Wayfaring Stranger

December 20, 4:00 AM. Thursday. The sun still two hours from breaching the horizon, I’m up and pulling myself out from sleep-warmed sheets and into the pre-dawn chill. My wife, still snuggled safely under the covers, breathes softly, oblivious to the goings-on around her. She won’t be joining this chase.

I dress quietly in the dark and head to the kitchen for a quick breakfast, waiting for my son to wake and making final preparations for the day’s adventure: a northern sprint to a little park in Portland, Maine, wherein lies the rarest bird we’ll ever see.

Aidan emerges from his room, groggy but excited. Though he’s on winter break and fiercely protective of his sleep, this trip was his idea. He is first and foremost a birder, and earliness of the hour be damned, he’s champing at the bit to go. It’s three-and-a-half hours to our destination, and the winter light is short; there will be time to rest tomorrow. We gather the last few items—binoculars, cameras, gloves, provisions for the road (even birders as obsessed as we are need to eat)—and we’re off, leaving my wife sound asleep and the cats silently questioning our sanity. Just one thing left to do: pick up Keith.

Gyrfalcon © Keith Carver

As of this writing, Keith Carver and I have known each other for exactly six years and 30 days—and I can almost pinpoint the hour. This is due not to any special powers of recollection on my part, nor because I have the date and time entered into a journal. I know this because on January 2, 2013, Keith and I met in Hadley, Massachusetts while watching a Gyrfalcon. In our area, this happens about once every 20 years, so it’s an event of some note—and a very auspicious start to a friendship that’s since included Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, Bohemian Waxwings, and one very obliging Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Keith’s a great friend and wonderful birding companion, and is always up for a chase: When I told him our plan and invited him to join us, he didn’t hesitate. He also knows Portland well, and could guide us to the very spot where, with a little luck, the bird would be waiting.

When we got to Keith’s house, he was ready for us. A quick turnaround—exchanging greetings, stowing gear—and we were back on the road, drawn automatically and inexorably towards our own Magnetic North, driven by hope, passion, and the thrill of the chase.

Three hours later, we pulled off the interstate and into Portland, our destination just to the right of the exit ramp. One slow merge and three turns later and we’d arrived: Deering Oaks Park. And there, at the last turn, was the bird—perched in a tree at the junction of Park and Deering Avenues, in the park’s southwest corner, right where it was supposed to be. We found a spot just down the road, walked back to the tree, and looked up.

There it was. And it was beautiful. At the end of the easiest chase we’d ever had was the rarest bird we’d ever seen. For a moment, none of us spoke—we just stared, letting our minds fully grasp the reality of the situation in which we now found ourselves. By all rights, the bird shouldn’t have been there—and yet it was. Standing on a corner in downtown Portland, Maine, we were looking at a Great Black Hawk.

Great Black Hawks are large raptors (similar in size to Red-tailed Hawks) native to Central and South America; until this bird, there’d never been a confirmed wild Great Black Hawk north of Mexico. Then, on April 24, 2018, a birder found and photographed a large raptor on Texas’s South Padre Island; review of the photos and subsequent observations confirmed the bird as a juvenile Great Black Hawk. But the bird vanished later that day, and despite dedicated searching was never seen again.

Fast forward to August 6. Twenty-four miles south of Portland, a birder again photographs an unusual hawk, this one soaring over the seaside town of Biddeford Pool. The photo hits the Internet and eventually lands at a FaceBook group called What’s This Bird?, where it’s identified as a juvenile Great Black Hawk. Three days later, this bird, too, disappears. On October 29, the bird appears again, this time along Portland’s East Promenade—but vanishes like smoke the next day.

Finally, on Thursday, November 29, the hawk discovers Deering Oaks Park and, without fanfare or fuss, settles in. Since that August 6 report, birders up and down the state have been on the lookout for this bird; word gets out almost from the minute it touches down, and birders begin pouring in behind it—the first trickles of water ahead of the flood. Someone manages to capture a photo of the underside of its wing, showing distinctive patterning. Comparison to underwing photos of the Texas bird come up positive: incredibly, this is the same bird that materialized over South Padre Island eight months before—and nearly 2000 miles away.

News of the hawk’s arrival in Portland spreads beyond Maine’s borders like wildfire, drawing people from across the country—Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California. It spends the next several weeks in the park, feasting on a near-endless supply of squirrels, rats, and pigeons, and tussling with the resident Red-tails. Thousands of birders come to this unlikely spot to bear witness to an event the likes of which, in a lifetime of birding, may happen once.

And thus, on the morning of December 20, did we find ourselves in the hawk’s company—the faithful, as it were, undertaking a holy pilgrimage to offer our respects and simply be in the presence of this glorious bird. We spent nearly three hours there, among a small crowd of kindred spirits celebrating the occasion and our collective good fortune to be a part of it, each of us subsuming a piece of history and in turn being subsumed by it, awed by the mysterious spectacle. Questions fell like rain. How had this hawk gotten here? How long would it stay? How was it surviving, and how long would it last? The bird, naturally, was silent to our queries, and simply went about the business of being a bird—in this case, roosting, hunting the copious and corpulent urban squirrels, and for the most part ignoring us. And that was the wonder of it. In an entirely alien environment, in the midst of its celebrity, this hawk found a way to survive, and did so with grace and relative ease. It appeared to all the world as if it belonged there—despite being 3000 miles from the familiar, from home.

And then, as difficult as it was to break away, it was time to begin our southward trip home. We parted ways with the group—these former strangers to whom we were now, through this encounter, permanently connected—silently thanked the hawk, and wished it well. For now, at least, it was healthy and it was safe. But its future, like its past, was uncertain.

