Are You Ready for Some ... Birding?
Time for a break from all the doom and gloom at the end of a long, hot, dry summer. Fall brings things to look forward to. The first is pro football season, which I go into dreaming of my Pats winning that fourth title (ideally by beating the accursed Giants and the oh-so-lucky Eli Manning). For that season, I will prepare by cleaning the pollen off my TV screen and stocking up on beer (Ranger is my current preferred brand) and potato chips (Cape Cod, of course).
The second season I’m anticipating is every bit as dramatic and requires equally minimal preparation on my part: just grabbing my binoculars and bird books. I am talking, of course, about the migratory season.
Every year it stirs me. And maybe it stirs you a little, too. I think of sights I’ve seen. Swallows staging on Cape Cod, a great tornado of birds in our backyard readying for their long trip south. Sea turtles, mostly invisible, except when they wait too long and land cold-stunned on the shore. Raptors pouring over Hawk Mountain as the expert birders, who remind me of gunslingers, call out the names of birds that to me remain no more than dots on the horizon.
The year I best felt the drama of this movement south was the year I went with the birds. In 2006 I followed the osprey migration south from Cape Cod down through the states to Cuba and then Venezuela and back. I learned some things that year: that all our places are linked together, your backyard tied to mine. That through a world that is increasingly digitized, segmented, fenced off, and pre-programmed, there flows a primal spectacle, an ancient and organic adaptation to a world that was and still is. And that there was something in that spectacle that spoke to something in me, in a way just as stirring but a little different than the NFL did.
This year I will not be traveling to Cuba to follow the migration, but that doesn’t matter. The great thing about migration is that it comes to you. It jumps from your backyard to mine, so all you have to do is go outside and look around. In this way you become part of the larger process and begin to understand that your home may be your home, but to the birds it is just a stopover, a single link in a great chain.
Which gets me to thinking about broken links in that chain. Which of course invites doom and gloom back in …
So feel free to stop here if you want to keep upbeat. I promised, after all. But for those ready to go to a slightly darker place, I’ll paste this in from the end of my book about the Cuba year, Soaring with Fidel:
As Venezuela goes, so go the birds.
That sounds nice, but what does it mean? It means that with a phenomenon like migration you can’t just conserve a place, you need to conserve a process. The flyways that migrating birds follow cross state and national lines, and the birds depend on many stops along the way. And so as Venezuela goes, as Cuba goes, as Cape Cod goes, as Carolina goes, so go the birds. If Fidel Castro, say, or Jeb Bush declared osprey hunting legal, or even encouraged it, in their respective provinces, then you would wipe out not just the Floridian and Cuban birds, but the Venezuelan and New England birds too.
Which makes us all responsible, all linked by the chain of migration. Just like DDT. While the banning of DDT was a great environmental victory in the United States, ospreys still gather the deadly chemical in their lymphatic systems each year. This is because the same victories did not occur in Latin America and the chemical, like the birds, does not respect international borders. Though we often seem loathe to admit it, the fact that our country is part of a larger world is undeniable.
Migration is the real world wide web, the closest thing that nature has to connecting the entire planet. “Bird migration is the one truly unifying phenomenon in the world,” writes Scott Weidensaul in Living on the Wind, “stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do.” But if the stitches are ripped in one place, the whole is easily torn.
Image: Chris & Lara Pawluk/Flickr