For more information on my paintings: NancyRynesStudio.com

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Healing Power of the Ocean

Today I set aside my paints and canvas and took a friend on a hike to one of my favorite shorelines along Maine's Midcoast. When I woke this morning, I knew I needed to be by the sea. I needed some clarity in one area of my life and knew I needed to be outside to get that clarity. Yes, even though the temperature was well below freezing and a snowstorm was predicted I wanted to be at the shore. To think, to meditate, to do my version of praying, to see what visions might come in response to my questions. My friend Eric called me this morning to tell me his girlfriend had left him so I invited him to come too. I hoped the sea would work its magic on both of us.

Whenever I have decisions to make, serious questions to ponder (usually romantic ones), or need space to allow answers to unfold, I go to the sea. Walking along the shore, paddling a sea kayak, or sailing somehow seems to allow clarity to unfold in my mind. I go to the sea too when I have grieved a loss, such as the death of my father or the end of a long term relationship. My friend Alison tells me I go to the sea during these times because I'm a Scorpio, a water sign, but I'm not sure if I buy that* ;) Perhaps it's simply some form of genetic memory.

Recent archaeological digs have found that the ancient Celts of Scotland and England regularly gave offerings to the sea, rivers, and lakes. No one really knows what prayers or questions the offerings held...we just know that at sacred sites througout Britain, the ancients offered gifts of precious possessions to the waters around them. My lineage is mostly Scot, Irish, and English so perhaps, through some quirk of biology, that urge to make prayers to the sea survived and resurfaced in me.

Eric and I quietly walked the 2 miles through the woods and over the marsh, just taking in the stillness of Nature. I could tell he was hurting, badly, so I just offered support by my presence rather than with words (and for anyone who knows me, that's a feat). We heard the crashing waves about 100 yards before seeing the beach. The scent of the salt water made me feel like I was home.

The beach here is quite sandy, but with a granite outcrop near the trail's exit. Rocky islands loomed gray off in the distance. Gulls drifted and played on the shore breeze and occasionally the silence was cut by one of their shrill cries.

Eric and I walked the shore for a bit, then climbed a ways up the granite hill to contemplate the Atlantic....and our perceived problems. We meditated together, then he talked a little about his girlfriend of 8 months. My heart nearly broke for him, going through a grieving, and at this time of the year. But as we sat and watched the water he began to admit the breakup was probably for the best. She was a city girl, he an outdoors, country guy and they could just no longer reconcile the differences. His love of sea kayaking drove her nuts. Her love of shopping in the big city did the same to him. The glimmer of healing started.

Perhaps the ocean heals us because of its vastness and its age. Physically, it's bigger than we can even imagine, covering over 2/3 of the planet. And its age is perhaps billions of years old. The ocean basins have shifted around, but the ocean itself is almost as old as the planet. The first life appears to have originated in the oceans well over a billion years ago. 100 million years ago, large reptiles like the pleisosaurs swam in the oceans. Its age dwarfs a human lifespan and makes me and my "problems" seem insignificant in comparison.

I left Eric and wandered the shore to ponder my own questions, romantic and otherwise. Unfortunately the lightning bolt of clarity didn't strike me as I'd hoped it would. Instead as I walked along the all-sand beach, I said to the Universe that if I ran into a stone in the next several yards I'd tell the stone my requests and throw it (and them) into the sea. And within a few feet was a lone, fist-sized rock on this beach of sand. I picked it up, cradled it with both hands, and told it my three requests. And tossed it into the sea where it belonged.

An hour later, Eric and I walked the two miles back to my car, both of us somehow feeling better. My Celtic ancestors would probably understand.


*There are actually 13 signs of the Zodiac, not 12, so in reality I'm a Libra!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Different Take on Climate Warming

A little earlier this week I discussed the changing climate with a new friend of mine. His background is not in earth sciences but in medicine, so he wanted to get my take on the issues surrounding a changing climate. I could tell he was a bit skeptical about some of the doom-and-gloom predictions, as are so many people. We just don't want to believe we can have an effect on something so large as our Earth. But for me, knowing that the global climate is changing doesn't make me panic-stricken. Concerned, yes, panicked, no.

