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Author Shines Light On Wildlife All Around Us

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In a new book titled, The Southern Wildlife Watcher: Notes of a Naturalist, author Rob Simbeck explores the wonders and curiosities of wild animals you might be taking for granted, like coyotes, American Robins, or even often underappreciated earthworms. 

The book features essays on 36 animals — 12 each that inhabit land, water and air -- alongside humans throughout the southeastern United States. 

Eric Douglas spoke with him to learn more. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: Tell me why you wanted to focus our attention on some of those more common animals. 

Simbeck: I think, too often, we are prone to think of the outdoors as something special that you've got to drive somewhere to see. And that the wildlife really worth paying attention to is the bald eagle or to see dolphins when you're at the beach, or to catch a glimpse of a bobcat or something — which we hardly ever do.

For me, the thing that's special about the natural world is that it's all around us all the time. We as humans, are set in the midst of a natural world with too many things that we can take for granted. And one of the overriding purposes for the book is just to make us appreciate that and to see what responsibility we have as wildlife watchers to respect what is around us. 

Douglas: Read for me that last paragraph in your description of the American Robin.

Simbeck: Wildlife watchers often thrive on sightings of the rare and unusual, but experience teaches us an ever-renewed appreciation for the ordinary. For those of us in the United States, the American Robin is quintessentially ordinary, but its quirky presence can serve as a quotidian delight, a constant reminder of the riches to be found all around us.

Douglas: How does that exemplify nature for you?

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Credit Courtesy photo
Author Rob Simbeck.

Simbeck: As a kid growing up in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the most common bird there was the American Robin. You could not look out your window or walk out your door on a spring, summer or fall day and not see a robin hopping across the grass looking for something to eat. It's easy to look at that with jaundiced eyes and not catch the magic about them. I mean, every time I really study one in the yard here in Tennessee, I'm amazed by the interplay of black and brown and white and the way the white shows on the underside of the tail and things like that. They are a really pretty bird. If there were very few of them, I think we would be more cognizant of that.

Douglas: In Appalachia we don't have the big fauna, we don't have the big animals that you have out west. What are the favorite things you like to see in the Appalachians? 

Simbeck: Just spending a day in the woods with the warblers in the thick woods of Pennsylvania and West Virginia can be delightful, although as I say in the book, I'm more of a woodpecker guy. The warblers are at the top of the trees, they're eating worms, they're flitting around and it's hard to see them. By the time you do, you’ve got to think “Which field mark was that?” as opposed to the woodpecker that announces their presence. The pileated especially will tear big hunks of bark off trees and Yo-Ho-Ho their way around the forest. 

Between the big critters like that, and the things you find in the water, from the bullfrogs, to the crayfish, which was my first view of reproduction was a crayfish in a big wash tub that we had put it in, I have memories all up and down the food chain. 

Douglas: You're very conversant in the natural world, but this isn't just you and your opinions. You use a lot of experts and references throughout the book as well.

Simbeck: This book has two components. Part one is “Hey, guess what I saw yesterday?” Part two is “Let's talk to somebody who really knows their stuff” and let's learn as much as we can, as interestingly as we can in 1,000 to 1,200 words per species. There are about 50 experts that I drew on. 

Douglas: The book can be read front to back as a book, but it's also a reference tool. Somebody who is an aspiring naturalist can say “I just saw a woodpecker. Let me look up what he says about the Pileated Woodpecker or the American Robin.” It becomes a reference tool.

Simbeck: It's not designed as a field guide or anything like it. It's more of a conversation book, but at the same time, the natural history I include should tell you when and how they reproduce, anything notable in the way they attract a mate, how many eggs they lay. 

Everything about this is designed to be both conversational and useful. I would love for people to pick it up and be excited about the robin again before they take it too much for granted.

The essays in the book were originally published as bi-monthly column in South Carolina Wildlife Magazine but were updated for this book. The book is now available from the University of South Carolina Press. 

This is part of a series of interviews with authors who are from, or writing about, Appalachia.

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