The Great Black Hawk continued to delight new and repeat visitors to the park for some time. Prey was bountiful, and thus far the weather had been mild, sparing the bird the full fury of December in Maine. In the back of everyone’s mind, though, was the “What if?”. This was, after all, a bird of the tropics, not adapted to the brutal cold and punishing reality of a true New England winter. If conditions changed, if the mercury plummeted and snow and ice took hold of Deering Oaks Park, would the hawk survive?

Like everyone, I hoped for the best, but was subconsciously steeling myself against an outcome I hadn’t the courage to voice. Nature plays by her own rules though, with no regard for our feelings or desires: On January 20, winter’s hammer struck on the winds of a bitter storm that would ultimately claim the hawk’s life.

That was the scenario everyone had been watching for. Everyone knew what it might mean, and people were ready for it. The morning after the storm, someone went looking for the hawk and found it lying on the ground, unable to stand, and virtually unresponsive… yet somehow alive. That same morning, Terra Fletcher, a recent transplant to the state who we’d met on our visit and who had experience with raptors, happened to be in the park as well. She took the bird home, got it warm and safe, and then made contact with Avian Haven, a dedicated bird rehab facility in Freedom, Maine, who arranged transport for the hawk. Road conditions could hardly have been worse: the usually 90-minute trip was a harrowing four-hour ordeal, but the hawk’s condition seemed to improve along the way. When it arrived at Avian Haven, the bird was alert and active. After emergency care for frostbite to both feet and general debilitation, the staff at Avian Haven settled the Great Black Hawk into intensive care for the night.

The next morning, the hawk was standing and very hungry. A full exam revealed that the bird was stable and in good overall body condition, but the frostbite was a bit worrying. Though it didn’t appear excessive at that point, frostbite is notoriously insidious. It would be at least a few days before they’d know the full extent of the damage. In the meantime, the hawk was still eating ravenously and seemed to be gaining strength.

Appearances can be deceiving, though. Wild animals hide their injuries well; by the time something is obviously wrong, it’s often too late. Though the hawk’s appetite continued unabated and it grew feistier, the full effects of frostbite began to show: it had progressed from the bird’s feet to its lower legs. By January 29, the situation looked grim: the vets at Avian Haven were faced with the probability that the bird would lose at least two toes from each foot to frostbite. In all likelihood, it would be worse.

The next morning, the hawk’s appetite fell precipitously and it was unable to stand. Diagnostic tests showed no circulation in the feet or lower legs; when the vets removed the bandages, both feet were discolored and beginning to decompose. Avian Haven had done all they could; despite heroic efforts to save the hawk, the damage was too great. This wayward stranger’s journey had reached its end.

I, like all who’d come to know this bird, was heartbroken. It all seemed so futile—all the effort, and for what? If it was just going to die anyway, what was the point? Why? The answer, of course, is simple: because. Because to do nothing, to let the bird suffer, cold and alone, would have been morally wrong. In its need for protection, for kindness, and for care, the hawk was no different from any of us. Though the outcome was ultimately the same, in its last days, the hawk knew peace, safety, and comfort. It was shown great compassion, and in its final moments it was attended by people whose hearts had grown to encompass this incredible, bird. On some level, I’m certain it understood that people cared for it. That it was loved.

During its life, the Great Black Hawk brought joy to all who spent time with it. People who had never watched a bird before became captivated by this beautiful hawk and the story of its epic journey; many found themselves caring. For some, it awakened a sense of awe and wonder in the face of Nature, and a desire to protect Her. And there were those of us who fell in love.

Chasing birds is about the allure of the possible, the embrace of wonder. But it’s also about accepting the beauty and fragility of life, and the reality of its inevitable and sometimes tragic end. The idea of a tropical raptor finding safe haven in northern New England was ludicrous, until the Great Black Hawk found its way to a city park in Portland, Maine and changed everything. Should this have been possible? No, not really. Yet somehow, there it was. And though this hawk met its fate too early, while it lived it was magnificent. Power, beauty, grace, dignity, all given exquisite form in feather, muscle, and bone—a winged embodiment of living fire, defying all expectations of what should be, and by its presence challenging us to rethink what we know. This is how I choose to remember it.

Birds don’t exist for our benefit, but we benefit from their existence—ephemeral though it may be. Had I not spent time with the Great Black Hawk, would I have been spared the pain of its death? Of course. But I would have been robbed of something much greater: the chance to witness something spectacular and to know, even a little, the magical, the wondrous, and the beautiful life it was.

By their nature, birds are creatures of mystery, capable of things the likes of which we humans can only dream. Spend time with them—any of them—and I dare you not to become captivated, and perhaps even fall in love. But spend time with something this rare, and I dare you not to reevaluate your knowledge of what can be, not to question your idea of the possible. And I dare you to remain unchanged.

This, this is what the Great Black Hawk was. For me, the experience was worth a broken heart.

 

 

Canvasback Connection

The end of 2018 brought a rather unusual visitor to our corner of Western Massachusetts—a belated Christmas present for the local birders in the form of a beautiful male Canvasback. The duck first appeared with little fanfare on an oxbow lake off the Connecticut River in Northampton and set to feeding, unaware of the excitement he was about to generate.

