This October in one of the west coast’s premier wildlife refuges, I will suggest that people do the obvious: look up. Except in today's world looking up is neither obvious nor typical human behavior. Many look down, stare at electronic screens and are oblivious to the outdoors.
It does not have to be this way. That is why I wrote the book Look Up! Birds and Other Natural Wonders Just Outside Your Window published by Influence Publishing. It is a series of well-researched nature essays that will inspire readers to experience the outdoors in an affordable, accessible and joyful way. The essays encourage backyard and local bird watching, native plant landscaping and restoration, practical energy conservation and land conservation. They also explore how we can derive psychological benefits from these activities—how nature can help us live happier, more fulfilling lives.
The book will be released at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge’s Birdfest and Bluegrass event on October 4 and 5, 2014. I will do two readings at the Davis Park story-teller’s tent: one on Saturday at 2 PM; and the other on Sunday at 11 AM. In addition, I will sign and sell books on both days at a vendor booth in the community center.
Please consider migrating to Ridgefield in early October to join me, my wife and one of my daughters at this event. There will be a wide assortment of field trips, live music, speakers, vendors, displays and food items available there: http://ridgefieldfriends.org/birdfest/
For those who cannot make it to Ridgefield, my book is available through Influence Publishing at http://www.influencepublishing.com/woody-wheeler/;
and at Barnes & Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/look-up-woody-wheeler/1120035058?ean=9781771410625.
In the next few months, I will participate in readings and book events in the western and mid-western U.S. and Canada. What an exciting way to connect with kindred spirits, including with my community of friends and family! I hope to see you along the way.
Dickcissel at Illinois Beach State Park Prairie
The pursuit of birds often takes you to outstanding natural areas. Sometimes these areas are unlikely places and increasingly, they have been restored from previous, less than pristine conditions. All of this was true of the North Unit of Illinois Beach State Park.
What brought me and my good friend Bill Drucker here was a quest for a grassland bird species that had eluded me for years: the Dickcissel. When we discovered that this species had been seen recently at Illinois Beach State Park, we decided to make the one hour trip north of Chicago and try our luck. We had no idea what awaited us there.
Not only did we find a Dickcissel relatively soon, but we found at least a dozen of them singing and perching atop Cattails. In addition, we discovered an ecological wonderland near Zion, Illinois, close to the Wisconsin/Illinois border. The “North Unit of Camp Logan” should perhaps be renamed to "North Prairie Wonderland" or "Prairie/Dunes Extravaganza.” It is an impressively restored natural area.
Upon entering the North Unit, or former Camp Logan, which sounded drab, institutional and distinctly un-natural, we were amazed to find instead a 243-acre native prairie. This is a big deal in Illinois aka “The Prairie State.” Despite its lovely moniker, according to the Illinois Natural History survey, only .01% of the state’s original prairies remain intact. To put this into perspective, just 2,300 acres of high-quality prairie are left in a state that once had 22 million acres of prairie in 1820. We were walking through 243 acres of it, which was roughly .001% of Illinois’ original prairies.
Realizing this made the experience more remarkable. The birds seemed to recognize how special this place was too. Even on a cool, foggy June morning where we only had a few hours to spare, we saw 30+ species of birds here, including Dickcissels, Bobolinks and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
The prairie landscape itself, a gorgeous composite of cattail, Bluejoint Grass, Prairie cordgrass, Reed Grass, Big Bluestem, Sedges and abundant wildflowers at this time of year, was bordered by deciduous trees, and a rare sand dune ridge which divided the prairie from the Lake Michigan beach. Altogether this is an extensive natural area.
It did not always look this way. In fact, during the first half of the 19th century, Camp Logan was a shooting range operated by the Illinois National Guard. The prairie was mowed down, some of the sand dunes leveled, and buildings were constructed at the site. Since its closure in 1974, the buildings have been razed, native prairie vegetation planted, and invasive species removed. The new shooters are photographers.
It is worth noting that this transition took more than half a century and was instigated by visionary people, in this case a nurseryman, Robert Douglas, and a landscape architect and conservationist, Jens Jensen. They called for the creation of a regional park here in the early 1900s. Not until the 1940s did this translate to land acquisition and park designation and expansion, which continued until 1982. Currently Illinois Dune State Park encompasses 4,160 acres with 6.5 miles of Lake Michigan sand beach, including the only remaining sand ridge shoreline left in Illinois and boasts 650 species of plants.
