In The Company Of Birds

Tufted Titmouse

If you’ve been following along at all, you’ve discovered that I spend a lot of time with birds. I get out with them whenever I can, even if that means just sitting on the patio and seeing who’s hanging out in the yard. You can learn a lot by watching these yard birds. White-throated Sparrows and Eastern Towhees are notorious skulkers, staying at the edges and kick-feeding in the underbrush, leaving the feeders to the more adventurous Chickadees, Titmice, and Goldfinches. Of the woodpeckers, Downies are the boldest, often landing on the feeder pole and watching as I set out the morning’s repast. Red-bellieds are regular visitors, but will flush at the mere suggestion of the drop of a hat. However, if left to their own devices, they’ll aggressively defend the suet, chasing off others who might dare try for a bite. Flickers—the largest of our regular woodpecker visitors—show up sporadically, and are even more skittish: breathe in their direction and they’ll beat a hasty retreat.

You also start to notice differences between individual birds. If I should need to step into the back yard (God forbid!), most of the Chipping Sparrows will flee to the safety of the trees, but one or two will stay on the feeders and watch as I pass. The female of our Rose-breasted Grosbeak pair is similarly inclined, holding her post while the male heads for the hills; so too with the Hairy Woodpeckers, the female largely undaunted by my intrusions—putting paid to the notion of the weaker sex.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Though I love our yard birds, and have spent many hours in their company, I’ll also take any opportunity I can to visit one of my favorite local haunts—Quabbin Park’s gate five or the Fort River refuge, perhaps—or travel farther afield (New York’s Central Park, the Connecticut shore, Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, and Cape May, New Jersey are regular birding fixtures). No matter where I’m headed, though—even if it’s just out to the supermarket—I always bring two items with me: a pair of binoculars and a camera. You never know what’s out there waiting to be found, and I believe in being prepared. More often than not, it’s paid off. And more importantly, on the few instances when I’ve left one or both behind, I’ve regretted it (ask me about the Great Gray Owl sometime).

Now I’m not a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination, and I consider myself fortunate if I come away with any good images at all. It’s far more important to me to get a good look at a bird than a photo of one. Still, I enjoy the challenge of photography and the joy in success. When you’re trying to photograph a bird, you also have to look at it differently. Light and shadow come into play a bit more, you have to pay special attention to behavior to anticipate its next move (it’s often too late to photograph a bird where you first see it), and you have to try to position yourself in just the right spot—clear of obstructions (as much as possible anyway), and a respectful distance from the bird so that you can keep your impact to an absolute minimum while still capturing a good image. This last is paramount, and any ethical photographer—professional or otherwise—will always place the needs of the bird first.

American Goldfinch

There’s something more, though. It’s not just the self-satisfaction of taking a good photograph. As someone who loves nature—and birds in particular—I feel a responsibility to share what I’ve seen, give others a window into the wonders of the world around us, and, with luck, inspire at least some of them to care. It’s the same reason I write about them—to bring people with me as I explore the lives of the birds, and to hopefully illuminate a bit of the magic that lies just outside our doors.

Over the last few years, I’ve been introduced to many wonderful photographers—some who’ve become good friends—and they all share this same desire, to open a bit more of our world to us, and inspire us with its pageantry, its mystery, and its splendor. People like Melissa Groo, Keith Carver, Joe Oliverio, Ann Pacheco, Shawn Carey, Ashleigh Scully, Mia McPherson, Eric Curtis Cummings, Christopher Ciccone, Marina Scarr, Dorian Anderson, Denise Ippolito—artists all, and far more accomplished than I—produce images of stunning beauty, capturing moments of transcendent glory, heartbreaking intimacy, deep sorrow, and profound tenderness among our non-human brethren, revealing aspects of their world that many of us may never see yet are critically important for us to understand. I am consistently awed by their work, and often moved beyond words.

Or maybe there’s a darker side to this drive. Perhaps we’re documenting a great decline, recording these creatures for history before they slide into oblivion. Perhaps, like those who kept account of the last days of the Great Auk, Giant Moa, and Passenger Pigeon, we’re bearing witness to catastrophe and chronicling these lives that they may not be lost to time and confined to the realm of myth and legend.

Perhaps.

Myself, I hold to hope, and I suspect that many of my peers would as well—the hope that my work has an impact, that it drives people to care, to take action, to not remain on the sidelines and watch the great tragedy unfold. That I, through images and words, can help others understand the vision I have for our Earth, reach others who will be moved to make a difference, and awaken in others an appreciation for the grandeur and majesty of our world, the inherent value in all life, great and small, and the urgent need to protect and nurture all creatures whose lives fall, for better or for worse, into our hands. We are the only species that regularly drives others into extinction, but we are also the only species that can keep them from it.

