Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska

Some places have a signature animal species that defines a particular natural environment.  For me, they include the alligators of the Okefenokee, the wolves of Isle Royale, and the Kirtland's Warbler of the Au Sable Plains.  Ever since youthful trips across the Great Plains in the spring, I have also associated the Sandhill Cranes with the Platte River of Nebraska.  Recently, I had the chance to learn more about this remarkable bird and its relationship to this open sky place.

The Migration of Sandhill Cranes is one of the great animal spectaculars of North America, rivaling the annual movement of caribou.  While some sandhill cranes winter in Florida and Cuba, most spend the winter in Texas and Mexico and travel north to the Canadian taiga, the arctic tundra, and even across the Bering Strait into Siberia. But as the sandhill cranes fly northward, they funnel through an 80 mile stretch of the Platte River in Nebraska where they rest and refuel in the cornfields and early spring wetlands along this iconic stream.

"A mile wide and an inch deep" is the classic description of the Platte River, which carries sediment from the eastern slope of the Rockies, drops it in a braided stream on the plains, and then slowly flows into the Missouri River.  It was a source of sustenance for the Souix and the pathway west for the pioneers.  It now supports a vigorous, irrigated agricultural landscape.  The sandhill cranes have been there all along.

The productive soil of the prairie has provided food, and the river has provided protection.  During the day, the cranes glean corn from last year's fields, and add protein from insects, reptiles, and even small mammals in the wetlands and preserved grasslands.  Each night, the cranes return to the Platte to rest on sandbars or stand in the shallow waters, relatively safe from predators. The mass movement of thousands of birds at dusk, and again at dawn, is an awe-producing sight for which I--and many other birders--are willing to huddle in cold blinds to witness.

An Ancient Bird is the sandhill crane.  Fossil records show that the direct ancestor of this tall creature was present in Nebraska nine million years ago, back when the continent rested much closer to the equator.  Over time, as the continent moved and climates and habitats changed, the sandhill crane adapted and evolved.  We tend to think of a large, flocking species as the embodiment of a particular ecosystem, and of course it is, but the fact that the sandhill crane has persisted through millions of years powerfully reminds me of the resilience of nature.

Today, the sandhill crane has adapted to the presence of humans and industrialized agriculture.  The presence of cornfields along the Platte River has provided an important food source for the migrating cranes, probably supplanting tubers and other plants that used to be found in the now-diminished wetlands along the Platte.  The Sioux hunted sandhill cranes, as do Texans today, and the bird must now contend with the noise of the omni-present trucks of I-80,  power lines, and other human interferences.  Even though we snuck into blinds, and kept our distance as we stopped along country roads, the cranes have also adapted to the thousands of bird-watchers who travel to Nebraska each spring.

This is not to say that humans can be oblivious to their impact on wildlife.  Just witness the near demise of whooping cranes, the similar, bigger, all-white representative of North American cranes.  The loss of their winter coastal wetlands and vigorous hunting almost led to their extinction.  There are only a few hundred of these magnificent birds now living in the wild.  Only through the intervention of governmental entities like the US Fish and Wildlife Service and groups like the International Crane Foundation, have the whooping cranes survived.

A Middle Ground needs to be found between ignorance, or antipathy, to nature and the segregation of humanity and the wild.  Standing among the tall cottonwoods on the banks of the Platte, it easy to imagine a pre-civilization wilderness riparian forest.  However, our imagination would be wrong, as the trees have only grown up after the suppression of fires and the regulation of the floods of the river.  Of course it is technically feasible to restore the Platte River ecosystem by returning more water flow to the stream, pushing agriculture out of the valley, and reinvigorating the prairie and marshes.  Practically, this is not likely, given the political demands on water in the west, the economic prowess of American farming, and the two centuries of modern civilization in Nebraska.

So to preserve the habitat of migrating cranes and the other species that depend on the Platte, we have applied human ingenuity and societal resources.  The Nature Conservancy has used its traditional land protection skills to strategically acquire farms and restore prairies adjacent to the River, the Audobon Society has protected important migratory sites, and state and federal governmental agencies adopt and enforce wildlife regulations.  These actions have helped the whooping cranes survive, and the sandhill cranes to thrive.

Whole System Conservation is the term now applied to much of the work of The Nature Conservancy, and its goal is to understand and then manage the large scale functioning of the environment.  It is underway in the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and throughout the globe. This work requires not only land preservation, but also important attention to the policies that govern human economy and society.  We are not separate from nature, and we must be stewards of our natural systems so that they benefit both the natural inhabitants as well the human ones.  We all depend on nature.

In the Platte River ecosystem, not only do sandhill cranes and other species depend on a healthy environment, but so too does agriculture.  A first step is to acquire easements on agriculture land that compensate farmers for leaving some of their land out of production some of the time.  Thus, more habitat can be protected.  But the key issue in the West (and perhaps everywhere) is water.  Three states and many agencies and organizations have come together to manage water flows and use in the Platte River system.  The goals are many, the compromises not always easy, and the potential for success great.  Science provides new solutions, and The Nature Conservancy has teamed up agribusiness to use technology to allow for pinpoint irrigation management; this helps save energy costs for farmers and water for the environment.

Too often we choose to ignore nature, filled with hubris in thinking that we can pursue our own needs without regard to the places which we inhabit.  Or we are unwise in the exercise of our abilities and we use our knowledge without a value system that includes nature.  But the Platte River and sandhill cranes are showing us that putting nature foremost is not only possible, but beneficial to both animals and humans.  Not only have we achieved a balance between humans and the environment, but sandhill cranes benefit from agriculture, depending on leftover corn to fuel their migration.  And the local economy benefits from the $10 million impact from the many humans who come to Nebraska to view the cranes.

