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 businesses 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.

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