Chipping Sparrow

Why do I do what I do? Why do I spend so much time in the company of birds? Because I must. Because it is right and proper that I do so. Because to be human is to care for more than just the human. Because for all the ugliness and destruction in the world, I can find beauty in the simplicity and grace of a sparrow. Because I cannot envision a world empty of the birds that surround us. And because I refuse to accept that as our inevitable course.

But for that to be true, it’s up to each of us as individuals to do what we can, however we can. It’s up to me, and it’s up to you. Start in your back yard, see what’s there. Go for a walk in your neighborhood, visit a state park or national wildlife refuge. Take that first step out your door, then take the next, and the next. Who knows where you’ll end up, and who knows what you might find? There’s life there waiting to be discovered, so get out and find it. Learn about it. Care.

And then inspire others.

At the end of it all, that’s what I work for.

 

You can find links to the photographers who inspire me below:

Melissa Groo

Keith Carver

Ann Pacheco

Joe Oliverio

Ashleigh Scully

Shawn Carey

Dorian Anderson

Mia McPherson

Eric Curtis Cummings

Christopher Ciccone

Marina Scarr

Denise Ippolito

A Collision of Worlds: Passerines and Pipelines

Yellow Warbler

I’m sitting in the livingroom watching a beautiful Yellow Warbler work the Bradford pear trees in the front yard, flitting from branch to branch, exploring the newly-opened blooms for insects and snaffling up whatever he can find. He just arrived yesterday, and quickly declared the trees as his own, chasing off the errant Chickadee or warbler that might dare encroach on his territory. But his defense goes only so far: he allows the Tufted Titmouse pair to forage freely, the Chipping Sparrows don’t seem to bother him, and he ignores the other recent arrivals—a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, another pair of Gray Catbirds, and a solitary male Baltimore Oriole, resplendent in vibrant orange and rich black. Maybe it’s self-preservation that guides him: With the exception of the sparrows, these birds are all larger, some double his size, and perhaps he fears injury. Or it could be that they don’t care for the same foods he fancies. Whatever the reason, as long as no Chickadees are about, there is harmony among the leaves.

Life is good for this little bird, and he seems to know it. To my ear—and at the risk of anthropomorphizing—his song sounds joyful and exuberant, celebrating the return of warmer weather and the cornucopia spread before him. His antics are entirely endearing, and I find myself captivated by the bonfire of life contained within his tiny, delicate form. I could sit and watch him for hours.

Spring migration is in full effect; the trickle of intrepid early northbound wanderers increasing to an unstoppable feathered flood, each day bringing new arrivals, some bound for far northern latitudes, others looking for a secure summer home in which to nest and raise their young. Many of our yard birds have already begun pairing up, Catbirds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Chipping Sparrows among them. Others, like the lone Oriole, our resident Carolina Wren, and the little warbler pause regularly from their venatic pursuits and burst forth into full-throated song, staking their territorial claims and advertising their availability to the fairer sex.

Baltimore Oriole

For migratory birds, timing is everything—and these next weeks are critical. Migration is hard; young birds need time to develop the strength and skill necessary to survive the rigors of a multi-thousand mile journey, so the adults have to get down to the business of nesting and rearing post haste if they’re to give their offspring the best chance. The line separating life and death is thin, and serious disruption could push the year’s new birds over it.

Sadly, just 50 miles away, in Sandisfield, Massachusetts, that’s exactly what’s poised to happen. This sleepy Berkshire County town sits in the middle of a controversy between local landowners and environmentalists and the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company. Tennessee Gas (or TGP)—a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan—has just recently cleared the final hurdle to begin construction of a highly controversial natural gas pipeline known as the Connecticut Expansion Project. TGP’s pipeline expansion will cut through four miles of state forest and private land, and involve clearing 29 acres of prime woodland habitat—land upon which many species of birds are already nesting. For these birds, the project is an unmitigated disaster. Migratory birds face an entire host of threats already; this project adds a fair amount of insult to a great deal of injury. Not only will any land cleared by TGP be unavailable for future nesting, the chaos of tree cutting and bulldozing may be too much disturbance for current nesting birds to handle—potentially forcing them to abandon their nests, and any eggs or newly-hatched young within. It’s possible that some might try to re-nest, but finding another suitable nest site takes time, and puts additional pressure on late hatchlings to quickly build up the reserves they’ll need to undertake their southbound odyssey. One way or another TGP’s expansion project may well be the death of them.

Or not—with a little hope. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter to TGP recommending that they do any clearing and cutting outside of breeding seasons, to minimize any potential impact. But it’s only a recommendation. It has no teeth, and it’s entirely up to TGP whether or not they follow it. The fate of the birds remains to be seen. Now, they’re not bad people. From many who’ve dealt with them, the general impression is that TGP officials are professional, respectable, and polite. But there’s a lot of money on the table, and they’re determined to get it. And when money is the goal, what chance do the birds have? What consideration do their needs receive?

