

The grub was still there when we headed home for lunch after working out at Peak Performance. But late that afternoon, it was gone. The little trench was still there, undisturbed, with no sign of the path being disturbed by humans or wildlife. I'm guessing a dickybird took it. That nipped my natural history project in the bud, but we had seen something many people have not.

So, you need not travel widely to see interesting stuff. But when you do travel, nothing says you must only see what the tour guide points out. You have your own expertise, background, and interests, and you don't leave those at home. Among other things, I am a biologist and a Gilbert and Sullivan buff. Once, in London, Elaine and I made it a point to visit Belgrave Square, a gated park accessible only to residents of adjacent posh homes, and Seven Dials, a junction of seven streets in a contrastingly poor neighborhood. Both are referred to in "Iolanthe."

In 1996, we did a Betchart Expeditions Aegean Isle tour, which emphasized both archaeology and bird-watching. As the group was walking toward our evening restaurant on Santorini, I noticed many small, mostly broken snail shells under a bush. Light bulb! A Scientific American article decades back discussed the process called "frequency-dependent" selection in a European land snail, Cepea nemoralis. Shell coloration and pattern (striped or not) vary greatly, and a number of factors interact to maintain substantial variation in the population. What I had come upon was the feeding area where a thrush had brought these snails to break the shells and feed on them. I collected them at several sites on Santorini and Crete to bring home for Bemidji State University classes.

In 1998, we took an Educational Opportunities tour of Turkish sites associated with Paul of Tarsus. No bird-watchers this time, excerpt me. We were in Ephesus; Paul wrote to the congregation there in the Epistle to the Ephesians. We saw the ruins of the city's library, a latrine and a brothel (identified by the graphic advertisement in a stone slab nearby). I happened to look up. There on a lintel was a Little Owl (capitalized because that's the accepted common name of Athene noctua, the wise owl often perched on the shoulder of Athena). Now a group of devout pilgrims knows about Little Owls.

On the same tour, I photographed some common dandelions. Why? I can easily do that at home, but this was where America's dandelions originated. They are asexual triploids, the result of a fortuitous abnormal cross between two ordinary Middle East composite species. Because they are triploid (i.e., have three sets of chromosomes), they can reproduce only asexually. Their seeds mature without fertilization. The flowers and pollinating insects are baggage. Knowing the science doesn't spoil experience, it enhances it.

This coming July, we plan a stay in a city many of you know better than we do. If all goes well, we'll report back.

Evan Hazard, a retired BSU biology professor, also writes "Northland Stargazing" the fourth Friday of each month.