Dying In The Midnight Sun

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Iceland is rich in natural wonder and timeless beauty, filled with panoramic views and otherworldly vistas. It is a realm of Northern Lights and boundless summer sun. And it is home to one of the world’s most charming and iconic birds: the Atlantic Puffin.

Every summer, thousands of these whimsical birds return here to nest and raise their young—joined in their efforts by Arctic Terns, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Northern Fulmars, Razorbills, and Common Murres, who descend here in multitudes to feast and nourish their chicks on the bounty served up by the frigid North Atlantic. In all, 23 species of seabirds—including about a third of the world’s Arctic Terns and the vast majority of its Atlantic Puffins—rely on Iceland’s coastline, fields, and sea cliffs to shelter their young, and on the rich surrounding waters to feed them.

At least they did. Over the last decade or so, though, drastic changes have played havoc with Iceland’s seabirds: 10 years of breeding failures are decimating the once thriving colonies of Arctic Terns, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Atlantic Puffins. Now, researchers are finding many historical nesting sites empty; in some places, where they’ve previously banded hundreds of fat, healthy chicks, they’re recovering hundreds of carcasses. In the hardest-hit areas, the cataclysm is total: all the chicks—an entire generation—are dead. Aevar Petersen, a retired ornithologist with the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, has been surveying Arctic Terns on Flately Island for 41 years. Some summers, he and his colleagues have banded nearly a thousand chicks. This year, they’ve done five.

“Normally, there would be hundreds of birds here,” he says. “Now, there may be a few chicks. But they probably won’t make it. This is what we’re seeing in the whole of Flately, and further afield.”

Atlantic Puffins © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Atlantic Puffins © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

On the Westman Islands—home to a mixed seabird colony so extensive that it borders on mythical—more than 800,000 Puffin pairs typically shack up and raise their young. No so today: this summer, during his regular Puffin survey, South Iceland Nature Center biologist Erpur Snaer Hansen finds burrow after burrow empty—a trend that’s been going on for more than a decade.

The devastation extends beyond Iceland. All throughout their ranges, seabirds are suffering. Says Petersen,

“What is happening in Iceland, we see happening in so many other areas in the North Atlantic. And the fact that we’re seeing them over such a wide area points to a common factor.”

So what’s going on here? What went wrong? In essence, drastic changes in Earth’s oceans—their chemistry, climate, food base, and toxic load—are affecting their ability to support life. Historical food webs are collapsing. And the one species directly responsible for the damage, Petersen’s common factor?

Us.

We chain-smoke fossil fuels, lay waste to our planet’s natural resources, dump garbage wherever we see fit, and poison the very systems that sustain life. We’re creating a toxic cocktail that’s pushing these birds closer and closer to the brink. Fortunately, there’s still time. Entire populations haven’t yet foundered, and seabirds are notoriously hardy: millions still cruise the Arctic skies and ride the North Atlantic currents. They can recover from a few bad breeding seasons. A few. But as population declines extend from years to decades, it’s only a matter of time before they pass the breaking point and disappear forever.

And then what? After we lose the Puffins, Terns, Kittiwakes, and all the marvelous birds that blanketed the Icelandic landscape, who’s next?

Again, us. We are. Seabirds, says Carleton University doctoral student Jennifer Provencher,

“… are critical for detecting changes that are happening even more rapidly than we suspected. We are getting basically a year-to-year-to-year update of the health of the oceans and the health of the environment through these seabird studies.”

If there’s a canary in the North Atlantic coalmine, it’s the Atlantic Puffin. The North Atlantic is a major engine of Earth’s weather, and one of the most productive and important fisheries in the world; the Puffin’s troubles could be the intimations of a global crisis, one in whose remorseless grasp we may find ourselves, and which we may be hard-pressed to break. Holding to our present course may lead us to a bleak and dire future. These delightful, unassuming, comical little birds are sounding out the first warnings of a catastrophe that reaches far beyond Westman burrows. We would do well to heed them, for the demise of the Puffin may presage our own.

Even if it doesn’t, though, even if we don’t follow the Puffins into darkness, we will still have suffered a profound loss. We will have driven to extinction a charming creature whose only desire is, like our own, to thrive, to prosper, and to live free from harm or persecution—and when they do die, to do so on their terms, not through a brutal act of thoughtlessness and greed.

Our history gives me small reason to hope. And yet I do. I still cling to the idea that enough of us can shake off this madness and summon the will to change—that, in the final moments, we will save the Puffins and all their kin who fill the northern summer skies with cacophonous alacrity. We’ve done it before. In Maine, some 40 years ago, Dr. Stephen Kress launched Project Puffin and pioneered a method of attracting seabirds back to historical yet long-abandoned nesting grounds. In so doing, he engineered a seabird recovery that was nothing short of miraculous. Today, Dr. Kress still works with Project Puffin and the National Audubon Society to monitor and protect Puffins in the northeast United States. Across the pond, Tom Brock and the Scottish Seabird Centre are keeping tabs on Puffins among Scotlands’ islands; now, after several years of struggles, it seems that the Puffins have finally had a good breeding season. Researchers in Iceland—Petersen, Provencher, and Hansen among them—continue to watch over seabirds in the North Atlantic. And all over the world, voices far and wide are awakening people to the Puffin’s plight, educating them about conservation, and, through images and words, igniting in others the love they have of these delightful, remarkable birds.