Chipping Sparrow

It’s not a question of malice that’s driving TGP forward in spite of the very real and damaging environmental consequences, it’s a lack of appreciation. What the officials at TGP fail to understand is this: Nature has an intrinsic worth that cannot be expressed in the material. Clear air, clean water, and healthy forests are fundamental to our survival; you can’t put a price tag on them. And there’s no dollar value you can assign that’s fair compensation for the life of a bird. Walking in the woods heals us; watching animals go about the business of life connects us to them and to the larger world around us, and reminds us that we are a part of something greater. Nature nurtures. We need but seek Her out and approach Her with respect, reverence, and humility—and with knowledge of our dependence on Her.

That’s what TGP has forgotten, and what those opposed to the expansion project are fighting for. And fight they should, as should we all. Yet in that fight we must not lose our humanity, and rather than demonize those who stand opposed to us, we would do well to educate them to Nature’s true worth, and to the dire consequences of pursuing such harmful courses. I’m not naïve enough to believe that we can awaken them all to the truth, so we must remain steadfast and vigilant. We may influence some, though—and regardless, there’s nobility in the attempt.

It’s important that we also recognize our own role, indirect though it may be, in bringing projects like the TGP expansion to life. TGP is, first and foremost, a business, and as such, responds to the realities of the market. If we, as consumers, demand or require more power to sustain our lifestyles, TGP and other utility companies will fall in place to meet that need. We are not entirely without fault, and if we really want to see a change, we have to first turn the mirror inward and see what each of us, as individuals, can do to set the wheels of change in motion. If we want to give wildlife more room, we’ll have to commit to taking up less ourselves. If we want to decrease our impact on our environment and the lives of the other animals within, we must start living more consciously, and find or adopt more sustainable ways to fuel our own lives. If, through our actions and our choices, we can show business like TGP that we’re willing to move the greater good of our environment and our non-human kin to the fore, perhaps we can convince them to care as well—or at least understand the importance of factoring more into their decisions than money. It smacks of great hypocrisy to decry the impact of others without first managing our own. Pausing in our relentless onslaught against Nature and giving Her a little space shouldn’t be too much to ask, and will ultimately benefit us all—for we all, environmentalist and utility company alike, must remember this: The wealth of Nature is not in what we can extract from Her. Rather, it lies deep within Her embrace, expressed in the grand scale of life on Earth, in the complexity of its interconnection, and in the simple beauty of a single bird.

The 314

Black Oystercatcher

Eared Grebe. American Redstart. Bald Eagle. Herring Gull. White-throated Sparrow. Zone-tailed Hawk. Wood Duck. Blackburnian Warbler. Black Oystercatcher. Pine Grosbeak. Piping Plover. Rhinoceros Auklet. White-breasted Nuthatch. Peregrine Falcon. You know many of these birds well, I’m sure. Some may not be familiar to you, and there are a couple you might have never heard of. Regardless, they all have something particular, and rather unfortunate, in common: Every one of these birds is threatened by the impacts of climate change. And they’re not alone: 300 other birds share their uncertain future. All told, scientists with the National Audubon Society have identified 314 North American species imperiled by our shifting climate.

So what does that mean? Simply this: at the current rate of global warming, those 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their climatic range—the climate conditions they need to survive—by the year 2080. But that’s only a part of the story. Audubon’s broken those birds into two categories: climate threatened and climate endangered. Of the total, 188 are classified as climate threatened; they’re the ones at risk of major disruption by 2080. The remaining 126 are climate endangered, and for them the situation is much worse. They’re staring down the climate barrel a full three decades earlier. If we do nothing to slow the pace of change, by 2050 more than half their current climate range will have vanished like smoke. That means loss of habitat for nesting and feeding, loss of critical stopover sites for migratory birds, loss of food sources, unlivable temperatures… you get the picture. And all that translates to one thing: unless something changes, and I mean fast, the birds we love will disappear. Even the Mallard, perhaps the most well-known duck in the United States, is at risk: by century’s end, this most common feature of city parks and ponds could be largely gone from the lower 48—at least during the summer months.

Gone.

Mallard

It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Try to picture your favorite park without them. When no other ducks are around, the Mallards are there, breaking the silence with their raucous, comical quacking, males displaying their striking green heads. They’re a comforting and reliable presence, a welcome sign of life. A future empty of Mallards seems impossible. But it’s not.

Nor is a summer beach devoid of gulls. Perhaps the most successful group of birds, gulls are an integral part of any beach, fundamental to the experience. I have no frame of reference for the coast without them, but it’s not a joyful vision to contemplate. And yet if things stay as they are, if we continue down this murderous course, that could become our reality: of the 10 gull species listed in Audubon’s climate report, more than half are climate endangered—Ring-billed, Laughing, Herring, Western, and California among them. In our rapid and relentless destabilization of the planet, the lauded adaptability of gulls may have met its match.

