By Nicole Denise (more photos below story)
While driving through suburban New Jersey in August 2017, my mother and I stumbled across a magical sight where colorful feisty little creatures thrived in bustling tranquility amongst the oblivious humans around them.
We were on our way home from an estate sale and decided to drive down some side streets which we had never visited, as the homes looked rich and elegant.
House after house was pristine and well-maintained with lush green lawns, perfectly pruned hedges, and sophisticated landscaping most likely up-kept by hired maintenance workers rather than the home owners themselves. It was a weekend and we hardly saw one person outside on these quiet streets, aside from scattered workers with lawn mowers.
At first, the vast green landscapes were refreshing and I felt like I was surrounded by nature. Wide blue skies soaked every house in sunlight spanning across each front and backyard.
Then we approached a home which looked like it was still being built and was under construction; the property had not been "developed" yet. While approaching it, I caught a fast glimpse of an unexpected bright yellow "ball" dart across the street in front of us, from right to left, around 8 feet in the air.
"What was that?!," I wondered. My first thought was that it flew with the speed of a dragonfly, but it was brighter, fatter and larger than any dragonfly I had ever seen. Is there a giant species of fluorescent yellow dragonfly that I haven't heard of yet? Or perhaps it was a humming bird or a butterfly which I mistook for something larger? All I knew is that it was bright, fast, and out of sight as quickly as it had appeared.
As we drove closer to the new home, I noticed more of these yellow creatures- first one, then two, and then three- darting through and landing upon tall wild purple thistle bushes with long stems covered in pointy thorns growing in between large boulders in front of the property. These proud thistle bushes waved in the wind while the magical yellow creatures danced among them. I later learned these sunny personalities were American Goldfinch birds.
The abundant clusters of purple thistles were taller than a human and scattered among wild plants and diverse weeds. Most likely, these plants had not been touched for decades, or more, and were allowed to grow freely. The property was a pristine untouched patch of land with which man had not yet tampered, where wildlife thrived.
I took out my camera with excitement and curiosity and began zooming in and taking photos of these special little birds. I also stopped at various times and put my camera down to observe and absorb their movements so as to feel part of this experience, so not to be merely obsessed with capturing it without appreciating it.
These fast yellow birds looked so out of place, yet so at home in their little weedy oasis. The more I observed them, the more I realized they were picking off the seeds from the lightweight white puffs tightly packed inside the luscious thistle buds.
Their little feet were not bothered by the massive thorns on every stem. Each bird seemed to know exactly what it was doing, grabbing onto a bud with his or her tiny claws and sticking their short little beaks inside the bud, aggressively yanking out condensed puffs to reach the seeds at each puff's base. As they stuck their determined little heads into the opening of each bud as far as they could go, newly loosened puffs were released into the air and went flying through the breeze like a thousand wishes.
The Goldfinches diligently tried to pick off every seed they could catch before the wind took hold and the puffs blew away. The sky above this patch of land was filled with a sea of scattered puffs carried by light breezes, as more puffs joined the atmosphere each time the pressure inside another bud was released.
I wondered why I felt so connected to this small, wild, and active place. It wasn't long before I realized it reminded me of the block on which I grew up when there were still two undeveloped plots of land among my neighbors' homes. My mom and I used to take nature walks in "the woods" as we called them, even though the lands more closely resembled wild fields of tall grasses, weeds, and wildflowers rather than actual woods (it's a good thing I wasn't as fearful of ticks as I am now or I never would have set foot in those fields!).
I was probably around age 3-6 when we would spend afternoons exploring the beetles and butterflies of these natural lands. Even at my own house, I remember the wildlife and insects were far more abundant than I have seen in recent years. I often saw unusual butterflies and beetles in my yard which seem to disappear more each year. Some species I haven't seen in over 20 years.
Eventually, by the time I was around 7-10 years old, "the woods" were being developed and 2 homes were built in their place. Those were the last vacant lots on my block back then in the mid-late 1980's, and the loss of those wild fields was accompanied by the loss of every creature who called the land their home.
