For Love Of Shorebirds

Ruddy Turnstone

It’s early November, and at home in western Massachusetts we’re bracing for the onset of colder temperatures and shorter days, and the prospect of widespread and frequent snow. This isn’t unique to us here in the Pioneer Valley, of course, or even New England. All across the northern latitudes, people are preparing for the decreases in both mercury and afternoon sun concurrent with the slide towards winter.

Though thoughts of summer sun and sandy toes are far from many of our minds now, bear with me; I’d like you to join me in a little exercise in visualization (this will be much easier for those of you in warmer climes). Picture your favorite beach on a July or August morning, sand soft and cool underfoot, water sun-kissed and shimmering in the golden light, raucous cries of gulls set against the rolling surf’s gentle susurration. Terns circle overhead, plunging into the depths like feathered missiles, while shorebirds work the fluctuating boundary between earth and sea, retreating up the beach with each incoming wave, and skittering back down behind the receding water on wind-up-toy legs, driving their bills down like sewing needles to pluck a morsel from beneath the wet sand. The crowds have yet to arrive; it’s just you, the beach, and the birds.

Hold that vision in your mind for a moment. Now, I’d like you to picture the same scene, but with one difference: take out the birds. It’s just not the same, is it? What was once vibrant with life has become as empty as the Moon. Coastal landscapes are stunningly beautiful, but the birds elevate them to the sublime.

Purple Sandpiper

Sadly, this vision could very well become reality—at least as far as shorebirds are concerned. As a whole, shorebirds—or waders, as they’re known outside the United States—are perhaps the most at-risk birds on the planet. Their marathon migrations—among the longest journeys in the avian world—alone stretch the limits of survival; the myriad threats they face along the way are enough to push an extreme situation beyond those limits. Habitat loss, pollution, hunting, loss of prey, human disturbance, predation—that these haven’t yet driven shorebirds to wholesale extinction is a testament to their resilience. How much longer they can rely on that—and what might ultimately put them over the edge—is anyone’s guess. The reality of our warming climate and its compounding effects on habitat loss (especially through sea level rise) and disruption of food sources might be the trigger, though. Regardless, one thing is certain: we can’t continue this way. If nothing changes, we’re almost sure to lose them.

But there is something you can do: go birding. It sounds simple, I know, even ridiculous, but hear me out. This weekend, November 4-5, is the fourth annual Wader Conservation World Watch (WCWW), and it’s a chance to help. Started by the UK-based conservation group Wader Quest, the WCWW is a two-day survey of the world’s shorebirds—citizen science on a global scale. Wader Quest’s mission is simple: Save the shorebirds. By educating people about the needs of shorebirds and the struggles they face, and raising funds to support conservation efforts across the globe, Wader Quest is helping to drive shorebird conservation worldwide. But they can’t do it alone.

As birders, as lovers of those magnificent, feathered creatures, we can help. And it’s easy: get out this weekend and look for shorebirds. You don’t have to go both days (although I don’t know many birders who complain about having to spend a weekend birding), just go when you can—and at the end of the weekend, email the folks at Wader Quest and let them know what you saw. That’s it. They do the rest—including sending out a wrap-up newsletter with the results. Last year, participants from 38 countries on six continents found 124 shorebird species—a respectable showing, but we can do better for the birds we love. In fact, we must do better if we want to encourage their survival. The threats to these charismatic and endearing fliers—and to birds in general—grow daily; they need us to speak up on their behalf, they need us to care. There are hundreds of millions of birders across the planet, and countless more who simply love nature and don’t want to lose any more of it. If we can speak in unison, raise our voices in support of those who aren’t heard, we can let loose a cry to loud to ignore. If we choose to take action, to get involved, we can change the world. But each of us must do our part. I’m asking you to do yours.

Remember, yours is the greatest voice for change.

Use it.

 

Since its inception in 2012, Wader Quest has been doing great work for shorebird conservation. I joined as a member two years ago, and I highly encourage you to support their work by joining as well, or making a donation. You can do so here.

Wader Conservation World Watch 4 is this weekend, November 4-5. You can find out more about it here.

And you can email your results to waderquest@gmail.com.

You can also learn about Wader Quest by digging into their website here

… and their FaceBook page here.

 

Dunlin

 

 

 

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

Emotion And Instinct

Sanderling, Westport, CT

Sanderling, Westport, CT

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

Piping Plover, MA

Piping Plover, MA

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

Peregrine Falcon (juv.), Milford Point, CT

Peregrine Falcon (juv.), Milford Point, CT

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

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

Love.

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

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

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

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

American Avocets, Estero Llano Grande, TX

American Avocets, Estero Llano Grande, TX

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avocet

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.