A Collision of Worlds: Passerines and Pipelines

Yellow Warbler

I’m sitting in the livingroom watching a beautiful Yellow Warbler work the Bradford pear trees in the front yard, flitting from branch to branch, exploring the newly-opened blooms for insects and snaffling up whatever he can find. He just arrived yesterday, and quickly declared the trees as his own, chasing off the errant Chickadee or warbler that might dare encroach on his territory. But his defense goes only so far: he allows the Tufted Titmouse pair to forage freely, the Chipping Sparrows don’t seem to bother him, and he ignores the other recent arrivals—a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, another pair of Gray Catbirds, and a solitary male Baltimore Oriole, resplendent in vibrant orange and rich black. Maybe it’s self-preservation that guides him: With the exception of the sparrows, these birds are all larger, some double his size, and perhaps he fears injury. Or it could be that they don’t care for the same foods he fancies. Whatever the reason, as long as no Chickadees are about, there is harmony among the leaves.

Life is good for this little bird, and he seems to know it. To my ear—and at the risk of anthropomorphizing—his song sounds joyful and exuberant, celebrating the return of warmer weather and the cornucopia spread before him. His antics are entirely endearing, and I find myself captivated by the bonfire of life contained within his tiny, delicate form. I could sit and watch him for hours.

Spring migration is in full effect; the trickle of intrepid early northbound wanderers increasing to an unstoppable feathered flood, each day bringing new arrivals, some bound for far northern latitudes, others looking for a secure summer home in which to nest and raise their young. Many of our yard birds have already begun pairing up, Catbirds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Chipping Sparrows among them. Others, like the lone Oriole, our resident Carolina Wren, and the little warbler pause regularly from their venatic pursuits and burst forth into full-throated song, staking their territorial claims and advertising their availability to the fairer sex.

Baltimore Oriole

For migratory birds, timing is everything—and these next weeks are critical. Migration is hard; young birds need time to develop the strength and skill necessary to survive the rigors of a multi-thousand mile journey, so the adults have to get down to the business of nesting and rearing post haste if they’re to give their offspring the best chance. The line separating life and death is thin, and serious disruption could push the year’s new birds over it.

Sadly, just 50 miles away, in Sandisfield, Massachusetts, that’s exactly what’s poised to happen. This sleepy Berkshire County town sits in the middle of a controversy between local landowners and environmentalists and the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company. Tennessee Gas (or TGP)—a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan—has just recently cleared the final hurdle to begin construction of a highly controversial natural gas pipeline known as the Connecticut Expansion Project. TGP’s pipeline expansion will cut through four miles of state forest and private land, and involve clearing 29 acres of prime woodland habitat—land upon which many species of birds are already nesting. For these birds, the project is an unmitigated disaster. Migratory birds face an entire host of threats already; this project adds a fair amount of insult to a great deal of injury. Not only will any land cleared by TGP be unavailable for future nesting, the chaos of tree cutting and bulldozing may be too much disturbance for current nesting birds to handle—potentially forcing them to abandon their nests, and any eggs or newly-hatched young within. It’s possible that some might try to re-nest, but finding another suitable nest site takes time, and puts additional pressure on late hatchlings to quickly build up the reserves they’ll need to undertake their southbound odyssey. One way or another TGP’s expansion project may well be the death of them.

Or not—with a little hope. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter to TGP recommending that they do any clearing and cutting outside of breeding seasons, to minimize any potential impact. But it’s only a recommendation. It has no teeth, and it’s entirely up to TGP whether or not they follow it. The fate of the birds remains to be seen. Now, they’re not bad people. From many who’ve dealt with them, the general impression is that TGP officials are professional, respectable, and polite. But there’s a lot of money on the table, and they’re determined to get it. And when money is the goal, what chance do the birds have? What consideration do their needs receive?

Chipping Sparrow

It’s not a question of malice that’s driving TGP forward in spite of the very real and damaging environmental consequences, it’s a lack of appreciation. What the officials at TGP fail to understand is this: Nature has an intrinsic worth that cannot be expressed in the material. Clear air, clean water, and healthy forests are fundamental to our survival; you can’t put a price tag on them. And there’s no dollar value you can assign that’s fair compensation for the life of a bird. Walking in the woods heals us; watching animals go about the business of life connects us to them and to the larger world around us, and reminds us that we are a part of something greater. Nature nurtures. We need but seek Her out and approach Her with respect, reverence, and humility—and with knowledge of our dependence on Her.

That’s what TGP has forgotten, and what those opposed to the expansion project are fighting for. And fight they should, as should we all. Yet in that fight we must not lose our humanity, and rather than demonize those who stand opposed to us, we would do well to educate them to Nature’s true worth, and to the dire consequences of pursuing such harmful courses. I’m not naïve enough to believe that we can awaken them all to the truth, so we must remain steadfast and vigilant. We may influence some, though—and regardless, there’s nobility in the attempt.