And this was the picture before January 20, 2017. Against the worrying backdrop of environmental destruction and the looming specter of runaway global warming, it’s hard to imagine a more disastrous scenario than an EPA director who’s a leading climate change denier and has repeatedly sued the organization he’s now running, a President hell-bent on dismantling decades of environmental progress and ramming through his ecologically catastrophic agenda, and a Congress champing at the bit to open our public lands to resource extraction or sell them off to the highest bidder. And yet this is exactly where we find ourselves—being driven towards environmental degradation and collapse by a group of people too ignorant to understand science, too blind to see the truth, or too greedy to care. Given their way, Trump, Pruitt, and the GOP lapdogs in control of Congress will eliminate anything that smacks of environmental protection—including rendering impotent any regulations designed to that end—to the ruin of us all.

Laughing Gull by Aidan Griffiths

Fortunately, there are more of us than there are of them. Lacking anything resembling responsible leadership by many of our elected officials, it’s up to us to raise our voices against the coming ecological onslaught, and make it clear that clean air, clean water, ample habitat for the multitude of creatures with whom we share this planet, and a healthy, stable environment that supports the grand diversity of life on Earth are things we value, we demand, and we require, and for which we’re willing to fight. A block of angry voters speaking with a clear, powerful, and unified voice is a force to be reckoned with, and those who stand in defiance of the issues we care about do so at their peril.

Again, it’s up to us. We hold in our hands the future of the 314—those birds imperiled by our bizarre tendency towards destruction, even in the face of our own demise. And really, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s not only the loss of a vast number of the birds around us—though that alone would be a tragedy beyond measure. It’s not simply the wholesale loss of innumerable plant and animal species—mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians—though that would be a biblical catastrophe. It’s the rendering as uninhabitable the only planet we know of that can support life

It’s the loss of us.

We aren’t somehow immune from the damage we create, removed from the consequences of our actions, or of our failure to act. Quite the contrary, in fact: Our fate is in our hands; whether we engineer our salvation or undoing is up to us.

Eared Grebe

At this point, there is still time, but the clock is ticking. The birds are the quintessential canary in the coalmine, and the alarms are sounding. If we act now, and quickly, we may avert the worst of the storm. It seems, though, that some loss is inevitable. We may not be able to save all the 314, but through dedicated effort we should be able to build a future for most of them. With hard work, care, a commitment by all to serious change, and a little bit of luck, Piping Plovers may continue to roam our eastern shores, Eared Grebes may still dive for prey in the waters of the west, and Bald Eagles—the icon of our heritage—may always stretch their great wings against the sky.

 

For more on the 314—including ways you can help them—you can read Audubon’s climate report here.

 

 

 

The National Wildlife Refuge System Turns 114

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt gave the wildlife—and citizens—of the United States a grand gift by founding the National Wildlife Refuge System. More than a century later, the system is still going strong: it protects more than 150 million acres of habitat—land and water—for the benefit of an incredible variety of wildlife, and remains one of our best resources for wildlife conservation and enjoyment. Today, on its 114th birthday, I’d like to share some images of birds I’ve taken over the years throughout our nation’s wonderful wildlife refuges, parks, sanctuaries, and recreation areas. I post these both in celebration of our National Wildlife Refuges, and as a reminder of just how critical they are to the future of wildlife conservation.

Tri-colored Heron, Merritt Island NWR, Florida

 

Hermit Thrush, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, New Jersey

 

American Coots, Great Meadows NWR, Massachusetts

 

Red-tailed Hawk, Parker River NWR, Massachusetts

 

Great & Snowy Egrets, Bombay Hook NWR, Delaware

 

Palm Warbler, Silvio O. Conte NWR, Fort River Division, Massachusetts

 

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Prime Hook NWR, Delaware

 

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, New Jersey

 

American Bittern, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR, Texas

 

Greater Shearwater, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Massachusetts

 

Sandwich, Royal & Forster’s Terns and Laughing Gull, Canaveral National Seashore, Florida

 

Roseate Spoonbill, Merritt Island NWR, Florida

 

Red-eyed Vireo, Trustom Pond NWR, Rhode Island

 

Marsh Wren, Great Meadows NWR, Massachusetts

 

Shorebirds, Bombay Hook NWR, Delaware

 

Wild Turkey, Parker River NWR, Massachusetts

 

Cory’s Shearwater, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Massachusetts

 

Northern Pintails, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, New Jersey

 

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR, Texas

With attacks on our federal lands coming almost daily, we would do well to consider how much poorer our nation would be without them. These lands exist for the benefit of all wildlife, and for the enjoyment of all citizens of—and visitors to—this country. We must not allow the greed of the few to supersede the rights and needs of everyone else—human and non-human animal alike. The value of this national heritage is incalculable, and its loss would be devastating beyond measure. Our national refuges, parks, monuments, sanctuaries, and recreation areas are a safe haven for countless species, and a vital resource for our well-being as much as theirs. If you care about the animals who look to our federal protected lands for sanctuary, if you appreciate the value of being able to spend time in wild spaces, if you understand the need to make room for the incredible creatures that share our home, or if you simply uphold the commitment to leaving this world a better place for future generations, then raise your voice in support of the voices that risk being silenced by those who refuse to hear them.

