Life On The Margins

Verdin, Phoenix, AZ

A friend of mine was recently traveling through Arizona, and while waiting out a flight delay at the Tucson airport, she wandered over to a tiny park jammed in between the rental car office and pickup garage. It had picnic tables, benches, small arbors, and even a water feature—so she did what any self-respecting birder would: looked for birds. If anything, she expected those most ubiquitous of urban birds: House Sparrows (the park was, after all, surrounded by concrete and jet noise). What she found was something else entirely: two Yellow-rumped Warblers foraging in a flowering bush, and, much to her surprise, a pair of Verdins busily constructing a nest in one of this mini-park’s little trees. She spent a fair bit of time enjoying their company, amazed at their ability to find succor in this rather depleted habitat.

It’s a story I’ve heard (and experienced) many times. Different species and different locations to be sure, but the theme is always the same: birds making a living in the unlikeliest of places, on the margins between the natural and constructed worlds. Peregrine Falcons are prime examples, able to thrive in the heart of the urban jungle, substituting skyscrapers for cliff ledges and making off with whatever prey presents itself (pigeons are favorite targets, and the falcons’ preference for these birds makes them very popular with city dwellers). Red-tailed Hawks have likewise found a place among humans—in some cases, attaining celebrity status (New York City’s Pale Male being perhaps the most famous). Ducks and geese are exceptionally good at making the most of the smallest of ponds. And gulls, pigeons, House Sparrows, Crows, and Starlings have all discovered the bounty offered by the detritus of our daily lives. But there are other, less obvious stories: Yellow-breasted Chats—Cardinal-sized warblers, highly secretive—show up in postage-stamp city parks; the flowered walkways outside New York’s American Museum of Natural History hosted a Rufous Hummingbird through one winter; and I know of an Ovenbird—a shy warbler of the forest floor—that spent part of the year in and around a city convenience store’s meager lawn.

Peregrine Falcon

These are somewhat extreme examples, but they are no means the only ones. Far from natural, many places we think of as ideal for birds are islands of habitat surrounded by harsh and inhospitable terrain. Arguably the most famous of these is Central Park, 843 acres of green set in Manhattan’s concrete core. To say that the park is good for birds is a gross understatement: on a normal day, it’s fantastic; during migration, it’s extraordinary. Warblers, orioles, blackbirds, tanagers, vireos—a host of species descend upon the park to feast on its bounty and shelter in its sylvan grounds. Birding here, it’s easy to get caught up in the extravaganza without questioning why it takes place. Take a look at a map of the city, though, and the reason is obvious: it’s one of the last, best naturescapes left in this vast metropolis. To birds exhausted by the trials of migration, Central Park offers sustenance and safety, a verdant oasis in an otherwise alien land—a margin, but on a grander scale.

Sanderlings

Grandest of all margins, though, is the one that marks the boundary between earth and ocean. Here along the coast, where the land slips into the surf, are birds who push the notion of survival to the extreme. As a group, shorebirds undergo some of the longest migratory journeys—and longest non-stop flights—in the world. Most travel tens of thousands of miles each way, and sometimes stay aloft for days at a stretch—a feat that pushes endurance far beyond the reasonable; in addition to nearly doubling their weight before setting out, some birds, like Red Knots, Bar-tailed Godwits, and Sanderlings, digest muscle tissue and internal organs to carry them the distance. Those who break their journeys to rest and refuel (and some don’t) do so on beaches up and down the coast. For other birds, the beach represents migration’s end: American Oystercatchers, Least Terns, and Piping Plovers are among those who make their homes on the shore, nesting in depressions they dig out of the sand. But whether they pass through or settle down, these birds share something crucial: Beachfront property isn’t a luxury for them, it’s a necessity. And yet this narrow, vital edge is under constant siege, imperiling all who rely on it. The birds who survive here exist at a confluence of conflicts: the shifting balance between land and sea; development against conservation; political will versus ecological reality; and human want versus avian need. For now, they still persist—but they’re forced to do so on an ever-shrinking landscape, each vanishing piece taking with it another chance for the birds.

The capacity to exist on the margins, to find food and shelter on the edges of our lives, is a testament to birds’ knack for survival. But they can be pushed only so far. Every species has a breaking point past which it can no longer recover, a threshold that, once crossed, leads to a finality frightening to contemplate. Without care, sooner or later these margins may become too small to support the birds that depend on them, leading them down the path traveled by the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Eskimo Curlew, Labrador Duck, and many others. Still, all is not yet lost. Birds can adapt, given adequate time to do so and enough open space to call home. But ultimately it’s up to us. Their fate is in our hands, and we must ask ourselves if we can find it in our hearts to make room for them, encourage their recovery, and champion their survival. A world rich with birds awaits us, if we only have the courage to create it and the wisdom to understand why.

