Friday, October 21, 2016

Falcons return to the Mississippi with help from surprising places

The late summer sun was fading over a languid Mississippi river, turning the cloudless sky into an ever-so subtle collage of pastels, like the way movie theatres used to illuminate the screen before showtime. Swirling through the warm air, hundreds of chimney swifts dipped and fluttered after mayflies. Semis and SUVs pummeled across the river too, leaping the aquatic hurdle between Iowa and Illinois supported by a handsome suspension bridge, called the Great River Bridge at Burlington, Iowa.

I’ve been to this waterfront a handful of times, usually to scope the Purple Martin houses for occupants. But I had never heard the sound that echoed down from the top of the H-shaped bridge supports that evening. Faint, but unmistakable: the rhythmic screeching of a Peregrine Falcon!

Even with binoculars, the falcon circling the bridge was just a speck in the sky, distinguished from the much smaller swifts by its powerful flight. I watched it twirl upward and land on the top railing, just a tiny smudge against the darkening sky. This seemed an unusual location to me, but I had no idea how monumental it was to see a Peregrine along the Mississippi, until I looked into the recent history of the falcons in the Midwest.

Peregrines are well known as a conservation success story in the United States. They have the widest global range of any bird species, inhabiting every continent except Antarctica. Some sub populations migrate tens of thousands of miles each year, including the Canadian arctic subspecies which migrates to Argentina for the winter. The Latin ‘peregrinus’ means traveler or wanderer. This is a hardy bird.

But in the mid-twentieth century, Peregrines and other birds of prey were dwindling at an alarming rate. Rachel Carson’s famous Silent Spring alerted the public to the threat: the pesticide DDT was moving up the food chain, concentrating in the bodies of raptors and other top predators. The chemical reduced the integrity of raptor eggshells, causing doting parents to accidentally crush them in the nest while attempting to incubate. By the time DDT was made illegal, Peregrines in particular were on the brink of extinction. There was never a country-wide survey of the population before the introduction of DDT, but limited historical data suggests an estimate at 3,875 nesting pairs. By the 1960s, Peregrines were extinct in their eastern range, and by 1975 only 324 known nesting pairs remained in the western states. The species was declared federally endangered in 1973, just a year after DDT was banned.

Thanks to the clever efforts of falconers and wildlife biologists (more about their hilarious yet effective tactics here: http://www.earthtouchnews.com/all-articles/2016/march/03/behold-the-falcon-sex-hat-a-species-saving-hump-helmet/), Peregrines have made a comeback, particularly in large metropolitan areas on the East Coast. Since their prefered nesting sites are high cliffs, and their favorite food sources are large flying creatures, they have filled a niche in cities by nesting on skyscrapers and bridges, and providing a convenient service to urbanites by picking off feral pigeons.

If you are from, or have ever been to the Midwest, you might wonder if Peregrines ever lived there. After all, the lack of elevation change might preclude them from nesting. However, historical records do indicate nests along the ridges and bluffs of the Mississippi prior to their population crash. But that’s a long way away from the East coast, and despite the fact that Peregrines are able to migrate to the southern tip of Argentina and back in a year, the birds needed a little help getting a population started again in the Midwest. And they got it from an unlikely source: heavy industry.

Enter Bob Anderson, passionate falconer and conservationist living in Minnesota in the 80s. Inspired by other captive breeders’ success in the east, Bob took it upon himself to help reintroduce falcons to Minnesota. But there’s a problem when it comes to rewildling these powerful hunters. Falcons imprint on their nest site, meaning if a licensed falconer raises chicks in a backyard breeding facility they may continue to return each spring as adults. This may be helpful for training purposes, but not for rewilding an endangered population.

So what’s a rewilder to do? Look for a place that is high up, safe from people and predators such as raccoons and Great-horned Owls, that can act as a surrogate imprinting site. It’s called hacking, a method borrowed by conservationists from the centuries-long history of falconry. The banded, captive-bred chicks are brought to a high cliff or other suitable nesting place in a hack-box, a secure cage with viewing windows for the birds to see and acclimate to their surroundings, while being fed by human parents. In the final days before fledging, a cache of food is left for them and the door is opened, allowing the young birds to practice flying and hunting with little influence and disruption of human presence. Monitored from afar, they are fed surreptitiously until they no longer need it, and they leave on their own time. The method was working on the east coast in various natural and man-made structures.

And that’s exactly what Bob did. His first success was in 1986 from the top of City Center, now called Multi-Foods Tower in Minneapolis, where he released his young fledgling named MF-1 (after the Minnesota Falconer’s Association for which she was produced). The next spring, MF-1 returned to a nest box Bob constructed for her on the top of the skyscraper and raised two chicks of her own - the first wild Peregrines in the Midwest since the 1960s. Not destined to be a one-hit-wonder, MF-1 continued her reign of the City Center tower for 7 more years before being mortally injured in the most honorable way a falcon can - duking it out with a rival female. In the meantime, she produced a daughter who turned out to be another very special falcon in the Midwest.

in 1988, Bob founded Raptor Resource Project, Inc, an organization with a mission to preserve birds of prey through nest site restoration, creation, monitoring and maintenance. Meanwhile, a falconer by the name of Paul Simonet was working at Xcel Energy’s Allen S. King power plant, a natural-gas combined-cycle generator that burns 300 tons of coal an hour. https://www.xcelenergy.com/energy_portfolio/electricity/power_plants/allen_s._king . He saw a male Peregrine hanging around the stacks and excitedly called his friend Bob up with the news. A hopeful but unconvinced Bob came over and, seeing the falcon along with prime nesting potential, began building a relationship with the facility to install a nest box up on the catwalk. Bob and other falcon conservationists monitored the box closely, and discovered in 1990 a young falcon hanging around as if to stay. It turned out to be a banded daughter of MF-1, named Mae, back from her first winter on her own. To the delight of Bob and other enthusiasts, Mae laid a clutch in the nest box on top of the energy plant, hatching a new era of cooperation between conservationists and industry in the midwest.

Bob and RRP partnered with several industrial enterprises across Minnesota and eventually expanding into Iowa. The first industrial nest boxes were all adopted voluntarily by new members (aka dispersing young) of the burgeoning population. After this initial success, as well as receiving results from heavy metals testing in industrial-nesting falcons that revealed no significant increase as compared to urban or control birds, RRP began intentionally releasing young raptors from industrial sites in hope that they would return to nest themselves.

This partnership between conservation and industry may seem ironic. Coal and oil are some of the biggest culprits of greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. But Bob saw an opportunity and ran with it. According to Amy Reis of RRP, Bob worked closely with the plant managers and staff. “He actively maintained relationships with all of our industrial partners: cleaning up messy areas, responding to calls for information and assistance, transporting injured birds when necessary, maintaining and moving nest boxes, and working with the press to raise interest in and awareness of the falcons and the companies that were so crucial to their recovery.” Nesting on smokestacks does have its hazards, such as flying into wires or other tall structures. But apparently it is no more dangerous than the alternative, as smoke stack nests continue to produce more fledglings than either natural or urban sites. And the mortality rate doesn’t approach the number of collisions with automobiles and planes.

