Of Competition And Transcendence

Bird-a-thonThe weekend of May 15-17, my family and I took part in the annual Massachusetts Audubon Society Bird-a-thon, covering our corner of western Mass for team Moose Hill. The event is presented as part fundraiser and part competition, but is really just an excuse to devote 24 hours to birding—and, apart from occasionally sleeping and eating, nothing else. From 6:00 PM Friday to 6:00 PM Saturday, teams representing all 57 Mass Audubon sanctuaries spread out across the state searching for birds, each one hoping to end the day having seen, heard, or otherwise encountered the greatest number of species—ideally without running off the road or collapsing in the field from sheer exhaustion—thereby ensuring victory and securing possession of the coveted Brewster Cup.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Our search began at home—under the feeders, to be precise—where we spotted one of the target species for the count: a beautiful White-crowned Sparrow, pale gray with bold white and black stripes down the length of its head. This species is only found in the northeast during migration, and never in large numbers—and when it does show up, it can be difficult to see. However, a few visit our yard for a week or so each spring and fall, so we were reasonably confident. This one showed up at the beginning of May and stuck around just long enough to take part in the bird-a-thon before moving on. We spent a few minutes in the company of the sparrow, then set off on a walk around the neighborhood. I had a particular destination in mind where I hoped to catch up with another, more elusive, target bird: I was looking for a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and I had a good idea where we’d find one.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

Sure enough, the bird was right where I expected. After a brief search, we heard its nasally call coming from deep within a stand of conifers—an unmistakable sound. The nuthatch called several times, and though we never put our eyes on it, we did spend some time with a beautiful and inquisitive Catbird who allowed us some very nice looks and a few photos before heading into the woods. A short walk farther on brought us to a brush-lined field where we found, among others, a beautiful male Indigo Bunting, a very vocal Field Sparrow, and a surprise flyover by a trio of Common Nighthawks, sounding off as they went.

Finished with our loop through the field, we headed off to our second stop: Winsor Dam, part of the Quabbin Reservoir’s great accidental wilderness, and a spot that’s been graced by some truly remarkable species—among them Golden Eagle, Pine Grosbeak, Parasitic Jaeger, Sooty Tern, and White-tailed Tropicbird. Though we didn’t find anything quite that rare, we were able to pick out a pair of Bald Eagles and a lone Spotted Sandpiper along the shore. As the last light began to fade, we heard a Woodcock’s sharp peenting, and the soft, distant call of a Whipporwill. With the day drawing to a close, we headed home to prepare for the next morning and what promised to be a spectacular birding adventure.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Saturday broke cool and early. After a quick check of the feeders (and a fortuitous Pine Siskin flyby) we returned to the Quabbin for a walk down through an area known simply as Gate 5—a designation that, though accurate, belies the avian bounty lying within. We’ve been coming here for years, and it always produces something wonderful, but during spring migration, it can be truly astounding. Today was no exception: a stunning pair of Blackburnian Warblers greeted us just beyond the gate, while farther along we encountered several of their cousins, including Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white, and Blue-winged Warblers. We were also treated to great looks at a couple of usually secretive Wood Thrushes, and a single Veery—another local thrush that’s also typically shy and retiring. But there was one bird we were really looking for here, a bird that, outside our area, would be nearly impossible to find—and even within, it wouldn’t be easy. It’s far more often heard than seen, and if you’re not paying attention, you can easily miss it. We were looking for a Ruffed Grouse, and Gate 5 was our best chance.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

Again, Gate 5 delivered. While we were searching for a Black-throated Green Warbler calling somewhere around us, we heard it: a low, nearly infrasonic thump-thump-thump, accelerating in tempo like a classic Harley starting up. It rattled our bones for a moment, paused as if for breath, and then resumed. After three repetitions, the grouse went silent, having said all he needed to for the time being. We listened for a bit longer, in case he had anything to add. Hearing no further comment and considering the matter closed, we continued on our way.

Reaching the water’s edge, we scoped a few surprise birds: five Common Mergansers, a Double-crested Cormorant, and a small group of White-winged Scoters floating lazily on the lake—an uncommon sight this time of year and so far from the coast, and a very nice addition to our team’s tally. Once again, Gate 5 held to its reputation. We were thrilled: every bird we encountered was a delight, and we could easily have spent most our time here. This was a competition, though, and we had several more places to visit before the day was out. So bidding the scoters farewell, we headed back to the car and on into the day.