Throughout the world there are 15 species of cranes, and most are held in special esteem by the various cultures which have evolved along with these most special creatures.  Sandhill cranes have long been celebrated by Native American residents of the Great Plains, and now we are building a tourism, economic, and environmental culture that values both the cranes and the Platte River ecosystem upon which they depend.

 To visit:  Sandhill cranes migrate through the Platte River Valley between late February and early April, thought the time of peak migration can vary by many days.  The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, and others run tours.
Kearney, Nebraska offers an annual festival and support for viewing the cranes.

To learn more about the work of The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska and elsewhere visit

The best book I have ever read about cranes is Peter Matthiessen's Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes which documents his worldwide journey to learn more about the importance of these very special animals.

Thank you to Anna Owens for the photographs, and the company.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter Solstice and the Anthropocene

Life moves in cycles, and on December 21 we mark the turning of a very big cycle, the Winter Solstice.  Light, which has been lessening, will now begin gathering and the mechanism that powers life will bring us, eventually, back to a spring of new growth. As I try and reason through the profound phenomenon of the Winter Solstice, I join the ancient stargazers, the modern scientists, and all those who seek to understand what our place in nature is, or should be.

The Winter Solstice marks the annual rotation of our planet around the sun, the star that supplies the energy of life.  Within that cycle is another cycle.  The daily rotation of the earth exposes the planet to a disproportionate delivery of solar energy, and the dissipation of that energy, along with the fast spinning of the globe, moves the atmosphere which supports our life.  The movement of air delivers life-giving water, which also moves in a solar-powered cycle.  We live from, and have our being in,  these cycles.

On the Winter Solstice, I am as far away from the source of life as I will be all year.  Where I am, about halfway between the equator and the north pole, the tilt of the planet moves us away, slightly, from the sun for half the year.  The daily spinning of the globe on its angle leaves those of us in the northern hemisphere in the dark more than in the light for two seasons.  Then, as the planet circles around the sun, our half of the globe will be tilted more toward the light, and we will enjoy a surfeit of sunshine.  The workings of nature often astound me, starting with this most fundamental construction that defines my place in the cosmos

Our place on the planet can be defined astronomically, and this is perhaps a starting point for understanding our role here.  We exist first as passengers, as beneficiaries of the energy systems, water cycles, and rhythms of nature that support our existence.  We apply our reason to understand how the machinery works, a task that has taken millennia and which continues as we gain more knowledge.  This gives us more comfort, but as our knowledge expands, so too does our prowess. And while our ever-growing abilities have allowed us to benefit more from nature, we now realize that our actions have begun to have a major impact on the planet upon which we depend.

We have now entered the epoch of the anthropocene, a definition of geological time that marks the influence of humans on the physical operation of the planet.  The ancient solar energy embodied in coal and oil and gas have been removed from the earth itself and re-converted to heat.  The result of course, has been to put this carbon back into the atmosphere and the ocean, which has then changed the chemical composition of the air and water.  The sun remains basically the same, and more of its energy is now absorbed in the atmosphere.  The planet is warming, and the weather systems have thus changed as well.

We are no longer passive residents of earth, one of several lifeforms that has evolved in this narrow band of air, balance of temperature, and cycles of water that exist on our planet.  Perhaps we never were just passengers; perhaps our place here has meant something more from the beginning; perhaps not.  Perhaps we are too full of hubris, or not full enough of appreciation of our situation in nature.  Perhaps we have come to our knowledge too late.

But, three days before Christmas, I am reminded that humanity has had a deep awareness of the connections between light, life, and our place in nature long before we fully understood how this planet rotates on angle around a star.  My religion, like other faiths, celebrates new life at this time of year when we move from a season of darkness to a season of light.  We have long sought to understand these mysteries and our connection to them.

Our intelligence, our science, has helped locate us in space, and our science has explained how we come to live on this planet. Now we need to use our knowledge, new and old, to preserve our existence.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Five Truths Found in Nature

On September 11 this year, I got up early, walked to the beach and watched a great black-backed gull in the surf. After breakfast, I got on a bicycle and rode off into a fog so wet that I needed raingear. Later, the sun prevailed and I spent a glorious day immersed in nature, fully aware of wind, and smell, and ever-changing visions of a living landscape.

I was on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, on a five-day bike trip around the Cabot Trail, but establishing a connection with nature can occur in lots of places. The Shiawassee River that runs through my home-town provides my most accessible environmental source, but the opportunities are many, if we choose to make them. Why do we go to nature?  For me, I reaffirm five fundamental values when I spend time outside: Life, Beauty, Transcendence, Relationship, and Inspiration.

1. Nature is life.  Being in nature connects me to the elemental: water flowing, air felt, plants growing, animals observed, and the music of bird sounds. When I encounter nature, even in a streetside planter, I am aware of life, both in its tenacity, as a flower takes root in a cement crack, and in its fragility, as an insect dies with the swat of a hand. 

I like to walk in nature, because it allows me to stop, and stoop, and examine life in its most minute and delicate.  But on a bicycle I can take in more of the diversity of life in less time.  On a day’s ride through Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a long climb took me from the seacoast with whales offshore, along a stream through a stand of Canada’s trademark maple trees, up through a spruce forest, and finally to the stunted growth of a taiga and a near-tundra environment atop a windswept plateau 550 meters above sea level.

When out in nature on a bike, wind and temperature changes are keenly experienced. Weather is not an abstract symbol on my smartphone. I am immersed in the environment, and sights and smells constantly change. The use of my legs, the testing of my physical self, reminds me that I too am a creature defined by my biology.  I am a part of nature.

