‘Appreciating The Rhythm Of The Natural World’: Studying Nature During The Pandemic

Changes to everyday life due to the coronavirus haven’t stopped Corina Newsome, a grad student studying avian conservation at Georgia Southern University, and Jacob Thompson, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, from continuing their work and studies.

Courtesy of Corina Newsome (left); Photo by April Punsalan (right)

Human life feels disrupted in just about every way by the coronavirus, but outside, it’s spring. Flowers are blooming, baby animals are being born, and some people are still able to do their work, studying those things.

Earlier this year, Corina Newsome, a grad student studying avian conservation at Georgia Southern University, set up nest boxes around campus with her students to monitor the birds that moved in.

A pair of Carolina chickadees took up residence in one of the boxes and laid eggs in early April.

Meanwhile, also in early April, the human residents of Georgia began sheltering in place.

Newsome continued checking on the birds a couple times a week, even though her students weren’t on campus anymore.

“I get to see how business as usual has continued for these chickadees,” she said. “They have not stopped leaving the nest, coming back, feeding the offspring. They have not stopped defending the nest every time something, any sound, happens outside of their box.”

Newsome said none of that’s a surprise to her — she spends her time studying birds’ lives — but right now, her own life feels so thrown off that it’s something of a comfort.

“I’m more just appreciating the rhythm of the natural world more than I ever have,” she said. “Because it’s like, I need it.”

Many scientists can’t do their field work right now, whether their universities are restricting access to labs, or they’re not allowed to travel, or the places where they do their research are temporarily closed.

But some, like Newsome, have been able to continue – though with social distancing and other precautions that are new parts of their process. The chickadee monitoring was a project with her students on campus, but she’s also been able to continue her own research, on a sparrow that lives on Georgia’s coast.

People working for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources have been able to continue, too, with surveys of some of Georgia’s wild plants, fish and reptiles.

“For the most part, they’re out in the middle of nowhere. So they’re not really interacting with anyone other than themselves,” said Matt Elliott, assistant chief of conservation in Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division.

Jacob Thompson, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources specializing in rare plants, has worked on restoring native grasses in one area, evaluated forests for how to manage them to encourage wildlife and helped with controlled burns.

“Even when you’re out in the field, it does seem a little bit different, but at the same time, you know, this is stuff we would be doing normally,” he said.

Though when he’s not out in the field, he’s working from home, and helping to home-school his 8- and 10-year-old kids. So that’s different.

For her part, Newsome said one thing she has a new perspective on is taking people with her when she heads out into the marshes and woods where she works.

“When I’m out in nature, historically, I like to be alone. I like to be able to just be alone with my thoughts and exploring in silence.”

“From now on, I will definitely be thinking about this time where I couldn’t take anyone out and realize how much value there is in sharing my excitement in real life with other people.”

She had been sharing her excitement virtually about the nesting chickadees, on Twitter and on YouTube, but the babies have now all left the nest.