Most intriguing of all is the effect the raptors’ presence has on the industrial communities. While RRP has not conducted any formal survey of staff, they note significant enthusiasm for the birds, including an increase in cooperation with RRP in reporting avian mortalities and injuries. Bob also cultivated public support through then-innovative means: nest cams! His first web cam project, “possibly the first internet-based bird cam” according to RRP, featured Mae atop the Allen S. King Plant in 1998, and exposed thousands of viewers to the intimate home life of these previously mysterious creatures.  In her eighth year as Xcel queen, she became a celebrity followed closely by viewers for the rest of her 14-year breeding reign, when she faced the same honorable demise of her mother, at the talons of a rival.

By 1998, the populations of eastern Peregrines were rebounding successfully, reaching pre-DDT estimates of one to two thousand pairs. But something was bugging Bob. Despite a growing midwest population, the raptors had not yet begun nesting on their historical eyries on the cliffs above the Mississippi. He decided to conduct a hack program from Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeastern Iowa. The program was a success, and a few years later, not only was the Peregrine removed from the Federal Endangered Species list, but Bob watched proudly as young from his industrial nest boxes began breeding with the Effigy Mounds progeny, completing the link between history and the future, and strengthening the genes and nesting-site elasticity of midwestern Peregrines.

Unfortunately, Bob passed away in July of last year, 2015. He continued his work with passion, even rappelling down stacks and cliffs to band chicks until the last years of his life. Yet, his legacy continues to trickle down the Mississippi. His captive-bred chicks have contributed over 1500 progeny in the US and Canada over the past three decades, adding to the efforts of Iowa and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources own captive-breeding projects. As of summer 2016, MF-1 could boast being mother, grandmother, etc to 512 wild descendents, according to the dedicated monitoring of RRP. The Great River Bridge in Iowa is tricky place to resight bands, but it has been occupied for the last ten years. Perhaps some of Bob’s extended feathered family have nested up there too. In the last few years, World Bird Sanctuary, Inc in St. Louis has successfully released Peregrines along their length of the MIssissippi, extending their reach further into the historic range.

Thanks to the innovative, open-minded dedication of Bob and other falcon conservationists, the piercing cry of the Peregrine can be heard echoing over the Mississippi once more.

Special thanks to Amy Reis of Raptor Research Project and Pat Schlarbaum of Iowa Dept of Natural Resources for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions via email.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

GRASS



Let me keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.

-Mary Oliver


Southeastern Iowa, August 2016

Birders aren't exactly renowned for their impetuous outdoor prowess. The term 'bird-watcher' might conjure images of retirees scooting excitedly from forest to pond in matching Exofficio gear and floppy hats, or just gathering around hummingbird feeders like paparazzi to the tiny feathered celebrities.

However, as an avian field technician, aka professional bird-nerd, I spend more time in uncomfortable situations than most people would choose. For instance, standing statue-still while being marauded by armies of blood-thirsty mosquitoes in order to get a good look at an unidentified bird without scaring it away. Or climbing up and down a razor-back ridge line of scree slopes that seem to be falling out from under my feet faster than I can make any progress, in the hot summer sun, to count and measure plants at 300m intervals. Or hiding in the lee of a shallow crater on the stark Patagonian plateau while 120km sustained winds sandblast my teeth and fill my tent in a thick layer of grit, for hours until the cloudless storm passed.

I don't enjoy any of these things. I love how these situations infuse adventure into my work, but I'm not a masochistic adrenaline junkie or stamina performance artist. In fact, many field biologists value comfort. We gather tools and clothing that can protect our delicate bodies from the elements in order to make endurance a little more bearable. Many wear long pants and sleeves, in all weather, as a shield against cancer-causing sun, biting insects, and scratching brush. Sturdy boots protect supple soles from sharp rocks and thorns while hiking for miles off trail. Sometimes a mosquito head-net is the only thing that keeps us sane enough to concentrate. This summer, I even jumped in the field-gear deep-end and got gaiters – little fabric “skirts” that are worn over boot tops, so rocks and grass seeds don't pour in by the gallon. Seriously, this saved me hours of picking needle-sharp Bromus tectorum from my socks at camp each night.

But sometimes I wonder what I'm missing. Part of the reason I got into this work was to connect myself more deeply to the natural world. Most of the time, however, I still feel like an outside observer, this clumsy, boot-clodding, bino-swinging alien, lugging a giant pack full of everything I need to survive in the wild because I am a human that can't survive in the wild. I can't exist in nature as I am. Or so I am told by my modern upbringing, and outfitters who develop high-tech must-have gear for my every outdoor adventure need.

Unless you are a member of a nudist colony, an “un-contacted” tribe deep in the Amazon, or the Yaghan, original inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, you probably grew up wearing clothes. In addition to fire, clothing is one of the most important inventions in human history, allowing our ancestors to populate every corner of a planet with highly dynamic climates. It has also been a source of immense creativity, which can be appreciated by the dazzling diversity of fashions throughout history and all over the world.

Today I wandered to the edge of the prairie, stripped off all my clothes, and stepped in. Tall-grass prairies once blanketed much of Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota, before the plow converted it all to corn and soybeans. A few remnants persist in un-mowed ditches, old cemeteries, a handful of nature reserves, and private restoration plots like the one I am lucky enough to be staying by right now.

If you've never seen a tall-grass prairie, in late summer it's almost like Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The Indian grass is starting to bloom and its frilly, lance-shaped flower clusters emerge from their sheaths around eye-level. In a week, it will tower alongside all the Big Blue Stem, which waves its three-pronged tassels a few feet above my head. Wild sunflowers, descendants of early Native American cultivars, reach even higher, their friendly faces bowing over the prairie in a hot breeze. And it's unwelcomingly dense. Every cubic inch between grass stalks is packed with wildflowers – milkweed and coneflower, boneset and ragweed, partridge pea and others. Like climbing through a fully stuffed dress rack at Goodwill and disappearing on the other side, it feels more like swimming than walking in this mirror maze of photosynthesis and wings.

As I pressed carefully into the glowing green curtains, thousands of flying insects buzzed in my ears and around fragrant goldenrod. Butterflies flit and grasshoppers flung themselves out of my path. Tiny flower-flies disguised as bees vacated their positions on stamens to land on my skin and tap their probosces between my freckles. A pair of mating praying mantis swiveled their heads to glare at my interruption. I tiptoed carefully around a wasp as big as my thumb. My toes were surprised to meet patches of cool damp soil and painful blackberry vines winding between the shoots. The soft grass flower-heads tickled as they threaded between my legs.