 

For more information about our National Wildlife Refuge System, check this link

… and this one.

Life On The Margins

Verdin, Phoenix, AZ

A friend of mine was recently traveling through Arizona, and while waiting out a flight delay at the Tucson airport, she wandered over to a tiny park jammed in between the rental car office and pickup garage. It had picnic tables, benches, small arbors, and even a water feature—so she did what any self-respecting birder would: looked for birds. If anything, she expected those most ubiquitous of urban birds: House Sparrows (the park was, after all, surrounded by concrete and jet noise). What she found was something else entirely: two Yellow-rumped Warblers foraging in a flowering bush, and, much to her surprise, a pair of Verdins busily constructing a nest in one of this mini-park’s little trees. She spent a fair bit of time enjoying their company, amazed at their ability to find succor in this rather depleted habitat.

It’s a story I’ve heard (and experienced) many times. Different species and different locations to be sure, but the theme is always the same: birds making a living in the unlikeliest of places, on the margins between the natural and constructed worlds. Peregrine Falcons are prime examples, able to thrive in the heart of the urban jungle, substituting skyscrapers for cliff ledges and making off with whatever prey presents itself (pigeons are favorite targets, and the falcons’ preference for these birds makes them very popular with city dwellers). Red-tailed Hawks have likewise found a place among humans—in some cases, attaining celebrity status (New York City’s Pale Male being perhaps the most famous). Ducks and geese are exceptionally good at making the most of the smallest of ponds. And gulls, pigeons, House Sparrows, Crows, and Starlings have all discovered the bounty offered by the detritus of our daily lives. But there are other, less obvious stories: Yellow-breasted Chats—Cardinal-sized warblers, highly secretive—show up in postage-stamp city parks; the flowered walkways outside New York’s American Museum of Natural History hosted a Rufous Hummingbird through one winter; and I know of an Ovenbird—a shy warbler of the forest floor—that spent part of the year in and around a city convenience store’s meager lawn.

Peregrine Falcon

These are somewhat extreme examples, but they are no means the only ones. Far from natural, many places we think of as ideal for birds are islands of habitat surrounded by harsh and inhospitable terrain. Arguably the most famous of these is Central Park, 843 acres of green set in Manhattan’s concrete core. To say that the park is good for birds is a gross understatement: on a normal day, it’s fantastic; during migration, it’s extraordinary. Warblers, orioles, blackbirds, tanagers, vireos—a host of species descend upon the park to feast on its bounty and shelter in its sylvan grounds. Birding here, it’s easy to get caught up in the extravaganza without questioning why it takes place. Take a look at a map of the city, though, and the reason is obvious: it’s one of the last, best naturescapes left in this vast metropolis. To birds exhausted by the trials of migration, Central Park offers sustenance and safety, a verdant oasis in an otherwise alien land—a margin, but on a grander scale.

Sanderlings

Grandest of all margins, though, is the one that marks the boundary between earth and ocean. Here along the coast, where the land slips into the surf, are birds who push the notion of survival to the extreme. As a group, shorebirds undergo some of the longest migratory journeys—and longest non-stop flights—in the world. Most travel tens of thousands of miles each way, and sometimes stay aloft for days at a stretch—a feat that pushes endurance far beyond the reasonable; in addition to nearly doubling their weight before setting out, some birds, like Red Knots, Bar-tailed Godwits, and Sanderlings, digest muscle tissue and internal organs to carry them the distance. Those who break their journeys to rest and refuel (and some don’t) do so on beaches up and down the coast. For other birds, the beach represents migration’s end: American Oystercatchers, Least Terns, and Piping Plovers are among those who make their homes on the shore, nesting in depressions they dig out of the sand. But whether they pass through or settle down, these birds share something crucial: Beachfront property isn’t a luxury for them, it’s a necessity. And yet this narrow, vital edge is under constant siege, imperiling all who rely on it. The birds who survive here exist at a confluence of conflicts: the shifting balance between land and sea; development against conservation; political will versus ecological reality; and human want versus avian need. For now, they still persist—but they’re forced to do so on an ever-shrinking landscape, each vanishing piece taking with it another chance for the birds.

The capacity to exist on the margins, to find food and shelter on the edges of our lives, is a testament to birds’ knack for survival. But they can be pushed only so far. Every species has a breaking point past which it can no longer recover, a threshold that, once crossed, leads to a finality frightening to contemplate. Without care, sooner or later these margins may become too small to support the birds that depend on them, leading them down the path traveled by the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Eskimo Curlew, Labrador Duck, and many others. Still, all is not yet lost. Birds can adapt, given adequate time to do so and enough open space to call home. But ultimately it’s up to us. Their fate is in our hands, and we must ask ourselves if we can find it in our hearts to make room for them, encourage their recovery, and champion their survival. A world rich with birds awaits us, if we only have the courage to create it and the wisdom to understand why.

