This is not migration. Today (Monday, Aug. 7) I am on my way to Yellowknife via Portland and Chicago and Edmonton. I am awash in swirling currents of humanity, people traveling here and there, back and forth. But we are not migrating.
Birds, on the other hand, are migrating even as I write. They are following the ancient rhythms that move them north and south (sometimes east and west) across the planet. Rusty-tinged dowitchers have already made it as far south as the Gulf Coast. They started leaving the tannin-stained dark waters of their Boreal nesting grounds in the heat of early July, following the twitching pull to move south. Finding others along the way, they began amassing into larger and larger flocks, eventually numbering in the hundreds by the time they reached the muggy saltmarshes of New England, Long Island, New Jersey, and the cool rich estuaries of the Pacific Northwest.
On the flight from Portland to Chicago I read Fred Bodsworth’s classic short book, Last of the Curlews. In it, Bodsworth captures us with a glimpse into the fictional life of what could be the last Eskimo Curlew on earth. Before the late 1800’s these quail-sized cinnamon-brown shorebirds migrated north and south in the hundreds of thousands. To the early European settlers they were yet another of the glories of abundance to be found in North America’s wilderness. Just as the Short-billed Dowitcher is today, the Eskimo Curlew was a common fall bird in New England and the Maritimes. Few people worried about the common practice of shooting thousands of Eskimo Curlews at a timeâ€”sometimes even leaving massive mounds of dead birds to rot.
Conservation First was not a consideration.
One of the only known nesting locations of Eskimo Curlew was only 100 miles or so north of the little town of Deline where our group will be later this week. Last year when I was in Deline I saw a few American Golden-Plovers winging south. They, like the Eskimo Curlew, were greatly decimated by unregulated hunting in the late 1800’s but somehow survived, although in greatly reduced abundance. Pete, Linda, Scott, Mel and I will be watching.
I have a sea chest in my attic that belonged to my great-great grandfather Fessenden. He captained merchant schooners up and down the Atlantic Coast during the late 1800’s. I wonder if Captain Fess, at the wheel of his ship far from land one fall day, ever heard the mellow whistled calls of a flock of Eskimo Curlews beating south over the grey expanse of sea. Did he look up from the wooden deck through the straining canvas sails and see a distant line of a dozen small brown birdsâ€”the last remnants of a species? And would he have ever considered the idea of Conservation First?
Nobody did back then.
But I, his great-great grandson, wish that he had.
As I left my house today in the early morning dark, I kissed my four-year-old son on his little blond head. His great-great-great grandfather Captain Fess may not have understood why Conservation First is important but I do. I don’t want to mindlessly lose any more of the earth’s great mysteries. That’s why I’m headed to Yellowknife today.
I want to see the idea of Conservation First applied in North America’s last great wilderness, our last great place of abundance, our Boreal. In the Mackenzie Valley where we will be this visiting this week, a race is on to establish a series of protected areas on the landscape BEFORE the land is changed forever by industrial development.
That’s the idea of Conservation First: protect what’s important now while we still can.
At O’Hare Airport in Chicago I was walking between terminals when I came upon an amazing wall map of the broader Chicago area. I had to stop and snap a photo of it even though it meant standing like a misplaced rock in a stream of people rushing to their next connection. Two-hundred and fifty years ago Chicago and its surrounds were wildernessâ€”a wilderness stretching into 167 million acres of tallgrass prairie with bison herds in the millions and, in spring, flocks of Eskimo Curlews probing the moist earth for grasshopper eggs as they made their way north to nest. The map I saw in the airport showed a vast area jumbled into a medusa’s head of roads and buildings and concrete development. Only about 3% of tallgrass prairie habitat survives today and most in tiny postage-stamp sized patches. Now groups are working hard in the Chicago area to restore remnants of habitat for birds and plants and other wildlife.
Pete, Linda, Scott, Mel, and I are headed north to a place where we have one last chance to get it right. Perhaps we will also get a glimpse back in time where we can imagine the wilderness that Audubon exploredâ€”southern bottomland forests and longleaf pine forests that took weeks to traverse, grasslands stretching away as far as the eye could see, and beaches teaming with terns and plovers. We will imagine what these places might have looked like today if Conservation First had been the mantra of Audubon’s time. I’ll bet Audubon would have liked the idea.
posting from Edmonton, Aug. 7, 2006 (4:30 PM)