I continued, glancing back at the herbal curtain shutting firmly behind me, locking me in. I wasn't sure what I was looking for. I hoped a bird would flush from a hidden nest but it's late in the season; only a single Field Sparrow trilled his bouncing ball song in the hazy distance. It wasn't as bad as I expected. The sun was shaded by cottony cumulus and I had yet to meet a mosquito. Slowly, awkwardly, I squatted down into a space the size of a bathroom wastebasket, watching the towering grasses grow even taller, engulfing the space between me and the sky. Ringing of crickets hidden deep in the grass grew louder. The smell of dank earth and roots reaching deep into soil commingled with the scent of my own skin, complimenting it: my animal fragrance.

I laid back, the grass reclining with me until I was looking up at the clouds. Something about it felt strangely familiar, and I realized, I'd been here before, but in a dream. I looked down at my knees jutting up and remembered a vision I created over a decade ago: ink screen-printed on tan paper with rough edges, the image of a supine nude body from first person perspective, surrounded by blonde and auburn grasses, with one nipple occupied by a miniature girl standing there shyly in pink socks. The fantastical image vaguely represented my reluctance to let go of a childhood sense of wonder. Today, I had brought a piece of paper and pencil with me into the prairie, just in case inspiration struck. But I didn't feel like I needed them after this revelation. As if predicting this future moment, I had already painted this scene long ago, the little girl begging me not to forget what I am constantly endeavoring to sustain.

Looking up from the cradle of grass, time warp haze buzzed in my head along with the flies, and a hot sun burst from behind the clouds. Bugs were landing on me and the grass was itching my back. Like that awful, disorienting feeling of waking from a deep nap, I sat up and tried to find reality. The flies were biting now and a I swear a leaping frog hit my spine and disappeared into the green. As if refreshed by the beating sun, humid breath wafted from each trembling blade.

I stood up, it's time to go.

I stumbled back toward open air, where my skin wasn't being licked by a thousand knife-edged leaves. I threw on my clothes and headed back to the house, in a dreamy, satisfied state with tiny yellow grass flowers in my hair and a burning sensation growing stronger on my skin. What I thought was going to be a mini act of defiance against my own cultural habits had served to connect me to myself, in a thread through time, as well as to the sensations of the earth.

After a cold shower, I saw in the mirror that my back looked like it had been attacked by a hundred rabid kittens. There's a reason grass leaves are called blades. The greatest evolutionary feat of grass is its ability to grow back after being eaten. But it would rather avoid being eaten in the first place, and has a few tricks to deter ravenous vegetarians.

If you look at a grass leaf under a microscope, you can see that each edge is serrated like a steak knife, like a row of shingled shark teeth, ready to slice anything that slides along it, such as the vulnerably supple tongue of a herbivore. This doesn't seem to deter the herds that (used to) blanket plains in Africa or the central United States, but if you've ever felt the leathery sandpaper tongue of a cow, you know why. Next time you pick a blade, carefully run your finger down the edge, but don't be surprised if you bleed.

If you look at the surface of the blade, even with the naked eye sometimes, you can see tiny hairs, called trichomes. These hairs help retain moisture in dry or windy conditions by reducing evaporation. Scientists believe they also serve to obstruct the passage of potentially predatory insects, and some trichomes even ooze an irritating substance which causes additional itchiness. Both the serrated edges and the trichomes are made of silica, aka MICROSCOPIC SHARDS OF GLASS.

The silica grinds on all sizes of herbivorous teeth, causing ungulates to evolve extra high crowns and rodents to evolve teeth that never stop growing. It also reduces the digestive abilities of grasshoppers, robbing them of nutrients and carbohydrates. As if that weren't enough, when some grasses are damaged by a herbivore (or your lawn mower), it can trigger the grass to suck up more silica from the soil and incorporate it into the leaf surface, making it even more irritating to potential predators. Or in my case, brashly exposed skin. The First Nations who lived along the Mississippi, growing corn and beans and pumpkins, hunting game and gathering seasonal foods, wore long buckskin leggings to protect their legs from the vegetative and arthropodic onslaught when straying from well-worn paths through wood and field.

Silica and other minerals absorbed by plants, called phytoliths, persist in soil and the geologic record even after the plant has decomposed. Amazingly, highly trained scientists can interpret the structure of phytoliths left in a geologic strata to tell what kinds of plants were present at the time. Some of our major crop species – rice, wheat, corn – are descendents of grass and therefore high in silica. Archeologists can study phytoliths in excavated settlements to help them understand the history of agricultural development, piecing together the story of civilization. Even a few prehistoric human remains have revealed phytolith traces in their teeth, helping archaeologists to understand what plants the ancient people ate. In a way, the very defense mechanisms plants evolved to keep the world at bay now inadvertently serve to connect us, through science, more closely to the past of both humans and nature, to understand the bonds we share.

Evolution is a constant, tinkering push and pull between competing and consuming organisms. Perhaps what's missing from my current “nature connection” philosophy is meeting nature on its own terms, allowing it to bite back sometimes. I don't plan on striding nude through tall-grass prairie again any time soon, but next time I have a picnic, I don't think I'll mind the itchy ankles so much.



Sources:

Environmentalscience.org “Phytoliths: What they are and what they tell us.” http://www.environmentalscience.org/phytoliths

University of Santa Barbara Science Hotline: “Why does human skin itch when it reacts with grass?”

Indiana Public Media A Moment of Science: “Plant Hair”

J. W. Hunt, A. P. Dean, R. E. Webster, G. N. Johnson, and A. R. Ennos
“A Novel Mechanism by which Silica Defends Grasses Against Herbivory” Annals of Botany 2008

MuseumLink Illinois State: “The Illinois”

Sunday, July 3, 2016

//////////////LIMINAL\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\


Dawn splashes amber light over the vertical stripes of marsh plants all around me, illuminating the intricately patterned bodies of two silhouettes in a dead cottonwood tree above my head. The silhouettes swivel their heads to look down at me. Razor claws gripping dead branches and golden eyes drooping with sleepiness, they perk up at the hoots of a distant neighboring pair. The male stands up on his perch, leans forward, almost as if he is going to somersault into the marsh, and puffs his white-feathered throat, letting out a low, booming answer. The female joins in with slightly higher-pitched hoots and few cranky yelps. Then they retreat into a huge thorny mesquite where they will doze in the shade until dusk falls and hunger draws them out again. Their nightly pursuits are written in the sand each morning.

If you've never spent much time in the desert, or especially if the only time you have spent is staring out the car window blasting down the interstate at 85mph, you might be tempted to believe there's nothing but a lifeless wasteland out there. Endless shades of brown – tawny sand, rust-tinged hills, dusty mountains carved by winding dry riverbeds, scraggly plants barely squeezing any green into the landscape. Aside from a few wheeling ravens, and ramshackle trailers that may or may not still be occupied by snowbirds, signs of life are slim. That is, until you pull your car over to the shoulder and step into a dry wash to relieve yourself (the nearest gas station still 80 miles away). The glaring sun keeps your eyes low, and scanning the cracked earth you discover a foreign language scrawled across the sand.


