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.

 

 

 

A Collision of Worlds: Passerines and Pipelines

Yellow Warbler

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

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

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

Baltimore Oriole

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

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

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

Chipping Sparrow

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

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

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

The 314

Black Oystercatcher

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

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

Gone.

Mallard

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

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

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

Laughing Gull by Aidan Griffiths

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

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

It’s the loss of us.

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

Eared Grebe

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

 

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

 

 

 

The Necessity Of Wild Spaces

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Parker River NWR

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Parker River NWR

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

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

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

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

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

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

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

Northern Pintails, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

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

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

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

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

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

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

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

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

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

… in the Washington Post here

… in Think Progress here

… and in Daily Kos here.

Encounters At Ocean’s Edge

Red Knots, Reed's Beach

Red Knots, Reed’s Beach

Cape May, New Jersey. Reed’s Beach. Morning. Under an overcast late May sky, the surf rises and falls gently with the incoming tide, drawn up the sand by an ancient, inexorable force. It carries the scent and taste of the sea and pushes before it the raucous chorus of a multitude of winged voices: the cries of gulls, the scolding of terns, and the peeps and chatters of many hundreds of shorebirds. For the second time in my life, I’ve traveled 300 miles from home to bear witness to one of North America’s great avian spectacles: the annual procession of shorebirds through Delaware Bay. Turnstones, Dunlins, Willets, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, all descend on the bay to feed and gather strength before making the final push to their summer homes. All are delightful, every one a thrill to see. But there’s one bird here who surpasses all others, whose arrival is as eagerly awaited as the return of a long-traveling lover, and whose reappearance on these sandy shores each year is cause for grand celebration. Spring migration has just kicked into high gear; the Red Knots have returned.

I fell in love with Red Knots two years ago, on my first pilgrimage to Reed’s Beach. It was a trip I’d been meaning to take for some time, but in a typical year I only get to Cape May once, for fall raptor migration (something for which Cape May is justifiably famous). As a group, shorebirds have long been one of my favorites, though. There’s something particularly engaging in watching them work the beach, probing the wet sand enthusiastically for a meal, skittering away from the surf and back again with each succession of waves, legs moving in double-time. They seem to truly enjoy life; only a cold heart could fail to be charmed by them. But among these wonderful birds, Red Knots are extraordinary. Cast in deep russet from face through belly, backs and wings elegantly patterned in black, white, and tan, they are exquisite. Watching hundreds of these gorgeous sandpipers move along the sand eagerly devouring horseshoe crab eggs was spellbinding, and I was captivated.

When talking about Red Knots, it’s common to speak in superlatives. This is, after all, a bird that travels from pole to pole twice a year, a round-trip distance of some 18,000 miles (one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom)—often in non-stop stretches of 1,500 miles or more. When they hit the Delaware Bay, they’re nearly starved. But their timing is impeccable: with precision that puts a Swiss watchmaker to shame, they arrive at the peak of the spawning of horseshoe crabs—upon whose eggs the knots double their weight, ensuring that they have the reserves to finish their epic journey to breeding grounds in the high Arctic.

Red Knots, Reed's Beach

Red Knots, Reed’s Beach

As I sat watching these birds, I thought about that journey—the vast distance, the critical timing, the reliance on a singular food source. North America’s Red Knots face a litany of threats, among them overfishing of horseshoe crabs and loss of habitat through both development and the ravages of a changing climate. So much could go wrong, could push an already struggling bird over the edge. And yet here they were, still hanging on. For how much longer was anyone guess, but for the moment I could let the future be and simply enjoy my time in their company.

Though I could easily have spent the balance of the day with the knots, I eventually took my leave of them, thanking the birds for including me, however briefly, in their lives. I wished them Godspeed and we went our separate ways. With luck, we’d meet on this beach again next year.

Closer to home, on the northeast coast of Massachusetts, rests another haven that, over the course of a year, gives shelter to a great panoply of avian life: Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Waterfowl, marsh birds, alcids, songbirds, raptors, shorebirds… wherever they come from, whatever they are, all who reach the refuge find succor and sustenance. A few months before my visit with the knots, I’d taken a trip to Parker River with a group of friends and family. It’s a favorite spot of ours, and venturing here at the uneasy junction of winter and spring has become a tradition.