Over the next three stops, we saw some incredible birds: Great-crested and Willow Flycatchers; Orchard Oriole; Canada, Worm-eating, and Blackpoll Warblers; Louisiana Waterthrush; Warbling, Blue-headed, and Yellow-throated Vireos; and many others. It was a spectacular day all around, but in Skinner State Park, near the summit of Mount Holyoke, we came upon something truly extraordinary.

Cerulean Warbler © Felipe Pimentel

Cerulean Warbler © Felipe Pimentel

We’d set out for Skinner looking for a ghost. Every year, a bird breeds on the mountain that’s so scarce and revered among birders its status approaches the mythic, to be spoken of in hushed tones and with great solemnity. Somewhere within Skinner’s 400 acres, Cerulean Warblers were nesting. And come hell or high water, we were going to find one.

Of course, we knew it was a long shot. Cerulean Warblers are small, few in number, and in steep decline. Searching one out in such an expanse of forest recalls a familiar scenario involving needles and hay. A singing bird would be a little easier to locate, but we were approaching the summit, and though we’d heard many birds on our way up—several warblers included—Ceruleans were conspicuously absent. Though we tried to stay positive, it wasn’t looking good: Without a sound to betray them, our already slim chance was evaporating.

We’d just turned around and started down the mountain when we spotted movement to our right—two birds flying together, small and flitting through the oaks. One disappeared deep into the woods, but the trailing bird landed nearby and began hopping around in the branches. Could it be? We dared to hope. Still, none of us said a word as we raised our binoculars and each put our eyes on the bird.

Female Cerulean Warbler © Deborah Tracy-Kral

Female Cerulean Warbler © Deborah Tracy-Kral

And there she was. Decked in aquamarine and white, we’d stumbled upon a beautiful female Cerulean Warbler, active, visible—and in the middle of constructing a nest. At first, we didn’t speak, just took long looks to confirm in our minds what our eyes were reporting. There was no doubt, though, and we watched her in awe, entranced by the story of life unfolding before us.

At that moment, nothing else mattered—not just the bird-a-thon, or the fact of our collective exhaustion and hunger, but nothing beyond the scope of this little warbler busy with her nest. Amidst all of the grim news, despite the encroaching press of humanity and our repeated assaults on the environment—thoughtless habitat consumption, oil spills that have become routine, gluttonous devouring of resources, our blatant disregard of the impending climate crisis and our frightening actions hastening its arrival—she carried on preparing a safe haven for her eggs and the chicks that would, in time, emerge and, with luck, give rise to yet another generation. Watching her pulled us out of the world of narrow human concerns and desires, and placed us, however briefly, in a larger reality in which we and the bird shared a connection—to each other, and indeed to all life inhabiting this blue marble we call home. On this great mothership of life spinning in the vastness of space, none of us is alone.

Building her nest was a hopeful act, in a time when hope is in short supply, and it made me feel that, though our situation is dire, all is not yet lost. There is light, however faint, in the darkness, and if we care enough to pay attention, it may illuminate a path out of oblivion.

Our way forward is cast in the shadows of the unknown, but it does not lead inevitably to destruction. In crises past, we as a people have joined together and overcome terrible challenges. We have shown resilience, resourcefulness, strength, and compassion, and in so doing have given testimony to the expanse of the human spirit and our capacity for true greatness. Now, we must do so again, for the need is strong and the challenge supreme. At stake is the survival of life as we know it—not just for the birds, but for the great panorama of all life, ours included. Whitman was right, the powerful play does go on, and we each may contribute a verse. It may tell a story of despair and destruction, or one of hope and renewal. But whatever verse we choose, and how the play goes on, is up to us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beaches Are (Still) For The Birds

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Just over a year ago, Lawrence Harmon penned an opinion piece for the Boston Globe lamenting the closure of sections of two North Shore beaches during Piping Plover nesting season (I wrote about it in an earlier post, Beaches Are For The Birds). In his view, the plovers had rebounded enough and it was time for people to get their beaches back. A substantial amount of money had been spent restoring those beaches, and it wasn’t fair that people didn’t have unrestricted access to them.