2. Beauty expresses the universal.  Emerson, in his essay “Nature” wrote that “the world exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty.” Beauty is an elusive, perhaps discredited, philosophical term, but I know my life is enriched when I encounter a perfect dahlia bloom in the Halifax Public Garden, or take in the grand view of the Cape Breton coast after a long bike climb. Nature delights us with its creativity in its expressions of beauty.

But beauty is more than the perfect combination of design, and color, and light. There is some inherent quality in certain natural objects or experiences that exceeds identification or classification.  We stood on the top of a cliff just north of Ingonish and watched a bald eagle, perfect in his white and black coloration, glide up to eye level and look at us sideways from 20 feet away. There was much more in this moment than an ornithological achievement. “Every natural action is graceful,” wrote Emerson. “Beauty, in its largest and profoundest sense, is one expression for the universe.”

3. Transcendence through nature.  Being in nature reminds us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves in current time.  Looking across the expanse of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, clouds and sun and distant rain make apparent the cycle of water upon which we depend.  The exposed geology of the shifting earth and the discontinuity of multi-colored rocks reveal that much has happened to create the cape upon which we were now standing.  Life is fully present in the form of a black bear feeding upon blueberries, but the reminders of death—rotting fish on the shore, the barren trees of a burnt-over hillside—are also constant.  Our time here will be short, but nature will persist.

4. We exist in relationship.  We are in relationship with nature, and with one another.  A trip into the out-of-doors not only affirms our dependence upon nature, it also highlights the importance of our relationships with one another. While I have had many a quiet moment alone in nature birdwatching or reflecting, my most significant encounters with nature have been with a group of people. Heading off to a wild place often requires some journey of time, distance, and effort, and it is both easier and more satisfying to make that trip with others. This bike trip was similar, with both a support team to help me through the tough moments and fellow pedalers to share with me the discoveries.

Both our human relationships and our interactions with the natural world are two-way. We depend on one another, and our actions have an impact, either positive or negative.  On the toughest day of our trip, we were thankful for the bright sun and the cool breeze off the ocean. Our guide recounted days lost on other trips to violent Nor’easters that brought waves up over the road in places.

We were very aware of the more profound ways in which nature has sustained, and challenged, the residents of Cape Breton. The ocean provides an active fishery in several small towns we rode through. While lobsters abound, over-fishing and environmental changes have greatly diminished several fish populations. This was perhaps most evident in the Salmon Museum along the Margaree River, which contains haunting photographs and fascinating gear—legal and illegal---from the bountiful history of the Atlantic Salmon fishery. Fortunately, the majestic fish has survived, and with help is now recovering.

5. Nature is a source of inspiration.  Spending long days on a bike, often in single file, gives one time to think.  I considered both the grand scenery flashing by, but also about the piece of technology that carried me along.  The bicycle may be one of the most simple, yet profound, human inventions. It translates the power of our legs, which by animal standards are slow, into a relatively speedy and efficient means of transportation. And it provides mechanical locomotion without the use of fossil fuels or noxious emissions.  For me, I appreciate the connection it provides with the immediate environment, whether pleasant or not.

The relationship between humanity, technology, and nature has been complex, and not one that has always benefitted humanity or nature.  Often, without thought, we have employed a technology that has offered to save us time or increase wealth, but we have not fully considered the costs.  Still, the best of our technology has extended human capacity and done so in ways that impose small costs or even provided a benefit.  The bicycle has proven to be one such technology, and it's basic form has been with us now for close to two centuries.  After a week on a bike, I came away more enamored with this technology as a symbol of how we can use our intellect to take advantage of what nature has to offer, but without doing major damage to the resource we seek to enjoy.

The Peace of Wild Things.  Nature offers us so much, both in terms of sustenance and the opportunity for spiritual growth.  But death is part of nature as well, and one day we took a break from biking to hike out lonely White Point, where violent water batters exposed rock.  There you will find a simple memorial to the those who have died in an unfortunate encounter with the powerful ocean.  The people of Cape Breton have a close relationship with the sea, and while it supports life, sometimes it claims a life as well.

The line between what is good and lovely and what is evil and dark is thin. Biking provides this reminder as well.  The exhilaration of the downhill run is tempered by the thought of loose gravel on a sharp switchback. And while the drivers of Nova Scotia were as considerate as any I have shared a road with, we were still sometimes shaken by a truck cutting too close as they passed us by on the narrow shoulder of the road.  Life is good, but we cannot measure its length.

This year, I spent September 11 biking from fog to sunshine, along a beautiful edge of nature.  I was invigorated.  On the dark days after September 11, 2001, life was not so joyous.  As I struggled to make sense of that human tragedy, I turned to one of my favorite Wendell Berry poems:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

How to get there:
Cape Breton is rich in both culture and nature, and the Cabot Trail provides a biking route around some of its most scenic areas. Here is a link to the Cabot Trail with maps and information.  Find more about visiting the area at

As always, thanks Anna
Several options are available for biking on your own or with a guided tour.  We travelled with Pedal & Sea Adventures, and had a fantastic trip.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park is a natural area of special significance and worth visiting on a camping trip; hiking opportunities abound.

If you go, be sure to spend some time inland as well, along the Magaree River, and learn more about the recovery efforts associated with the Atlantic Salmon.  Be sure to visit the Salmon Museum.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Paying it Forward with the Kirtland's Warbler

When it comes to nature, how can we pay it forward? You know the concept: someone does a good deed for you, or pays off your debt, and you reciprocate by extending your generosity and good will to the next person in line. But hasn't nature also done us many a good deed? And don't we all have a debt to the environment, for at least clean air and water, and a whole lot more?  If you are looking to pay any of that forward, you might help out a small yellow bird in the middle of Michigan, like I did in early June.