Piping Plover

The Necessity Of Wild Spaces

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Parker River NWR

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Parker River NWR

Birds are extraordinary creatures. I find them endlessly fascinating and entirely captivating, and can easily spend hours with a single bird, never mind all those I can discover on a stroll through the woods or a day at the shore. Birding connects me directly to the heart and spirit of Nature, it calms and re-energizes me, and it reminds me that we are but a small piece of a grand puzzle, and that our concerns are not as important nor our worries as large as we make them out to be. When I’m in the company of birds, I want for nothing more—save, perhaps, the desire to share them with a kindred spirit or two.

I’ve birded in six countries, on four continents, and across two island chains. Here at home, I’ve been up and down the eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine, into the desert southwest, down the Gulf Coast and along our southern border, and out to our country’s western edge. And though I’ve found myself in a variety of settings, many of the places I return to again and again are part of this country’s incredible system of national wildlife refuges, sanctuaries, and parks. If you’ve ever spent time exploring one, it’s easy to see why: Not only are they true national treasures, marvelous in their own right, the lands contained within them provide safe haven, and sometimes a final stronghold, for a multitude of plants and animals (there are approximately 1300 species in the United States listed as endangered; around two-thirds of those exist on federal lands)—critical shelter from many of the dangers they face outside these protected areas.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area

The hazards that migratory birds encounter can be particularly acute. Migration itself is a perilous venture, involving vast distances that push even the strongest birds to their limits. Many species fly for hundreds or thousands of miles at a stretch, and rely on stopover sites to feed and rest, allowing them to pack on reserves of fat and energy to power them along their epic journeys. As development, conversion to industrial agriculture, and other consumptive uses chew up more and more wild lands, the birds need sources of food and shelter they can count on. Our refuges and national parks thus take on special importance; without them, many birds would quite literally die before migration’s end—and many species, already in decline, might slip over the edge and slide inexorably into extinction. Allowing the loss of our protected federal lands to happen would be tragic; actively encouraging it would be a crime.

And yet that’s exactly what this administration is planning for. Two developments over the last few weeks make this clear. On the first day in session of the 115th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a new rule written by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) that makes it easier for Congress to cede federal control of public lands—national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other federal areas—to states or local governments. The rule allows the 115th Congress to claim that any legislation disposing of public lands and natural resources costs the U.S. taxpayers exactly nothing, regardless of whether the Congressional Budget Office determines otherwise. In other words, Congress can give away our public lands for free, and, if necessary, charge the American people for the privilege of doing so.

Leading the resistance to this blatant attack, Democratic Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ-03) had this to say:

“The House Republican plan to give away America’s public lands for free is outrageous and absurd. This proposed rule change would make it easier to implement this plan by allowing the Congress to give away every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value. Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, but it is also a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people.”

Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director for The Wilderness Society, added his voice to the debate:

“Right out of the gate, Congressional Republicans are declaring open season on federal lands… This is not Theodore Roosevelt-style governing, this move paves the way for a wholesale giveaway of our American hunting, fishing and camping lands that belong to us all.”

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

At first blush, turning federal lands over to the states and/or local municipalities in which they lie might not seem like a bad idea. I’ve visited many state parks, and they’re almost universally beautiful and well-maintained areas, often teeming with wildlife. However, most state and local governments may not have the budgets or staff to maintain such large parcels of land, and so would likely be forced to sell them to the highest bidder—and the extraction industry has a lot of money. Hello, mining and drilling operations, goodbye wildlife habitat and public recreation.

The second development happened at noon on January 20. Just after Donald Trump took the oath of office, whitehouse.gov underwent a drastic transformation, including the replacement of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan with An America First Energy Plan, which contains language that should trouble anyone who cares about preserving our unspoiled wild spaces:

“We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”

For those unsure, or unwilling to accept, what this means, allow me to translate: the Trump administration plans to allow fossil fuel extraction from national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands. And it doesn’t stop at fossil fuels: federal lands containing uranium and copper deposits would also be at risk. Places like Grand Canyon National Park, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—places of unbounded beauty and immeasurable value—would be open for destruction. Desecrating such lands, upon which countless birds and animals (ourselves included) rely, to enrich the already obscenely wealthy through resource extraction is, in my mind, the most egregious insult to Nature, and the gravest form of sacrilege.

Northern Pintails, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

If these plans come to fruition, if Congress allows fossil fuel extraction from our public lands or sets the wheels in motion for turning them over to the highest bidder, then we stand to lose something precious, a birthright of all citizens of this country. We stand to lose these wild places that nurture and revitalize us, that provide emotional and spiritual succor, that nourish our beings, down to the core. We stand to lose a vital part of our heritage, and a large piece of what makes our country special, unique, and great.

