OK, I admit that I didn’t make it for the full 24 hours of our Boothbay (Maine) peninsula birding marathon on Saturday. But we did start at midnight and bird until about 9 PM for a significant 21 hours all within an area that would fit into a rectangle about 8 miles long and 4 miles wide. These 32 square miles are the conservation focus of a local land trust called the Boothbay Region Land Trust and Nancy Bither, the former land trust board chair and a fabulous birder, wanted to see how many birds we could find there.
We ended up identifying 99 species (one shy of the 100 we were trying for darn it!) despite a fairly poor migration (very few nocturnal migrants and winds from the north most of the time we were birding). There were a number of things that struck me from this crazy birding experiment.
One was how many migrant Boreal birds are part of the avian landscape on the Maine coast at this time of year. Fifty-percent of the species that we identified were species in which 25% or more of their breeding population occurs in the Boreal. Certainly the few remaining skunk-headed Surf Scoters feeding off an ocean ledge, the exuberantly singing White-crowned Sparrow at a backyard feeder, and the single male Bufflehead floating on a small pond that we saw were birds that were born in the Boreal and would likely be back there within a few weeks. The same likely held true for the flocks of Yellow-rumped and Black-throated Green Warblers and White-throated Sparrows, the Blue-headed Vireos and the tiny, nervous Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitting in the spruces.
I was also struck by the continuing pace of development and loss and fragmentation of habitat in the area. I already knew that the local region has lost habitat at a rate of about 5% per decade since 1980 but seeing it with your own eyes really hits home. Many of the preserves that we visited were surrounded by development with the sounds of new building often within earshot as we hiked the trails. In fact, a U.S. Forest Service analysis showed that this particular area is projected to experience one of the highest rates of loss of forest habitat in the entire U.S. in coming decades.
This is what can happen to the natural heritage of an area when conservation comes late to the decision making process. In the case of theMaine coast, conservation planning came 300 years after natural resource extraction arrived. The result? Mammals like Woodland Caribou and Gray Wolf have been gone since from the state since the early 1900’s and are now largely restricted to the Boreal. The Sea Mink, Great Auk, Labrador Duck, Passenger Pigeon, and Heath Hen are extinct all together. The cod fishery has collapsed, Atlantic Salmon are barely hanging on, and clam flats are repeatedly closed because of population and blooms of toxic algae.
Groups like the Boothbay Region Land Trust toil to maintain the natural legacy that is still present in places like the Maine coast that were at the front lines of natural resource extraction 300 years ago. The chance for a different conservation vision in a place like the Boreal is a real and constant encouragement to folks working in places that are already fragmented and degraded. The Boreal is one place on earth that still has its full complement of species and has a chance for keeping them.
But keeping the full complement of species will require some major changes in the way government and business are operating on the landscape. Last week I wrote about mining claims in the Boreal and the potential impacts of mining-related activities on Woodland Caribou. Mining activity by itself may not not cause the demise of this species but as part of a list of industrial development impacting this and hundreds of other Boreal species, it is a risk factor that should not be taken lightly.
Read an article about Jeff’s birding marathon in Maine’s Morning Sentinel: http://morningsentinel.mainetoday.com/sports/stories/367480380.html