Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A contemplation on a lost bird

One-hundred and one years ago today, the Passenger Pigeon was extinguished from this earth. Once numbering four billion, they flew in great flocks that were miles wide and miles long. Imagine a flock so large that it took fourteen hours to pass overhead. Yes, we can only imagine.

The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon occurred in a mere 40 years. Forty years to erase four billion souls.

Twenty-five million erased every year.

68,493 erased every day.

What happened?

This is Martha. She was the last surviving member of her species who died in her aviary at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

They were elegant birds of lovely iridescent colors who lived in highly social flocks.

They were hunted and persecuted and lost habitat to farming. They were horrifically slaughtered by using nets set to capture them in flight. Then, once entangled, young boys were employed to snap their necks.

Their massive rookeries, where they would rest and mate, were not safe either. Men would fire aimlessly at the huge mass of birds huddled in trees so numbered that their weight would snap branches.

They were not only slaughtered for food and sport but also because they were perceived as pests. When huge swaths of forest was logged for farming, removing many of their ancestral rookeries, they would gather in the fields eating crops and seeds where they were baited.

It was a massive slaughter of the most numerous bird ever to populate the planet.

This is all that is left.

A memorial plaque and statue outside the aviary where Martha spent her last days.

On the day of her passing, how many humans contemplated the profound meaning of this loss or reflected on their culpability in the extinction?

The Passenger Pigeon is but one of many species that have been pushed off this planet by us. There are many, many more. And the extinctions continue. Currently, worldwide, there are over 44,838 on the endangered species list.

I've come to know my neighborhood birds as I've been feeding and observing them now for about fice years. And, even though they are familiar with me, they still flee when I emerge from my home to fill the feeders. I cannot gain their trust. I do not wonder at their fear.

What horrors have they witnessed committed by humans with each rising and setting of the sun? What memories are imprinted in their genes carried from generation to generation that informs them to be wary of us? It is said that the pioneers would walk through the forest blasting everything in their wake. Wild turkey, doves, cougars, bear, deer and many more well felled for fun by their guns. Did their ancestors witness such carnage? Did they witness the slaughter of the Passenger Pigeon? The Ivory-billed Woodpecker? The Carolina Parakeet? It is possible.

And what of now? Do they see and hear the hunters blasting in the forest and the lakes? Some people today, although illegal, shoot song birds from the skies or feed them rice so their stomachs explode from the swelling of the grain.

Charles Darwin, during his voyage on the HMS Beagle, encountered birds on the many islands he visited who were not afraid of humans but would come and land on a shoulder or a hand. It was their first encounter with our species so they had no reason to fear us.

It pains me to know I will most likely never gain such trust no matter what kindness I show them. Their ingrained fear of us runs deep and can only be gained by the witnessing of horrific acts.

But, I can dream of a day when one may alight on my shoulder.

If you are interested in knowing more about the Passenger Pigeon and other birds that have gone extinct at the hands of humans, I recommend reading "Hope is a thing with feathers: A personal chronicle of vanished birds" by Christopher Cokinos.

To know more about endangered species, visit photographer Joel Sartore's site and purchase a copy of his book "Rare." He is on a mission to photograph species before they are gone forever and hopefully inspire people to care.

And through my writings, it is my hope too.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The horses of Assateague Island

I finally had the opportunity to visit Assateague Island National Seashore. A beautiful and nearly untouched pristine island that's off the coast of Virginia and Maryland.

A population of wild horses lives there, leftovers from settlers who placed them on the island to avoid paying taxes for livestock kept on the mainland. Eventually the herd was forgotten and the horses reverted back to wild.

On the first evening there, at about 7:00 p.m. or so, five horses sauntered into the campground to graze on grass no more than 30 feet from my camper. I was mesmerized as I watched these beautiful equines enjoy an evening meal.

Seemingly ever so peaceful, it was easy to forget they are wild.

I continued watching them as twilight set in.

The group, I learned, is called a "harem," which is a closed family group consisting of one adult male with females and their offspring. A lead mare decides where the group should go, while the stallion protects the harem.

There are two herds of wild horses on the island, one to the north and one to the south. They are kept separated by a fence.

The southern herd is managed by the Chincoteague volunteer fire department who round them up every year for the famous Chincoteague pony swim.

The firefighters auction off the young horses for fundraising. This practice culls the herd and keeps it genetically healthy.

The harem I was observing was part of the northern herd that's managed by the National Park Service.

As it continued to darken, I lit a campfire and I sat before it while continuing to watch the horses graze.

After a little while, I was astonished to see two of the mares join me at the fire.