 

I'm standing knee-deep in a crystal clear marsh, but up beyond the bank is a sparse mesquite bosque, each sand-marooned shrub wreathed by tiny footprints – the paired dots of bouncing kangaroo rats, galloping four-paws of desert pocket mice and cottontails, patterned tick-marks of little grasshopper feet, and even the unusual squat-stamps of toads. The night crew of the desert. Alongside the pitter-patter, larger tracks trundle across the open sand, sometimes interrupted by dug holes and messy attacks– coyote, bobcat, raccoon, skunk, and Great Horned Owl. The owl tracks are unmistakable - longer than my forefinger with two toes pointing forward, one pointing back, and one sticking straight out to the side. Owls are what ornithologists call zygodactyl – their inner front toe able to swivel to the back, maximizing the surface area of deadly talon potential during an aerial pounce. The sand here is so fine, I even found a full-spread wing imprint of an owl touching down. But wait, you say, do owls really walk on the ground? These ones apparently do, quite a lot, as evidenced by their sloppy gait traced across the dunes. By the time I arrive at dawn to survey for avian life, the authors of all these stories have tucked in to their burrows, tunnels, and hiding places under dense brush. 

 POUNCE!
 
Five years ago, this whole area – the marsh, the mesquite – was a sea of tamarisk. This water-guzzling shrub, also known as salt cedar, was introduced to the west in the 19th century for erosion control as the Colorado river was being dammed, rerouted, channelized, and sucked dry. The trees spread quickly in the upturned earth and now chokes the banks of much of what remains of the Lower Colorado. Tamarisk exemplifies all the worst weed characteristics you can imagine – it grows quickly (up to 12 feet in a season), reproduces generously (one tree can produce 600,000 seeds annually), colonizes disturbed earth rapidly, and spreads by the one method you can't control: wind. The roots suck up and retain water and exude massive amounts of salt, changing the composition of the soil to levels unsuitable for most native riparian plants, thereby creating vast monoculture stands, deprived of birdsong, scurrying rodents, or sun-bathing reptiles. And worst of all, tamarisk is virtually un-killable: it resprouts vigorously from cut stumps, after fire, and even herbicide treatment. In other words, its a BIG problem for conservationists in the west, especially in riparian areas of the Southwest that have been dismantled by development.
 An inspiring scene from recreational Park Moabi, north of Lake Havasu City, with tamarisk in the background.


 
Not surprisingly, I don't have many photos of tamarisk itself. I think I took this one because I was so startled to find another kind of plant struggling for life beneath the deadly shroud of tamarisk canopy (center bottom).


Sunrise reflecting in irrigation canal, Blythe CA. Notice anything missing? Plants perhaps?

Habitat for local wildlife has been shrinking and fragmenting for centuries, and the effects reach further than the desert. Before industry started rearranging the river for its own purposes, migrating birds like warblers, vireos, and flycatchers followed green ribbons north through deserts and dry sagebrush basins, thousands of miles of verdant cottonwood-lined river valleys from Mexico to the Northwest and boreal Canada. Now there are a few struggling islands of original riparian habitat left, meaning these tiny birds have to fly further across those barren bajadas to find fewer resources during their epic biannual journeys. 

 The resplendent Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last remaining stands of riparian forest along the Lower Colorado. Just try to imagine this snaking all the way up from Mexico to the Grand Canyon.

But all is not lost. For the last three decades, coalitions of federal, state, tribal and conservation groups, including the Bureau of Reclamation, have been developing a methodology to convert reclaimed land along the Lower Colorado back into riparian habitat. Old farm fields no longer in production are replanted with native cottonwoods, willows, mesquite and marsh plants, and irrigated on an intermittent schedule to mimic historic flood cycles. Each project is an experiment with varying results. Some plots attract migratory and breeding birds while others seem to repel them, and factors change over time as trees grow and are thinned. Each project provides lessons on what works and what doesn't. And this is where nonprofit Great Basin Bird Observatory comes in.

For the past 5 years, GBBO has been leading the breeding bird surveys along the Lower Colorado for what's called the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Plan. Through on-the-ground surveys and data analysis, GBBO documents the use of virgin, disturbed, and created riparian habitat by breeding and migratory birds. Each spring, GBBO sends out intrepid field crews to riparian plots around Yuma, Blythe, Lake Havasu City and Lake Mead to conduct area search and spot-mapping surveys of bird activity, with a focus on six of the more-imperiled passerine species. Other agencies and crews monitor endangered populations like Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Southwest Willow Flycatcher and Elf Owl. Then in the fall, GBBO conducts extensive vegetation surveys to link the bird data with environmental conditions. The analysis of this data contributes to current and future management plans.
4am wake-up call never gets easy, but dawn never gets old.
And this is where I come in. This is my third spring season with GBBO's LCR crew. The first year I was hired, I was living in Maryland and looked forward to hiking among dry dunes and cacti. Contrarily, the LCR surveys are some of the wettest I've ever participated in! It's true, I've yet to be caught in a rainstorm. But with the intermittent water flows, I never know when I am going to be knee-, thigh-, or even chest-deep in marsh water. I've even had the pleasure of surveying by kayak!

Today, the marsh seems to be lowering. Last week I was tip-toeing through a channel with my pack above my head. Now crystal-clear puddles are surrounded by thick mud. I am stationed in Yuma, Arizona to survey two big habitat creation projects: Yuma East Wetlands on the north-east edge of town, and Laguna Division Conservation Area about 20 miles up river, straddling the California-Arizona border. Yuma East is older, with some nice big cottonwood stands, plenty of bird-life and even a resident bobcat. LDCA is brand new, a baby habitat growing up fast. In 2011, the tamarisk sea was bulldozed and re-graded to create winding channels, varied slopes for ecotones, and larger bowls of open water for wintering ducks and future recreational fishing. Water delivery and control systems were constructed to direct water in what are called “pulses”, from Imperial Dam at the north end and back to the grid through Laguna Dam at the south. The next season, marsh plants and tiny saplings were planted by these crazy machines that look like 4-driver tuktuks with a harvester on the back, but instead of harvesting, it inserts baby trees into the ground. With this new technology, the painstaking process of hand-planting trees has been reduced to 10% of the time and energy once necessary.
Black Phoebe nest built against the wall of a water delivery canal, LDCA.

By the time I arrived early in April 2016, the marsh areas were fully grown and humming with the sewing-machine songs of Marsh Wrens, witchity-witchity of Common Yellow-throats, hilarious guffawing of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and terrifying growling of Great and Snowy egrets, White-faced Ibis, and Black-crowned Night Herons. Cormorants were sunbathing and an osprey was fishing from dead snags left purposefully by the dozer crews. A beaver slapped the water in warning and fish darted in the shallows. The trees are still young, some just reaching above my head. They were arranged in sweeping rows with willows lining the waterways, cottonwoods above them, and mesquite and desert riparian grasses on the drier islands. As I weave between the glowing deciduous leaves, the air is relatively quiet, except for the bombs going off in the hills to the east. On the other side of Mittry Lake lies Yuma Proving Ground, and often my “flyovers” category could include all manner of mechanical birds, not to mention paratroopers floating on the horizon. In the midst of current global affairs, I feel a sense of bittersweet privilege, certain that the explosions are practice and not intended for me. It makes my heart go out to all those for whom that certainty is not reality. 