Piping Plover, Milford Point

Piping Plover, Milford Point

The day had grown late and we were scanning the ocean for sea ducks when seven tiny white birds flew in low across the sand, set down on the beach and began the busy work of securing dinner. We shifted to the new arrivals, and drew in a collective breath as we brought them into focus. These were not the Sanderlings we expected, but a much rarer bird, one that engenders love at first sight, and which holds a special place in my heart. To the delight of all, the season’s first Piping Plovers had just dropped in.

Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours with these wonderful plovers, and they never fail to charm me—but as with the most rewarding relationships, their appeal lies in more than just the physical. True, they are beautiful birds, and their plump little bodies and namesake piping calls make them almost impossibly endearing. But it’s their spirit, their irrepressible joie de vivre, that moves me. Faced with threats as great as those of the Red Knot—and perhaps greater, for the Piping Plover is at once equally beloved and reviled—they steadfastly embrace life, refusing to go quietly into the dark. That they provoke such hatred is heartbreaking, but alas they live where we play, and there are those of us unwilling to set aside our wants and desires for the greater good of these imperiled birds. A sad state of affairs indeed. And yet the plovers, like the knots, are still with us, and there are many who value them and who both desire and work for their survival.

Juv. Piping Plover, Milford Point

Juv. Piping Plover, Milford Point

As the sun set behind us, we took our final looks and I bid the plovers a silent farewell. I reminded myself that this was just the beginning: several months from now, on beaches up and down the coast, the next generation of plovers will emerge and take their first steps into their new world. What they’ll find is up to us.

Red Knots and Piping Plovers are bound by shared calamity, linked by the unkindest of threads: we conducted their descent to the edge of oblivion. Through our actions—and perhaps more accurately our inactions—we are engineering their doom. Their conjoined fate is in our hands.

But perhaps that’s a good thing. If we can bring about their destruction, could we not vouchsafe their survival? We are the only species that can bring about another’s extinction, but we’re also the only ones who can pull it out of the abyss. Perhaps that is our true function, our reason for being. And perhaps I continue to seek these birds out not just out of love, but because they embody hope. As long as we can still find Red Knots and Piping Plovers, all is not lost. Seeing them each year is, for me, a renewal, another chance. It closes another year in which we did not lose these wonderful birds, and brings a new opportunity for their protection, and for a wider understanding of what those who love them already know: the loss of either the knots or the plovers would drain a little more color from the world, would cast us a little farther into shadow.

There is still time. All the Red Knots and Piping Plovers ask is that we allow them space to live. If we can find it in our hearts to make room them, then there is, perhaps, a chance—for them and for us. Our folly or our wisdom will be written in their fates. For myself, I hold fast to hope, and to a vision of future beaches alive with these marvelous, spectacular birds.

Piping Plovers, Parker River NWR

Piping Plovers, Parker River NWR

This post originally appeared in the Wader Quest newsletter. Wader Quest is a U.K.-based organization dedicated to shorebird conservation (shorebirds are known as waders in the U.K.) and public education. You can learn more about Wader Quest and the work they do (and also support their efforts) at their website here.

You can learn more about Red Knots at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Knot page here.

And for more info about Piping Plovers, you can check out Audubon’s page on the Piping Plovers here.

Held Captive

Red-breasted Goose

Red-breasted Goose

I’ve been a birder for as long as I can remember. My ability to get out sometimes comes in fits and starts, but birding has always been an integral part of me—like my lungs or heart, an essential piece of who I am, the birds as necessary to my survival. Nothing moves me like grabbing the binoculars and getting into the field, seeing birds living wild within their natural environments. Of course, I also love aviaries and zoos, provided the birds have ample room to move—to wander, swim, fly, to live in a manner that allows them to express, at least in part, the true nature of their being. When I’ve encountered birds held in facilities designed with respect and concern for their welfare, they’ve always been active, healthy, and given the highest level of care. And captive settings can play a vital role in education and conservation: they’re the only venue for many people to see and learn about some of the world’s exotic birds, and in times of need, they can be critical resources for breeding and reintroduction programs—sometimes serving as the last line of defense for species on the edge.

But I’d always drawn a line between wild and captive birds: in my mind, seeing captives didn’t count, they weren’t real sightings. And from a certain point of view, they’re not: you can’t add captive birds to your life list (listing isn’t the only measure by any means, but that’s a discussion for another time), and so they take on second-class status, as if they’re less important and somehow less real. I never spent much time photographing them, and if I did, I didn’t often share them with others. With so many photos of wild birds, what was the point?