In the northeast at least, Canvasbacks are cold-weather birds. They make their first appearances in late fall—on rivers, lakes, and along the coast—and stay into early spring, following the vernal winds to their breeding grounds in the north and west. These large, attractive ducks show up with some regularity in our area, but they typically bypass my Hampshire County environs for Franklin, Berkshire, and Hampden Counties to the north, west, and south—within relatively easy reach (and I have made trips to see them), but not just around the corner. And though I’m happy to go birding anywhere, there’s something satisfying about seeing birds in your own county—a feeling akin to welcoming a friend into your home.

In the case of a Canvasback, the trick was finding one. Since 1970, there have been just over a dozen reports of these ducks within the county—not a common occurrence by any means. In my 16 years of birding within Hampshire County, I’d never managed to get time, place, and Canvasback to coincide. When I heard about this one, I felt I had my chance.

First, though, I had to call Mary. Mary McKitrick’s a newfound friend and frequent birding partner, and she’d be thrilled about our uncommon guest. When I reached her, she was already en route to Northampton, but she hadn’t heard about the Canvasback, so she took a side trip to find him.

No luck. In the half-hour between when I saw the initial report and when Mary made it to the oxbow, the bird had flown. But all was not yet lost. Just to north of the oxbow lies Paradise Pond, an aquatic haven on the Smith College campus that’s frequented by a variety of waterfowl (and connected to the oxbow by the Mill River). If the bird was anywhere, we thought, that’s where he’d be. Mary made a beeline for Paradise Pond.

And that’s where she found him.

Half an hour later, my family and I were there ourselves, watching the Canvasback at turns swimming, resting, and feeding among the pond’s resident waterfowl—Canada Geese, Common Mergansers, Mallards, and American Black Ducks. A small group of birders gathered while we were there, and we all shared in the spectacle of this wonderful bird, out of place yet carrying on as if nothing was out of the ordinary. We spent about an hour with him, enjoying both his company and that of the kindred spirits—friends all—who’d assembled on the shore to watch him. Of the myriad ways to close out the year, it’s hard to top a rare bird sighting in the company of family and friends. As we left, I silently thanked the bird and wished him Godspeed, not expecting to see him again but knowing full well that I’d try.

The next day—January first—I was back. For some time now, I’ve marked the turning of the calendar with an excursion among birds. Even if it’s just a walk in the neighborhood, I find it very soul-satisfying to see each new year in on feathered wings. Given the relative rarity of the Canvasback (and my love of ducks), a visit with him felt like a perfect way to open 2019. Of course, there was no guarantee he’d be there, but I thought it was pretty likely—the weather hadn’t changed and he was finding food. Absent some other external influence, there was no reason for him to leave.

I parked the car and started down the path overlooking Paradise Pond, glancing down at the water as I walked. As hoped, there among the usual suspects was the Canvasback. He’d drawn a small crowd of very happy birders and was leisurely swimming back and forth in front of them, looking like nothing so much as a model strutting down the catwalk. I reached the edge of the water in time for a couple of passes, and then he slowly drifted away from us, settling in with a large flock of Canada Geese. The scene was serene, the Canvasback captivating. We were enthralled.

Bald Eagle © Joe Oliverio

And then everything changed. With no warning, the Canvasback exploded into motion. From a slow swim he broke into a frantic, running takeoff, webbed feet smacking against the surface of the pond, sending loud thwacks! and plumes of water into the air. It took a moment for us to identify the cause of this sudden shift in demeanor: We’d been so focused on him that we didn’t see the Bald Eagle closing in from above.

But he did.

He was airborne in no time, flying in a wide circle across our field of view, reaching full speed in seconds and racing away from his taloned assassin. The Eagle dropped in behind, huge and menacing, the duck just out of reach. The Canvasback’s timing had been impeccable: He’d known how long he’d need to get into the air and gain enough speed to outfly his pursuer; had he waited a fraction of a moment more, the Eagle would have taken him on the water. Advantage: Canvasback. The Eagle was too late.

Then we noticed the second Eagle, taking a line to cut off the fleeing duck. The first Eagle wasn’t looking for the kill, it was driving its prey into the talons of its partner—the hound to the hunter. It looked like it was all over.

But the duck picked up on this before we did, changing his own line and veering sharply away from the second bird. He had avoided the trap—but now both Eagles were in pursuit. The drama played out in virtual silence, no sound emanating from the three actors save the frenetic whistling of the duck’s wings cutting the air as he made his bid to escape.

The three birds flew out over the pond toward a distant line of trees, the Canvasback still holding his lead—barely—as they slipped out of sight. The duck’s speed gave him the edge, but it was an open question whether it would hold out against the stamina of the much larger birds. We waited through the tension, and hoped.

The question is: why? In a contest like this, the prey is in immediate danger: if it’s caught, that’s the end. However, there’s risk to the predator as well: if it misses, it goes hungry; too many misses and it falls to starvation. Intellectually, we know this: If a predator doesn’t eat, it will eventually die. So why root for the prey?

Two words: connection and transference. Consider the Canvasback again: I’d been watching him languidly cruise the pond, apparently without care or concern. All was peace and tranquility—until the first Eagle dropped out of the sky. And just like that, in a fraction of time indivisible in its brevity, what had been a relaxed encounter shifted into a life-or-death drama. In that moment, the duck was transformed. From a life one step removed, he’d become an individual to whom I was now intimately connected, obeying the instinct that undergirds all of our journeys upon this Earth, bird and human alike: survival. And through that connection I could feel, for the briefest of spans, what I imagined he felt: the fear, the desperation, and the desire, above all else, to live. Emotionally, how could I not want him to escape?

