Archive for May, 2009

Go outside and put your ear to the earth.  Listen hard, like an owl, and you might hear something: a flap, rustle, or slither.  If you live in a temperate climate, as we do in Maine, you are at this very moment, smack in the midst of a great thrumming biological process of which you may be largely oblivious.  It’s called spring migration.


Perhaps you’ve noticed the snowbirds returning from the south.  These are not birds, mind you, but people who sensibly fled the frost and are now coming back with a fantastic host of other creatures who turned tail before the ice last fall.


As these folks drive north on Highway 95 from the likes of Snead’s Ferry and Folly Beach, they are accompanied by a rainbow of purple martins, orange orioles, and yellow warblers arcing above them.  Through the months of May and June swarms of fish charge in from the sea, clear glass eels climb through the weeds around the dams, and horseshoe crabs soldier out of the deeps.


As do we all, I relish spring’s explosion of plant growth.  But the plants have been sitting in the same spot all winter.  There is something entirely different about the astonishing influx of life that comes with migration.


It’s usually my birding friends who alert me that spring migration is underway.  Although I pride myself on my ability to distinguish a scarlet tanager from, say a blue jay (not a difficult feat, as you might imagine), every year I’m startled by an offhand comment, such as, “Oh look, the warblers are back!”  “Back?” I think to myself.  Oh, yes, they’re migratory, aren’t they?


I’m once again reminded of how disconnected we are from the critical processes running the planet.  Only a species as free from the constraints of eating locally as are modern humans, could be unaware of the surge of protein spring migration brings into our neighborhoods.  We no longer need to stand hungrily by the river banks, nets in hand, waiting for the first fish to arrive.  We just go to the market.


This year, in an effort to make sure all the migratory drama didn’t pass me by unnoticed, I had to resort to listing on my calendar the approximate arrival times of a few key species.


First in line were the horseshoe crabs.  These ancient creatures make an annual landward migration to spawn under just the circumstances in which you might take out your silver basin and whip up a potion to get rid of warts.  That is, they show up en masse on certain favored beaches in late May, at high tide, under a full or new moon.


Fortunately not all of them wait for the middle of the night and that is why I stumbled across them during an afternoon outing to Thomas Point Beach several years ago.  Last week, right on cue, there were hundreds upon hundreds of crabs, some larger than dinner plates, snuffling into the sand to lay their eggs.


Next on the calendar was a note to trot across the street at sunset to watch the chimney swifts make their charming group nose dive into the chimney of Brunswick’s old high school.  Despite having recently completed a 2,000 mile journey from the Amazon River Basin, chimney swifts fly continuously from dawn to dusk without perching.


The end of May also brings the spring running of alewives at Damariscotta Mills.  They come in from the ocean to spawn in our lakes and ponds.  I once read a historical account of salmon runs in Alaska that told of fish so thick you could walk across the rivers on their backs.  Surely, I thought, the days in which wildlife scurried about in such outrageous abundance were long gone.


Yet the alewife run at the Mills continues to be just such a spectacle.  At the peak of the run, the water is black with tens of thousands of fish and, were it allowed, you could scoop them out by the bucket-full.


That the integrity of our native habitats depends on migrations to remain healthy is made clear simply by reading the list of creatures that feed on alewives: striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, tuna, cod, haddock, halibut, American eel, rainbow- brown- and lake trout, landlocked salmon, smallmouth bass, pickerel, pike, white and yellow perch, bald eagles, osprey, great blue herons, gulls, terns, cormorants, seals, whales, otter, mink, raccoon, fox, weasel, fisher, and turtles.  Alewives are also a prime food used for baiting lobster traps.


Watching all these newly arrived critters flood into the state brings life to all the words we learned from nature specials: migration, spawning, roosting, mating.  Indeed, if we recognize what we are seeing, May in Maine is a nature special.  These migrations are just as important as they were when our ancestors waited for spring to fill their growling stomachs.


We live in a place where the world’s biological rhythms, the seasonality of plants and creatures, are still close at hand.  For myself, I’m waiting for the day when I see the first spring hummingbird and think to myself not just “there’s a hummingbird,” but rather, “the hummingbirds are back.”

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Picture an illuminated manuscript, as ancient as the first protozoan, sitting on a table in a library. Imagine it to be a catalog of all the creatures that have ever existed, of every slinking, hopping, replicating, blood-sucking, fluttering, gilled, furred and armored organism: an unabridged bestiary of life.


Elena Newmark, age 13

Elena Newmark, age 13


I open the door to the library sending a dark storm of brittle paper swirling into the air. The book is in a terrible state of disrepair. Thousands of pages, thundering with mammoths and swooping with cat-sized dragonflies, have disintegrated into dust eons ago.