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

I don’t believe their fate is sealed. We can change direction, and shift to a course that ensures a future for Puffins, Terns, Kittiwakes… and us along with them—but we have to move fast. If we fail, then we’ll have let slip yet another opportunity to act for the common good. But if we succeed in hauling them back from the edge, then we may just save ourselves as well.

Photographer, filmmaker, and Mass Audubon instructor Shawn Carey (Migration Productions) has done wonderful work in capturing Puffins at their best. You can find his photos here.

He’s also posted a couple of Puffin videos here and here.

And you can stay on top of the latest research into what changes in bird populations are telling us about the health of the planet through Environmental Health News’ “Winged Warnings” series.

Lamentation For A Pigeon

Male Passenger Pigeon by Tim Hough

Male Passenger Pigeon by Tim Hough

 

“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.” — Aldo Leopold

This weekend, while many were reveling in summer’s last hurrah and others were bemoaning the return of school and an end to carefree days, the world attended a solemn anniversary. You may have missed it, amidst the Labor Day frivolity and merriment, but September 1st marked the centenary of a great demise: on that day in 1914—with the death of Martha, last of her kind—the Passenger Pigeon slipped into extinction.

Of course, it didn’t do so on its own. Like others before it—the Giant Moa, the Dodo, the Great Auk—the Passenger Pigeon vanished through the actions of man, a victim of thoughtless exploitation and callous indifference. At its height, it was North America’s—and perhaps the planet’s—dominant bird: five billion strong, an avian press of life not seen before or since, an unstoppable force of nature lit by primordial fire. Throughout the 19th century, stories abounded of pigeon flocks millions strong, migrating in living clouds that darkened the skies for hours, feathered floods that stunned observers and silenced conversation under thunderous wings.

In Sketches Here and There, Aldo Leopold wrote:

“The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life.”

Eastern Meadowlark by Aidan Griffiths

It seemed impossible that anything so abundant could ever disappear. And yet by 1914, they were gone. Mere decades after their heyday, Passenger Pigeons fell from billions to one: Martha, a female born and raised in captivity—an oddity for humans to gawk at, and a sad reminder of the multitude that was, destined to follow the rest of her kind into the inevitable void.

One hundred years later, we mourn the passing of this iconic bird, and lament its fate at the hands of people who burned its homes and hunted it out of existence, blind to the idea that their actions could lead to its undoing. It’s a cautionary tale that bears repeating, for there are many others today riding the knife-edge of oblivion: Atlantic Puffins, Piping Plovers, Red Knots, Eastern Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, American Kestrels, Arctic and Least Terns—all these birds, and more besides, risk sharing the pigeon’s fate.

And yet there are lights in the darkness, small reasons to hope. There are birds that we’ve grasped from the plunge. When I was growing up, Eastern Bluebirds and Bald Eagles were creatures of myth, spoken of in reverent tones but rarely seen. Now, bluebirds grace our yard every year, and eagles have reclaimed the sky. Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys have rebounded from DDT’s pernicious assault, and even the California Condor is staging a comeback. Though still at risk, the resurgence of these birds is testament to the power of the human spirit and the strength of our collective will. Yes, we can drive species to extinction, but we can also bring them back from the brink.

Peregrine Falcon

So let us celebrate the Passenger Pigeon and the life that was. Let us honor the lost, laud those we’ve saved, and fight to preserve all we have left. Let us recognize that we have the power to destroy, but let us also remember that we have the capacity to restore. And above all, let us ensure that Martha and her kin did not die in vain, that we redress our unfortunate mistake, and that, one hundred years from now, we aren’t marking another dire anniversary.

Russel McLendon wrote about the Passenger Pigeon for Mother Nature Network, and you can find his posts below:

100 years later, the passenger pigeon still haunts us
Ode to Martha, the last passenger pigeon

National Public Radio’s The Two-Way also featured a show about the birds, which you can find here.

And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a piece about the Passenger Pigeon here.

To A Cormorant’s Defense

Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants, Cape May, NJ

At the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest lies Oregon’s East Sand Island. Closer to Washington State than mainland Oregon, this small atoll is a haven for a variety of resident and migratory birds: cormorants, terns, gulls, pelicans, loons, waterfowl, shorebirds, even several species of raptors—Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons among them—rely for some measure of their survival on the island’s scant 50 acres. For some birds it’s a critical resource: the world’s largest colony of Caspian Terns and the largest colony of Double-crested Cormorants in western North America call East Sand Island home.