But there are those who stand to lose much more. There are those who depend upon these lands, these wild spaces, for shelter, food, for their very survival. Our national parks and wildlife refuges harbor an incredible diversity of life—plants and animals for whom these lands must remain wild and natural.

Contrary to the beliefs of some, we are not the most important species on the planet; our needs and desires do not take precedence over the needs of all others. An intricate web links all life on this planet—one that’s evolved over countless millions of years. And in just a few short centuries, we’ve disrupted it and damaged it in the name of human progress. We’ve taken it nearly to the brink, and now we stand at a precipice, staring into an abyss of our own design that threatens to swallow us all.

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

As we move forward, as our elected officials prepare to give away for pennies a heritage of incalculable value to greedy developers and extraction companies, we would do well to remember this: just as we are not the most important here, we are also not somehow magically insulated from the damage and destruction we visit upon our planet. We are as dependent on Earth’s life support systems as any other organism, and we may yet reach a point of no return that finds us riding headlong into self-made oblivion. But even if we don’t, if we somehow survive the conversion of our environment into a barren wasteland, what would it matter? At what point is living on this planet no longer worth it? We’ve lost so much already, taken so many species to the edge of extinction or beyond—and each one that vanishes takes a bit of us with it. How many more do we have to imperil before we realize that the wondrous variety and diversity of life on Earth is what makes life on Earth worth living?

All the riches in the world are nothing compared to the graceful flight of Snow Geese across the evening sky; the raucous greetings between crows coming to roost; a murmuration of starlings—a million birds moving as one; the acrobatics of hunting swallows; the awe-inspiring sight of a Peregrine in full stoop; or the heartbreaking beauty of a thrush’s song ringing out through the clear morning air. Once they’re gone, after it’s too late, only then will we realize the true value of what we’ve lost.

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

You can read the full text of House Resolution 5 here (page 35 has the relevant section).

And you can find an article discussing the rules change in the Guardian here

… in the Washington Post here

… in Think Progress here

… and in Daily Kos here.

A Wild Goose Chase

Geese on the UMass campus pond

Wednesday, December 7, 2:00 PM. Shoes: check. Jacket: check. Keys: check. Grab the binoculars. Grab the cameras. Go.

I flew out of the house like I’d been shot from a gun—a man on a mission: get my son from school and race 15 miles to the UMass campus pond, a half-hour trip that I planned to shave by about a third. There, with a little luck, we’d meet up with the rarest bird to ever grace the University’s lettered grounds. Out of nowhere, a Pink-footed Goose had appeared, and we were setting out to find it.

I’d been alerted to the bird the day before. The call had come in at 9:26 AM. I was in the kitchen, and my cell phone rang—an occurrence infrequent enough to be noteworthy, as I use it mostly for emergencies and eBird, and very few people have the number. One of those who does is Larry Therrien, a good friend and the most accomplished and committed birder I know. He calls the cell for only two reasons: to suggest an ice cream run or report an unusual sighting. It was Larry; I picked up. With no preamble, he launched in. “I’m looking at a Pink-footed Goose in the fields off Stockbridge Road right now.”

Half an hour later, I was on the bird. It had settled in with a group of about 600 Canada Geese, and was working the edge of a farm field, foraging here and there. I got wonderful looks, but the combination of distance and lighting didn’t lend itself to photography—and while I don’t have to photograph every bird I see, I’ve been trying to capture an image of a Pink-footed Goose for years. Also, I didn’t have my son Aidan with me, and I knew he’d want to see it as well. I’d be visiting this bird again, and I had a hunch about where to look. We’d been waiting for a Pink-footed Goose to discover the pond at the University of Massachusetts, and something told me this bird was it.

Snow Goose

Snow Goose, UMass campus pond

That evening, my suspicion was confirmed. Someone reported a large group of geese leaving the field and flying east to UMass; the Pink-footed Goose was with them. Aidan and I made our plan: after school the next day, we’d try for the bird. I prayed it would stick around for that long.

Wednesday afternoon we hit campus, not sure what we’d find. As we made our way across the horseshoe drive in front of the University’s Fine Arts Center, a lone goose flew out over the building towards us—more slender than a Canada Goose, with pointed wings and a faster, stiffer wing beat. Something told me to give it a better look, but I continued on, anxious to get to the pond where, I hoped, the Pink-footed Goose awaited. My son, however—who, at 16 is a far better birder than I (or, in fact, most birders I’ve met) and often exhibits more patience than any teenage boy reasonably should—stopped and put his binoculars on it. “Dad,” he said, “that’s it.”

We stopped and stared, watching it circle around and back towards the pond, away from us. This was not good; there was a very real chance that we’d missed it, that it had been and gone. I held my breath, watching it, hoping for a sign that we weren’t too late. A moment later, I got it. The goose headed directly over the pond, circled back, and drooped its wings, descending below the Fine Arts Center, out of sight. Its target could only be the pond. From a dead standstill, we broke into a run. We’d waited years for this moment. This was our chance, and we weren’t going to miss it.

