On Darwin Day: Saving Songbirds

February 12, 2018  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  8 comments

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher / Credit: Cephas / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Blogger’s Note: Today, Darwin Day, commemorating Charles Darwin’s birthday, I offer you a reflection from my annual songbird survey at Bear Swamp in Wolcott, Vermont. This essay served as my final column in Northern Woodlands magazine.

FOR MORE THAN A QUARTER CENTURY, the dawn and the trees have hardly changed at Bear Swamp. Each June for the past 27 years, which is nearly half my life, I’ve bushwhacked the same route into these woods here in north-central Vermont, through the lovely muck, past steadfast tamaracks, and beneath the familiar croaks of common ravens. Bear Swamp has been one of the most enduring things in my life. Except that now the Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are gone.

They had usually called a liquid “tseh-lek” to me at Station No. 5 on my annual trek through Bear Swamp, which is not actually a swamp but rather wet coniferous woods. At each of five points (flagged trees) on my route, I stop for exactly 10 minutes to count every bird I hear or see. My annual tally, along with those from other birders, constitutes one of the most ambitious forest bird population studies on the continent.

Twinflower (Linnaea borealis)

Station No. 5 has always been my favorite. On my way there I step over tiny pink eruptions of Twinflower, Linnaea borealis, the most elegant plant in these woods, the one named for Carl Linnaeus and the North. On damp mornings, which is most mornings at Bear Swamp, the lung lichen glows green on tree trunks like nothing else in the forest. And all the while, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers normally beckon me onward.

Now they beckon no more. This isn’t particularly newsworthy. Forests are nothing if not about growth and change and death. Whether we let them go wild, manage them, or do something in between, forests also have business of their own, subject to events near and far and beyond our control. And birds, like leaves, express change in a forest.

Except for the Black-capped Chickadees, Hairy Woodpeckers, and other year-rounders, most of the birds at Bear Swamp fly in from the tropics each spring, exploit our flush of insects, fruits, and seeds to feed their young, maybe stick around to be counted in a population study, and then leave us without regret. We only get them for a few months of the year. But we get them long enough to recognize — either by our own intrinsic sense of the woods or by the data we gather — that some of our forests aren’t as raucous or musical anymore.

The Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE), which runs the bird study, has discovered a 14.2 percent overall population decline in forest birds here in Vermont over the course of 25. It raises concerns about birds and forests alike. Vermont forests support more than 125 bird species. In its report, VCE offers practical recommendations for forest property owners interested in promoting bird abundance and diversity. 

By now the threats to birds are well known: shopping malls, invasive species, suburbs, pesticides, mountaintop removal, and house cats, to name but a few. But here’s one that doesn’t get as much press: ignorance. We cannot protect what we do not know. Whether it’s birds or butterflies, oaks or orchids, conservation begins with recognition. And by this I mean not merely knowing how to tell a Mountain Maple from a Striped Maple, or a Least Flycatcher from a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, but rather knowing how the woods come together, how they awake each morning, how they breathe, how they grow and change with the light and the seasons — and how the rest of us fit into the drama.

Extinctions and near extinctions garner headlines. But also troubling to me is what conservationist and writer Robert Michael Pyle calls the “extinction of experience” — our tragic forgetting of the familiar, of what grows, swims, hops, walks, or flies here in our backyards and wildlands. We’re losing our touch with nature.

Northern Woodlands brings you experience and a sense of our place in the woods like no other magazine. And for more than eight years I’ve done my bit part to bring readers forest birds. Beyond mere field marks or vocalizations, I’ve offered experience among birds. Now it is time for me to move on to other indoor and outdoor adventures, not the least of which will be to continue teaching writing and experience to graduate students in the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist Program. Those students — and young people at work in conservation — give me hope for a future with nature.

After all, when we ourselves no longer have the legs or balance to bushwhack into the forest (which I hope for me isn’t anytime soon), let’s make sure we have in waiting the next generation of field ecologists to journey into places like Bear Swamp and beyond — maybe even to document the return of Yellow-bellied Flycatchers.

Ruth at Station 5 after my wrapping up the 2017 songbird survey at Bear Swamp in Wolcott, Vermont.

8 comments
  1. Bob Curry says:

    Brian, you continue to be among the most eloquent (nature) writers that I know. My preferred name for Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is “Moss Tyrant” coined by the author of the BNA species account and referring to its summer home – places like Bear Swamp.

  2. Ginny Alfano says:

    Hi Bryan. We are spending the winter at various state parks in SC. There are so many wonderful birds to be seen and animals to watch. I spend most of my time where the alligators hang out and where the various birds prefer to be. Whether it be on the beach or on a boardwalk, I always offer my binoculars and spotting scope to anyone interested. The expressions on peoples faces, young or old, is priceless when they can really “see” what is barely visible to the naked eye. I have been especially thrilled at the younger generations reactions. They will often ask questions and walk away enthusiastically talking to their folks. We have found that so many people down here home school their children. I met three families over the past couple of weeks who use this particular park (Huntington Beach State Park) for their weekly nature lesson! I think that’s wonderful. Hopefully, they will remember their lessons in the woods and at the ocean and think about it as they grow older. Maybe they will really know “what’s out there” and help to save and protect it. Take care and thank you for a wonderful article.

    • Bryan says:

      Thanks, Ginny. Sounds great in your current “backyard.” And, yeah, isn’t it nice to know that it doesn’t take much to get joy from nature? It was always “job satisfaction” when I was guiding folks around the continent.

  3. Leda Beth Gray says:

    And I agree of course with teaching the next generation. Dave and I participate in a birdathon for our local audubon chapter which buys Chewonke presentations for schools all over the county and also sends kids to various bird- or nature-related summer camps. I think it is the best thing we do! We also share a naturalist with two other local non profits who does classroom visits and after school programs at the library. It is so great that you are teaching grad students– that helps give me hope.

    • Bryan says:

      Thanks, Leda Beth. Yes, I often get the feeling that my “ship has sailed” and that it’s time to turn things over to folks with new skills and fresh legs! 🙂

  4. Leda Beth Gray says:

    I do one of these surveys over in Acadia and keep worrying that I haven’t heard this or that bird– thanks so much for this- wonderful article!

  5. Thomas Berriman says:

    Thanks Bryan, Great article…I too have felt that ” We’re losing our touch with nature.” It is our most serious threat right now. We can not protect what we don’t know and understand is there. Too many of us now have lost that connection to the ‘wild’ or worse yet, have never had it to begin with.

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