Posts Tagged ‘endangered species’

Bald Eagles visit the Hackensack River

March 14, 2010

Two great dark wings stretch up above the water and then fold back down. The tide is running out, and swaths of mud flats are exposed along the shores of the river. As I approach, I see the big bird in the shallows near the opposite bank, struggling with something. I notice its white head and think of the large black-backed gulls that soar over the river. But when the wings go up again, I see that the whole underside of the bird is dark, so it can’t be a sea gull.

My presence distracts the feathered one from what is probably its dinner. It stares at me, then lifts off and traces two swooping arcs over the water, showing its white tail—it’s a bald eagle, right here on the Hackensack River!

A dark shape flops a few times in the shallows—presumably a fish, making its way back to the deep water. The eagle settles in a tree, and I see that another eagle is already sitting in the branches. I step closer, and my boots almost disappear in the sucking mud. One of the eagles flies to a tree slightly upstream, and I loop inland to a better vantage point. When I step out of the brush onto the bank, it takes off, circling again before it disappears downstream.

I sit on a concrete block, a remnant of some past shoreline structure, regretting that I chased the eagle away and wondering what the other one will do. A gull lands on a distant wedge of mud, near the eagle’s tree, and pecks at something repeatedly.

A common merganser flies past. It’s a female, her grey body low over the water, reddish-brown head stretched out, wings beating in that rapid rhythm characteristic of ducks. Three males follow her, flickers of black and bright white.

The eagle launches from the tree, causing the gull to take off hastily in the opposite direction. The eagle soars downriver, and the gull returns to its ministrations.

I wondered if the eagles were nesting in the area, so I checked in with Capt. Bill Sheehan of Hackensack Riverkeeper. He replied, “There are two known nest sites in the Hackensack Watershed. One is on United Water property in Haworth near the water treatment plant. The other is also on United Water property at Woodcliff Lake. The birds you saw are regular visitors to this part of the river this time of year. They come down from the Great White North and feed on carp and anything else they kill or find.”

I regret that my eagerness to get a good view chased the eagles away. I recommend carrying binoculars and remaining in the shelter of trees if you happen to spot our two visitors.


Sometimes I think the Republicans are right

February 4, 2010

It’s not that I disbelieve the scientists who say climate change is happening—I’ve seen photos of the shrinking polar ice caps, and I vividly remember the colder, snowier winters of my childhood.

Nor do I doubt that humans have contributed to, if not caused, a rise in overall global temperatures, and that reducing our energy use would slow, halt, or reverse climate change. Just looking at the masses of cars, industries, and power plants, in the U.S. alone, gives me an intuitive sense that we are deeply altering the climate—and regardless of the numbers, which can be skewed in innumerable ways, it’s our intuition that determines what we believe.

But when the Republicans say, “It’s all part of nature’s cycle—why waste money and effort on trying to change our habits when climate change is inevitable?”—it gives me pause.

First of all, I don’t think we are capable of changing our habits, especially in the U.S.  We are too comfortable and too attached to our lifestyles, and we are not physically tough. The vast majority of our jobs, our living quarters, our pleasures are dependent on the industries and financial systems that are destroying the climate balance.

Secondly, the population of the Earth has expanded beyond what it can comfortably support, especially in Western countries where use of resources is out of control. We are trying to meet the needs of 6.8 billion people and of the physical planet at the same time, and I have doubts that this goal is achievable.

Some people have declared that yet-to-be-invented technology is what will save us, but I don’t see that. Every technology devised has its benefits and its drawbacks. Even solar power, which I wholeheartedly endorse, has pitfalls.

For instance, there’s no such thing as “off the grid” if you rely on solar panels for power. Thirty years from now, when those panels break, you will have to go somewhere to replace them, and you will still be dependent on silicon mines and markets, manufacturers, truck drivers, testing agencies, and the whole economic web.

If you believe in evolution, then the Republicans could be right: we humans are part of nature, and the law of the survival of the fittest will kick in when the seas rise, crops fail, drinkable water grows scarce, disease ravages the population, and only the strong and the savvy will endure the worst and remain alive.

Maybe we are wasting our time and money forestalling the future. Maybe we should let change accelerate and fiddle while Rome burns—grab these last moments of opulence and let the next generation sort out who will survive the apocalypse.

Even though I tend to think this way, I can’t do it. Maybe there’s a chance we can change. I’ve had too many experiences of awe out in the wild to abandon it to the forces of greed and callousness. I have to do what I can, trying to plant seeds of change even as I participate in the absurd riot of spending and using.