Piping Plover

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!

The Texas Two-Step: Spring Birding, Lone-Star Style

American Avocet, Bolivar Peninsula

American Avocet, Bolivar Peninsula

April 18, 2014. The Bolivar Peninsula. Friday morning. It’s our first day in Texas, and we’re surrounded. My mother, my son and I have come, not for music, Texas barbeque, or large hats and longhorns, but for the birds. And they do not disappoint: Terns, gulls, pelicans, sandpipers and plovers, herons and oystercatchers—thousands of birds, spread out in a panoply before us. To our left, a flock of Black Skimmers take to the air; dead ahead, a hundred or more American Avocets work the shallows; on our right, Marbled Godwits probe the sandy bottom, searching for a meal with bills long as a lover’s kiss. Between the Avocets and us, a dozen Least Terns sit restlessly on the sand, accompanied by a trio of Black Terns—a bird I’d previously come across only in field guides. And over it all, a constant stream of Gull-billed, Forster’s, Sandwich, and Royal Terns sail effortlessly by on outstretched wings. It’s birding by complete immersion, like sipping from a fire hose. And this is just the beginning. Examining fields, waterways, ditches, and stands of palm trees scattered throughout revealed further delights—Long-billed Curlews, American Golden Plovers, and Loggerhead Shrikes among them. Even the roadside fences had something on display, giving us great looks at the marvelous and engaging Scissor-tailed Flycatcher—a striking bird no matter how often we encountered it.

Indigo Bunting, High Island

Indigo Bunting, High Island

After exploring the peninsula, we headed out to High Island, and the sanctuaries of Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks. High Island is arguably one of the most inaccurately named areas of the country, as it’s neither high nor an island. It is, however, fantastic for birds. It sits on the northwestern edge of the Gulf of Mexico and offers glorious respite to northbound migrants—a lush, verdant haven for birds exhausted from their non-stop flight across the Gulf’s open expanse. Indigo Buntings, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Orchard Orioles, warblers, thrushes and vireos, all break their journeys here to gather strength before pressing onward. An active rookery at Smith Oaks also serves as a critical nesting ground for Roseate Spoonbills, Neotropic Cormorants, and a variety of other wading and water birds—and provided us with unparalleled, intimate views of these spectacular creatures.

Roseate Spoonbill, Smith Oaks Rookery

Roseate Spoonbill, Smith Oaks Rookery

We could easily have spent a week getting deep into the wonders of High Island, but we had an engagement to keep with the birds of south Texas. Hard as it was to take our leave, after two days, we ventured to birding mecca: the valley of the Rio Grande.

The Rio Grande Valley—or RGV, to those in the know—is one of the most ecologically diverse areas of the country. Desert landscapes, wetlands, coastal shorelines, riparian woods, tropic zones, salt marshes, and palm forests all exist within its confines, and provide refuge to an astonishing array of birds, many of which are found nowhere else in the country. There are close to 90 parks, wildlife refuges, and birding hotspots across the region, and you could spend months exploring them. We hit six during our too-short visit: Estero Llano Grande, South Padre Island, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Quinta Mazatlan, Bentsen-Rio Grande, and Falcon State Park. Every park had wonders to discover, and even the roads to them held surprises, including Harris’ Hawk and Crested Caracara (two of my target birds for the trip, and both of which forced abrupt highway maneuvers).

Crested Caracaras

Crested Caracaras

At Bentsen-Rio Grande, we caught up with the elusive Elf Owl, a nesting Gray Hawk, and the charming and diminutive Northern Beardless Tyrannulet (a south Texas endemic). Falcon State Park held desert specialties like Greater Roadrunner, Verdin, and Pyrrhuloxia. We had great looks at Curve-billed Thrashers and Olive Sparrows at Quinta, and Green Jays, Black-crested Titmice and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds at Sabal Palm. The highlights for me, though, were Estero Llano Grande and South Padre Island.