Now, Mr. Harmon is entitled to his opinion, and I would never advocate the restriction of free speech, but he was, quite simply, wrong—as most readers took pains to point out. Of course, not all were against him, but those in support were as misguided as he. The problem stems from two things: a lack of understanding of what the plovers need to survive, and the failure to appreciate that the predicament they’re in is our doing.

It would be nice if Mr. Harmon’s piece were the end of it—if, duly chastised, he and those who shared his position realized their collective error, and all subsequent voices in the matter were raised in support of the birds. It would be wonderful if those of us who care about the plover’s future no longer had to expend energy educating others to do the same.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Sadly, that’s not the case. Piping Plovers are in the crosshairs again, at the center of a decades-long war on North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore between environmental organizations and a small group of off-road vehicle (ORV) enthusiasts. After a precipitous decline in Piping Plover nests in the late 1990s to early 2000s—and a subsequent lawsuit by environmental groups of the National Park Service (which had been ignoring an executive order issued by President Nixon to regulate ORV traffic and protect the seashore)—in 2008, the NPS finally issued sound, sensible regulations and restrictions on ORV use during the short shorebird nesting season—much to the dismay of the rabid ORV lobby, who decries any infringement of their recreational pursuits. And though they’re quick to point out that ORVs are not entirely responsible for the decline of the seashore’s birds (which is true, though they bear the lion’s share of the guilt), the regulations have worked: by 2011, nests of Piping Plovers nearly tripled—and other shorebirds benefitted as well, including Black Skimmers, Least, Gull-billed and Common Terns, and American Oystercatchers. And it’s not just birds that began to thrive: in 2012, sea turtle nests broke all previous records, and pedestrians—safe from ORV traffic (and who outnumber the ORV drivers almost 100-fold)—started returning to the beaches, helping the local economy boom. It’s now a situation where everyone benefits: shorebirds and turtles can nest and rear young safely, pedestrians can walk the beaches, and ORV drivers can still use the seashore for most of the year. Everyone’s happy.

Or so you’d think. But the ORV lobby is at it again. This small, very vocal minority is on the attack, and they’ll accept nothing less than total victory: complete and unrestricted access to the seashore year-round, and to hell with the birds—or anyone else, for that matter. They’re loud, they’re bullies, and as far as they’re concerned, the seashore belongs to them. It’s a classic case of human entitlement, and it does not do us proud.

Red Knot © Shawn Carey, Migration Productions

Red Knot © Shawn Carey, Migration Productions

Unfortunately, Piping Plovers aren’t the only ones at risk. Shorebird populations all across the continental United States are plummeting: since 1974, North America’s lost upwards of 50 percent of these long-distance migrants—an astounding 12 million birds, nearly half again the human population of New York City. So severe is the decline that more than half of the continent’s shorebirds made the North American Bird Conservation Initiative’s 2014 State of the Birds Watch List—a dubious honor, as inclusion indicates a need for immediate protection. This year, one of these birds—the strikingly beautiful Red Knot—achieved another questionable accolade: it now appears as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, joining four other shorebirds on a list that will over the foreseeable future only get longer. Again, this does not do us proud.

So what can we do about this? Sadly, I don’t have the answers. I do know this, though: we need to start by asking better questions. How can we balance the needs of human and non-human life? As the dominant species on Earth, isn’t it our responsibility to care for this planet and all who share it? Would a world devoid of all but the human be worth living in? How can we vouchsafe our survival and ensure that future generations inherit a world rich with the full diversity of life, and not one barren as the Moon? How can we, as a people, stem the tide of destruction and loss, and what can each of us, as individuals, do to help? And how do we want to be remembered—as the species that brought ruin to our world, or the species that saved it for all?

As always, the choice is ours.

What will you choose?

 

If you’re interested in learning more about the shorebird situation, you can read Deborah Cramer’s New York Times editorial here.

Ms. Cramer’s also done a remarkable job chronicling the plight of the Red Knot in her book The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey.

If you want to get involved in helping Piping Plovers on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, you can support the National Audubon Society’s conservation effort here

… and submit a public comment to the National Park Service directly through its website here, or through the Defenders of Wildlife’s site here.