We talked about the distant past on Earth, 65+ million years ago, back in the Cretaceous when global carbon dioxide levels were 4-5 times what they are now. Yes, the climate was warmer and yes, life on Earth and in the ocean thrived on a warmer planet with more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Given that, he asked, why should we be concerned with a changing (warming) climate today? Won't life thrive under warmer conditions?

Yes, it will...eventually.

It finally occurred to me that what's not talked about much in the media is the rapidity of the changing climate versus the relatively slow rate of species adaptations that we see around us.

The species on this planet now have evolved, for the most part, in a climate that is overall cooler and lower in carbon dioxide than existed during the dinosaurs' times. The climate we have now took millions of years to cool from its Creatceous high, and that overall gradual cooling allowed species enough time to evolve in response. Some species didn't survive the cooling climate. Other, new species evolved that were better-adpted. But this all took many millions of years.

The pace of warming today is fairly rapid, much more rapid than scientists even 20 years ago were predicting thanks to our reliance on carbon-rich fuels. The warming is more rapid than what my professors and I, working on glaciers in Alaska and Greenland in the 1990s, ever thought could be possible. So the biggest problem for plants and animals really is that the climate may be changing faster than those species can evolve to cope with that change. Life on Earth will survive our warming planer, but it will look very different from what we know today.

We may have to make peace with some amount of species loss. This isn't doom-and-gloom but reality. Humans have impacted the Earth so much already, not just in terms of greenhouse gases but also by our ever-expanding human populations, that it may already be too late for some plants and animals. Should we try to minimize the impacts? Yes, definitely, but we must also face the reality that with humans around, the Earth won't be what it was 5 million years ago. It doesn't have to be bad with us here, but it will be different.

Pika on granite boulder, Mt. Evans, Colorado


If we choose to try to save as much plant and animal life as possible, we may need to take a more active role in managing ecosystems. For example, the pika, a small, alpine rodent living in North America, cannot survive in warm temperatures. With climate warming, scientists are noting that pika populations are dwindling in places such as California and the Great Basin of the United States. Because pikas can't move from one mountain range to another themselves, if humans want these cute rabbit relatives to survive, we may need to take it upon ourselves to relocate them. This is just one example of the questions we face as the climate warms.

We can (and in my mind, should) take responsibility for minimizing our impact on the environment as much as possible, not just for the plants and animals, but for us too. Whether we realize it or not, our survival is intertwined with our environment: we are a part of nature, and for our own survival, we need a world that is healthy in order to survive as a species.

The real question is: how will we as humans cope while the climate comes to some sort of new equilibrium? We are adaptable, perhaps the most adaptable species on the planet. We have some fairly advanced thinking skills that we will need to employ to solve the problems as they arise. A changing climate will mean that we will have to learn to work together for perhaps the first time in our history. Can we do this? Yes, I believe we can.

Will we? Well, that's up to us...




For  more information, see:

  1. Joseph A. E. Stewart, John D. Perrine, Lyle B. Nichols, James H. Thorne, Constance I. Millar, Kenneth E. Goehring, Cody P. Massing, David H. Wright.Revisiting the past to foretell the future: summer temperature and habitat area predict pika extirpations in CaliforniaJournal of Biogeography, 2015; DOI:10.1111/jbi.12466

Friday, November 26, 2010

Shrimp Bycatch - Why Care?

Next time you see that pound of wild-caught shrimp at the grocer or fish market, think a bit before putting it into your shopping cart. That pound of wild-caught shrimp may have cost the lives of up to 20 pounds of other marine life including sea turtles, rays, crab, coral, sponges, bony fish like flounder and herring, and occasionally a sea mammal or large fish like a shark. These other animals caught incidentally when fishing for a commercial species are called "bycatch."

What's the problem? Aren't these animals re-released to go about their lives?

While yes, these other, "undesirable" animals are usually thrown back into the sea as discard, most are already dead or dying by the time they make it on board the shrimp trawler. So that pound of wild-caught shrimp on your table also caused the deaths of up to 20 pounds of other species. The discarded animals become food for marine scavengers...they don't go back to leading their normal lives, swimming or crawling along the bottom happily-ever-after. And obviously, because they are killed, they are removed from the breeding population of their species thus depleting that species numbers even further.

