In The Company Of Birds

Tufted Titmouse

If you’ve been following along at all, you’ve discovered that I spend a lot of time with birds. I get out with them whenever I can, even if that means just sitting on the patio and seeing who’s hanging out in the yard. You can learn a lot by watching these yard birds. White-throated Sparrows and Eastern Towhees are notorious skulkers, staying at the edges and kick-feeding in the underbrush, leaving the feeders to the more adventurous Chickadees, Titmice, and Goldfinches. Of the woodpeckers, Downies are the boldest, often landing on the feeder pole and watching as I set out the morning’s repast. Red-bellieds are regular visitors, but will flush at the mere suggestion of the drop of a hat. However, if left to their own devices, they’ll aggressively defend the suet, chasing off others who might dare try for a bite. Flickers—the largest of our regular woodpecker visitors—show up sporadically, and are even more skittish: breathe in their direction and they’ll beat a hasty retreat.

You also start to notice differences between individual birds. If I should need to step into the back yard (God forbid!), most of the Chipping Sparrows will flee to the safety of the trees, but one or two will stay on the feeders and watch as I pass. The female of our Rose-breasted Grosbeak pair is similarly inclined, holding her post while the male heads for the hills; so too with the Hairy Woodpeckers, the female largely undaunted by my intrusions—putting paid to the notion of the weaker sex.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Though I love our yard birds, and have spent many hours in their company, I’ll also take any opportunity I can to visit one of my favorite local haunts—Quabbin Park’s gate five or the Fort River refuge, perhaps—or travel farther afield (New York’s Central Park, the Connecticut shore, Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, and Cape May, New Jersey are regular birding fixtures). No matter where I’m headed, though—even if it’s just out to the supermarket—I always bring two items with me: a pair of binoculars and a camera. You never know what’s out there waiting to be found, and I believe in being prepared. More often than not, it’s paid off. And more importantly, on the few instances when I’ve left one or both behind, I’ve regretted it (ask me about the Great Gray Owl sometime).

Now I’m not a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination, and I consider myself fortunate if I come away with any good images at all. It’s far more important to me to get a good look at a bird than a photo of one. Still, I enjoy the challenge of photography and the joy in success. When you’re trying to photograph a bird, you also have to look at it differently. Light and shadow come into play a bit more, you have to pay special attention to behavior to anticipate its next move (it’s often too late to photograph a bird where you first see it), and you have to try to position yourself in just the right spot—clear of obstructions (as much as possible anyway), and a respectful distance from the bird so that you can keep your impact to an absolute minimum while still capturing a good image. This last is paramount, and any ethical photographer—professional or otherwise—will always place the needs of the bird first.

American Goldfinch

There’s something more, though. It’s not just the self-satisfaction of taking a good photograph. As someone who loves nature—and birds in particular—I feel a responsibility to share what I’ve seen, give others a window into the wonders of the world around us, and, with luck, inspire at least some of them to care. It’s the same reason I write about them—to bring people with me as I explore the lives of the birds, and to hopefully illuminate a bit of the magic that lies just outside our doors.

Over the last few years, I’ve been introduced to many wonderful photographers—some who’ve become good friends—and they all share this same desire, to open a bit more of our world to us, and inspire us with its pageantry, its mystery, and its splendor. People like Melissa Groo, Keith Carver, Joe Oliverio, Ann Pacheco, Shawn Carey, Ashleigh Scully, Mia McPherson, Eric Curtis Cummings, Christopher Ciccone, Marina Scarr, Dorian Anderson, Denise Ippolito—artists all, and far more accomplished than I—produce images of stunning beauty, capturing moments of transcendent glory, heartbreaking intimacy, deep sorrow, and profound tenderness among our non-human brethren, revealing aspects of their world that many of us may never see yet are critically important for us to understand. I am consistently awed by their work, and often moved beyond words.

Or maybe there’s a darker side to this drive. Perhaps we’re documenting a great decline, recording these creatures for history before they slide into oblivion. Perhaps, like those who kept account of the last days of the Great Auk, Giant Moa, and Passenger Pigeon, we’re bearing witness to catastrophe and chronicling these lives that they may not be lost to time and confined to the realm of myth and legend.