If you’ve never visited the University of Massachusetts’ Amherst campus and seen the pond yourself, you’re probably wondering what the big deal is. After all, it’s in the middle of a bustling university, passed by thousands of students a day. How good can it be?

Gadwall

Gadwall,

Very. In fact, if you’re looking for an uncommon water bird, it’s arguably the best place in western Mass to be. At 800 feet long and around 200 feet across at its widest point (considerably narrower at most others), over the years this little pond has hosted a dizzying array: Snow and Ross’ Geese, Northern Pintails, Gadwall, Cackling Geese, Wood Ducks, American Coots, Brant, Greater White-fronted Geese, Horned and Red-necked Grebes, Hooded and Common Mergansers, Green-winged Teal… the list goes on. It’s protected from hunting, so the birds can rest and eat in safety. And it’s ideal for photography: The views are incredible; there isn’t a bad seat in the house. If I was going to break my drought of Pink-footed Goose photographs, it would happen here. But I’d have to find it first.

Cackling Goose

Cackling Goose

When searching for a rare bird on the campus pond, the typical procedure is this: take up position at one end of the pond, scan through anywhere from several hundred to perhaps a thousand Canada Geese, and try to find the one that stands out. Repeat as necessary until you locate the target bird. The amount of time this takes varies with the number of Canada Geese present and, more importantly, the identity of the bird you’re looking for. An adult Snow Goose stands out like a Cardinal in snow; pulling a Cackling Goose out from a mass of Canadas, however, brings to mind needles and haystacks. The Pink-footed falls somewhere in the middle: Smaller than the Canada Geese with a chocolate-brown head and neck, it should be fairly obvious; as long as there weren’t too many Canadas, it shouldn’t take us too long.

As we rounded the corner of the Fine Arts Center, the pond came into view, and my heart sank. Aside from a scattering of Mallards on the water and three Canada Geese along the bank, it was entirely empty. This was a very bad sign: In all my years of birding the campus pond, rare waterfowl have always been attended by healthy numbers of Canada Geese. I’ve never seen one on its own. Ever. Somehow, even though we saw the goose drop towards the water, it must’ve taken back to the air. Somehow, we missed it.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose

Or so I thought. Aidan, though, was undaunted, and in short order—once again displaying superior skill, patience, and attention to detail—he located the bird swimming alone on the pond. And it was beautiful.

In an area renowned for producing uncommon waterfowl, this was the rarest of the rare. Pink-footed Geese breed in the far north—Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbard (north of the European mainland)—and winter in northwest Europe and western Denmark, only appearing casually in the United States. For one to show up anywhere is an event. For one to show up at the campus pond was a miracle. Aidan and I spent the next hour watching the goose paddle about and wander along the bank, foraging and displaying its namesake feet—alternately jubilant and transfixed. We were witnessing something truly special, and we were well aware of our good fortune.

But then we were hit with the completely unexpected. The goose had returned to the water and was swimming about when a flock of 14 Canada Geese flew in, circling the pond and calling. The Pink-footed Goose made three loud honks in response and then, as the Canadas left, it took off from the water and followed them away. It seemed for all the world like the Canadas had been looking for their lost cousin and, finding the Pink-footed, came to collect it. And in joining them, the Pink-footed seemed happy. It was once again with its companions—still a stranger in a strange land, but no longer alone.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose

As humans, we’re constantly cautioned not to anthropomorphize, told that it’s a mistake to endow other animals with thoughts and emotions. I believe this philosophy is wrong. The real mistake, I feel, is in assuming that other animals have none. If we were speaking of human beings, the narrative of a lost individual being found by a group and then happily rejoining them wouldn’t even be questioned. It would be obvious, accepted: Of course that’s what was going on. What else could it have been? But other animals don’t do this, we think. They can’t show this level of emotion, connection. We tell ourselves this again and again, and believing it allows us to visit unspeakable horrors on them. Why care what we destroy, what we kill, if they don’t? Animals don’t feel the pain of loss when we reduce their homes to ash, don’t grieve or mourn when another of their kind dies or falls victim to mankind’s callous hand. They are, after all, only animals.

But so are we. At its root, the mistake we make is not in assuming that other animals aren’t like us, but that we are somehow fundamentally different from them—that we, with our advanced capacity for thought and emotion, are elevated above them, and that in our lofty position, we are insulated from the destruction we sow upon them and their world. The realization that we aren’t may, I fear, come too late, after we’ve carried the world beyond the breaking point and have lost the means to save ourselves from the consequences of our arrogance.

Maybe all is not lost, though. Maybe my son’s generation will get it right, will tread more gently upon the Earth than those who’ve come before, will embrace the reality that we are kin to all life on Earth, not just to those who walk on two legs. Maybe they’ll teach us all to do the same. And perhaps we’ll be wise enough to listen.

Myself, I hold fast to hope. After all, if a Pink-footed Goose can show up on this little pond, anything’s possible.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose