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

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!