Though it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, for all of us gathered there the wait stretched into interminability. We began to fear the worst for the Canvasback, that he’d met his match and contributed his life force to the Eagles, his death ensuring, for a time, their continued survival.

Bald Eagles © Chuck Stern

Then we caught motion over the distant trees—and there he was! The Canvasback flew towards us, high up and now well ahead of the two birds of prey. As the duck passed over our heads and away, the Eagles, at last, gave up, circling down to the trees and out of sight once more. For today, at least, the duck had triumphed. I congratulated him on his victory and wished him well. And I congratulated the Eagles on a valiant effort, comforting myself that they would find future meals among the pond’s waterfowl, as they had done on other days. On those days, I would be thankful for the lives that the birds sacrificed for the good of the Eagles, while also quietly mourning their passing. Such is the way of things. If you love Nature, you must love all of Her, and recognize that some days go to the prey and others to the predators—exactly as it should, it must, be. In such transactions, there is no good or bad, there simply is—an exchange of one life for another, neither one better or worse, but both equal.

In witnessing such encounters, we are reminded of the beauty and heartbreak of life, and of its sublime ephemerality. If we open ourselves to the full experience, put aside our egos, we might see ourselves as part of the life equation, like all who walk, swim, crawl, or fly upon this Earth—our home, yes, but not ours alone. We may recognize ourselves in the Canvasback’s desperate flight, or in the Eagle’s hunger. Looking deeper, we may learn to embrace life’s gorgeous transience and live, not in fear of the end, but in celebration of the now. If we let these threads entwine, we may awaken to the connectedness of all things, to the interdependence of each upon the other, and to the simultaneous inseparability and exquisite uniqueness of each individual existence. For at the source, we all, regardless of form, are lives full of vibrancy, potential, and promise.

But Can You Count It?

central-park.jpg

Central Park © Agatha Kadar

New York’s Central Park is an extraordinary place for birds. Over the years, this 843-acre island in the heart of Manhattan’s sprawling urban expanse has hosted a dazzling avian extravaganza—more than 260 species running the gamut from waterfowl to warblers. Most of the birds you’ll find are more or less expected for the park’s location—in the Northeast and along the Atlantic flyway—and the particular season you might be birding there. Some visitors are less common than others, and some seasons are more productive. Migration, as you might imagine, is particularly good. It’s the sheer number and variety of birds that makes Central Park so special, though. Hemmed in on all sides by concrete and steel and the constant press of urban humanity, Central Park is the largest expanse of green for miles—and it beckons like a seductress, promising food, shelter, and rest to these weary winged wayfarers.

However, Olmstead’s creation is also justifiably famous for attracting vagrants from all over North America—Barnacle Goose, Painted Bunting, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Pine Grosbeak, and Black-throated Gray Warbler have all put in appearances. Occasionally, circumstances will conspire to bring in a wanderer from Europe—birders finding themselves at the happy confluence of time and place have been rewarded with Tufted Ducks, Eurasian Wigeons, and European Goldfinches. Rare enough, but it does happen.

Mandarin Duck, Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy

This fall, though, a traveler from way out of town found his way here: a drake Mandarin Duck, native of East Asia and one of the showiest waterfowl anywhere, materialized out of nowhere and settled in among the park’s workaday waterfowl. How, one might ask, did this happen? How is it possible that a duck common in eastern China and Japan journeyed some 6500 miles to Central Park?

The answer is, it didn’t.

Probably.

When speaking of birds, I avoid the words “always,” “never,” and “impossible.” They invariably cause trouble, as the minute anyone utters one of them—often in a voice replete with assurance—some bird shows up to present an opposing view. As a good friend of mine is fond of saying, “birds have wings and they like to use them”—and I’ve witnessed enough and heard of even more to realize that, as far as birds are concerned, almost anything is possible. Still, in the case of the Central Park Mandarin, this would be extreme: Mandarin Ducks are short-distance migrants, and East Asia is a long way from New York.

So where did it come from? There are two probable sources: a nearby zoo/wildlife center or a private waterfowl collection (these ducks are very popular among collectors). Even under the most carefully controlled conditions, escapes still happen and formerly captive birds find their way into the wild. And sometimes people intentionally let birds go, because they either can’t or won’t care for them any longer.

Regardless of the bird’s origin, birders from all over have been flocking to Central Park for a glimpse of New York’s newest winged celebrity. This raises what, for many, is a question of paramount importance: can it be counted?

A brief digression for my readers not intimately familiar with the language of birding: A “countable” bird is one that can legitimately be added to your life list (a list of birds you’ve seen over your lifetime). Though the rules vary in their details from region to region, generally for a bird to be countable it has to be two things: 1) wild, and 2) a full species (not a subspecies or a hybrid). Each major birding region has its own arbiter that sets the rules (in North America, it’s the American Birding Association, or ABA), following the most recent science and research; birders then use these rules to determine which birds can be listed (a note to my experienced birders: yes, I know this is a gross oversimplification, but for the purposes of this discussion, it’ll do).

Black Swan, Cape May

That’s if you want to keep your list “official.” In practice, you can list anything you want, and many birders do. Some maintain multiple lists, keeping records of everything they’ve seen as well as the agency-approved list of countable species. Birders make life lists, year lists, country lists, state lists, county lists, yard lists, lists of birds seen while running, walking the dog, using the bathroom… there’s an endless variety. Myself, I keep track of anything I see in the wild—including hybrids and escapees. If it’s out there, I make a note of it, provenance be damned.