The current lack of birds in the young “forest” is not in the least disheartening, though! In fact, all that photosynthesizing lends an excitement to the air, I can almost taste the potential in the wafting pollen. This liminal habitat may be quiet now, but in a few years I can envision a winding row of towering cottonwoods ringing with Yellow Warblers and willow thickets so dense only small creatures seeking shelter can enter. If Yuma East Wetlands can be used as a gauge, the future is hopeful. Just across the highway from downtown, you can be transported into a wildlife wonderland. Bobcats, mule deer, Gambel's quail, legions of lizards, even a few rattlesnakes dart among the well-crafted shrubland and forest plots. Marshy ponds harbor rails and herons, and flocks of thousands of migrating swallows roost among cattails for the night. The magic is only interrupted by winks of human design – concrete canals slicing through cottonwood groves or sputtering irrigation tubes winding around mesquites and ground-squirrel burrows. This sort of cyborg nature seems slightly disingenuous – wilderness on life-support – until you witness the results in blossoming biodiversity.


As I sneak along the drying mud in LDCA, eyes scanning the ground for nighthawks, I see millions of mammal and heron tracks – the collective treading of animals over the past three years laid upon one another, never fully washed away by the gently rising and falling water levels. Signs that wildlife are already filtering in to this new opportunity. A barely-audible flickering tickles my right ear, and in my peripheral vision I catch the frantic flapping of a female Lesser Nighthawk. Her Oscar-worthy performance of broken wings and seizures momentarily draws my attention away from her two speckled eggs, laid directly on the sand. Their camouflage is impeccable, and if it weren't for the nighthawks' undying parental devotion, I would worry about accidentally stepping on them. The nocturnal birds spend all day shading their precious investments on exposed gravel bars, even bringing water from nearby sources in their breast feathers to sprinkle on eggs that could go from developing to sunny-side up in sizzling ground temperatures – sometimes up to 20 degrees hotter than Yuma's average triple-digit highs. I take a quick snapshot of the eggs and move on, careful not to leave a dead-end scent trail. Within seconds, the mother is back on her “nest” – more conceptual than practical, but it must work often enough!

 Lesser Nighthawk's meticulously crafted nest.

Water is life on earth, but it is no more painstakingly obvious than in the desert. Parched by sun and wind, any bit of water effects the plants and animals for miles around. The humidity created by deciduous transpiration effects valley temperatures and weather patterns. A hundred miles upstream, the Colorado is fed by the Bill Williams River, one of the last remaining stands of riparian forest. It is now a Wildlife Refuge, and harbors thirty-four species of butterfly – eleven of which were historically common throughout the river system, but are now only found there. Even elusive creatures that spend most of their time on the dry ridges – bighorn sheep, mountain lion, and ravens – come down to the valleys and springs to fill their gullets with life-saving liquid.

Dams and irrigation have created a lot of opportunity for humans in the forms of agriculture, development, and energy. It's heartening to know that its possible to give back a little to the other residents of this verdant desert corridor. It takes a lot of work but it is proving to be worth every drop. I can't wait to come back in a few years and see the habitats all grown up!

 Great Horned Owl... or desert penguin?

This essay was originally written for the Great Basin Bird Observatory blog, which you can read here: http://gbbofieldnotes.blogspot.com/

Monday, May 2, 2016

Banding Parallax



Walking in circles all day. That's the basis of bird banding. We set up loops of trails in the forest, studded by ten 12m-long, extremely soft and nearly invisible nets (hence the name mist-net), and walk them every 40 minutes. The paths become apparent even after a few days, leaves and little saplings pressed into earth, soil compacted beneath. The banding trails at Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California, where I conducted my training, have been walked by interns for 30 years, and look more like canals than footpaths: deep, smooth earthen trenches dug by boots and rain out of the forest floor.

As birds are flying along, minding their own business, they might suddenly feel a peculiar but insurmountable horizontal gravity. The nets are made of thread, basically – loose mesh diamonds of black thread that flutter slightly in the breeze. When a bird flies into one, he or she sort of somersaults into a pocket of mesh and then, confused by this sudden change in trajectory and paralysis, struggles and gets itself tangled just enough to be unable to flap back out. Usually the head, if its small enough, and one or both “wrists” get looped and then it's stuck until we come along to liberate it. But it doesn't see us that way. It thinks we want to eat it, and so struggles some more in an attempt to save its own skin, usually making our job harder. It takes a lot of training to understand and practice the fastest, safest ways to extract tangled birds. After awhile it seems as easy as taking a cardigan off a small child. Every once in awhile, they are so tangled no amount of training can help you. Then you use scissors. I have yet to need scissors. I hope I never need to.


 Wattled Honeyeater in net

Different species react differently to being in the nets and being handled. Warblers and small hawks tend to go comatose – just sort of lying there, barely tangled – and extracting them is like picking a spoon out of the utensil drawer. Chickadees are tiny and ferocious, thrashing and spinning into anarchic balls of yarn, screwing their eyes shut with the effort. Most banders loathe trying to undo the chaos they cause. Woodpeckers use their tools against you, thwarting your efforts by drumming any inch of your flesh they can aim at with their pick-ax bills. I saw a master bander come back from the net with a Pileated Woodpecker muzzled by a Pringles can, his hands streaming with blood. His own blood; leaking from a hundred puncture wounds. Most of the time, its a swift procedure, a minute or less, plus another to take some measurements, jot some notes, and they are back on the wing.

As a banding technician in American Samoa, what strikes my heart with anxiety is finding a Samoan Starling in the net. They look very much like smallish crows: dark with large bills and calculating eyes. As soon as they see you approaching, they start screaming. Ear-splitting shrieks from the moment you arrive until the moment you let them go. And they are occasionally “tongued”, which is as bad as it sounds. Their tongue is shaped like an arrowhead, and they somehow get a few threads looped around the back points, then they grab a handful of net with their sharp talons and pull, sometimes until their tongue bleeds. And then as you try to undo them, they bite, jab, and stab at all your most vulnerable parts – in between thumb and forefinger, the wrinkles above your knuckles, the flesh alongside your nails, and especially wounds from previous starling encounters, over and over and over. And if they get a good grip, they thrash their heads from side to side like a prize bass, trying to rip the skin right off your fingers. It's as if they want to take vengeance for all the birds who have ever been banded, for all the inconvenience and confusion humans have enacted on all avian species in the name of conservation.

 Samoan Starling mugshot

Remember, they are also screaming this entire time, even with a mouthful of your flesh and a bleeding tongue. It's traumatizing for everyone involved. And every time, it makes me wonder. Why the hell am I doing this? Why are scientists harassing birds, interrupting their already stressful lives, just to give them an identification number in case we get the chance to harass them again? As an intern last fall, jarringly presented with the dichotomous nature of wildlife-handling, I asked this question again and again: asked my trainer, asked the scientific literature, asked my soul.