It’s not hard to see why. The island is a veritable avian Shangri-La, providing ideal, predator-free nesting habitat and ready access to a bountiful supply of fish—something the cormorants, in particular, have taken full advantage of, feasting on young salmon and steelhead as they make their way from freshwater spawning grounds down to the open ocean. This confluence of factors has helped support a healthy and growing population of these spectacular birds, which today numbers around 15,000 breeding pairs. In fact, East Sand Island is the only place along the entire Pacific flyway where Double-crested Cormorant numbers are on the rise.

At least for now. In the very near future, though, the birds may be headed for trouble. Simply by doing what they do naturally—eating fish—they’ve run afoul of the Army Corps of Engineers, with potentially dire consequences. The salmon and steelhead that help sustain the cormorants are endangered, and the Army Corps—under whose responsibility the management of East Sand Island falls—is planning to do something about it.

They’re planning to kill them.

In a brutal and unprecedented act of wildlife control, the Army Corps is poised to destroy 16,000 Double-crested Cormorants—two-thirds of the Sand Island colony, and nearly a third of their entire Western North American population. Corps spokesperson Diana Fredlund justified its approach.

“We were mandated to bring the fish populations… back up because there have been a lot of declines. We’ve got all this money, all this attention to try and increase the survivability of the salmon and they’re going past these islands and all of our good work is going into these birds’ bellies.”

In a statement denouncing the Corps’ plan, Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Audubon’s Portland chapter, had this to say:

“The Corps has already spent tens of millions of dollars trying to manipulate these birds for doing what comes naturally… Now they are proposing lethal control on an historic and horrific scale.”

This isn’t the first time this has come up. In 2012, the Corps, in conjunction with the US Department of Fish & Wildlife, field biologists, and students from Oregon State University, experimented with non-lethal means of control—gradual habitat reduction and hazing (scaring birds off the island before they nest). At the time, both methods met with some success, but this time around, the Corps doesn’t seem to even be considering either technique.

They also don’t appear to be thinking about a long-term solution. Unless they’re prepared to kill every cormorant on the island (or destroy the island itself), like a hydra this issue will keep coming back to bite them: New birds will arrive to fill the void left by the previous victims of the slaughter. It’s a perpetual cycle that will only be broken when people start tackling the real issue—and it has nothing to do with the birds. Do they have an impact? Of course they do. But birds have been eating fish since long before we showed up, and never caused the kind of population crashes we see in fisheries everywhere. The Columbia River’s salmon and steelhead were already struggling to survive, regardless of natural predation. The real issue is why.

In a word: us. The Columbia’s main branch is dammed at 14 points; 400 more dams are scattered throughout the complete river system, which includes the Snake River and more than 60 other major tributaries. In order to breed, both salmon and steelhead must return to the streams in which they hatched. Put a dam or two in the way and you effectively wipe out that river’s entire population: they die before they can breed. Fish ladders can help get the fish upstream, but they’re not foolproof. A dammed river also moves slower than a free-flowing one; for fish heading downstream, this lengthens their journey. A longer trip for a young salmon means more chances to die or be eaten—and that’s exactly what happens, sometimes through a cruel twist of irony. It turns out that some fish do exceedingly well in dammed rivers. The Northern Pikeminnow, for instance, thrives in a dammed river’s slower and warmer waters. And pikeminnow love to snack on young salmon. It was our actions, and not the birds, that put those fish as risk.

Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants, Sherwood Island, CT

But of course, it’s the birds that must suffer for them. At the end of the day, the real issue is this: we’ve lost our respect for nature, for connections and relationships formed over millions of years of evolution. We believe we’re somehow above it, removed from it, insulated from the consequences of our actions because of our vaunted position. We arbitrarily decide which species are good or bad, and eliminate those that don’t serve our needs. We manipulate the Earth to our own ends, ignorant of the damage we do in our passing, and then wonder when the planet’s support systems come crashing down around us. We are not above the animal kingdom—like fish, terns, and cormorants, we are an integral part of it, a piece of a larger system. We are all intimately connected in ways we don’t understand, and any damage to one part affects all. Our survival depends upon the health of the system and all its components; only now are we really beginning to appreciate this.

My hope is that enough people raise their voices against this plan, and in support of the cormorants, to force an alternative solution, and a true examination of the real problem. Perhaps if we all speak up, if we all show that our concerns extend beyond the realm of the human, we can begin to reforge those lost connections, and enter into a new relationship with our world and all its incredible, beautiful, and wondrous creatures. If we can do that, then perhaps there’s hope for us yet.

Perhaps.

We have until August 4 to make our voices heard. Submit a comment to the Army Corps here.

Beaches Are For The Birds

Piping Plover

Piping Plover, Milford Point, CT

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

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

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

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

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

Red Knots

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

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

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

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

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

The choice is ours.