Below: Bobolinks thrive in prairie vegetation
Photos top to bottom: Female Mallard eyes birder; Wood Ducks display; Sandhill Crane seeks grain
As you drive south from Vancouver, BC, through its 2.4 million person metropolitan area, you pass by the airport. An hour further south, you come to another one, but this one serves only feathered aircraft. Located near suburban Ladner, BC, this bustling international airport is called George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
To get there, you drive west of Ladner, then cross a narrow wooden bridge over the south fork of the mighty Fraser River to Westham Island, situated in the mouth of the river, dividing the Fraser into northern and southern channels. Here you leave behind suburbia and re-enter the rich farmland that comprised much of this area before. In winter, you are likely to see Bald Eagles, Trumpeter Swans, and maybe a Peregrine Falcon along this stretch. Then after a few kilometers of 90-degree turns that trace property boundaries, you turn into the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
The first time I visited the 850-acre/300 hectare George C. Reifel Sanctuary on British Columbia’s Fraser River Delta in the late 1970s, I remarked to my college friends that it resembled a bird airport. A plethora of waterfowl were taking off and landing in the many ponds and channels that comprise this sanctuary, making loud and frequent splashing sounds as they skidded to their watery landings all around us. Buffleheads, Canvasbacks, Teal, Scaup, Wigeon and Mallards were among the thousands of ducks at this sanctuary. It was exhilarating being surrounded by so many multicolored flying, swimming waterfowl.
Each winter, I re-visit this marvelous place. Recently, my wife and I encountered a flock of 800-plus Snow Geese as we drove into the sanctuary entrance, close enough to take movies complete with their constant chatter as a sound track. This flock was actively feeding in preparation for its journey back to its Wrangel Island, Russia breeding grounds. When we opened the door of our car in the refuge parking lot, three Sandhill Cranes flew just 30 feet overhead, uttering their loud, resonant prehistoric rattling calls, reminding us that birds are indeed dinosaurs.
Within thirty minutes of walking through this sanctuary we saw four Black-crowned Night Heron, a Merlin, several Bald Eagles, and an uncountable numbers of Gadwall, Wigeon, Pintail and Mallard ducks. You know you are in a good bird refuge when you don’t know what to look at first, and, and where rare sightings occur along with the common. Our rarity was a female Northern Goshawk hunting in the Alder trees at the western edge of the sanctuary. We also enjoyed a rare look at a common species – the Great Blue Heron – in a cloud of 45 flocking together above us, creating blue-gray airborne spectacle. Neither of us had ever seen so many herons in flight together before. By the time we were done with our three-hour walk in 35-degree temperatures with snow flurries, we tallied 51 species of birds. More than 280 species total have been recorded at Reifel Sanctuary over the years.
Bird airports like Reifel Sanctuary exist because of people like the Reifel family who had foresight and conservation values. George C. Reifel purchased the property on an island in the Fraser River Delta in 1927 to make into a family retreat. It already had three natural sloughs traversing the island at the mouth of BC’s largest river. He constructed dykes and causeways to create waterfowl habitat. Eventually he granted a lease to the BC Waterfowl Society and involved Ducks Unlimited in the management of his property.
Years later, the Reifel family negotiated a combined sale and donation to the Canadian government to manage the site for its waterfowl and to keep George Reifel’s name. Located within an hour of the city of Vancouver, and close to the U.S. border, Reifel Sanctuary hosts 600,000-700,000 human visitors annually.
The sanctuary is strategically located at the mouth of the Fraser River, the largest estuary along the Pacific Coast of North America. It, along with the larger, adjacent Alaksen National Wildlife Refuge, is a crossroads for migratory birds that travel from 20 other countries and three continents. This is not just a bird airport; it is an international bird airport.
Among the many visitors are kids and families. Reifel Sanctuary, with its flat trails, numerous feeders and policy of selling bags of grain to feed birds, is an attractive outing for kids, families and tourists. This is a great way to connect people to nature in a close-up and personal way. Kids can have a “wow!” nature experience that will help develop an appreciation for birds and nature. One child we brought to this refuge has since become an ornithologist.
Thankfully, bird airports like Reifel Sanctuary exist throughout the U.S., Canada and other parts of the world. Originally established for hunting, these reserves now also cater to people who hunt with cameras, binoculars and their own two eyes. They provide strategic stopover, feeding, resting and staging areas for birds migrating along their flyways.
Wildlife Refuges, like parks and other nature preserves are testimony to the intelligence and compassion of the human species. They are a good investment because we rely upon the health of the planet as much as birds and other wildlife do. We also need inspiration and joy, which sanctuaries like Reifel provide in abundance.
Pacific Wren: Small bird, big song
Sometimes the finest singers can be heard free of charge in the deep moist woods. This is certainly true of the Pacific Wren. Formerly referred to as Winter Wrens, in 2010 the species were split into Pacific Wrens along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Northern California, east to Idaho, and Winter Wrens across central and eastern North America. Song differences between the two were part of the reason for the split.