The amount of bycatch varies from region to region and the type of fish that is the intended catch. Shrimp trawling causes the largest ratio of bycatch. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has documented shrimp trawling bycatch rates of up to 20:1 (20 pounds of other species are caught and discarded for every 1 pound of shrimp). They calculate the world average at just about 6:1. Shrimp trawlers in the USA have bycatch ratios that average between 3:1 and 15:1. To put this into perspective, in the Gulf of Mexico alone, being caught in shrimp tral nets kills from 25 - 45 million red snapper per year...and that isn't the only species in the bycatch.

In some areas of the USA, progress is being made to reduce bycatch by shrimp trawlers. One example is in the Gulf of Maine and the introduction of a new type of trawling net that doesn't have a top (conveniently called "topless trawl"). This new type of trawl net can reduce bycatch from about 30% of the total catch ( or 3:7 bycatch to shrimp ratio), down to about 10% of the total catch (1:9 bycatch to shrimp ratio). While most of the bycatch decreases with this new type of net, the flounder bycatch actually increases.

Yes, this new net is a little ray of good news. Other good news comes from shrimp fisheries with tight regulations, such as (again) the Gulf of Maine. But don't reach for that second pound of shrimp quite yet - bottom trawling has other effects that I'll bring up in a future post.

So what's a responsible consumer to do?

The first thing I'd like you to do is think before you buy. Think of every dollar you spend at the grocery store or fish market as a vote. By purchasing something, you are giving a big YES vote to how it's captured, processed, packaged, shipped, and marketed. Know what you are voting for. Also, research what you eat - I will continue to post on ocean topics here, but I encourage you to do your own research. Search the library, the internet, talk to local fishermen if you can, inform and educate yourself. Don't believe everything you hear or read :) Use the brain you were given to discover the facts, then decide for yourself how you want to shop, based on your own values system.

My personal philosophy is now to severely limit my consumption of commercial, wild-caught sea fish, down to almost nothing. I will perhaps eat a pound of local, Maine pink shrimp when they are in season, or a Maine lobster now and again, but I won't purchase and eat anything my research has shown me to be unsustainable. Is that the right choice for you? I don't know...that's for you to decide.

For further information:


He, P., D. Goethel, and T. Smith. 2007. Design and test of a topless shrimp trawl to reduce pelagic fish bycatch in the Gulf of Maine pink shrimp fishery. J. Northw. Atl. Fish. Sci., 38: 13–21. doi:10.2960/J.v38.m591

^ "Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper: Assessment Summary Report.". Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR) Stock Assessment Report of SEDAR. 2005. http://www.sefsc.noaa.gov/sedar/download/S7SAR_FINALreduce.pdf?id=DOCUMENT. 

Morgan, LE; Chuenpagdee, R (2003). Shifting Gears. Addressing the Collateral Impacts of Fishing Methods in U.S. Waters.

http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/factsheets/Bycatch.html  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gratitude

I admit to having a slightly different take on Thanksgiving Day than most Americans do. While I think it's a lovely thing that we have set aside one day to be with family and celebrate what we have, this is something I take time to do every day. I know, I know, it's also a day to stuff yourself with food, veg out in front of the TV, and do nothing all day. At no other time of the year is this considered "normal." Ah, yes, life in the 'States :)

But in the spirit of the day, I thought I would share with you some of the things I'm grateful for right now:

  • My family and friends who journey with me on this precious blue dot we call home (Earth)
  • Living in the beautiful state of Maine, having a super job, and awesome co-workers
  • That I can smell the clean scent of the sea when I step outside in the morning
  • Being healthy in mind and body
  • Seeing a spectacular sunset over Boothbay Harbor
  • The Living Waterfront
  • The World is Blue by Sylvia Earle
  • Folks like those at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, ME, who rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured wildlife and marine animals
  • That there are folks actually doing something about cleaning up oceans, protecting habitat, climate warming, oil disasters, overfishing, and land use issues. Thank you, each and every one.
  • That I live in a country where I can write these words without fear of government reprisals or censorship.

My challenge to you is to think about 3 things you're grateful for each and every day, not just Thanksgiving Day.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Return to an Age of Sail, part 2

Bringing back an sailing ships to transport good sounds crazy, doesn't it? Here we are in 2010, and as a society, we can't remember back just 100 or 150 years ago to a time when most goods were shipped using only the wind as power. No carbon emissions, no spilling of oil or fuel into the oceans, no concerns about rising fuel costs.

What's changed since then?

The world population has exploded from just under 2 billion people in 1900, to just around 7 billion today. Because of this, goods and raw materials are being shipped overseas in quantities previously unfathomable. The sailing ships of 1900 couldn't keep up with the demands of the modern era...at least with old-style thinking and old-style architecture.

So let's think outside of the box for a moment? Let's ask "How can we?"

First, why can't the best designers alive today re-architect a new breed of sailing ship? A type of ship that can haul more cargo, sail faster, go into shallower ports, or heck, even have solar collectors onboard, maybe even built into the sails themselves...?

Would these new sailing cargo vessels be able to haul as much as a modern container ship? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not a shipbuilder or architect, so I don't know what is beyond possible with sail. But I think to get ourselves out of the corner we've backed ourselves into, we need to think differently. Old thinking got us where we are today: rampant consumers shipping millions of tons of goods and resources across the world, at a huge cost to the atmosphere and oceans.

One thought: perhaps if we curbed our voracious appetites for new "stuff", sailing ships might be feasible again.

Another: let's throw our prejudices about sailing ships out of the window before looking at the problem. Why can't we design a new type of ship that can haul large quantities of goods? Maybe it has 2 or 3 hulls instead of just one. These new ships don't have to look or sail like the ones of 150 years ago - they can be as different from the Cutty Sark as a modern cargo ship is from The Lynx.

Perhaps we ship smaller quantities of higher-priced or specialty goods via sail, saving container ships for the cheap, mass-produced stuff. Or use sail for the shorter hops within a continent, leaving the longer voyages for the modern, massive cargo ships. Or redesign containers to be lighter and fit into smaller vessels.

I really think it's possible to redesign the way we ship good and resources, but it's going to take time, effort, money, and the willingness of all of us to rethink our approach to many different things. Can we do it? Yes, I think we can...as a society, though, we need to both believe that we can AND see the need for doing it.

If you'd like to read a stunning book on why we should be thinking differently, and why we should be protecting the oceans, I urge you to read Sylvia Earle's The World is Blue. It's been a lifechanging book for me, and I'll be examining it in more depth in upcoming posts.

This post and its photos are copyright Nancy Rynes, 2010.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A New Age of Sail? Part 1

The privateer "Lynx" rests before me at the shipyard, tied at the pier waiting to set sail again in a few days. Gentle swells lap at her black, wooden sides. She's quiet for the evening - sails gathered and secured, the US flag flying over her stern, her two tall masts and seeming tangle of lines stand in contrast to the apricot colored evening sky  behind her.

I sit on the edge of a tall concrete embankment with my feet hanging out over the water and next to the Boothbay Shipyard where Lynx is moored. In this area of Maine the first ships were built in the early 1600s and was the start of the local ship and boatbuilding tradition. Maine has a long shipbuilding history that continues to today here in Boothbay, and in Rockport, Rockland, Thomaston, and even in Bath where US Navy ships are still constructed.

The Lynx is a young ship. Launched in Rockport, Maine, in 2001, she sails the oceans as a sail training ship. She's an 1812 version of a Baltimore Clipper Schooner, built for Woodson K Woods by Rockport Marine, and designed by Melbourne Smith. At 72 feet at the waterline, she's somewhat on the small side as tall ships go, but small doesn't keep her from being a beauty.

Something about tall ships has always enchanted me. From the time I was a little girl I dreamed of sailing a tea clipper like the Cutty Sark, full with a load of precious cargo with only the wind as a source of power. Nope, I wasn't enchanted with with the life of a pirate like a lot of kids might be, I just wanted to sail a clipper. Alas, I was born much too late and the wrong gender to make that my life's work :)

The fleets of schooners and tall ships that sail today are typically used as private yachts, cruise vessels, or sail-training ships like the Lynx. Maine has a fair contingent of schooners, relatively small, two to 3 masted sailing ships built sleekly, typically to carry passengers in short voyages along the coast of New England. No one here in the US, at least as far as I've been able to find out, is still using sailing ships to carry legal cargo (I'll leave contraband out of the mix for now).

As I sit here and stare with awe at the Lynx, I wonder if perhaps a new age of sail might just be over the horizon? Commercial shipping accounts for 4.5% of global CO2 emissions by last count. Using the wind exclusively causes no emissions. I wonder...why can't we clever humans design and build a new breed of merchant sailing ships to carry goods across the oceans?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Helping the Redknot and Horseshoe Crab

If you want to help the Redknot and Hoseshoe Crab, the single best thing you can do is to vote with your wallet. Legislation can certainly help, and so can donating to conservation organizations. But really, the most effective thing you can do is to think carefully about what you buy and eat. If you want to help the Redknot and Crab, send a clear message by:

Stop consuming all sea eel and conch products:
  • Sushi that contains eel or conch
  • Eel food products (check ingredients in sauces, fish pastes, prepared foods)
  • Eel and conch on the menus at any restaurant
  • Eel-skin products
  • Conch shells

Don't "collect" Horseshoe Crabs, of any size, ever, and don't purchase collected Horseshoe Crab specimens from someone else. They take almost a decade from birth until they are old enough to breed. Right now the eastern US shoreline needs all of the Horseshoe Crabs we can get...so do you if you want to continue to have uncontaminated vaccines, IV drug therapies, and other medications and treatments.

Provide donations or volunteer support to organizations that:
  • Protect horseshoe crab habitat
  • Protect shorebird migration and nesting areas
  • Provide cleanup to marine habitat where the Horseshoe Crabs live
  • Research shorebirds, horseshoe crabs, or their habitat
  • Research alternative baits for eels
  • See "Resources" below for more information
Don't disturb migrating shorebirds - keep your distance.

Obey all beach closings during spring and fall migrations. During their migrations, shorebirds are often starved and exhausted. Once they land, they need to eat and don't have energy to spare keeping away from humans who get too close. If the birds start to fidget as you approach, you are too close. Back off.

Educate yourself, your family, and friends. Watch the Nova special called "Crash", available on DVD through PBS or DVD retailers.

Further Reading:
  • Science Daily on Redknots: ( http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070816162204.htm )
  • Science Daily on Horseshoe Crabs: ( http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/02/060221235120.htm )
  • NOAA: ( http://www.research.noaa.gov/spotlite/archive/spot_delaware.html )
  • Local citizens organize to protect habitat:  ( http://www.capegazette.com/storiescurrent/200910/primehook02.html )
  • Human-caused changes to habitat:  ( http://www.ceoe.udel.edu/horseshoecrab/Fisheries/habitatchange.html )
  • MA asks for public help with Crab habitat:  ( http://www.mass.gov/?pageID=eoeeapressrelease&L=1&L0=Home&sid=Eoeea&b=pressrelease&f=090521_pr_horseshoe&csid=Eoeea )
  • DE Fisheries Management:  ( http://www.ceoe.udel.edu/horseshoecrab/Fisheries/regulations.html )
  • NJ Helps Redknot: ( http://www.3rbc.org/news/2008/RedKnotRecovery.pdf )
Resouces:
  • http://www.horseshoecrab.org/misc/erdg.html
  • Fledgling Birders:  ( http://www.fledgingbirders.org/RedKnot2.html )
  • Bird-a-Thon: ( http://www.birdfellow.com/journal/2009/04/28/delmarva_ornithological_society_bird_a_thon )
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • The Audubon Society
  • Local land trusts along the east coast of the US
  • Local conservation organizations

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Miner's Canary

Why should we care about one little wading bird going extinct?