The Kirtland's Warbler appreciates a very particular ecosystem favored by few: small scrubby areas with sandy or rocky soils. It spends the winter in dense shrubbery on a few underdeveloped islands in the Bahamas, and in the spring it migrates to the mostly flat jack pine forests between Grayling and Mio in central Michigan. The song bird likes to breed only in stands of young jack pines mixed with oak and cherry. This niche behavior was almost the undoing of this yellow-breasted bird with the bright song.

Historically, before loggers and settlers pushed into the northern Great Lakes, the Kirtland's Warbler had plenty of new growth areas to choose from for its summer home.  Fires regularly burned across the sandy outwash plains left from the glaciers. Jack pine, whose cones only release their seeds after being exposed to the high heat of a fire, is the pioneer species of these ravaged areas. The Kirtland's would skip around Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario to build their nest on the sand amongst the new growth forests.

However, following the clear-cut logging of the north woods, settlers moved in, roads and towns were built, and forest fires became a scourge on the human inhabited land.  Smokey the Bear moved in too, and fire suppression and a quick response to any blaze became the celebrated norm. Especially in areas not well suited to farming, like the plains and low hills stretching back from the Au Sable River, a mature forest grew up to offer sites for the "up north" cabin. While good news for vacationers, hunters and anglers, the Kirtland's Warbler was out of a home.

The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, part of the great awakening of environmental policy, and it came just in time for the Kirtland's Warbler.  In 1971, the third census of the rare bird had found only 201 singing male birds, a 60 percent drop in 10 years. The new federal legislation gave formal recognition to the Kirtland's Warbler Recovery Team--a group of government, scientific, and environmental organizations--and gave them the legal authority and financial resources to work to prevent the loss of the species. Decades of research and effort have paid off, and the species has recovered. The censuses in both 2012 and 2013 have counted more than 2,000 singing males.

People -- scientists, birdwatchers, government wildlife workers, donors, and other enthusiasts of nature--have saved the Kirtland's Warbler, at least for the time being. Two intensive efforts have made the difference. First, the US Forest Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) actively manages public lands to create appropriate breeding habitat.  Research, trial and error, and careful observation led scientists to understand that the Warbler needs large areas of young jack pine forests, mixed with other small trees and including hidden openings. Foresters have logged, cleared, or burned--and then re-planted-- sandy soil areas in both the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan to replicate the natural landscape that existed before fires were prevented.

Secondly, cowbirds have been controlled in the breeding area. Brown-headed cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, a strategy that evolved as the birds followed bison herds in the Great Plains.  However, plowed fields and animal agriculture brought the cowbirds to the Great Lakes and in northern Michigan they found the Kirtland's Warblers' nests an easy target. Now, the invasive cowbirds are trapped and warbler eggs can hatch and the young grow up without the competition of the larger cowbirds.

A mutually beneficial relationship exists between people and the Kirtland's Warbler, or KW as many call it. The bird now depends on people to maintain its summer home.  And people are eager to see this bird that nests in a very particular place in the Great Lakes ecosystem. They come from throughout Michigan, the United States, and the world in the early summer to discover for themselves this bird with the yellow breast and the lyrical song.  And a passionate number return year after year to see, to hear, to count, to study, and to save this bird.  Why?

I have had the chance three times to go into the field with these people whose connection to nature comes through a rare and beautiful bird. Some appreciate the scientific challenge of learning all about one unique species; others find through the bird a special connection to a Michigan place of pine trees and cold-water rivers; and many are serious birders, and they travel to north central Michigan in hopes of adding a KW to their life list of birds observed. I take any excuse to get out.

A "Big" Day.  Most recently I ventured up a sandy road east of Grayling with Greg Miller, one of the most accomplished of bird-watchers, and several other friends--new and old--of the Kirtland's Warber.  Greg was one of the subjects of the book and movie "The Big Year" about a quest to see more than 700 species of birds in the US in one year. He is one of the premier birders in the world, and has a long list of birds to choose as favorites, but the Kirtland's holds a special place for him.  His father brought him to the Grayling area when he was an eleven year-old boy, and the experience of finding the rare KW set him on the passionate pursuit that now defines his life.

Several decades later, the day was cool and breezy as Greg Miller accompanied a small group of experienced and novice birders scouting through jack pines not much taller than we were.  We could hear, but not see, several males staking out their territory.  The small, closely spaced pine trees gave our outing the feel of a Christmas tree hunt, though without the snow, and we could not see far into the dense growth. We stayed on the two-track, as we did not want to disturb the Kirtland's Warbler, nor inadvertently step on its nest, on the ground amidst the vegetation.

It was tantalizing. We alternately kneeled and stood on tip-toe, leaning from left to right, all in an attempt to get a clear view of the small bird flitting and singing among the young pine trees. Nothing,  and then not even a song.  We moved on, stopping and searching several times without a successful sighting.  Finally, we got a view of the bright yellow breast of a singing male amongst the shrubbery, and fellow bird-watchers almost elbowed in for a view. Then, one of the proud birds popped up to a dead tree branch, perched, and tilted up his head to warble. Cameras clicked, birders old and new sighed appreciatively, and we were transformed.

A Conservation-Reliant Species. The experience of seeing a bird for the first time in the wild is always special, but this achievement came from more than just our skill, the guidance of an expert birder, or luck. The landscape of the breeding Kirtland's Warbler exists only because of the concentrated, sustained, and scientifically-informed efforts of many people and agencies. Its winter home, in the Bahamas, has only recently been pinpointed, thanks to the efforts of The Nature Conservancy.  In both places, locals have been engaged and educated to appreciate the rarity of this bird.

The Kirtland's Warbler story is one of success, and now the scientists who have carefully studied, and the conservationists who have tended, the species are turning their attention to create natural conditions that will favor the sustained livelihood of the bird.  They also are working on building the organization and financial stability to ensure the KW will not have to rely on annual appropriations from Washington and elsewhere. The future certainly looks better than the past, but ongoing stewardship will be required.

The fate of the Kirtland's Warbler depends on humans to maintain a proper habitat, and to control competitive cowbirds. If these efforts ceased today, the population would likely again decline.  It is now what the experts call a "conservation-reliant" species.  Humans were responsible for the demise of the Kirtland's Warbler; now we are responsible to be stewards of the places the bird calls home.

The Passenger Pigeon.  The history of our relationship with nature can be measured in how we treat birds. As the Great Lakes were settled, humans observed flocks of passenger pigeons that numbered in the tens of millions. These social birds nested in the nut-rich hardwood forests that covered much of Michigan and surrounding areas; they were tasty to eat and easy to hunt, and they were no match for the technological prowess of humanity. In the 19th century, the passenger pigeon went from symbol of the abundance of nature to the victim of unchecked human consumption. In 1914, the last passenger pigeon died in a zoo in Ohio.

Sadly, the relationship between humans and birds has too often followed the path of ignorance and greed. However, in the hundred years since the demise of the passenger pigeon, Americans have redefined their relationship with birds and nature. The death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, may have sparked the first widespread recognition that the actions of people could lead to the extinction of a species and the collapse of natural systems. It came as the work of early naturalists like John James Audubon was translated into the active conservation movement that Teddy Roosevelt had championed.  In 1918, the Migratory Bird Act was passed, and in subsequent years, wildlife management became the scientific task of federal and state governments; land was set aside and hunting was regulated. The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, was the policy culmination of this conservation ethic.

The story of the Kirtland's Warbler reminds us that human interaction with nature does not always result in extinction and loss. Rather, the resurgence of this small yellow bird demonstrates what we can achieve with the knowledge gained from science and the conservation efforts of both public agencies and private actors. Human actions have resulted in changed landscapes in most of the world; in one area of northern Michigan, we have cared for the landscape in a way to not only benefit us, but to also to preserve a home for one of our natural neighbors. 

 To Learn More visit these sites
The Kirtland's Warbler Initiative - the effort to build ongoing support for the species
The Kirtland's Warbler Breeding Range Conservation Plan - a recently released draft from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Winter Habitat (video) in the Bahamas has been the subject of study by The Nature Conservancy
Greg Miller's thoughts on the Kirtland's Warbler

Thanks to Anna Owens for supporting my enthusiasm for birds, and for taking the photos that documented this wonderful outing.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Wind Power from the Thumb

On the same day the United Nation's issued another report detailing the dangers of climate change, I visited one of the many places in Michigan where people are trying to figure out how to generate electricity while avoiding damage to our environment. I found no panacea, but came away hopeful.  As with many challenges we face, the solution will likely come from smart people working through the complexities of science, policy, and nature.

The Thumb of Michigan, a broad peninsula of flat land that defines half of Saginaw Bay, is one of the windier places in the Great Lakes.  The difference in temperature between the sun-warmed land and the relatively cool waters of Lake Huron, as well as the weather systems that march across the continent, create frequent, strong, and relatively constant wind flows.  In 2006, DTE Energy began an effort to take advantage of this energy resource.  Now, DTE and several private entrepreneurs have changed the agricultural landscape of Huron County with almost 300 wind turbines.

Driving around the Thumb outside Bad Axe and Cass City on a spring day, almost every view includes tri-bladed towers as tall as cellphone towers.  They populate the horizon above the tan and white fields recovering from a long winter.  They peek out from behind a rural scene of farms and silos.  A few smaller ones stand next to a schoolyard demonstrating their potential. From a distance, the post and three arms on a calm day become part of the gray view of bare trees.   Do they belong here?  Are new windmills the modern tools that have always been part of a working, agricultural landscape? Are they a hazard to wildlife?  The view of things to come?

The Clean, Renewable and Efficient Energy Act, passed in 2008 by the Michigan Legislature, spurred DTE to build windmills in the Thumb, and elsewhere in the State. Consumers Energy is also investing in wind energy. The state-wide policy requires utilities to produce 10 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2015, and in Michigan, where the sun is not so strong, wind energy is currently the easiest and most affordable way to generate electricity without using up natural resources, without polluting air or water, and without releasing more carbon dioxide into the warming atmosphere.  The legislation, Act 295, has created a boom in windmill installations, along with the appearance of a few solar energy panels, experiments in the use of biomass fuels, more burning of methane from landfills, and some new efforts to catch the energy in flowing water and waves (read more here).

At the end of 2013, almost seven percent of the energy production in Michigan came from renewable sources, and estimates are that the 10 percent goal will be met in the coming year. DTE Energy got a jump start by buying wind power from several private companies (the legislation requires that half of a utility's energy be purchased from a third party) and by building five windmill parks, one in Gratiot County and four in the Thumb.  DTE now gets 9.5 percent of its power from renewable sources and is on track to reach its 10 percent target in the very near future.

While wind is perhaps one of the oldest and most elemental power sources, there was nothing low-tech on display when I had the opportunity to tour DTE's facilities in the Thumb.  Standing in the Cass City command center, one looks at spatial information systems, big screen computer monitors, and digital read-outs that give real time data on the operations of 300 windmills.  Going out in the field, you learn about the innovation in materials that allow for lightweight blades and the aircraft technology that controls the pitch of the blades in response to the force and direction of the wind.  The construction of these high tech machines has added $750 million to the local property tax base.  Engineers are onsite or on-call and there is one technician employed to maintain every 10 windmills.

