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

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.

Dying In The Midnight Sun

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Iceland is rich in natural wonder and timeless beauty, filled with panoramic views and otherworldly vistas. It is a realm of Northern Lights and boundless summer sun. And it is home to one of the world’s most charming and iconic birds: the Atlantic Puffin.

Every summer, thousands of these whimsical birds return here to nest and raise their young—joined in their efforts by Arctic Terns, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Northern Fulmars, Razorbills, and Common Murres, who descend here in multitudes to feast and nourish their chicks on the bounty served up by the frigid North Atlantic. In all, 23 species of seabirds—including about a third of the world’s Arctic Terns and the vast majority of its Atlantic Puffins—rely on Iceland’s coastline, fields, and sea cliffs to shelter their young, and on the rich surrounding waters to feed them.

At least they did. Over the last decade or so, though, drastic changes have played havoc with Iceland’s seabirds: 10 years of breeding failures are decimating the once thriving colonies of Arctic Terns, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Atlantic Puffins. Now, researchers are finding many historical nesting sites empty; in some places, where they’ve previously banded hundreds of fat, healthy chicks, they’re recovering hundreds of carcasses. In the hardest-hit areas, the cataclysm is total: all the chicks—an entire generation—are dead. Aevar Petersen, a retired ornithologist with the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, has been surveying Arctic Terns on Flately Island for 41 years. Some summers, he and his colleagues have banded nearly a thousand chicks. This year, they’ve done five.

“Normally, there would be hundreds of birds here,” he says. “Now, there may be a few chicks. But they probably won’t make it. This is what we’re seeing in the whole of Flately, and further afield.”

Atlantic Puffins © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Atlantic Puffins © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

On the Westman Islands—home to a mixed seabird colony so extensive that it borders on mythical—more than 800,000 Puffin pairs typically shack up and raise their young. No so today: this summer, during his regular Puffin survey, South Iceland Nature Center biologist Erpur Snaer Hansen finds burrow after burrow empty—a trend that’s been going on for more than a decade.

The devastation extends beyond Iceland. All throughout their ranges, seabirds are suffering. Says Petersen,

“What is happening in Iceland, we see happening in so many other areas in the North Atlantic. And the fact that we’re seeing them over such a wide area points to a common factor.”

So what’s going on here? What went wrong? In essence, drastic changes in Earth’s oceans—their chemistry, climate, food base, and toxic load—are affecting their ability to support life. Historical food webs are collapsing. And the one species directly responsible for the damage, Petersen’s common factor?

Us.

We chain-smoke fossil fuels, lay waste to our planet’s natural resources, dump garbage wherever we see fit, and poison the very systems that sustain life. We’re creating a toxic cocktail that’s pushing these birds closer and closer to the brink. Fortunately, there’s still time. Entire populations haven’t yet foundered, and seabirds are notoriously hardy: millions still cruise the Arctic skies and ride the North Atlantic currents. They can recover from a few bad breeding seasons. A few. But as population declines extend from years to decades, it’s only a matter of time before they pass the breaking point and disappear forever.

And then what? After we lose the Puffins, Terns, Kittiwakes, and all the marvelous birds that blanketed the Icelandic landscape, who’s next?

Again, us. We are. Seabirds, says Carleton University doctoral student Jennifer Provencher,

“… are critical for detecting changes that are happening even more rapidly than we suspected. We are getting basically a year-to-year-to-year update of the health of the oceans and the health of the environment through these seabird studies.”

If there’s a canary in the North Atlantic coalmine, it’s the Atlantic Puffin. The North Atlantic is a major engine of Earth’s weather, and one of the most productive and important fisheries in the world; the Puffin’s troubles could be the intimations of a global crisis, one in whose remorseless grasp we may find ourselves, and which we may be hard-pressed to break. Holding to our present course may lead us to a bleak and dire future. These delightful, unassuming, comical little birds are sounding out the first warnings of a catastrophe that reaches far beyond Westman burrows. We would do well to heed them, for the demise of the Puffin may presage our own.

Even if it doesn’t, though, even if we don’t follow the Puffins into darkness, we will still have suffered a profound loss. We will have driven to extinction a charming creature whose only desire is, like our own, to thrive, to prosper, and to live free from harm or persecution—and when they do die, to do so on their terms, not through a brutal act of thoughtlessness and greed.

Our history gives me small reason to hope. And yet I do. I still cling to the idea that enough of us can shake off this madness and summon the will to change—that, in the final moments, we will save the Puffins and all their kin who fill the northern summer skies with cacophonous alacrity. We’ve done it before. In Maine, some 40 years ago, Dr. Stephen Kress launched Project Puffin and pioneered a method of attracting seabirds back to historical yet long-abandoned nesting grounds. In so doing, he engineered a seabird recovery that was nothing short of miraculous. Today, Dr. Kress still works with Project Puffin and the National Audubon Society to monitor and protect Puffins in the northeast United States. Across the pond, Tom Brock and the Scottish Seabird Centre are keeping tabs on Puffins among Scotlands’ islands; now, after several years of struggles, it seems that the Puffins have finally had a good breeding season. Researchers in Iceland—Petersen, Provencher, and Hansen among them—continue to watch over seabirds in the North Atlantic. And all over the world, voices far and wide are awakening people to the Puffin’s plight, educating them about conservation, and, through images and words, igniting in others the love they have of these delightful, remarkable birds.

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

I don’t believe their fate is sealed. We can change direction, and shift to a course that ensures a future for Puffins, Terns, Kittiwakes… and us along with them—but we have to move fast. If we fail, then we’ll have let slip yet another opportunity to act for the common good. But if we succeed in hauling them back from the edge, then we may just save ourselves as well.

Photographer, filmmaker, and Mass Audubon instructor Shawn Carey (Migration Productions) has done wonderful work in capturing Puffins at their best. You can find his photos here.

He’s also posted a couple of Puffin videos here and here.

And you can stay on top of the latest research into what changes in bird populations are telling us about the health of the planet through Environmental Health News’ “Winged Warnings” series.

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.