Why shouldn't we care? I'm of the viewpoint that every species on this planet has just as much a right to live as humans do. Why does a species have to be somehow "special" or "useful" before we deem it important enough to have a right to be here? No, the Redknot isn't large and majestic like the eagle, nor is it "useful" to human hunters as are gamebirds. It's not flashy nor does it have the melodious song of a warbler. It's just a wading bird - a wading bird that happens to migrate up to 20,000 miles in a single year, from South America to the Arctic and back again.

The Redknots' journey is the clue to the answer to my first question - why should we care?

On its northward migration during the northern hemisphere's spring, the Redknot undertakes some incredible, non-stop, sea-crossing flights. There is no snack service, no stopovers, no beverage cart, no RADAR to avoid bad weather. They fly, completely of their own power, for as long as it takes to reach their destination. Some don't complete the crossing - they didn't get enough to eat before the journey so they perished along the way. Each Redknot has to build up a sizeable fat reserve in order to power those wings for the flight - no fat, no safe landfall.

The two major non-stop legs for the Redknot over the ocean are from South America to the Atlantic shores of the USA, and from there up to the Canadian Arctic. Once the Redknots reach the shores of the USA, they must turn into eating machines in order to make the second leg of the trip up to the Arctic. Their fat reserves depleted, the Redknots set about gobbling up their main food source - the eggs of Horseshoe Crabs. You see, the Redknots' landing in the USA is incredibly timed to coincide with the spawning of the Horseshoe Crabs along the Atlantic Coast. The little travelering birds, along with many other species of shorebirds, are almost totally dependent on the eggs of the crab in order to make their journey to the Arctic, alive.

And therein lies the rub.

Humans have been, and continue, to decimate the Horseshoe Crab population. We seem to be of the mindset that since they've been around hundreds of millions of years, that they will survive no matter what we do to them.

Unfortunately that's not the case. The Horseshoe Crab was ancient well before the dinosaurs began to evolve. It's survived many mass extinctions, but it's now being decimated by humans.

Why?

Because we humans seem to have a lust for eating eels and conchs. You see, the Horseshoe Crab is being slaughtered by the millions to become bait for eel and conch fishing. From the late 1980s to 2004, the annual Horseshoe Crab harvest increased from 500,000 pounds per year to 5 to 7 million pounds per year. Scientific surveying has shown a 90% decline in Horseshoe Crab populations from 1990 to 2004.

Not surprisingly during this same time period, Redknot numbers plummeted from over 100,000 individuals to about 13,000. Latest estimates put that number well below 10,000 - perhaps too small for the species to survive.

It was the plummeting of the Redknot populations that keyed scientists in to the plight of the Horseshoe Crab. The crab population plummeted, so there weren't as many crabs to lay eggs and therefore, far fewer eggs for the Redknots to eat on their migration. Fewer eggs to eat meant that more Redknots perish before they reach their breeding grounds in the Arctic. What we have is a negative feedback loop.

Why should we care about one species of crab?

Horseshoe Crabs are vital to human health.

Currently, the medical industry uses a part of the blood of Horseshoe Crabs to test all injectible medications and devices for bacterial contamination. If you have received a vaccine (like the flu vaccine) or an injectible or IV drug (such as an IV antibiotic), you owe your health to the Horseshoe Crab. Other medical uses for Horseshoe Crab blood are in the works, including possible cancer treatments, anti-virals, anti-fungals, and antibiotics. In order to obtain this extract, Horsesheoe crabs are captured, bled, and released. Most survive to breed, some do not. Crab deaths from being bled are estimated to be from 2-15%. Still, much better than the 100% mortality rate of those caught to become bait.

Now are you concerned by the drop in Horseshoe Crab numbers? You should be. We have no other reliable way to test for bacterial contamination in our vaccines and injectible drugs than with the derivative of the Horseshoe Crab's blood.

So, the Redknot was, in a sense, the miner's canary. It's population crash alerted us to the crash in Horseshoe Crab numbers. It's also a wake-up call - we can't continue to decimate crab populations without putting ourselves in danger.

It's not too late to act - what we can do about this is the subject of my next post.

This post Copyright 2010, Nancy Rynes. No portion of this post may be reproduced in any form without express written consent of Nancy Rynes.


