Change The World By A Yard

Cactus Ground Finch, Galapagos Islands

Cactus Ground Finch, Galápagos Islands

I do a fair bit of birding away from home. Most of the time I stick to the northeast, as there is a wondrous array of hotspots within easy reach of my western Massachusetts address. Two to three times a year, I’ll head farther south to the mid-Atlantic, usually Cape May or Delaware during spring or fall migration—still drivable, but it requires a bit more planning. If I’m lucky, maybe once a year I’ll travel farther afield—Florida, Arizona, south Texas, or somewhere on the West Coast perhaps. And once in awhile, I’ll bird some exotic place beyond our borders—most recently Costa Rica, mainland Ecuador, and the Galápagos Islands. Naturally, these are life-changing experiences. After all, how often does one get to the Andes or the Amazon rainforest, or stand in Darwin’s footsteps on the sands of the Galápagos, among the finches that inspired the greatest creative work in the history of natural science? Such places illuminate the glory and spectacle of Nature, and paint indelible marks that alter your perception of the world.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, CT

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, CT

I don’t need to travel far to be confronted with the magnificent, though. Every place I visit has something to offer, some gift to bestow. Last year, I spent several hours with Keith Carver—a good friend and outstanding photographer—in the company of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher—a bird of foreign, tropical domains that nevertheless makes occasional appearances in the eastern US and Canada. This absolutely stunning individual emerged with little fanfare in Hadlyme, Connecticut. Its almost accidental discovery by a local photographer caused a great stir among avian aficionados, and it spent the next several weeks delighting scores of birders as it hunted sometimes mere feet above our heads, to all appearances completely unconcerned by our presence. In November of 2012, a Gyrfalcon appeared like a ghost over the farm fields of Hadley, Massachusetts—a sight so rare that it drew people from Ohio and Pennsylvania, and nearly doubled the human population of this small town well into the new year. This winter, my son and I photographed a Barnacle Goose on a farm in central Massachusetts, far out of its frozen Arctic range and feeding very contentedly with a large group of Canada Geese. And every year, the UMass campus pond—about 15 minutes from home—plays host to a variety of rare waterfowl, all similarly drawn to this tiny oasis at the heart of a thriving and kinetic university. If you’re craving an encounter with a rare goose, this is the place to go.

Evening Grosbeaks, home

Evening Grosbeaks, home

Frequently, though, the greatest surprises lie closest to home. I make new discoveries just by going out the back door—and sometimes, all it takes is a well-timed look out the window. We live on about a third of an acre, one side bordered by spruce and forsythia, a few lilac bushes on the other, and a smattering of other trees and bushes scattered about—a very pleasant yard, but not, in terms of habitat, anything out of the ordinary. And yet we’ve been graced by some truly wonderful birds. Over the years, more than a dozen species of warbler have visited us, including a pair of Nashvilles who stayed for a week; Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins feast at our feeders throughout the winter; last year, a Brown Thrasher brought her two young to glean insects and seeds from the grass; Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks make regular appearances in the yard; Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sip nectar from blue Iris and Rose of Sharon; Catbirds, Chipping Sparrows, Robins, Tree Swallows, and Mockingbirds have all nested here; for 15 minutes the day after tropical storm Sandy, a flock of Evening Grosbeaks descended upon us to decimate our feeders before continuing south; and just this year, an Indigo Bunting and eight Baltimore Orioles, as vibrant as the citrus we fed them, bedazzled us with luminance and color.

Sharp-shinned Hawk, home

Sharp-shinned Hawk, home

I could easily go on, but my point is this: There’s beauty to be found everywhere, even in your own back yard. The trick is to be present and receptive to it. Once we open ourselves up to the wonders around us, we can begin to see the magical in the everyday, and awaken in us a sense of the possible. Take that first look, see what’s out there. You may not find anything at first, but I can promise you this: Keep looking, and you will.

I can make you another promise as well: if you truly open yourself to it, the experience will change you. You’ll find something that moves you, something that inspires you to learn more. Perhaps it will be a bird, perhaps not. Regardless, you’ll start to care about it, you won’t be able to imagine a world without it. Without realizing it, you’ll have forged a connection to a part of nature, to the world outside humanity. And you’ll want to protect it. You’ll tell others, get them inspired to take their first looks and make their own connections. Get them to care, understand, and protect.

Indigo Bunting, home

Indigo Bunting, home

This, for me, is what it’s all about. For me, hell is a world without birds. I can’t imagine the seashore without the sound of gulls, a forest devoid of its songbird chorus, or an October sky without the circumnavigation of raptors. I can’t envision a lake empty of waterfowl or bear the thought of spring’s voice silenced. And sadly, I can’t create change through riches or political power. All I have are my love of birds, the words to convey it, and the hope that they make a difference.

But maybe that’s enough. Perhaps through my words, I can inspire more people to care, to love, to conserve what we have left, and to encourage others to do the same. And perhaps together, we’ll get just a little closer to changing the world. If so, then maybe there’s cause to hope after all.

Maybe.

It all starts with a first look.

Take it.

Baltimore Orioles, home

Beaches Are For The Birds

Piping Plover

Piping Plover, Milford Point, CT

On June 7, the Boston Globe ran an opinion piece by Lawrence Harmon about Boston-area beaches and the Piping Plovers who use them to nest and raise their young (“Move over, plover; the beach is for people”). In it, he argues that, in essence, it’s time for people to get their beaches back. He writes that protection measures in Massachusetts

“… have resulted in the largest population of piping plovers on the East Coast—about 650 pairs. Now beach-goers deserve some consideration. Boston Harbor beaches such as Revere and Winthrop need special attention. At great effort and expense, the harbor has been transformed from an open sewer during the 1980s to a well-managed resource today. People should be encouraged to enjoy these beaches with few intrusions.”

