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

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.

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