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

 

 

 

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.

Emotion And Instinct

Sanderling, Westport, CT

Sanderling, Westport, CT

This year, I spent a lot of time in the company of shorebirds. Taken as a whole, they’re one of the most engaging families—charming, whimsical, possessed of great spirit and subtle beauty. They’re supremely adapted to a life of sandy foraging and evading waves, and though they undertake some of the most arduous and epic journeys of any of the seasonal migrants—many on the order of 10,000 miles one-way—they speak to us of lazy summer days spent lying upon sun-warmed sand and caressed by gentle ocean breezes, or leisurely strolling down a seaside boardwalk to the music of the coast. I can lose myself for hours in their antics, watching them dance along the water’s edge, skittering in and out of the surf as if playfully daring the breakers to catch them, their bills probing incessantly into the wet sand to search out a tasty morsel. Their presence is deeply comforting, a beacon of light in the dark, a regular reaffirmation of the power and vitality of life.

Piping Plover, MA

Piping Plover, MA

If you’re paying attention, shorebirds can also surprise you. During an adventure to the Connecticut shore, my son and I came upon three recently-hatched Piping Plover chicks—arguably the most adorable creatures on two legs, resembling nothing so much as a pair of cotton balls stuck together and balanced on toothpicks. They were running about helter-skelter, exploring their new world, when we heard the warning call of an adult plover—an insistent piping that is the bird’s namesake. At this signal, all three chicks headed off posthaste towards their parent and the shelter of the taller beach grass in which it was resting. Something was clearly upsetting it; a scan down the beach quickly revealed the source—a young Peregrine Falcon, cruising low over the sand and putting shorebirds up in great raucous clouds as it passed. The plover was calling its chicks to safety ahead of the approaching threat. But then the bird did something that, upon reflection, was extraordinary: Once its young were safely hidden, it took to the air, flying away from them and calling loudly as it went, diverting the falcon’s attention away from its defenseless offspring and focusing it squarely on itself.

Peregrine Falcon (juv.), Milford Point, CT

Peregrine Falcon (juv.), Milford Point, CT

Make no mistake: this was an act of extreme courage. This little plover put itself full in the sights of the fastest animal on Earth, a bird shaped by evolution into the sky’s most graceful, agile, and deadly hunter. Peregrines are fast enough to catch hummingbirds, nimble enough to take swifts, and strong enough to kill Sandhill Cranes—which outweigh the falcons by a factor of 10. In the clutches of a Peregrine Falcon, a Piping Plover would stand no chance. For a little perspective, it’s like coming between a racing cheetah and your own child—if that cheetah were 25 times your own weight. Suicide, yes? And yet no parent I know would hesitate for even a split second.

So why risk it? Why face the possibility of death in order to preserve the life of your offspring? It’s far more than bravery, I assure you. Cast from a human point of view, the answer is simple, obvious.

Love.

That’s why we, as parents, do what we do to protect our kids. We love them.

Just like the plovers. Yes, I said it: that Piping Plover was expressing love for its three chicks—so much so that it was willing to die for them. There are many who would scoff at this notion, write the plover’s response off as instinct and move on. A ridiculous thought, they might say. After all, we all know that birds don’t have emotions.

Let me give you another example. My friend Melissa Groo is an absolutely fantastic wildlife photographer. I’ve been following her for several years now, and her work never ceases to amaze me—particularly her ability to capture the essence of her subjects. In her work, we catch glimpses of great intimacy, power, warmth, and soul. Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of meeting her, and she shared with me one of the most stunning portraits of a living being—human or otherwise—I’ve ever seen.

Melissa’s subjects range across the animal kingdom, but she has a special fondness for birds—and among her consistently spectacular images, her photos of American Avocets are some of my favorites. Perhaps it’s the subject. American Avocets are the most graceful of our shorebirds: tall, slender-necked, white below, striking black-and-white above, gorgeous head and neck feathers the color of lightly-creamed coffee, and thin, elegantly up-curved bills. In this hemisphere, at least, they look like nothing else.

American Avocets, Estero Llano Grande, TX

American Avocets, Estero Llano Grande, TX

The beauty of a single Avocet is exceeded only by that of a breeding pair’s interaction. These lithesome birds engage in an intricate, beautiful mating routine that can only be described as a dance between expert partners, both moving in perfect synchronicity, the female then dipping her head low to the water, the male moving from side to side behind her and gently splashing water over her back. Afterwards, there is one brief moment when the female arches her neck with balletic grace towards her mate and the pair touch their long, delicate bills together. It is a gesture of extreme tenderness, much as the embrace a human couple might share after making love. This is the moment Melissa captured, and her photo left me without words, and on the verge of tears.

The bond shared by those two Avocets, like the Piping Plover’s drive to protect its chicks from harm, can only be described as love. You can’t bear witness to events like these and tell me otherwise. It can’t simply be instinct.

Or if it is, there’s a larger question we have to explore. People will tell you that you can’t ascribe human emotions to animals, that it’s wrong to do so. This misses a pretty significant point: We are animals. If we can experience emotions like love, loss, fear, and joy, then they can as well. They may not feel them the way that we do, but they’re no less real for the difference. Again, many will play the instinct card and move on. For those that do, I challenge you: if you don’t believe that animals can feel emotions, prove to me that we can. We claim to, of course, we believe—we know—we do, down to our very marrow. But we have no way of proving that the emotions we feel aren’t simply electro-chemical signals designed to reinforce a biologic instinct. You protect your kids because you love them? Sure you do. But what if that love is just a false emotion built to trick you into taking action that supports the survival of our species or, in this case, your own genetic code? From a biological standpoint, life—all life—has but one purpose: to reproduce. Human beings are just a means to transport and replicate DNA, nothing more. How then can we prove the reality of our own feelings?