Maybe growing up in the suburbs, sheltered from lions and wolves and anacondas, surrounded by my cherished and ever-growing plush menagerie, led me to believe that animals are soft (many are, incredibly) and that touching animals was a way to connect with them. Raising pets teaches us that animals enjoy being scratched and patted and belly-rubbed. Children instigate formative emotional bonds with nature by snatching small snakes and lizards out of the grass and feeling them wriggle free from their grasp. Being human with hands that hold and caress and nurture, I instinctively want to use my uniquely nimble appendages to calm small creatures in their moments of terror, to hug them and tell them everything's going to be alright. But the truth is, as a scientist, I am causing those moments of terror. And the very last thing that will comfort them is being touched by me. To them, I am no different than any other predator that wants to rip them into bite-sized pieces. It's a heart-breaking realization, the power-balance so repulsively tipped that it wrenches any magic I anticipated out of such an intimate encounter. It makes me feel content to bridge the space between myself and wild animals only optically, through binoculars.

The main objectives of MAPS banding programs (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) such as the one we are flagshipping on Ofu-Olosega, are thus: to provide annual estimates of adult population size and survivorship, proportion of resident individuals in a population, recruitment of hatch-year birds into the population (AKA survival of their first harrowing year), and population growth rate using mark-recapture data of adult birds. If that sounds like a lot of jargon to you, it basically translates to learning whether adults or juveniles are surviving, so researchers can further hypothesize about specific threats effecting the population. For example, if it seems like there are less Cerulean Warblers than there used to be, is it because something is causing massive nest failure or keeping young birds from surviving their first year, but the current generation of adults are doing fine? Or is there something more overarching that is killing off adults as well? Are they returning from their wintering grounds? Are nearby populations doing similarly or is the trend specific to this portion of habitat?

Long before the MAPS program was established, people were watching birds. And counting them. The Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count exemplify programs that have been estimating bird populations for decades, and it would seem the information gleaned from this data would be sufficient to understand bird population trends over time. Because of them, for instance, we know for sure that aside from a few species that adapt well to human-created environments (if you're not a birder, these are the birds you probably see the most of: species that love cities and suburbs as much as we do), birds are on the decline across North America. The major threats to birds last century were over-hunting and specific toxins such as DDT leaching into the environment. Thanks to management strategies and wildlife refuges, hunting is less of a problem, at least in the US, and the EPA removed DDT from production. But the last 50 years added climate change, invasive species, and rapid habitat loss to the list. I've always hated that term – habitat loss – as if we simply couldn't find it, though we swear it was around here somewhere. Although, maybe that describes the phenomenon perfectly – a forest is cleared for a suburban development, a few old residents are devastated as they witness a drop off in biodiversity, and the new ones, growing up in the streets named for the trees they replaced, have no recollection of what they are missing.

Anyway, we know birds are declining. Not just the Passenger Pigeon, whose populations were so mythic in proportion we have all heard the stories yet have a hard time imagining it now – flocks streaming across the countryside so thick they blotted out the sun for hours. Now there are none. Older generations, who spent more time outdoors, will tell you they've noticed a lack – it just seems quieter out there these days. Counting birds lets us know that what the old timers say is true, but it doesn't provide the answers why. Setting up nets and catching individual birds, giving them nearly weightless identification bracelets, and sending them back into the wild, provides a deeper glimpse into their lives.

But it's still just a glimpse. Recapture rates are abysmally small – ranging from 1 to 30%, depending on the banding station. Some stations, especially breeding-focused MAPS stations, host a lot of resident, non-migratory birds that are recaptured many times a season. Others, such as fall migration stations, are located along migratory pathways and catch birds who come through once a year and might never return. Additionally, each station is only a few hundred square meters of reality – a tiny porthole into the vast tanker of nature. But tracking the individuals we do recapture tells us who is surviving, and who is returning to their breeding grounds. Sometimes banders even pull one feather or take a tiny drop of blood and send it to a lab for analysis. This is how researchers have tracked a wide variety of data from migration paths, to genetic variation informing changes in the taxonomic order, to the spread of introduced illnesses like West Nile Virus in some North American species, and Avian Malaria in Hawaii. It sounds invasive, but after decades of banding birds of all sizes, scientists know that the few minutes of confusion and stress that banding causes birds has minimal effect on their livelihoods.

Backyard banding was a hobby in the early 20th century, but now banding operations are strictly regulated and conducted only by trained and permitted researchers, always with the safety of the birds taking precedence over data. The injury and fatality rate is less than 1%. Accidents do happen, and I have witnessed both irreversible damage and the miraculous – I once recaptured a healthy adult bird with a slightly crooked leg, looked up his stats in the database, and found his leg had been broken during banding several years before, splinted and taped before he was released. It clearly healed and he has been doing fine ever since. Even the Samoan Starlings seem to fair well after having their tongues lacerated – their ferocity reflects their tenacity. And thinking about it, I suppose my tongue heals pretty quickly after biting it, too. Some individuals are recaptured over and over and over throughout their lives, and because of it, researchers know that the process has little effect on their livelihood and have even illuminated lifespan records for many species.

MAPS stations across the continent (and on Ofu-Olosega) also conduct habitat surveys in conjunction with banding to link population trends with changes in habitat quality. Birds cannot exist alone in the sky: they rely on evolutionarily specific environments in which to hide from predators, find food, and build nests. The data gathered by annual banding stations contributes to land management and conservation strategies, as well as evaluating the success of implemented strategies in real time. At least, that's what I've been told by my supervisors and the scientific literature. I have yet to witness a specific example, but I am still freshman in the school of bird banding.

All of this is what I try to tell myself when I find a Samoan Starling caught in a net by his tongue, and spend minutes drenched in sweat, struggling to free him while he pummels my hands with his knife-bill, screaming until I want to scream myself. All the feel-goodie conservation stuff gets flushed from my psyche when I suspect injury in the bird I am handling. When I suspect my good intentions have caused grave consequences for the very thing I am trying to “save”. It makes me sick to my stomach and declare this to be the last banding job I ever sign up for. It makes me think the whole thing is a farce, that biologists don't gain any vital information from all those numbers, that its just an excuse to hold a beautiful, wild creature in your hand while you take a selfie that you can post online when you get back to civilization. It makes me think science is too focused on the species at the expense of the individual. Even the terminology is suspect – birds are not just banded, they are “processed”, like a cut of meat in a factory. It starts to feel like modern conservation is relegated to deciding between the lesser of two evils: invasive intervention or environmental destruction. My erupting emotions make me want to drop out of banding academy altogether. I return to our field house in the afternoon with heavy heart and a knot in my stomach.

