Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Living on the Wind

I just finished Scott Weidensaul's book from several years go about migratory birds. He is one of my favorite writers and naturalists. I've been particularly interested in hawks this winter, as there have been several hanging out in my neighborhood. Both Cooper's and Red-Shouldered hawks have been hunting in the area, sometimes lighting very close -- on the power line in front of the house or in the highest branches of the trees above our house. Just this evening, I heard a commotion and looked out to find a pair of Red Shoulders sitting together on a bare Elm branch; one of them was methodically taking apart a little mouse or vole that it had just nabbed from my front yard. Natural pest control! I don't think I've ever seen a pair so close together before.

Weidensaul's book is an amazingly detailed and lively account of the wonders of migration, spanning the entire Western hemisphere from sea bird breeding grounds off the Bering Strait to the wintering grounds of hawks and other birds on the pampas of Argentina. He follows the tiniest songbirds on their trips from North America, winging their way across the Gulf to the Caribbean Islands, Central America, and points further south. What makes the book so engaging is that Weidensaul, a federally recognized bird bander, describes first hand all the sights and sounds of the far-flung locales -- from near the Arctic Circle, where Eiders and hoary redpolls live (alongside polar bears and arctic foxes), to Veracruz in Mexico along the flightpath for hundreds of thousands of migrants, to the Platte River where Sandhill Cranes gather before finishing their migration north to Alaska and Canada.

Understanding why these birds make their dangerous journeys and how the odds are increasingly stacked against them is pretty depressing. Most of it has to do with the loss of habitat, especially contiguous forest, but also over-developed wetlands. We are probably going to lose many species, which makes me appreciate this last chance, perhaps, to live with them -- even the ones that I never get to see. It's what makes me happy to feed the birds each winter and every now and then spot a few migrants on their way north or south --cedar waxwings and golden-crowned kinglets in the fall. Most of the birds at my feeders are year-round residents, but my little white-throated sparrows arrive each winter to stay a few months before going back to New England and Canada to breed. I saw three or four this weekend, but I expect they'll be moving north soon on their journey, so I'm helping to fatten them up before they go.

Weidensaul, recognizing the fragility of so many migrating birds, ends his book with this lovely meditation on the redstart he has spotted in his woods:
What I cannot see, no matter how closely I look, is what drives this small creature, barely heavier than air, to make the journeys that it must make. I may have seen this same redstart in an acacia forest in Jamaica, among the ruins of a Maya city in Belize, or in a half-dozen other places in the tropics. I can only imagine what has happened to it in its life -- what near brushes with predators it has escaped, what storms have tried to rake it from the sky, what females have taken it as a mate, what dynasties of redstarts it has founded. What thousands of miles have passed beneath it's stubby wings, which seem so ill-suited to the task but which have carried it back here again , to this mountain, this stream, this willow thicket. Its secrets are locked in that tiny packet of a brain and muscle and instinct, a few feet away but separated from me by an immense, uncrossable distance. It knows, and I do not.