Birds and Bats don't necessarily appreciate wind energy as much as green policy makers, but engineers certainly have considered wildlife in the design and location of wind parks.  The high towers and the spinning blades, the tips of which travel at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, can kill creatures that come too close, and research shows that each mono-pole windmill will kill three to eight birds annually (the open lattice towers like on old farm windmills are much more dangerous).  Nationally, this adds up to several hundred thousand bird deaths, a number that is small in comparison to the millions of birds killed each year by vehicles, building, and domestic and feral cats. (The analysis, and debate, over the impact of windmills on wildlife is extensive; read this wikipedia entry for a thorough overview; also read this scientific paper from 2013).

More than the design of windmills, the biggest cause of concern is the location of tall towers and rotating blades in areas with high concentrations of birds.  Some of the earliest wind parks in California were unfortunately located in the path of migratory birds and in geographies favored by hawks and eagles.  In the Thumb, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was consulted before
development and careful attention has been paid to flyways and avian habitat.  No windmills are within three miles of the shore of Saginaw Bay where wetlands host migrating waterfowl.  Potential windmill sites have been passed over along river corridors and woods to minimize interference.  To assess the success of these siting efforts, DTE has just begun a year-long study by independent researchers to document what impact its windmills have on wildlife.  Nationally, additional research seeks to understand the relationship between windmill operation and the nocturnal flight behavior of bats.

The Greenest Energy Solution is a holy grail that underlies any discussion of energy, environment and climate change.  We all want a clean, affordable source of energy that imposes no risks to people or harm to the natural communities of which we are a part.  We have a legacy of burning coal in Michigan that has given us cheap electricity, but has also spread soot and acid rain. One of the Great Lakes environmental threats is the toxic mercury that falls from airborne coal emissions and accumulates in fish.  Natural gas is certainly cleaner to burn and has a smaller carbon footprint than coal, but its current abundance results from "fracking" which involves injecting chemical-laden water deep underground.  Nuclear power has very little impact on climate change, but we have yet to implement a solution to dispose of radioactive waste.  Solar power has become cheaper in recent years, but in Michigan, our grey weather limits its effectiveness.  No one energy source, wind power included, can offer the best or only answer to the question of how to get energy cheaply and cleanly.

Trustees of The Nature Conservancy
Complexity.  We have to embrace complexity to resolve the conundrum of producing electricity while addressing climate change. There are high-level complexities of international cooperation, government policy, and consumer behaviors. There are technological complexities that, if resolved, can offer more energy at less cost with the least impact.  There are site-specific complexities about where to locate any energy source. I saw all of these complexities at play in the Thumb, and I met engineers and technicians willing to tackle the questions and seek the best possible outcomes.

Complexity does not always seem welcome in the policy arena, or in popular media, or in cursory conversations.  Something about our mind wants a nice simple answer,  to divide the world into good versus bad, or to frame choices between black and white.  But we only have to look to nature to understand that complexity is normal. So too is diversity, and we should look for several answers to the energy and environment debate. To tackle climate change, we need to accept that we are dealing with perhaps the most complex system in nature, and perhaps the most difficult of policy decisions. From there, we need to proceed with our best thinking and our best efforts, and eschew narrow viewpoints and not over promise answers.

A windmill can be a beautiful thing, but it can also be deadly if in the wrong place. Like all human actions, efforts to provide new sources of energy can have both positive and negative outcomes.  Wind energy can, and should be, part of how we best balance our use of energy and our protection of the environment.  In Huron County, one can see the potential of wind energy to resolve some of the conflicts in climate change, but one can also see that complexity will be our companion as we move forward.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tracks, Trails, and the Value of Nature

Get outside! This winter has been long, cold, and stormy, but rather than admit defeat I headed to the Upper Peninsula for a few days of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. And while making my own tracks, I discovered the tracks of the others who enjoy the outdoors, both animal and human.  Following a trail got me thinking that perhaps land preservation efforts should be linear, as well as holistic.

Land Preservation Looks Rectangular when one examines a map of any area that identifies property ownership west of the Appalachians, thanks to the Public Land Survey System originally devised by Thomas Jefferson.  I started my weekend by scouting a map of the area north and east of Marquette, Michigan trying to locate a parcel that had recently been donated to The Nature Conservancy (TNC).  I saw a quilted pattern of state-owned land, protected timber lands, in-holdings, and the brightly identified protected sites, including TNC's Echo Lake Preserve.

Exploring Little Garlic Balds Preserve

All of this is in the Michigamme Highlands, an area where the glaciers exposed some of the oldest rocks in North America: granitic outcroppings, or balds, that are home to unique plant communities.  While there are extensive public land holdings in the area, the region's ecological integrity is threatened by unsustainable logging, mining, and scattered site development.  Fortunately, The Nature Conservancy and other groups have secured several preserves thanks to legacy gifts from landowners, generous donors, and the creative purchase of development rights of timber lands. The latter was part of the Northern Great Lakes Forest Project, the so-called "Big Deal," which is Michigan's largest conservation effort.

The Blue (and White) Blaze.  Cutting across the map of patchwork squares on my map was a squiggly line, giving creative character to the right-angle polygons of property lines.  It ran from the entrance to the Echo Lake Preserve, nicked the corner of the new preserve, and ended at the Little Garlic River Falls.  This is a spur of the North Country Trail, an aspiring Appalachian Trail that runs from upstate New York, down through Ohio, and up and across both of Michigan's Peninsulas, before heading north to Minnesota's Boundary Waters and then west to North Dakota.

In 2006, I followed the blue blazes which mark the North Country Trail as I hiked from the Mackinac Bridge to Marquette.  But there, the trail has gaps, and there is no dedicated trail across the wilderness northeast of Marquette.  Several temporary routes have been marked, maps have been carefully perused, and at least two trails have started off only to end up short. I had been stumped before in this area, and I was pleased to soon find myself on snowshoes following the white blazes that mark a spur of the North Country Trail.