And then a few days later, we catch a Fruit Dove. A resplendent, shining piece of feathered rainbow, a male Purple-capped Fruit Dove lay docile in the net after a whole morning of empties. My heart fluttered with excitement as I carefully removed netting from his magenta-lidded face. His eyes were bright and clear and somehow reminiscent of dinosaurs resurrected in our collective memory by Jurassic Park. His underbelly pulsed with all the hues of the most vibrant sunset you've ever seen – fiery orange, lemon yellow, flamboyant fuchsia, moody burgundy – as refreshing as a sno-cone in the dog days of summer. His only expression of discomfort while I held him for banding were his toes clenched tightly around each other – like the hands of a worried little monk clasped beneath his cloaksleeves. He never struggled, never bit or clawed out, never uttered a peep. And he smelled so wondrously sweet like flowers, I wanted to bury my nose in his soft plumage forever. Then we sent this rainbow back into the sky where he belonged, his wing beats strong and thrumming with wild vitality.

And I realized: I am sucker for this banding stuff after all. Many young scientists, including myself, are at least partly drawn to banding birds by the fleeting moment you get to hold a vibrating piece of wilderness in your hand then send it on its way. And for many, even and especially veterans, the motivation to continue is fueled by the desire to understand and conserve. Science claims to liberate itself from human bias, but what human activity isn't at least motivated by our fickle emotions? Emotions that cascade into opinions and passions but also action, determination, discovery. If the data collected really can help ensure the abundance of these gorgeous, mysterious, even ferocious creatures into the future, then maybe it is worth a few moments of discomfort – the birds' and my own. Maybe. I'm still not sure. Anyway, I still have two more months of walking in circles to decide.



Resources:


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Encounters with the curiously familiar faces of Khao Sok National Park



Dusky Langur at Khao Sok National Park

I heard the whoosh of a tree branch swinging upward, suddenly relieved of its occupant high above my head - what I was quickly learning is the sound of a monkey jumping through the canopy. I crane my neck back and peer into the dense mosaic of leaves. Up near the heart of a towering palm, I see an impossibly sweet face, like an otherworldly doll, staring back down at me. The face is surrounded by soft black fur and attached to a human-like body holding something that wiggles and then turns to stare at me too – its impossibly adorable baby, clad in a striking cloak of golden fur. I fumble excitedly for my camera, but find nothing! Then it dawns on me – Bobby and I are hiking along the main trail of one of Southern Thailand's biggest outdoorsy tourist attractions, Khao Sok National Park, and I set my camera down when we stopped for a snack a few minutes ago without picking it back up again! 

That was super smart thing #1. Then I commence super smart thing #2, which is to start sprinting back down the trail without leaving my bouncing backpack and swinging binoculars with Bobby. It was, of course, much further than I thought, as I huffed up and down the rocky roller-coaster dirt track through woolly curtains of humidity, past confused hikers, scanning the leaf litter for the log I remember squatting on as I scarfed down some salty dried fish and fruits. It didn't seem like the kind of park that would draw opportunistic thieves, but I wheezed and jogged as fast as I could, just in case. It had been 4 months since my last jog, and I could feel it. Several hundred meters down the trail I spied my camera waiting patiently by the log, snagged it, and ran/hobbled back. I passed a bewildered couple and tried to explain myself in between gasps, but the man shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and said something to his partner in French. 


 Dusky Langur

By the time I got back to where Bobby and now a few other hikers were staring up into the trees, the langur with its golden child had evacuated, and I was so completely drenched in sweat I could have wrung it out into a reeking, DEET-spiked cocktail. This was made even more embarrassing by the fact that I was wearing my old mosquito-ridden-jungle field clothes from Samoa: ill-fitting long sleeve button down and dorky-but-practical quick-dry pants, which were being held up by a fannypack because I neglected to pack a belt. Quite surprisingly, after all the internet research we had done, there were no mosquitoes, and most other tourists were hiking along in fashionable tank tops and booty shorts, as if they were strolling back from the white sand beaches of Phuket. Thank god we didn't take all the chat forums' advice and buy leech socks – what seemed basically like heavy canvas tubes that you wear under your hiking socks and pull up past your knees! We had clearly arrived in Thailand during a pleasantly mosquito-less, leech-less and of course rain-less dry season, and I looked forward to reassessing my wardrobe tomorrow!

A legitimate gibbon, called White-handed Gibbon, glimpsed through the canopy later at Sri Phang Nga National Park

Meanwhile, I scanned the canopy anyway and spotted a few dusky loiterers. Two were playfully grooming and wrestling each other on a fallen log, but were edged out by approaching macaques – another long-tailed monkey species that seem much more comfortable around the hordes of tourists. An American woman dragging two bored teenagers came up and asked what we were looking at. I mistakenly called them gibbons, because that's what the owner of our lodge had mentioned last night as part of the expected morning chorus. She got excited, having never seen a gibbon in the wild, and began rummaging through her backpack for binoculars. As I struggled to direct her gaze toward the retreating langurs, her sons snickered and shouted, MOM! We both turned around to find a little macaque galloping away with a gigantic bag of Lays potato chips. He had apparently snatched it right out of the closed backpack slumped at her feet, and proceeded to settle on a branch at eye-level along the trail, deftly rip open the crinkly packaging, and stuff his face with BBQ snacks as the other gawkers filmed it from smartphones and ipads.

Macaque with prize

Bobby and I planned this trip for the birds, but I have to admit that seeing monkeys in the wild was almost more thrilling than all the exotic sounds and colors flitting through the canopy on wings. There is something so strange about having this little human-shaped creature walk alongside you, look up at you with expressive eyes, pick up objects with tiny, dexterous hands, and sit hunched over like a little old man so it can manipulate, contemplate, and nibble. Observing these little beings, I could really empathize with the original storytellers of these parts, who wove epic tales full of spirits and sacred beings that have their own agendas and lives. Monkeys are so familiar to us, even without science constantly confirming their genetic links. Across the globe, primates are used as pharmaceutical proxies, their sacrificed lives making medicine safe for us, research into neurology possible, cures for diseases reality. But in the jungle, coming face to face, what matters is this: their forward facing eyes can look into our own, like sharing a gaze between eons of evolution. Not to suggest evolution as a linear path - them to us. Who is to say which is more advanced? The humans who are cleverly inventing their own demise, or the monkeys who snatch chips from their backpacks?

 Young macaque pensively nibbling


 
Ok, the birds were amazing too: Wallace's Hawk Eagle with squirrel breakfast, seen screaming over the trail moments before this story!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Dawn



 (ok this is actually a sunset, but you get the idea)

I woke up before 4am and couldn't sleep. We usually wake at 4am for work, and usually I am an enormous pain in the ass to drag out of bed, but today was Sunday, our obligatory day off, a day to sleep in til 7. For some reason, though, my mind started cranking and I could tell it wasn't going to stop. I got up, walked down the dark hall to the main room of the house. Didn't switch the light on, knowing it would beam into the bedroom windows where Bobby was still asleep. Sat in the dark for a little while, then stepped outside into the night.