Seeing these wild purple thistles and Goldfinches interacting in this untouched paradise reminded me of how abundant land is in its natural state before it becomes developed. Each property, each small patch of ground, is an entire ecosystem where each creature and plant is dependent on each other. These tiny universes were once part of endless expanses of natural forests and fields. Each time a house goes up, another piece of the universe vanishes and the land becomes silent.
I spent around an hour watching and photographing these birds. I counted at least 6 of them, each tearing apart a dried thistle bud, yanking out the seeds ready to erupt, and then flying off to choose another bud at the end of a thorn-covered stem on which to land and start the process again. They took turns on different branches, darting past each other, sometimes confronting each other, flapping from bud to bud during their busy lunch.
During this time, my mother, still in the car, cleaned out her purse and organized papers as I tend to spend a lot of time with photography, and she is used to situations like this. I am thankful for her extreme patience!
The house behind this wild scene was covered in scaffolding while trucks of men performed construction work in the distance.
It is my assumption that the wild lands will eventually be covered in grass and mulch once this home is purchased and another small but unique ecosystem will be lost in favor of "development". I hope I am wrong, but time will tell.
Reflecting on this battle of control as well as the potential balance between man and nature, I thought of architect Frank Lloyd Wright's style of designing and building and how different his approach was than that of many developers. Wright believed in designing homes into the land, around the existing trees, within the existing waterfalls, encasing the existing boulders of the forest, even if it meant those boulders ended up inside the rooms.
Often, it seems like many landscapers level a piece of land, cut down the trees, yank out the indigenous plants, and stick a house in the middle of a flat lot void of any natural life it once nurtured.
Many home owners continue to proliferate this mentality by moving into a new home and immediately laying down mulch or grass where wild plants once grew, so that they have less land to worry about maintaining.
After I finished photographing these lively and hard-working birds, I reflected that nowhere else on the surrounding blocks were there any Goldfinches. After all, where else could they go after their home and food source is taken away from them?
After experiencing this sight, as we drove out of the area, the pristine houses with their grand lawns and trimmed hedges no longer looked refreshing; they looked dead. They looked like man's stamp of arrogance had branded the land as "Humans Only- Nature Keep Out". What they forgot is that humans are nature; we come from the same force which created all life on earth and we are part of, not distant from, the natural world. The more of nature we lose, the more of ourselves we lose as well.
We can all have an impact on reviving the populations of birds, insects, plants and other creatures which once thrived in abundance regardless of where we live. While it's wonderful that there are so many large-scale conservation causes to protect endangered species and far away lands, let us not forget the land in our own backyard which can be just as rich as any exotic place.
By planting a garden of indigenous plants instead of covering the earth with grass and mulch, every home has the potential to become a life-giving ecosystem of its own.
By allowing "weeds" to prosper, we might come to realize that many of these natural plants are actually quite beautiful, flower-bearing, and appealing to many creatures who feed on them and live among their shelter.
I hope you enjoy these photos of an abundant Goldfinch community in the middle of suburban lands. May they inspire all of us to share our properties with the creatures who also call the land their home.
~Nicole Denise (photos below)
~Nicole Denise (photos below)
*** The zoomed-in photos of the Goldfinches were taken with the Canon SX50 camera. The far away photographs of the house, landscape, and scaffolding at the bottom of this series were taken with the Canon T4i DSLR camera. Special thanks to photographers and birders Lillian and Don Stokes whose blog inspired me to purchase the Canon SX50. I had bought the camera several seasons ago with other projects in mind, but what an incredible camera it is with which to photograph birds due to its long distance zoom! Thank you Lillian and Don. The Stokes Birding Blog can be seen at:
The above photo features a female goldfinch, with subtle colors. The below photos feature male goldfinches with bolder yellow coloration (more females to follow farther down):
The five below photos feature female goldfinches:
The Ecosystem From A Distance:
In the below photos, see if you can find the goldfinches in the thistles:
(Artwork, posters, fabric and more at www.NicoleDeniseDesigns.com).