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It's a bright Saturday morning at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Southwest Florida. Shawn Clem, Ph.D., Research Director, monitors the boardwalk, one of the few staff members still on site performing essential duties while the Sanctuary is closed to the public as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. But this morning, she is ready to usher in thousands of visitors - the virtual kind.
Across the country, millions of Americans are sheltering in place and practicing social distancing to slow the spread of the virus. During these stressful times, Audubon has committed to bringing nature snapshots into people's homes — live — to teach, entertain, and relax those who cannot visit their favorite outdoor spaces.
Clem readies her cell phone, attaching it to the wooden boardwalk overlooking Lettuce Lake. Corkscrew protects 13,000 acres in the Western Everglades, and over 100,000 visitors from around the world visit the boardwalk every year. Clem and her team conduct vital ecological research throughout the Sanctuary.
Though the site has been closed to the public since March 16, with one click of a button Clem streams Corkscrew to homes across the country — and around the world.
Immediately, the comments pour in, virtual birders and nature enthusiasts from Florida, Arizona, Maine, Connecticut, Newfoundland, and more saying hi and marveling at the kuks of a Green Heron echoing across the water. Though physically apart, together everyone listens to the calls of a Great-Crested Flycatcher in the distance, they watch catfish break the surface of the water to gulp air, they ask each other for identification help, and they share the video with friends and family.
“Thanks for this gift. I close my eyes and just listen,” one writes.
“Love this! Nature views and sounds while stuck inside [are] just beautiful and restoring,” comments another.
And finally: “These are helping me so much during this time. Thank you.”
With so many beautiful locations within the Sanctuary, Clem first set up at North Lettuce Lake because “in addition to a wide expanse of open water with a beautiful cypress backdrop, this spot is a favorite for viewing wading birds, marsh birds, and alligators,” she explains, “The morning of the event, nature had a different plan as I got there early, and set up the perfect frame: a mama alligator in the foreground and a few large wading birds in the background.”
Of course, the only constant in nature is change! “Five minutes before going live,” Clem continues, “the alligator moved far out of frame and the wading birds flew off. This time of year water levels are quickly dropping and wading birds are constantly moving to each day's 'perfect' foraging spot: shallow water with plentiful small fish. A frenzied last-minute scramble brought me to the South Lettuce Lake, where earlier in the week I'd spent time watching Anhingas, Green Herons, Purple Gallinules, and a variety of other wading birds.”
In addition to Corkscrew, viewers have tuned in to watch Sandhill Cranes migrate through Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska, their long wings silhouetted against the cotton candy colors of a sunset sky. Audubon continues to plan these livestreams in addition to webinars with staff.
Spending time in the outdoors is physically and mentally beneficial, but even watching scenes from nature on a screen can reduce anxiety and promote well-being. In one study published by the University of California, Berkeley and the BBC, researchers found that watching nature videos reduced stress while boosting positive emotions.
The live stream from Corkscrew continued for nearly half an hour, long enough for viewers to watch the color of the light change as the sun rose higher in the morning sky. A heron flew across the screen; a Northern Parula sang its buzzy call loud enough for all to appreciate. In another week or so, more birds will visit this secluded spot, intent on catching fish as the water levels drop.
"We are planning another video event to share how our changing water levels affect the bird community here," Clem explains. "Plus herons and egrets are just so much fun to watch!"