Perhaps.

Myself, I hold to hope, and I suspect that many of my peers would as well—the hope that my work has an impact, that it drives people to care, to take action, to not remain on the sidelines and watch the great tragedy unfold. That I, through images and words, can help others understand the vision I have for our Earth, reach others who will be moved to make a difference, and awaken in others an appreciation for the grandeur and majesty of our world, the inherent value in all life, great and small, and the urgent need to protect and nurture all creatures whose lives fall, for better or for worse, into our hands. We are the only species that regularly drives others into extinction, but we are also the only species that can keep them from it.

Chipping Sparrow

Why do I do what I do? Why do I spend so much time in the company of birds? Because I must. Because it is right and proper that I do so. Because to be human is to care for more than just the human. Because for all the ugliness and destruction in the world, I can find beauty in the simplicity and grace of a sparrow. Because I cannot envision a world empty of the birds that surround us. And because I refuse to accept that as our inevitable course.

But for that to be true, it’s up to each of us as individuals to do what we can, however we can. It’s up to me, and it’s up to you. Start in your back yard, see what’s there. Go for a walk in your neighborhood, visit a state park or national wildlife refuge. Take that first step out your door, then take the next, and the next. Who knows where you’ll end up, and who knows what you might find? There’s life there waiting to be discovered, so get out and find it. Learn about it. Care.

And then inspire others.

At the end of it all, that’s what I work for.

 

You can find links to the photographers who inspire me below:

Melissa Groo

Keith Carver

Ann Pacheco

Joe Oliverio

Ashleigh Scully

Shawn Carey

Dorian Anderson

Mia McPherson

Eric Curtis Cummings

Christopher Ciccone

Marina Scarr

Denise Ippolito

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

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.

The Cape Of Good Birds

Osprey, Cape May

Osprey, Cape May

I grew up in New York—Tarrytown, to be exact, about 30 miles north of the city, along the Hudson River—and as a New Yorker, I shared the long-held belief that New Jersey, just across the river to the south, was a dump. Outside of grave necessity, no self-respecting New Yorker would ever set foot there: It was the pits, and had nothing to offer the rest of the nation except industrial waste and a means of access to points south. This was received knowledge to all who lived in the Empire State, handed down from one generation to the next. We didn’t even question it: that was the story, and we stuck to it.

Well, we were wrong. In the years since my youth, as I’ve grown more aware and observant, New Jersey has become one of my favorite places in the world. This may sound crazy to anyone who’s only experienced the state from inside a moving vehicle on his or her way somewhere else, but get off the Turnpike or Garden State, and a different world begins to emerge. It’s here, in the salt marshes and shorelines, on the waterways and refuges, where the Garden State comes to life. When you really begin paying attention, you’ll discover that, far from an industrial wasteland, New Jersey is a treasure-trove of natural beauty, offering its rewards up to those willing to step off the road more traveled and explore. And if you happen to be a birder, the rewards are considerable.

In a state rich in birding hotspots, Cape May is New Jersey’s crown jewel. Its status among birders is legendary, regularly filling the top slot on lists of the best places to bird—and it’s easy to see why. Cape May sits squarely along the Atlantic Americas flyway—which spans the East Coast from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego—and every year it serves as a critical stopover for countless numbers of migrants, representing hundreds of bird species. Warblers, raptors, ducks, geese, waders, shorebirds, songbirds, swallows, all descend on the area to rest and feed—a frenzied, feathered flood. With them come the birders, flocking here by the tens of thousands to take in the splendor of the regular avian cast, and with luck encounter something rare, a vagrant carried from distant lands on the winds of a storm and dropped fortuitously, if unceremoniously, onto Cape May. Like the birders themselves, they hail from across the globe: Fulvous Whistling Ducks and Zone-tailed Hawks from the southwestern US; from Europe, a Northern Lapwing; a White-tailed Tropicbird from Bermuda and Black-capped Petrel from the Caribbean; Puffins from the icy North Atlantic; Barnacle Geese from Greenland and a South Polar Skua from Antarctica; from the western US, a Black-throated Gray Warbler; and in the span of seven months in 2014, a Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Europe), Fork-tailed Flycatcher (South America), Western Tanager and Vermillion Flycatcher (western US), and contending for the record for most far-flung visitor, a Whiskered Tern from the African coast.

Brown Booby

Brown Booby

Along with Cape May’s customary procession of bird life, magnificent in its own right, every trip holds the promise of the unexpected. And as anyone who’s been there more than once knows, the unexpected shows up in Cape May with astonishing regularity. We’ve been venturing down from western Massachusetts every year since 2009 (though I first visited some 35 years ago, during which time a Northern Wheatear dropped in out of nowhere), and every year Cape May’s held true to its reputation as a magnet for the unusual. That first year—at nine years old, my son’s inaugural excursion—we watched a quartet of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, far from their southwestern home, enjoying the bounty of the bird observatory’s duck pond. The following fall, it was a Eurasian Wigeon on the duck pond, a European Lesser Black-backed Gull on the beach, and a Brown Booby from the Caribbean cruising the bay for fish. The year after that found a highly secretive Connecticut Warbler skulking in the understory. And so on, each year offering encounters with the wondrous and rare.

But Cape May is more than just a haven for the seldom-seen. Common birds abound here as well, in numbers that often stagger the imagination. During a typical migration season, raptors and songbirds come through by the tens of thousands (this year, a single October morning saw a flight of more than 56,000 warblers). Seawatching can be even more astounding: by mid November, observers logged more than half a million birds—most of them gulls, terns, and mixed waterfowl—streaming past the Avalon seawatch site. And during our most recent visit this fall, flocks of Tree Swallows, each several thousand strong, swarmed over us in waves, a press of life unlike anything I’d yet seen, a primal avian flame fueled by a bounty of bayberry and bugs. We usually time our visits to take in the fall raptor migration—something for which Cape May is justifiably renowned—but this year we arrived at the peak movement of these incredible swallows. They’re amazing birds, the paragon of aerial agility, and we always delight in their return to our northeastern skies. But this was a sight beyond measure, the familiar in a context decidedly not so: acrobatic clouds catching dinner on the wing or descending en masse to pick meals from the bushes. We even managed to catch a few in rare moments of repose, sitting motionless on the paths before us.

Black Swan

Black Swan

Waterfowl also arrive with the turning of the leaves, and alongside the usual crew of dabblers and divers, there are always a few surprises. The late-September appearance of a Black Swan caused more than a little stir, and even though it was almost certainly not a wild bird (native to Australia, Black Swans are also staples of zoos and private waterfowl collections; this one likely escaped or was intentionally released), it was still thrilling to see this beautiful bird in a natural setting. Joining the swan was a drake Eurasian Wigeon, his striking red head standing out from the green crowns of his American cousins. Though this Old World duck has become a fall fixture in Cape May, they never show up in large numbers and are always a special treat. Somewhat more surprising was the female Redhead we encountered swimming with the Blue-winged Teals and American Black Ducks at the Meadows. Typically found along the Gulf Coast in fall and winter, this one strayed a bit and ended up in birding Mecca—to the delight of the throngs of birders who happened upon her.

But the biggest surprise for us came in the form of an unassuming little songbird from the southwest. Jacob Drucker, a good friend, recent Hampshire College grad, and CMBO volunteer, brought it to our attention as we were about to stake out space on the hawkwatch platform and scan the skies for a long-shot Golden Eagle. He didn’t even return my greeting—there was no time for that (when presented with a rarity, an excited birder’s priority is to share it with others; the usual pleasantries of friendly reconnection can come later)—he simply said, “Did you chase the Bell’s Vireo?” and then gave me directions to find it (essentially, “go here and look for the other birders”—also typical). And so we chased.

Bell's Vireo

Bell’s Vireo

Now to be fair, in the long and storied history of tracking down rare birds, this wasn’t much of a chase. The first lucky birders spotted it along the edge of a meadow not 15 minutes from where we were. We burned another five minutes walking from the car to the meadow—and directly into a knot of people festooned with binoculars and cameras, all gazing expectantly in the same direction. Short of hanging a sign that read “rare bird this way,” there was no clearer indication that something extraordinary was about. We planted ourselves in the crowd; the vireo returned less than 10 minutes later and spent the next half hour feeding in the thicket a dozen feet from where we stood. It was spellbinding, and we remarked upon it in reverent tones, careful not to disturb the bird. And then, as suddenly as it began, it was over. Obeying some signal discernable to it alone, the vireo disappeared deep into the woods. The crowd slowly dispersed and we all went our separate ways, taking with us the memory of our collective experience. I felt refreshed and inspired, my appreciation for the boundlessness of the possible restored by the serendipitous appearance of this little bird.

Cape May does that to you. It presents you with a panoply of the sublime and then dares you to not be moved by it. Trips here take on the flavor of religious pilgrimages, wanderers coming from near and far to stand in the presence of the mystical and holy. We receive spiritual renewal and salvation through the grace and beauty of these spectacular, wondrous creatures, the feathered heralds of Nature herself—and we are reminded that even humanity’s greatest accomplishments are nothing compared to the simple perfection of a tiny bird.

Get Your Buzz On For Birds

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

The birds we love are in trouble, and they need our help. Many are declining, some of them sharply: Following the 2014 State of the Birds report, about a third of the United States’ 800 or so birds—233 species—were placed on a watch list, indicating an urgent need for protection. Some, like the Whopping Crane, Piping Plover, Spotted Owl, California Condor, and Golden-cheeked Warbler, are already threatened or endangered; the rest are riding the edge. A separate list tallies another 33 common birds around the country that are also in steep decline, having lost at least half their habitat in the last 50 years. They range across a variety of habitats, from grasslands and fields to shorelines and forests, and include birds familiar to most of us—Chimney Swift, Common Grackle, Herring Gull, Eastern Meadowlark, and Snowy Owl among them. The threats they face are as varied as the birds threatened by them. You’ve heard the litany, I’m sure: habitat loss, restricted range, water and air pollution, introduction of invasive species, human recreation in nesting areas, loss of food sources, energy development, climate change… it’s a long and overwhelming list. What’s a concerned birder to do? Where do you even begin?

Herring Gulls

Herring Gulls

You can start by settling down with a good cup of coffee. That’s right: coffee. You know, the stuff that gets you moving early enough to catch a spring morning’s first light, snaps you awake after a long night of owling, or cuts the chill of the winter coast. Yes, we birders have occasion to drink a lot of coffee—and while we have different preferences for its consumption (I’ll take mine in a mug of cocoa, thank you), we share a host of reasons to reach for our favorite caffeinated decoction. But the best reason of all is one that many people don’t associate with coffee, and it’s a concern that has only recently been possible to address in this context: Saving birds.

Thanks to increased environmental awareness and sincere concern for the health of the land and the wildlife and people that depend on it, coffee has become a medium for both social and economic justice and environmental stewardship—addressing a host of issues like fair trade, habitat protection, the health of coffee growers and workers, soil and water quality, sustainability, preservation of native flora and fauna, economic equality and opportunity… and, by the way, the quality of the coffee itself. To understand why this is possible (and how a better cup of coffee can actually save the birds we cherish), we have to delve a little bit into the history of coffee.

Shadecoffee

Shade-grown coffee

Coffee originated in the forests of Ethiopia, and made it to our shores in the holds of European ships bound for the New World. Europeans grew the plants in wide-open, sunny plantations, but native Mesoamericans (the Maya, for example), discovered that coffee thrived under the same conditions as did the cacao they’d historically grown—namely, in the shade of native trees. At its most basic, this meant planting coffee shrubs under the existing canopy or, at most, replacing a small number of trees with species that produced other products like fruit and timber. For hundreds of years, this type of shade-grown coffee was the rule, and it’s incredibly compatible with wildlife.

Sun coffee

Sun coffee

In 1970, though, everything changed. That year, Brazilian coffee farmers discovered coffee leaf rust—a fungal blight that thrives in shade. It had already ravaged Asian coffee farms, so panicked farmers, fearing for their livelihoods, clear-cut plantations and began growing coffee in full sunlight, packed together in neat rows. Not only did this remove critical habitat for a variety of wildlife (including both resident and migratory birds), it also required the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers, which contaminated both soil and water, and exposed workers to a cocktail of toxins. This unfortunate legacy carries on today, with devastating consequences. Growing coffee in full sun wreaks havoc with every link in the ecosystem. Awash in toxic chemicals and devoid of virtually all plant and animal life, modern sun coffee plantations are essentially biological wastelands.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Not so with traditional shade-grown coffee farms. Like desert oases, such plantations are ablaze with life, containing within them a biological richness and diversity second only to undisturbed forest. At a time when more and more rainforest is razed to the ground, these outposts are proving critical to the survival of the region’s wild creatures. And among them are many of the migratory birds whose regular visits delight and inspire us: orioles and tanagers, warblers and vireos, and all those others without which our northern spring would be colorless and silent. All told, 42 species of the songbirds we know and love overwinter in heavily shaded coffee plantations—22 of which are declining significantly.

So, coffee can make a difference—but it has to be the right kind of coffee. The increased desire among coffee drinkers for a more sustainable cup has led to a dizzying array of labels all claiming different things: organic, fair trade, shade-grown, Rainforest Alliance, Bird Friendly, UTZ… identifying peeps or fall warblers is easier than deciphering this plethora of certifications, and I won’t attempt to unravel it all here (that’s what the links are for). For bird lovers, though, the choice is relatively simple.

bird-friendly-logoFirst, not all shade-grown coffee is created equal. In many cases, “shade-grown” is a feel-good buzzword. Yes, the beans are grown in the shade, but that doesn’t necessarily mean native forest canopy. Often, coffee shrubs are planted in the shade of non-native species, or in a habitat that’s only minimally diverse—neither of which does much for wintering birds. If you’re concerned about helping to preserve migratory bird habitat, the Bird Friendly certification is your best friend. Developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the Bird Friendly certification is the only surefire way to know that the coffee you’re purchasing is, in fact, grown in a way that’s truly bird-friendly. It’s the strongest of certifications, the platinum standard. Bird Friendly coffee meets USDA organic and fair-trade standards, and is grown in the shade of the native forest canopy, under a diverse mix of trees and foliage. Not only does this protect critical migratory bird habitat, it results in a better tasting coffee, as beans grown under such shady conditions take longer to mature and develop more complex flavors. In addition, it preserves the health of the ecosystem and the coffee plantation’s workers, as they’re not exposed to the dangerous mix of chemicals commonly used by non-organic coffee growers. Says Bridget Stutchbury, veteran migratory bird researcher at Toronto’s York University,

“Buying Bird-Friendly coffee is one of the best ways you can do your part to preserve wintering habitat for our migratory songbirds.”

The problem is that Bird Friendly coffee can be hard to find in brick-and-mortar stores (though it’s relatively easy to order online). Compounding the issue, only about 10 percent of bird-friendly beans carry the Bird Friendly label. Bird Friendly is not as well-known a designation as some of the others, and many Bird Friendly certified retailers opt for more recognizable, yet less stringent, labels. Some growers also forego certification altogether, though they may grow their coffee in identical conditions to a certified plantation. Often, small retailers or boutique coffeehouses develop personal relationships with growers, and work very hard to ensure the coffee they buy is grown sustainably, with minimal impact to the environment—again, Bird Friendly in everything but name. Some retailers also include a few Bird Friendly coffees alongside other, non-certified coffees—requiring the buyer to carefully review all the available offerings. At this point, the only 100 percent Bird Friendly brand is Birds & Beans, though several other retailers have one or two in their line—and more, it seems, are coming.

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole

But how much difference can changing your coffee really make? Consider this: in the United States alone, there are more than 46 million birders. That’s 46 million of us who exist, in part, to get out and spend time with birds—often with the assistance of a little caffeine. If every one of us committed to drinking certified Bird Friendly coffee, we could change the dynamic overnight. And if you think our voices aren’t loud enough, or don’t carry enough weight, ask the people of Cape May, NJ. The first birders to venture there made a point of letting every business, restaurant, hotel, coffee shop, gas station—in short, every place they spent money (and birders spend a lot of money)—know that they were there for the birds, and would return every year the birds came back. That city exists because of us. We changed Cape May’s economic equation—and by doing so, ensured the protection of a critical migratory flyway. There are other stories: Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley, the Great Florida Birding Trail, and countless locations throughout Central and South America. These places all learned that birders will visit them—and spend money in their communities—as long as there are birds to see. Compared to that, changing the coffee business should be easy.

The drive for sustainability is already underway: that Bird Friendly coffee even exists is proof of that. But it’s happening on a grander scale as well. Just this year, Starbucks reached a significant milestone: 99 percent of its coffee is now sourced through the Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFE) Practices program. Developed in partnership with Conservation International and verified by SCS Global Services (a neutral, independent third party), CAFE Practices is a set of sustainability standards that covers four main areas: quality, economic accountability, social responsibility, and environmental leadership. The goal? Ensure that farmers and workers are fairly compensated and have safe, fair, and humane working and living conditions; and ensure that growers practice measures to manage waste, protect water quality, conserve resources, reduce chemicals, and preserve biodiversity. Call me crazy, but the largest coffee retailer in the world driving towards 100 percent sustainability seems like a pretty big deal. A few million birders making some noise might just push them to adopt the Bird Friendly standard.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Who knows where this will all lead. The signs, to me, are positive and encouraging. This is easy, something we can all do. It’s an empowering first step, and clear evidence that in a world of seemingly insurmountable problems, each of us can make a difference. For me, amidst all the darkness and news of destruction, it’s no small thing to see hope in a cup of coffee.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, All About Birds, has a great explanation of the various types of coffee certification here.

You can also read about how bird-friendly coffee supports winter habitat at All About Birds here

… and about Allegro’s entre into the world of Bird Friendly coffee here.

Coffee & Conservation also has an excellent analysis here….

… and a map of recommended roasters here.

Fresh Cup Magazine has an article about the most bird-friendly coffee here

… and another article about the different certifications for coffee here.

EthicalCoffee.net has a good discussion about Bird Friendly coffee here.

The Rainforest Alliance has a description of its environmental standards (set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network) here.

And you can learn about the Sustainable Agriculture Network here.

You can get more information about Starbucks’ CAFE Practices at Coffee & Conservation

Daily Coffee News

… and at Starbucks’ own site here.

There’s also info about the CAFE Practices program at Conservation International’s blog here.

And the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has a lot of great resources related to Bird Friendly coffee here.

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

Change The World By A Yard

Cactus Ground Finch, Galapagos Islands

Cactus Ground Finch, Galápagos Islands

I do a fair bit of birding away from home. Most of the time I stick to the northeast, as there is a wondrous array of hotspots within easy reach of my western Massachusetts address. Two to three times a year, I’ll head farther south to the mid-Atlantic, usually Cape May or Delaware during spring or fall migration—still drivable, but it requires a bit more planning. If I’m lucky, maybe once a year I’ll travel farther afield—Florida, Arizona, south Texas, or somewhere on the West Coast perhaps. And once in awhile, I’ll bird some exotic place beyond our borders—most recently Costa Rica, mainland Ecuador, and the Galápagos Islands. Naturally, these are life-changing experiences. After all, how often does one get to the Andes or the Amazon rainforest, or stand in Darwin’s footsteps on the sands of the Galápagos, among the finches that inspired the greatest creative work in the history of natural science? Such places illuminate the glory and spectacle of Nature, and paint indelible marks that alter your perception of the world.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, CT