To be sure, there are valid and extremely important scientific reasons to determine the origin of an out-of-town arrival. Foremost is conservation—of the bird’s native habitat (has it been displaced due to loss of its former home?), the new habitat it’s chosen to reside in, the bird itself, and the native birds upon which it may have an impact (think European Starlings or House Sparrows in the United States). There’s also the issue of disease—is the bird harboring some foreign pathogen that could gain a foothold in a new area? And there’s another, more sobering, reason: as our climate continues to heat up, a bird that shows up well beyond its typical range might be warning of disruption on a massive scale, a rumble of distant thunder signaling the coming storm.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

Asking whether or not Central Park’s Mandarin Duck is countable misses the point. The real question is this: Does it matter? If you go out birding simply to keep score, if you care more about your life list than the birds that are on it, then there’s something wrong. I once heard someone say, rather loudly, that a hybrid Clapper x King Rail was worthless because he couldn’t count it. Unable to appreciate this spectacular bird or the life it represented, he angrily moved on. To him, birds existed solely for his benefit; a bird he couldn’t list had no reason for being. He’d reduced birding to a competition devoid of joy or any remnant of the spirit of wonder that drives those of us who are truly passionate about birds. I felt sorry for him.

Yes, I keep a life list. Listing is, after all, fun. But for me, a list is greater than just marks on paper. It represents a collection of experiences; reviewing it is a trip into the past, a reminder of places I’ve been, what I’ve seen there, and the times I’ve spent with friends and family among the birds that I love.

Brewster’s Warbler, Sweet Alice Conservation Area, Amherst

But there’s something larger, something far beyond the tangled threads of my own experience. For me, listing a species of uncertain provenance is a way of showing it respect, of celebrating it and acknowledging its value as an individual. Central Park’s magical Mandarin is, after all, a life—full and complete and existing on its own terms—and whether it’s an escapee or a wild vagrant, it has found a way to make a living on alien shores. It is, in every sense that matters, wild.

How did it get here? Where did it come from? And where is it going? These questions are at the heart of all of birding’s great mysteries, and exploring them leads down the paths of discovery, revelation, and wonder. Once you set out upon them, you’ll begin to ask other questions: How do these creatures live? What do they need to survive? And how can we safeguard their future? These are the questions that truly matter, the ones whose answers lead to a greater appreciation of the lives that surround us, an awakening to the connection of all things, and a realization that we, like they, have our part to play in the survival of all.

Ultimately, the question of a bird’s countability is insignificant. Worse, it distracts from a fundamental truth: There is dignity in these uncountable birds, as there is in all life. And regardless of origin, they are entitled to the same level of respect, appreciation, and love that we all deserve. By listing the birds we encounter—wild or otherwise—we acknowledge their existence and make a record of their passing, and remind ourselves that for a moment, our paths crossed and we shared a brief slice of time with something beautiful and extraordinary. If you let it, it will change your life.

That’s why we bird.

img_4517a

Mandarin among the Mallards, Central Park

 

A Life Returned

One morning a few weeks ago, I stepped out our back door onto the patio, walked quietly up to the bird feeders, and very gently plucked a small House Finch from one of the perches. She offered no resistance, save for a surprised squawk and a feeble twitch in my hand—an attempt, no doubt, to escape, which might have succeeded had she been stronger. But this was a sick bird. Eyes crusted closed, the bird hadn’t seen me coming, and in her weakened condition she was barely able to struggle. This was a classic case of Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis—House Finch eye disease.

Holding her safely and securely in what’s known as a bander’s grip—back against my palm, hand cupped around her wings, tail, and feet, index and middle finger on either side of her neck with her head peeking out between them—I carried her into the house and placed her in a small carrier. To keep her quiet and relaxed, I draped a cover over it, ensuring that enough air flowed in to allow her to breathe easily. Then I called Judy Pasko, a wildlife rehabber I know in Cummington, and we were off.

An hour later I was on my way back home, the little finch in Judy’s care. For me, it was all over but the waiting. Judy would do everything she could, but the bird’s condition wasn’t good: the disease was advanced, and she was very weak. The next 24 hours were critical. If she made it through a full day of treatment, she’d have a decent chance to survive.

First spotted by Project FeederWatch participants in the Washington, D.C. area early in 1994, House Finch eye disease spread like wildfire all along the Eastern Seaboard. Co-sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, FeederWatch is a citizen science project that gets ordinary people involved in monitoring the birds that visit their yards and reporting what they see. Sightings are collected in a central database, which scientists and conservationists can use to look at population trends, migration timing, appearance of specific species… if there’s a question they can ask, this massive data set—submitted by thousands of regular people who just love birds—can help them get at an answer. In February of 1994, FeederWatchers began reporting House Finches with red, crusty, swollen eyes. But what was it? Where did it come from? And how did it spread?

The first two were easy to answer: Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis is an illness caused by the parasitic bacterium Mycoplasma gallisepticum, which jumped species from infected poultry. The third was a little harder; two decades after its emergence in House Finches, the jury’s still out. Most likely, the pathogen passes from one bird to another through contact with infected droppings or the hallmark eye secretions, but no one’s entirely sure. What’s certain is that it does spread, and easily: in addition to House Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, American Goldfinches, and Purple Finches have all succumbed to it. And in 2002, the disease crossed the Rockies and began racing through the western U.S., infecting House Finches all the way to the Pacific Coast. My little bird was in good company.

And she was also in good hands. Judy called the next day with an update: the finch was still with us, and seemed a little stronger after her first course of medicine. She wasn’t out of the woods yet, but things were looking up. Now she faced a few weeks of treatment, rest, and acclimation to the cooler weather heralding winter’s approach. If all went well, in about three weeks she’d be ready to be released. I’m not usually given to prayer, but I asked for Mother Nature’s intercession, and hoped that She might convey this little bird back to health.