Many pages, however, have crumbled more recently. In the detritus on the floor, one can still find fragments of creatures that vanished from the earth only within the last century: the stripes of a Tasmanian wolf, the toe of a Golden toad.


As more and more species have become imperiled, decay has spread onto nearly all the book’s pages. Although extinctions have been common enough throughout our planet’s history, their pace has accelerated wildly. Conservation groups estimate that human activity has increased the rate of extinctions by 1,000 to 10,000 times more than the ‘background’ level (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).


Pause for a moment to let this sink in: one in four mammals are at high risk of extinction in the near future, along with one in three amphibians, half of all tortoises and freshwater turtles, and one in eight birds.


I open the book, aiming for the letter “C.” It flips easily to the pages in best repair: sharp and sturdy chickadees, skittering chipmunks. The page I’m looking for is still fairly bright, but signs of stress are visible and gray paint rubs off on my fingers. I offer greetings to my friends, the Chimney swifts.


These lovely birds used to roost by the thousands inside the hollow husks of giant trees. When we cleared the aging forests, the swifts made a remarkable adaptation. They abandoned their woody dwellings, and settled into the large brick chimneys of our churches, mills and schools.


All was well for awhile, until we began tearing down old buildings and upgrading chimneys (swifts cannot cling to the smooth linings of new chimneys). In the last 30 years, as their roosting spots have disappeared, Chimney swift numbers have predictably dropped: 95% in Canada and 44% worldwide.


Oh, you silly, optimistic Chimney swifts, what could you have been thinking, throwing in your lot with us? You’d think we’d be more appreciative. Every spring you migrate up here from the Amazon to provide us with free, non-toxic, pest management services: a nest of four babies will daily be fed around 12,000 mosquitoes, biting flies, and other bugs. You catch all these bugs without stopping even once to rest until you finally turn in for the evening.


And, then what a wonderful spectacle you provide for your nightly finale: one minute there are hundreds of you swirling about the sky, and then within seconds, you all spiral into your roost and vanish. Visualize a video of smoke suddenly billowing out of a chimney, and then run the video backwards so the chimney appears to suck the smoke out of the sky: such is the effect.


We imagine the world’s natural spectacles occurring in the jungles and forests of far off lands; we don’t expect them to happen in our downtowns. But the Chimney swifts can easily be seen by most people reading this column.


The largest known roost in Maine is in the chimney of the old Brunswick High School, slated to be torn down later this year. The 2009 migration has already begun and the birds should be at peak numbers by the third week of May.


For a species declining as rapidly as the swifts, the preservation of such a roost could be a significant factor in their survival. Fewer than 20 other roosts exist in the state of Maine and Maritime provinces combined.


Why should we care about these birds that most of us didn’t know existed?


A friend once observed that old time Mainers had the peculiar habit of giving directions by referring to things that were no longer present. They might say, for example, “take a right where the dairy farm used to be.” Why don’t they say, instead, “take a right at the new Maple Grove housing development?” It must surely be because the new development has no character and no personality; it has no sense of place.


Brunswick’s Chimney swifts are woven into what makes this region special, meaningful, quirky and lovable, just as every living creature is part of what makes our planet special, meaningful, quirky and lovable. Without our swifts, we take one step closer to becoming nowhere.


How terrible it would be to discover that we cared about these birds only after they stopped flying over our heads, eating our mosquitoes, and chittering into the long dusk.


We can help the swifts. When the old chimney comes down, we can construct a new brick chimney for them, anchoring the new elementary school to be built on the same site. Replacement chimneys in other locations have been successful at attracting swifts, and in some places have become significant tourist attractions.


I say come out, come out, Mainers, old and new. It’s painfully hard to identify, let alone save, the elements that create sense of place and make us care so deeply for this unique spot in which we are lucky to live.


How often does anyone hand us a chance to truly make a difference in the preservation of an entire species? How often do we get to take out our paintbrushes and repair a page in the universal bestiary?


A new generation of Mainers will soon be tearing around the halls of our new elementary school. Let them not be the generation to say, “turn left where the swifts used to roost.”


Fundraising for the new roost is well underway, but at least $5,000 remains to be raised (as of May 2009). Please consider donating to this rare and wonderful opportunity. To make a contribution or for more information, visit Merrymeeting Audubon’s website at: www.maineaudubon.org/merrymeeting. You can also contact Ted Allen at 207-729-8661.


To view the swifts, go at dusk to the back parking lot of the old high school; there will be Audubon volunteers present during peak migration–the last few weeks of May into early June.

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