Commuting and Workplace
Between Nashua, New Hampshire, and Andover, Massachusetts.
Like many people these days, I work in an office park that includes some garden space and even some natural environment. And like most people in New England, I drive quite a distance to and from my workplace, through some natural forest and wetland areas. The office park and the drive back and forth provide some opportunity for observing nature.
In the past twenty-some years since I left the regular Navy, I've worked in a succession of small companies in various office parks in various places, and I spent quite a few years as an independent contractor. In this description, I will mostly concentrate on my current situation, but there are a few interesting things I'll mention that I observed in previous workplaces.
My present workplace is at the back of a small office park, separated from the Merrimack River by about a hundred yards of swampy forest. It's a rather pleasant backdrop to the parking lot, and provides a peaceful, green view outside the windows. There are birds singing when I get out of my car, and we sometimes see hawks soaring outside the conference room. Sometimes wild turkeys wander through the parking lot.
There is a rather well-marked trail that starts at the edge of the office park and follows the river west to the other side of the high school next door. It's a pleasant walk, now that spring flood season is over, and I have spent my lunch break out there a couple of times.
I commute about thirty miles each way, mostly in unappealing urbanized landscapes, but there are a few natural areas. There's a rather large wetland in the northwest corner between Interstate-93 and Interstate-495. And the stretch of U.S. Route 3 between Nashua and North Chelmsford passes through some lightly developed woodsy areas. (Used to be even more woodsy, before they widened the road and removed all the trees from the median a few years ago.)
So if you work in an office park, or near a park or other natural area, get out there on your lunch break and see what's to be seen! And the next time you're stuck in "rush hour" traffic, take a look around and you may find yourself sitting in the middle of the outdoors.
How to Get There
Consider alternate routes to and from work. Even if just once in a while, take a smaller, slower road that might turn the daily chore of commuting into a comparatively peaceful drive through the countryside.
How I get to where I work is that I drive south on U.S. 3, "north" (actually more like east) on I-495, then north on I-93. Except for the Route 3 stretch, I'm going against the main flow of traffic, so it's not quite like rush hour. I make a point to leave home much earlier than I need to, so traffic is lighter and I can steal a few seconds to watch the birds instead of the traffic.
For me, there are few alternatives that make sense. I could go east on New Hampshire Route 111 then south on I-93, but that adds considerable time and it puts me in the main commuter flow south on I-93 for a horrible ten miles or so. And it's really not more scenic than the usual route, just slower.
Terrain and Ecosystems
Most office parks incorporate some "green space" among the buildings. Sometimes this is largely natural, but even carefully tended lawns and gardens attract some birds and other wild things.
Virtually all of the birds and animals you'll see are those that have a high tolerance for disturbance by human activity. And we humans tend, oddly, to have a disdainful view of the wild animals that tolerate us. Try to develop an appreciation for house sparrows and starlings. Of course, if your office park is home to more colorful species, you'll probably ignore the synanthropes.
Many office parks include water, whether streams and ponds, or simply the run-off basins at the downhill end of the parking lot. Even these can be attractive to birds and wildlife, and they are often home to some interesting plant life.
The office park where I work is rather heavily wooded, but many of the trees within the park are growing in "artificial" lawns and gardens. Only around the edges of the office park, including all along the back of my building, are there more or less "wild" trees. Outside the windows nearest my office is a second-growth swampy forest of oak, maple, blackgum, and a few American beech. This place can be full of water in spring, even threatening to flood the parking lot. It is home to a wide variety of birds and animals that don't need very extensive undisturbed areas.
On the commute, be aware of roadkill. It may seem an odd way to observe nature, but think of it as a survey technique. The number of dead animals of a given species is related to the population of living animals in the area. Often, roadkill is related to the habits of the animals, as you may see more dead turtles during late spring nesting season, and more dead raccoons during early winter denning season when mothers evict their young of the year to make room for next year's kits.
When we talk about observing nature at your workplace, we're not necessarily talking about much of a walk. You probably have picnic tables, or a least a little lawn where you can get out and enjoy the outdoors on your lunch breaks.
I've even worked at companies that made a regular practice of holding meetings outside! Not much chance to observe nature, but at least you can breathe fresh air while talking stale business.
In my case, there actually is a little hiking trail accessible to my office. It's an easy half-hour walk, but much of the distance is along the road from the other side of the high school back to the office park. Not so pleasant, that last part. The main part is a very nice walk in the woods, except during spring flood season. It's wide enough, well marked, and fairly level. It passes through a typical New England river-bottom hardwood forest right beside the Merrimack, the largest river this side of Vermont. The trail is maintained by the Town of Andover Conservation Commission, but the land is not an actual "park." It's just "conservation land."