They stood gazing at the fire with me for a time, then, the lead mare came over pushing the two aside and taking the center, standing right over the fire.

I was amazed to see her dip her nose into the fire not quite sure what to make of the behavior.

We all continued to enjoy the fire and eventually the remaining mare and stallion joined us.

And there we were, two species quietly enjoying a peaceful evening together.

Other campers came along and, seeing the horses around the fire, I heard exclamations of, "Wow, look at this!" and "Can you believe this!" while cameras clicked away.

I never thought I'd experience such while visiting Assateague Island but the moment was surely a gift from the horses who let me share their space and a moment that seemed primordial.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Me, a whale, the sky, the sand, the seagulls and the sea

I set my alarm for 6:00 a.m. but was up at 5:50 a.m. I was eager to get going. I did the usual morning routine and had a quick cup of coffee. I was in the rental car by 6:18 a.m for the short drive to the parking area at the Otis Pike Wilderness Area on Fire Island National Seashore.

Two days earlier, a friend I was visiting on Long Island mentioned that a whale had washed ashore. The conversation moved to other topics and I did not ask where.

A day later, I visited the ranger station at the wilderness area. While in conversation with a ranger, he mentioned that a whale had washed ashore. I thought to myself that this must be the same whale my friend told me about. Quickly, I asked the ranger where and he said about three-quarters of a mile down the beach heading west.

I was camping at Smith Point County Park and the Otis Pike Wilderness area is adjacent. How fortunate I was, I thought, to have the opportunity to see a whale.

I would rather see a live whale then a dead one, but I was aware of the human-caused perils they face from hunting to ship strikes to pollution. Not knowing just what had killed the whale -- perhaps it was a natural death -- nevertheless I wanted to pay my respects and knew I had to make the trek.

I had a tight schedule that day so I planned on going early the next morning.

And here I was. The parking lot was deserted when I arrived and the sun was not yet over the horizon.

Determined, I began my hike into the wilderness.

Dawn at the Otis Pike Wilderness Area looking west

I walked quickly and it was not easy going. There was little, if any, hard areas of the sand to walk on and my sneakers sunk in. The tide was coming in and I knew I had to move quickly. I kept looking to the west down the long stretch of shoreline to see if I could sight the whale to get a sense of the distance. I saw nothing but beach.

Suddenly, I realized how alone I was. There was not one other person on the beach. It was me, the sea and the seagulls.

I liked the feeling and, oddly, had no fear at all.

I continued to hike, and at one point, sunk deep into the sand from the incoming tide. I kept my eyes on the beach, continuously stepping around saturated sand and hiking around slowly filling pools of water.

I was so preoccupied by navigating a safe route, I lost track of time and distance.

After a bit, I looked up to get my bearing and about thirty-feet before me lay the whale.

I was immediately overcome with a humbleness that I've never experienced before.

I walked slowly to the whale, keeping my eyes on it as I drew closer. I stopped, not more than five feet away and stared. I grew emotional. I felt a deep pang of sorrow for this majestic giant of the sea lying alone on the beach.

I walked slowly around the whale, a humpback, taking in its eyes, mouth, baleen, fins, tail , skin and size - at least thirty-five feet in length.

Staring at an eye, I sensed an ancient and deep intelligence. I wondered where this whale had been, thought about his travels, his family, his life. What songs* had he sung? What could he tell me about the sea, his world?

I hoped that the demise of the whale was not human caused and I suddenly blurted out loud an apology to the whale for all the pain humans had caused his kind and that I had hoped he did not die because of something my kind had done. I would be ashamed if that were so.

I stood awhile with the whale, not wanting to leave.

I knelt down next to the whale, reached out my hand, lay it flat on the smooth skin in an act of connection and deep reverence for his life.

I then walked behind the whale and stood there staring out to sea then to the whale several times imagining him swimming back to his home. 

Farewell, my friend.

Note: Two weeks after my visit, it was determined "the whale suffered some type of trauma to its body which resulted in its demise."  

I also found out, that another whale had washed ashore a week previous to this one, a victim of a ship strike. 

*Humpback whales are known for the complex songs they sing to communicate.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Photo Essay: A Piece of Paradise

The drive into Huntington Beach State Park is by way of a narrow causeway that offers a unique view into different habitats as one side is boarded by freshwater and the other by a salt marsh that opens to the ocean.

There exists here strictly freshwater species, strictly salt marsh species and cross-over species, those that have adapted to what each side offers.

By a simple turn of the head you can experience each habitat and its offerings while taking a leisurely hike across the causeway.