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, CT

I don’t need to travel far to be confronted with the magnificent, though. Every place I visit has something to offer, some gift to bestow. Last year, I spent several hours with Keith Carver—a good friend and outstanding photographer—in the company of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher—a bird of foreign, tropical domains that nevertheless makes occasional appearances in the eastern US and Canada. This absolutely stunning individual emerged with little fanfare in Hadlyme, Connecticut. Its almost accidental discovery by a local photographer caused a great stir among avian aficionados, and it spent the next several weeks delighting scores of birders as it hunted sometimes mere feet above our heads, to all appearances completely unconcerned by our presence. In November of 2012, a Gyrfalcon appeared like a ghost over the farm fields of Hadley, Massachusetts—a sight so rare that it drew people from Ohio and Pennsylvania, and nearly doubled the human population of this small town well into the new year. This winter, my son and I photographed a Barnacle Goose on a farm in central Massachusetts, far out of its frozen Arctic range and feeding very contentedly with a large group of Canada Geese. And every year, the UMass campus pond—about 15 minutes from home—plays host to a variety of rare waterfowl, all similarly drawn to this tiny oasis at the heart of a thriving and kinetic university. If you’re craving an encounter with a rare goose, this is the place to go.

Evening Grosbeaks, home

Evening Grosbeaks, home

Frequently, though, the greatest surprises lie closest to home. I make new discoveries just by going out the back door—and sometimes, all it takes is a well-timed look out the window. We live on about a third of an acre, one side bordered by spruce and forsythia, a few lilac bushes on the other, and a smattering of other trees and bushes scattered about—a very pleasant yard, but not, in terms of habitat, anything out of the ordinary. And yet we’ve been graced by some truly wonderful birds. Over the years, more than a dozen species of warbler have visited us, including a pair of Nashvilles who stayed for a week; Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins feast at our feeders throughout the winter; last year, a Brown Thrasher brought her two young to glean insects and seeds from the grass; Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks make regular appearances in the yard; Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sip nectar from blue Iris and Rose of Sharon; Catbirds, Chipping Sparrows, Robins, Tree Swallows, and Mockingbirds have all nested here; for 15 minutes the day after tropical storm Sandy, a flock of Evening Grosbeaks descended upon us to decimate our feeders before continuing south; and just this year, an Indigo Bunting and eight Baltimore Orioles, as vibrant as the citrus we fed them, bedazzled us with luminance and color.

Sharp-shinned Hawk, home

Sharp-shinned Hawk, home

I could easily go on, but my point is this: There’s beauty to be found everywhere, even in your own back yard. The trick is to be present and receptive to it. Once we open ourselves up to the wonders around us, we can begin to see the magical in the everyday, and awaken in us a sense of the possible. Take that first look, see what’s out there. You may not find anything at first, but I can promise you this: Keep looking, and you will.

I can make you another promise as well: if you truly open yourself to it, the experience will change you. You’ll find something that moves you, something that inspires you to learn more. Perhaps it will be a bird, perhaps not. Regardless, you’ll start to care about it, you won’t be able to imagine a world without it. Without realizing it, you’ll have forged a connection to a part of nature, to the world outside humanity. And you’ll want to protect it. You’ll tell others, get them inspired to take their first looks and make their own connections. Get them to care, understand, and protect.

Indigo Bunting, home

Indigo Bunting, home

This, for me, is what it’s all about. For me, hell is a world without birds. I can’t imagine the seashore without the sound of gulls, a forest devoid of its songbird chorus, or an October sky without the circumnavigation of raptors. I can’t envision a lake empty of waterfowl or bear the thought of spring’s voice silenced. And sadly, I can’t create change through riches or political power. All I have are my love of birds, the words to convey it, and the hope that they make a difference.

But maybe that’s enough. Perhaps through my words, I can inspire more people to care, to love, to conserve what we have left, and to encourage others to do the same. And perhaps together, we’ll get just a little closer to changing the world. If so, then maybe there’s cause to hope after all.

Maybe.

It all starts with a first look.

Take it.

Baltimore Orioles, home