Tracks among the Trails.  In winter, snowshoeing offers one of the best ways to get outside.  Not only do you gain the ability to forge through deep snow, but the physical exertion involved quickly warms you up.  Even though the morning temperature had read 3 F when we left the car, in less than 30 minutes I was shedding a layer of down.  At first, we easily followed the well compacted tracks of previous snowshoers; soon we headed off on our own to find the new TNC preserve.  Liberated from the need to follow a trail, but cognizant of our location, we were able to explore a frozen wetland, examine a wooded deer yard, and then follow an iced stream back to the Little Garlic River.

Of course, we left our own snowshoe tracks, but several days without new snow presented us with a view of many other tracks.  We saw the regular route of red squirrels from tree trunk to tree trunk, a deer path defined narrow but deep by hoof prints, and the delicate markings of a small, but brave rodent.  I was most intrigued by a path on a frozen pond that looked as if it were made by someone dragging a small sack, or rolling a ball.  It took the experienced Tina Hall, TNC's chief in the UP, to inform me that we were observing the track of an otter sliding along on its belly between holes in the ice.

A Linear Approach to Land Preservation.  Looking at curving lines on a map, examining haphazard markings across the landscape, and following official blazes, got me thinking about how trails might help guide and inspire conservation efforts. We have shifted in our perspective of land preservation, and increasingly we are asking what the human benefit will be from environmental protection.  While the notion of untrammeled wilderness still appeals to me, the historical record shows that humans have long influenced landscapes (see my previous blog post), and the scale of the impact of humans on the planet has caused scientist to label our current geological age as the Anthropocene. We cannot separate ourselves from the land.

The question before us as conservationists is how to determine the proper, sustainable relationship between humans and the natural world, both in terms of minimizing our impacts and appropriately valuing the benefits nature provides us.  In a time and place where too few people are getting outdoors, trails of all manner provide an increasingly popular way for people to appreciate the benefits of nature. Whether it be hiking or snowshoeing on a footpath, or biking on an old industrial rail line converted for human-powered transportation, trails give quick and enjoyable access to the outdoors.

The Nature Conservancy has long accommodated trails.  Hiking routes on preserves, as well as long-haul routes like the North Country Trail, cross TNC property.  The "Big Deal" in the UP protects privately-owned natural lands, that accommodate both sustainable logging as well as recreational uses.  In addition to foot trails like the Fox River Pathway being restored by TNC, other linear uses are accommodated on TNC preserves.  For the last two years, the UP 200, a popular dogsled race out of Marquette, has crossed TNC preserves.  And in the Two-Hearted River Forest Reserve, TNC has worked with snowmobile clubs to provide bridges and locate trails to improve safety and allow for access to the north woods.  The bridges are part of important work to reduce erosion and polluted run-off into the trout stream made famous by Hemingway (see this slide show).

Economic Benefit of Trails.  The Upper Peninsula has a long and checkered history of using its natural resources for economic gain.  This history came to the forefront on the second day of my winter outing when I put on cross country skis to explore the snow-covered Iron Ore Heritage Trail.  This recently developed trail follows an old rail line from downtown Marquette to the community of Republic, 47 miles to the west.  Opening this past summer for use by bikers and hikers, this paved trail in winter is used mostly as a snowmobile trail.  However, the historic stretch between Negaunee and Ishpeming is groomed as a cross-country ski trail.  I appreciated the gentle grade and the well-set tracks.

The trail passes the Jackson Mine, the first iron ore mine begun in the Upper Peninsula, and I was moved skiing into the relatively small pit that workers began to dig out in 1847. The human ingenuity and hard work, the lasting impact on the land, the boom and bust economy, and the now legendary history are all tangible on the new trail.  Well-done interpretive signs, remnant pieces of mining equipment, old buildings, and deep pits hewn into the rock all make the Upper Peninsula's historical relation to nature very real.

Now, instead of extracting wealth in the form of minerals from the soil, Michigan has discovered the economic benefits of trails, associated tourism, and their improvement to quality of life in our communities.  While a wide body of research shows the economic and community benefits of trails (read more here), our practical experience has also grown.  Heavily used bike trails now abound in much of the Lower Peninsula, snowmobile trails keep the Upper Peninsula busy in winter, and Marquette and other communities have established celebrations around dogsled races and other outdoor pursuits.

Nature has value.  Those of us who head to the woods or waters know the personal and spiritual benefits we get from time outdoors. We also understand that clean water and a favorable climate also come from nature, as long as humans act as responsible stewards.  Increasingly, we see that nature can also help us build a sustainable economy around agriculture, logging, and tourism when those activities are undertaken with thought and foresight. Trails create value by giving us access to the outdoors, by promoting responsible use of nature by locals and visitors alike, and by helping us create an awareness and appreciation of places. Perhaps we can use trails to better connect human communities to the natural communities upon which they depend, and make us neighbors rather than adversaries.

If you want to get out in the UP this coming weekend, join a guided snowshoe hike at the Gerstacker Preserve east of Cedarville on Saturday (2/15); info here

If you want to visit TNC Preserves in the Marquette area, and gain some tips for exploring them in warmer weather, read this blog post

Get all the details on the UP 200 Dogsled Race here

You can learn more about the Iron Ore Heritage Trail in Marquettte, and get directions and maps, here


thanks Tina 
(and Bruce) for the hospitality

Thursday, February 6, 2014

"The Once and Future Great Lakes Country"

Land conservancies rightly seek to protect and preserve undisturbed natural places: the forests, marshes, shorelines, and all those pieces of nature that represent a time before human settlement.  "If only," we say as we look at an old growth stand of white pine and imagine what the North Woods was before logging, or as we peruse an analysis of the loss of coastal wetlands. Reading John L. Riley's "The Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History" occasioned such thoughts, but the historical and scientific depth of the book re-aligned my understanding of the relationship between humans and the landscape, both in the past and for the work now before us.  There is much beauty to recall, and loss to lament, as we review the history of the Great Lakes, but mythologizing the past may hamper our ability to assure our future.