Kudos to Massachusetts for cleaning up after its citizens. And I do agree that beach access shouldn’t be restricted to a single species. We need, as Fish and Game commissioner Mary Griffin says, to restore a sense of balance to the beaches. However, we cannot allow one species to have a disproportionate negative impact on a landscape and all the other species within it. It’s irresponsible at best; at worst, it’s a catastrophe in the making. Yet this is exactly what human beings do: we move into an area, crowd out the animal inhabitants, and consume it. Where Earth’s environment is concerned, the bulk of human history is not pretty: we take what we want, go where we like, and use what we please, with little thought to consequence or cost. In the case of the plovers, that cost is extinction. It shouldn’t be asking too much of us to suffer a mild inconvenience for the greater good of an imperiled bird.

And yet it seems to be. Mr. Harmon’s opinion piece is symptomatic of our disease of entitlement, where human desire trumps the basic needs of any other species on the planet, where “I want” and “I deserve” are used to justify crimes that, were they perpetrated on other human beings, would amount to theft, assault, and murder. Both Mr. Harmon and Ms. Griffin suffer from a similar delusion—that balance with human beings is possible. When push comes to shove, the majority of people aren’t interested in sharing space with wildlife—wildlife that was established long before we came on the scene and which requires access to suitable habitat to thrive. Unlike people, Piping Plovers don’t use beaches for recreation: they rely on them for nesting sites and to raise their young. They depend on beaches for their survival. They have no choice; they have nowhere else to go. We do. Contrary to what Mr. Harmon suggests in the title to his ill-informed and misdirected rant, if anyone has a claim to the beaches, it’s the plovers. We’re intruding on their territory, not the other way around.

We would do well to remember that Piping Plovers—like so many other species—are in their current predicament because our actions put them there. They’ve lost many of their traditional nesting, feeding, and roosting beaches to commercial, residential, and recreational development. Those that remain are typically overrun with people, who often are completely unaware of the nests they crush underfoot or carelessly drive over. Our beachfront developments attract predators like raccoons, skunks, and foxes that may prey on the birds. Pets, too, create additional stress, frequently harassing or killing both adults and young birds. Even without this destruction, human presence alone can be enough to drive plovers from their nests, abandoning eggs and chicks to certain death. Piping Plovers didn’t become endangered on their own, they had a lot of help. And while their numbers are improving, the plover’s future is far from certain: globally, there are only about 8,000 breeding-age adults—not enough to guarantee stability or ensure their long-term survival. This is still, contrary to Mr. Harmon’s belief, a very vulnerable animal.

Red Knots

Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, & Laughing Gulls, Cape May, NJ

Sadly, the plovers are far from the only beach-loving birds in danger. I just returned from a trip to Cape May, New Jersey, where I stood witness to one of the great spectacles of avian migration. Each May, Red Knots flood the Delaware Bay and descend on Cape May’s beaches by the thousands, to rest and fuel up for their long flight north. Red Knots are a species of sandpiper (the largest of the “peep” sandpipers that includes Semipalmated, Western, White-rumped, and Baird’s Sandpipers) known for their beautiful russet-red color and marathon migration: twice a year, in the spring and the fall, they travel some 9,300 miles between the high Arctic and the south-most tip of South America. On their way north, they time their arrival in the Delaware Bay to coincide with another vernal exhibition: the spawning of the horseshoe crab. These holdovers from the dinosaur era come ashore on beaches all along the bay to mate and lay their eggs—millions of them—for about two weeks every spring, generously, albeit unintentionally, providing the birds with a critical resource. Red Knots gobble the protein-rich eggs in countless numbers, packing on weight for the last leg of their epic journey. To call the crabs’ gift important is a gross understatement: without the eggs, the birds either wouldn’t make it to their Arctic breeding grounds, or wouldn’t have the energy to breed when they got there. Put simply, they would die.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening. Years of rampant and virtually unregulated over-fishing of horseshoe crabs (largely due to a small group of very vocal conch fishermen) have sent Red Knot numbers into a tailspin, from more than 100,000 in the 1980s to around 25,000 today. Without stronger safeguards in place—notably serious restrictions on the annual crab harvest (something only New Jersey’s enacted, placing a moratorium on horseshoe crab fishing in 2008)—the Red Knot population will almost certainly continue a slow, inexorable slide to extinction.

And yet there is still hope. The dedicated efforts of conservationists throughout the Delaware Bay are raising awareness of the plight of the Red Knot, volunteers work to keep people and pets out of feeding areas, and New Jersey’s ban on horseshoe crab fishing has helped to slow the decline. Stronger measures are still needed—and needed soon—but with New Jersey leading the way, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia may follow. Meanwhile, restrictions on beach access during breeding season have begun to stabilize, and even slowly increase, numbers of Piping Plovers along the East Coast. For both species, volunteers and conservationists monitor beaches, keep track of numbers, and educate people about the birds, the struggles they face, and how they can help. And then there are the efforts of people like Migration Productions’ Shawn Carey and Jim Grady, whose films, presentations, and workshops educate people about the challenges these birds face, what’s currently being done to help them, and how they can contribute to their conservation and survival.

It’s a start. But more of us have to care. If we value these birds, if we value their role in the natural order and their place as part of a larger system that encompasses all species—humans included—and if we respect their right to exist on their own merits, we must commit to securing their future and ensuring their survival. If not, if we choose to sacrifice them on the altar of human greed, we will we lose them forever. We will engender their destruction, and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that, far from the evolved and intelligent creatures we hold ourselves, we are bullies, wastrels, and fools.

The choice is ours.