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Image of hawk owl.

Ever-changing Nature

"I wish I could communicate to the whole planet what a gift it is to be alive," singer and octogenarian Tony Bennett recently told a radio interviewer. "I've just learned by studying nature because I paint every day. … And you keep looking at it, and you keep trying to understand it. You can't comprehend the height of creativeness that nature has. What a gift it is to be part of the whole universe."

Indeed, study of nature can be a celebration of life's endless mysteries. Whether the inquiry is through art or science, the discoveries can help us see how to take better care of ourselves and the natural world. And they can help us formulate important new questions.

Studying nature can be as simple as watching birds in your own back yard. And if you count and report to the birds you see during 15 minutes or more on any day from Feb. 17–20, 2012, your results will help create a picture of where the birds are. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon, and Bird Studies Canada host this annual Great Backyard Bird Count to gather data from volunteers across North America. The 2011 count garnered more than 11 million observations from about 60,000 citizen scientists, who identified 596 bird species. Now in its 15th year, the count enables scientists to track bird numbers and movement and to discern patterns of how the continent's birds are doing.

For 25 years Cornell Lab's Project FeederWatch has been gathering data from citizen scientists counting at backyard bird feeders. An example of their findings: Red-bellied woodpeckers are expanding their ranges north as changes occur in climate and habitat. Minnesota's Breeding Bird Atlas, a five-year project using volunteer field observers, has found similar movement of red-bellied woodpeckers. The bird's breeding range in Minnesota now stretches north of Stearns County.

Studies of wildlife and natural phenomena set the stage for several stories in this issue. Minnesota's Breeding Bird Atlas records turn up in "Home for Hawk Owls." The story begins with a photographer's quest to find northern hawk owls. It looks at the bird's winter history in our state and then cites evidence that this species also breeds here.

Because of data amassed by ornithologists and citizen birders, we now have a pretty good idea of where our summer songbirds go in winter—as "Snowbirds" illustrates.

"Fewer Fishers in the Forests" reports on the findings of an ongoing study by a DNR team of researchers who have been tracking radio-collared fishers since 2007. Winter counts of fisher tracks in the snow first alerted DNR wildlife biologist John Erb to the possibility of multiple causes for declines in Minnesota's fisher populations. The study is helping researchers to understand the fishers' interactions with other wild animals, plants, people, and other factors in their forest habitat. The findings provide a basis for better management practices.

In "Fabulous Fox Family," the author shares his firsthand observations of foxes as they prowl for prey, mark territory, and rear their kits. His story also draws on the research of wildlife biologists to describe the relationships of foxes to each other and the place they live.

Some natural phenomena take a very long time to understand, as "In Awe of the Aurora" makes clear. Humans have been puzzling over the phenomenon of northern lights for centuries. Our story says, "Just 60 years ago, scientists confirmed that auroras occur when Earth's magnetic fields funnel electrons into the upper atmosphere." Much remains to be revealed, and astronomers can only predict when a sunspot cycle will be likely to peak and produce dazzling auroras.

The more scientists study the cosmos, the more awestruck they seem to become. In The Quantum and the Lotus, astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan says, "From the smallest atom up to the universe in its entirety, including the galaxies, stars, and humankind, everything is moving and evolving. Nothing is immutable."

What a gift it is to study and be part of the ever-changing universe.

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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