It’s important that we also recognize our own role, indirect though it may be, in bringing projects like the TGP expansion to life. TGP is, first and foremost, a business, and as such, responds to the realities of the market. If we, as consumers, demand or require more power to sustain our lifestyles, TGP and other utility companies will fall in place to meet that need. We are not entirely without fault, and if we really want to see a change, we have to first turn the mirror inward and see what each of us, as individuals, can do to set the wheels of change in motion. If we want to give wildlife more room, we’ll have to commit to taking up less ourselves. If we want to decrease our impact on our environment and the lives of the other animals within, we must start living more consciously, and find or adopt more sustainable ways to fuel our own lives. If, through our actions and our choices, we can show business like TGP that we’re willing to move the greater good of our environment and our non-human kin to the fore, perhaps we can convince them to care as well—or at least understand the importance of factoring more into their decisions than money. It smacks of great hypocrisy to decry the impact of others without first managing our own. Pausing in our relentless onslaught against Nature and giving Her a little space shouldn’t be too much to ask, and will ultimately benefit us all—for we all, environmentalist and utility company alike, must remember this: The wealth of Nature is not in what we can extract from Her. Rather, it lies deep within Her embrace, expressed in the grand scale of life on Earth, in the complexity of its interconnection, and in the simple beauty of a single bird.

Reawakening: A Long Winter’s Journey Into Spring

Black-and-White Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

Late April in New England, and the raw winter is finally breaking, its spindly, ice-crusted fingers reluctantly releasing their grip and freeing us from the season’s cold shackles. And though the vernal sun yet teases us with the promise of warmth only to retreat again behind the cover of clouds, the rush of spring is undeniably upon us: crocuses have come and gone, daffodils are in bloom, the trees’ first buds are tentatively opening, and each dawn breaks over a chorus of birds. It’s this last that gets my blood moving, that more than anything sounds winter’s death knell and affirms, on some primal level, the imminent arrival of green and pleasant days: The birds—feathered vanguards of life’s renewal—have returned.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Of course, winter is far from barren. The colder months bring a rich avian spectacle to the east: Tree Sparrows and Juncos; elegant White-throated Sparrows and diminutive Golden-crowned Kinglets; Red-breasted Nuthatches, those expert scalers of pines; Longspurs, Snow Buntings and Horned Larks, feasting on the remains of fall’s harvest; Rough-legged Hawks and Snowy Owls menacing the fields; Purple Sandpipers skittering along the rocky coast. Some years, Bohemian Waxwings and winter finches abound. And from November through mid-April, a procession of waterfowl presents a visual banquet to those intrepid souls who seek them. I delight in these birds, and take great pleasure in their company—even though the chill works deeper into my bones with each passing year. And I always mark their departure with a touch of sadness, and miss them when they go.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

Still, winter birding is hard: the days are short, the cold omnipresent, and the weather regularly defeats all but the heartiest birders. And the birds themselves, though wonderful to behold, are vocally restrained. The great singers are still warming their feathers to the south, and those who do overwinter nearby hold their voices in check until moved by vernal stirrings.

But when finally they sing, what glorious sound! A Mozart symphony or Bach concerto pales in comparison to the haunting melody of a Wood Thrush or a House Wren’s musical ramble. And what vocal virtuoso can match the skill of a Mockingbird in full-throated splendor? Music is one of humanity’s great accomplishments, and yet the song of a migrating warbler puts the grandest of our efforts to shame.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

And then there are the colors: bold reds and blues, vibrant oranges and yellows, rich chestnuts and deep blacks—Nature’s palette displayed brilliantly on living works of art. Spring migration is an audiovisual feast, and every year I devour it greedily, like a man too long without food. Chipping Sparrows are one of the first to arrive—a personal favorite of mine, and a bird I find disarmingly enchanting. Red-winged Blackbirds follow close on their heels, announcing spring’s inception with flashy epaulettes and insistent calls. The Mockingbirds come soon after, laying claim to our yard and giving chase to any creature unwise enough to contest them. Out on the coast, Piping Plovers—charming creatures by anyone’s measure—are already pairing up and staking out suitable patches of beach sand in which to dig out their nests.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

In the coming weeks, these early travelers will be joined by the full panoply of migrants as forests, fields, and beaches come alive with the feathered pageantry of spring—warblers, tanagers, orioles, flycatchers, buntings, grosbeaks, hummingbirds… a tantalizing array, demanding to be seen.

And then, just as it began, it will be over. The birds who spend their summers in the northeast will find themselves consumed with the business of parenting, while those who use these latitudes as a refueling stop will continue their journeys onward to more northerly climes, not to be seen again until they head south on the cooling winds of autumn. And so it goes. As the seasons change, we say a reluctant goodbye to one set of friends while joyfully welcoming the return of another, the opposing twins lamentation and celebration overlapping. Such is the way of things.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

So go when you must, our winter companions. We’ll miss you, but we won’t be left alone—your spring and summer cousins are on their way to accompany us through the warmer seasons, and we’ll revel in their splendor. As the days grow colder, we’ll look for you again, and when you arrive, we’ll welcome you back with open arms. Until then, farewell.

For now, and at last, bring on the migrants!