Walking 綠島, Thoughts on Learning Names

I've always found a sort of jigsaw-esque satisfaction in learning how to recognize things by name, placing an individual species into its place in my mental taxonomic map. I've become interested lately in how the way a name is learned -- whether from a signpost, book, or person -- effects that learning experience. Living as a foreigner in a new place (Taiwan) where virtually everything is unfamiliar (and my grasp of the language very poor), I've become much more conscious of the way these different sources enhance or work against the act of memorization.
Identification guides at the Green Island Visitor Center
"We suggest you slow down your steps and bend down to experience the magic of the land," reads the trailhead marker for the Across Mountain Ancient Trail on Green Island. Like many of the more popular hiking destinations I've visited in Taiwan, the trail is broad and meticulously maintained, lined with informative markers detailing the name, history and usage of notable flora along the way. Walking the trails, learning to recognize some leaves and fruits from these markers, it strikes me as interesting the way they build interpretation into the landscape. The way they function is similar to a field guide -- overlaying a consensus' taxonomy over geography -- but by virtue of being a physical part of the landscape, that "overlaying" feels much more permanent, treating trees and shrubs in a similar way to blazes and elevation markers.
Ricepaper-wing Butterfly (Idea leuconoe)
The idea of translating a trail's features has also been highlighted for me in the collection of region-specific field guides and pamphlets. As a general rule, the more specific the area, the less likely the guide will include information in English.
For the most part, only scientific names are listed in a way I can read. Because of this, I've fallen into an internet-dependent method of matching things visually between life and the guide, then searching them online for the sort of information my illiteracy keeps me from accessing, such as characteristic behaviors and rarity. As it turns out, this need to collect information from multiple sources seems to be aiding my memory. The need to patch together my own personalized pool of information encourages me to other practices, like drawing, that help to anchor things in the mind.
Chinese Bulbul, Little Egret
Another practice encouraged by my illiteracy, and one which I usually seem to avoid, has been social learning. Asking local residents about a particular plant is doubly interesting for the insight into the Taiwanese or Chinese name, where it comes from, the story behind it. The Spider-monkey Tree Fern (Cyathea lepifera) for example, is known here as the "pencil-case tree" because of its branchless hollow trunk, which often remains standing after the upper green fronds die off. The younger uncurling leaves, like the Fiddlehead Ferns they resemble, are edible raw or cooked. In town, they're priced as a delicacy. 
Cyathea lepifera
Considering the various methods of learning a new place, I'm finding that it's anecdotes like these that seem to be most effective in helping me to remember a name. I suppose because anecdotes are by nature readily shareable, attaching human significance to a genus and species. It seems significant to me that this method is, compared with books or signposts, the farthest removed from physical presence or written word. It's perhaps even closer to the act of assigning a name than to the act learning one. 

"The Arch of Orion": Winter Birding

"Autumn begins my season of hawk-hunting, spring ends it, winter glitters between like the arch of Orion"
-J.A. Baker, The Peregrine

 The above quote from J.A. Baker goes far to capture my thoughts about wintertime. I first started watching birds in the winter.  Because of this, I have always equated the season with birding at its purest and most exhilarating.  Despite the excitement of the spring migration, I've always been deeply stirred by the birds that remain throughout the coldest months, braving wind, snow and  freezing conditions.  Cardinals, woodpeckers, chickadees, sparrows...these winter birds are among the most familiar, yet I never tire of seeing them.  

As I move through winter, my eye is also drawn to small details that aren't always visible during other seasons. Without their colorful blooms, wildflowers instead display their stark skeletal frames. 

While it's tempting to spend the winter indoors as much as possible, I find myself feeling pulled outside. The light is more brilliant, the air more clear, and the birding more profound. 

From the Stacks: Bird Guides

Over time I've been slowly accumulating a collection of old and outdated birding field guides. While not a deeply intentional project, my eye is mostly drawn to guides for North America.  Here's a couple that I particularly enjoy.

This 1966 Golden Guide was a $1 rummage sale treasure. 

The original owner made a handy quick-reference system.

Details in the illustrations place birds in their preferred habitat, and suggests their habits.
This guide was illustrated by Arthur Singer, an accomplished wildlife artist. 

I really enjoy the embossed design of this 1949 Audubon Guide.
Author Richard Pough's dedication reads "To my mother and father who initiated me into the happy fraternity of naturalists".

"Oak-Wild Turkey Biome". A pretty great biome to live in, if I do say so myself.

Wildlife artist Don R. Eckleberry provided the paintings for this guide. Unlike more contemporary guides, all the birds are lumped together in the middle, separate from the species descriptions.

I don't use these old guides for identification; I find they work much better as inspiration. As I flip through the pages, studying the range maps and illustrations, I find myself daydreaming about future birding adventures.