The answer is we can’t, anymore than we can prove the unreality of the feelings of birds. We’re left, then, with one of two possibilities: either all animals experience emotions (not just us), or all animals are simply obeying instinct—including us. There are no other options.

At the end of the day, it makes no difference. Real or not, our emotions give purpose to our lives. They drive us to be creative and to love, they allow us to more deeply and profoundly experience the world, to live completely, and to feel all that our experiences have to offer—both the joyous and the sorrowful. Do animals feel the way we do? We may never know, may never understand their full emotional capacity. But that they do feel joy and pain, that they can love, is without question.

What does it matter, though? Why is it important? Simply this: Once we recognize that animals have feelings, once we understand that they are no different, in that respect, from us, we can no longer treat them as somehow less than us, less deserving of our respect and consideration than our fellow human beings, less entitled to living out the full measure of their lives free of pain, persecution, and misery. And once we acknowledge their emotional depth, we can no longer callously destroy their homes and their lives without asking how it makes them feel, and considering how we would feel if someone did the same to us.

Avocet

And Yet, Hope

Red Knots, Reed's Beach, Cape May © Eric C. Reuters

Red Knots, Reed’s Beach, Cape May © Eric Curtis Cummings

In the fall of 2012, Superstorm Sandy tore up the East Coast like a runaway train, devastating seaside communities and destroying miles of beachfront habitat, including prime breeding grounds for horseshoe crabs, whose eggs provide vital nourishment for a variety of shorebirds—most notably the critically threatened Red Knot. Every spring, flocks of these birds descend upon the Delaware Bay, breaking their epic 10,000-mile journey from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic to rest and feed. They make it to the beaches running on fumes, having all but exhausted their South American reserves. During their brief stay in the mid-Atlantic, horseshoe crab eggs are virtually all they eat: they rely on them to fuel the last leg of their marathon migration. Without the eggs, the knots would starve—and without the beaches, there’d be no place for the crabs to lay them. In such a delicately balanced ecosystem, any disruption could spell disaster.

As far as disruptions go, you can’t do much better than a major storm ripping up the shoreline. The spring after Sandy, there were no beaches left—nor were there any the following spring. Red knots barely stood a chance. Already in severe decline, Sandy was the nail in the coffin: the Red Knot population crashed, and the birds slipped over the edge, tumbling towards inevitable extinction.

At least that’s how it could have happened. All the pieces were in place for an ecological catastrophe: Sandy hit the mid-Atlantic like a sledgehammer, taking large swaths of beach with it as it passed, and the storm’s timing couldn’t have been much worse, making landfall just seven months ahead of the birds. The coast wouldn’t be able to recover in time. Not without help.

Which is exactly what it got. Working in crisis mode, New Jersey Audubon, the American Littoral Society, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, local, state, and federal governments, and volunteers from as far away as Australia joined forces and mounted a massive response. Just months after the storm, earthmovers and bulldozers were dumping and spreading literally tons of sand on ravaged beaches, restoring what Sandy had so recently taken. The team was hopeful, but no one knew if it would actually work. They’d just have to wait and see.

Horseshoe crabs, Reed's Beach, Cape May

Horseshoe crabs, Reed’s Beach, Cape May

It’s been almost three years since Sandy, and three full spring cycles. The beaches are holding, the crabs are coming ashore to lay eggs, and the Red Knots are flying up from South America to eat them, the population holding stable and perhaps even increasing. For the third spring after the storm, the birds have returned. Against the odds, the team’s extraordinary work pulled the knots, at least for now, from the brink.

In the short term, Red Knots are safe. To ensure their continued survival, and better, to nurture and encourage their increase to the legions of past times, there’s much more we need to do. We’re still building on their beaches, and still overfishing their prey—practices that are not, in the long term, sustainable. We need to change. The knot’s future lies in our hands; directly or indirectly, we will determine its fate. A decade ago, that fate seemed sealed, the birds destined for extinction’s cold abyss. Now, they may yet have a chance. We have shown ourselves to be shortsighted and destructive, an uncaring lot concerned merely for material comforts and our own immediate happiness. But we have also shown great kindness, compassion, and resolve, and the ability to overcome adversity and persevere under the gravest of circumstances. When the need is great, we can set our selfishness aside and act in defense of others—even when they’re not human.

We have the strength, the intelligence, and the capacity to create a better world—for them and for us. Now, can we summon the collective will to see it done? The shadow of our history leaves me cast in doubt, yet the reprieve in the Red Knot’s precarious slip into the void—however temporary it may be—gives me reason to hope. The future is not set in stone, it is written in the actions we choose to take. As they did for my ancestors, and as they’ve done for me, Red Knots may yet appear to my descendants, roaming beaches cared for by human hands, and digging for eggs in the sand.

Red Knots, Reed's Beach, Cape May © Eric C. Reuters

Red Knots, Reed’s Beach, Cape May © Eric Curtis Cummings

Beaches Are (Still) For The Birds

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

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

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

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

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

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

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

Red Knot © Shawn Carey, Migration Productions

Red Knot © Shawn Carey, Migration Productions

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

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

As always, the choice is ours.

What will you choose?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

this one

… and this one here.

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

… or their Facebook page here.

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.