Baikal Teal

Baikal Teal

It sounds trite to say that I’ve grown wiser with the passing of the years, but it’s a fitting truism in this case. Viewing the world through such a narrow perspective closed me off to really appreciating the full diversity of magnificent creatures that share the planet with us. More significantly—and quite distressingly, once I recognized it—it’s utterly disrespectful, and cheapens the lives of the birds who, through no fault of their own, find themselves living outside their wild homes. The birds are no less beautiful, fascinating, or valid for being captive, and they’re equally deserving of our respect and our care. They are, after all, living, breathing creatures, wonderful to behold.

It was in this spirit that my son and I recently traveled to a small town west of Hartford to visit the birds of the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy. Based in Litchfield, Connecticut, the Conservancy reached its current incarnation in 2007, when the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Sanctuary changed its name to the one it bears today. Prior to that, it was known as the Kilvarock Foundation, a non-profit organization launched in 1985 and dedicated to the conservation of captive waterfowl. Kilvarock, in turn, evolved out of the private waterfowl collection of Dr. Dillon Ripley and his wife, Mary Livingston Ripley—a collection Ripley started himself in the 1920s.

Hawaiian Goose (Nene)

Hawaiian Goose (Nene)

Though the Conservancy’s changed its name over the years, it’s been steadfast and unwavering in its mission to conserve waterfowl and wetlands habitat through research, education, and direct action. Consider Hawaii’s native goose, the Nene. By the early ‘60s, the Nene was in real trouble, staring into extinction’s gaping maw. At the time, the number of North Americans raising these birds was exactly two: Dr. and Mrs. Ripley. They sent a small flock to Hawaii to join another group of birds raised in England by Peter Scott’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Both groups were released in Maui and they, along with Hawaii’s few remaining wild Nenes, began to rebuild the population. By the late 1960s, the population had increased tenfold. Reintroduction was a success—thanks in no small part to the birds raised by the Ripleys half a world away.

There is perhaps no better testament to Ripley’s founding vision, and it’s a credit to the current Board and staff that they uphold the tradition of conservation begun by Dr. Ripley and are supremely dedicated to carrying his vision forward. You don’t need to speak to anyone to realize this, all you have to do is look around. The grounds are beautiful, the aviaries and enclosures are spacious, spotless, and well maintained, and most importantly, the birds are healthy, active, and extremely well cared for.

Mandarin Duck

Mandarin Duck

And they’re captivating. Initially, I was most excited about seeing the Red-breasted Geese, absolutely beautiful and charming birds found in extreme northern Europe and Asia. They’re one of my favorite geese, but I’d only ever seen them in photos, and don’t have any travel plans that would take me anywhere near their wild homes, so this was a special treat. I quickly fell in love with them, and could easily have spent the balance of my time in their company. The Conservancy had much to offer, though, and as my son and I set about exploring the grounds, we found ourselves awed by the spectacle of waterfowl around us. Its collection is extraordinary: Mandarin Ducks from Asia, Hawaiian Nenes, the New Zealand Scaup, Alaskan Spectacled Eiders, Magpie Geese, Screamers, Cuban Whistling Ducks, Baikal and Silver Teals, Smew, Whooper Swans and more besides—an overwhelming display of avian splendor decked in their seasonal finery, a stunning array of colors and patterns laid out before us in a visual banquet, each encounter a new opportunity for love at first sight.

We spent almost four hours at the Conservancy and could easily have stayed longer, but the light was fading and it was near closing time. Reluctantly, we bid farewell to the geese, ducks, teals, and all the multitude of birds who call the Conservancy home. And we took our leave of the staff and volunteers who had been on-hand all day answering questions, leading small tours, and taking care of their charges, the marvelous birds. We’d watched them work and spoken to them on and off throughout our visit, and it was clear that they considered this far more than a job: It was a responsibility, but one they took on willingly, gladly, and joyfully. It wasn’t just that they loved their work (which, to a person, they did), it was that they truly cared for the birds, and approached them with respect, with humility, and with great love. When we’re confronted with stories of environmental destruction almost daily, being in the presence of such genuine affection and concern for the health of these birds and the wild lands in which they live was profoundly moving, and provided a much-needed glimmer of light in the darkness. Those few precious hours we spent at the LRWC left me with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. All is not yet lost, there are people doing good, important wok. There are people who care. As for the birds themselves—those spectacular, captivating birds—I will never forget the time I shared with them, the spiritual nourishment they provided, or the lesson they taught me, that sometimes the deepest connection to wildest Nature can be found in the gaze of a captive bird.

To learn more about the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy, you can visit its website here.

Spectacled Eider

Spectacled Eider