These images capture the delight of early morning as a new day begins. It is a piece of paradise for human and for those that make their life here.

Looking out over the salt marsh . . .

. . . and then to the fresh water lake containing American Alligators who've just awoke from a night's slumber.

An Anhinga, at freshwater shore side, catching the morning light while it dries its wings.

A Green Heron waiting for breakfast to cross its gaze.

Great Egrets wading in the quiet of the morning.

While on the salt marsh side, more birds seek a meal in the ebb tide.

A Wood Stork with a White Ibis and Snowy Egrets seeking tidbits of food.

While back on the freshwater side, a Great Egret and Tricolored Heron dwell in the morning glow.

Read more about Huntington Beach State Park.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Hungry Baby House Wrens

A hungry baby House Wren looks out from its nest.  "Where is she? I'm starving!"

"Maybe if I make noise, she'll come back."

A second baby Wren appears: "Hey! Move over! Let me have a look."

First baby Wren to second baby Wren: "Maybe she's over there."

Second baby Wren to first: "Maybe she's down there."

First baby Wren to second: "Nope, not up there either."

First baby Wren to second: "Keep squawking! Louder!"

"That's good. Keep it up!"

"As loud as you can . . ."


Now a third baby Wren appears.  "Don't forget about me!"

And Momma is off again to find more food.

The House Wren is a common bird in the Western Hemisphere. They are comfortable using nest boxes, cans, boxes and even old boots to make their nests. Interestingly, they collect spider egg sacs to include in their nest building. It's believed that the spiderlings, once hatched, will rid the nest of any parasites that can take a toll on the hatchlings.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A world went silent

One morning while leaving my home to jog with two of my dogs, I saw something in the road just beyond my driveway. As I moved closer, I could see that it was not a scrap of trash but, from the shape and color, a bird. My heart sank.

Walking tentatively towards the fallen body I could see it was a Robin. Sadness came about me.

About two months or so ago, two Robins had taken up residence in my backyard. I'd see them in the morning and whenever I was around during the day, hopping in the yard enjoying the habitat I'd cultivated for wildlife. Then, about three weeks ago, I heard a constant chirping and saw the Robins nurturing a fledgling.

I stood over the lifeless body and with tears filling my eyes said, "Oh, who would hurt you? Who would hurt you?"

I picked her up and could see that her neck was broken. Most likely she was flying low across the road heading towards my yard where I keep the feeders full and someone struck her while driving past. My thoughts flew to the perpetrator. Did they know they hit her? Did they look in their rear view mirror to see if they did and kept going? Or, were they oblivious on a workday morning in the rush to get somewhere. I dwelt on the different scenarios while anger rose in me.

Not yet a week previous, I picked up a rabbit out of the road, and a week previous to that, a squirrel and a week previous to that another Robin in a different area of my neighborhood, and a week or so before that another rabbit. And just this week, I rescued an injured Box Turtle that was stuck in the middle of the road. Four days later, just outside my neighborhood, I saw a coyote lying prone on the side of the road. Today I moved a baby Box Turtle out of the road but I also saw one that had died under someone’s car wheel.

These deaths happen in a residential neighborhood with a speed limit of 20 miles an hour. And my jogging circuit is about two miles. Multiply the amount I've seen in my small area across the size of the country and the numerous roads crisscrossing it.

It has got to be an enormous carnage.

I buried the fallen Robin in my backyard next to the birdbath and with that a world went silent. Several days later the chirping of the fledgling ceased.

She, her fledgling, her mate and all the others I've seen, not only in my neighborhood, but in all the roads I have driven, are innocent of the folly of humans - our selfishness, our incessant consumerism, our rush to rush somewhere on roads crossed by wildlife who are simply heading somewhere.

Even in death she was beautiful and radiated sweet innocence, a solace that's redolent of the greater things and deeper meanings of this world.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Life of a Cosmos: A Photo Essay

Cosmos, a flowering perennial, native to the Southern United States and south to Mexico, Central America and northern Paraguay.

The delicate bud covered in a thin cellophane membrane with the unfurled petals hinting at the color of this Cosmos.

The deep pink petals have pushed through and slowly . . .

 . . .begin to unfurl. The cellophane membrane now looks small compared to the size of the emerging petals.

The ephemeral petals surround the center awaiting the pollinators to partake of the nectar and spread the pollen assuring a future for this beguiling wildflower.

Its job  complete, the flower begins to decay to return to the Earth and with it its seeds. 

Come the spring, the cycle will repeat itself as it has for eons under the bright sun and warm days.