Plants and Animals
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, by any means. This is just a list of some of the things I see in my current office, and a few that I've seen at previous workplaces. I'll also mention some of the things I think you're likely to see in a typical North American office park.
- Gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). They're in just about every American city, and I frequently see them among the oaks out back.
- Raccoons (Procyon lotor). If you've got water and forest of any size, you probably have raccoons. I see their tracks out in the woods, but haven't seen the animals themselves in the office park. Along the commute, they are common roadkill, especially in late fall and early winter when the young ones are seeking new territories.
- Chipmunks (Tamias striatus). They are less tolerant of human development than most squirrels, but there are quite a few in the woods behind my office. They are strangely quiet, compared to the ones I see in the mountains. Rarely chirping their "challenge bark," and I hardly even hear their alarm twitters.
- Whitetailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Also more commonly seen on the commute than in the office park. The last office park I worked at had quite a few resident deer that managed to stay out of sight until evening.
- House sparrows (Passer domesticus). They're everywhere that people are. And they're rather pleasant little creatures. (Really, take an unbiased look.)
- Feral pigeons (Columba livia). A harder sell, I know, but try to enjoy watching their behavior. Even if they are "rats with wings," rats are worth observing once in a while.
- Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Another winged rat, and unpleasantly noisier than pigeons. They're better observed in small numbers.
- Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula). Their glossy black feathers are actually rather beautiful against the green lawn. Again, better in small doses. Especially in fall, they form very large flocks, often joining even larger flocks of starlings that flow like black rivers in the sky.
- Robins (Turdus migratorius). Interesting little predators, and a very nice soundtrack for your lunch break.
- Goldfinches (Carduelis tristis). We're lucky enough to have a few at our office park, but they're too shy to hang around much when people are outside.
- Great blue herons (Ardea herodias). I see them virtually every day on the drive to work, and once in a while in the woods behind the office. This is an impressively large bird to have flying over rush-hour traffic, all the more so because they fly so low compared to eagles or vultures.
- Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Used to see them once in a while when I commuted along the infamous Route 128. I don't really miss the eagles that much, and I don't miss Route 128 in the least!
- Spring peepers (Hyla crucifer crucifer). Soundtrack for the walk to the car in the evening.
- Stinkbug (Euschistus servus). We had one in the office at my previous workplace. I had to be the hero and remove it before it did what stinkbugs do. They don't really smell that bad, but as soon as I told people what it was, they started freaking out.
- Click beetle (species of the family Elateridae). I've seen them inside offices more than once though I don't know why.
- Crickets (Gryllus assimilis). You hear them in a summer evening in the parking lot, and sometimes inside the buildings.
(Note: Call me a sticker, but I don't get very excited about cultivated plants. Your office park's gardens are likely to have almost any kind of garden flowers, and you're welcome to enjoy them. I don't even know what cultivated flowers are in my office park, because I just automatically ignore them.)
- Touch-me-not, also called pale jewelweed and yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida). At a place where I worked as a contractor in upstate New York, there was a small stand of these in the back parking lot. A spider lived inside of one of the flowers and caught bees. These flowers are much larger than those of the spotted jewelweed (I. capensis), also called orange jewelweed, which is more common in New Hampshire. I don't know which species is in the woods behind my office, but they'll be flowering soon.
- Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Probably the most common flower adorning the highways of New England, blooming all summer long. It is not unattractive, but it is an aggressive pest that degrades biodiversity of wetlands.
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), also known by many other names including yellow ox-eye daisy. The road from my home to the Massachusetts state line is bordered in these small sunflowers (or large daisies, depending on how you look at it) in late spring. New Hampshire has a policy of refraining from mowing stands of wildflowers along the roadside until after they have set seed, and the Black-eyed Susan is one flower being protected in this way. These protected stands are marked by little black signs so the highway maintenance crews know where not to mow.
Oxeye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum). Just as abundant as the black-eyed Susan, and under the same protection. Considering that it is not a native plant, I guess that it is only accidentally protected along with the native flowers.
- Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica). Very common in the forest behind my building.
- Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor). Very common, probably equal in number to the blackgum.
- Black Walnut (Juglans nigra). There are many of these, all quite young but bearing nuts. I'm not sure if these are indigenous or are the remains of when the land was inhabited and cultivated.
- White pine (Pinus strobus). Most of the mature trees in the forest behind my building are white pine. The hardwoods are nearly all recent regrowth less than fifty years old or so. I suspect that when the land was first opened, a few of the native white pines were left as ornamental trees.
- Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) This is my first year in this office park but the margin of the parking lot promises opportunities to observe monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) later this summer and fall.
- Wild grapes (Vitis species). The trees out back are draped with them. I'll have to wait until they produce fruit before I can identify the species. Of course, they may be feral descendants of cultivated vines.
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