Shawn Carey and Migration Productions have produced a wonderful DVD called Epic Journeys, about the migration of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Piping Plovers, and Red Knots. You can get more info about it here.

You can read about the history of the Cape Hatteras conflict in this article

this one

… and this one here.

And if you want to learn about the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Partnership, you can check out their website here

… or their Facebook page here.

Reawakening: A Long Winter’s Journey Into Spring

Black-and-White Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

Late April in New England, and the raw winter is finally breaking, its spindly, ice-crusted fingers reluctantly releasing their grip and freeing us from the season’s cold shackles. And though the vernal sun yet teases us with the promise of warmth only to retreat again behind the cover of clouds, the rush of spring is undeniably upon us: crocuses have come and gone, daffodils are in bloom, the trees’ first buds are tentatively opening, and each dawn breaks over a chorus of birds. It’s this last that gets my blood moving, that more than anything sounds winter’s death knell and affirms, on some primal level, the imminent arrival of green and pleasant days: The birds—feathered vanguards of life’s renewal—have returned.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Of course, winter is far from barren. The colder months bring a rich avian spectacle to the east: Tree Sparrows and Juncos; elegant White-throated Sparrows and diminutive Golden-crowned Kinglets; Red-breasted Nuthatches, those expert scalers of pines; Longspurs, Snow Buntings and Horned Larks, feasting on the remains of fall’s harvest; Rough-legged Hawks and Snowy Owls menacing the fields; Purple Sandpipers skittering along the rocky coast. Some years, Bohemian Waxwings and winter finches abound. And from November through mid-April, a procession of waterfowl presents a visual banquet to those intrepid souls who seek them. I delight in these birds, and take great pleasure in their company—even though the chill works deeper into my bones with each passing year. And I always mark their departure with a touch of sadness, and miss them when they go.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

Still, winter birding is hard: the days are short, the cold omnipresent, and the weather regularly defeats all but the heartiest birders. And the birds themselves, though wonderful to behold, are vocally restrained. The great singers are still warming their feathers to the south, and those who do overwinter nearby hold their voices in check until moved by vernal stirrings.

But when finally they sing, what glorious sound! A Mozart symphony or Bach concerto pales in comparison to the haunting melody of a Wood Thrush or a House Wren’s musical ramble. And what vocal virtuoso can match the skill of a Mockingbird in full-throated splendor? Music is one of humanity’s great accomplishments, and yet the song of a migrating warbler puts the grandest of our efforts to shame.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

And then there are the colors: bold reds and blues, vibrant oranges and yellows, rich chestnuts and deep blacks—Nature’s palette displayed brilliantly on living works of art. Spring migration is an audiovisual feast, and every year I devour it greedily, like a man too long without food. Chipping Sparrows are one of the first to arrive—a personal favorite of mine, and a bird I find disarmingly enchanting. Red-winged Blackbirds follow close on their heels, announcing spring’s inception with flashy epaulettes and insistent calls. The Mockingbirds come soon after, laying claim to our yard and giving chase to any creature unwise enough to contest them. Out on the coast, Piping Plovers—charming creatures by anyone’s measure—are already pairing up and staking out suitable patches of beach sand in which to dig out their nests.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

In the coming weeks, these early travelers will be joined by the full panoply of migrants as forests, fields, and beaches come alive with the feathered pageantry of spring—warblers, tanagers, orioles, flycatchers, buntings, grosbeaks, hummingbirds… a tantalizing array, demanding to be seen.

And then, just as it began, it will be over. The birds who spend their summers in the northeast will find themselves consumed with the business of parenting, while those who use these latitudes as a refueling stop will continue their journeys onward to more northerly climes, not to be seen again until they head south on the cooling winds of autumn. And so it goes. As the seasons change, we say a reluctant goodbye to one set of friends while joyfully welcoming the return of another, the opposing twins lamentation and celebration overlapping. Such is the way of things.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

So go when you must, our winter companions. We’ll miss you, but we won’t be left alone—your spring and summer cousins are on their way to accompany us through the warmer seasons, and we’ll revel in their splendor. As the days grow colder, we’ll look for you again, and when you arrive, we’ll welcome you back with open arms. Until then, farewell.

For now, and at last, bring on the migrants!