A Canadian Perspective is what I first expected, as the author is the Chief Science Officer of The Nature Conservancy in Canada, and as the book is published by McGill-Queen's University Press.  And while the book takes in an enormous historical and geographic scope--from Pre-Cambrian geology to the invasion of quagga mussels, and from the upper Hudson River to the Rainy River--the point of view is from north of the border.  Of course, when considering an ecological geography, political boundaries are not helpful in making a definition; though governments can make a big difference in our ability to protect an eco-region.

For a Michigander like myself, Canada has never been far away or too foreign, but I learned a lot from this book about the natural history of Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.  John Riley starts his book with an engaging account of the history of the area around his home, a former farm in the Niagara Escarpment just northwest of Toronto.  From here, he covers a lot of geology, biology and history, but his account is grounded in a Canadian perspective. It's both beneficial and instructive for us Americans to get out of our parochial attitudes and look at the Great Lakes from another direction.

First-Hand Accounts of Nature from early explorers and settlers, as well as early native voices, are the strength of this book, and Riley organizes these accounts both chronologically (e.g. "The Land Beyond Memory: Before 1500") as well as by environmental topics ("Taking the Wildlife: 1500-1900").  There are some rich details, like Cadillac's 1701 description of the bison seen in the area southwest of Lake Erie, a "boundless prairies (with) mighty oxen which are covered with wool."  Or the late 18th Century account of Lady Simcoe's visit to Niagara Falls in which she encountered hundreds of rattlesnakes in the cliffs.  Riley notes that before hydropower diversions, the water in Niagara River measured 25 feet deep (or high?) as it flowed over the Falls.

Lady Simcoe's sketch of Niagara Falls, 1792 (Archives of Ontario)

I was particularly impressed with the accounts of the fecundity of fish, like the large schools of Atlantic salmon found in Lake Ontario, six foot sturgeons in Lake Michigan, and the native catch of whitefish in Sault Ste. Marie, "easily enough to feed 10,000 men" according to one 1669 eyewitness.  Riley also writes about the Iroquios nation's reliance on the eel, noting that settlement patterns of the tribes around Lake Ontario are defined by the highest upstream migration of eel. The stories of the great productivity of fish as food stock in the pre-historic Great Lakes are wistful background to todays news accounts about the struggles to re-establish lake trout or sturgeon.

The Re-Wilding of the Great Lakes.  On land as well as water, wildlife abounded in the Great Lakes region, and Riley investigates the role they play in the regional ecology.  For instance, the now extinct passenger pigeon, traveling in enormous flocks, helped foster a diverse forest of nut- and fruit-bearing trees which provided foods, as did the pigeons, to other animals. The proliferation of animal life in the Great Lakes region prior to European contact also supported a Native American population that was equally diverse in its culture and complex in its use and impact on the land.  My mental picture of the 16th Century landscape is influenced by the history written by those who subsequently occupied it, so I imagined an unbroken forest primeval. Riley more accurately recounts a pre-settlement landscape that was in many places home to large villages, used for mixed agriculture, and actively burned and cleared to support the hunting of wild game.

A Great Lakes region where humans lived in balance with nature changes after 1500 as disease eliminates most (estimates range from 75 to 95 percent) of the native population, the European demand for fur and resources redefines the use of the land, and war and conflicts directs the movements of both native and white populations.  For instance, by the 17th Century, "the expulsion of Native nations from the Ontario peninsula and around Lake Erie, combined with the relative collapse of Iroquoia as well, changed the ecology of the region. A culture of sophisticated, place-based farming and wildlife harvest was finished, as was its stewardship of the broader landscape for humans and wildlife alike."  The landscape re-wilded, and by the 19th Century the Great Lakes region was a dense forest that was unnaturally devoid of human habitation, probably reduced in wild game, and less diverse in its landscape and life.

A Complex Relationship exists between humans and nature, both in Canada and the United States (and everywhere else!). "The Once and Future Great Lakes Country"details the historical and the current, the negative and the beneficial aspects of our dependence and use of nature.  Perhaps the best part of the book is the final chapter "Restoration"which provides perspective and direction to the many efforts to protect and preserve natural areas, revitalize wildlife and fisheries, and establish greenbelts.  While I wished for more detail on the history of the Nature Conservancy in Canada (a separate legal entity from The Nature Conservancy based in the US, the organization for which I volunteer) there are several accounts of its saving important places in Ontario.  Impressively, a totaling of public and private acres protected in the Great Lakes basin on the Canadian side adds up to 12 percent of the land.  As Riley notes, "this tithing for nature reflects a sea change in civil society."

Reading this book made me rethink my conceptions of the natural and human history of the Great Lakes.  And while the accounts of what is now lost sadden me, I am heartened to find historical affirmation for the positive role humans can play in nature. "The lessons of pre-contact stewardship--polyculture, native species, promoting wildlife--are being relearned and retaught."  The ecosystems of the Great Lakes are not just pretty to look at and play in (though they most certainly can be), they are also vital to our sustenance and health, our economic well-being, and our own sense of identity.  We need to restore nature not only to recreate our history, but to protect our future.

You can learn more about the book and order it from the publisher here (also available at Amazon, and some bookstores).
You can learn more about the Nature Conservancy of Canada here
You can learn more about The Nature Conservancy's work in the Great Lakes here

Next week:  an account of a winter visit to a new preserve in Michigan's Upper Peninsula