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 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.

Seasons Of Flight

Chipping Sparrow, Cape Henlopen

Chipping Sparrow, Cape Henlopen

Calendars are funny things. They can tell you precisely the timing of the moon’s phases, the dates on which holidays both familiar and obscure fall (I now know when Boxing Day is, though I’m still not sure what it commemorates), and when we change from one season to the next. But for all a calendar’s precision, it can’t tell you what the crossover between seasons feels like. Case in point: apparently, fall hit about three weeks ago. I, however, missed it, not noting much of a difference between September 21 and the autumnal equinox a day later. Step outside these days, though, and the difference is readily apparent. The air has taken on the cool crispness particular to a New England October; trees are switching from summer’s wardrobe of rich green to the fiery hues of autumn, which they’ll wear for a too-brief span before walking naked into November’s chill; and in the yard, Chipping Sparrows and late season warblers are giving way to White-throated Sparrows and juncos—as clear an indication as any of fall’s ascendance.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

For me—and for most, if not all, birders—the progress of the seasons is determined not by the measured procession of calendar days but by the arrivals and departures of birds. Here in western Massachusetts, winter is attended by Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, and, if we’re lucky, redpolls and crossbills. Spring is heralded by the opening chorus of Red-winged Blackbirds and carried on the backs of Turkey Vultures, whose upswept wings effortlessly catch the vernal zephyrs beneath them, primaries splayed like a concert pianist’s fingers. The songbirds that follow mark the height of the season with a chromatic rush; the departure of the far northern breeders and the concomitant arrival on new-minted wings of the year’s first young presage the sweltering days of summer. And I know fall by the upward circumnavigation of raptors sailing southward on rising columns of heated air, and the fleeting return visit of migrants bound for more favorable climes, taking their repast with us before continuing their migratory travels.

Broad-winged Hawks

Broad-winged Hawks

Migration. In the abstract, it’s an intellectual wonder, a story of epic proportions. But seeing it unfold is something else entirely: You feel it. Standing beneath a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks as they soar up a thermal and stream out above you in a line several hundred birds strong is utterly captivating, and you can’t help but get drawn along with them. Watching a flock of 10,000 Tree Swallows stretch to cover the horizon and then approach and surround you overwhelms the rational mind, stripping it of all ability to process the event and leaving room only for awe and emotion. And seeing a normally secretive warbler drop to the ground in front of you in pursuit of one more insect to help fuel its 3,000-mile journey opens a window on the bird’s life, and invites you to become a part of its quest to survive.

If you open yourself to them, if you begin to understand what you’re seeing, such experiences are transformative. A Magnolia Warbler who flits out in front of you to pluck a moth out of the air isn’t simply eating, it’s preparing for a journey that will push it to the limit of its endurance. Weighing less than two quarters, this little bird travels unaided some 3,000 miles to winter in Central America; that moth it nabbed just might mean the difference between life and death, transformed into vital energy to drive the bird the final distance. Appreciate that, and you will be changed. You can’t help it—you’re connected now to lives beyond your own, beyond those of friends and family, beyond human bounds, caught in the grand mystery whose common expression is the fire of life within us all. No longer simply an observer of the migratory spectacle, you’ve become part of an immense journey guided by invisible threads older than humanity itself and dictated by the most ancient impulse of all: the desire to survive.

Magnolia Warbler, Cape May

Magnolia Warbler, Cape May

Reawakening: A Long Winter’s Journey Into Spring

Black-and-White Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

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

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

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

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

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

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

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

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

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

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

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

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

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

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

Prelude: Awakening

Red-winged Blackbird

Spring! At long last, winter begins to loosen its icy grip and allow hints of warmth and life to break through its frozen edges. There’s a collective sigh, a release of long-held breath as we all stretch towards the first glimpses of vernal sunshine, working three months’ chill from our bones and reassembling the pieces of our frayed sanity. And though the capricious New England climate often presents us with April snow, it’s the last gasp of a vanishing season, sound and fury signifying nothing, winter’s swan song fading into the overture of spring.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

People mark the changeover from winter in different ways: some follow the calendar, others look for the crocuses’ first tentative aboveground explorations, still others await the emergence of slumbering hibernators. For me, the onset of spring is heralded by the distinctive call and flashy epaulettes of the Red-winged Blackbird, Mother Nature’s midwife at spring’s birth. Over the last week, the neighborhood’s resounded with their insistent “conk-a-ree,” and our yard has been graced by several of these wonderful birds. Others have come with them: Robins are back in force, and Cedar Waxwings, too, with their paraffin-dipped feathers. Turkey Vultures soar overhead on upswept wings, and Grackles, reflecting purple and green from an impossibly glossy black, have returned to feast at our feeders. All bear the promise of warmth and renewal, and presage the arrival of yet more. This is but the vanguard of a feathered flood: warblers, orioles, and tanagers; Chipping Sparrows and Broad-winged Hawks; Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers; plovers, terns, and sandpipers—all headed our way, and each one refreshing our spirits and reawakening in us the joy of being gloriously, wonderfully alive.

American Robin

American Robin

This… this is what life’s all about. Now let’s get out there and celebrate it.