Sometimes prayers are answered. This morning, Judy drove the finch back home. The bird she released in our yard was feisty, energetic, and possessed of all the vitality that this disease had drained from her—the fire of life burning deep and strong within her feathered breast. She flew to the top of the tallest tree, and was immediately joined by another of her kin. The two finches sat in each other’s company, perhaps enjoying their reunion, and then she took flight again, descending into the yard. She landed in a nearby Ash and, head tilted in our direction, regarded us—we two who had helped her back to life. I looked into her eye, and the full force of connection hit me—a freight train carried on gossamer wings. Weeks before, I had reached out my hand and delivered her into the hands of another who would save her. And here she was, healthy, beautiful, and free.

It doesn’t always end this way. There have been others who’ve been less fortunate, who we’ve tried to help and who were already too far gone. But as Judy said this morning, you do what you can, even if doesn’t change the outcome. If nothing else, at least they knew safety, comfort, and love before they passed.

My family and I took a trip to California this past April, and on a beach in Monterey we found a female Surf Scoter in clear distress. We wrapped her in my jacket and brought her an hour away to a wildlife rescue center—gaunt, bedraggled, and barely holding on. She died during the night. Why had we found her, my son wondered, if we couldn’t save her? In the end, what good did we do?

Sometimes, it seems pointless. If the bird’s going to die anyway, why bother? The answer is simple: because we can. Because we should. Because all life has equal value, and must be treated with respect, with reverence, and with love. And because, regardless of outcome, there’s nobility in the attempt.

And once in a while, in the face of uncertainty and through great care, a life on the edge comes back to us. In that moment, hope is reborn, life is proven stronger than death, and we are given the gift of connection to all that is, was, and will ever be. And for a time, at least, the world is good.

 

To learn more about Judy Pasko and to support her work, you can check out her website, Cummington Wildlife Inc.

You can get more info about House Finch eye disease through the Project FeederWatch website here

… and here

… the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website here

here

… and here.

And you can learn more about Project FeederWatch here.

 

 

 

For Love Of Shorebirds

Ruddy Turnstone

It’s early November, and at home in western Massachusetts we’re bracing for the onset of colder temperatures and shorter days, and the prospect of widespread and frequent snow. This isn’t unique to us here in the Pioneer Valley, of course, or even New England. All across the northern latitudes, people are preparing for the decreases in both mercury and afternoon sun concurrent with the slide towards winter.

Though thoughts of summer sun and sandy toes are far from many of our minds now, bear with me; I’d like you to join me in a little exercise in visualization (this will be much easier for those of you in warmer climes). Picture your favorite beach on a July or August morning, sand soft and cool underfoot, water sun-kissed and shimmering in the golden light, raucous cries of gulls set against the rolling surf’s gentle susurration. Terns circle overhead, plunging into the depths like feathered missiles, while shorebirds work the fluctuating boundary between earth and sea, retreating up the beach with each incoming wave, and skittering back down behind the receding water on wind-up-toy legs, driving their bills down like sewing needles to pluck a morsel from beneath the wet sand. The crowds have yet to arrive; it’s just you, the beach, and the birds.

Hold that vision in your mind for a moment. Now, I’d like you to picture the same scene, but with one difference: take out the birds. It’s just not the same, is it? What was once vibrant with life has become as empty as the Moon. Coastal landscapes are stunningly beautiful, but the birds elevate them to the sublime.

Purple Sandpiper

Sadly, this vision could very well become reality—at least as far as shorebirds are concerned. As a whole, shorebirds—or waders, as they’re known outside the United States—are perhaps the most at-risk birds on the planet. Their marathon migrations—among the longest journeys in the avian world—alone stretch the limits of survival; the myriad threats they face along the way are enough to push an extreme situation beyond those limits. Habitat loss, pollution, hunting, loss of prey, human disturbance, predation—that these haven’t yet driven shorebirds to wholesale extinction is a testament to their resilience. How much longer they can rely on that—and what might ultimately put them over the edge—is anyone’s guess. The reality of our warming climate and its compounding effects on habitat loss (especially through sea level rise) and disruption of food sources might be the trigger, though. Regardless, one thing is certain: we can’t continue this way. If nothing changes, we’re almost sure to lose them.

But there is something you can do: go birding. It sounds simple, I know, even ridiculous, but hear me out. This weekend, November 4-5, is the fourth annual Wader Conservation World Watch (WCWW), and it’s a chance to help. Started by the UK-based conservation group Wader Quest, the WCWW is a two-day survey of the world’s shorebirds—citizen science on a global scale. Wader Quest’s mission is simple: Save the shorebirds. By educating people about the needs of shorebirds and the struggles they face, and raising funds to support conservation efforts across the globe, Wader Quest is helping to drive shorebird conservation worldwide. But they can’t do it alone.

As birders, as lovers of those magnificent, feathered creatures, we can help. And it’s easy: get out this weekend and look for shorebirds. You don’t have to go both days (although I don’t know many birders who complain about having to spend a weekend birding), just go when you can—and at the end of the weekend, email the folks at Wader Quest and let them know what you saw. That’s it. They do the rest—including sending out a wrap-up newsletter with the results. Last year, participants from 38 countries on six continents found 124 shorebird species—a respectable showing, but we can do better for the birds we love. In fact, we must do better if we want to encourage their survival. The threats to these charismatic and endearing fliers—and to birds in general—grow daily; they need us to speak up on their behalf, they need us to care. There are hundreds of millions of birders across the planet, and countless more who simply love nature and don’t want to lose any more of it. If we can speak in unison, raise our voices in support of those who aren’t heard, we can let loose a cry to loud to ignore. If we choose to take action, to get involved, we can change the world. But each of us must do our part. I’m asking you to do yours.