It was dead quiet. No wind, no crickets chirping or katydids sawing, even the sea's ever-present roar seemed hushed. I saw a gleam flash in a breadfruit tree as I scanned the yard with my headlamp. It was a bat's eyes, two shining marbles hanging down from a branch. They blinked out as the bat took off silently. Still looking at the place where the bat had been, I suddenly saw the breadfruit tree, in its wholeness, as a being that started as a seed and captured the sun's energy to grow its giant leaves and produce fruit that fall to the ground and become mushy fly buffets writhing with the possibility of more trees. The stuff I knew intellectually could be sensed, quite viscerally, all at once; its lifespan crunched into a moment. The sort of visions only possible in the hush before dawn.

I walked down the slope to the beach. I put my feet in the edge of the ocean – the ragged fringe of a quilt that covers half the globe, ever billowing in the wind, its wrinkles crumpling up on shores everywhere. The water reflected strangely in the glow of my headlamp, like a rack of eerily undulating buns. I wondered if sharks were slicing through the wet dark, inches from my vulnerable toes. A sliver of moon hung high above and a few stars winked through the clouds. As the first light of dawn appeared, I could just barely make out forms of bats flying over the reef and ghost crabs standing on the sand. I wondered if they'd been there in the darkness or just awakened by the promise of day. It was lunchtime on the east coast, where many people I know and love were probably enjoying mimosas and Sunday brunch after a weekend of ringing in the New Year.

I walked up onto the runway to see the sun rise. A small window of pale peach and tangerine opened on the horizon between Olosega and Ta'u, framed by curling gray clouds. A San-Fransisco-like belt of fog drifted between the islands, too, silhouetting the towers of Olosega Point. The sky filled with black shadows circling in the still air above the mountain and the shore: hundreds of bats! What were they doing up there, far from the fruit they eat? One was moving too slowly, wings held rigid like passenger plane – a frigate bird sailing west. Two others were moving too fast, darting and curving together – a pair fairy terns, their identity revealed like a magic trick, black silhouettes against the dim dawn transformed instantly to white with the shadowed ridge as backdrop. Plovers, poised like ghostly ballerinas, appeared on the runway – were they always there? As if suddenly noticing me, too, a rail shrieked and darted across the road. It was almost chilly.

I don't often get to experience dawn so peacefully; standing still, watching the palette transform, witnessing animals start their day. Usually I am happy enough to catch glimpses of it between scrambling to start my day. Standing there, I realized how unbearably lonesome life would be without the multitudes of other creatures going about their own lives, whether we care to notice or not.

Sunlight had yet to penetrate the kitchen when I returned. I flipped the light switch and saw a gecko run across the wall. A crab clung to the counter's edge and another perched on the sponge. They all skittered away to their daytime hiding places, and, despite the mess they make, I was glad to know they were there.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Seabirds at Olosega Point

Last week of December, 2015.

It's been raining for days. We haven't been able to conduct our last banding station of the month, which perches on the southeast ridge of Olosega and is only reachable by a slick hike up a crumbling cliff. But Bobby and I are starting to get cabin fever, so at the first hint of slacking rain, we decide to go scout the trail, make sure it still exists, and that we remember the net lanes we set up over a month ago. Halfway up, it starts pouring again, but we soldier on and check things out anyway. The trails are decent, though the nets are weirdly placed and I become aware of how much we've learned about setting up a banding station since then. The way down is a little more treacherous, as any seasoned hiker should expect, its harder to keep your balance on sliding earth as you stare past your feet at certain death hundreds of feet below.

We round the corner overlooking the point, a dragon's tail of towering basalt cliffs that curls out from the southeast tip of the island. The view beyond is nothing but a sheet of steel grey stretching from sky to shore, engulfing the hunched silhouette of Ta'u eight miles southeast. It looks more like Scotland than 14 degrees south of the equator. As if knitted out of the cloud wool, graceful shapes materialize above us. First a frigatebird; lazily drifting through the howling wind, its crossbow wings appearing to contort and curl with each new degree of perspective. Then brown and red-footed boobies, unfazed by the storm's rage, loft and lean into air currents with the enviable ease of seasoned surfers, sometimes whooshing by our heads, staring down their huge bills at us, before being sucked back into the grayness. The only hues rebelling against the monotone are the waves, glowing glacier-blue as they pile and jostle into form from the gunmetal swell, then explode against the basalt tower with rumbling force, shattering into whitewater that shudders and boils its way to the rocky shore.

Suddenly a cacophony erupts in the air in front of us – two aptly named Blue-gray Noddies, barely larger than robins, are shrieking and tap-dancing on the wind as it races up the cliff face. Then they tuck their dagger wings and dive down toward the section of shoreline hidden far below our feet. Seabirds are amazingly adapted to this steel gray world of the ocean at its fury-est. They live for the weather that sends us ducking for cover, searching for safe harbor, craving clam chowder. I watch a pair of Brown Noddies sheer along the crest of a curling wave, zip effortlessly up as it crashes, and shimmy the salt spray from their tails, while a frigatebird calmly reaches its face back toward its foot, to attend an itch in midair. A Brown Booby eyes a tastey morsel beneath the roiling surface, folds its wings back origami-style, and drops like a torpedo into the swell. It rises back into the air with a few easy flaps of its enormous wings.




Beyond, I suddenly notice a white wall blotting out the southern horizon and marching straight towards us. My instinct is to run for the truck, but I am mesmerized by this god-sized curtain advancing quietly over the roar of the surf. Within moments, the view of Ofu to the west is obliterated by white. The curtain gathers its folds around the point until we can see raindrops slanting against the black cliffs. Then it hits us. Instantly drenched, soaked to the bone, what's left of my vision blurred by splattered glasses. We hold our ground, chests out to the ocean, shirts glued to wet skin, grinning. That rejuvenating moment when you realize its summer and rain doesn't kill you, so you jump in a puddle, raise your face to the heavens, and let it pool in your smile lines, sensing the moment with your whole body like a child.

But then the wind smacks us out of our reverie, sending rare goosebumps up our sleeveless arms, launching more and more water at the cliffs below and above us, as if furious at our lack of terror. We bumble down the slick trail, still beaming, absentmindedly slicing at the vines with our machetes, dreaming of seabirds. Those bad-ass motherfuckers. We strip down to our underwear before getting in the truck, to the dismay of the modest constituents of Olosega town, who are out walking and playing cricket and volleyball in the rain as we drive through.

When we get back to Ofu, we are informed by Scott, the NPS super, that the great white curtain is actually a hurricane, passing just south of Ta'u as we speak. Cyclones have been devastating to these islands in the past – Hurricane Olaf hit the north side of Olosega just ten years ago, destroying an entire village that now, crumbling and abandoned, is being taken back by jungle. We set up a banding station there, our trails cross through the windows of now-roofless houses and past laser-embossed granite headstones tossed aside broken graves, everything carpeted with moss and choked by thick vines like a set from Indiana Jones. But Scott doesn't seem to have an apocalyptic attitude about this hurricane. He's mostly worried that his plane won't leave tomorrow. Looks like we won't be banding for a few more days.