Below the tall evergreen trees, along the stream banks, in and around the shrubs and woody debris, you will find them, singing their hearts out – especially when there is a glimmer of light. These little forest dwellers feed on a combination of insects, insect larvae, millipedes, spiders and the occasional berry.
After you hear their song, an elaborate combination of warbling trills that seems to go on forever, you feel like applauding. How can such a virtuoso singing performance come out of such a small bird?
At 3-4 oz in weight and 3-5 inches in length, you would not think that either Winter or Pacific Wrens could produce much of a song. In fact, Winter Wrens have the longest song of any North American bird species. The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website refers to Winter Wrens as “small in stature and incomparably energetic in voice.” Per unit weight, the Winter Wren’s song is ten times more powerful than a crowing rooster. Their vocalizations have been referred to as “the pinnacle of song complexity.” Each song contains about 40 notes and can last from 10-40 seconds. Pacific Wrens have even longer and more varied songs than Winter Wrens.
In eastern British Columbia, the two species ranges overlap. Here, by the Murray River, there is an annual spring “battle of the wrens” sing-off. Males of both species sing within earshot of one-another. Meanwhile the female wrens listen closely. Female songbirds, including wrens, generally are the ones who select their mates. Based on DNA sampling, the female Winter and Pacific Wrens do select mates who sing their song. Thus, inter-breeding between these two species seldom occurs.
The Winter and Pacific Wren songs are as beautiful as the forests they inhabit. They provide yet another reason to save the mature forests that still remain. Their song is not to be missed in this lifetime by anyone who appreciates music – whether performed by a human or a tiny bird.
Sources: All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology website; Cornell Lab Bird Biology Handbook; I-Bird. Pro App; Sibley Guide to Bird Behavior by David Sibley.
Top : Turkey Vulture; Bottom: Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
Sometimes when people don't understand or appreciate living things, they want to destroy them. Often they do this without knowledge of the species' value to the environment. Consider vultures and sparrows.
Vultures are ugly. They eat dead things and they roost in groups that resemble scary Halloween displays. They look menacing, but looks can be deceiving.
Vultures are valuable scavengers that collectively form a global natural sanitation crew. By consuming dead animals, they keep the environment clean. If the mllions (billions?) of carcasses around the world were left to rot and fester, we would have far more serious disease problems than we do today. Vultures prevent the spread of dangerous diseases like Rabies and Anthrax by consuming the carcasses themselves, and by leading other wild animals to them, so the clean-up occurs quickly.
The ugly head of vultures is actually a smart adaptation to their lifestyle. Their naked heads remain cleaner than they would if they were covered with feathers when feeding inside of carcasses. It's similar to doctors wearing rubber gloves for sanitation purposes.
Through a combination of an excellent sense of smell (which most birds don't have) and keen eyesight, vultures find and clean up carcasses all over the earth. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "The Turkey Vulture's heightened ability to detect odors - it can detect just a few parts per trillion - allows it to find dead animals (even) below a forest canopy."
Once vultures find dead animals, they not only consume them, but they sanitize them so they are not a disease threat. How? Ornithologist Van Harris wrote about this in his excellent 2012 column in the Memphis Commercial Appeal Vultures are Scary but Beneficial to Environment. "In fact, the digestive juices of vultures are so powerful that most bacteria and viruses are killed before they pass out of the birds' digestive tracts. Vultures actually help control diseases in the environment by consuming animals that die of those diseases. Fortunately, Black and Turkey Vultures are now protected by law and allowed to help keep the countryside clean." What vultures do for us is actually a fabulous free service. We should be grateful!
Sparrows to the unaware are drab, common, unimportant and unremarkable. China's former dictator, Chairman Mao Zedong certainly did not care for them. According to John Platt, a writer about endangered species for Scientific American "One of Mao Zedong's first actions after collectivizing agriculture was intended to protect the farms. Sparrows, he was told, ate a lot of grain seeds, so Zedong ordered the people to go forth and kill all the sparrows. During the Great Sparrow Campaign, as it has been called, hundreds of millions of sparrows were killed.
The problem with the Great Sparrow Campaign became evident in 1960. The sparrows, it seemed, didn't only eat grain seeds. They also ate insects. With no birds to control them, insect populations boomed. Locusts, in particular swarmed over the country, eating everything they could find -- including crops intended for human food. People on the other hand, quickly ran out of things to eat, and millions starved. Numbers vary, of course, with the official number from the Chinese government placed at 15 million."
One of the hardest things for humans to grasp is ecology: the inter- relationship between living things and the environment. Animals and all species are here for a reason. They have important niches and belong to this planet as much as we do. In the words of William Kittredge in his powerful autobiography Hole in the Sky, "We must define a story which encourages us to make use of the place where we live without killing it, and we must understand that the living world cannot be replicated."