Remember, yours is the greatest voice for change.

Use it.

 

Since its inception in 2012, Wader Quest has been doing great work for shorebird conservation. I joined as a member two years ago, and I highly encourage you to support their work by joining as well, or making a donation. You can do so here.

Wader Conservation World Watch 4 is this weekend, November 4-5. You can find out more about it here.

And you can email your results to waderquest@gmail.com.

You can also learn about Wader Quest by digging into their website here

… and their FaceBook page here.

 

Dunlin

 

 

 

The Hand Of Man (or Santa Ana’s Demise)

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

A fellow birder and photographer I met a few winters ago in pursuit of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher—a bird of Central and South America who somehow found his way to the wilds of Connecticut—recently posted a photo of a Great-crested Flycatcher perched on a feeder pole in her back yard. Unlike the Fork-tailed, this flycatcher is a regular fixture in the Northeast, but finding one in your yard is still an event of some note, and she was thrilled to have captured it—particularly given how notoriously skittish these birds are. And it’s a wonderful photograph—the image is crisp, the color beautiful, and the light just about ideal. In her mind, the only drawback is the metal pole; she prefers photos that are free of, as she put it, evidence of the hand of man.

She’s not alone in this. Given the choice, most photographers I know would rather capture wildlife in a natural setting. And I get it. After all, showing animals in their unaltered environments is the First Commandment of wildlife photography. I share this bias towards unspoiled nature, and though I won’t pass up the chance to photograph a bird just because there’s an object from the human world in the frame, I often feel that such images are somehow tainted.

Peregrine Falcon

Lately, I’ve been questioning this. For one thing, there’s quite a bit of artistry to many of these photos, and they open windows into the lives of creatures who share spaces we think of as ours: songbirds singing from fence posts; raptors using telephone poles as vantages and nest sites; gulls perched on buoys; sandpipers foraging in parking lot puddles; birds resting on wooden piers, feeding from stone jetties, and nesting on, in, and around all manner of structures… the list of human objects birds use as they go about the business of being birds is limited only by what’s available to them. Sometimes, too, the line between the human and wild worlds blurs to indistinction: Purple Martins nest almost exclusively in houses we’ve built for them, and in the most extreme example, the world’s largest populations of Peregrine Falcons now live in our cities. Having traded rocky outcroppings for cliffs of concrete and steel, the urban jungle is the Falcon’s natural environment.

There’s something beyond aesthetic considerations though, an unintended consequence of this tendency to discount images that show evidence of our presence. It’s so subtle that it hadn’t even occurred to me until very recently. The issue is this: Presenting photos of animals only in a wild context unconsciously reinforces the misperception that we are somehow removed from them, that the worlds of people and nature are separated by a vast, unbridgeable divide, that we are not a part of nature, but apart from it. A photo of a Mourning Dove on a shingled roof or a Black-capped Chickadee nesting in an abandoned telephone junction box reminds us that wild creatures are not confined to the wilderness; they’re all around us, and we are bound to them by threads that stretch back farther than the dawn of humanity.

Fiery-billed Araçari

Don’t get me wrong—we need both kinds of images, desperately. A photo of a toucan in the middle of the rainforest or a Snowy Owl hunting the Arctic tundra opens our eyes to the wonders of the world and reveals the wilderness still left to protect. And a picture of a hummingbird visiting a backyard feeder or a Red-breasted Nuthatch feasting on a suet cake sheds light on the wildlife just outside our doors, to which we are intimately connected. Regardless of your own preference—and there’s no right or wrong in this—neither type is inherently better. Both have equal value, and both remind us that there’s life here beyond humanity.

That we share this planet with countless species is a point worth remembering, particularly when making decisions that impact our world at large. For better or worse, we have the ability to alter our environment more so than any other species in history—even to the point of driving others into extinction. As such, we bear a heavy responsibility to make such decisions soberly, with full possession of the facts, and with an awareness of and appreciation for the potential consequences to all.

With the fear-mongering and fact-averse Trump administration in the White House and the GOP-led Congress rolling back even the most basic of environmental protections and hell-bent on wholesale ecological annihilation, this is more urgent than ever. There is no greater illustration of this confluence of forces and the danger they represent than the recent developments within South Texas’ Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

Plain Chachalaca

Widely considered to be the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge system, Santa Ana NWR encompasses more than 2,000 acres of critical wildlife habitat along the banks of the Rio Grande. Hosting more than 400 species of birds—including Lower Rio Grande Valley specialties like Green Jay, Plain Chachalaca, Green Kingfisher, and Great Kiskadee, as well as several rarities that stray north from Mexico—Santa Ana is one of the top birding destinations in the world. It’s also home to half of all the United States’ butterfly species and more than 450 species of plants, and is the last refuge within this country for the endangered Ocelot (fewer than 50 of these beautiful cats are left in the U.S.). Santa Ana is a biological hotspot like no other, and with 95 percent of the Rio Grande Valley’s native habitat already lost to agriculture and development, it is one of the most ecologically important areas in the country.

And we’re at risk of losing it. Santa Ana is under attack.