For more information, check out:

http://www.horseshoecrab.org/med/med.html


http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/redknot.htm

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Does anyone really care?

This past weekend I took my road bike out on a long, wandering route through the Midcoast region here in Maine. The day was gorgeous - cobalt blue skies, trees blazing with reds, oranges, and yellows, and a light breeze coming off the ocean. The breeze brought with it the scent of the sea. Some here find that scent - of kelp, sea life, and wet mud - somehow distasteful or even foul. Me? Well, I think it's the second-greatest scent on earth...a very close second to the aroma of a beautiful old garden rose.

The scent of the sea lured me to pedal out to one of mud flats on Maquoit Bay. By the human clock, the time was mid-afternoon, the tide was fully out, and the low angle of the sun made the islands in the bay a study in warm gray silhouettes. Here, mudflats extend for perhaps 500 meters from shore at low tide. A few gulls picked at clams or other bits of lunch on the mudflats, while another group of perhaps 25 gulls napped on the asphalt of the parking area where I stood. They didn't ruffle a feather while I stood not ten feet from them, enjoying the view.

Several minutes passed and I noticed a small flock of shorebirds looking for a place to land near the gulls. The little group darted back and forth in front of the entrance to the mud flat as if they were one organism - the communication among the individuals appeared to me, anyway, to happen instantaneously. How in the world could a flock change direction 90 degrees, or even 180 degrees, as a single unit? Just a little mystery that perhaps someone, someday, will figure out. After a few passes by the parking area, the little group of shorebirds settled on a place to land - out on an old slab of concrete about 25 feet from where I stood.

I noticed something a little different about this group of birds once they landed - they didn't do anything. They stood in place in exactly the spots they landed, just appearing to rest. It took me a moment to realize they were probably in the middle of their autumn migration. Who knows where they had been that morning - Nova Scotia? The Bay of Fundy? Further north? A wave of amazement and appreciation passed through me. These little birds, not much bigger than a good-sized robin, had recently left their breeding grounds far to the north of here and were on their way to warmer climates for the winter. And they were powered by their own wings. No cars, buses, or planes to take them to their destinations, just an unerring sense of direction, muscle power, and a little bit of stored fat.

The migrants definitely looked tired - they stood in place for ten or so minutes, barely moving a muscle. I stood as still as possible, not wanting to disturb them, but this also let me get a good view of them. To my surprise they appeared to be Redknots! This amazed me even more because the east coast poplation is in serious trouble at the moment. Numbers of Redknots are declining rapidly due to a loss of habitat and prey species (horseshoe crab eggs) at migration staging areas. But more on that later...

After studying these little guys for about 10 minutes, a car pulled into the parking area behind me and out popped 2 parents, one dog, and 3 teens, one a boy of about 14 and two girls, about 16 and perhaps 10. The boy immediately wanted to go chase the birds, gulls and redknots both, while his father told him in a half-hearted voice to leave the birds alone. The boy called back to his father "They're just birds" and ran pell-mell right into the middle of the flock of gulls. The father and mother just turned their heads and looked the other way while, I admit, anger grew inside of me. The girls sat on rocks and looked disinterested in this whole "nature" thing. After about 30 seconds, the oldest asked if they were done and could they please go to McDonald's now?

The Redknots took off immediately and flew back and forth along the shore, seemingly confused. It appeared they really wanted to rest at this particular spot but were disturbed (rightly so) by the presence of a family of humans who didn't care. For my part, I should have marched right up to the father and told him about the redknots and their migration, how these poor birds were tired and just wanted a place to rest and eat before continuing their long journey south. I didn't. I didn't because, quite frankly, I thought I'd be wasting my breath on these 5 people. I immediately wondered if there was anyone in the US who really cared.

The Redknots flew off and I turned my bike and started the long pedal home.


The questions that I'll be exploring next are...does anyone really care? And, more importantly, why should we care? Why should we care about one bird species going extinct along the Atlantic coast? Why should we care about changes in ocean chemistry, methane levels in the air, or changing ocean currents? 


This post copyight 2010, Nancy Rynes. No portion of this post may be copied, transmitted, or otherwise distributed, in any form, without express written consent of Nancy Rynes.