Estero is a marvel to behold. It’s a relatively small refuge, and easily managed, but it features the greatest habitat diversity for a single park in the RGV—and consequently plays host to perhaps the widest range of bird species. One of our first sightings was a pair of beautiful Fulvous Whistling Ducks—a life bird for all three of us, and an excellent portent for the day. This was followed by a procession of shorebirds: Stilt Sandpipers, Killdeer, a single Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers, Avocets and Black-necked Stilts—the epitome of elegance in long legs and sharp contrasts, and utterly captivating. Across the deck, and just behind the park office, Plain Chachalacas, White-winged Doves, Green Jays, and the scaly-feathered Inca Doves were among the visitors to one of the park’s few feeding stations. And crossing the pond along the boardwalk, we were greeted in most un-rail-like fashion by a Virginia Rail and a Sora, both out in the open and exposed, completely out of character for these usually skittish and secretive birds. Incredulous as we were, we still took full advantage, watching and photographing them as they scoured the mudflats 10 feet in front of us. We spent the rest of the day in a constant state of ecstatic delirium as Estero revealed its wonders: Great Kiskadees by the handful, Common Pauraques, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and a pair of courting White-tailed Kites arcing and dipping gracefully above the treetops.

Black-necked Stilt, Estero Llano Grande

Black-necked Stilt, Estero Llano Grande

We rounded out the visit watching an electric-orange Altamira Oriole tend to its pendulous nest, and catching a glimpse of an Eastern Screech Owl taking the last of its daily rest before foraging for the evening’s repast.

South Padre Island provides a different flavor of birding spectacle. Situated in the Gulf of Mexico just across from Port Isabel, South Padre is almost entirely developed. The little open space left is focused primarily around two sites: the South Padre Island Convention Center and the Birding and Nature Center. These two areas are migratory magnets, drawing birds in and concentrating them—sometimes in breathtaking numbers. Even on a slow day, though, the birds are nothing short of spellbinding. Wandering the Convention Center grounds, we had Blackburnian, Blackpoll, Magnolia, and Tennessee Warblers mere feet from us, Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Eurasian Collared Doves resting above our heads, an extralimital Red-headed Woodpecker (which caused quite a stir), a flock of two-dozen Dicksissel, and, in one view, a Painted Bunting, a Blue Grosbeak, and at least 17 Indigo Buntings drenching us in color and song. We were even graced with visits from both Yellow- and Black-billed Cuckoos.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck, South Padre

Black-bellied Whistling Duck, South Padre Island

After drinking in the songbirds at the Convention Center, we headed next door to connect with waterfowl and waders along the Birding and Nature Center’s boardwalk loop through the marsh. Almost immediately, we were greeted by what is certainly one of the region’s most iconic and familiar birds, and has become a personal favorite: the beautifully plumed Black-bellied Whistling Duck, whose gentle face, bold eye ring, and vibrant orange/pink stick-on bill lend it a humorous, quizzical expression. We’d seen them all over Texas, but they were here by the dozens. So, too, were the big waders: herons and egrets. All gave us fantastic looks, but the standouts were a Reddish Egret dancing for dinner just off the boardwalk, and a Tri-colored Heron catching small fish with its arrestingly blue bill.

Tri-colored Heron, South Padre Island

Tri-colored Heron, South Padre Island

We spent the better part of six days birding the Rio Grande Valley (including a second stop at Estero) before heading northward again, towards Huston and our final park: Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is one of the last stands of southeast Texas’ once vast expanse of coastal prairie, and is home to Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, a critically endangered subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken. There are so few of these birds left in the wild that several years ago, the US Fish and Wildlife Service established seven captive breeding sites to help save them. Today, the birds seem headed for recovery, but FWS is incredibly protective. The only way for the public to see them is to reserve a seat on an FWS van and get driven out over several miles of bumpy dirt road closed to all but sanctioned personnel—and there’s no guarantee that the Prairie Chickens will be there when you are. We were fortunate, though, and arrived on the scene in time to watch seven of them, including several males decked out in full breeding regalia and putting on quite a show for the ladies. I don’t know how long we spent watching them, but everyone in the van sat reverently enchanted by the display, sharing the moment with perfect strangers, latching on to the wildness and grasping, if only fleetingly, the thread that binds us all, human and avian alike, to each other.

This is what birding is truly about. It’s more than just reveling in a show of feathers or finding solace in the company of birds. At its heart, birding reawakens our ancestral memory and re-ignites the ancient spark of connection between ourselves and the natural world. It reminds us that we are indescribably yet intimately linked to the creatures around us, that we share a future, that we are kin. We are not above Nature, we are part of it, as dependent on the planet’s biological support systems as all other life on Earth. For better or worse, we are the caretakers of this planet, and it is incumbent on us to ensure that we, the birds—indeed all of Earth’s “endless forms most beautiful”—have a home here, and a chance to live their lives with dignity and respect, and free from the possibility that a single species, through carelessness and lack of vision, seals an unkind  fate for all.