The key to the refuge’s richness and the source of its peril are one and the same: location, location, location. Santa Ana sits at a convergence between four distinct climates—subtropical, temperate, coastal, and desert—that tragically occur at North America’s most contentious address: the U.S./Mexico border. Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” has found Ground Zero.

In an administration rife with controversies, this may be the worst. Expanding the border wall was the foundational promise of Trump’s campaign: he would secure the entire 2,000-mile border with an impassable barrier—and he’d get Mexico to pay for it.

The ludicrousness of that assertion aside, here’s the catch: Texas holds the lion’s share of the border between the two nations, and the vast majority of it is on private land, which the federal government can’t just build on. Its options are limited: purchase the land from each individual owner or seize it through eminent domain or some other means. Both are expensive and complicated, and create issues the administration would rather not spend time resolving (around 100 condemnation suits filed against private landowners by the George W. Bush administration for the first round of construction in 2007 have yet to be resolved).

There is a way to avoid all this hassle, though, and just get to work: build on land the government already owns. Thus, Santa Ana. As a National Wildlife Refuge, it technically belongs to the federal government, and it can do with the refuge as it pleases. And thanks to the REAL ID Act of 2005, it can do so without regard to environmental restrictions or impact. The Trump administration is wasting no time: government contractors have already begun preliminary work, surveying land and taking soil samples for a proposed three-mile section of wall that would cut Santa Ana in half.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

The current plan calls for construction of an 18-foot high physical barrier set into a solid concrete base, as well as clearing broad swaths of land on both sides of the wall, building a road south of the wall, and erecting light towers and other surveillance equipment. To call this a disaster is to severely understate the case. Driving a wall through Santa Ana’s heart would be an ecological catastrophe from which the refuge and the vast array of species who depend on its bounty would never recover. Of course, many birds could simply fly over the border wall, but they’d still be affected by the loss of critical habitat and the disruption to their lives that would result from construction, monitoring, and maintenance. For those birds who prefer to keep close to the ground, 18 feet of wall presents more of a challenge. And terrestrial animals whose survival depends on free movement across the border would be doomed. Faced with an impenetrable barrier and cut off from critical sources of food and water, many would die. In addition, the refuge is already prone to storm flooding from the Rio Grande: 2010’s Hurricane Alex flooded Santa Ana for four months (if that doesn’t seem excessive, try treading water for that long). Add a border wall to the mix, and the impact would be even more devastating. For the endangered Ocelots, this could be the final push that sends them plummeting towards extinction.

There’s a human cost as well. South Texas is one of the poorest parts of the country, and nature tourism has an enormous impact—$463 million annually, to be exact, most generated from birding. Santa Ana alone hosts 165,000 visitors a year, from all over the world. They’ll continue to come, too, as long as there’s a refuge left to visit. But if Trump has his way, you can kiss it all goodbye. And all for a border wall that the people ostensibly most in need of it don’t want, and many experts agree won’t work (the Cato Institute, not known for its liberal leanings, published an analysis of border wall effectiveness; you can find it here).

Fortunately, the voices of protest are ringing clear throughout the valley. Landowners, residents, naturalists, religious leaders, and Texas politicians on both sides of the ideological divide have joined forces to decry Trump’s assault on their homes, their lands, and the irreplaceable wild lands and refuges to which the Rio Grande valley plays host. There is strength in numbers and in unified opposition, and both are building.

And there is also hope in the form of more effective and less destructive solutions. A small coalition of border-state lawmakers has emerged to offer an alternative to Trump’s medieval approach. Led by U.S. Representative Will Hurd—a Texas Republican—they’ve introduced a bill for a “smart” wall. Instead of a physical barrier, they propose monitoring and protecting the U.S./Mexico border through a network of high-tech security systems. It may sound farfetched, but Rep. Hurd knows whereof he speaks. Not only does his district encompass more of the border than any other congressional district (around 800 miles), he’s a former CIA operative and cybersecurity advisor—making him something of an authority on the subject. At worst, the “smart” wall wouldn’t be any less effective than a slab of concrete that anyone with determination could climb over or tunnel beneath—and it would be far less expensive. According to his research, this cyber wall would drop the cost from an estimated $24.5 million per mile (under Trump’s plan) to a fraction of that: $500,000 per mile. And since you and I will be footing the bill either way, their proposal deserves serious consideration.

There’s a more important reason to resist Trump’s wall, though: it’s the right thing to do. Preserving our wild lands and protecting the incredible bounty of life within them is a moral imperative. It goes beyond the artificial constructs of ideology, nationality, and faith that divide us, and cuts to the core of what it means to be human. Every so often we are given an opportunity to stand up for the greater good, to give our voices to those who have none, to act in defense of something larger than ourselves, to raise the vision of humanity and create a better world in the process. This is such a time.

Green Jay

Our history is not pretty; too often the hand of man has levied death and destruction. But our history need not define our future. In the past, we have turned our hand to preservation and conservancy; now we must do so again. The blind push to expand the border wall is a clarion call to those of us who would stand with wildlife and not against it, and who recognize the intrinsic value of all creatures, great and small. The fight for Santa Ana is more than a fight to save a single refuge. It’s a fight to uphold the sanctity of life in whatever form it takes, and to protect it from threats borne of greed, ignorance, or fear. It’s a fight for the soul of our humanity.

And it’s a fight we will, we must, win.

 

To learn more about Santa Ana NWR, visit its National Wildlife Refuge page here.

You can get more information about Santa Ana and the border wall controversy through the following links:

And the Denton Record-Chronicle has an article about Rep. Hurd’s “smart” border wall here.

 

 

 

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