After all, no one really knows what will happen.

Whooping cranes still migrating

January 7, 2010

I am still fascinated by the whooping cranes and their slow migration behind the ultralight aircraft. They are flying today, expected to reach Georgia. It’s been a rough migration, with a lot of down days due to bad weather and winds, but their Florida destination is not far off now.

See or to watch live streaming video on flight mornings.

When these cranes fly on their own next year, the 1200-mile trip back from Florida to Wisconsin will take only a few weeks, now that they’ve learned the route and can fly at up to 5000 feet on the thermals. Up there, they soar for 10 to 12 hours a day, but the ultralights can’t go that high. At around 1000 feet, the birds get support from the vortex off the plane’s wing, but they still have to flap a lot, a more tiring flight, and the plane carries only three hours worth of gas. Therefore, they fly in legs of one to three hours per day, depending on whether there’s a helpful tailwind or crosscurrents they have to fight. So the assisted migration, which began in late October, is just now nearing its completion, almost 3 months later.

It’s a lot of work saving an endangered species.

All along the route, landowners with open fields have been contacted, and those that are willing prepare themselves for the arrival of 20 young whoopers, four ultralight “trikes”, several trailers to house support crew, and trucks to haul the pen that is set up in the field for the duration of the birds’ stay. The hosts often cook for the crew and open up their home for use of bathrooms. No one can tell them exactly when the whole gang will arrive or how long they will remain, since the weather is in charge. And if they hit a good tailwind, the pilots might decide, on a moment’s notice, to skip a stop, and all the hosts’ preparation will be for naught.

The pens must be set up out of sight of the house, since the protocol requires isolating the cranes from all human contact, except for non-speaking crew members in baggy white bird costumes.

But people who agree to host the cranes say they are glad to do it, just for the privilege of watching the flyovers and feeling they’ve been a part of the inspiring work of saving these ungainly yet beautiful birds from extinction.

Watching the whoopers

October 20, 2009

Whooping crane Tuesday, October 18, 2009, 9:04 am

I’m getting addicted to the cranecam. Since visiting Necedah Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, I’m intrigued by the effort to teach young whooping cranes, an endangered species, to migrate by getting them to follow ultralight aircraft. Also, I’m hoping to write an article about the cranes.

The pilots work for Operation Migration, the same outfit that inspired the movie “Fly Away Home”, wherein orphaned Canada geese were led south by ultralights (known as “trikes” because they have three wheels). Cranes, however, are more finicky than geese, and the weather this year has restricted their training time. The team has gotten about half the 20 birds to their first stopover location, but rain and “trashy” conditions—turbulence—have kept the rest on the ground. Today they’re trying again.

When I get to the computer and click on the streaming video feed, the trikes are already in the air, and pilot Joe Duff is leading, trying to get the birds in formation. They fly around in big circles, the cranes surge ahead and Joe has to scoot over them to regain the lead. One laggard has remained on the ground and is now flying against the side of the pen, upset. A hulking figure covered in a brown sheet lumbers along the grass runway next to the pen,. This is the Swamp Monster, the chat next to the cranecam screen informs us, out there to prevent the cranes from landing.

Little keyword-prompted ads pop up annoyingly from time to time beneath the cam screen: subscribe to Mother Earth News, go on a wildlife expedition, rent a construction crane—all sizes available.
There are 247 viewers watching this morning, and another 116 on the trikecam, a camera attached to Chris Gullikson’s plane. (But I suspect that most of them, like me, are logged onto both simultaneously.) A message from Joe breaks into the chat: the air above the stopover is trashy, and they’re heading back to the pen.

The young cranes land gracefully on the runway, two trikes settling beside them. Joe and Chris climb out of their planes, dressed in the baggy white crane costumes that all handlers wear, to prevent the cranes from imprinting on humans. The hooded men look like beekeepers, except that their outfits are more like dresses that end in muddy hems. Their crane-head hand puppets peck gently at the birds, herding them into the pen. The men’s pace is decisive but unhurried, with no jerky movements.

The planes—really just motorized gliders—take off again, and it looks so easy, not much different from starting a car, but UP IN THE AIR, they’re FLYING, and I find myself wishing…but I know, from meeting Joe last week, that theirs is a stressful job, requiring infinite patience.

I’ll have to get to the computer a little earlier tomorrow to watch the roundup, if the weather is good. Here’s the link, if you want to watch, and it will take them many weeks to get to Florida, with the cam on every day: